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ME50 – Redux
I've had a Modular Electronics ME50 since approximately 1980-81. It is brutally utilitarian in looks, functional, unpretentious and reliable. Nothing in its appearance hints at the performance. Mine dates from the days when they were made at Narrabeen and cost about $800, as I recall, and a quick squiz at the label on the back confirms the Narrabeen part, at least. I've eyed this morose looking beastie, now and then, and thought -- 'maybe it's time to sell it?'. At these moments I would take it out, listen to it, and think – 'Mmmm, that's still a pretty formidable amplifier' – and so it has stayed in my listening room now for nearly 37 years. I was having a listen to it recently when, coincidentally, I was contacted by a long-time hi-fi friend, who looks a lot like MrRogers from StereoNet, (yes, you Mendo), bubbling over with enthusiasm (as he often does), about “modifications” to the ME50 which would bestow on it a whole new class of performance. Nothing wrong with enthusiasms. I have many myself and others no doubt think a number of them are quaint, but my bottom line is always “the bottom line”, because, sometimes an enthusiasm falls flat. In this case, the offered modifications turned out to be offered not only by an expert in the field who does not want any particular identification right now, though I would be pleased to give it, but at a price that I'm not even mentioning. Why? This was a custom set of modifications and if you were to ask the same person to perform something similar or to modify another amplifier then the costs involved might vary widely. It is an impossible quantification, so let's leave that matter there. Suffice to say that I am not made of money and the amp was (as noted) around $800 to purchase, so a large amount of folding exchange was not exchanged, as it were. The aforesaid “modifier” has admitted himself that it is a labour of love.
Which brings me, of course, to Buridan's ass. Didn't see that coming, did you? Not some kind of obscenity, but a paradox in the exercise of so-called free will. We pause in our deliberations here so that interested readers can perform a quick Google on that one and come back to us. Disinterested readers have already decided that I'm a loony and left the page. So be it.
Good. So, now you know about Buridan's ass and you know that it is a paradox that pre-dates Buridan and is mentioned by Aristotle in antiquity. There ends that lesson for today.
Suppose you have two amplifiers, but it is, in truth, really three amplifiers and there is a very clear difference between one and the other two, but in order to have the better comparison of two of the three then you have to lose one altogether. This is my situation then. I generally listen to Manley Snapper (100 WRMS) mono blocs driving stacked Quad ESLs. In order to have the “better” ME50 to compare, the old unit has to be lost to modification land and never heard again in that form. Not a difficult exercise of free will there, the unit was 37 years old and never had a single component replaced. It was a “shot to nothing” as they say in snooker. The larger capacitors were surely not within specification after all that time and replacing those alone with the equivalent would yield some audible improvement almost certainly. A lot more was to be done than that, of course. So, off went the venerable ME50 for a few weeks to boot camp to have its muscles toned up. Let's not mire ourselves in technical minutia for the moment though.
Hence we arrive at the Buridan's ass decision, as many of these comparisons turn out. An ass (I prefer donkey), that would be me; sitting between two amplifiers (really three) trying to decide which is the one to go to first and trying not to die of starvation and thirst while deciding. You see, a plethora of riches can be a bad thing after all. I decided to listen to the 'new' ME50 and left it running for a full 24 hours in addition to previous audition time that it had been given, to try and ensure that whatever mysterious 'settling in' needed to occur had, indeed, occurred. The modifier of the amp made no such stipulation, it is just my quaint habit (see above re: enthusiasms).
The pre-mod ME50 was a little lacking in the bass end of the spectrum and was definitely hardening up in congested (busy) passages where large ensembles or complex mixes placed a lot of power demand on the output stages. Put that down to the age of the main capacitors. In no way was the amp sounding 'tinny'. It could still drive stacked Quads without gasping for breath on the majority of source material and that's not something one can say about all amplifiers. If it were less than competent then it would have gone, long ago. A tribute to Peter Stein's overall concept at the very least.
The 'new' ME50 has had all those main filter capacitors replaced as a minimum. Not just 'replaced' but replaced with Mundorf M-Lytic capacitors for a total capacitance of over twice the original installation. This is in keeping with the ME philosophy of delivering current to the load and, fortunately, the power relay was able to cope with the in-rush current as well. Reading up on the M-Lytic capacitor I noted the following:
Using esparto grass [also referred to as Alfa grass] and Abacá [also referred to as Manila hemp or Musa textilis] for the capacitor paper allows for both high mechanical stability and extremely soft and open structures.”
I reached the word grass and then the word hemp as, by now, you, dear patient reader, have done, and thought – well, well, well, this could be very interesting – psycho-active capacitors, indeed!
Back to reality, whatever that is, and the list of modifications goes on: All 16 output transistors replaced with modern types having over 5 times the original bandwidth, bypass capacitors (ceramic) changed for film types, OFC copper cables under the pcb to improve signal to power supply isolation, replace internal speaker leads with flat OFC copper and a number of critically hand-matched (<0.02%) resistors replaced in the feedback leg of the circuits.
A few more things here and there plus a reduction of component count through removal of 8 carbon resistors at the output transistor Base Emitter junctions.
All the above detail is courtesy of the expert who modified the beast, and yes, I checked under the hood and the two fat German guys in the sauna had been replaced as well.
Moment of truth? I don't know what that is either, but I do know that all amplifiers sound the same, according to Peter Walker and that all amplifiers sound different according to Martin Colloms. Nailing my well-known colours to the mast, I tend to be in the Walker camp (mostly), but...
...there is an enormous sophistry in that remark of PJ Walker. It is that the conditions of operation of the amplifiers be equal, and, that when you get them into the laboratory you test them under equivalent conditions, including the interface to the speakers. Now, this is incredibly booorrinnngggg, and hi-fi journalists don't like to do it. I believe this is for two reasons: 1) They do not know how, and 2) It is indeed pretty boring to read about. An amplifier is tested and there is nothing to talk about. It does its job, amplifies the signal without offensive artefact and that's all.
Hang on though! If we test it like a short wave transmitter, maybe it will show some ringing at 23 MHz or something. How relevant is that? Your guess is as good as mine. It is of no practical use to me whatever, but you see it happen, even in this day and age of heightened consumer awareness.
My way of saying that I listen to the bloody things! They do sound different and I maintain that it is a fair comparison for my universe of discourse because I haven't changed anything else in the system, so changes must be due to the introduction of the amplifier (and its alterations). This may, indeed, have altered the amp/speaker interface and that is part of the problem for the amplifier designer/modifier to deal with in my book. A hell of a problem, but there you have it.
Down to program material now. I like to listen to a wide variety of music. In this case it was all from vinyl LPs and played on the resident Aura turntable – nothing new. I just mention it in passing and if you don't have one, tough luck, since they are not made any more. The amp was listened to at great length with Alan Parsons Project material (complex material that I'm still hearing more of as the system is refined). Any of these albums, like or hate them, is a guaranteed turntable/arm cartridge/amplifier killer in so far as detail extraction is concerned. Also not a bad test of dynamic range and power delivery. Some Pink Martini (any/all albums). Not heard of them...? Google is your friend. Your loss, not mine. Very well recorded, three dimensional program material with the chanteuse (China Forbes) melting your heart or burning your ears depending on how well your system is doing. L'Esprit de Dieu et les Prophetes with Esther Lamandier singing (soprano) and playing the harp. One of those weird enthusiasms of mine again. A sure-fire amplifier killer that I often use to humble rich audiophiles who worry about the badge on the front and not the bolts under the hood. Supertramp (all albums) for the wide dynamic range, complex passages and the frenetic Roger Hodgson falsetto-ing his way through Even In The Quietest Moments. Again, a real source/amp killer, if you have any confusion in the reproduction chain Roger is just unintelligible a lot of the time.
...but wait...there's more...
The above source material is reproduced well and without confusion, or quibble, in my common set up of ME25 preamp, Manley Snappers and Aura turntable with Conqueror arm and Denon 103R/ Zu 103 cartridges. Sometimes a Mission 774 and a Denon DL-S1, also on the Aura.
How does the 'new' ME50 fare on this and the rest?
In my (never to be) humble opinion it behaves just as a 50 watt solid state amplifier without peer under $15,000 should behave. I know that's just huff and puff to some readers and you have every right to scoff (e's orf 'is nut 'e is mate), since there's little chance that you'll have one or be able to obtain one. Nyah, Nyaah! Gloats, and exits, stage left, pursued by furious scientists, the ghost of Peter Walker and a chicken. By all means, someone make me an offer, but make sure it's around $15,000 if you expect more than a polite refusal. I would say this is a poor man's Mark Levinson or Burmester, but it's not. It's the poor man's replacement to those respected audio marques, and yes, I've heard both the 'big names' at length as well, along with Audio Note and Audio Research. Definitely reminds of an ARC solid state amp a lot of the time (also global feedback free amps, like the ME50). Think between a DS225 and a DS450 without reaching the power level of the DS450. Do your speakers need 450W? Take your pick if you rely on “Big Names” or just rely on your ears and judgment.
Listening over a period of several days, not quite non-stop, I have arrived at the conclusion that the improvement can be summarised in a few words: noise (lack of it); dynamic range (apparent) and power delivery (gobs).
Last things first. Power delivery. The ME50 has a power transformer that's capable of transients a touch over 300+ Watts, from memory. As they say, it's not the size, it's how you use it that counts! A lot of this transient power potential contributes to the really amazing dynamics of this amp. Always dynamic it now packs a real wallop, truly stainless-steel-fist-in-velvet-glove territory. Able to deliver the delicate expression of an earth-bound feather with the power and drama of a thunderstorm when you need it. I do sometimes need that. Remember Tales of Mystery and Imagination (Alan Parson's Project?). More than doubling the filter capacitance has clearly assisted that goal, but unbalanced and unruly power delivery is no better than a limp biscuit, and thus, tuning the signal path and eliminating a few components has helped as well.
Noise? There's no doubt some measurable noise in there somewhere. You'd need some expensive instruments to find it, I'd say. The noise floor is at least as low as I can (not) hear from the Manley amps (which are very, very quiet). The ME50 is probably well under the Manley noise floor which I can't hear anyhow and very likely much lower than before. Musically, this means that your desirable noises will emerge from the Stygian gloom of a Dingo's guts in winter, which, as I understand it, are very dark and bare. That's the way it ought to be with amplifier noise – little of it and hard to find. A lower noise floor leads to an enlargement in the overall 3D sound stage, particularly depth, both forward and rearward. Sometimes, an amplifier will yield a deeper sound stage to the rear only and this can be due to phase confusion and varies from record to record. The current sound stage depth improvement is apparent when the recording material has it in the grooves and is in line with what you expect you would hear in a live performance; assuming you're listening to a performance that assumes this stance. Diction is apparently better! Again, lower noise. Expression in the voice of the performer is better. Yes, lower noise again. Subtle rhythmic emphases are clearer. Lower noise. You have the picture. Let's move on.
Dynamics improve because of the previous two factors. Improved ability to deliver gobs of power (up to 300+W transient) and a silent “ground floor” through electrostatic loudspeakers makes for some exciting times and some confusion. Confusion? Yes, like jumping out of your chair because there's a tapping at your door – no, it's just the record. Needless to say I can make loud sounds as required up to about 100dB with stacked Quads and they are a very inefficient and 'wonky' impeadance (Google it, go on) to drive. Not an issue with this, or the previous ME50 incarnation. It's just less of an 'issue' now. I would have sworn I could under some select circumstances drive the old incarnation of the ME50 into audible clipping. Not this one. Not a hint of it. The difference between knowing that something can happen, however unlikely, and knowing that it is so unlikely that you 'know' it can't happen. Much more relaxing.
How does it compare to the Manley Snappers, at many times the price? Comparisons are both odorous and useless if a particular car/amp/picture/boat lights your fire, but, to get down to tin tacks – more than favourably. I would be fibbing if I said there were differences that would make me go out and buy the Manley amps, if I had this ME50 (modified) in hand to start. The Manley is 100W continuous maximum output and the only slim edge it has is when things are really busy it may just have the edge in bass power. It could also be equally well argued, (as one of my listeners said), that it is a nice distortion that makes you feel closer to the performer. I have to go along with that observation. There are congruent distortions that valve amplifiers produce that seem to align with natural distortions in the ear/brain system and we (humans – ssp. Audiophilia Vulgaris) find this very seductive. It is simply not correct to say that the ME50-Redux is, therefore, in some way not as good as the Manley Snappers. It is at the very least their equal in most respects and better in some.
Now, if a casual reader with $15,000 burning a hole in their pocket would like to give me a call, my email address is posted at www.quadesl.org. No rich people turned away. I take cash, PayPal or bank transfer. Leave your prejudice at the door please and bring your own Abacá-Esparto paper too.