Equipment Review No. 1   May 2002

Magnum Dynalab MD90 FM Tuner
$995 

Magnum Dynalab
Trans American CHB, Inc.
2775 Broadway, Buffalo, NY 14227-1043
http://www.magnumdynalab.com/home.html
(800) 551 4130 voice


Basic Description

Analog FM Tuner with digital display; center tune, multi-path indicator, signal strength display; 75 ohm coaxial input; automatic gain control, adjustable bandwidth; stereo/mono mode; mute switch; auto blend RF circuit; 19” x 13” x 3.5”; 12 lbs; detachable line cord; 2 year warranty; other specifications available on website. Options available but not included: smaller faceplate width (no charge when ordered this way), silver and gold anodized front plate (+$100), Kimber silver wiring (+$175), Infrared remote (+$395), balanced outputs (+$100), 220 V version (no charge when ordered this way).


Equipment

System 1: Krell KAV-300iL Integrated Amplifier, B&W CDM7NT speakers, Audioquest cabling, Rotel RT-940 (for comparison ~ $350).

System 2: Meridian 568 Preamplifier, Krell KST-100, Revel F30 speakers, PS Audio P300, Yamaha TX-500U Tuner (for comparison ~ $300), MIT, Music Metre cabling.


Setup
The first thing I did was to plug the tuner in and tune a station. I left it this way for a period of about 10 days to 2 weeks. Occasionally, I would tune to a different station and then leave it alone. During this period I checked out the owner’s manual for proper setup.

The manual for this tuner is one of the most straightforward and concise I’ve ever read. It goes step by step through everything from unpacking to testing the unit out to make sure it is functioning properly. Then it explains all the controls and their respective functions, as well as making suggestions on using an appropriate antenna.

There is a small wire antenna that is included with the Magnum. I hooked it up and verified it worked, but in order to do comparisons, I used two dipole antennas that I had on hand on each tuner under comparison. I’m sure there would have been an improvement in performance had I been able to utilize an outdoor antenna. However, at this time, I didn’t have that option, so I stuck with the dipole antennas. Reception and quality might have improved on weaker stations in that circumstance.

At the end of the review, I contacted Magnum Dynalab to ask a few questions about the options that are available for the MD90. I have to say that the service was extremely prompt. I talked to one person who gave me some basic pricing information, and another answered my more technical questions and about the upgrades available.

It turns out that the circuit is balanced. So, if you have a fully balanced system, it would definitely pay to add the balanced option. The improved wiring might be a good consideration for some systems as well, giving more detail, clarity, and up-front sound. The remote option is what interested me the most. There is an entirely separate board added inside the unit that allows remote control functionality. You switch the remote on or off on the unit to disable the front tuning dial, and then you have power on/off capability, five preset stations, and the ability to scan. This seems very worthwhile, and allows automating the tuner into a larger remote system as well.


Listening--System 1

First, I should mention that I am in the Los Angeles area with some tall buildings within about a mile in directions opposite to where the repeater station for FM is located. I didn’t have any “higher-end” tuners with which to do comparisons, so it was hard to put some of the performance advantages of the Magnum in perspective. Both tuners in the comparisons are sub $500 tuners. Keep this in mind while reading the comparison tests.

I was able to log 30 stations on both the Magnum and Rotel tuners. The room where system 1 is located is in a very tough reception area for certain stations. On 88.1, a typically hard station to receive, I was unable to get a usable signal from the Magnum. The Rotel was able to retrieve the station, but with only mediocre quality. Here is where the outside antenna would have helped a great deal had it been an option.

On other stations, the comparison was much fairer. I did have to get used to the fact that I had neither preset stations on the MD90 nor AM radio. Tuning stations was a quick process however. The digital display on the front allows you to quickly pop in to a specific frequency while the center tune indicator allows you to fine tune to get the best quality. Because you are not limited to scanning up and down in large steps (like most digital tuners), the Magnum has an advantage in fine-tuning. The display itself is highly visible and can be easily read from more than 15 feet away.

The Rotel had more output level, so direct comparisons were rather difficult. On the stations where signal strength was high, I thought there was a slight amount of bloom and warmth (especially in the midrange) that the Magnum imparted to the sound. There wasn’t a huge difference, but enough of a difference for the person who is critically listening to radio. Are you out there?


Listening--System 2

With the Yamaha tuner, I was able to log 34 stations compared to the 30 I was able to log on the MD90. For my listening, I started at the top of the band and went down. This time it was the Dynalab tuner that was louder than the Yamaha. It wasn’t as large a difference as before, so I was able to adjust the volume up and down as I did comparisons.

On 107.5, the Magnum was more spatial, more natural, and easier on the ears. The Yamaha sounded thinner and harsher, and had a flatter presentation overall. With 105.1, the MD90 produced a greater sense of depth and a wider soundstage with more noticeable hiss on the top end, but cleaner midrange as well. The Yamaha had more grain and hash in the high frequencies. 104.3 was clearly noisier on the Yamaha than with the Magnum even though the antennas were located in exactly the same place. On 98.7, there was more sibilance with the Yamaha and the sound was not as spacious.

88.1 is always the big test. It happens to be the big Los Angeles jazz station (unless you count 94.7 which is not really for diehard jazz enthusiasts). On both tuners I heard hiss come and go during the music. The Yamaha had a lot more hiss and noise than the MD90. I was able to eliminate most of it by switching the IF band, engaging the mono switch, and turning the hi-blend on, but at the cost of some of the sound quality. However, on this station, with the antenna in the same position as before, it was really a necessity. The station was not easy to listen to otherwise.

On the Magnum, as long as I wasn’t walking around the room (especially right near the tuner), I was graced with very good sound. The hiss and noise came over the music occasionally, but it was not really bothersome. Engaging the mono switch prevented virtually all the cutting out of the sound when I walked around. The IF switch made more difference to the quality of the sound, and there was less cutting out, but still not as much as with the mono switch. (The music they were playing at the time was some older blues music, and I don’t think it was stereo anyway.)


Conclusion

Over 10 years ago, while I was in college, I was searching for a tuner to add to an integrated amplifier I had just purchased. I was living in Berkeley and popped into a local hi-fi shop to see what they had. I was looking for something in the lower range and had been eyeing an Adcom tuner. The salesman suggested I listen to a tuner from a company I had never heard of called Magnum Dynalab. I sat in the room and switched back and forth between the two tuners. I couldn’t believe the difference! With the Magnum I heard space and dimension and depth, and things I never even knew existed from an audio system, much less one with a tuner as the source component. I wasn’t able to afford it at the time, but I never forgot that experience.

These days, with digital radio, cable radio, satellite music, it is almost easy to forget that good ole FREE music is still out there. Having a good tuner really gave me a chance to re-explore Los Angeles radio. The truth is, aside from a few stations, the choice is abysmal. But, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy listening to those few good stations for many hours on end. You might be luckier where you live and find more than a few jewels in the rough. The base Magnum Dynalab MD90 tuner is few in the creature feature department (i.e. no presets, no remote, no auto-tuning, and no AM), but if you can work with these limitations, or decide to add upgrades, you are sure to be impressed with its sound quality, and the only thing you will be without is AM. For most people, that would not be an issue. And really, sound quality is what audio components are about.


- Brian Bloom          big_brian_b@hotmail.com

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