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musical designs

DM100B amplifier

as reviewed by Sherman Hong, Victor Chavira, Larry Cox, and Francisco Duran





ProAc Response 3.5.

Accuphase DP-55 CD player direct to an Accuphase DP-550 amplifier.

Acrotec 6N-2030 and 6N-2050 interconnects, 8N-1080 speaker cables, LAT power cords.


one.jpg (6551 bytes)A beautiful, slim chassis encloses the Musical Design D-100B amplifier, but within the modest container is a sturdy performer. Single-ended RCA connectors are provided, along with sturdy binding posts, a detachable power connector, and a rock-solid power switch.

As I’m shopping for speakers, I had several on hand to try with the Musical Design. The sound was consistently solid, smooth, and musical. Images focus tightly, with the performance locked between the speakers; spacing between instruments was as expected. A moderately diminutive three-dimensional soundstage is illuminated with a sense of neutrality, neither warm nor white—just right, to my taste. Though not as translucent, airy, or "big" sounding as my past reference, the Musical Design more than held its own. On occasion, the amp strained for command, unlike a powerful amplifier which exhibits control while effortlessly pouring on the music. The Musical Design is good but not exceptional in this regard.

The treble, though not silky, was smooth and composed, with a sense of precision and control that was pleasing on most recordings. On Marvin the Album, Frente’s light, whimsical vocals were precise. Cymbals lacked the tangible, sparkling finish that I treasure. Guitar was clear. The essentials came through unfettered, without leaving me yearning for a change in my system. The vocals on Frank Sinatra Live at the Sands were throaty and proportional, with a sense of presence. Count Basie’s band was ever so sweet as they strolled through the standards with Old Blue Eyes. The sounds of the audience were all easily apparent. This amplifier sparkles on live recordings. Track after track unfolded gracefully. Before I knew it, Sinatra was finished for the evening!

The bass is taut and tight, although not as extended as my'reference. Again, the quick response really shined on live recordings.

However, the deepest synthesized bass during Kodo’s "SQI-SO" was bearlpresent, and the weight of the roaring Kodo drums was attenuated. As the complicated mixes on the album progressed, there came an amalgamation in the performance. The extravagant, vigorous music dawdled. The Musical Design performed better than I expected, but could not match more ample power amps.

The top-to-bottom synthesis of the D-100B was spectacular. I had a few caveats, but the positives overwhelm the drawbacks. From a price/performance ratio aspect, the Musical Design is a steal. Not many bargains abound in the high end lately, so the D-100B is a product to be treasured. A terrific product at a wonderful price, and a "must audition" for an audiophile with sanity.
Sherman Hong





ATC 20.

E.A.R 802 preamplifier. Classe CA100 amplifier.

CAL Icon MkII CD player. Oracle Delphi MkII turntable, AudioQuest PT7 tone arm, Koetsu Rosewood cartridge.

Silver Audio Silver Bullet 4.0s interconnect and Beldon 1219A speaker cables.

API Power Pack and ACPEAM line conditioners.


two.jpg (6646 bytes)If you’ve been in this hobby long enough, you start to think that affordable gear means single products—not systems—costing $1000. "Affordable" in audiolingua doesn’t really mean "easily affordable," but apparently that many people can buy one piece a year and not end up divorced or in bankruptcy court. Part of this distortion of meaning comes from boutique pricing on overbuilt products. I’ll acknowledge that I enjoy and appreciate some of those boutique items, but whether they are affordable for me is another question. My experience has been that once you’ve experienced what is possible at the "bleeding edge," it is hard to go back to what is "affordable," no matter how painful that affording process may be.

So, is it all granola in the affordable range? Sometimes it appears that way. I’ve been rather frustrated by my Classe CA-100 amplifier’s inability to drive my ATC speakers, and no doubt a few of you have gotten sick of the whining. God knows I have. If a $1500 amp can’t drive your speakers, does that mean you have to go Beverly Hills to get good performance? It seemed so to me.

Musical Fidelity is a St. Charles, Missouri company operated by John Hillig, which makes a wide range of affordable products, including the dual-mono DM100B amp on trial here. Like most of John’s products, the DM100B is upgradable by swapping higher quality parts within the same circuit. So, you could start with the regular-issue DM100B, which retails for about $1195, and end up with the Platinum version at about $2495. Hillig claims—and our Francisco Duran confirms—that he can tailor his amp’s sound to your taste. (You may recall that Hillig modified Frank’s EAD d-to-a. See Frank’s comments in audioMUSINGS Issue 7.) Some of you might be offended by the idea of an amplifier tailored to a particular sound. I know that many in this hobby believe they should aspire to neutrality, but I think that’s baloney. There are tons of "neutral" products available used because their owners couldn’t live with them. I’ll acknowledge that it is intellectually honorable to strive for a neutral system, but in my estimation that is a booby prize. For me, this hobby is about enjoying music, not having the most neutral system. In my kingdom, we listen to music on systems we like or we don’t listen to music at all.

Having beat up on the idea of neutrality as a goal, I have to say that the DM100B doesn’t exhibit much in the way of frequency aberration. Bass is present and powerful and the treble, though present, is a bit rolled off, which should complement most systems with which the DM100B will be matched. Although not tube-like in sound, the Musical Design has a tube-like grace in clipping that made music enjoyable and relaxing, while still being able to bust some balls when necessary. Comparatively speaking, my Classe is more open and airy in the upper midrange, imparting a greater sense of space between instruments. If you value openness in the upper midrange, you might prefer the Classe, at least with more sensitive speakers than mine. In my system, however, the Classe is less pleasant.

Where the MD is outstanding is in the area of bass control, almost without regard to price. Its bass performance is exceptional, close to that of the $7495 Kora Titan monoblocks. I loved their bass response, I just couldn’t handle the financial freight. The Classe is lighter in weight and less full sounding. With the Classe, when the volume goes up, the bass digs down lower, but it still doesn’t gain the welcome fullness of the Musical Design. Unfortunately, as the Classe increases in volume, so does the glare in the upper midrange.

The MD’s three-dimensional image stability is on a par with that of the $3500 Birdland Pleyel 250, the Titans, and any other amplifier I’ve had in my system. Pretty nice company, eh? For clarity’s sake, I’m not describing palpability, but the sense that the image in front of me was not shifting around like a mirage on a hot road. The MD’s palpability and specificity was good, if not up to that of the Acoustic Masterpiece, the E.A.R. 834 integrated, or the E.A.R. 509 monoblocks, but in fairness, all of these are tubed units, and all cost many times the price of the Musical Design.

This brings me to the DM100B’s faults, which are primarily subtractive rather than additive. In my system, the DM100B softens the "burrs" of musical reproduction in much the same way as the Clayton S40 amplifier, which is $1800 more. Unlike the S40, however, the DM100B has the wallop to drive my speakers. Additionally, in the very region that the Classe exhibits its "beamy" qualities, the MD is relaxed but with less immediately apparent detail. Like E.A.R. products, the MD invites you to listen "in" more, and when you do, there is a good amount of detail. Nevertheless, the slightly laid back presentation of the Musical Design will not win the interest of people who like detail above all else, and it might also alienate owners of darker speakers like Vandersteen, Mirage or Definitive Technology.

An interesting comparison came up with two boutique-priced items passing through my system—the Pristine SA10 (a Singapore class "A" amplifier—review forthcoming) and the Chord SPM1200B. Both amps retail for about five times the cost of the Musical Design. The Musical Design is more veiled, and conveys less of the transparency and sparkle that a component at the highest level of fidelity achieves without being etched or overly bright. The DM100B’s bass is as taut as that of the other two amps, but is less distinguishable from tones in adjacent frequencies. Present with the Pristine and Chord is that aspect of sound reproduction that indicates "music" versus "stereo." On occasion, despite the intent to listen critically, I fell into a swoon of music loving instead of gear critiquing. With the Musical Design, I could fall into music easily enough, but it lacks that extra bit of magic that let me forget I was listening to a stereo system. Darn good performance, though, for $1195! Frequently, reviewers get lost in comparing products without regard to price, myself included. I’ll acknowledge that I prefer the Pristine to the Musical Design by a substantial margin. There is an immediacy and delicacy of detail present with the Pristine that is very seductive, and that is absent with the Musical Design. To reinstate context, however, the Pristine costs five times as much.

Frankly, there aren’t a lot of bad components being made these days. There aren’t a lot of great components either. My experience is that there are a lot of pretty good performers. Without regard to price, the Musical Design fits into the category of pretty good. Figuring in its price, the MD’s performance steps up into fairly exceptional. It can actually drive my speakers without difficulty, without stridence, and without the frequency anomalies of my Classe. Like much more expensive amplifiers, it exhibits a calm presentation that makes listening easy and relaxing, at both high and low volumes. I like the DM100B enough that I chose to sell my Classe to buy it. I feel that I’ve gotten better performance, albeit by a few hairs rather than by heads and shoulders. The DM100B delivers almost everything you’d want in an amplifier at an affordable price. It would be an excellent choice for today’s audiophile taking the first step up the upgrade ladder.
Larry Cox





Magneplanar .5.

Sonic Frontiers Anthem 1 amplifier. HRS unit.

Audio Electronics CD1 player.

Quattro Fil or Nordost Blue Heaven interconnects and speaker cables.


three.jpg (8484 bytes)MusIcal Design is a Missouri audio company that has had considerable experience modifying other manufacturers’ products. According to Musical Design, a substantial gain in performance in any component can be achieved by substituting stock parts with premium ones. This philosophy is apparent in Musical Design’s own line of preamps, power amps, and CD players. Each of their products can be upgraded from stock to "Silver" and "Signature" versions, giving them added value.

From the outside, the 100B amplifier is unremarkable. It looks like a typical 30-pound black box. Inside the black box is a large toroidal transformer, circuit boards, and internal heatsinks. The casework is perforated with slots and well ventilated. Compared to my Anthem, the 100B is a cool operator. The amp was placed on a Lovan Trisolator on the floor, where my reference amp usually resides, and plugged directly into the wall with its stock power cord. Experience has shown me that solid state amps are more responsive to input signals than my Amp1. Therefore, I connected the tube output stage of my CD1 directly to the 100B with one meter of my reference Blue Heaven. The 100B produces 200 watts into my four-ohm Maggies.

The 100B produced a cooler musical presentation than my reference amp. Although this may seem typical of the differences between transistor amps and tube amps, I have heard several solid state amps that emulated the body of tubes while retaining the advantages of transistors. However, the 100B is not likely to be mistaken for a tube amp. It stands squarely in the solid state camp without apology. The sound is clean, fast, and dynamic. In many regards, the 100B reminds me of another $1k 200 watt amp—the Acurus A200. Some readers may recall that the A200 was the last solid state amp I owned before I began my tubular odyssey. In my opinion, music has to have warmth and body to touch my senses. I already possess a very fast and detailed speaker. Having a tube amp in the system strikes a balance between grace and power. With the 100B in the system, the music was pleasing, but the balance was shifted to the cooler side.

For example, when listening to the new Phantom Menace soundtrack, I found the 100B to be a fabulous performer. The sound was big and powerful. Percussion was propulsive. Orchestral crescendos were effortless and electrifying. However, when listening to the smooth, aged beauty of Ibrahim Ferrer’s singing, the 100B couldn’t communicate the rum-tinged subtleties of his remarkable voice. This was the greatest difference between the Anthem and the Musical Design—the Anthem has a beautifully natural way with harmonics and timbre that I found to a lesser degree in the 100B.

I shouldn’t criticize the 100B for not being a tube amp. It delivers 100 watts of clean, controlled power to your speakers for a nominal price. Its strengths are in its dynamics, its effortless power, and its cool-to-neutral musical presentation. If your musical tastes run to rock or jazz, this may be your amplifier.
Victor Chavira





ProAc Response 2s.

Classe CP60 preamplifier. Classe CA200 amplifier.

EAD DSP 1000 III DAC. Pioneer DP 54 as a transport.

Kimber Hero interconnects, Acrotec 1050 speaker cables, and LAT digital cable.

Panamax PLC.


four.jpg (6893 bytes)Thumbing through some recent stereo magazines the other night, I went into sticker shock at the prices of the amps being reviewed. With $20,000 and $30,000 price tags not unusual, the "affordable" amps were five to seven grand! What’s an audiophile and music lover to do? There are a few high end companies that offer high-caliber equipment at prices that working stiffs like myself can afford. You just have to know where to look, and trust your ears more than your eyes or your appetite. I’ve recently been listening to an amplifier from a company that manufactures electronics that are not only affordable, but damned fine-sounding at any price. The company is Musical Design of St. Charles, Missouri. The amplifier is their DM-100B.

My first experience with this company goes back to 1998, when I had the other branch of their company, Musical Concepts, modify my DAC with great success, so at CES ’99 I sought out the Musical Design room to check out the rest of their goodies. I thought I would try to corral John Hillig, the proprietor, into letting audioMUSINGS listen to one of his amps. I liked what I heard, so needless to say I was glad that Mr. Hillig agreed. The DM-100B is a 100wpc amp. It is unassuming on the outside, but on the inside it sports twin 300-watt toroid power transformers and a 60,000 uf power supply, and is equipped with their new single-ended front end board. The feature I like the most about all of the Musical Design products, though, is the fact that they offer two levels of upgrades. You want more bass and more resolution? Just shell out a few more bucks and they will modify your amp to their Signature or Platinum versions.

I listened to the standard version of the DM-100B, which has plenty to offer for those on a slim budget. While the amp was in the house, it helped drive the 86dB-sensitive Impact Technology beauties that were also here for review with no problem. It gave the sound coming from the big Impacts a more effortless quality than did the 25wpc class "A" Monarchy I bought a few months ago. Although the Monarchy has the heart of a lion (pun intended), the Impacts need a hefty amp to drive them to their full glory. I was surprised at how good a grip the Musical Design amp had on the Impacts, especially since my line stage is passive. I had all the volume I wanted without any sense of strain. My ProAc Response Two speakers also opened up, with more muscle.

One CD I usually gravitate to when I get a new piece of equipment is Pat Metheny’s album Full Circle, which offers flashy highs, deep lows, and everything in between. Track 1 opens with some pretty amazing drum whacks, while track 2 starts with a wash of cymbals that will let you know in a hurry how your system is doing in the treble department. The DM-100B’s treble behaved well—smooth and extended, with no unwanted top end artifacts. It was a tad darker than my current reference amp, altogether it handled the cymbal attack on this difficult track well. On track 7, which has some very interesting vocals throughout the song (a Metheny signature), vocals sounded natural. Another favorite CD of mine is the Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton disc titled Larry and Lee. This CD is chock full of smooth contemporary jazz served up, in my humble opinion, by two of the finest guitarists in the music world. The trumpet blasts on track 3 sounded fast and rich, but not in your face. The lead guitars sounded round, whole, and clear. The end of this song faded out to the sound of such detailed and natural-sounding drumsticks hitting snare drums that I had to smile. I also enjoyed the way track 2 opened with a subtle flurry of percussive details. Then the electric popping sounds fade to the background—so cool.

Track 3 of the Lost World soundtrack, with its congas, bells, and big bass drum thrown into the mix along with the horn and string section, is an effective test of how a particular unit handles the dynamics of an orchestra. If there is any discontinuity in the sound, it will show up here. The Musical Design sailed right through. While I was listening to the wonderful world of soundtracks, I put on the music from the film Congo, by Jerry Goldsmith. The sound had a laid back but detailed presentation that was quite pleasing. Congo is not as well-recorded as The Lost World, but the chorus blended smoothly with the orchestra and the soundstage was to die for. All of this realness of tone made for a more natural sounding listening session. So far so good with the DM-100B.

One of the DM-100B’s areas of strength is its bass. It sounds full and solid, the way bass should sound. It never intrudes upon the rest of the tonal balance. Bass guitar plucks along fine with the rhythm, and I had no problem picking out bass drum from bass guitar as it kicked along. On my midbass torture test, the Roy Ayres song titled "Nasty," bass was very powerful and full, as it should be. Acoustic bass also sounded natural on a lot of the jazz cuts I played. Although they didn’t exhibit the woody textures that you would hear through a great tube amp, bass timbres were still very good. I prefer the snap and power of a solid state amp in this area anyway. The DM-100B squeezed full, articulate, and well-defined bass from both my Response Twos and the big Impacts, although the Impacts had the edge in the "deep" bass.

Another amazing thing about this amplifier is that its soundstage is so layered. There is roundness and wholeness to images that had me thinking that I was listening to a pair of very expensive monoblock tube amps. The CD Salamandra by Claudia Gomez, from Clarity Recordings, brought this out well. The DM-100B is more laid back than my up-front-sounding Monarchy, but this helps in relaxing you into the music a lot better, which is what you need after a long day of toil. I’ve had far more expensive amps—both tube and solid state—in my system that didn’t have as good a soundstage as the DM-100B. On some discs it had me grinning from ear to ear and shaking my head in disbelief. If a great soundstage and imaging aren’t particularly important to you, listen to this amp and think again. The only limiting factor in this area of performance would be if ancillary equipment were not up to par.

I couldn’t resist switching back to my Monarchy amp for some down and dirty comparisons. As I said earlier, the Monarchy is more up-front sounding, and is a very fast, clean, and detailed amp with great bass, all for a retail price of around $800. At only 25wpc, this thing jams. I felt it edged out the Musical Design in the bass, having slightly more impact. The Monarchy was also a tad cleaner and more tonally refined, with details and transients sounding sharper, but the Musical Design presents music in a more matter-of-fact manner. It gets out of the way of the music, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have fireworks of its own. Its bass and soundstaging are as grand and open as a Copland symphony! Also, while the Monarchy is a great amp for the price, you’re stuck with what you get unless you sell it and buy the next model up—or send it to John Hillig for a mod! The DM-100B, on the other hand, has the option to upgrade the DM-100B.

With all of these positives and so few negatives, how can you go wrong? Its most important strength is that once I turned it on, I seemed to relax into the music easier. More expensive amps can also take you there, but here’s an economical way to go. While the affordable Adcom, Rotel, Aragon, Classe, and (remember?) the Robertson 4010 amps that I’ve owned all had their strengths, there was always something missing. Not so with the Musical Design. In the last six months or so, I’ve never had more fun with my stereo system. Along with my partner, Larry Cox, we bought the DM-100B, and we’ll be swapping it back and forth in our systems. Perhaps in the near future we can send it in for one of the upgrades to see how close we can come to those expensive amps!
Francisco Duran

Musical Designs DM100B amplifier
Retail $1195

Musical Designs
413 - 926 - 9266