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 problem is that their (well-deserved) success has pushed certain other companies, with longer, 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 by 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 belatedly 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 folks (like me) to review its latest designs—in this case its extremely compact and comparatively affordable Resolution Series electronics, comprising the $17,750 155 MkIIR linestage preamplifier, the $21,600/pair 108 monoblock amplifiers, and the $13,975 122 MkII phonostage.
FM Acoustic FM 108 Monoblock Amplifiers
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 important 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 in Horgen, Switzerland, 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 go 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 nota 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 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 trouble here is that FM Acoustics has always excelled in many of these areas. (The Class A FM Resolution Series 108 monoblock amplifier, for example, has a maximum output voltage of 66Vpp, virtually unlimited 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 108s are immensely more portable and far less expensive than Soulution 701s or CH Precision M1s.)
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 precisely 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.
FM Acoustics FM 122 MkII Phonostage
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 Horgen (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 (and I’ll let you know if it does), it is a helluva feat.
FM Acoustics FM 155 MKII Linestage Preamplifier
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 already: FM Acoustics electronics preserve the native sound, the number, and the receptivity 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 youthful and beguiling 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 this 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, leannesss, 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 44BX, 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 reproduction of transient detail on piano, hi-hat, and standup bass.
Indeed, if you want to hear the difference between an RCA 44 BX and what are likely vintage German microphones (and the ambient difference between a nice warm little 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 (probably Neumanns), 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 (though close), a bit warmer and darker than dead neutral in timbre, but still revealing, powerful, subtly nuanced, naturally balanced, 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 components 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 highly entertaining playback, and FM Acoustic still remains a marque you ought to audition before making that ultra-high-end purchase.
FM ACOUSTICS LTD.
CH - 8132 Egg b. Zürich
T: +41-44-725 77 77
F: +41-44-725 77 90
AUDIOARTS (North American Distributor)
210 5th Ave.
New York, NY 10010