McIntosh MP100 Phono Preamplifier / DAC Review
If you are a reader of this esteemed publication it is not a stretch to presume you are an audiophile and probably pretty deep into our wonderful hobby. Having said that, I think you would be hard-pressed to find anyone amongst us who has not heard of, listened to, or even owned McIntosh components at some time in our audio journey.
Right after college, and I started making reasonable money for the first time, I moved up from a Yamaha integrated amp to a McIntosh MA6200 integrated unit. Sound-wise it was a toss-up between that and a comparable Luxman. While Luxman was perhaps a bit more exotic, I just could not resist the aesthetics of the McIntosh and I never regretted the decision.
That was some 43 years ago and was the second phase of my serious journey down the HiFi Highway. I believe I am now on phase 25 or so! To the point, I will have McIntosh gear again.
About three years ago I reviewed in these pages the McIntosh RS250 Wireless all-in-one system. I gave it rave reviews and seriously still consider it for the day I have to downsize. The unit provided serious sonic quality and flexibility in a very small, yet elegant system. The system even provided a phono input.
Now I find myself hosting the MP100 phono preamplifier. Before I delve into the unit and my impressions, just a bit of a refresher course on McIntosh is in order.
Established in 1949, McIntosh, which is based in Binghamton, NY, and uniquely American-made, is known worldwide for audio gear that delivers an exceptional listening experience. Offering products for two-channel stereo, home theater systems, and many accompanying products pretty much from A-Z. From the beginning, the iconic blue incandescent level meters, along with the green LEDs for functions have come to identify the unique McIntosh aesthetic.
The brand has been ever-present, not only in homes across the planet, but has also powered everything from President Lyndon Johnson's inauguration speech to Woodstock, to the famous Grateful Dead "Wall of Sound." McIntosh has not only witnessed history, but they have also indeed helped to shape it.
While my journey led me to other brands, most notably tube amps and preamps from Cary Audio, I still get the audio lust every time I see McIntosh products. It really drove my enthusiasm about spending a couple of months running everything under the sun that I had through the MP100.
So what is the McIntosh MP100 phono stage all about? Glad you asked. the MP100 is a relatively small and tidy unit that has a performance factor that belies its small size and modest $2000 price tag. It is notable for two other aspects that you rarely see at this price point paired together in the same unit, and that is the addition of Balanced XLR outputs and also Digital outputs. There is also the addition of a Mono switch on the front panel.
For this review, the focus is almost entirely on how the unit performs as a phono preamp, but there is no denying the attractiveness of the digital out feature to facilitate the convenience of having digital versions of your favorite albums if you choose to do so. With the aid of a good conversion program, such as Vinyl Studio or Roxie Easy LP, the MP100 can allow you to rip records to a computer or other storage device via USB to produce high-quality digital files. The digital outputs are fixed at 24-bit/96kHz.
Let us start with the mandatory spec sheet and move on from there.
As you can see from the specs, this is a smaller unit. Perhaps half size to the more normal size for McIntosh products, but don't let that fool you. This is a serious piece of kit. It is also the perfect size match for some of McIntosh's smaller systems like the MXA80 system.
The front panel has the legendary McIntosh looks, with the green LED lit wording on a black glass panel with aluminum end pieces in brushed silver that add the final touch to the iconic McIntosh look. Flanking each side of the faceplate are two nice-sized rotary knobs for dialing in cartridge loads. Moving Magnet on the left and Moving Coil on the right. In between are push button rocker switches for Mono, MM/MC selection, Digital Output and a red Standby/On button. Clean yet elegant and easy to read.
The back panel has all your inputs, and the unit can accommodate a MM and MC at the same time. That is a very handy feature to have. I have three turntables that I currently use. The first one is a Jean Nantais custom Lenco 75 with a 12" Jelco tonearm, a Thorens TD160 with a custom plinth but stock otherwise, and a Musical Life Symphony with a Consonance ST600 12" tonearm. For the review, I used the Nantais and the Musical Life tables. Cartridges run through the unit were: KoetsuAzule, Air-Tight Opus (a last-minute addition), Hana Umami, Lyra Delos, EAT Jo#8, and a Sumiko Moonstone.
Once hooked into my system we were off to the races. I recently purchased an ultrasonic cleaner, and had just finished running about 20 of my favorite albums through the cleaner. Since these are all albums I use for reviewing they get very frequent rotation, and some are older than dirt. The Ultrasonic cleaner did an amazing job quieting down the older LPs, and newer ones were completely absent pops and clicks. The timing was perfect for the test of the MP100. (Side note - if you have a large collection of vinyl and it is your favorite go-to media for your listening, then buy an ultrasonic cleaner. They run the gamut from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. The primary differences come down to features and automation).
No matter which cartridge I played through, the MP100 pulled as much as could possibly be pulled from the grooves with a neutrality and smoothness that had me thinking, "there must be a tube in there somewhere." Everything lacked grain and edginess. Silky smooth vocals are an earmark of 300B tubes, and the MP100 delivered the music without getting in the way of the creamy smooth vocals through my Cary 805s. The piano was both musical and percussive yet restrained in play to not walk over the vocals. The result was an incredibly enjoyable listening experience.
The pricier the cartridge the better the delivery. Comparing the Lyra Delos that I first played this with to the Air tight Opus at seven times the price just brought out more detail and a darker background. This told me the MP100 was delivering whatever the cartridge could send to it. The delivery only got better with more detailed and expensive cartridges.
Next up I went to Al DiMeola's Orange and Blue LP, EDEL 168584. This is a double album issue on 180-gram vinyl and is an album that every audiophile should own. Superbly recorded, and the performance is stellar. This album contains my very favorite DiMeola tune, "Cyprus." This is a rather lyrical tune, and is less energetic than a lot of Al's work. The song has a lilt to it, and the presentation followed the same pattern as the Ella track. This time bouncing between the Hanna Umami and the KoetsuAzule.Again, extremes in cartridge pricing, but just the same results. The MP100 just brought out the info sent to it by the cartridge.
The Umami strikes me as a lower-priced Koetsu. Similar warmth, great tracking, and significant detail almost matching the Koetsu. It is very hard to beat the KoetsuAzule, but most people in the market for this phono stage will most likely have a Hanna budget, and not the $12k Koetsu kind of budget. With all the cartridges, making changes to the loading was easy and quick to accomplish. I felt that the combination of the $4k Umami and the $2k MP100 provided some of the best listenings in my review time, and I found myself going back to that combination on a regular basis for most of my listening, as I found that the combo most practically would represent a more common match. The symbiosis between the two pieces of gear just seemed perfect.
Next up was an offering from Playboy's Jazz Classics; Chet Baker and Art Pepper on the same LP (Jazz Wax Records JWR4533) The track selected was "For Minors Only." The album features the aforementioned Chet and Art plus the addition of Phil Urso on tenor sax, Carl Perkins piano, Curtis Counce bass, and Lawrence Marable on drums. What a dynamite ensemble. The quality of the recording is outstanding, and one of my favorites. What is noticeable about this album is that the horns are front and center, and definitely a few decibels up on the rest of the group. There seems to be a bit of brightness to the horns that is absent from the other instruments.
The rest of the band was right in there and every instrument had space and air around it. The drums had a strong impact and the cymbals had the right amount of sizzle. Decay was always perfect. In playing this album through a few other phono stages some have nailed the performance, while a couple along the way delivered a softer rendition with a relationship to the horns. Just enough backing off to take the bright edge off the horns. It wasn't a poor delivery, and in some ways was perhaps a little less fatiguing. Not a wholly bad thing, but definitely not an accurate reproduction.
I know exactly how this album should sound, and the MP100 delivered it exactly as it was recorded. In your face horns, great rhythm and pace from the band, and that slight bit of edge. That is exactly what a phono amp is supposed to do, and the way the MP100 does it leaves you questioning if you are actually listening to a $2000 phono stage or something much more expensive.
Of course, as I generally do, I had to include some Eva Cassidy in the mix. I just recently purchased the seven-disc box set Night Bird. A 45 rpm set recorded on 180-gram vinyl (Blix Records Box20143). The track "Chain of Fools" written by Don Covay, and originally recorded by her Highness Aretha Franklin, is certainly a familiar song. I don't know how many people recorded it after Aretha, but I doubt anyone did it the same justice as the Queen of Soul, until that is, Eva Cassidy recorded it in 1996 at the Blues Alley.
Cassidy is now, rightfully so, considered one of the greatest female vocalists of all time, and lost to the world at the tender age of 33. Thankfully there are some great recordings of her performances before she passed. This set contains some of the best work she did, and it's live. Every aspect of the performance is stellar. The band comprising Chris Bondo bass, Hilton Felton Hammond organ, Keith Grimes electric guitar, RaiceMcClound drums, Lenny Williams piano, and of course, Eva on guitar and vocals, was as close to perfect as they could be during this gig. The rendition of this particular song has slam, infinite amounts of soul, and sonics that are stunning.
When played on the right system the results have you feeling like you are sitting front and center to the stage. Every player is in their own space and in proper depth from the center front. Playing this through the MP100 and with the source being the Umami cartridge was eye-opening, as the delivery was incredibly accurate and 98% of the way to the best I have heard it sound in my system using my custom Paradox Signature 70 phono stage.
I pulled another all-time favorite, Supertramp's Crime of the Century (A&M SP3647 -original pressing from 1974). The album has been with me since my college days. Certainly one of the best rock albums of the 70s, if not all time. The opening track of "School" runs straight into "Bloody Well Right," so I have listened to them almost as a singular track. The dynamic swings are an earmark of the band's songs. Richard Davies and Roger Hodgkin are crystal clear, front and center. The drums and bass really anchor the first track "School." The guitars are simply searing at times, and the MP100 did a very admirable job in delivering all the subtle detail, attack, and decay as the song heads to its crescendo with the piano leading the charge.
It is an incredibly well-engineered song, and it would be easy for some units to meld it all together and not have a clear separation of the instruments. This was not the case throughout the song, and the same was true with "Bloody Well Right." From the great piano intro by Roger to the rest of the band coming in strong to drive the rest of the song, the MP100 delivered it all with poise and accuracy.
Now seems a good time to deliver a disclosure. I have listened to the same tracks I used for this review on my friend Hiram's Ultra rig. Air Tight ATM 211 monoblocks, with the Nagra HD preamp ($73k), the Nagra phono stage ($28k), and the brand new Nagra cartridge ($20k). Heady stuff to be sure, and the combined retail on just that gear is roughly $120,000. Was the sound of the MP100 in that league? Of course not, but I can say that unless you have that level of system and it is as integrated as that one, not much will sound as good, and I doubt much of anything available at any cost will sound noticeably different or better. What I can say is that the system mentioned, and the phono stage, was not 12 times better than the MP100.
The meager investment in the MP100 of $2000 gives you a phono stage that belies the price. I think you would have to spend three to four times the money to get any appreciable difference in sonic quality. The coherence and control truly had the MP100 punching way above its class. The character of the unit some may find a bit cool when compared to a valve unit (McIntosh offers a bigger sibling with tubes if you must have tubes). My amps and preamp are tubed. I found that slight coolness actually balanced out the warmth nicely, and cleaned up the sound on some records. (All my phono stages are solid state for that reason). The MP100 has a great ability to handle and to deliver both scale and sizable soundstaging, and uncluttered dynamic swings and shifts in volume without breaking a sweat.
I did end up doing some ripping of certain albums to my laptop just to experience it with the MP100. I ripped five different albums including the ones I used for reviewing the unit in its primary function. The process was easy, and the results were actually quite impressive. I recently dumped over 3000 CDs because I stream, listen to vinyl, and reel to reel these days, and as part of our start to downsizing, getting rid of them seems the wise thing to do. Going back and forth between tracks downloaded through the MP100, and the same tracks on vinyl, I have to say that they sounded amazingly close to the original. The quality of the transfer was really far better than I expected.
As I said at the outset, the McIntosh MP100 is a serious piece of kit for an entry-level vinyl setup, a great choice if you are on a tight budget, or for the moderate-level audiophile who wants a decent setup for occasional vinyl listening, and it is a perfect match to most of the cartridges in that few hundred to a few thousand dollar range. It would provide a lifetime of great listening to almost any audiophile that wants the legendary McIntosh quality and killer build, looks, and ease of operation without taking out a second mortgage to buy. If you are looking for a phono preamp in the $3500 to $4000 or less range you would be doing yourself a real disservice if you do not audition the MP100. My guess is you would most likely be taking it home and you really can't give a better endorsement than that.
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