Mitchell & Johnson may not be a name you are familiar with, though you may well have come across their relatively budget-priced headphones. However, they also make a small range of electronics built here in the UK. Alan McIntosh has a listen to the brand’s 800 series pre (with on-board DAC and MM/MC phon-stage) and power amplifiers costing £1299 a box. 

Michell & Johnson are perhaps better known their aesthetically and musically pleasing low to mid budget headphones but I confess it’s not a company I was very familiar with, so when I was offered the opportunity to review a Pre and Power Amplifier combo, fully manufactured here in the UK I was keen!   

CONSTRUCTION 

Taking the S800 Pre amplifier first there is a lot to talk about. Faced in brushed aluminium with 2 rotary controls – one volume (backed by a Burr-Brown stepped attenuator to maintain sound quality) and an input selector. These are an “infinite turn design. The rotaries sit astride the large Blue lit LCD readout showing input selected, volume and menu adjustmentsPressing the rotaries accesses the setup menuOn/off control (positioned same on the S815) is the somewhat retro-styled 3-way rocker switch. When connected by a 12v trigger the pre’s rocker also brings the power amp to life. Completing the front is the useful addition of a 6.35mm Headphone socket. 

super range of input options is available with 6 Analogue inputs (5 RCA/1 Balanced XLR) and 3 digital (both optical and Coax) and an Asynchronous XMOS USB input for those preferring it. The Asynchronous nature of the USB removes any clocking compliance issues between your source device and the M+J internal DAC.  

The digital end of things are admirably taken care of by the well respected and great sounding ESS 9018 Sabre DAC, all inputs on the S800 are restricted to 24bit/192kHz but will happily handle DSD64 &128 which will take care of most Hi-Res streaming needs for all but those running extreme resolution, but I suspect if you are, you already have a capable DAC for that purpose and would bypass the M+J one altogether.  Having the ESS9018 on board is a big win for M+J in my eyes and the achievement to have it at this price point is to be applauded.   

You get an MM/MC phono stage which can be selected via the S815’s settings menu – again in lower/mid budget amps this is uncommon and removes the need for more boxes, while still giving you the flexibility to move between cartridge types in future 

Outputs are 2 RCA outputs, line level tape and subwoofer as well as XLR balanced 

One small niggle with the display is that up close its easy to read but found at my seating distance the haze” of the blue made it hard to discern compared with clean higher resolution displays on some peer offerings.  

Via the menu you can rename the inputs which is, in my opinion, essential. I say essential as there is an interesting feature of the S800 which switches output volume to around -90dB each time to you change input (to protect the listener/speakers from loud surprises M+J tell me) and then returns it to listenable level based on “last listen”. Clever, but I’m not sure its necessary and did cause me at first to struggle to tell what source was in which input when scanning through, as I had to wait for it to defeat then return each time. Fine when you have set all the names in the menu but not when setting up, as you don’t often know what sources you have plugged into which numbered inputs round the back without crawling about on hands and knees.  

The remote has a real quality in both look and feel and not plasticy, but the layout needs some work as the volume buttons are quite small and initially hard to find among many buttons making source selection a little confusing. The unit comes in at a light 6kg but be aware the two should not be stacked, to allow for heat dissipation.  

Moving across to the partnering S815 Power amp and that aluminium continues. This time to the centre of the fascia is a VU meter window showing Left and Right “power” levels (actually displayed as dB)  and a Peak led between them. Im a bit of sucker for VU’s and it continues nicely the slightly retroestablished look and feel of this pair.  

Under the hood is a Class A/B  design handled by 2 pairs of 6 output transistors from Toshiba with power driven by  XW eXtra Quiet toroidal transformers by Noratel, flanked by substantial heatsinks taking the weight of the unit to a mighty 16kg. Power is listed at 150W per channel at 8ohms with close to double that into 4 ohms at 280W and a not to be sniffed at 104db signal to noise ratio. All in all a pretty stonking set up for the money! 

Inputs are unbalanced RCA and balanced XLR, 2 sets of good quality binding posts offering Bi-wiring if desired and there is also an unbalanced RCA output for those with speakers that will take it such as the classic Rogers Studio 1.  

SOUND QUALITY 

Spoiler alert – it is impressive! After a week of settling, I got down to listening to some of my usual test tracks beginning with (via the MC Phono stage using the highly modified SL1210 and the incredibly detailed Dynavector 17d2). First up is Heartache Tonight from the Eagles. A great test for any Hifi set up as it is a great, well mastered pressing –  its staging, detail and richness of percussive strike really shine through and the S800/815 combo brought it to life wonderfully with a richness to the sound overall. Rock, I think, is the real home of this pair, perhaps a stride behind peers such as the Audiolab 8000 for sheer resolution and detail, feeling a little more laid back, however far from lazy. However, somehow the M+J doesn’t feel lacking because of it, the musicality overriding any deficiency in granularity – just a great sound! To test the MM input I swapped to my other SL1210 with Ortofon 2M Red and again the on-board stage stands up admirably vs a lower priced external stage (the Project DS+ in this case), not shoulder to shoulder but a close run thing – not unsurprisingly of course with the fairly rounded Red stylus profile. For an on-board stage at this price I’m impressed. 

Switching to the USB DAC input from my Auralic G1 I kicked off with the new Dido album Still on My Mind with its glassy smooth vocals and synthetic, ambient house sound before moving to the beautiful, fine playing and vocals of Dhafer Yousef’middle-eastern jazz epic Sound of Mirrors. The G1 delivers hi-res files superbly so is a great test of any DAC and the M+J combo really came to life and genuinely surprised me when compared to the Audiolab MDAC+ which is my usual reference DAC. Staging if anything was bigger and better than with vinylagain the musicality and richness is impressive, and there was very, very little in it between this on-board DAC vs the external MDAC+ , the latter only outpacing the former on some air and enthusiasm, more owing to the available filters and increased investment in power and stage engineering, but I would be lying if I said it feels that the extra expense of the MDAC+ is really worth it as the M+J really stood up and delivered. Sticking with digital I plumbed for Gegory Porter’s Take Me To The Alley and then the seminal 80’s classic Sweet Dreams from Eurythmics. Both were reproduced wonderfully, that smooth mid and high of the synths and Lennox’ vocals just hitting you where it matters and with warmth and a human edge to Porter’s voice. Add to this the sheer delight of the piano and sax in Don’t Lose Your Steam we had a superb, vibrant and fun listening experience and that went on for the rest of my time with the M +J pairing. 

To reduce (a little) the risk of waffling I’ll just day that CD playback via RCA input delivered the same great results. Floyds Welcome to the Machine and Shine on… re-created in all their glory, that grinding low rawness and high silkiness balanced well to show off just how strong an offering at this price this UK built partnership is.   

CONCLUSION 

The Mitchell + Johnson combination is, when all is said and done, a great one!  A company perhaps better known for budget offerings  (carrying that perception of higher build costs that come with “UK manufacturing) have taken a risk here and it has paid off. Stacked against my Michell Argo and Alecto’s they can’t quite keep up – but it’s a close run race, and the M +J do take the advantage with digital playback – and they are at least half the price! 

Personally, I’d say it’s impossible not to enjoy the sound of these two. Musicality and power shine through. The detail is good, maybe not the last word in resolution around the middle bands, but makes for a very enjoyable listen. Staging is good, best via the DAC I found and with very capable phono-stages built in making this a pretty sweet proposition at an aggressive price point for such a well-built Pre and Power solution. The pair were never lazy or poor in delivery! They may not be to everyone’s tastes with regards aesthetics (I actually like them in the main) but the M +J are a pre and power pairing you simply must audition for their sonic prowess.  

AT A GLANCE 

Build Quality: UK built. Great range of inputs on a well machined Aluminium chassis with high-quality materials and strong aesthetics. Large powerful toroidal transformers. Very well regarded DAC technology. VU meters are lovely. Remote could do with a rethink. Blue LEDs not for everyone.  

Sound Quality: Overall very strong; they drive a musical and refined sound with good detail and less clinical than some peers which will suit many ears. They are great for electronic and rock alike and so pair with a great source and reap the rewards. Digital playback, in particular, impressed me. Staging was good, and I believe you’d have to spend considerably more to gain an edge and more dimension. Phono-stage is also as good as, or better than, many budget external stages.  

Value for MoneyIt’s a busy market but these are well engineered, UK manufactured (not mass market) which normally comes at a premium and sound great without being fussy on source – to achieve this combination of quality and price point is rare for UK production so pricing to me represents good value for money and would be cash well spent. 

Pros : Build quality, manufactured in the UK, sound quality and punch, decent stagingrange of inputs, aesthetics. Both the MM/MC stage and inbuilt DAC impressed!  

Cons: Some discrepancies between manual and function (updated now hopefully) , Blue LED may not suit everyone , remote could be better laid out.

Price: S800 Pre £1299, S815 Power £1299  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alan McIntosh

Specifications 

S800 Stereo Pre-Amplifier  

  • Solid Aluminium Machined Front Panel. 
  • Custom Machined Aluminium Knobs. 
  • 6 Analogue Inputs, 5 Via RCA, 1 Balanced Via XLR 
  • 3 Optical / 3 Co-axial Digital Inputs, 1 Asynchronous USB Input, 24bit/192khz. (ESS 9018 Sabre DAC) 
  • 3 Analogue Outputs, 2  RCA, 1 Balanced  
  • 1 Pair Fixed Level Record Outputs. 
  • Left And Right Dedicated Subwoofer Outputs. 
  • MM/MC Phono Stage 
  • Burr Brown Analogue Volume Control. 
  • Dedicated Headphone Amplifier. 
  • 12 Volt Power Link. 
  • 5KG weight 

S 815 Stereo Power Amplifier 

  • Solid Aluminium Machined Front Panel. 
  • XLR and RCA inputs. 
  • RCA Stereo Line Outputs( allows Bi-amping ). 
  • 260 Watts Rms In To 4 Ohms. 
  • Class A/B output stage. 
  • Dual Loudspeaker Terminals. 
  • 12 volt power link. 
  • 16KG weight 

 

Alan McIntosh 

Review Equipment for this set up Technics SL1210Mk3DOrigin Live Zephyr arm , Dynavector Karat 17D2 (LO MC),Timestep PSU, Project DS+ and Graham Slee Gram Amp 3 Phono stages (for A/B comparison), Standard Technics SL1210 Mk3D with Ortofon 2M (MM) Red cart, Auralic Aries G1 Streaming transport , Audiolab MDAC+ DAC Chord Clearway interconnects , Fyne Audio 500 speakers Ecosse 2.23 speaker wire. GIK acoustic room treatments.

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