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Time to disregard all the French felonies that form my antipathy towards our neighbour across the Channel: the revived Micromega has returned to the market with a family of new products offering build quality, style, functionality and, above all, prices belying manufacture in Europe. The brand will be a cat among UK pigeons, despite arriving when the economy suggests that this is not the time to launch, or re-launch a brand. Perhaps new owner Didier Hamdi knows something we don’t. Maybe tough times are just made for bargains.

An hour with Hamdi tells you that the Micromega of yore is merely the spiritual precedent of the relaunched company. The original focused on advanced digital products, at a time when there were too many CD players and DACs on the market to create any ‘hero’ brands. Yet, Micromega was, along with Theta, Wadia and a few others, among few stand-outs during the crowded ‘CD era’.

As computers, DVD and other 5in disc formats cheapened nearly all digital hardware down to low-end ubiquity, Micromega withered, again like the rest, in a world of £16.95 CD players from supermarkets. CD was devalued to insignificance, while Micromega was primarily a manufacturer of digital hardware, and the prices were of the upper sector. Hamdi, though, is an audiophile from the ‘grown-up’ business of industrial electrics, and his plans for the brand include a heavy dose of reality, not least in the approach to pricing.
He finds the margins and prices for high-end equipment to be both offensive and imaginary: anathema to the man whose company illuminates the Eiffel Tower. His intention is to turn audio pricing upside-down. As he’s got the stones to be a championship motorcycle rider, I’d take the threat seriously.

 

SLEEK PACKAGING

While the new Micromega can offer you 13 models including a tuner, four integrated amps, three CD players, a streamer plus the turntable developed by Epure, we’re looking here at the lone preamplifier and the more powerful of two stereo power amps at the top of the range. Despite their lofty position, together they cost only £3288. I can name a dozen different 1m interconnects that sell for more than that; and while £3288 is still a fair chunk of change during these straitened times, in context it’s cheap as frites.

Wisely, Micromega saved a bundle by using the same housing for all the models, differing only in faceplates – and even those have been reduced to a minimum, eg, the preamp and all of the integrateds are the same. It has opted for a sleek 430x300x70mm (WDH), with rounded edges, clearly legible, blue-lit displays 130x26mm on the right-hand halves of the panel, to the right of the stepped volume rotary, with six smoothly-operating buttons below.

For the PA-20, the buttons operate (L-R) input select down, input select up, monitor, mute, headphone and standby. Also found on the front are 3.5mm sockets for headphones, driven with its own 2W amp, and direct input from an iPod. I tried the latter with the analogue output of HRT’s superb MusicStreamer USB DAC via phono-to-3.5mm plug, to access the BBC’s iPlayer from my PC, and it worked perfectly. The back offers inputs for tape, four analogue sources as well as a 47kohm MM phono input, and connections for a subwoofer, processor, pre-main-out and interfaces for multi-room installations. Best of all? Balanced main outputs via XLR to exploit the
PW-400 at its best.

Fitted with superlative multi-way binding posts and both phono and XLR inputs at the back, and rated by Micromega at 400W/ch into 4ohm and half that into 8ohm, the PW-400 uses the efficiency of Class D [see boxout, below] to squeeze a seriously powerful amplifier into a tiny chassis. There was no better evidence of this than at a private session I enjoyed with Micromega at the recent Paris hi-fi show, prior to its doors opening for the public. Used with massive Avantgarde horns – admittedly a sensitive load – the bi-amped speakers delivered the sort of plump, rich bass they usually deny.

Level was never going to be an issue, which I confirmed with a selection ranging from LS3/5As to Wilson Sophia IIs, with Tannoy Mini Autographs and Quad 10Ls in between. Sources included the Pro-ject Xtension with its own arm, an Ortofon 2M Blue MM cartridge, the Marantz CD-12/DA-12 CD player, the Denon DVD-2900 universal player and the aforementioned HRT MusicStreamer fed by Radio 4 from my PC. All wires were courtesy of Yter.

 

SALACIOUS SEDUCTION

Because I had that blast in Paris prior to listening to the system at home, I was primed for two things: an absence of compression and utter neutrality. The former is the result of seemingly limitless power; the latter appears to be a priority with the new Micromega, a desire to present a chain that amplifies but does not modify. To demonstrate this in Paris, they played the most lean, uncluttered selection of minimalist recordings you could muster, from bass-led jazz in a three-piece, to solo acoustic blues. Not being too suspicious, but being aware that a dearth of complexity makes it easier to deliver an impressive sound in show conditions, I turned the other way back at home.

For modern, studio-borne pop, I slipped in an old fave, the Lightning Seeds’ Cloudcuckooland, named in honour of my favourite play by Aristophanes, The Birds. Although the vocals are delicate enough to play into the sparse-is-good theory that motivates hi-fi companies to demonstrate with ultra-lean recordings, the mixes included enough weird synthetic instruments and snappy percussion to challenge the Micromegas in ways that the show pieces didn’t. The coherence was impeccable, with nothing amiss suggesting disproportionate emphasis in any areas. In other words, that unexpectedly rich bass from the horns was all theirs, not an effect created by the amp.

What will impress fans of anything even remotely technoid – dig out your old Kraftwerk vinyl for this – is the crispness and speed of upper frequency transients. Someone spent a lot of time voicing this pair because it consistently avoided anything that you’d call sibilant. With Julie London’s close-mic’d vocals on In Person At The Americana, it was possible to hear all of the characteristics that made her voice so salaciously seductive, yet no hisses marred the experience. Benefiting even more from the silky top was the brass ensemble that backed her, and the audience applause that welcomed her.

Nuances? She possessed a voice of multiple textures, often adding a slight warble to her always smoky delivery. If she didn’t puff on the occasional Lucky Strike (and as she reached her 70s, she probably kept the fags under control), then we must thank her DNA for the vocals: respected on every level by the Micromegas. Framing the brass section – a cool drummer to the far right, smooth and apt backing vocalists of the sort you can’t find anymore, and a slick guitarist stage left, with Julie dead-centre – was a vast, wide and deep sound stage, probably inspired by Place Vendome: large, yet elegant.

You leave the recording wishing you were there that night, the deal-maker being a downright sexy version of ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, balancing a sleazy rhythm section and sleazier horns with a voice that makes Jessica Rabbit sound like Hilda Ogden. It is somehow appropriate that this sizzling session was  rendered utterly incendiary by a French replay system. By the time you get to ‘Cry Me A River’, you’ll need a cold shower. Even the schmaltzy ‘The Trolley Song’ can cool the ardour.

As a cold shower, I then turned to TEAC Esoteric’s fabulous SACD of Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, a new issue of the Suisse Romande/Ansermet Decca classic recorded in 1961. The opening timpani, the massed chorale, the castanets – I was reminded (and I say this with abject humility) of the sound of the SME Music Room’s system with AR-A at the controls. The soundstage was of epic proportion, the dynamics unfettered and the tones neutral.

Then I realised what it was that makes so many want to compare these products to much dearer rivals: the detail, too, recalled something else beyond my own system. I was reminded of Esoteric’s best source components, with an abundance of information that’s almost distracting, because one wants, instinctively, to be able to focus on every single element all at once. It’s why movie lovers enjoy repeated viewings of the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur, the epic battles in everything from Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars to 300: each repeated listening reveals something more that you might have been too preoccupied elsewhere to appreciate.

 

IMPECCABLE BEHAVIOUR

Leaving the sound for another major consideration, it’s worth mentioning that the Micromega pairing behaved impeccably from the first moment they were fed some AC. Absolutely Nothing Went Wrong. The controls were a delight to use. I didn’t even bother exploiting all the hidden features (like being able to rename the inputs); I fell in love with the PA-20 straight out of the box.

Because one interfaces with a preamplifier, but leaves a power amp to its own devices, it’s perhaps easier to warm to the former. And in this case, the
PA-20 may turn out to be the more popular of the two units, given that it worked so well with other amps – such as Quad’s 909. It could emerge as a sleeper, a killer of a bargain preamp, a hot whisper on the audiophile gossip circuit. But that would be to ignore the PW-400’s beguiling mix of sheer force and Gallic sophistication. Considering that the exemplars of this – the best Burgundies or Valrhona chocolate, for example – are hardly inexpensive, and as Paris rivals London for limitless avarice, the amp, at below two grand, ticks all of the same boxes as its sibling. 


VERDICT To everyone’s surprise, Micromega ‘Mk II’ is an altogether better proposition than its quirky forebear. This sublime combination shows how the firm has managed to blend Bauhaus elegance, up-to-the-minute ergonomics, total usability, truly sweet sound and blessedly sane prices, yet still manufacture in Europe rather than Asia. Considering the total tariff, this could be the start of a new Anglo-French contretemps.
 

Sound Quality: 83%

 
 
Originally published in the December 2009 issue