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Home Office System Upgrades

The stereo in my home office is, at its core, an original Musical Fidelity X-series. The series was produced by the British company with the intent of creating an affordable outboard DAC (at the time, better than the one in your CD player) while adding tubes, and their sound to a solid-state system. The separate components also included an external power supply, a phono amp, a pre-amp, integrated amps, etc.

Their styling was very unique--the smaller components cylinderical, and the integrated amps a flat oval. In the 90's I remember them being advertised in Stereophile and the concept always stuck with me. Some day I would buy a set.

A dozen years or so later, I finally bought a Musical Fidelity set of separate components; although by this time they were on version 3 of the concept and the components were cast in a rectangular shape. An integrated amp (X-150), tube buffer (X-10v3), DAC (X-DACv3), and an outboard power supply (X-PSUv3). They sounded stellar, no doubt. However, they didn't have that cylinderical look that first enamored me.

Fast-forward another ten or dozen years and I am browsing Fidelis AV in Nashua, NH. And there, in the used component section of the store, sat a Musical Fidelity X-A1 integrated amp. I had to have it. $300 later and it was all mine. After all these years I had one of the original MF series components. It produced 50w of power and its sound quality, while decent, in no way, shape or form, came close to that of my MF X-150 integrated. It didn't matter. It was going in my home office, not my primary system.

I started to pore over eBay, and the like, for a set of matching tube buffer components--the X-10D. One was there instantly. In Australia. The auction would end at 3:00 AM my time. So, either stay up all night or overbid for it. I did neither. In the morning I learned that I was not the winning bidder. Better luck next time. And, so it was. Up next was a set of two X-10D tube buffers with two X-PSU power supplies. Ooo! Now I didn't need two of each, but this one was not going to slip away. Seller's location: St. Louis, MO. One time zone away.

The auction ended and my bid was the highest. Money sent. A few days later a larger box, probably two feet-cubed arrived. Well-packed. Many components. They included the four cylinders of tube buffers and power supplies, but also the original wall wart power supplies for tube buffers without PSUs, and a custom set of power cables from the PSUs to the tube buffers. The seller was a doctor. He kept meticulous notes on everything and sent them along. He had had the original tubes replaced in favor of a Russian set; however, he was sure to include the originals in the shipment to me.

Into the tape loop of the X-A1 went one of the X-10D tube buffers powered by one of the X-PSU power supplies. To be honest, the tubes made a difference in the sound, but a very slight one. Audible, but slight. Again, the tubes were not in the same performance class as the newer X-10v3 from the rectangular series. But oh did it look so cool.

Looks are one thing, but that's just one sense. Audio equipment really needs to satisfy that sense of hearing first and foremost. Ultimately, I wanted to have the best of both worlds--a really unique-looking system that sounded better than good. It didn't need to have 100w+ nor be capable of producing the inner-most detail, but be satisfying to the point where I was not constantly wishing it had more.

When I need to increase Musical Fidelity performance there are two stops. First is Mike Grierson at Rock Grotto. Mike will recommend and sell tubes for the tube buffers. I have had them replaced in both the X-10D and X-10v3, and in both cases have been a significant upgrade.

The second stop is to reach out to Dan Cheever. Dan is the man when it comes to performing all of the audio engineering. He provides expert recommendations for modifications to the internals of my equipment. Dan has done work on both of my systems and the results have been dramatically apparent. Check out his Sonnare headphone amps. I've heard them. Beautiful openness and air to the sound.

Mike sold me a set of 6N23P triode tubes for the X-10D tube buffer. Previously, for my home office system, he made me a Little Pinkie power supply for my Musical Fidelity V-DACii. The digital end of my office system starts at an iMac. The library contains uncompressed AIFF files ripped from CDs, high-resolution tracks from HD Tracks and Pro Studio Masters, and some lower bit-rate iTunes purchases. A USB cable routes the signal to the V-DACii. From there a set of AudioQuest Sidewinders interconnects carries the analog to the X-10D tube buffer. Into the tape loop of the X-A1 and out to a set of NHT Classic Threes on top of my bookcase via a set of Mapleshade Audio Golden Helix cables.

Dan went to town installing the tubes and providing a lot of great feedback. Next, Dan added WIMA bypass caps to the new power supply caps. He says this is a common modification to speed up the cap and eliminate any high-frequency electrical noise. The power rails were beefed up with the cap leads as tracers because the PCB is rather cheap. Next, out go the tinny RCA jacks in the back, replaced with machined gold versions and silver shield wire.

I forgot about the indicator light on the front that wasn't working. Dan noticed it and replaced it with a cool green one. It looks great! The tubes are the hero of the set-up and the green pops. Thanks Dan!

On to the integrated amp. More of the same. The wiring is all discrete. The PCB is cheap and had some bad Chinese electrolytic caps. These were replaced with American NOS polypropylene film caps, even better than the WIMAs. Dan doubled the power supply caps from 10,000μF to 20,000μF. In addition, he added a lot of 12AWG wire for the connections to the caps. The RCAs? Ya, Dan replaced those with some machined gold ones.

I brought the integrated amp and tube buffer home. Reconnected everything. Dan recommended running the tube buffer in the tape loop rather than inline from the digital source. On to some initial listening.

I know not to get overly excited. New electrical parts, whether they be caps, interconnects, speaker wires, or speakers themselves, they need to break in. Sure, they play, but the sound will not be the same as it will be after say 100 hous of play. Like a fine wine they get better with age. The same was true when I had mods done to my bigger system. Mrs. Golden Ear played that system everyday for me. Bless her heart. It came around. Of course I changed many variables in that one at the same time. :-)

First impressions: stiff; constrained. Not bad. Just held back. Some instrumentation found air and rang out, but much of it was locked in that two-dimensional plane. So, what are we going to do about it? Play it all day, everyday. 24/7, baby! Lots of classical thanks to Mrs. Golden Ear. Lots of rock thanks to Lou-Baby. As I write this I need some loud motivation. When you think rock and loud the natural conclusion has to be The Who's Live At Leeds.

The system sounds excellent! It has opened up nicely. It has far more punch than in its prior configuration. Not that it was overly thin prior, but there is a weight there now that definately was not there before. However, it still has nice detail.

On to the analog side of the house. I have been continuously modifying my Rega RP1 turntable. This year the additions have included a Groove Tracer sub-platter and Delrin platter. Both raised the level of the table. With the Dynavector 10x5 cartridge Dave at Vinyl Nirvana installed a couple of years back, along with the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II phono amp, I was very happy with it. Also added were three solid brass footers under the table from Mapleshade Audio. That is until I heard it up against Stevie's Rega RP3 with the Cardas Incognito wire set, that Bob had bought. Now, a new Moth 303 tonearm with the Cardas wiring is being installed by Dave. I'm looking forward to hearing it. :-)

Finally, this week I added a new electrical outlet for the system. Gone is the 1950's 15A circuit with no separate ground. Enter a 20A circuit which, for all intents and purposes, is dedicated. The outlet itself is the Mapleshade Audio Ultra Minimalist. A beautiful ambrosia maple face to it. The results? Wow! A significant boost in performance. More bass. More presence overall. More command.

It's a sickness. Once you have it you never really expel it completely from your being. It may ebb and flow from time to time, but it's always there. That search for another level of audio satisfaction. Just a little more. Then I will be happy forever. And, of course, forever isn't as long as it used to be. [sigh]