The Magnum Dynalab MD 308 Integrated
Reviewed by: David T. Brown
Date: August, 2002
Maybe you've had the experience of a houseguest who came for a few days and overstayed his welcome, so that you found yourself counting the days - then the hours - until his departure. More rarely, perhaps you have had the experience of having a visitor who was so enjoyable and pleasant and personally unobtrusive that you were genuinely sad to see him go.
In an odd inanimate fashion, the Magnum Dynalab MD-308 integrated amplifier that lodged with me for the past four months is definitely in the second rarefied category. A thoroughly enjoyable, if unobtrusive, unit, it merged seamlessly and naturally into my home audio system and got along just splendidly, electronically and sonically, with everything it encountered, from the cheapest of portable CD player inputs at one end through an array of digital and analog program sources (vintage Pioneer Pl-200 turntable, consumer-grade RCA DVD player, lovely British Arcam Alpha 6 CD player), to the magnificent amphion Creon speakers that were originally hooked to it at the other.
The integrated amplifier's pedigree is well established amongst audiophiles, as it is based on the amplifier section of the celebrated Magnum Dynalab MD-208 receiver. A 100W design (into 8 ohms), the MD-308 is adequately powered to handle most contemporary transducers, including electrostatics, and it is amply supplied with line-level inputs (6) plus tape in/outputs to cope with most modern system configurations. For those well-heeled purists who would consider taking advantage of only the unit's superb preamplifier section (frequency response 20 Hz - 20 KHz + 0, -3 dB, distortion 0.1%, signal to noise 96 dB), bypassing the efficient class A/B amp section, the unit is also supplied with preamp outputs on the rear panel. All audio connections are gold plated and appear to be of excellent quality. Speaker terminals have been improved over those on the MD 208 to incorporate a more versatile set of integrated compression lug/bare wire/banana plug terminals (also gold-plated), obviating previous reviewer gripes about not supporting a variety of different speaker lead configurations.
The unit itself is somewhat hefty, weighing in at 13.3 Kg (30 pounds) and with less-than-svelte exterior dimensions of 48.26cm x 15.24cm x 39.37cm (19" x 6" x 15.5" (Ikea lovers, beware - the unit is big and heavy enough to challenge some smaller audio-component cabinets for capacity, weight, and ventilation). It also sports a rear main power switch, supplemented by a digital two-position rotary power switch, which puts the unit in standby mode (though the amp's transformer circuitry is still drawing power when on standby, and generating significant heat to boot). If you are gauche enough to actually house the amplifier inside a cabinet (as I do, out of the necessity borne of space constraints), reaching all the way to the rear panel to turn off the main power is a bit uncomfortable and awkward, and the circuitry can get quite warm even on standby. This unit's heat sinks and massive toroidal transformers, though excellent for electronic performance and heat dissipation, are heavy-duty heat generators, necessitating the presence of a pair of heavy finned aluminum heat sinks on the two sides of the amplifier.
The front power switch is slightly non-intuitive, in that its operation is determined by the status of the electronically switched power amplifier circuitry inside. Suppose the front-panel rotary switch is rotated to the right to power the unit up. If the same front-panel switch is turned to the left, the unit (logically enough) goes into standby mode. However, if the remote control is used to turn the unit off when the rotary switch is still turned to the right, it will be necessary to turn the rotary switch to the left the next time the unit is powered up by the front panel. This is not at all hard to figure out intellectually, but ergonomically and aesthetically I get used to one position for 'on' and another for 'off'. It's a bit jarring and inconsistent when the switch points keep flip-flopping back and forth on an otherwise logically designed amp.
The unit is available in 110/230/240 volt configurations for markets around the world, and sports a substantial detachable rubber computer-style mains power cable tailored to local power receptacles so that ugly adapter plugs are unnecessary.
The remote control is a joy, a beautifully over-engineered, die-cast metal affair that is simple to operate, ergonomically designed, and which exudes heft, substance, and quality. With only seven logically arranged buttons (Power, Input, Volume + and -, Mute, and Left and Right balance shift), it's very easy to use and reassuringly solid in the hand (especially as compared with those awful overly-complicated aftermarket all-in-one plastic monstrosities that sprout useless buttons, eat batteries voraciously, glow in the dark, and set off your neighbour's garage door opener). You'll need an Allen key to change the batteries, however - the back cover is firmly screwed into place (beautifully, I might add).
As for the rest of the unit, the Dynalab 308's Canadian designers appear to have followed Thoreau's wise maxim to 'simplify, simplify'. The front panel is solid 3/16" aluminum plate, brushed to a satin finish and uncluttered by extraneous knobs and dials. There is a volume control on the front left side, a pair of VU meters, and the aforementioned power standby switch on the right hand side of the panel (mirroring the volume control switch in shape and appearance). Three discreet buttons (left balance, input selector, right balance) with blue indicator LEDs and a minimalist two-digit amber LCD source display in the center of the panel are the only other controls to grace the unit's otherwise uncluttered countenance. There's an unfortunate bit of frilly script on the faceplate (reminiscent of old Fisher department-store audio products or cheap Japanese cars from the '70's laughably labeled 'Deluxe'); this interferes with the otherwise clean uncluttered face of the unit.
But these aesthetic and ergonomic gripes are mere quibbles when contrasted with the excellent audio specs and pleasing performance of the MD-308. When hooked up to the very linear and faithful amphion Creon speakers, which were originally mated to this test unit, the result was quite magical: a deep, multi-dimensional sound stage with excellent imaging and superb frequency response across the audio spectrum. The MD-308 I received for evaluation required none of the long burn-in time experienced by other reviewers of similar units, and though somewhat cool and uncoloured in character in comparison with high-end vacuum-tube amps, it had none of the harshness and brittleness of other solid-state integrated amps I have heard.
When driving the Creons, the MD-308 had to draw on all of its power reserves to cope with the digital thunderstorms on Erich Kunzel's Telarc recording of Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, but there was no audible distortion, clipping, or other sonic anomalies on similar dramatically dynamic passages, musical or otherwise. The extremely literal and uncoloured amplifier circuitry and the complete lack of any form of equalization controls made it difficult to listen to vintage recordings or poorly-recorded contemporary music due to the inherent limitations of the source material. I would consider obtaining an outboard equalizer to patch into the MD-308 for playback of my cherished collection of old source material - and a phono preamplifier would also be required for us antediluvian types who still occasionally spin the vinyl. But for well-recorded digital or analogue performances fed in by line-level inputs, the amp is amazingly faithful.
There is little else to say about the unit except to recommend it as a superb example of hefty but minimalist contemporary integrated amplifier design. At US$2350.00, it's not a trivial expenditure, so if you're looking for lots of onboard opportunities for equalization and manipulation of audio program sources at the preamp/amp stage, there are other choices. But for those who seek near-perfect frequency response across the audio spectrum, a well-defined sound stage, and transparency of reproduction in a well-integrated amplifier package, the MD-308 should be a welcome long-term guest - nay, permanent resident - in your home.