AD Audio Satchmo
Marantz PM-4 The Holy Grail of Vintage Amps
Matrix Audio X SPDIF 2
Matrix Audio Quattro II
DEAL OF THE DAY
Tellurium Q Ultra Blue Speaker Cables
2014 Midwest Audiofest Tent Sale & Vintage Audio Swap
McIntosh MCD550 Review… CD is Gratefully not dead!
Everyone has an opinion on McIntosh, certainly that’s the feeling I get when chatting to people at shows and reading the forums here. Most people comment on the styling, some comment on the price (it ain’t cheap guvnor!) but rarely do people mention the sound. Which is odd, given the provenance of the brand and the fact that Sound quality is what got us into HiFi the first place. This is probably a good sign, it’s never been over-hyped and never been slagged off.. one has to suspect it’s probably quite good then!
The provenance goes way back, most of us are aware that the Grateful Dead’s (you see what I did now) famous Wall of Sound was powered by 49 McIntosh amps generating a mind boggling 29,000 Watts of continuous power! Legend says this gave a clear sound at half a mile from it’s 600 odd JBL speakers. If one ventures into a McIntosh demo today the focus hasn’t changed much. Huge power, clear sound. Amps that grab speakers by the scruff of the neck and shake them like Geoff Capes applying Ketchup to a Hot Dog.
CD players are perhaps not the first thing people associate with the brand, but there is a long list of highly regarded spinners in the range and this new Multi format player is the latest offering. It’s a very adaptable device, with three digital inputs (I used it as a DAC as much as a CD player), including Coax, USB and Optical. It also sports two digital outputs, a balanced and single ended line level out and a balanced and single ended pair of adjustable outputs (yes, you can use it direct to a power amp). It decodes SACD’s and has an an eight-channel, 32-bit/192kHz PCM/DCD DAC, which is nice.
Styling is old school by any standards. I like it, in the same way I like American Muscle cars, they are brutish and purposeful, and made from pig iron, and they shout GRRRRRR like Jeremy Clarkson being a dick (only without the racism obviously). It’s Boy’s Own stuff and although I can clearly see why some folk dislike it I think it’s fun and thankfully the sound quality is somewhat more refined, to say the least..
Years ago at a Heathrow show, McIntosh had a demo where they replayed a high quality recording of a Musket Shot to show off how dynamic their amps could be. If you think about it, it’s hard to imagine a more dynamic sound than a Musket being fired and the result was startlingly real with a truly visceral attack. How they managed it was beyond me, a CD player, some very powerful valve amps and their own speakers. It was impressive, but didn’t tell us much about how that translates into an ability to reproduce music. I feel I’m getting a little flavour of that here, the ability to start and stop that quickly means you get a very clean sound, with beautiful separation.
I’m listening to Little Dragon’s self titled first album as I type and this player is quite surprising, the sound doesn’t match the looks somehow. The subtlety with which it paints a musical picture is possibly it’s greatest strength, the sense of quality is palpable. There are no nasties, musical instruments sound more like musical instruments, the Piano intro on the opening track has more “pianoey” goodness than my old VRDS can ever dream of mustering. There’s a Tuba sound on track 7, which modulates beautifully behind the drums and bass guitar while her voice is so wonderfully presented, it never smears or interferes. You can pick an instrument and follow it through without it ever getting lost or ever over taking the rest of the sound. Her voice is more human than I am used to, everything is just more realistic, snare drums crack, rim shots thwack, bass notes are deep and textured while remaining tuneful. For all it’s subtlety it doesn’t lack in dynamics either, those rim shots really do thwack with more realism.. I will try to avoid any more cliche’s but it’s actually true. My wife almost came in from the Kitchen..
The sound stage is accurate and realistic too, although listening to Vangelis’ Blade Runner theme there are sounds pinging off walls and darting all over the place, which I am sure Mr Vangelis would approve of, I certainly do. Strings are wonderfully textured, but it’s the bass that has me most impressed. The tunefulness and control is not something I thought my speakers were capable of. I was genuinely considering a change of speakers until I heard this, I now know the issue lies elsewhere in the system..
Things were slightly less successful when I used the adjustable output directly into my power amp. My Pre-amp is a valve amp, my power amp is solid state and the solid state squared effect is always less pleasing to my ears. Others clearly feel differently, each to their own, but for my money the dynamism was perhaps a touch forward for me. I would imagine Naim fans would approve wholeheartedly. I enjoyed it for the first few tracks of Dark Side of the Moon, but even that old favorite became a touch wearing. I know that some will be throwing things at their computers saying it’s because I don’t like true High fidelity sound, and that valves distort along with many other well trodden comments. The fact of the matter is, they are probably right. I just prefer a little softening of the edges, a like a drop of water in my single malt, sue me!
I did do some comparisons between the CD player and FLAC streamed by my SONOS, there are I think some small differences, but frankly I struggle to describe them. The CD player was just a touch cleaner, however differences were marginal, the McInstosh does a wonderful job of unpicking the Bits and was used as a DAC as much as a CD player while here. Late night sessions normally end up via the SONOS as I am basically too lazy to keep getting up to change things, and as the McIntosh still delivers when used as a DAC it seemed somewhat pointless to do so. I felt there were differences are there, but not enough that you feel you are really missing out. I am sure I couldn’t pick them in a blind test.
With the the pre-amp back in place it was back to DSOTM, I was using it as it’s one of the few SACD’s I have in my collection. There is an option on the remote to switch layers, and I was intrigued to do some back to back red-book v SACD listening. I can say now that it’s a terrible shame the SACD format didn’t really take off, the difference was very clear to me, there was a new level of information being retrieved from the SACD layer and the big Mac delivered it all with beautiful clarity. I used to own a Copland CD/SACD player and the differences were far less obvious, I wonder if some of the failings of SACD could be put down to badly implemented players unable to show the format to it’s full potential. Certainly if I owned this spinner I would be scouring the second hand shops and Ebay for SACD discs.
Headphone output is a nice touch.
The remote control is fully featured and lights up when you press the buttons, which is handy as there are so many of them. This is an appropriated TV remote, it even has the RGBY buttons across the middle and really it’s not that well implemented. Good features like input select are slightly fiddly and badly labelled, the pause button doesn’t work (I found that pressing play again pauses the disc). However it does feel good quality and the ability to control every feature is a bonus over so many cursory efforts one sees these days.
The build quality on the machine itself is bomb proof, sound quality is superb and slight niggles aside it is to me a true object of desire. For those able to stand the price tag of £6395.00 it will give great pleasure for many many years.
McInstosh products are distributed by Jordan Acoustics, Many thanks to them for sending me this to try without any obligation to review. Give them a call to arrange a demo if you are lucky enough to be in this end of the market.
More tech specs and information can be found at http://www.jordanacoustics.co.uk/product_details.php?ref=2227
It certainly felt like we were in the presence of star wars technology yesterday (May …