Setting the Stage
Shortly before writing this review, I attended a two-hour Bay Area
Audiophile Society demo at the brand new private showroom of a Bay Area
dealer. The equipment on display listed for far more than most of the
equipment I own. It also looked gorgeous. Every component save for the
speakers was isolated from vibration on special platforms, with additional
$289 support thingies in between platforms and gear. Power conditioning was
by IsoClean, a quite costly system I'll be reviewing before long. After
market power cables, expensive interconnects, and an extraordinarily
impressive, imported CD spray that costs $89/bottle should have added up to
one glorious afternoon of sound.
Instead, the music sounded pretty awful. Whether the cause was the speakers
(most likely), the lack of room treatment (certainly a factor),
amplification that sounds best with bright horns rather than more
traditional designs, the phase of the moon, or some combination thereof
could not be ascertained with certainty. What was certain was the lack of
deep bass, an excessively bloated midrange, and very little energy on top.
Music that should have sounded wonderful was devoid of life. The soundstage
was impressively huge, with tremendous width and height, but there was
virtually no space between instruments or instruments and voice. We heard a
wall of sound, one that surely has its place in a Phil Spector recording,
but quite inappropriate when listening to baritone Matthias Goerne singing
Schubert's Schwanengesang (Swan Song) to Alfred Brendel's piano
accompaniment. No ring to the piano, a midrange so vast that it threatened
to swallow half the room, and no bite to the voice. Awful. Given that I had
heard and reviewed the man perform live just a week earlier, I could not be
fooled. Nor could another attendee pretend that the hash he heard on the
Latin Big Band recording he uses as his demo reference sounded like much
more than trash.
Now imagine driving home with a fellow BAAS member to listen to some of the
same music we had just heard on the McIntosh gear. The contrast wasn't as
great as returning to planet Earth from some distant galaxy; it was more
like reuniting with friends you've been separated from for much too long.
It was a relief to discover some of my favorite longtime companions in fine
voice. Matthias Goerne still sang magnificently, Terry Evans was still the
inimitable Terry Evans, and octogenarians Candido and Graciela continued to
turn out Cuban music like no other combo.
Set-Up and Options
I have always found a direct connection delivers the truest signal. I thus
bypassed my Theta Gen. VIII DAC/preamp entirely and plugged the McIntosh
directly into my Jadis DA-7 Luxe amp (foregoing use of my tuner during the
review process). While McIntosh asserts that balanced connections offer the
quietest signal, my Jadis only accepts unbalanced (RCA) inputs.9
Charles Hinton of McIntosh Technical Support offers the following commentary
on this choice:
"The balanced connection will always add the advantage of
noise cancellation. Whether a noticeable improvement results depends upon
whether you have any ambient RF noise to cancel in your environment.
"The additional sonic improvements provided by balanced connections are
often lost by sending it through a preamp that is not fully balanced, so
connecting directly to an amp keeps the fully balanced signal, PLUS avoids
adding the circuitry of the preamp to the signal path.
[If you have the option], use balanced when connecting directly to an amp. I
find it sounds noticeably better than sending it through an unbalanced
When I briefly experimented with setting the MDA1000 to Fixed Output and
plugging it into the preamp section of the Theta, I heard far less of a
difference in sound than I would have expected. Regardless, because I wanted
to both duplicate my reference configuration as much as possible and get the
best possible sound, I performed my evaluations with the MDA1000 plugged
directly into the amp.
Besides replacing my reference transport and DAC/preamp with the McIntosh
transport and DAC, set-up was the same as usual: identical interconnects,
power cabling, supports and tweaks (see list at the end of this review).
Connections were constantly Caig ProGolded, with demagnetization and test
tones frequently run. Please note that I did not employ my subwoofer during
the audition process. Nor did I use the Marigo 3-D Signature mat, which has
a noticeable effect on sound. My goal was to perform as true a comparison to
my reference CD/DAC as possible.
Most of my listening was done using the Jadis DA-7 Luxe amp. I did briefly
try the PS-Audio GSA-250 amp, recently reviewed for this website. What I
wish I could have tried were the previously reviewed Parasound JC-1 Halo
monoblocks in balanced input mode. As you will read below, I think these
might prove an ideal match for the McIntosh combo.
I recently received a new Telarc release that includes the Atlanta
Symphony's world premiere recording of David Del Tedici's "Paul Revere's
Ride". The work calls for huge orchestra, amplified soprano, and full-blooded
chorus. Throw in a wind machine, lots of percussion, and other sound
effects, and you've got quite a test for a system.
Going back and forth between my reference transport and DAC and the McIntosh
gear, I was impressed with how satisfying the McIntosh system can be. As I
got into the minutiae of contrasts - the triangle shone and rang more freely
in space through the APL-modified Sony transport/Theta Gen VIII combo, and
its decay seemed less truncated and a bit more lifelike - the snap in the
opening track of Paul Revere's Ride sounded sharper through my reference
setup, with more air around it. Of course, at this level, the differences
are more one of preference than of quality, as the McIntosh is indeed
Because of design considerations, it is likely that most McIntosh lovers
will choose to purchase both the MDA1000 and MCD1000. In the eventuality,
however, that you already own a fine DAC or transport, and wish to upgrade
only one component in your chain, I also evaluated each component by itself.
My observations are included below.
Since I've already mentioned baritone Matthias Goerne's Schwanengesang,
let's start with that recording. Listening through the McIntosh combo, I
noticed an unexpected extra weight to the piano's midrange, as though its
bass resonance had received an artificial boost. Whenever a midrange note
was sounded, the piano seemed to resound with greater weight than one would
hear in real life.
I also noted a certain lack of shine on top. The piano's top notes did not
ring as much as they might in real life, and the high end of Goerne's voice
was less prominent than I was accustomed to hearing. The emphasis was far
more on the midrange, to the slight detriment of the top. Depending upon the
tonal balance of one's cabling, amplification, and/or speakers, this lack of
neutrality might prove of benefit.
Furthermore, the McIntosh presentation seemed a tad gray around the edges,
with less immediacy than I am accustomed to. The "blacker black" you often
read about in audio reviews translated in this case into "almost black."
Instead of silence in the space between and around voice and piano, there
was a slight grayness that detracted somewhat from the color of the sound.
Again, take this in the context of basic sound that was quite beautiful and
Here to Go to Part III.