The budget valve pre-amplifier has long been a staple of the entry-level high-end market. Countless conradjohnsons, Counterpoints and Crofts established the tradition, with the likes of Rogue Audio and now Cayin taking on the mantle. But sadly, the biggest bargain of all, first step on so many roads to audio riches (or ruin), the Croft Micro is no longer. And, whilst there are plans to rejuvenate the brand, target price for the micro replacement will be upwards of £700. Which brings us to the nub of the problem. In these increasingly price conscious days, customers consider nearly a grand for an entry-level unit anything but a bargain. So, as fine as the various Rogue Audio and imported designs from the likes of Cayin certainly are, they’re way outside the budget esoteric bracket occupied so effortlessly by the original Croft Micro – a unit that started out at a mere £150.
Time then, to introduce you to the Musical fidelity X-Can V8, a compact but solidly built little box that houses a standalone headphone amplifier, an add-on for amps or systems that lack a headphone socket of their own. So what? I hear you ask… Well, apart from the fact that the X-Can uses a dual-mono, hybrid circuit, with a pair of ECC88 twin-triodes used to drive a solid-state output stage (which is kind of neat…) offers outputs for two pairs of headphones and also features a USB input and DAC – it only costs £350! Great… but so what?! Well, the really interesting thing is that, at the end of the day, an amplifier is just an amplifier – and anything capable of driving a pair of closed back, dynamic headphones, sure as shootin’ should be able to laugh in the face of any self respecting power amp. Now do you get it?
The X-Can is built into a nicely presented aluminium extrusion that supports the single, large internal PCB. The brushed aluminium frontpanel sports two headphone sockets, a small dip switch to select between line and USB inputs and a volume control so flagrantly oversized that it’s beyond embarrassing. Feels nice though… The back panel offers line in and out (fixed level) so that you can daisy chain the X-Can if necessary, along with the USB socket and a three-pin Din for connection to the wall-wart power supply (MF do offer a more sophisticated PSU built into the same casework as the X-Can, and capable of driving up to four X-Series components).
Used as a headphone amp the XCan is an admirable performer, well worth the asking price; but that’s not what this is about. What I’m interested in is using it as a pre-amp. Okay, so it’s only got one input (two if you count the USB) and you have to hook up your power amp to the headphone sockets on the front panel (which isn’t particularly elegant), but where else are you going to get a tube pre-amp for considerably less than £500 – especially one this pretty? And isn’t using a headphone amp as a pre-amp kind of weird? Hey, it takes a line input and provides a low impedance variable output; which is pretty much what a pre-amp does. In fact, the X-Can’s output impedance is just 2 Ohms, considerably lower than many high-end pre-amps. Gain is generous, so you need to be a shade careful with the volume control, but otherwise, this thing’s a natural. The only proviso I’d make is that, whilst you can use the X-Can in plug and play mode, a little time spent playing with proper supports and the provision of properly terminated interconnects in place of the 1/4” jack adaptor (thoughtfully supplied) will reap disproportionate benefits. It’s not that the X-Can is fussy, it’s just that if you treat it like a high-end product it really starts to behave like one!
The best pre-amps offer an easy accessibility to the performance, a combination of tonal, spatial and temporal clarity. They sort out the musical strands, keeping them independent but connected, allowing them to run, or walk, at their own pace. Above all they never, ever, impose their own sense of pace on the music; they never, ever act as a turbo charger – or a choke on its ebb and flow. Measured by these purely musical standards, the most important standards there are, the X-Can V8 is astonishingly, frighteningly successful in its unintended role. In some respects, what’s even scarier (for the average audiophile at least) is just how good it is in hi-fi terms.
I used the MF with a whole array of different power amps, solid-state and valve, vintage and modern, in a vain attempt to catch it out. Everything from the Audionet AMP V to the Quad IIeighties, a vintage Leak Stereo 20 to the Hovland RADIA, all came, all were seen and all were conquered, swept along by the solid rhythmic foundation and natural momentum that the X-Can imparts to music. Bear in mind also, that the Leak aside, these amps range from ten to around 25 times the price of the X-Can, yet it never sounded anything other than right at home, even in this exalted company. I don’t know if it’s down to that super low output impedance or the way-overbuilt output stage (for a pre-amp) but when it comes to deep, deep bass this thing is a monster. Fast, solid and sure-footed, there’s an inevitability to the music’s momentum when required, launched from the firmest of foundations. The throbbing, repetitive bass lines and solidly hit drum beats of The Cure’s masterwork, Seventeen Seconds, hold no fears for the X-Can, whether it’s the drive and pace of ‘Play For Today’ or the more measured, reflective evolutions of ‘At Night’. When it comes to low frequency substance, timing and transparency, this little box speaks in a far more authoritative and commanding voice, with more shape, presence and useable weight than it has any right to. If things seem a little slow or turgid, look to its seating. If that doesn’t fix things pull your speakers forward by increments – because one thing’s for sure, it’s not the bottom end of the X-Can that’s flabby; either your support, or your system (most likely your speakers) can’t handle the extra energy. But get things just so and you’ll end up with a silly grin spread from ear to ear, wondering how you put up with what you thought was bass before. Because this isn’t just about quantity – it’s about quality too. And how…