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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 14
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music hall

MMF-9 turntable

as reviewed by Gary L. Beard and Mike Peshkin

 

 

 

 

GARY L. BEARD'S SYSTEM

LOUDSPEAKERS
Merlin TSM-M monitors on 24" Osiris stands with an REL Strata III subwoofer.

ELECTRONICS
First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II preamplifier with Amperex 7308 PQ tubes, George Wright WPP100C phono-preamplifier with Amperex 6ER5, and RCA 12AU7 tubes. David Berning ZH270 amplifier with Brimar 12AT7 black plate, GE 5 Star 12AV7, and cryo'ed Sylvania 6JN6 power tubes. 

SOURCES
Cary 303/200, Marantz CC-65-SE, Sony DVP-7700, and a Technics SL1600 Direct Drive Turntable.

CABLES
Cardas Neutral Reference bi-wire speaker cables, Acoustic Zen Matrix Reference, Kimber Silver Streak, Kimber and Hero, MIT 3 interconnects. Acoustic Zen MC2 digital cable. Shunyata Sidewinder and homebrew Belden/Hubbell/Marinco powercords.

ACCESSORIES
Richard Gray Power Station 400 power conditioner, Final Labs Daruma 3II isolation, Vibrapods, DIY "Flexy" equipment rack, DIY points, ceramic cable supports, and various isolation tweaks.

 

I love listening to vinyl. I spent my formative years with LPs, and with the exception of a ten-year period in which the cold-blooded silver disc took control of me, I have always listened to records. I have not been a serious turntable aficionado, and while I have owned a few turntables, a Music Hall MMF-7 was my first truly high-fidelity table. When I found out that Roy Hall, the man behind the Music Hall curtain, had added a new top-of-the-line turntable, the MMF-9, to his stable, I held up my hand for the opportunity to review it.

I came home from work to find the MMF-9 sitting on my front porch. Excited? No. Mortified? Yes. The box was patiently awaiting someone to turn it right side up. Not to worry. The MMF-9 is nicely packaged in a double box (with handles, no less) that did an excellent job of protecting it from the delivery professional with up/down dyslexia. Even though the instruction manual is very helpful and well written, there are several pieces to the MMF-9, so it's important to pay attention to where everything gets put when you unpack the box, lest you lose an important bit. There are only a few major parts—the platter, the three-layer plinth, the factory-installed tonearm, the motor/power supply unit, and the dust cover. The parts fit together in minutes, and since the included cartridge is already installed, with the VTA and azimuth set at the factory, you only need to level the plinth, install the drive belt and tonearm counterweight, and you are almost done.

The tricky parts are zeroing the arm so it floats parallel to the platter, setting the tracking force, and installing the anti-skating weight. The anti-skating control on this turntable is a little weight on the end of the lightest gauge fishing line you've ever laid your mitts on. Putting the little-bitty loop on the end of the little-bitty fishing line over the little-bitty grooved stub on the back of the tonearm is a simple yet mildly torturous task, not unlike trying to put a screw back in a pair of eyeglasses. Music Hall would do well to add this to their manual: WARNING: IF YOU HAVE PREVIOUSLY FAILED MANUAL DEXTERITY TESTS, OR HAVE MISPLACED YOUR EYEGLASSES, DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS INSTALLATION UNLESS YOU HAVE A CHILD ON HAND WITH 20-20 VISION AND NIMBLE FINGERS!

I eventually got this simple job done, but not without a bit of colorful language. All in all, the assembly is a painless operation that took far less than an hour. It probably helped that I had assembled Music Hall turntables before, but I suspect that almost anyone could assemble it in no time. Simplicity of setup is one of Music Hall's most attractive features, yet not the only one, by any means.

The belt-driven MMF-9 has many nice features. According to Music Hall's literature, the electronically controlled 16-volt motor, powered by the included wall wart power supply, runs the motor at 50 rather than 60 Hz for quieter operation. This dual-speed motor can be conveniently switched between 45 and 33 rpm by pushing a button located on the left underneath the plinth. The motor is located diagonally opposite the tonearm to minimize the passage of drive belt vibrations to the cartridge. The turntable's triple plinth design utilizes four Sorbothane hemispheres to separate each layer. The result is excellent suspension and isolation from external vibration. The 1-inch polycarbonate platter, designed for isolation and superior sound quality, sits atop an inverted ceramic bearing. The tonearm is a Project Carbon, the carbon fiber version of the Project 9.1 arm. It features high purity copper wiring, an adjustable lift as well as adjustable VTA and azimuth, and a counterweight that is decoupled from the arm. Factory mounted on the arm is the Music Hall Maestro cartridge, a modified version of the Goldring Eroica H, a high-output moving coil unit that features a very rigid low-mass shell, a rare earth neodymium magnet, and a VITAL stylus. Adding to the long list of goodies on this nicely appointed player is a hinged dustcover, externally mounted RCA input connectors, a plinth-mounted bubble level, three height-adjustable cone feet with protective discs, a 1-meter set of RCA interconnects with integral ground wire, a 45 rpm record adapter, and a terrific platter mat, the Ringmat 330 Mk II XL.

I found the MMF-9 to be generally rock solid, though I was a bit dismayed by the fact that it was impossible to use the lift to lower the needle to the playing surface due to tonearm drift. It wasn't just a little drift—it was Continental Drift. This did not seem to affect playback in any way, but I had to manually lower the arm to the record every time. I felt that something was amiss—a result of shipping, perhaps—but that a person intimately familiar with tonearm setup might have fixed it in a jiffy. Although I did not think that the unit was defective, I sent a series of emails to Music Hall that failed to fix the annoyance. Toward the end of my time with the table, after picking it up about an inch on one side in order to move a cable underneath, the lift started working correctly. It just needed a little love, and maybe an experienced hand.

Immediately after the needle hit the first groove, I wrote down one word on my note pad and underlined it—Presence! The MMF-9 had lots of presence. It sounded punchy, dynamic, and alive. There was detail in gobs, and dense images. Surface noise seemed to be less noticeable than on my MMF-7, and there was more treble extension and deeper, more defined bass. The 9 also got along quite well with my George Wright phono stage. As my impressions of the MMF-9 took shape, I found myself abandoning CDs for the wonders of vinyl. The only turntable I had to compare with the 9 was the MMF-7, but since they were altogether different sonic beasts, my comparisons will be few. Besides, comparisons are like opinions, and you know what they say about opinions.

The soundstage of the MMF-9 was a bit more forward than I am used to, beginning roughly at the front plane of the speakers and extending toward the listener. The width and height of the stage was noteworthy, though the depth was not. Images were big and bold, and emerged from the blackness of a quiet background. There was excellent separation of instruments and vocals, yet the MMF-9 retained the cohesiveness that creates music. Its new motor and speed control do a lot more than lower the table's noise floor—they give the MMF-9 the speed stability needed for first-rate timing. There is a rhythmic drive to the sound of the 9 that is missing in the 7. When gear lacks outstanding PRAT, it sometimes goes unnoticed by me, but when I hear it, it is unmistakable. The MMF-9 has it, which makes an appreciable difference in all types of music, not just up-tempo fare. Exceptional recordings sounded great, but I was even more impressed by how the 9 handled an old, scratched copy of The Doobie Brothers' The Captain and Me. This album contains some of my favorite rock of all time. Unfortunately, the recording is not quite as sublime as the music, and it usually sounds compressed. The MMF-9 and Music Hall-modified Goldring cartridge managed to bring this Doobie masterpiece to life, sounding better than I had ever heard it. Surface noise was evident, especially between tracks, but the Music Hall kept the noise to an acceptable minimum and never skipped a groove—vinyl or musical.

After listening for several days, I decided that the 9 had some difficulty reproducing spatial cues. This made it difficult at times to discern the boundaries of space on LPs that hold that information. It makes sense that without spatial cues, depth would also suffer, and as I have said, the MMF-9 was not great at reproducing depth. Whether or not this is inherent in the design is unclear, but I believe it could be improved, perhaps drastically, by tweaking the setup. I didn't realize it at first, but later came to the conclusion that the 9 has at least one sonic similarity to the MMF-5. The 5 has a "CD-like" quality that is almost the antithesis of the languid sound of the 7. Like the 5, the MMF-9 excels at detail, and is anything but laid back, but the additional refinement of the 9 means that the only other similarity is in their names. The MMF-7 has a smooth, relaxed sound, with rich, deep bass. Treble is rolled off yet enjoyable, and the midrange is terrific. Conversely, the 9 is extended at both ends of the spectrum, with sparkling highs and killer bass. The midrange was slightly lean in my system, and not nearly as warm as the 7's. Though the midrange was very good, it suffered from a slight amount of thinness. The great strength of this turntable/cartridge combo is its insistent, driving sound. This is not to say that it is not good at slow-tempo music—remember, it is a PRAT champ—but put on some cooking tunes and your feet will soon be moving and your fingers snapping.

I do not know how the MMF-9 compares to other turntable/cartridge combinations in its price range, but there are two things I will state without hesitation. In my listening room, with my gear, the MMF-9 is a clear step up from the MMF-7. In fact, it is as big an improvement as the MMF-7 was over the 5. Now I understand for the first time why some people swear that great vinyl sounds better than any hi-rez format. A well-recorded LP on the 9 gives me goose bumps, and can sound so good that it is the very embodiment of the old audio cliché, "It was if I had never heard that music before!"  No wonder audiophiles go to such great lengths and expense to play their stacks of wax.

My experience with great turntables is lacking, and so, as a prudent reviewer I must say that there are better vinyl rigs than the Music Hall MMF-9. Perhaps there are even some that cost less. However, the MMF-9 sounded much better than any other vinyl source I have had in my listening room, and on a few recordings it bested my Cary CD player in overall musicality. It does have some minor flaws. Its resolution is not as good as I would like, and the soundstage, while it is big and wide, lacks depth, which leaves it sounding rather flat on some recordings. And while the table is beautifully finished and the build quality very good, there was that pesky problem of the drifting arm. Nevertheless, the MMF-7, and now the 9, has value for money, in spades. Owning a Music Hall MMF-series turntable is analogous to owning a fully furnished deluxe apartment. You can move right in without buying a couch, the curtains match the wallpaper, and someone mows the lawn once a week, plus there's a nice pool that you don't have to clean yourself. You get a vinyl rig that is easy to set up, and has a wonderful cartridge already matched to the arm. There may be an unfriendly neighbor to deal with now and then, but at the end of the day the reasonably priced Music Hall MMF-9 plays vinyl with a self-assured style that is hard to fault. Highly recommended. Gary L. Beard

 

 

 

MIKE PESHKIN'S SYSTEM:

LOUDSPEAKERS
Infinity P-FRs loudspeakers.

ELECTRONICS
Anthem Pre-1 preamplifier w/ NOS tubes and the Monarchy 100SE amplifiers.

SOURCE
Audio Alchemy CD Pro and a VPI Mk. IV turntable with a JMW10 arm and Dynavector 20XL cartridge.

CABLES
Interconnects and speaker cables range from home-made "twisties" to MIT and Goertz.

ACCESSORIES
Walker Valid Points, MIT power cord, Monster and Adcom power conditioners, and a VPI record cleaner.

 

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, so have never been a water drinker. A lot of Pittsburghers will try to tell you that the water's great, and it is, if you like grated steel that has rusted in a moldy, swampy, algae-ridden farm pond that the animals have used as a potty! Well, maybe it's not THAT bad, but I have no frame of reference, since Cleveland, where we moved next, copied the taste of Pittsburgh's water to perfection! Then I moved to Los Angeles, and from there, San Diego. Southern Californians all drink bottled water, 'cause it's cool to pay more than a buck for 20 ounces of water. Exaggerations aside, I never tasted water—only suspended pollutants—until I moved to rural Pennsylvania, where I was shocked to learn that water tasted good! Perhaps it doesn't taste as good as it did when I moved here thirty years ago, but is there ANYTHING that is as good as it was thirty years ago?

Except vinyl, of course, which leads me to the MMF-9, a damned refreshing glass of water of a turntable. It's not a great wine, or a syrupy-sweet soft drink, or even a Pittsburgh/Cleveland/LA/SD-like glass of what people call water, but a clean, pure, lovely glass of water! You want a great wine? Be prepared to spend a whole lot more than you will for an MMF-9. You like soda pop? Buy an old Garrard record player. You like Pittsburgh/Cleveland/LA/SD water? Listen to an early-80s CD player! The thing is, life is a bit like the LP/turntable/cartridge/stylus-to-LP interface. Sometimes it's smooth, with no ripples or whitewater-wild rides over the ravages life can throw at you. My life during the time of this review was like a swimming pool.

I was told last fall that I was getting the MMF-9 for review, and I waited and waited, and waited some more. Finally it arrived, but my life had become so complicated that I didn't even take it out of the carton for two months. When I finally put the turntable together, during that week and the following one, we had some of the wildest weather Pennsylvania has seen in years, including equipment-destroying lightning. After that, I finally got to sit down and listen.

The MMF-9 comes beautifully packed. An atom bomb, or even UPS, could not harm it. Unpacking the thing entailed some work, but nothing that you'll mind doing, since it means that the table will have arrived at your door in good condition. The manual is relatively well written. Even I was able to follow the directions, so anyone with a functioning brain should be able to do it. All adjustments are eased by the directions and by the tools supplied. You might have some difficulty if you only have experience with plug'n'play turntables, but it won't be anything the average five-year-old couldn't handle. Alas, I didn't have a five-year-old to help me!

Every setup step is covered in the manual except a few things that were forgotten or simply taken to be no-brainers. For instance, the anti-skate mechanism is a monofilament/weight contraption of a kind that I haven't messed with in well over twenty years. I didn't remember whether moving the weight forward increased or decreased the anti-skating force. (Okay, so I'm not a physicist!) There is a loop of monofilament so tiny that it requires an electron microscope to hook it over a tiny shaft with three grooves. (A hemostat will help immensely, or very small needle-nose pliers.) The anti-skate is adjusted by the position of the loop on the shaft. I could not get it set satisfactorily because of another tiny problem—the arm lift is a smooth piece of plastic, which causes the arm to drift outwards as it slips along the lift, and means that you set the stylus down into the far reaches of empty space. I used my finger instead of the arm lift.

The MMF-9 must be the result of some long and deep thinking about the how, why, and where of spurious vibration. The plinth consists of three platforms divided by sorbothane hemispheres, which act as a suspension and isolation system. The bottom platform has three threaded holes for the supplied spikes. Use the discs provided for those spikes. I tried to get away with the small hassle of installing them, and got the gift of feedback for my laziness. The platter is acrylic, and the arm is the Project Carbon, which, according to Music Hall, is " a carbon-fiber version of the acclaimed Project 9.1 arm." A Music Hall Maestro cartridge is supplied. Once set up, the turntable has something my semi-stock HW-19 doesn't—switchable speeds! Changing from 33 1/3 to 45 rpm is accomplished by flicking a switch.

I am a mono freak. There, I've said it, and I'm damned proud of it. It's not that I don't like the artifacts of stereo playback. I love them, but the music that I love the most—jazz and classical—date back to well before the stereo record was common. I am crazy about the early performances of what later became the workhorses of classical music, and I love the jazz that was being played in the late 40s and early 50s. I am also very lazy, and I'm not about to change cartridges every time I listen to a mono LP after listening to a stereo one. I don't have the room for two systems, so I have always tried to get the best sound I can from stereo cartridges when playing mono. It hasn't been hard. I know that a mono cartridge would make my mono LPs quieter, and someday I'll have two systems (maybe). Lots of people have told me how great mono LPs sound on my system, and they also don't complain about how stereo LPs sound!

The first record I played was from a box set of Clara Haskill playing Mozart. The Music Hall played that mono record beautifully. The sound was perhaps not as lush as with my VPI HW-19 MkIV and its JMW10 tonearm and Dynavector cartridge, but it was very, very nice—a bit drier, perhaps even a bit more analytical. As I learned, it had much the same sonic signature with newer vinyl formulations and in stereo.

I have had a Japanese pressing of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery for over twenty years. The different systems I have used to play that LP have produced sound that ranged from great to horrible and back. As with the better tables I've played it on, this LP sounded a bit over the top on the MMF-9, especially in the upper ranges. The Music Hall table delivered awesome bass. Only a few of the better tables were able to pull that kind of bass from this reissue. On "Karn-Evil," the drums were big and loud, and the MMF-9 did nothing to hide the inherent evilness of "Benny the Bouncer." Mayhem! The effects used (the ping-pong-stereo method of messing with a pothead's head) were every bit as good as they were when I watched others smoking pot. (I didn't inhale, aside from the LA smog.)

Kara Karyov's Second Concerto (or so I'm told by a friend that reads a bit of Cyrillic script), on a very old Melodiya LP, was absolutely gorgeous. I was unable to find out what orchestra was playing this, but it was phenomenal. Vinyl noise is kept to a minimum with this combo. Even on LPs with more wear than anyone would EVER want, the pops and other vinyl noises were well controlled, and was well behind the music. I hate to admit it, but the background was perhaps a bit blacker than with my VPI.

Saying that I love the sound of the vibraphone would be a big understatement, and Gary Burton's playing is among the very best. The MMF-9 preserved every note that Burton, Chick Corea, and Roy Haynes play on Like Minds (Pure Audiophile 003). Of course, it's an easy task for a turntable to play the great vinyl that Dennis Cassidy turns out at Pure Audiophile, but I never wondered how great this LP would sound on my VPI. The sound was too good! All of Cassidy's LPs have astounded me with their smooth, lush sound. They are quiet as hell, and have dynamics that can scare the hell out of you. (The drum thwack at the end of "Question and Answer" made me jump like a scared rabbit.) Like Minds contains great music performed by top musicians in top form, and it is recorded beautifully and delivered magnificently by Pure Audiophile.

The MMF-9's imaging seemed only slightly diminished compared with that of my VPI. Chick Corea's piano wasn't as fleshed out as it is on the VPI, but there was plenty of reality there. The one thing that would keep me from chucking my far more expensive rig is the fact that the MMF-9's soundstage width and three-dimensional imaging don't compare, though they certainly ain't shabby. The way the MMF-9 renders the weight of instruments is not up to the VPI's standards either, but I'm nit picking. I know, I'm supposed to nit-pick, but my tonearm and cartridge cost almost as much as this table! Far more important things like rhythm and tonal specificity are spot on, with LPs ranging from the very early 50s to the latest of 2004. (I do have a couple of late-40s LPs, but I didn't want people reading the titles and either committing suicide or coming to my home in the middle of the night and boosting them from my shelves.)

>What the MMF-9 does things with lightning quickness. Micro-acoustics may suffer a bit—I didn't hear the bodies of the instruments, and didn't sense any bodies behind those instruments, as clearly as I do with my rig—but anyone that has only heard LPs on a plastic Sony or Garrard is going to be mightily impressed. Folks that are in the know, but have never owned a top-notch deck, will be impressed as well.

I could discern Karrin Allyson's roots without much difficulty. That's an easy call when speaking of a female jazz singer, but Allyson readily made Ella Fitzgerald come to mind, with some Billie Holliday thrown into the mix. On Ballads (Pure Audiophole 001), the MMF-9 didn't destroy her "chest." With many turntables, there is either too much emphasis in this region or too little. On "You Don't Know What Love Is," Bob Berg's tenor sax was so visceral, the sound could cut you like a filet knife. I heard a bit more of the bodies of the instruments on this recording, and the sound was stunning. Allyson's purring got under my skin in a very nice way, and gave me a case of goosebumps!

Jennifer Warnes is a completely different type of singer. Her voice seems constrained—it doesn't burst forth like thunder. The MMF-9 was made for female voice, but it could also deliver the force of the drums on "Bird on a Wire." It is a shame that the Classics Records reissue LP of this is out of print. The CD is wonderful, but to appreciate Warne's voice and Cohen's lyrics on Famous Blue Raincoat, you MUST hear it on vinyl. The MMF-9 once again grabbed me with its sound. If it hadn't, I might have chucked it out of the window! Do not get this turntable if you love female vocals—you'll never get to work again. The rhythm and drive on "Joan of Arc" made me rock back and forth like a two-year old that needs to get to the bathroom quickly. The way this table gets the rhythm and pace of the music is awesome. To hell with soundstage and imaging, though admittedly I was so enthralled with the sound that I couldn't tell you a thing about staging and imaging.

I then listened to the Classic Records reissue of Scheherazade with Reiner and the boys from Chicago. The soundstage was wide as hell, and I could tell where each and every instrument was. You know that crap I told you about the MMF-9 not doing micro-acoustics really well? Pretend I never said it! I'm a glutton for punishment, so I grabbed a soundstage/imaging masterpiece. I adore Harmonia Mundi LPs, and wanting to hear what the MMF-9 could do with a great, "tiny" recording, I grabbed Shakespeare Songs and Consort Music (HM202). Yikes! Give the MMF-9 great stuff and it responds with greatness.

There's some pretty heavy competition out there at this price level, but if you're looking for a complete turntable system for under $2000 bucks—heck, even if you wanted to spend more—you HAVE to listen to this deck! Mike Peshkin

 

 

MMF-9 turntable
Retail: $1699 w/cartridge, $1499 without

Turntable
Speed deviation: +/- 0.9%
Wow and flutter: +/- 0.15%
Rumble: Max > -70 dB
Tracking force: 10 – 30 mN
Effective tonearm length: 9.5"
Overhang: .71"
Platter weight: 6 lbs.
Total weight: 40 lbs.
Dimensions: 18.25 x 13.25 x 7.25 in. w/dust cover closed

Cartridge
Frequency response: 20 Hz-20 kHz +/- 2dB
Channel balance: 2 dB @ 1kHz
Channel separation 25 db @ 1kHz
Sensitivity: 2.5 mV +/- 1db 1kHz @ 5cm/sec
Static compliance: 18 mm/N
Equivalent tip mass: 0.6 mg
Vertical tracking angle: 20 degrees
Stylus radius: Gyger II non-replaceable
Load resistance: 47 Kohms
Load capacitance: 100-500 pf
Internal inductance: 0.2 mH
Internal resistance: 77 ohms
Weight: 5.5g
Fixing centers: 0.5"
Playing wt.: 1.5-2.0 g
 

Musical Hall Audio
web address: www.musichallaudio.com

 

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