Hardware Reviews

Fidler MC Pro: a phono stage bargain

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stages www.the-ear.net

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stages

It’s rare that I get to enjoy two phono stages at the same time but Michael Fidler thought that this would be a good way to get a handle on his products. The MC Pro supports MC cartridges, and the Spartan 5 MM cartridges, both units have a simple wall-wart power supply – except that it’s not. The reality is that it is a very sophisticated linear power supply, not some cheapo switching power supply that operates at high frequency and generates a lot of noise. Usually you can tell these apart as they have a small PCB inside and not a transformer. But a low noise power supply is essential if a phono stage is to perform well.

Both units are housed in small but substantially-built aluminium enclosures. The MC Pro is necessarily larger (housing as it does three stages, not just one) than the Spartan 5 MM. The MC Pro has adjustable loading and a selection of switches for LF X-feed, mode (stereo/mono) and gain (63 or 73dB). The Spartan 5 has simply a mono/stereo switch. Round the back the MC Pro offers balanced inputs via XLR as well as the more traditional RCA phonos whereas the Spartan 5 is RCA-only. In fairness to both I only used the RCAs for the review.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net


A variety of cartridges were used during the review including an Audio Note Io, Audio Technica Art-9, Clearaudio Signature, Ortofon Red and a venerable Shure V15III. Just for fun I also tried a mono Leak head from the 1950s and a Tannoy Variluctance Stereo. I began my (extended) listening sessions on the MC Pro.

Listening begins

Regardless of which cartridge was used the MC Pro handled them beautifully, and the choice of gain settings was particularly helpful in getting the best out of each. Most of my record collection is a treasure to me. There are a few review copies dotted in there, but 99.5% are discs I’ve paid my own money for. None is particularly valuable, but as my other reader will know my preference for music listening is predominantly for acoustically recorded material. So if there’s a rock band in there or some heavy metal it’s there because the feed has come in to the desk via a mic, not directly from the instrument. That way the ambience of the venue has been captured, and yes, even a dry studio has its own sound.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net

As I’m also a performer it’s important to me that my music replay system recreates as closely as possible being at a live music event’. Bearing that in mind I headed for a little Steeleye Span, a real blast from way back when. The recordings are quite raw and immediate, so with the volume up a fair way you can get quite a sense of what hearing them live would be like. Their signature track is All Around My Hat which is given quite an earthy rendition. You can’t quite feel the spittle as they sing, but it’s not far off. Fortunately the Pro does a really good job, handling the extreme quiet between notes with the sudden outbursts as the singing starts. However, none of the intimate nuances are lost and if you listen carefully you can hear when the singers move further from or nearer to the mic. It’s that sort of thing which makes listening to music so enjoyable – all the subtle elements which occur in real life haven’t been glossed over or masked by the phono stage.

Amplifying such a small signal up to line level really does require care to ensure signal integrity, and phase coherence across the RIAA network is so important in order to preserve those smaller details. With a moving magnet cartridge it’s a challenge, with an MC it’s even more so.

Oh so quiet

A very crude test of how good a phono stage is (or rather, how quiet) is to connect it (without connecting the arm/cartridge), and turn the volume up, progressively until you reach the end stop (if you get that far), and compare that with the same position of the volume knob on an empty line-level input. Most of the time the phono stage will impose more noise into the system than on the empty input, that’s normal. The reason? An empty input is quite noisy as there is no low-impedance line input to shunt away the voltage noise of the line load resistor/input impedance.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net

I hit a snag though. I got to the end stop and struggled to hear any more noise. I thought I hadn’t switched either unit on, but I had. (This was the same with both units.) Apart from the seriously mega-bucks phono stages I don’t think I’ve come across an MC or an MM phono stage quite as quiet as these.

The next crude test is to turn everything off, and connect an appropriate arm/cartridge to each phono stage and try the same test. We get a little less noise this time because the cartridge absorbs (ie shunts away) noise from the loading resistor, but even when we hit the end stop neither exhibits as much noise (it was virtually inaudible) as I was expecting. The reality is that both are far far quieter than I had expected. This is quite commendable, even switching to the higher gain level didn’t make any discernible difference. The result will be that the quiet sounds on real records will be that much easier to hear.

Michael Fidler, designer of these little units is adamant that care needs to be taken to keep the noise floor low, and to maintain as much of the signal integrity as possible. The only diversion from this lies in the X-feed facility where really low frequency signal can be mono’d as, in theory, uber-low bass is omni-directional, so can’t be pinpointed. However, the not-so-obvious benefit is that the oft-criticised vinyl roar is much reduced, again leading to a much quieter background – even less to mar your listening enjoyment.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net

Initial listening was with two full-range speakers, no sub. The MC Pro was very adept at plumbing the depths available from a vinyl groove, and, hackneyed though it is the Telarc 1812 still provides one of the toughest tests of both dynamics and deep bass slam. I was surprised that neither was lacking, left/right separation was excellent being neither disjointed nor merging into one. The MC Pro managed to produce the integrity of a single soundstage (despite the expansive size of the cannon-field) yet still retain that air of poise and togetherness so that the orchestra did not seem remote from the cannon fire.

Turning the cross-feed on, some of the lower-end spatial definition seemed to lose a little focus but bass weight and slam was still retained, and sound quality didn’t seem affected. The channel-specific sound identifiers seemed to be a little blurred though. I did then try the same track with a smaller pair of mini-monitors where bass extension is great as the other speakers. In this instance the cross-feed helped the bottom end enormously, allowing both speakers to share the load of the bottom end. You had to be a little judicious with the turnover frequency knob to get the best out though, and that’s a care and time in setting up the speakers exercise. In my view it’s a very useful facility if the speakers are likely to need a little assistance to cope with uber-low bass.

Pretzel Logic (Steely Dan, ABCD616) hit the player next. Nicely recorded, this is in my view something of an unsung collection of works (I’m always singing about it! Ed). The MC Pro couldn’t have done a better job of laying everything out in just the right perspective. All the smaller nuances which give clues to the recording venue(s) and the layout of the band are there, not shouting at you, but revealed despite the other louder sounds in the mix. Very often it’s the smaller sounds which give us that indefinable something which enables us to close our eyes and (metaphorically) transport ourselves to the live event. That the MC Pro has this level of resolution at this (quite modest) price point is testament to Fidler’s diligence in not only keeping the overall noise floor low, but also in keeping the signal path clear of unwanted artefacts which can so often mar an otherwise good design.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net

Next on the turntable was a rather interesting release on the Chasing the Dragon’ label. The Syd Lawrence Orchestra, playing a variety of big band numbers (VALDC002). Here Mike Valentine has pressed the same material on two discs. One is Direct to Disc, the other is pressed from an analogue tape master. My usual phono stage shows up the differences between the two, but nothing on the scale of the MC Pro. I had prepared myself for there being an improvement in the differences, but the MC Pro defined how chalk and cheese they really are.

I won’t spoil the fun by revealing which one I prefer – that really is something you have to decide – but the amazing resolution of this phono stage really lets you inside the band as they’re playing. It’s raw, immediate, finely polished and musically great fun to listen to. Sadly, when the MC Pro goes back it won’t be such fun anymore.

Spartan 5

Moving over to the Spartan 5, one would expect that it would be slightly quieter than the Pro as the gain requirements are almost an order of magnitude less. That’s not the case. Comparing the two together (using my very crude real-world test outlined earlier) there’s barely any difference between the two. I have to be careful here, because saying the Spartan is as quiet as the MC Pro could be misconstrued in that the Spartan 5 is less good because it’s only’ as quiet as the Pro which, in theory (with a higher gain requirement) should be noisier. Both are unbelievably quiet, not just at this point in the market, but looking at phono stages many times the price.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net

The Spartan 5 is, as its name suggests, rather more spartan. It’s a simple affair with a power-on LED and a mono/stereo switch on the front panel. The rear contains RCA phono inputs and outputs, and a ground/earth post.

From the outset the signature of the Spartan 5 was very obviously like that of the MC Pro. There was that air of calm regardless of what was thrown at it. It was transparent, effortless, utterly beguiling and quiet. Horowitz in Moscow was the first disc to hit the platter this time. This is a beautifully-recorded live performance from 1986 in the Moscow Conservatory on Deutsche Grammophon (419 499-1). The aural perspective is of sitting about a third of the way back in the venue, and as long as the replay volume is set to mimic that, the Spartan 5 really will deliver the goods. The piano is full, brightly lit but not so much that it becomes strident or thin at any point. The weighty bass registers come across with believable force, and the crowning glory is the audience’s response which the mics have captured remarkably well. There isn’t just the high-pitched clapping but also the general low-frequency hubbub which is normally curiously absent in recordings. When Horowitz plays, the size of the space is also very readily apparent which is a mark of just how well the recording has been made, and how well the Spartan 5 is at retrieving the smaller details which lay this facet bare.

Moving to a different genre, Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein is a good fun rock with heavy bass and a low guitar riff running through it. The soaring lead guitar can often get muddied by what’s going on underneath, particularly if the signal path’s phase integrity and immunity to spurious noisy artefacts is suspect. Here, though, it was rock-solid.

Michael Fidler Spartan 5 & MC Pro phono stage review www.the-ear.net

Lastly Dame Janet Baker sang Elgar’s Sea Pictures to me, and what a treat that was. Accompanied by Barbirolli and the LSO on Angel S-36796. My particular favourite is Where Corals Lie, a most beautifully-sung rendition; this is perhaps Baker’s finest work. You can hear the interplay between orchestra and soloist – without it things like this fall apart, but the Spartan 5 makes the whole even more whole and presents a very coherent, emotionally engaging performance, bringing the whole ensemble right into your listening room.

As I’ve said before, the above is only a snapshot of the listening which informed my musings. Many more enjoyable hours were spent with both the phono stages than I care to remember, and into the dark summer evenings.

A dilemma

It’s not a case of choosing the Spartan 5 over the MC Pro (or vice versa), as which one you opt for will be dictated by your choice of cartridge. The dilemma is: how does Michael Fidler make such good, competent, musical, emotionally engaging phono stages at such a (relatively) low price point. They’re not cheap, but compared to some they’re definitely not expensive, and their performance is way above what their price point would suggest you should expect.

The only caveat really is about using the cross-feed on the Pro. If you have smaller speakers where bass performance is slightly lacking in the deepest regions, the crossfeed can be a very welcome facility as it preserves the impression of deep bass at the (very marginal) cost of imaging in the lower registers. If you have full-range speakers, I suspect it might not be needed most of the time. Having said that, it’s an extremely useful and very well thought-out addition to a standard MC phono stage. As for the Spartan 5, I’ve always felt that MC cartridges are just a tad more transparent and revealing than MM ones. However, the Spartan 5 seems to give MMs that openness which I love about MCs. It is up there with the best of the MM phono stages that I’ve had my hands on, and is definitely a contender for bargain of the year’ (as is the MC Pro).

Fidler could charge megabucks for these. Their price point is at a level where it could suggest something rather more lowly, performance-wise. Absolutely not. These are top-notch well designed pieces of kit which will do justice to sources way above their market level, and will give some high end phono stages a serious run for their money. Highly recommended and enjoyed.


MC Pro
Type: Solid-state, MC phono stage
Phono input: RCA sockets
Analogue outputs: single ended RCA, balanced XLR
Input impedance: 120Ω
Input capacitance: 800pF
RIAA accuracy: +/- 0.1dB
Gain: 63dB or 73dB
Output level: (nominal) 720mV RCA, 1440mV XLR (0.5mV in at 63dB gain)
Signal to noise ratio: 81.5dB, ref 500µV, 10Ω cartridge
Dimensions (HxWxD): 60x172x155mm
Weight: 900g plus power supply
Warranty: 1 year

Spartan 5
Type: Solid-state, MM phono stage
Phono input: RCA sockets
Analogue outputs: single ended RCA
Input impedance: 47kOhm
Input capacitance: 120pF
RIAA accuracy: +/- 0.25dB
Output level: 500mV (ref 5mV input)
Signal to noise ratio: 76dB (with cartridge connected)
Dimensions (HxWxD): 46x110x90mm
Weight: 280g plus power supply
Warranty: 1 year

Price when tested:
Spartan 5 £150
MC Pro £650
Manufacturer Details:

Michael Fidler


phono stages


Chris Beeching

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