MICROMEGA'S OTHERWORLDLY AMP

Sound & Vision - - FRONT PAGE - By Daniel Ku­min

NOMINALLY, FRENCH FIRM

Micromega would seem a deeply con­flicted or­ga­ni­za­tion. Is it mi­cro, or is it mega? We may never know. (For the record, “Mi­comé­gas” is an 18th-cen­tury, ur- science-fic­tion novella by that most French of En­light­en­ment fig­ures, Voltaire.)

Ei­ther way, the south-of-paris firm has an es­tab­lished record of fill­ing niche sin the ever-shift­ing dig­i­ta­lau­dio­phile world, be­gin­ning with sev­eral no­table high-end CD play­ers. To­day, like most such man­u­fac­tur­ers, Micromega is re­defin­ing it­self for the post-phys­i­cal me­dia age: Wit­ness its lat­est M-one duo of stream­ing­ca­pable, dig­i­tal-in­put in­te­grated am­pli­fiers—stream­pli­fiers, as I like to call them.

Micromega’s M-100 and M-150 are largely iden­ti­cal aside from out­put power and one salient feature. The M-150 we’re sam­pling here in­cor­po­rates a 2x150-watt con­ven­tional Class A/B amplifier, in con­trast to the Class D amps in­creas­ingly found among new-gen au­dio so­lu­tions in­clud­ing sev­eral of Micromega’s own. It also fea­tures a pro­pri­etary room-cor­rec­tion sys­tem, dubbed M.A.R.S. (from Micromega Acous­tic Room Sys­tem), which is op­tional on the 2x100-watts M-100.

Oth­er­wise, the two ap­pear in­dis­tin­guish­able: strik­ing, low-pro­file com­po­nents cov­ered by an exquisitely formed top-and-sides cover ma­chined from a sin­gle block of alu­minum. These are avail­able fin­ished in black or gray an­odized for stan­dard, or, for $1,000 ex­tra, in sump­tu­ously glossy shades of black, white, red, blue, or orange— or any cus­tom-spec­i­fied hue for a fur­ther in­crease in buck­age. Ours ar­rived in the cus­tom Elec­tric Orange color, a slightly creamier ver­sion of Safety Orange that stood out nicely— un­der­state­ment of the month— atop my equip­ment rack. I loved it.

The M-150’s 4 x 2-inch white-on­black dot-ma­trix front-panel dis­play is matched by an iden­ti­cal one on the top cover’s for­ward edge, this one flanked by a quar­tet of small, inset push­but­tons that nav­i­gate the amp’s func­tions—util­i­tar­ian, but func­tional. Also, per­fectly ad­e­quate given that the Micromega is ac­com­pa­nied by a ded­i­cated re­mote con­troller. About the size and shape of a Pop-tart, this fur­nishes a full set of di­rect-ac­cess in­put-se­lect keys plus vol­ume and mute.

The M-150's back panel is over­hung about two inches by the the top cover, a de­sign de­ci­sion that cleans up the look but makes peer­ing in and plug­ging and un­plug­ging things a bit more chal­leng­ing: dou­bly so since there are no rear-panel graph­ics, nor would there be room for any read­able ones. In­stead, these are printed, for ref­er­ence, on the bot­tom plate.

On the rear panel there are one each phono, line, and line-on-xlr in­puts, plus sin­gle op­ti­cal, coax­ial, AES-EBU (XLR), and asyn­chro­nous USB dig­i­tal ports. A LAN port ac­com­mo­dates lo­cal net­work con­nec­tion (there is no Wi-fi on board), while two Hdmi-look­ing ports al­low for con­nec­tion of other, sim­i­larly equipped fu­ture Micromega com­po­nents. Out­puts con­sist of a pair of speaker outs on im­pres­sively heavy, cus­tom metal mul­ti­way jacks, and a pair of XLR pre-outs. There are no un­bal­anced (Rca-jack) pre-outs, so serv­ing a non-xlr power amp would re­quire adapters— not ideal.

'Snare whacks sounded about as live as any have sounded in my room.'

There’s also a sin­gle sub­woofer out­put, low-passed at 400 Hz (you use your sub’s fil­ter for ac­tual cross­over-ing), and an Iec-power-cord socket.

SETUP

I set up the Micromega in my sys­tem very sim­ply: speaker outs to my se­nior-sta­tus but still highly ca­pa­ble En­ergy v2.2 mon­i­tors, with dig­i­tal sources com­pris­ing an Oppo BDP-105D disc player (via coax­ial dig­i­tal) and a Mac-based DLNA mu­sic server for net­work stream­ing.

An M-one-range white paper on Micromega’s web­site goes into the M-150’s au­dio-en­gi­neer­ing bona fides at some length. Salient points in­clude 32-bit/738-khz in­ter­nal dig­i­tal-au­dio ar­chi­tec­ture and D-to-a ca­pa­bil­ity, and bal­ancedau­dio lay­out from the D/A con­vert­ers through the au­dio out­puts. The M-150’s dual-mono cir­cuit topol­ogy ex­tends from the power sup­plies to the speaker out­puts, ex­ploit­ing a com­pact yet high-ca­pac­ity power sup­ply ar­chi­tec­ture Micromega refers to as a “res­o­nance sup­ply.” This I take to be a vari­ant of switch­mode de­sign, a con­cept that’s a bit like the front half of a Class D amp in that it can re­spond to in­stan­ta­neous power de­mands with­out re­quir­ing the bulky, highly reg­u­lated cur­rent stor­age of con­ven­tional power-sup­plies, a fac­tor lever­aged in the Micromega’s su­per-slim de­sign. The same fac­tor dic­tates the forced-cool­ing tun­nel that runs trans­verse across the M-150, vent­ing via small grilles on each side and ser­viced by an ul­tra-quiet, mag-bear­ing fan. I could hear this run­ning from the lis­ten­ing po­si­tion, but only on si­lent or very-near-si­lent pas­sages.

LIS­TEN­ING

All this good­ness promised a high level of son­ics, and I was not dis­ap­pointed. First off, the M-150’s svelte form be­lies one highly ca­pa­ble, sub­stan­tially pow­er­ful amplifier. I noted no short­fall rel­a­tive to my every­day 150-watts-per power amp, what­so­ever, so that highly dy­namic ma­te­rial such as my long-serv­ing CD of the Sh­effield “Drum Record” re­pro­duced at life­like lev­els with no ev­i­dent loss of punch or lead­ing-edge snap. This kind of dy­namism trans­lated to won­der­ful ef­fect on Keith Richard’s weirdly well-recorded 1992 solo opus, Main Of­fender. The open­ing of “Wicked as it Seems,” a clas­sic Keef-riff, drums, and bass strip­per, sliced the air with author­ity and then some. Of par­tic­u­lar note, the lead­ing edge of Steve Jor­dan’s naked snare whacks sounded about as live as any drum has sounded in my room, even at near-life lev­els.

Au­ral de­tail and trans­parency scored just as high. A streamed stereo DSD file of Brit­ten’s “Sim­ple Sym­phony” (Nordic) fea­tures an un­usu­ally present, vi­brant string sound that can seem al­most over­done, but is true to an en­er­getic string or­ches­tra that’s re­ally “dig­ging in” in a vi­brant hall. The M-150 de­liv­ered the full ex­pe­ri­ence, with rich, woody sonori­ties and a full range of dy­namic shad­ing, such that Brit­ten’s sub­tle counterpoint weav­ing bowed and pizzi­cato lines was vivid and easy to fol­low.

Imag­ing-wise, the M-150 struck me as just about neu­tral: sound­stages were wide but not ex­ag­ger­ated; in­stru­ments were rock-solid in place­ment and pres­ence; and front-to-back depth, where en­coded in the record­ing, was fully ev­i­dent but not sexed up. Short form: The Micromega’s sonic abil­i­ties were fully ref­er­ence qual­ity, at any vol­ume I’d care to play in my room, and with any genre of mu­sic I lis­tened to.

As is my usual prac­tice, I per­formed the bulk of my lis­ten­ing with­out Micromega’s room cor­rec­tion in force, and for my usual rea­son; such cor­rec­tions are en­tirely sub­ject to the room (duh!), and the speak­ers in use. That said, here’s what I found. M.A.R.S. setup is straight­for­ward. Af­ter plug­ging the sup­plied mike into a rear-panel socket, you pro­ceed to run sweeps for mid­dle, left,

and right po­si­tions, the lat­ter flank­ing the cen­tral, head-height one by 8 inches or so. (Micromega thought­fully sup­plies a mini-tri­pod for your con­ve­nience.) There’s no re­mote con­trol ac­cess for this, so you have to traipse back to the front panel for each user-in­put— mildly an­noy­ing, but no big deal.

With cal­i­bra­tion com­plete, you have three op­tions: REQ-AUTO only cor­rects low-fre­quency er­rors, pre­sum­ably all or mostly room-mode in ori­gin; FLAT en­deav­ors to cor­rect higher-up anom­alies (up to an un­spec­i­fied fre­quency) of speaker re­sponse; and OFF does what it says.

What I heard, start­ing from the AUTO set­ting, was mostly the same as what I’ve heard from other com­pe­tent room-cor­rec­tion sys­tems: a slight tight­en­ing and “quick­en­ing” of stronger bass el­e­ments, like the nice round-wound Fen­der bass sound of the Richards al­bum, which be­came some­how both more solid and bet­ter-de­fined. The FLAT set­ting added in a very sub­tle tight­en­ing— per­haps

“fo­cus­ing” would be a bet­ter term—of imag­ing el­e­ments like pick-at­tacks and hi-hats. (Since my speak­ers in my room are, as far as I’ve been able to both hear and mea­sure, quite close to flat above 200 Hz or so to be­gin with, this dis­tinc­tion was sub­tle in­deed.) In both cases, net re­sults seemed per­haps a bit less pro­nounced than what I’ve heard from fa­mil­iar sys­tems like Audyssey’s Mul­teq. On bal­ance, I rate Micromega’s M.A.R.S. as a very com­pe­tent, and po­ten­tially use­ful, ex­am­ple of the breed.

ERGONOMICS

The M-150’s hu­man fac­tors couldn’t match its sonic ex­cel­lence, though that in no de­gree less­ened it. The front-panel dis­play and con­trols are, as men­tioned, less than friendly by my mod­ern-day, on­screen-cen­tric stan­dards, but the sup­plied re­mote, with its gen­er­ously spaced phys­i­cal keys, sup­plies the ba­sics of di­rect-ac­cess in­put se­lec­tion and vol­ume/mute con­trol.

A free Micromega ios/an­droid app du­pli­cates these con­trols and adds the M-150’s lim­ited on-board stream­ing fea­tures, com­pris­ing in­ter­net ra­dio and server func­tions. Cu­ri­ously, there’s no Mute func­tion any­where in the app, so if you need to kill the sound and hap­pen to be deep into the stream­ing or ra­dio pages, you have to nav­i­gate back to the Re­mote page, which could be three or four swipes, and then slide the vol­ume lower. Over­sight!

The Au­dio Server pages sim­i­larly present a com­mon ba­sic struc­ture: Al­bum, All Tracks, Artist, and Com­poser ac­cess points, in­clud­ing Playlists re­flected from an itunes

li­brary, but in­clud­ing a Folder for non-li­brary ma­te­rial, which is where my hi-res files live. Stream­ing, via my Mac’s Twonky­media DLNA server, worked seam­lessly— once I’d elim­i­nated my hard­ware IP switch in fa­vor of a di­rect-from-the-router Eth­er­net ca­ble. (The switch in­duced se­vere stream­ing dropouts, some­thing I’d not en­coun­tered when us­ing the self­same switch with a few dozen other stream­ing com­po­nents over the years.)

Thus de­bugged, stream­ing au­dio sounded uni­formly su­perb. My files in­clude un­com­pressed AIFFS, FLACS, DSDS (in­clud­ing a few 5.6 MHZ ex­am­ples), and ALACS; all played smoothly and with­out a hic­cough. Nav­i­ga­tion was rea­son­ably sprightly and er­gonom­i­cally straight­for­ward, though I never re­ally un­cov­ered the app’s Playlist func­tions (if any), nor any Search op­tion.

A cou­ple of odds and ends: The M-150 in­cor­po­rates Blue­tooth, with the bet­ter-qual­ity aptx codec on­board. I also es­sayed the Micromega’s phono in­put— which can be set to mov­ing mag­net or mov­ing coil gain via a rear-panel mini-switch— via my older-bu­tad­e­quate Rega/or­to­fon (MM) setup. It worked fine and sounded as ex­cel­lent as ev­ery­thing else on the Micromega did. I also tried the M-150 sub­woofer out­put though only to con­firm op­er­a­tion.

Micromega’s materials state that the M-150’s front-panel head­phone jack in­cor­po­rates “bin­au­ral pro­cess­ing,” but at var­i­ous other points refers to this as an op­tion, and as “com­pat­i­ble with the bin­au­ral process.” I tried it, and found sound that might have been a bit more for­ward-wrapped than usual, but not dra­mat­i­cally so. The M-150’s head­phones out­put did not have enough volt­age-swing to drive low-sen­si­tiv­ity cans like my pla­nar Hi­fi­man Edi­tion-x, to head-bang­ing lev­els, how­ever. Loud, no prob­lem, but loud-loud, nyet.

CON­CLU­SION

At the most ba­sic, son­ics-first level, the M-150 is a re­ally good, dig­i­tal-in­put in­te­grated amplifier. A re­ally, re­ally, re­ally good in­te­grated amplifier: I could cheer­fully lis­ten to it as my only two-chan­nel sys­tem un­til— or if— some­thing bet­ter ever were to come along.

But, well, there are a num­ber of “buts.” First, the lack of any ac­cess to on­board stream­ing ser­vices such as Tidal or Spo­tify may give pause to 21st-cen­tury au­dio­philes. (Micromega plans to im­ple­ment Tidal in a fu­ture firmware up­date.) Ditto the lack of Wi-fi and the ab­sence of any on­screen in­ter­face.

But none of these will, nor should they, put off the ded­i­cated au­dio­phile in search of a truly com­pact, sin­gle-piece so­lu­tion to the one task that mat­ters: se­ri­ous lis­ten­ing at the high­est qual­ity level. This the Micromega M-150 un­ques­tion­ably de­liv­ers, though at a price.

'The M-150's svelte form be­lies one highly ca­pa­ble, sub­stan­tially pow­er­ful amplifier.'

The su­per-slim form fac­tor of the M-150 is made pos­si­ble by a "res­o­nance" power sup­ply ar­chi­tec­ture that elim­i­nates the need for bulky cur­rent stor­age ca­pac­i­tors. The amplifier also uses in­te­rior cool­ing tun­nels to dis­si­pate heat.

The M-150's M.A.R.S. feature can ei­ther be set to cor­rect bass prob­lems or for wide­band pro­cess­ing.

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