With the recent critical and commercial successes of relatively youthful Swiss high-end-audio companies like Soulution, CH Precision, Dartzeel, and others, electronics from the heart of Europe have never been held in higher esteem. The trouble is that their (well-deserved) success has pushed other companies, with longer but no less distinguished pedigrees, a bit into the shadows. I’m thinking particularly of the Zurich-based firm FM Acoustics, which was founded in the early 1970s when company owner and chief engineer Manuel Huber introduced his highly esteemed FM 800A amplifier (followed not long after by the standard-setting FM 212 phonostage). Widely embraced by recording professionals (Warner-Pioneer, EMI-Toshiba, Melodia, Mountain Studios Montreux, NHK Tokyo, Sound Stage Studios Nashville, etc.), world-famous artists (The Rolling Stones, Queen, Sting, U2, Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis, Yves Montand, Olivia Newton-John, Yehudi Menuhin, Leonard Bernstein, et al.), and well-heeled music lovers the world over, FM was for decades considered the ne plus ultra in Swiss solid-state high fidelity—earning its reputation in spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that Manuel Huber almost never allowed his gear to be reviewed by clowns like me. (The only FM component I was ever permitted to audition in my home was the original FM 122 phonostage, way back in the Fi era.)
The truth is that FM’s reticence with the press may have cost it some marketshare, as the newer companies I’ve mentioned have actively courted attention in the audiophile mags, while FM has continued to forgo such publicity. In part to counter this trend (and in equal part to remind folks that what was once considered extraordinary is still extraordinary) FM has now decided to allow a few reviewers to audition its latest designs—in my case its extremely compact and comparatively affordable Resolution Series electronics, comprising the $17,750 155-MKIIR linestage preamplifier, the $21,600/pair 108-MKII monoblock amplifiers, and the $13,975 122-MKII phonostage.
As I haven’t, until recently, heard a complete system of FM electronics, I can’t really comment on how the marque has sonically evolved over the decades. What I can comment on, however, are some of the fundamental ways FM gear has remained the same, starting with how Huber builds his gear.
Almost all ultra-high-end manufacturers claim to use the best (lowest-distortion, highest-resolution) parts in their electronics and loudspeakers. FM Acoustics is no different. On visiting Manuel Huber’s lovely facility near Zurich, I was shown bin after bin of high-end capacitors, resistors, switches, etc. But the thing that stuck with me wasn’t the exceptional quantity and quality of these components; it was the incredible lengths that Huber and his team have gone to perfectly match each of these parts to one another in every measurable parameter.
The amount of time and labor spent testing these caps and resistors to ensure that they identically translate the signals they are fed is remarkable even for the high end. Some might call this exhaustive component-matching “old-fashioned,” or even wasteful. Be that as it may, it has the indisputable result of making FM Acoustics gear more perfectly uniform and reliable than that of many of its competitors. (I have a Swiss-made phono preamp that makes a near-explosively loud noise every time I switch the output level from a lower to a higher gain setting or vice versa—and it makes this noise even when the volume control of the linestage preamp it is connected to is set to zero. This is not a problem you will face with FM Acoustics gear.)
In addition, almost all ultra-high-end manufacturers claim to build their circuits to the highest measurable standards. What many of them don’t tell you is that the sub-assembly boards they are using aren’t made in-house (although they are painstakingly designed in-house); they are built by second parties with the equipment and expertise to populate and wave-solder each board to order. The sub-assemblies are then installed at the audio manufacturer’s facility. But the precision matching of the parts on the boards and the wiring and soldering of each in place—the very things that FM Acoustics spends so many man-hours perfecting—is not being done by the company you’re buying your component from.
A third thing touted by FM’s new-gen competitors are extraordinary specs—distortion figures, slew rates, damping factors, and voltage and current capabilities that set new standards (and ensure better control of loudspeakers, regardless of load). The only problem here is that FM Acoustics has always excelled in many of these areas. (The Class A FM Resolution Series 108-MkII monoblock amplifier, for example, has a maximum output voltage of 66V pp, greater than 15 amps of current, THD of 0.005%, and will drive any load from below 1 ohm to over 10,000 ohms. Granted, these aren’t Soulution/CH Precision-level numbers; nonetheless, they’re pretty damn impressive—and at a total weight of 10 pounds per amp and a price of $21,600 the pair, the FM 108-MKIIs are immensely more portable and far less expensive than Soulution 701s or CH Precision M1s.)