The Musical Fidelity M8s PRE preamplifier is one of the biggest and heaviest preamplifiers I’ve had the pleasure of using–which seems unusual since the price is only $4,999. When I maneuvered the box into my house and unpacked this fairly big black box, I thought maybe Focal Naim America sent me the Musical Fidelity M8s integrated amplifier instead. But no, this is a preamplifier, the kind that has plenty of features for all types of home entertainment installations. And it’s built like a tank.
Words and Photos by Marc Phillips
It would have been fine, however, if the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE had been an integrated. I just needed XLR inputs. I’ve mentioned that I’ve been testing various brands of XLR interconnects–AudioQuest, Furutech and Cardas–for the better part of the last year, but I kept getting review amps that only handled RCA inputs. I called up Wendy Knowles, my contact over at Focal Naim America, and she had plenty of suggestions. But the one suggestion that stuck with me was Musical Fidelity, one of the latest additions to the Focal Naim stable.
I have another old audio guy story about Musical Fidelity, but this one is a little sad. When I was fresh out of college, back in the mid ’80s, I purchased a British Fidelity (as they were known in the states back then) Synthesis integrated amplifier, based solely on a review from none other than Sam Tellig. Within a few days, it was gone. I lived in a big house with three roommates, and we had a lot of parties. I never found out who stole it.
For a long time I winced when I heard about Musical Fidelity. I skipped almost every Sam Tellig review–and there were many, weren’t there?–because those two words made me sad all over again. I briefly spent some time with the now classic A1 integrated, my first experience with a class A amplifier, and I absolutely loved this little thing while I borrowed it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that amp thief back in Virginia and whether or not he enjoyed the Synthesis as much as I would have, at least if I’d been given the chance.
But now I have a chance, nearly forty years later, to rectify all of this and to permanently banish those negative feelings to the dustbin of history. I’m ready to find out what Musical Fidelity means in this day and age, which is why I asked Wendy to send me the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE.
Inside the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE
When I said the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE was filled with features, I wasn’t kidding. Inside this box, which is beautifully machined and finished, you’ll find a low noise MM/MC phono stage, two balanced inputs, three unbalanced inputs, home theater bypass, a tape in/out loop, and much more. It’s a fully balanced preamplifier, with pure class A circuitry.
Because of its “very high input overload margins,” the M8s PRE is designed to work with any power amplifier over any length of cable. Musical Fidelity recommends the M8s 700m monoblocks, of course, but this already sounds like an ideal preamp for when you already have monoblock power amplifiers and speakers on the other side of the room from the rest of your system. In other words, this sounds like a preamplifier designed for XLRs.
The obvious question is why the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE offers all this bling and still costs less that $5K. Where were the corners cut? Musical Fidelity is actually quite transparent about the more pragmatic aspects of the M8 line, which is right below the flagship Nu-Vista line. For instance, Musical Fidelity studied the cost of elaborate and heavy casework and determined the point at where the thickness of a metal stops contributing positively to the overall sound. Don’t pay for what you don’t need, in other words.
This relative thriftiness applies to the front panel, obviously, but also to the heatsinks, which are custom made by Musical Fidelity. “If you like fancy looking Hi-Fi, machined front panels, peak meters, heatsinks machined from exotic materials and all the other vocabulary of high-end excess, then the M8 Series is not for you,” the literature proclaims. They’ve taken that honest approach to the entire design of the M8 series–nothing is included that doesn’t contribute to the performance. No wonder Sam Tellig, the erstwhile Audio Cheapskate, loved Musical Fidelity so much. At the same time, however, I felt that the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE was solid, well-made, beefy and brawny. You normally expect that from a big power amplifier or integrated, but not a preamp.
I had to check. For the record, the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE weighs 17 kg, or roughly 41 pounds. I’m not just being a wimp. It’s a beast of a preamp.
I currently have two power amplifiers on hand. Neither of them are new, yet both are superb: my reference PureAudio Duo2 power amplifier, which I’ve owned for a decade, and a borrowed Ayre V-3 that is probably twice as old but has thrilled me with its solid, neutral sound. Naturally, the Musical Fidelity was used with both. The Pureaudio is switchable between 25wpc of pure class A and 100wpc of AB (still heavily biased into class A for the first 25 watts), and the Ayre is class AB and has 150 wpc.
Since the Pureaudio only handles RCAs, I used Furutech Lineflux interconnects to connect the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE. The Ayre handles XLR, so I used the AudioQuest Firebird and Thunderbird interconnects from the Mythical Creatures line. The rest of the system varied as review gear moved in and out of the neighborhood–we’re talking, of course, of the epic XLR journey of 2022-2023. You’ll read all about that soon enough.
I did have a few issues in getting the M8s PRE to play music on the first try. For me, that’s a common problem when you have a preamp that offers so many inputs and other features, often executed with the versatile and button-covered remote control. I call it “Hunting for Inputs.” I finally found my bearings and was able to navigate freely through the expansive landscape of the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE within a couple of days of use. But this is a product that will require a thorough reading of the owner’s manual if you want it to work right the first time.
Remember, I’ve been using minimalist preamps for way too long. “I’ll figure it out eventually”–that’s my new mantra, especially in the Digital Age.
Musical Fidelity M8s PRE Sound
When I first plugged the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE into my system, I had that familiar feeling of “what is this preamplifier contributing to the overall sound?” Ideally, a good preamplifier should stay out of the way of the rest of the system and be as neutral as possible. The M8s was stoic enough to allow me to hear big differences between the Pureaudio and Ayre amplifiers–the Pureaudio has a rich, almost tube-like demeanor and the Ayre is a little cleaner and closer to neutral.
But I also know that a good preamplifier always has some hidden talent, some way to push an already good system into greatness. You don’t quite hear the improvements and have the exact words needed to describe the change, but you know something’s missing when it’s gone.
The Musical Fidelity M8s PRE first came off as fairly neutral once it was placed into the system. The PRE made more of an immediate impact in the way I hooked up the system, and the way I made it operate. The remote control, for example, is very sophisticated and allows many commands. But the changes in the overall sound were guided by the Pureaudio and the Ayre amps, and that’s what I “heard” during the warm-up period.
Over time, I picked up on a singular quality of the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE–slam. I don’t talk about slam much, mostly because it overlaps more familiar audio terms that I employ such as dynamics and transients. The PRE was very consistent in the way it added excitement to the music through visceral means–deep bass that was a little punchier than expected and incredibly well-defined, and transient edges that were sharpened enough to make dynamic shifts a touch more startling. (The Yulunga Test, using “Yulunga” from Dead Can Dance’s Into the Labyrinth, revealed the M8s as a preamp that preserves all the layers and textures at the low end.) The M8s accomplished this in more than one way, too–sometimes the mix sounded a little more forward than usual and that was exciting in and of itself.
I do champion components that contribute to an overall relaxed, open and spacious presentation, and the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE does not quite belong in that crowd. But that didn’t mean I found it too aggressive or forward. Instead, I often felt like I had taken another step closer to the music and I could hear just a little more of what was happening in the recording. Sometimes, that increase in inner detail came at the cost of the overall size of the soundstage. It was noticeable, but not at all objectional. Over time, I started to think of the whole PRaT thing, that the Musical Fidelity was more interested in delivering a convincing and realistic pattern of energy than an ultra-precise rendering of every nook and cranny.
I did spend some time with the inboard phono section of the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE, and it’s pretty sophisticated and nifty as part of the whole package. I used it primarily with my Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard turntable, Cornet2 tonearm and both the ZYX Ultimate Airy X and the Luxman LMC-5 MC cartridges. There’s a small switch on the back panel of the M8s for MM and MC, right below the RCA phono inputs, but all other settings (gain, loading) are accessible through the remote and the internal menu.
My reference phono stage is the Allnic Audio H-6500 with external power supply and tube rectification, and that retails for $10K. It’s simply not fair to compare this tubed two-chassis behemoth with an inboard MM/MC phono stage, but I did benefit from the fact that I didn’t go straight from the Allnic to the Musical Fidelity. That means I could isolate and evaluate this inboard phono pre with fresh ears, and I liked what I heard.
Despite the presence of the Allnic and other fancy stand-alone phono preamplifiers that I use in my reference system, I still do care about the quality of inboard phono stages. I’m always on the lookout for a solid one since I’m still intrigued with the idea of keeping the system small in a lifestyle context. I’ve found that they do exist, and the phono stage in the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE is one of them. I will admit that I have many noise suppression and grounding devices in my system at any given moment, so I’ve come to expect quiet from my analog rig. But I felt that the phono pre in the M8s really stood out in this respect. In a big box with so much going on, I didn’t expect this low of a noise floor.
If I had to mention one place where the phono preamplifier of the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE didn’t quite meet the performance of something in the five-figure range, it was in the area of inner detail. My system, with all those noise suppression devices, has spoiled me in terms of the amount of detail I glean from my favorite recordings. In absolute terms the M8s delivered that detail, but with a slightly reduced sense of air and space. Still, I could live with this phono stage and be quite grateful that it’s there.
Musical Fidelity M8s PRE Conclusions
In the recent past I’ve reviewed a handful of integrated amps, all-in-ones and/or preamplifiers that really do have tons of features–many of which I’ll probably never use. I think that’s why I’ve spent so much of my audiophile life with minimalist preamps–I want a volume control knob, an input knob and not much else. My reference Pureaudio Control preamp only has one volume knob on the front–input selection is automatic. So a complicated preamplifier such as the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE hasn’t really been on my audiophile wish list until recently.
That’s because the hi-fi landscape is changing, mostly thanks to the newer digital technologies that are slipping quietly into my life. I now have a genuine need/desire for a separate DAC and network streamer, and for multiple connectivity options. (I’ve gotten to the point where I now prefer coax much much more than USB.) An inboard phono stage that actually sounds nice is a plus–it’s one more space suddenly made available on my equipment rack, which I’ll invariably need for more DACs and network switches and ethernet switches and re-clocking gadgets.
The icing on the cake, of course, is that many of these Swiss Army knife components in high-end audio are starting to sound really good, at least to my ears. In the past, you had to make a choice between features and sound quality. During its time here, the Musical Fidelity stayed out of the way of the rest of my system by providing a neutral sound that nevertheless injected a noticeable bit of energy into the music. At no time did this excitement affect the tonality of the Pureaudio or Ayre power amplifiers, which is close to ideal considering I love the tonality of both amps.
With the Musical Fidelity M8s PRE, however, I heard a small but significant contribution in the character of my system, a change that was not invasive, or even that additive. I just had fun with this preamplifier, and I had the flexibility to enjoy all types of system configuration while knowing it had solutions instead of limitations–those minimalist preamps I’ve always preferred always lacked something I thought I needed. Has the M8s changed my mind about being an audio purist? Let’s just say I could choose either approach, and I’ll never complain about the sound either way. That was not always the case in high-end audio.
Just one more observation about Musical Fidelity and their place in today’s high-end audio industry: they just announced they’re releasing a version of the LS3/5a loudspeaker. They even have an LS5/9! That’s good news and indicates that a whole new generation of audiophiles is rediscovering these seemingly immortal BBC loudspeaker designs. I’m seeing this British audio company in a whole new light these days. They’re definitely setting off into new and exciting directions with an equally exciting sound.
But if you’re in Virginia and you see a British Fidelity Synthesis, tell it I said hey.