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Positive Feedback ISSUE44
as reviewed by Victor Chavira
The Magnum Dyanlab 208 receiver has been the centerpiece of my two channel audio/video system for seven years. From listening to classical music on FM as background while I did chores around the house to the thrill of special effects from the latest blockbuster DVD, the MD 208 has been a benchmark musical performer. Over the years however, my listening habits have shifted from spinning CDs in the CD player to clicking on iTunes playlists of CDs I have ripped to my Apple Mac Mini or music bought directly from the iTunes store. Without an outboard USB DAC, I was limited to using the analog stereo headphone output to RCA input of the MD208. This set up proved adequate for casual listening but for serious musical enjoyment I still preferred my Phillips SACD/DVD player or LP. In the ensuing months, I have experimented with several USB DACs. In all cases, USB DACs elevated my computer based listening sessions from ordinary to outstanding. Therefore, when Magnum Dynalab debuted the 208's successor at CES, the 209 with optional USB DAC, our editors reserved an early model to review. Fast-forward several months to me excitedly picking up a large heavy cardboard container at UPS one Friday evening in May.
In concept, the two units are similar in that they are both integrated amps with FM tuners. However, the 209 is a complete redesign from circuit board to casework. Whereas the 208 was developed in collaboration with Sim Audio of Canada, the 209s considerable evolution is completely the work of Magnum Dynalab's director of design Zdenko Zivkovic. The new 209 includes several innovations over the old 208 that also serve to place the latest model further up market. First of all, the 209 is more massive. Whereas the 208 weighted in about 30 pounds, the 209 tips the scales at 51 lbs. Absent are the curved wooden sides and exposed heat sinks of the 208. The 209's internal heat sinks run front to back and are encased within an austere looking black metal cover. The 208's cover had ventilation slots that formed the letters MD. The 209's ventilation slots do not form letters. However, underneath the slots glow a pair of 6922 input tubes not found in the 208. The rigorously tested and cryo-treated tubes feed two banks of Sanken output transistors (bipolar) that produce 125-watts of power into 8 ohms or 250 watts at 4 ohms. A hefty shielded torroidal transformer makes up the remainder of the 209's mass.
After the 209 was unboxed, I placed it on the lower shelf of my entertainment system that was previously occupied by my MD208. Unlike the 208, the new unit does not have a master power switch on the back. The front of the black aluminum faceplate features two expensive looking white meters and a central alphanumeric display for source selection and volume level. Upon power-up the show begins as the meters and a row of LEDs beam bright blue light while the unit goes through a warm up cycle that lasts about 25 seconds. The new unit idled at a noticeably warmer temperature than the 208 so I left several inches of clearance above the 209 for proper cooling.
The first source I listened to, of course, was FM. The FM 209 includes many elements of Magnum Dynalab's top of the line tuners such as eight stages of RF filtration. In contrast, the 208's excellent tuner contained four stages of RF filtration. The end result along with the tube input section was the silkiest and most spacious FM music I have ever experienced in my system. In spite of the airwaves inevitable march towards digital transmission, FM is still a veritable source for music and information in Southern California. In my car and my home, the FM dial can usually be found tuned to classical music 91.5 KUSC or 89.3 KPCC, which broadcasts NPR.
The left blue meter indicates signal strength and the right meter measures center tune like a bubble level. An LED shines above the tuning knob when the channel has been locked. Tuning can also be achieved with the multi-featured remote control. Stations can also be stored and retrieved with the remote. However, I still prefer to turn the tuning knob manually. Do not get too comfortable, though. During its first few minutes of operation, the signal may stray requiring the user to re-center the station. Once the station has been locked in, the high level of warmth and refinement will astonish you.
Having previously experienced high quality FM sound from my 208, I was amazed to hear how much more richness and realism could be coaxed out of FM. That evening an engaging performance of Dvorak's Slavonic Dances Op. 72 was playing on classical KUSC. The most favorable aspect of the music was its total lack of blending. We have become accustomed to a certain sound from FM. Music can sound dynamically compressed, images flatten out, and the soundstage extends in a straight line from the center of the left speaker to the center of the right speaker. The 209 strips FM of its most undesirable properties leaving only the pure source signal to be faithfully amplified. Suddenly, the musical transmission had depth and instruments took shape in three dimensions. Those instruments are spread out across a clearly defined soundstage and each section of the orchestra could be effortlessly identified. The music was thoroughly captivating. Not only classical but also rock and spoken words benefited from the 209's FM magic. In fact, I have become so enchanted with the sound of FM on the 209 that listening to the radio in my car has become unbearable so I leave the station tuned to AM sports talk or pop in a CD.
The 209 has three single-ended analog inputs (RCA), two balanced (XLR), two digital, and one USB input. I connected my new Oppo BDP-83 Blu-Ray disc player to input A1 and my E.A.R. 834P phono preamp to input A2. I linked my Apple Mac Mini with a length of nondescript USB cable. Pressing the input select button produces audible clicks from within the unit as relays engage and disengage themselves. Strangely, even though the volume position was unchanged, the sound was significantly attenuated when compared with the volume while FM was selected. As explained to me by Larry Zurowski, president of Magnum Dynalab, the FM section of the 209 contains a robust output section when compared with the small signal level voltages of the other inputs. Simply readjust the volume to the desired level and enjoy. My old 208 registered a volume scale of 0 to 50 on its alphanumeric display. The new 209 denotes volume from 0 to 99. I found the volume's sweet spot for FM around 50 and 75 for other sources on my 87dB Marten Miles 2 speakers.
As mentioned earlier, I was most curious about the sound of the optional USB DAC when paired with iTunes playlists on my Apple Mac Mini. A detailed technical explanation of the inner workings of USB DACs is not the focus of this review. Suffice to say that recent experiences with USB DACs have all produced significant improvements over the headphone output of my computer. The USB DAC in the 209 set a new standard of musical enjoyment.
The first areas of major improvement were resolution, imaging, and microdynamics. The 209's USB DAC raised the resolution of fine details to a level I had only previously heard in CD players or transport/outboard DAC combos rivaling the entire cost of the Magnum. Every musical selection of a ripped CD revealed layers and details formerly hidden in digital murkiness. "Arizona Skies" from Los Lobos' Kiko CD is a great example. The tune begins with a simple melody played on acoustic guitars, mandolin, and other fretted string instruments. Then a guiro scratches a steady beat with congas joining in the corner of the studio. When the fretless electric bass comes in, the low vibrations are felt through the floorboards and walls as well as heard with the ears. I could literally visualize the sound engineer sliding faders up or down to highlight a certain instrument's turn to play the melody. Each player's technique, and the pitch and duration of the notes they played were effortlessly displayed. The soundstage and musical images were remarkably present in three dimensions. Each instrument retained its distinct timbre and relation to other instruments. Finally, the speakers seemed to fade from the room. The musical illusion was not unlike listening to a dipolar speaker like my Magnepans of years past. The sensation of depth and music in real space was greatly enhanced by 209's USB DAC.
In the areas of dynamics and raw power, the MD 209's USB DAC also exceeded my expectations. Saint-Saens' "Symphony No. 3 in C Minor" by the Dallas symphony orchestra under the baton of Eduardo Mata is an iTunes download that stimulates my sleepy Sunday mornings. The principal instrument in this recording is a grand pipe organ. My system contains no powered subwoofer but force and realism with which the mighty organ was recreated in my living room sounded as if one were present because I felt an extra octave of pure low frequency pedal tones and whacks on a massive bass drum. The transitions from soft to loud were exceptional. Not only did music grow louder in a linear fashion but dramatic tension was recreated as bows pressed harder against taught strings and woodwind and brass players took deeper breaths to blast their instruments. Notes decayed naturally into the large recording venue and in my living room.
The area where flaws or weaknesses are most easily identified is the critical midrange. Most often I'm listening to instrumental music but increasingly I enjoy a good song as well. Lately I've been listening to Emmylou Harris sing with Mark Knopfler on their CD All the Roadrunning as well as her iTunes download of Wrecking Ball. "All the Roadrunning" is a quaint county waltz highlighted by Knopfler's guitar fills and Emmylou's melancholy voice. A fiddle follows the singer's sad pronouncements. I love listening to this song thought the 209. The USB DAC draws me closer to the music's emotional content. "Where Will I Be" from Emmylou's Wrecking Ball is another great song bearing Daniel Lanois' unmistakable sonic signature. U2's Larry Mullen handles the drums. His snare cracks with vibrancy and his bass drum sends low pulses of energy though your body and the room. Lanois' ethereally strummed electric guitar contrasts perfectly with Emmylou's warm plaintive voice. The total lack of coloration in the vocal range and reproduction of lifelike images on the soundstage were outstanding.
Overall, the Magnum Dynalab 209 Hybrid Receiver is a new benchmark in its class. Those seeking exceptional versatility, natural expressive sound, and 125 watts of power should put the 209 on top of their list. With other features yet to explore, I believe the 209 is due for a follow up in the near future. If I could change one thing about the 209, it would be a dimmer for the bright blue LEDs and the meter lights that are both distracting while watching a DVD at night. As with the 208 seven years ago, I am so impressed with the 209's musical performance and technological marriage of past and future that I've made arrangements to purchase the review sample. Bravo Magnum for another world class product and real world value! Victor Chavira