Music Hall in Great Neck, New York, has long been a source of musical, mostly twochannel audio equipment. The folks there are uncannily good at finding high-performance gear that won’t break the budget. I’m thinking off the top of my head of the Creek electronics and the Epos loudspeakers. Music Hall also offers its own designs, and these two, as a package (the a25.2 integrated amp and cd25.2 CD player retail for $600 apiece), can form the basis of a good, small, and inexpensive system. They slipped easily into my small (but lively) room, with the Spendor S8e loudspeakers and Nordost Blue Heaven cabling.
Together, the Music Halls immediately showed clarity in the highs and rich detailing in the midrange, but began to run out of steam a bit in the midbass—though what was there in that range was still clear and detailed. The lower midbass was somewhat thin and sounded as if it had moved back in the soundstage. Nearfield listening ameliorated some of this by reducing the effects of the room, but did not cure it. I played around with this, as I’ll outline in a moment, but my overall assessment of the two units in tandem didn’t change much. In my rooms and systems, the Music Hall a25.2 and cd25.2 together were spectacularly and silkily transparent in the voice range and lacking a bit in body below that. That is together. One of these units, however, later rose to star performance in the heftier system. In the first sessions, with the units together, Rebecca Pidgeon’s voice in “Spanish Harlem,” from Woman of Song [Chesky Records], was clear and vibrant. On The Essential Leonard Cohen [Columbia], Cohen himself was clear and a little forward in the mix. How do you decide if you’re hearing “forwardness in the midrange” or “shyness in the midbass”? Well, it’s tricky, but I consider that a design’s strength resides with its clarity; and here that lies higher than the midbass. Cohen has a more complex backup on his music than does Pidgeon, and the nuances thereof were compromised. On orchestral music, the overall fabric of sound was not as full and rich as I want, but then I haven’t found many small systems that do reproduce orchestral works well. I seldom use “big” classical recordings to judge equipment for that very reason. The Music Halls were quite clear in all they presented. It’s just that the depth of the overall sound was thin. That natural and deeply satisfying resonance of many instruments playing together was—gee, I keep using this word—thin. It wasn’t veiled, because that indicates some distortion, and of that I heard none. A clear delicate broth rather than a hearty stew.
Even so, this pair shone on a recording I love, Fauré’s Requiem [Collegium]. The “Pie Jesu,” written for a boy soprano, is here sung by the adult Carolyn Ashton as if this child suddenly, in this very piece, discovers human mortality. Toward the end, a brief soft, deep pedal note follows the singer, stalking the voice with a hint of fearful darkness. And immediately afterward, the soprano cries, “Pie, Jesu,” now with barely controlled terror. (This effect, incidentally, I’ve found only in this recording, which is the original small-orchestra version. It was on the LP, when I had it, as well as the CD.) With the Music Halls, that stalking note was present, but distant— merely the breath of peril—and the overall effect was stunning. Later in the recording, the swirling highs of violin strings, matching the pulsing high choirs of the organ in “In paradisum,” were mesmerizing.
The Music Hall integrated offers 50 watts per channel, and it’s clean and clear. I took it into the large room (20 x 25 feet) with the spectacular Acoustic Zen loudspeakers (reviewed last issue), which don’t require tons of power, Musical Fidelity A5 CD player, and Nordost Blue Heaven cabling. My assessment of the unit remained largely unchanged. It was sparkling, transparent, and musical in the highs and mids, and began to sound a little distant in the upper bass, rolling off in the midbass. It was happier in the smaller room, with the smaller speakers.
This leads to a rather odd phenomenon, in which the unit’s strengths—spectacular highs and mids—serve to emphasize its weakness—slight midbass and bass shyness. I paired it with a better power cord (which I’ll discuss in a moment), and that improved the sense of depth and air, but did not fill in the problematic frequency range. The more expensive Musical Fidelity X-150 integrated ($900, last time I looked) sounds more balanced and musically rich—as you’d expect. I haven’t heard another comparably priced integrated in my system lately, but two to look at would be the Rotel RA-1062 ($699, reviewed in Issue 149) and the NAD C352 ($599, reviewed on our Web site AVGuide.com). Cambridge Audio also offers units in that range. But still it would surprise me if the Music Hall did not end up on your short list, just because it does what it does so very well.
Next, I wanted to see what the CD player would do with more headroom. So I moved it into my large system— and here, indeed, this little jewel began to shine like the star it is. On Pidgeon’s “Spanish Harlem” (beautiful and tender—and traditionally sung by a man), the musical fabric was immediately richer, and the highs and midrange were shimmering and full. Jim Keltner’s “Improvisation” [Sheffield Lab] was crisp and swift and the skin sounds (both of instrument and player) were satisfactorily mammalian. Incidentally, this cut is great for checking soundstaging, and with the Music Hall that element came through quite well. Most drums are essentially midrange, with a bit of midand upper bass, and the cd25.2 reproduced this example perfectly. To test this unit with more complex instrumentation, I played the difficult Sanctuary [SC CD], a tour de force for cello, bass clarinet, and organ. The soundstage was spectacular and the music wonderfully full and rich. In comparison with the much more expensive MF A5 player, the highs were not as extended, and from the midbass down, the music lost a touch of clarity. And there was not as much of the visceral presence of the great organ. But without question, the $600 Music Hall player held its own and sounded like it cost much much more.
The glories of Lou Harrison’s Gamelan Music [MusicMasters Classic] lie in the juxtaposition of the subtleties of the upper midrange and treble with the reverberant thunder of the full gamelan. The bell-like sounds were indeed astounding. When the lower instruments of the gamelan “orchestra” opened up, these too came through as at once powerful and ringing. Nuances in the duet between the violin and the soft upper reaches of the gamelan in the first cut had never seemed so moving, so spine-tingling. The same was true of the voices, whose timbre was strong, ringing, or tender as appropriate.
But a remaining touch of midbass “thinness” was still nagging at me, so my next change was to put Monster Cable’s HS3500 power-line conditioner into the system, which is to say that I plugged the Music Hall CD player into it, and left it in for the rest of the sessions. It broadened and deepened the soundstage and brought a bit more flesh to the musical skeleton.
Then, on a tip from Roy Hall at Music Hall, I changed the power cord in the CD player to the Acoustic Zen Tsunami, and it instantly rewarded me with a wall of sound very like its name. I’ve had interconnects and speaker cables open up the sound of a system, but never before a power cord, or not to this degree. Ordinarily I’m loath to fiddle much with modest gear to get it “up to par.” Par is what you get out of the box, to my way of thinking. Unless warned, most customers are not going to tweak, particularly if in the process they add significantly to the cost of their equipment. But here I wanted to be sure I was giving this unit every opportunity in a system that was above its price range.
And, indeed, the new power cord was worth keeping on this player in the big system; the sound bloomed around me. Lyrics, particularly from the Cohen backup singers, which before had skirted comprehension, now were clear. Gary Karr’s Basso Cantante [Firebird] was full and detailed, and the acoustic bass was indeed “singing,” though there are some higher notes on this instrument (heard in “The Swan”) that are not as melodic as the same notes on the cello, but this is the instrument, not the recording or the system. This is the kind of critical nuance you will hear on this player. This recording also showed a bit of midrange forwardness that was not present with the MF A5 in the system, indicating a slight difference in frequency balance.
Sanctuary’s subtle interplay in the low frequencies was complex and emotionally grand via the Music Hall—I played “Amazing Grace” a half-dozen times, just for its wonderful on-the-edge harmonies. Switching to the MF A5 again brought back the force of the organ, which the smaller player doesn’t quite get, but the cd25.2 is so smooth and full withal it doesn’t let you in on that fact except in direct comparison. Nothing much disturbs the musical integrity of the Music Hall. Yes, the A5 player goes deeper, fuller, higher. It also costs four times as much, and is, to boot, one of the best players I’ve ever heard at any price. Under the circumstances, the Music Hall shone. And I listened on into the night.
So, of the two Music Hall units, the CD player is, as you know by now, the star. With a good cord (the Acoustic Zen Tsunami runs $350, a not inconsiderable tweak, but less expensive cords might suffice) and interconnects, the cd25.2 can go anywhere and give great musical pleasure.
Here let me spell out what I have been hinting: I probably do not have the optimum set-up for these units as a duo. My small room is not damped enough, and even the Spendors are probably too big (not in power requirements, but in range) for the Music Hall amp.
But there are times when one longs for a quiet room and small, exquisite music. So if you just have to have this CD player and want to make yourself a private sanctuary for the assuaging of your soul—then you could hardly go wrong with these units. I don’t have Epos speakers here at the moment, but remember them fondly, and I’ll bet the bank that with Epos bookshelf speakers, good, reasonable wiring, and a well-damped small room, you’d find perfect solace. The 25.2 pair is probably made for such an intimate system in an intimate setting.
Both units are handsome, well made, and so easy to set up, a child could handle the job. Though of course only the child still astir in us old gruff music lovers should actually do it.