Hi-Fi+: Musical Fidelity’s X-Can V8 Headphone Amplifier/Preamplifier

Hidden Talents


 
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…

Comments

mj37 (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 12:03

Why would you say "and you have to hook up your power amp to the headphone sockets on the front panel (which isn’t particularly elegant)"...why can't you just use the "Line Out" RCA jacks on the back panel like you would with any other component?

foo (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 13:54

sadly the previous reader is lacking in the ability to read the black and white.
almost didn't bother replying to such an inane question ...
the RCA's are FIXED LEVEL...intended as a pass thu... NOT a buffered, controllable output.
 

mj37 (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 15:45

Sorry I'm so inane...I'm sitting here with my X-CAN V8P right next to me on my desktop, controlling the volume with the volume knob THROUGH THE RCAs. With both USB from the computer and Line In from a CD player as sources.
Got foo on your face, jackanape?
So, again, my question--is there a reason why the reviewer says that you have to hook up the power amp through the headphone jacks? I'd prefer to hear an answer from someone who knows what they're talking about this time....

mj37 (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 16:41

This is quite frustrating...Greg is correct, the review isn't even of the item pictured. But the review talks about the product almost exclusively in its use as a preamp, and the product that was reviewed, the V8, is ***NOT*** the one you should use as a preamp--for that you should get the V8P (the one in the picture), no question. Same price, even.
 
I own the V8P, and I use it as a preamp / DAC (I don't own any headphones).
 
My own purchase decision came down to a choice between the Benchmark DAC1 Pre ($1,595 from Benchmark) and the Musical Fidelity X-CAN V8P ($499 from Audio Advisor). Both units have approximately the same functionality as a preamp: a built-in USB DAC, two headphone jacks, and one line in for an additional input. My decision was undoubtedly influenced by the price, but, as I read the reviews, the emphases of the two units seem to be flipped. The Benchmark has an outstanding, oversampling DAC and is pretty good but not stellar as a line stage through its one "Pre" input. The MF, by contrast, has non-oversampling USB DAC that is pretty good but not stellar, and is fabulous as a line stage preamp for its one input. My decision was based on how I want to use the unit: I listen to MP3's and Apple Lossless files from the computer maybe 80-85% of the time (I work at home), but relatively few of the 8,000 or so music files I have are even as high res as standard Red Book CD spec. So I'm getting a new turntable and will use the V8P as the preamp for my phono setup, which will be the highest audio quality I will have in my system.
 
For some reason, Musical Fidelity is almost hiding the fact that the V8P has a USB DAC in it. But it does. In fact, when I bought mine, Audio Advisor was erroneously advertising the V8P as having an oversampling DAC section, which it does not have. I've been so pleased with the unit that I kept it anyway--I'm sure the Benchmark would be better for those who have a lot of high-res audio files, but the NOS DAC is quite good enough for my purposes, and I'm looking forward to evaluating the V8P's line in with my phono setup. (So far I've just had an old CD player hooked up to it.)
 
I guess I will sidestep any comments about WHY in the world this review concentrates onusing a V8 as a preamp, and doesn't talk at all about the DAC and the headphone amp functionality, when you can get a version of the unit specifically intended for use as a preamp for the same price as the V8. But if you want to use the X-CAN as a preamp, be sure to GET THE V8P, NOT THE V8. It's the same price and you get the pre-out jacks on the back to run to your amp.
 
Blue Mikey
 
 

benza108 (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 18:34

I'm pretty sure the article was written when the V8 was the only product in existence, and hence the need to use the headphone out sockets as a pre. Musical Fidelity later added the pre amp functionality (V8P). You know what lag times are like in the publishing industry – this was originally published in HiFI+ a few issues ago, which probably means it was written 10 - 12 months ago (when the V8P was merely a twinkle in MF's eyes ... aaah, so sweet)!

greg (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 15:27

It's too bad the review is of a product not pictured. :-( I love both my X-CANv8 and v3. However, the product pictured is the X-CANv8p which actually has two pre-out RCA connections in addition to the normal line-in and line-out. The entire reason for the v8p designation is the inclusion of the pre-out capabilities -- it's a little more 'elegant' as a preamp. :-)

amclaussen (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 19:03

Even when the "review" headline says: "HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER/PREAMPLIFIER, the "reviewer" completely and blatantly forgot to check the unit's capability to drive headphones...  Why?  Maybe he got too lazy to get some pairs of headphones, Lo-Impedance, Medium-Impedance, Hi-Impedance, In-Canal earphones...  and give us SOME insight about the unit preformance as a Headphone Amp...
He wrote:  "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"...
How the H... are you telling us that the unit is "an Admirable performer if you don't give us a clue HOW did you arrived to such statement? and HOW is that you forget to remember you are writing to an audience that MAY be more interested than you in using it with headphones?  As a reader, I want to know HOW the unit sounds.  Reading how a Headphone performs as a Preamp, just because the reviewer doesn't like or enjoy (or understand) headphone listening, is not worth reading the "review".
Headphone Amplifiers are NOT an easy design exercise, they have to perform with extremely low noise at the analog output jack (to accomodate high sensitivity In-Canal Earphones and some efficient Headphones too.  They have to show very small Crossover distortion for the same reason; they need to have enought output for some not as efficient headphone types, and finally, they have to be able to perform a with wide range of headphone impedance values, from 32 to 600 or so ohms...  Additionally, they should have an output circuit that is able to drive phones through long extension cables (which are unshielded) without allowing hum and noise getting into amplification and becoming audible when a user wants to be able to reach another room or move around without having to carry all the equipment. For all those reasons, too many headphone output jacks are not even an acceptable option, specially with some headphones, that really deserve or need to be driven with something better than a wimpy pre out  jack  (or worse, like a power amplifier with resistors).  For me, the best approach to getting the best sound from headphones, is a dedicated headphone amp (that could also be a fine Preamp at the same time). This unit looks like it could be such a unit, at a reasonable price, which lately appears to be a bad thing, cause it could be blamed for costing too little to be looked at!
Too sad the reviewer isn't interested at all.
Still, I would like to know which types of headphones were used in the evaluation, if any...  and how good the unit actually SOUNDS tru headphones.

mj37 (not verified) -- Thu, 07/16/2009 - 20:16

I sympathize with amclaussen, but there ANOTHER aspect the reviewer ignored, which is the unit's relative performance as a DAC. I'm mystified as to why Musical Fidelity isn't promoting this aspect of the X-CAN V8[P], given that similar units with built-in USB DACs are arguably one of the hottest categories in audio right now--everybody seems to want to know about the Benchmark, the Lavry, the Grace, the Korean Stello stuff, the Wavelengths, etc. But MF barely even mentions the USB DAC in the V8[P], and this reviewer ignores it even more thoroughly than he ignores the headphone performance.
 
This seems to be a review that cries out to be re-done.
 
Blue Mikey

foxtrot (not verified) -- Sun, 07/19/2009 - 08:34

This little silver box has a few of you worked into a tizzy. The vitrol found in these posts seems strangely misplaced. Please keep our little hifi hobby friendly and direct any additional emotions to where they naturally belong, politics or sports.
The review was written long before the 'p' version was available, fwiw. Seems like a great buy for a simple two source system.
Could you put something like this together with some powered Quad 12l's, or similar and have a killer >$1500 system hooked up to your computer? I think so...
I'd like to see some retailers promote flexible units like this in ready to buy packages. Very nice!

A Lewis (not verified) -- Sat, 11/14/2009 - 22:47

 I was inspired by your article to play an i-pod through my Grado headphone amp then using the headphone jack and going "mono" to play the music through a guitar bass amp for a party.  Worked a treat. Thanks. This headphone tube amp seems like a good deal.

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