Musical Fidelity AMS35i

Musical Fidelity AMS35iTalk to Antony Michaelson about his prodigious product portfolio and there are a few select designs with which he speaks with huge affection, the A1000 being one. A lavish affair, it’s a two-box design, the first being the amp itself and the second the power supply (11kg and 7kg respectively). It boasted 50W RMS in pure Class A from two sets of eight heavily heatsinked transistors, aspirated by two chunky toroidal transformers in the other box. Switch it on and within an hour most of the casework was too hot to handle despite all that elaborate heatsinking, such was its prodigious power consumption!

On delivering this, the AMS35i to me, Antony declared it to be the A1000’s spiritual successor, and you can see why. It’s pure Class A into 8 Ohms. He argues that many manufacturers assert their products to be ‘pure Class A’ amplifiers, but are actually simply Class AB amps biased just a bit more towards Class A. This is emphatically not the case with the ’35i, he says, and the temperature rise of the massive heatsinks (about 35ºC) is testimony this. Suffice to say, after my review sample had been on for an hour, the central heating went off and I was contemplating making myself some cheese on toast right there in my listening room…

Boasting 35W RMS per channel into 8 ohms, the AMS35i is a dual mono amplifier, each ‘bank’ with its own separate transformer. The preamp also has separate power supplies with separate windings on the transformer. The circuitry itself is said to be “a direct descendant of the Titan and AMS50 circuit designs and is very closely related to them”.

This is one of the most attractive modern Musical Fidelity products I’ve seen for a while, looking purposeful and imposing (it’s not small at 483x148x475mm and 28.3kg), yet subtle and classy too – especially in the black satin finish of our review sample. Whilst it lacks the silky perfection of Japanese esoterica, it’s certainly very well made and finished. The front panel is machined from solid, ‘milspec’ aluminium billet, with an exclusive titanium finish in silver or black. The badge is made from medical grade stainless steel. The top and back are machined from solid and the heatsinks are custom made for maximum efficiency.

The front panel layout consists of a large, smooth operating central volume control, with smaller source selector buttons with individual blue LEDs. Round the back there are four RCA phono inputs (including a tape loop) and one balanced XLR, and one fixed (tape out) and one variable (pre out) RCA phono outputs, plus two pairs of 4mm speaker binding post outputs. The AMS35i remote is “one of the single most expensive components” of the package, and holding you can see why. Exquisitely machined from solid, it’s a handy thing to have in your dressing gown pocket should a midnight burglar decide he has as much right to own your hi-fi as you.

The key drawback of Class A is the amps run hot, because they run in such a way that the output transistors are permanently switched on (whereas in Class AB of course they switch on and off). The key benefit is the lack of switching distortion, which invests the humble transistor amplifier with a profoundly different quality to what people are used to. Music is suddenly clear, almost icily so, like a frozen sea under blistering blue sky. All the grey fog that the switching distortion of Class AB disappears at a stroke, and it’s like the sun has come out.

Still, just being Class A isn’t a guarantee of perfection. I very much like the £3,500 Sugden IA4 for what it does to the music – which is to make it very clean and fun – but there’s certainly a bright upper midband there to be heard, especially through speakers such as mine which, like most metal drivered speakers, aren’t backward in coming forward. It’s a great amp, the Sugden, but not perfect. Fascinating then to get the chance to try the Musical Fidelity AMS35i, which at £6,000 is surely the most expensive example of the integrated breed I’ve heard, and without doubt the most purposeful…

After about an hour’s warm up, my first instinct was to reach for the nearest LP. Duly, Wings’ London Town was cued up, and I sat back. As Musical Fidelity amplifiers go, this was one of the sweetest and most beguiling I’ve heard. Their kW stuff sounds impressive in my system, but the AMS35i sounded beautiful. There’s a smoothness, delicacy and warmth to this amplifier that I haven’t heard outside of a valve amplifier, and it was so pronounced that I’m still trying to fathom it weeks after first setting ears upon it.

London Town is a typical late seventies analogue recording (done mostly at Abbey Road Studios, of course). It has a richness and a sheen that’s simply not possible to hear anywhere now. The song lilts along with an unusually relaxed gait, and practically every transistor amplifier fails to catch its lackadaisical feel. Not so the AMS35i, which opened up the song and let the listener in. The slightly shambling, pedestrian rhythm with its various stop-starts wasn’t forced or muddled. Instead the Musical Fidelity remained in confident control, happy to amble when the song demand, then ready to rock when the songs energetic, Hammond organ-driven bridge came to be.

Impressed as I was with the AMS35i’s unforced musicality, this amplifier’s tonality really made its mark. The brass section that permeates the song was rendered with unexpected accuracy, the strings had a supernaturally silken sheen and McCartney’s vocals were carried with an almost disconcerting realism, overdubs and all. Tonally this amplifier is a smoothie alright, but only in the sense that it doesn’t add grain or grit. It’s not about airbrushing over what’s already there, as the next track showed.

Warping forward twelve years, and The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds, a classic slice of ambient house from 1990, was next on. With a heavy sequenced sampled drum loop driving the song, it represents a distinct upping of the pace compared to the Wings track, and immediately the AMS35i snapped into life. The amplifier was able to ‘pick up its skirt and run’, so to speak, showing its natural speed to great effect. Even at high volume, with the Yamahas’ twelve inch cones flapping like flares in seventies jeans advert, the big Musical Fidelity served up large dollops of clean power, stopping and starting like its very life depended on it. Despite all its low frequency travails, the Rickie Lee Jones sample was rendered with cut-glass clarity, and the sampled keyboard loops chimed cleanly and purposefully out of the mix. Despite its low rated power, this is as confident a 35W as I’ve heard, with prodigious amounts of low frequencies served up.

This amp is able to unlock recordings, getting one closer to the song and its performer. It sounds powerful and sports a strong bass which underpins the music just in the right way, yet it’s never overblown or ponderous and doesn’t slow things down. Treble is silky and the midband is clear enough to communicate every last nuance of the recording. So if you’re looking for a beguiling integrated with enough power for a large room, this is bound to warm the cockles of your heart.

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