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McIntosh MC501 Monoblock Amplifiers Review

Ryan Coleman explains why the $9,400 pair of McIntosh MC501 solid-state monoblock amplifiers is his ultimate interim solution

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McIntosh MC501 solid-state monoblock amplifiers

Intro

Is there a more well-known company in audio than McIntosh? Sure, Wilson Audio, Krell and Quad are the stuff of legends, but those companies are for hard-core audiophiles; the masses think hi-fi means Bose (egads!) or, if they’re a bit more knowledgeable, will think of McIntosh as the defining brand of “hi-fi.” However, it’s a disservice for McIntosh to be grouped in with Bose and somehow excluded from consideration by the audio snobbery, where “serious” audiophiles think McIntosh is the stuff of doctors, lawyers, and well-to-do unsophisticates whose hearing doesn’t match their pocketbooks.

I cannot speak to older McIntosh components, but the sonic reputation is one where McIntosh has a “house” sound, a prospect that evidently most audiophiles find objectionable. Oh the horrors! The company has a “house” sound! Hmm, that means McIntosh falls in the same category with, oh, every other high-end audio company that’s ever existed, as every company has a “house” sound. So why the polarity in opinion of McIntosh, and why do some audiophiles go on hating McIntosh? Its not like it’s a fly-by-night operation, as its been in operation out of New York since 1949, and its electronics have a reputation for being as dependable as the lunar cycle, not to mention having the best resale value in the industry. What gives, everybody? Do you really think this company’s products sound that inferior to the others in the market?

I’ve seen in the other rags that McIntosh has had a bit of a renaissance as of late, with new products or reissues that specifically target the audiophile community. The subject of this review, the McIntosh MC501, a 500 wpc monoblock amplifier, is one such design.

Background

The MC501s are about 18” wide by 10” high by 15” deep, and they weigh in at a very distressing 90+ lbs. Now, I am a stout man and can normally move around amplifiers without a care for my back, but the lack of equipment handles on these chasses make moving the MC501s a strenuous and delicate process—for both the amps and my back. Evidently, the company opted for aesthetics over ease of handling.

Despite my discomfort in wielding these beasts, all I have to do is see those sexy blue meters and I find I agree with their priorities. God, these things are sexy! There is serious pride-of-ownership here. Each monoblock puts out 500 wpc into 8, 4, or 2 ohms, as there are separate speaker binding posts in the back for each. Simply match your speakers’ impedance to the appropriate set of binding posts and you’ve got enough power on tap to power any loudspeaker, and you will need as much power as possible and possibly more than you think if you want realistic dynamics.

While the amps have input connections for both RCA and XLR interconnects, the amplifier is fully balanced, so one would expect improved sonics via a lower noise floor from using XLRs, which I use. Input impedance range from 10k (RCA) to 20k (balanced), so matching the MC501s to a passive preamp seems like a non-starter, and I venture to guess that some weak-willed tube preamps would also struggle.

Now, one part of the amp deserves special consideration: the Autoformers. The Autoformers are transformers in the output stage that load-match the amplifier to the load (speaker) that it will be connected to (thus the 3 sets of speaker binding posts). From a purist’s perspective, this is highly objectionable; as Lew Conrad of Conrad Johnson fame is known to say, “there is no perfect part”, and adding a big honking transformer in between your amp and your speaker would seem like a great way to lose detail and subtlety in the presentation. You’re not just listening to the gain stage, you’re also listening to another transformer. So, why did McIntosh make this design choice? I can only assume that the answer is two sides to the same coin: heat & reliability. The Autoformer takes the load off of the transistors in the output stage, so they can run nice & cool. From an engineering perspective, heat causes failures (also known as “thermal breakdown”), so it would appear McIntosh is building their amps to minimize service issues, thus the reputation for reliability. The downside, from an audiophile’s perspective, is that hot amps sound better; solid-state amps biased in class A have inner detail, subtlety, delicacy and a liquidity to the midrange that their cool running class AB/ B/ D cousins cannot match. So McIntosh, in a clear break with their competitors in the audiophile marketplace, made a choice: reduced heat and increased reliability being preferred to absolute fidelity. But, was this tradeoff even present in listening impressions?

Listening Impressions

Ultimately, the midrange is the starting point, whether we want to admit it or not. It’s where our ears are at their most sensitive, regardless of what our listening priorities are. The MC501s strike me as being tuned for this area above all other considerations, and they did a darn good job at it. There’s a liquidity and wholeness to the midrange that is often found in tube amps, but rarely in SS amps. The MC501s get it. I don’t doubt most casual listeners who are looking for a ‘high-end’ amp will pull out the plastic and buy on that basis alone (along with some other considerations that I describe later). And you know what? They’re never going to get tired of this midrange. It’s not as juicy or sexy or euphonic as a SET or a tube amp, but you get none of the hassles or limitations of those more temperamental cousins.

What is interesting is that the MC501s achieve this goal, despite some shortcomings in clarity. Now, I’ve read more than enough boring, cliché-ridden reviews where someone writes about how inserting some component reminds them “of an open window”. Not me though, I don’t roll that way! If I ever say the phrase “open window” in one of my reviews, I promise to put the Paris Hilton CD on “repeat” for 1 week as punishment to myself. Instead, the clarity of the MC501s remind me of trying to look out a window from a distance of 50 feet, and you can barely tell that the window adjacent to it is just a wee little bit clearer, and it is only upon walking up to the windows that you realize one pane has a screen, and one does not. The MC501s have a lack of absolute clarity that reminds me of that screen; the lack of clarity is barely there. In no way does this compromise the musical performance, but it is there, and those looking for perfection in amplification will notice this lack of absolute clarity and find it a problem.

I believe that the lack of total clarity is simply one side of the coin; the other side is some treble attenuation. While all the treble information is there, it is attenuated ever so slightly. It’s funny; I find myself thinking I’m getting all the treble info, but when I think about the sparkle that exists in live music (or with the plasma tweeter of the Accapella speakers), I know these amps don’t have it. But given how most rock & roll CDs are too hot in their mix anyways, I do not find this effect to be that objectionable on most music I listen to; and with the Wilson Watt Puppy 6s the 501s are driving, the issue of treble extension has remained insignificant.

Another great way to think about this aspect to the MC501s: think about the way the early releases of Neil Young sound—they’re horribly bright and threadbare, exasperating the already nasal qualities to Neil’s voice. Now, the MC501s humanize Neil Young a bit more on my system by not giving the unvarnished truth. Sometimes, less is more.

Now, let’s put the two together: lack of absolute clarity & minute treble attenuation. What do you get? I’ll bet $5 that it’s the sonic result of the Autoformers. When you put a giant transformer between the output stage and the speaker, this is what you expect, and this is what you get. And this, I can only surmise, is the McIntosh “house sound”. Is that such a problem? For some it will be, but its tough for me to be so critical when it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of music, and it may have possibly enhanced it: while the lack of total clarity was only barely noticeable, the treble attenuation is a nice complement to the hot high frequency performance of my Wilson Watt Puppy 6s, and the liquidity in the midrange helps compensate for a slightly disjointed crossover in the Wilson Watt. And with most systems that rely on digital source playback and aren’t nearly as coherent as the Wilsons (after all, the Watt Puppy 6s are world class; I’m just doing my job criticizing them), the MC501s will be a terrific match. But I think that much better amps could be found to match to speakers like Merlins or Magnepans that are already highly coherent with a pure, soft treble region.

Moving on, one of the most fun aspects to the Wilson speakers is the incredible bass transients & dynamics that they possess. The MC501s definitely grab hold of the woofers and will rattle walls and rock the house. After all, it puts out 500 watts, and we’re not talking about those crappy Best Buy watts either. I’m talking about steel-toed boots, diesel-power, bone-crunching watts. And the MC501s have serious power and control, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t say I’ve heard slightly more control in the rump with other amps — all of them high power solid state, of course.

As someone who is focused on tuning his system to recreate the live experience in the home, I must say the MC501s throw an excellent soundstage, complete with terrific width, depth and focus. Performers are easily found playing on their space in a well- defined stage. Depth is presented as a they-are-here experience, in stark contrast to the you-are-there experience that one gets when sitting mid- hall. Horns also have the they-are-here perspective, but horns are far more pronounced in this perspective than the MC501s.

If you read my review on the Einstein “The Tube” preamplifier, you’d know that my priorities are such that I’m looking to recreate the live experience in the home, and that transients & dynamics are the biggest impediment to doing so. The MC501s strike me as being highly competent in the “jump” factor, and they most certainly bring the event home and alive, but they strike me as being slightly soft relative to the best SS & OTL amps out there. Other amps are a bit quicker on the attack and escalation of the distinct event, which I’ll hereafter refer to as “speed”. This was a problem with lesser tube preamps I had on hand that didn’t like the low input impedance of the MC501s, but this problem improved mightily when I dropped in the Einstein preamp, which is as dynamic as a gunshot. The MC501s aren’t the fastest amps out there (OTLs are), but they’re hardly last in the race either. Its just a bit surprising, given the power ratings, but any reduction in total dynamic expression or speed as a result of the MC501s is hardly a problem in my rig, given the exceptionally complimentary performance of the Einstein preamplifier and the Wilson speakers in these regards.

Now, I just spent time trying to describe parts of the whole musical experience, but much like a gourmet meal, music is more than the sum of its parts. To put it all together, let me say this: It’s pretty easy to boogie to these amps, no matter what type of music you’re listening to. They’re fun to listen to, they never poop out or sound hard & aggressive, and its easy to overlook their shortcomings. I think I like them for the same reason people flip out for SETs: the midrange is where it needs to be. Granted, its not nearly as good as a SET, mind you; I’m just stressing the fact that the midrange is where this listener is sensitive, and its definitely voiced in the right direction. I’ve heard lots of SS amps that are off in this critical region more than the MC501s, and that’s why I wouldn’t own them — they sound aggressive and unmusical.

If you want the live experience, you have to get dynamics right, but if you want to enjoy the experience, you’ve got to get the midrange right. And the MC501s got both in sufficient quantities to keep this reviewer grooving. For a SS amp, that’s quite an accomplishment. Now, I’ve heard a few SS amps that can do it, and usually they’re super-expensive and they run as hot as a firecracker; the MC501 is the first amp I’ve found that can do it, runs cool and comes in at a somewhat affordable price.

Other Considerations

Usually, the sonic performance is the end of the story in a review. But I think that’d be a disservice to the MC501s, as they have a story about them that other products in the market cannot tell.

Anyone who purchases the MC501s is entering a relationship with a company that’s been in business for over 55 years. Now, how many other companies can match that for “factory support?” Not that you’ll need it; as mentioned earlier, McIntosh has a reputation for reliability, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the MC501s will run 20+ years without a hiccup. As I mentioned in my review of the Einstein Tube preamplifier, the engineering principle of “thermal breakdown” is always a concern in electronics; the hotter they run, the shorter the mean time to failure. Well, the MC501s don’t have that problem designed into them, no doubt a result of the Autoformer providing load-matching services between the amplifier and the speaker. There is no heat, which is a Godsend to our readers who have small rooms in a warm climate and are none too fond of listening in underwear (well, I do listen in my underwear; I’m just saying that I don’t want to listen in my skivvies because of the heat).

And let’s face it: those big blue meters on the front panels are Miles-Davis-cool; there is a serious aesthetic value here–just ask your wife / significant other when you plug them in for the first time. Finally, if you’re like me, though you may not plan on selling a component when you buy it, you do at least think about what you’d get back out of your purchase. Well, to my knowledge, there’s no brand that has better resale values than McIntosh.

Conclusion

So, is this an amplifier to like, to respect, to love? I guess the answer to that is: It depends on your perspective and on your system. I could as easily envision systems that would fare wonderfully with the 501s as I could see some listeners finding the 501s objectionable for the same reasons I discussed above. From a pure sonic standpoint, it’s got competition that will exceed it in some areas (treble extension, clarity, “speed”) and not in others (liquidity, staging, midrange tone).While it has sonic shortcomings, they’re small in the absolute sense. But that’s what we’re searching for, right? I’m obliged to point them out, though most people won’t ever complain about the MC501. As always, system matching matters such that there is no universal right answer, so a demo will be appropriate. McIntosh has an extensive dealer network, so arranging a demo shouldn’t be much trouble, other than lugging the heavy boxes around.

All that being said, I think that the “total package” that this amplifier offers is its defining characteristic. It has some advantages that other products in the market don’t match, and can never match. What company has been in business longer than McIntosh? What products have a better reputation for reliability? What products have a better resale value? What products have a higher Wife Acceptance Factor? And what speaker can this amp not drive? And let’s not forget, its easy to enjoy music with these things. It is for these reasons that the MC501s represent the lowest risk audio purchase one can make.

Me, I’m searching for absolute fidelity, and I know these amps are not it. And while I look forward to the day I’ll get something I like better, in the meantime I have and will continue to enjoy every minute with the big Macs. For many people, this will be the last amplifier they ever buy. For readers like me, the McIntosh 501 will stay as an interim solution before I move on to something slightly better and far more expensive.

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