Enter Grant Fidelity, an audio manufacturer/distributor based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The company prides itself on offering high-end gear without high-end mark-ups, thanks to direct distribution to consumers. Grant makes it easy to assemble a high-performance stereo system by offering ready-to-go packages at several price points as well as individual components.
Ian Grant and Rachel Zhang, the prime movers behind Grant Fidelity, graciously sent me what they call “The Most Flexible System” for review. This outfit includes a CD player, amplifier, speakers, power conditioner, and audiophile-quality power cords, cables and connectors. Additional components, including turntables, are available separately.
The entire bundle comes packaged with care, and shipping is prompt — the samples arrived damage-free at my Wisconsin home from Calgary in just five days. Grant and Zhang were also very gracious with their time, responding to any questions the same day and offering friendly advice to better my experience.
As I unpacked, I was immediately struck by the design and quality of everything. From the tube amp and CD player to the cords and cables, each component reflected craftsmanship you just won’t find in the big-box stores; if you do, you’ll likely overpay.
Yet the prices for these individual components are relatively low, thanks to Grant’s partnerships with a trio of companies in the Far East. Grant works with top Chinese audio manufacturers Jungson, Shengya and Opera-Consonance and serves as North American distributor for their respective brands and those under Grant Fidelity’s name. Under such an agreement, Grant can offer robustly engineered products and still pass on substantial savings to consumers.
The system is powered by Grant’s A-348 integrated tube amplifier. The A-348 is built like a tank and weighs in at a solid 55 pounds. It comes with EL-34 tubes — commonly used in guitar amplifiers — affordable low-maintenance entries into the world of tubes. Grant offers other tube options for those who aim to achieve a particular sonic quality. That modular aspect of tube amplifiers gives them a distinct advantage over solid-state amplifiers, which cannot be easily modified. If you’ve never heard a tube amp before, the best analogy is comparing vinyl to digital.
Both can be satisfying playback options, but a record has that warmth and smoothness that even the best digital recording has trouble equaling. Tubes have a natural warm and smooth sound with particularly well-rounded midrange. Where transistor amps can sound “bright” and even edgy, tube amps typically are mellow and suave. Tubes, however, do require maintenance to ensure the best performance and to keep them from damage. The primary exercise is tube biasing, fine-tuning each tube to a standard voltage. Grant recommends checking the bias after the first hour, first day and first week of use, and then monthly thereafter.
The tubes stayed remarkably close to bias once “burned in,” with only a deviation of 1/100th of a volt coming into play after I had the amp up and running for 30 days. Adjusting bias takes about 2 minutes and requires minimal technical ability. If you can put a round peg into a round hole, you can bias a tube amp.
Tubes also get hot — sometimes very hot — and generally sport a cage to keep fingers from accidentally touching a glowing tube and to allow heat dissipation. My listening room is approximately 300 square feet (15 x 20 feet), and the A-348 provided noticeable heat after it was powered up for 30 minutes or so.
The CD-327A is also tubed but requires no additional maintenance. The unit’s two 12AX7 tubes are housed in the rear and are covered by a square of hard clear plastic. Overall, the player is housed in a hefty chassis — weighing in at 24.2 pounds — and comes with four spiked feet to provide stability and isolation. The remote is a solid piece of metal, dressed in black, with easy-to-decipher buttons.
Talk of cables and cords may not excite you, particularly if all you know is the generic plug-and-socket models that come with many components, but consumers have more audio cable options than components to plug them into. Grant offers a range of high-performing interconnects, speaker cables and power cords at reasonable prices. Its PC-1.5 power cord is nearly as thick as my forefinger. At its heart is high-grade 16-gauge copper wire insulated with teflon. The cord is capped with beefy hospital-grade connectors that lock into components and outlets with a firm grip. Ian Grant emphasized the importance of running all gear through a power conditioner to get the best possible performance.
Power conditioners — as well as cables — are a source of contention within the audiophile world. Many argue that there’s nothing to be gained by using anything but plain speaker wire and bare-wire terminations. Why spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on cables when the real meat is found in components? Debate also rages over the need for “power conditioning” at all. Proponents assert that the electricity that comes into a home is inherently flawed, prone to surges and spikes that can diminish audio and video performance.
Grant’s RPF-120 power conditioner is designed to improve audio performance by cleaning the power and smoothing power spikes before it reaches your gear. It’s not a surge protector per se but relies on a fuse to prevent damage from power overloads. The RPF-120 is equipped with six grounded outlets capable of handling 2,200 watts under 220V or 1,100 watts under 110V. Two outlets are unfiltered and designed for amplifiers, the other four are for source components such as a CD player.
Wow! That one word goes a long way, but doesn’t describe fully what you’ll hear from the Most Flexible System. Synergy is a favorite catch-phrase in the audiophile world and one that kept coming to mind as I listened to dozens of favorite discs through the Grant MFS. Detail, depth, warmth and right-pace pervade the Grant sound. Whether it was rock, blues, jazz, folk, acoustic, reggae or classical, the music emerged from the set-up as if it were being released from prison — sprung free on a sunny day.
The A-348 deserves much of the credit. First off, it just looks cool. The silver cage and faceplate brought many a “What’s that?” when I brought friends over for a listen. Aesthetics aside, the A-348 is a brilliant blend of power and smoothness that could turn salt and vinegar to buttercream. Perhaps most impressive was the amp’s ability to be “cranked” without becoming horribly shrill and unlistenable. On the contrary, it seemed to draw out even more detail as the volume ascended.
The CD-327A is an equally smooth operator, with an easy-going but exacting sonic character. The up-sampling option allows users to listen to CDs at 44.1, 88.2 or 176.4 kHz. Coupled with the player’s 24 bit/192 kHz Burr Brown digital-to-analog converter chip, the result is rich analog-like sound whether you up-sample or not.
I’ll briefly touch on the cables and conditioner. No matter what some manufacturers assert, the only job of a cable or cord is to transfer information — not to touch it up in any way. This concept of “neutrality” is important — I’m most interested in what I don’t hear from a cable or cord. When music emerges from a source component, it’s best when it emerges from silence. It’s what audiophiles call “blackness.” That background silence enables the music to arrive with startling immediacy and presence. And that’s what the Grant cables, cords, interconnects — coupled with the conditioner — do with aplomb.
As good as the A-348 and CD-327A are, the MBS-1 speakers may be even better. These are overachievers in every sense. They have loads of depth and dimension, and like many things, they get better with age. Although they’re fine performers out of the box, Grant cautions, “the crossover only starts working properly after 75 hours, the tweeter after about 100 hours and the woofer after about 200 hours.” When everything comes together, the results are superb. You get clear, detailed sound with a broad soundstage that sounds more like a floor-standing speaker than a two-way bookshelf.
Through the Grant system, it’s possible to hear vocalists breathe as they expel the last syllables of a phrase — a wonderful thing. Reverb was subtly dispersed and sparkling. With nearly everything I listened to through the Grant, I found a happy point at about 40 percent volume. There was the perfect mix of detail and “loud” where it all bloomed comfortably.
The bass response from this bookshelf speaker — and everything else — went far beyond my expectations. Priced on their own at $960 a pair, the MBS-1s represent a first-rate value, used within or purchased outside the Grant system.
The Most Flexible System is not just an excellent audio system, it’s a digital audio package that could make fast friends with analog lovers in the course of a weekend. I’m happy to make its acquaintance.