17/07/2015 Musical Fidelity’s winning combination

Posted by Jason.sexton | No Comments on Musical Fidelity’s winning combination

Len Wallis takes a closer look at the emerging trend of ‘balanced headphones’…

At any time in this industry there will be any number of ‘hot’ topics. At the moment two growing areas of interest are headphones and ‘balanced’ (or XLR) audio cables.

The interest in headphones is obvious.

When Apple released iTunes they breathed life back into a segment of this industry which was almost totally dormant, that segment being headphones. While the quality of the Apple headphone offering was rather ordinary it did create an environment where this was the accepted way of accessing music, and the tendency to then look for better alternatives was a natural progression.

Existing headphone manufacturers enjoyed a return to business that they never envisioned they would see again. Companies that specialised in other areas suddenly had a headphone division, a classic example of this being the recent release of the ‘NightHawk’ headphones from cable manufacture AudioQuest. Even more noticeable has been the emergence of a myriad of new ‘headphone’ manufacturers.

One the other hand balanced audio cable technology has been around for decades, mostly used in the live music arenas. There have been a few brave Hi-Fi manufacturers who have utilised balanced technology over the years, but suddenly the technology is becoming fashionable.

Personally I have been a fan of balanced cable technology for many, many years, and I cannot understand why it has taken so long for manufacturers to incorporate it in their designs. The lowering of the noise floor is so obvious (and this is only one of the benefits) that it gives a greater sensation of ‘blackness’ to the music, the music appears to have less ‘noise’ around it.

It is no surprise that Musical Fidelity’s Antony Michaelson has combined these two developing areas of the market. Antony has been an industry trailblazer for decades, seeking out new and better ways of achieving his musical goals (he is also a musician which is obviously beneficial), and at times snubbing his nose at accepted norms.

He recognised that balanced technology can also be applied to headphones, with the same performance advantages. The downside is that there are a very limited number of devices that will accept a pair of headphones with balance cables.
Audio_quest_CableThe solution; design both a set of balanced headphones along with a matching headphone amplifier. The result: a balanced version of the already successful MF-200 headphones (the MF-200B), and a new version of the very well received V90-HPA headphone amplifier (the V90-BHA), featuring both balanced inputs and headphone socket.

This really is a stroke of genius.

Most users of quality headphones use them in conjunction with a dedicated headphone amplifier. Other companies have paid lip service to the concept – most notably Sennheiser with their excellent HDVD800 headphone amplifier (which accepts both balanced and unbalanced headphone cables), coupled with the fact that they offer optional balanced cables for some of their high-end phones.

The result is excellent, and great value.

The Musical Fidelity combination sells for $899, which in the world of high performance headphones is a bargain.

So how does the combination stack up?

In many ways this is going to depend on personal preference. Firstly I must admit that I have a preference to over-ear designs, the MF-200B is from the currently fashionable ‘on-ear’ school of design. That being said they have a very dynamic, open, detailed character, perfect for anyone looking for a precise sound. It is very interesting how, like in many facets of this industry, various designers’ present products that they consider to be ‘correct’. For example the MF combination has a very different sound to the recently released AudioQuest NightHawk’s, which are take almost the opposite approach, and are very soft and warm in their presentation.

It is also interesting to see what improvements you can expect as you move up the chain.

As good as the V90-HPA headphone amplifier is I took the opportunity to compare it to the new MX-HPA, (in this case using unbalanced phones) also from Musical Fidelity. Admittedly given that the MX-HPA sells for $1,399, but the difference was very obvious.

At the moment stock of the MF-200B/V90-BHA combination is limited, but this will improve with time. The individual units are not available separately, but once again this may change sometime in the future. At the same time I am not sure why you would want to buy either piece in isolation, the coupling makes so much sense.

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