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This review first appeared in the April 2010 issue of hi-end hifi magazine High Fidelity of Poland. You can also read this review of the Nagra MSA in its original Polish version. We publish its English translation in a mutual syndication arrangement with publisher Wojciech Pacula. As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end shows an e-mail address should you have questions or wish to send feedback. All images contained in this review are the property of High Fidelity or Trafomatic Audio. - Ed.

Reviewer: Wojciech Pacu
Review system: Go here

Review component retail: 34.200 zł + 5.300zł for VFS

The Nagra audio brand belongs to the Nagra Kudelski Group. As you might realize, Kudelski is a Polish name. For many years, the company’s founder and chief engineer was a Polish engineer. The story of his ancestors is quite interesting. As you can read here, Tadeusz Kudelski, father of Nagra founder Stefan, was a son of Tomasz Kudelski, a Lvov Polytechnics graduate responsible for introducing to the architecture in Stanisławow a style of art nouveau. He started his job there by drafting a design for a Polish State Railways structure.

During that time, he fell in love with the city and settled down. His family ran an open house amongst whose frequent visitors were Stanisław Przybyszewski and Jan Kasprowicz, famous Polish poets but at the time teachers in one of the Stanislawow high schools. Tadeusz Kudelski followed in his father's footsteps and attended Lvov Polytechnics. In 1918 he took active part in the town's defense as one of the Lvov Eagles and an adjutant of his professor from Polytechnics, Kazimierz Bartel, a politician and three times prime minister of the Polish government. Tadeusz’ carrier kicked off when Bartel talked the ambitious engineer into moving to Warsaw and once there helped him start over. Even though the Kudelski family had become Warsaw residents, they still came to visit Stanislawow quite often. It was there in the so-called cooling room which in fact was a basement that young Stefan began his first experiments and said to his friend that one day he would be a minister without a portfolio. Ambitious plans.

Nobody could have guessed that one of hi-end's and pro audio’s legends was about to emerge. One key contributor was the passage of history. No matter what, Stefan Kudelski’s background had him destined for great things but other factors too helped shape his company into what it would become. Incidentally, the name Nagra derives from the Polish word nagrywać (to record - music for example). After the lost September Campaign of the Nazi’s 1939 attack on Poland, the Kudelski family fled with the Polish government first to Romania, then Hungary and finally France. There Stefan's father Tadeusz became a member of the resistance and sent his wife and son to Switzerland. Stefan graduated from a French high-school in Florimont and afterwards attended Lausanne Polytechnics.

He was quite disappointed by his education’s poor quality and decided to quit during the fourth year. Afterwards he designed and built his first tape recorder in his small Prilly apartment. Years later he would receive an honoris causa degree from the same Polytechnics in recognition of his design work on the Nagra tape recorders. Tadeusz Olszański, author of an article about Stefan Kudelski and also his friend, wrote that Stefan sold his first tape recorder for CHF 1.000 which became an instant hit. According to the same report, the company was grown without bank loans. All earnings were simply reinvested. A few years later Stefan Kudelski received his first Academy Award Oscar for OST from Orfeu Negro (directed by Marcel Camus, 1959) which was recorded with one of his tape recorders. Later his machines became standard NASA issue. Stefan Kudelski also found himself inducted in the Gent Suisses 1998 list of the 100 most ingenious Swiss. He surely is a legend and also part of our Polish history.

The Nagra Kudelski Group today is run by Stefan's son Andrzej and divided into two branches, Nagravision and Nagraaudio. The latter divides into professional and hi-end audio. The new MSA amplifier represents the hi-end. Its abbreviation stands for Mosfet Stereo Amplifier. Its immediate predecessor was the famous pyramidal PSA of which I reviewed both stereo and mono versions. These were very good sounding but I definitely didn't fancy their appearance. The casing was made of thin bent sheet metal to sidestep Nagra’s legendary mechanical substance. I wrote about it then so there’s no reason not to now. In my opinion the MSA corrects this previous ‘mistake’ while adding novel wrinkles. It’s still a small casing shared with the CDC player, PL-P and PL-L preamplifiers and VPS phonostage. While compact, it immediately telegraphs being no toy – or if so, a toy only for grown-ups.

Front and back are classic aluminum, Nagra’s trademark modulometer is on the front. The sides too are aluminum. The clever top is one seamless heat sink that’s bigger than ever. The aluminum stock it’s machined from—not extruded—starts life as a 10kg brick and finishes out at 3.5kg. The MSA in stereo mode outputs 60wpc into 8 Ω, hence the overbuilt heat sink doesn't get too warm. Each channel runs a single pair of Mosfets which, Nagra’s leaflet states, avoids issues of more massive paralleling. Today’s review is preceded by our earlier reviews on the PL-P preamplifier, phonostage and headphone amp here and here; the  CD player, CDC preamplifier and PSA amplifier here; the D/A converter + MPA amplifier here; and the D/A converter here.

Music used for this review included: For the Masses, 1500 Records, 540 919-2, HQCD; Charlie Haden, The Private Collection, Naim, NAIMCD 108, 2 x CD; Chet Baker, Chet Baker Sings and Plays, Pacific Jazz/EMI Music Japan, TOCJ-90028, HQCD; Depeche Mode, Abroken Frame, Mute, DMCD2, Collectors Edition, SACD/CD+DVD; Diorama, A Different Life, Accesion Records, A 102, CD; Frank Sinatra, Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain, Universal Music/Sinatra Society of Japan, UICY-94421, SHM-CD; Garry Mulligan, Night Lights, Philips/Rainbow CD, PHCE-3064, CD; Joe Pass, For Django, Pacific Jazz/EMI Music Japan, TOCJ-90027, HQCD; Johann Sebastian Bach, Goldberg Variations, Matthews Halls, Linn Records, CKD 356, 2 x HDCD; Milt Jackson Quartet, Milt Jackson Quartet, Prestige/JVC, VICJ-41534, K2 CD; Voo Voo, XX, Sony & BMG, 520034 9, CD; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphonies, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Linn Records, CKD 350, 2 x SACD/HDCD.

When I first laid eyes on this little Nagra amplifier during unpacking and putting it on the vibration isolation support, I was so impressed that I almost fell off the chair. I would have fallen off had I not sat in my favorite couch instead. Even whilst putting the Nagra back into its box—so small as to fit a few beers at most—I was still full of admiration and jealousy. You see, the MSA together with the VFS support isn’t just about sound. It’s also about visual appeal. It’s a terrific example for just how good an audio device might look while remaining terribly compact. This newest Nagra is petite, not much bigger than the power supply in my former Leben RS-28CX preamp in fact. And its finish…Swiss products are famous in that regard. While stereotypes are often false, if somebody wanted to prove the Swiss theory, the MSA would do. The anti vibration platform was originally designed for Nagra’s tubed phonostage but we all know that solid-state devices require proper mechanical isolation too. I didn't test the support by itself but simply used it throughout the listening sessions. Testing it separately would have been quite involved because the setup in my SolidBase VI Custom rack is time-consuming. Nagra’s scheme involves insertion of three spikes with Delrin tips that correspond to retainers in the platform. If you compare the MSA solo to how it looks on the VFS, you’ll appreciate that the two should never be separated.

So - cosmetics, dimensions, proportions and finish are shockingly good. Of course aesthetics won’t suit everyone's tastes as they do mine. Ditto the sound. Although here Nagra's amplifier is extremely competent, with all the details well purposed, it still bears some signature mark of its creator. I believe I managed to read that designer's intentions well. In my opinion then, his main goal was to have the MSA sound like a 300B amp as much as feasible. How would I think that? In my rack, the MSA directly replaced the 300B Trafomatic Audio Experience Two. By now it’s also known that Nagra is hard at work on a push-pull 300B amp in almost the same chassis as the MSA (minus the heat sink of course). But the most important clue was the tonal balance and certain other sonic characteristics that put the Nagra almost on the same footing as the Trafomatic and other 300B designs. That’s no easy thing to pull off. It’s very difficult in fact but obviously doable. It also introduces limitations. I will deal with those later as an evaluation in absolute terms is one thing and potential buyer preferences another.

This amp lives somewhat on the warm side. During the same period I also reviewed the ASR Emitter I and loved it though it was still warmer than the MSA. The latter ‘sugars’ the sound and focuses on the first plane more like the Experience Two than the Emitter I or II. This last one is so sweet as to almost cross the line into unacceptable and humid (though I didn't hold it against it since some people would fall in love with its sound but it does show the bigger context). Nagra offers a more distinct sound which doesn't pour liquid sugar on everything to thereby cover up the musical events with a varnish. Still, first impressions will always be of warmth, never cold. Why? It seemingly has to do with slightly softened transients. I heard the same thing with the stereo and mono pyramids. Even Nagra’s biggest MPA did. It’s plausible evidence for a particular Nagra house sound, i.e. a consistent sonic signature characteristic for all their products.

When I call the Nagra warm, I refer to its timbres, not an intimate forward midrange projection or a boosting of solo instruments or vocals. This was obvious when I listened to specific jazz recordings. Neither the saxophones on Gerry Mulligan's Night Lights, the guitar on Joe Pass' Joe Pass for Django nor finally Frank Sinatra's voice on Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain—usually presented in front of the loudspeakers—were pushed forward that far this time. Nagra style warmth doesn’t do that. This too brought to mind 300B amplifiers. Properly designed, they don't cause such a forward projection whenever it’s the great resolution and formidable energy arising from circuit simplicity that focuses our attention on the performers instead. Nagra does it similarly. Instruments attract our attention because of their beautiful timbre, fantastic microdynamics and outstanding resolution.