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McIntosh Open House – February 2006

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If you had asked me the reason McIntosh needed to create an 8,000 watt peak-power amplifier before I had attended their West Coast Premier of the Ultimate System on February 2, 2006, I would probably have not been able to tell you that McIntosh intended for their 3-chassis amplifier to have the most accurate reproduction of dynamics of the least compressed music. But that’s just what you would’ve been told by Ken Zelin of McIntosh, if you were at the San Francisco event.

Ken Zelin blazing the easel

Hosted by House of Music, McIntosh’s San Francisco Premier Authorized Dealer, Ken held 40-minute seminars one after the other with a most contagious enthusiasm, explaining what McIntosh has accomplished. Namely, each channel of the $60k per pair of the MC2KW power amplifier comes in 3 chassis – two 1,000 watt Power Modules and one Output Module.

Being an SET user, I never imagined needing so much power in my life, but was nevertheless left speechless after one of Ken’s demonstrations. Using a smaller system consisted of the C45 Stereo & Multi-Channel Audio Control Center ($3,600), the MC252 power amplifier ($4,000, 250Wpc) and the XLS340 speaker ($7,000/pair, 87dB/8Ω), Ken played a Mariah Carey CD that, according to him, was dynamically truncated by the record label to sound good with teenagers using iPod and the like, so that the soft passages would be audible amidst the suppressed loud passages while the ear-plugged listener is carrying on with daily activities. He turned the volume on the C45 to medium level, and the MC252 meter showed an output of less than a watt.

Ken then played an orchestral music that he claimed was compression-less at an approximating level, and the meter jumped to 200 watts.

C45, MC252, XLS340

According to Ken, to reproduce high fidelity music faithfully, one needs an infinitely powerful amplifier first and foremost to handle the dynamics, and the McIntosh MC2KW came closest to that ideal.

But the 3-chassis concept of the MC2KW was not merely for high-power delivery; it was primarily for a distortion-less signal transmission. Say what?

C45 Stereo & Multi-Channel Audio Control Center

MC252 stereo power amplifier

Ken explained that just as an instrument’s harmonics content formulates its distinctive sound, an amplifier’s distortion level would determine its fidelity competency to reproducing that sound. He used examples of classic tube amplifiers that are known to produce significant percentages of distortion in illustrating the cause for their sonic appeal of smoothness and musicality, while at the same time explaining the necessity of low distortion for faithful tonal reproduction.

In order for an instrument’s intrinsic character, such as the unique richness of a Bosendorfer piano in a certain spectrum, to be reproduced differently and faithfully from that of a Steinway piano, Ken stated that harmonic distortion must be kept as low as possible to prevent obscurity. To achieve this, McIntosh exploited advantages accorded by the balanced signal transmission technology prevalent in professional studios, and realized it in the 3-chassis design.

MC2KW 2000-watt monoblock amplifier

The MC2KW’s two Power Modules together represent a summation of the halving of the sine waves from each Module, which, when summed via the noise-cancelling balanced circuitries, would achieve a maximum total harmonic distortion of 0.005% from 20Hz to 20kHz on the MC2KW at outputs between 200mW and 2kW, thus making it the most dynamically and tonally accurate power amplifier in the world for the purpose of sonic reproduction.

The matching 3-chassis, $26k, C1000 Configurable Tube/Solid-State Controller and Preamplifier sports an even more exacting presentation at 100dB line-level dynamic range and 0.002% maximum total harmonic distortion from 20Hz to 20kHz in the solid-state chassis, and 93dB dynamic at 0.8% distortion in the tube chassis. Channel separation is rated at over 130dB in both. Yes, the 3-chassis is consisted of the C1000C Controller ($8k), the C1000P solid-state preamp ($9k) and the C1000T tube preamp ($9k), a McIntosh effort aiming at offering both supreme solid-state and tube preamplification for its customers.

C1000 Configurable Tube/Solid-State Controller & Preamplifier

On the C1000’s published specifications, Ron Cornelius, the McIntosh Product Manager & Field Training Manager, has the following to say:

“The C1000 exceeds the performance of our test gear, so we say -140dB
channel separation (greater than 130dB), 10 Hz to 100 KHz all inputs. S/N
ratio is -117dB, A-weighted, on both the tube and solid state sections of the
pre at 2 volts out. At very low volumes, the tube section will have a lower
signal to noise ratio, of course, due to the thermal noise of the tubes. This
S/N goes up as the signal level increases as the noise floor stays the same.”

After Ken’s presentation, we were ushered to the front demonstration room which was laden with not just the multitude of chassis of the C1000 and MC2KW, but also McIntosh’s latest flagship speaker, the $80,000 XRT2K.

At 452lb each and at 84 inches tall, 19 inches wide and 18 inches deep, the acoustic-suspension column of six 12-inch aluminum long-throw woofers actually didn’t look as intimidating as several other companies’ similar efforts, not only due largely to the overlapping front column of sixty-four 2-inch inverted titanium dome and forty ¾ -inch titanium dome tweeters, but also because of its earthly, McIntosh-style straight lines that are devoid of Martian-derived strangeness.

Now, the company states that the 89dB/8Ω XRT2K can be driven with as little as 75 watts. No doubt it is referring to the only 75-watt amplifier in its current lineup: the MC275.

Ron hosted the XRT2K demonstration, and explained the difficulty in creating the speakers. It was easy, he explained, for a company to bankrupt itself when producing the speaker, as the sizeable machinery involved in extruding all that aluminum and cutting the metallic sashimi into individual columns costs a fortune. He acknowledged the risks McIntosh undertook in the XRT2K’s creation, and remarked that sales have been successful in investment recovery. (move mouse over speaker to see drivers.)

The more you know, the less you realize you actually know. I remained seated in the XRT2K room while they were rotating audience, and was astounded by the drastic measures McIntosh has adopted in pushing the stereophonic envelope, at the same time savoring the distinct surrealism. The event prompted a realization in me of the extraordinary direction and distance McIntosh has traversed in the name of high fidelity sound reproduction.

Ron Cornelius & the McIntosh ultimate system

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