“We were trying to achieve an amplifier that was properly made”, says Michael Maloney. “At the end of the nineteen seventies when we came into being, the quality of the components was pretty poor. They were still using old carbon resistors and electrolytic capacitors in the signal path, printed circuit boards were still made of Bakelite. We were one of the first to use 1% metal film resistors, we used beautiful capacitors – polypropylene, polystyrene capacitors. There weren’t any mica capacitors in that at all, we had glass-fibre printed circuit boards, and we had the latest Japanese transistors, we had the first MOSFETs, which were paraded as the replacement for valves…”
The company was Myst, and he was a young man in love with music. Unusually, he had recently graduated from university with a degree in Perceptual Neuropsychology – as opposed to the usual variation on the theme of electronics that so many audio industry figures invariably read. He was highly skilled in electronics, but his lack of conventional schooling led him to believe, correctly, that electronic components had their own sonic signatures. Such revolutionary thinking was reflected in the design and execution of the new tma3, which sounded dramatically better than most rivals at or anywhere near its £250 retail price.
Michael preached minimalism – fewer fripperies on the outside of the amp and better engineering inside – and practiced it too. The tma3 sported just a power switch, volume control knob and source selection buttons. “I can distinctly remember when I was a schoolboy,” says Maloney, “and I saw a hi-fi magazine and on the front was an Italian amplifier called the Galactron, and I saw the back panel and there must have been upwards of a hundred phono sockets, and that got me going. Because I thought that this is entirely unnecessary, really. All that we want is something to play records. We don’t need all these dials, we don’t need all of these connections, just a simple input, and simple output, and make it well, make it beautiful and make it to last. And that was the start of the thought of going into audio. For ten years, that sat in the back of my mind.”
After leaving the University of St. Andrews, Michael went to work for Chum Kersting in Norwood, making some of the “leading” valve amplifier output transformers of the time. He was keen to learn the art of this, because he was interested in building his own valve amplifier. Indeed, the very first Myst product – the Stage-Life – was precisely this. Sadly though Chum was taken ill with a stroke, and so just around the corner from his company in Norwood, Michael started Myst with his partner Mary Guillaume. “We needed a factory to work in,” he told me, “and in those days the Welsh Development Agency was offering houses and factories in their new town which they had remarkably called Newtown, in mid-Wales. And Laura Ashley was one of their big start-up successes; anyone could take a house and a factory for a very reasonable weekly rent, so we thought let’s have a look.” They did, but didn’t like it, so they drove back to London through Herefordshire and found themselves absolutely beguiled. “Mary and I looked at that and thought, that’s where we want to live!”
The couple ended up in Weobley, where they – and Myst Ltd. – reside to this day. “It was just big enough to have a beautiful listening room with blue velvet drapes, and a big brick pillar that I built to put all the equipment on. And then at the back there were two rooms we could assemble equipment, and we got two ladies from the village to come in and assemble things and that was the start of Myst. We love it here, it’s great. It’s absolutely useless for doing anything – anything world-beating or thinking of world domination. All the rest of the industry went off towards Huntingdon and Cambridge, and we ended here in the land that time forgot out here in Herefordshire”, confides Michael.
The newly set-up factory and office building, sitting within sight of the Brecon Beacons, began producing the new integrated amplifier – and it was marketed as, “not simply another budget amplifier”. Michael is a little noncommittal about why it’s called ’tma3’, suggesting first that it stands for “the Myst amplifier no.3”, but then admitting that he’s a big fan of Arthur C. Clarke and saying it may have been a reference to his “tyco magnetic anomalies”, where the Monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey are discovered. Whatever, the new amplifier certainly looked rather extra-terrestrial at the time. “It had a dimension of one-to-three-to-nine, the squares of the first three prime numbers. And they were the dimensions of the monoliths in Arthur Clarke’s 2001 book”, Michael tells me…
Still, if you thought the Myst integrated was something of a walk on the wild side, stylistically or conceptually, you should have seen what had come before. The Myst G-Ohm pre/power amplifier garnered a reputation for its excellent sound, but won no prizes for ease of use or contemporary styling – and what was that name all about? What all Myst products shared was excellent build quality; it wasn’t all about showing off the ‘perceived’ cost of the product, rather the general calibre of the materials, circuit design and components was top-notch considering the price, and everything was obviously very lovingly put together. The tma3 was basically a smaller, more compact one-box (432x220x55mm) G-Ohm with a less over-the-top power supply.
Inside, the Myst integrated is a lovely thing to look at. Back in 1983, your average Japanese amplifier – and many British ones too – were a riot of wiring, with vast numbers of sub-boards going here there and everywhere and the usual rather plain frame-type power transformer. The Myst however showed very careful attention to earthing, being star-earthed years before this became fashionable. The wiring was neat and the signal paths kept short. Mains power came courtesy of a large, high quality toroidal mains transformer with separate power rails for preamplifier and power amplifier sections.
The more you drilled down into the tma3, the more you saw loving attention to detail. The volume control was a high quality ALPS potentiometer, compliantly mounted to reduce mechanical vibration. Excellent 1% tolerance polystyrene capacitors and metal film resistors popped up in the phono card (there was a choice of MM or MC), and circuitboards were neatly laid out high quality affairs. The preamp to power amp connection used high grade polycarbonate capacitors, and the power amp itself was closely based on a classic Hitachi circuit with just five transistors and Hitachi 2SK226/2SJ82 MOSFET output devices coupled to the loudspeakers via a 2.5amp quick-blow fuse. The quality was superb, and the reliability too. “Nobody’s ever phoned me up and said you’ve sold me a piece of junk it’s nothing but trouble”, says Maloney.
The quoted power output, claimed by the manufacturer to be 35W RMS per channel into 8 ohms, sounds modest now but was pretty feisty by the standards of the early nineteen eighties. It certainly wasn’t bad, lest we forget that Naim’s NAIT integrated which appeared around the same time barely struggled to make 20W. Still, on the other hand another new similarly priced amplifier launched around that time, Audiolab’s 8000A punched out 50W RMS into 8 ohms, making it a veritable power house. Whatever the raw numbers suggest, in real life the Myst came over as a strong and gutsy performer considering its diminutive size and unremarkable rated power; there was certainly a sense that it was good at current driving when called upon so to do…
Michael Maloney says, “the Quad ESL-63s were the best sounding loudspeakers of the time, by a mile. The tma3 had the MOSFETs, the best power supply and the big toroidal transformer, and it would drive Quad Electrostatics the way they were meant to be driven. They were half the cost of a house in those days, dramatically expensive, so I don’t think many people bought tma3s to drive Quads, maybe a few. We used the Celestion SL6 as a reference, and these and the tma3 went together hand-in-glove. It was a very tricky speaker to drive, but Celestion heard the amp in action and we began to get involved in an active version of the SL6. It was never a production thing, it was a skunkworks project. We had one power amp driving the two drivers, one for the woofer, one for the tweeter – and that was beautiful, that was the bee’s knees!”
In action, the Myst tma3 still sounds excellent. It’s a punchy little integrated that comfortably exceeds its quoted 35W per channel rating (50W per side would be more like it) and is especially good at driving low loads. It has a tight grip on loudspeaker bass cones with a damping factor of 110, and further up everything is clean and extremely detailed with superb soundstaging. Yet it is never analytical – it has real musical coherence, making it a joy to listen to in its own, calm, measured and accurate way. The phono stage is very good, and there was a range of MM or MC plug-in cards available back in the day. Interestingly, the CD input bypasses the preamp section and effectively runs through just the volume control and power amp – and sounds great as a result.
Myst was an eccentric company, and you’ve got to love all the silliness that surrounds it. The first Stage-Life valve amplifier, launched in 1981, came in two shades of brown. The 1982 G-Ohm (possibly an abbreviation of Mary’s surname?) surfaced in a brown and champagne gold colour scheme. Then the tma3 a year later arrived in silver and blue, although an option of all-black was offered and most of the tma3s ended up being sold in this livery – for this you’d have to add around £25 to the purchase price. If the tma3’s dimensions seem especially familiar to you, then you may have owned a pair of Celestion SL6s – the amp’s casework is identical to the sand-filled metal uprights in the SL6 stands; indeed the latter was inspired by the former! The best Myst legend however is the Wellard loudspeaker – an amazing mid-sized studio monitor that the company sold to the great and the good of the British music scene in the mid-to-late nineteen eighties. Everyone from Phil Collins to Stock, Aitken and Waterman bought a pair, and this was what took the company in a different trajectory, away from the domestic hi-fi industry.
All in all, here’s a great, long-lost integrated amplifier from one of Britain’s quintessential ‘cottage industry’ companies. We wish Myst well, and who knows, maybe one day they’ll return to making great hi-fi?