Fourth, since much of his time was spent outfitting recording studios during the LP era (recording and mastering houses were some of his earliest customers), Huber has never abandoned the vinyl disc (or, as far as I know, offered an FM Acoustics DAC). For him, the LP was, is, and remains the king of sources. Indeed, Huber has pioneered phonostages with adjustable low- and high-frequency eq curves, which he claims more precisely and accurately equalize recordings made by different labels, all of which (Huber maintains) used different eq curves to master their discs. Although a strong case can be made that the RIAA standard (i.e., the RCA New Orthophonic curve) was universally adapted at the dawn of the stereo era, there is no question that during the mono era almost every recording company used its own eq and that the playback of such mono recordings greatly benefits from the use of these “house” curves, which (outside of the Japanese company Zanden) can only be exactly applied via the elaborate controls on an FM phonostage. The bottom line is this: Whether you believe that all records need different eq or that only pre-stereo-era mono recordings do, FM Acoustics phonostages give you the means to accomplish either or both tasks with confidence and precision.
Some of the latest FM phonostages also give you another indisputable advantage. Somehow Huber has engineered a circuit into the FM 123 and 223 phonostages that removes the clicks, pops, and “crackles” that even brand-new records often have (and that older, well-used LPs have galore), and it does this without touching the sound of the music itself. How Huber has accomplished this legerdemain I don’t know (and he ain’t sayin’). But on the basis of what I heard in Zurich (in what was admittedly a short audition), his de-clicking/de-crackling circuit works without any obvious sonic penalties. If this effect holds up under lengthier scrutiny, it is a helluva feat.
By now you are probably wondering how this new-gen FM gear sounds—and how that sound compares to Switzerland’s current best? Well, I can’t answer that question definitively as, at this point, I’ve only heard FM’s “entry-level” Resolution Series offerings on one (excellent) loudspeaker—the Zellaton Reference Mk II. You’ll have to wait until I have more experience with a wider range of FM products paired with a wider variety of transducers for a more complete answer. But I can say this much: FM Acoustics electronics preserve the native sound, the number, and the pickup patterns of the mikes being used in recording sessions, along with a clear sense of the depth, width, height, and ambient signature of the venue in which those mikes have been set up, with extraordinary clarity and fidelity. In other words, the FM preamp, phonostage, and amplifiers are exceptionally revealing of what the recording engineer was up to (and how well he succeeded). On well-recorded material, these electronics are also extremely revealing of the distinctive ways in which instruments are being played or lyrics sung. And yet this transparency to setup and source isn’t being bought at the price of an analytical presentation. On the contrary, there is a musical sweetness to the way that FM reveals instrumental and recording essentials that makes for consistently enjoyable listening.
All you have to do is put on a well-recorded LP—such as the Pan Am reissue of Chet Baker Sings (which happens to include several monophonic cuts)—to hear what I’m talking about. As soon as Baker begins to sing—in that cool, sweet, and (at this early point in his career) youthfully innocent-sounding tenor—you can hear him lean into that RCA 44BX (likely equipped with a breath filter in front of it) and immediately detect the way that great ribbon microphone “spotlights” his voice, adding forwardness, immediacy, rounded three-dimensionality, natural size, and (through the Zellatons) a hint of body to his West Coast-cool delivery, without also adding any excess chestiness, spittiness, leanness, or sibilance to his timbre. It’s as if Baker has stepped into a warm, bright pool of sonic limelight. At the same time, his trumpet, which is being played at a slightly greater distance from the mics, sounds more “set back” in the recording venue, though it too has immediacy, dimensionality, and natural timbral weight.
The FM Acoustics electronics also preserve the flat though not ultra-extended (50Hz–15kHz) frequency response and the sweet, smooth, non-analytical recovery of detail of the 44BX, which makes for the warm, lovely, slightly soft but musically satisfying recovery of transient detail on piano, hi-hat, and standup bass.
Indeed, if you want to hear the difference between an RCA 44BX and what are likely vintage German microphones (and the ambient difference between a nice, warm Capitol recording studio and a huge motion-picture soundstage) just listen to the recent Soundtack Factory reissue of North by Northwest—one of Bernard Herrmann’s supreme masterpieces—recorded in May 1959 on the MGM scoring stage in Culver City. Using what was likely a forest of condenser mikes, the MGM recording has considerably more pronounced treble and bass-range detail than the Chet Baker disc—and a far larger and drier soundspace. And yet, once again, the stereo presentation via FM Acoustics electronics is for the most part not overly analytical or aggressive. Plucked strings—both violin and doublebass—have good transient speed but equally good timbral warmth and three-dimensional body, making for adequate instrumental detail cushioned by the huge amount of air of the scoring stage. There are scattered passages (particularly on massed strings) where you can hear the brightness and dryness of that ambient space, but this effect also depends on the register and dynamic of the instruments. The point is: As with the Chet Baker disc, it is easy to hear the character of the microphone setup interacting with the character of the instruments and the ambience of the soundspace. And yet, once again as with the Chet Baker disc, the overall effect is not analytical but quite pleasantly musical—not the very last word in speed or detail, a bit warmer and darker than dead neutral in timbre, but still revealing, powerful, subtly nuanced, and never less than enjoyable to hear. (For those of you with Zellaton loudspeakers these FM components are a wonderful combination.)
I will have more to say about FM Acoustics (including several of its pricier offerings) when I’ve listened to its electronics with other loudspeakers in other rooms. But I don’t think FM’s basic character will change. This is very transparent gear that gives you a keen insight into how recordings are being recorded, how instruments are being played, and how ambient space is playing a role in augmenting timbre, dynamics, and imaging, and it is doing all this without adding any sense of the analytic or much color of its own. In other words, it is telling you the truth about LPs without robbing them of their inherent musicality. Regardless of the virtues of the newer Swiss gear (and there are many), this still remains a formula for successful playback, and FM Acoustics still remains a marque you ought to audition before making an ultra-high-end purchase.
Specs & Pricing
Type: Solid-state linestage preamplifier with external power supply
Circuit: Discrete Class A, zero feedback
Inputs and outputs: Single-ended only
FM 122-MKII Phono Linearizer
Type: Solid-state phonostage with continuously variable “non-RIAA” equalization
Circuit: Discrete Class A, zero feedback
Dimensions: 245mm x 62mm x 290mm
Weight: 2.2kg (FM 102 power supply, 1kg)
Inputs and outputs: Single-ended only
Type: Solid-state monoblock amplifier
Circuit: Discrete balanced Class A
Minimum output power: 70W into 8 ohms; 130W into 4 ohms; 200W into 2 ohms
Max output voltage: 66V pp
Max output current: Greater than 15A
Distortion: 0.005% THD
Bandwidth: Internally adjustable, <1Hz–60kHz with no filter engaged
AUDIOARTS (North American Distributor)
210 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10010