Sunday, March 20, 2011

Listening to FM till 2 AM Pt II

After using the FM Acoustics 245 preamp for a week or so, I am now forced to reconfigure my entire view on hi-fi.


The fundamental question is: what is the most important component in a hi-fi system? Many decades ago, I was told that it was the source. It was Linn that said: "Rubbish in, rubbish out."


Later I felt that the power amp was more vital - moving up from the Audiolab 8000S integrated to the Bryston 3B SST power amp to the 4B SST, I could hear the differences in poise and control of the sound with more power. When I had the chance to connect a Mark Levinson No 532 Dual Monaural Power Amplifier to my system, I could hear an even more dramatic improvement.


As for the preamp, I always felt it was just a volume control. For a long time, I was under the impression that "less is more" where preamps are concerned since the less circuitry that a signal passes through means the purity of the signal is better preserved. I have used passive preamps before - a QED passive pre and a McCormack TLC-1. I have also used transformer volume control-based preamps.


After using the FM Acoustics 245, I am now of the view that the preamp is the heart of the system.

The FM Acoustics 245 preamp can impose its character on your sound system and make it sound more high end than it really is.



The FM Acoustics 245 preamp will change
the sonic character of your system.

 What's there to gain?

I found the FM Acoustics 245 to be very sensitive to gain.
With other preamps, you just plug and play, but FM Acoustics must be the only company that specifies that the volume control should be at the 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock position for normal listening level and at the 5 o’clock position for loud sessions. The company says if the volume control is below 11 o’clock, it functions more like an attenuator than a preamp.


Using my much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tone arm/Exact cartridge and Creek OBH-15 phono preamp, it was already very loud at the 10 o’clock position. It was the same when I used the Roksan Caspian CD player and the Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as DAC).


When there is too much overall gain in your system, FM Acoustics recommends engaging the minus 20dB button on the front panel. My Bryston 4B SST has a gain selector switch - 1V and 2V. Even when I switched it to 2V, it was too loud; the Bryston sounds better when gain is set at 1V anyway.


When there's too much gain in your system,
you have to press the -20dB button.


So I pressed the -20dB button on the preamp and played song after song with the volume knob at the 5 o'clock position.

Slow and subtle
If you start auditioning the FM Acoustics 245 preamp with slow music, you may be underwhelmed and you may ask: “So what’s so great about FM Acoustics?”


But after a few songs, you will notice some subtle changes - the sound stage is much wider and deeper, there’s more space between the singer and instruments, the images have more solidity, and some instrument that is in the background gets spotlighted.


I was listening to John Coltrane’s Lush Life on 180gm vinyl on the Rega when I noticed a consistent high frequency mild hiss on one song. Initially I thought it was the sound of distant rain. I walked towards the right speaker and listened carefully - it was the sound of a drum brush gently scraping against the skin of a drum.


The same thing happened when I was listening to Barbra Streisand’s Love is The Answer CD, but this time when I heard the soft hissing sound, I knew I was hearing the drum brushes.


With the FM Acoustics 245 preamp, such little details are highlighted instead of being fused into the mix of sounds.

Fast and furious


When you play a fast-paced song, you will notice after a while that the tempo and pace have picked up somewhat. The rhythm just chugs and chugs along and after a couple of minutes, you will start moving to the beat.


This is the star quality of FM Acoustics components - it is often said they have the speed of Naims and the exquisite richness of top-notch Class A amps.


I often listen to Sarah Brightman's The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection Gold CD and the first song, The Phantom of The Opera (with Michael Crawford) often sounds lacking in rhythmic drive and energy. Somehow, the FM Acoustics 245 preamp could make the song chug along with the right amount of bassy drive.


The FM Acoustics 245 preamp tends to take control of the music like a conductor and ‘commands’ the instruments and singers to perform according to its wishes. It has the capability to impose its character - speed, dynamism, agility and steady rhythmic drive - on your sound system.


I played a wide range of music from Ry Cooder (vinyl), The Doors (CD and vinyl), Evita (vinyl), Miles Davis (vinyl) and Handel’s Messiah (Linn 24/88.2 Studio Master FLAC files played via a Toshiba laptop with Media Monkey, Furutech USB cable, Benchmark DAC1 Pre used as DAC) and regardless of the genre of music played, the character of FM Acoustics was evident.


I found most exciting the way dynamic swings of instruments were rendered. The dynamic range on the whole was great, but the dynamic swings of each instrument and voice added much to the texture and mood of the music and improved the timbres and inflections.


For example, when Miles Davis blows a note on the trumpet,  he does not sustain that note for a long time. Instead, the note sounds slightly lower or higher depending on how hard he blows - the note bends the way he wants it to. And the FM Acoustics preamp renders the bending of notes the way the musicians played them.

It’s all about connections

I found the FM Acoustics preamp to be very sensitive to interconnects.



In my system comprising a Bryston 4B SST power amp, Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as DAC), much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tonearm and Exact mm cartridge, Creek OBH-15 phono preamp and ATC SCM40 floorstanding speakers, I used MIT Shotgun MA interconnects to link the phono preamp to the FM Acoustics preamp and MIT Shotgun MA biwire cables to link power amp to the speakers. I used FM Acoustics XLR interconnects to link the FM Acoustics preamp to the power amp.


I had to use Neutrik adapters because FM Acoustics’ balanced outputs are wired the European way (pin 3 is hot) while the Bryston is wired the American/international way (pin 2 is hot).
FM Acoustics' interconnects
look rather plain.


I also used FM Acoustics RCA interconnects to link the Roksan Caspian CD player to the preamp.


When using Alphacore Silver Micropurl interconnects or the MIT Shotgun MA or FM Acoustics interconnects to link the Creek phono preamp to the preamp, the sonic differences were clearly revealed.
The Alphacore was closer to the FM Acoustics interconnects in character. The FM Acoustics interconnects sounded smooth, neutral and organic. MIT’s Shotgun MA sounded more audiophile in the sense that the music was more detailed and had slimmer images ‘appearing’ as if they had been shaved off a bit and a little more bass definition.


If you are looking out for audiophile qualities, MIT’s Shotgun MA would be the winner, but if you desire more organic sounding music then the FM Acoustics’ interconnects are the winner.


I also switched the interconnects between the Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as DAC) and the preamp using the MIT Shotgun MA and the FM Acoustics interconnects. Again the same conclusions were drawn, but I noted that the MIT Shotgun MA sounded louder than the FM Acoustics or Alphacore interconnects. When I used the MIT, the volume was quite loud with the volume knob at the 2 o’clock position, but to get the same level of loudness with the FM Acoustics or the Alphacore, I had to turn the knob to the 4-5 o’clock position.


I have yet to encounter a preamp that is so sensitive to interconnects.


After testing the various interconnects, I felt that the FM Acoustics preamp sounded best with its matching FM Acoustics interconnects. That way, the sonic signature of FM Acoustics components is revealed strongly - smooth sounding, never jarring, organic, wide and deep soundstage, lots of space between instruments and singers, choirs placed naturally at the rear of the lead vocalist, solid yet slightly amorphous images with steady rhythm and fabulous dynamic swings, tonal colours and right timbres.

Component matching


I have heard three FM Acoustics-based systems so far - an FM 155 line stage/FM 111monoblocks driving Naim SBL speakers, an FM 268 line stage/FM111 monoblocks driving Avantgarde Uno Nano G2 speakers and my resident system with the FM 245 preamp/Bryston 4B SST driving ATC SCM40s.


I feel the FM Acoustics preamps sound better when matched with FM Acoustics power amps using FM Acoustics interconnects.


It does not mean you cannot use an FM Acoustics preamp with any other brand of power amp - the FM Acoustics preamp will surely impose its character on and take over the ‘steering wheel’ of your system, but when paired with a ‘family’ component there’s extra oomph and speed.


Many audiophiles say FM Acoustics components sound very fast - fast songs sound faster. But it is actually only an impression since a song that is, say, 2 minutes 33 seconds long cannot be played in 2 minutes 32 seconds, using a Red-Book CD or hires file. On a turntable that has speed control, it would be possible but the pitch would change.


The length of the song does not change, but the impression is that it sounds faster. I believe this is due to the incredibly fast rise times of FM Acoustics pre and power amps.


Also the fact that FM Acoustics power amps can drive speakers to below 1 Ohm loads just means that the amps are in full control of the movement of the speaker units regardless of size.


The cones/domes will start and stop faster - that’s why the music sounds faster.

Would I buy FM?

FM Acoustics components are expensive, period. Good things don’t come cheap, period.


Would I buy FM? If I have the money, yes.


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