McIntosh MP100 Phono Stage / Stereo Preamplifier Review
The more I listen to vinyl and the wide range of phono cartridges at my disposal — the more I realize that a phono preamplifier is either the weakest link or most important component in the chain. The more I listen to the McIntosh MP100 Phono Preamplifier, the more I realize just how wide of a gap there is between them. Our picks at either end of the spectrum will not break the bank for most audiophiles, but I'm starting to finally hear the differences between those phono preamplifiers that I've always considered to be great and the phono stages that actually are "great."
The McIntosh MP100 stereo unit is not inexpensive at $2000; some audiophiles will think it's pretty affordable considering the brand behind it, but I know that $2000 is a very firm ceiling for 99% of the population that listens to records with the same passion as the rest of us.
I know I'm doing this slightly in reverse, but the McIntosh MP100 is worth every cent of its asking price and I'm puzzled why it's not more money; the only logical explanation I can come up with is that the folks in Binghamton are trying to lure in new blood with a product that delivers on its long history of excellence — at a price that is too tempting to ignore.
After my factory tour, I left wondering what the best McIntosh equipment would sound like in my home even though I know I can't afford it. The MP100 might not have the trademark blue meters but it's as true to their design ethos and obsession with state-of-the-art engineering as anything else in their lineup.
The McIntosh MP100 is built to last forever and after removing it from its rather rugged packaging; I quickly realized that McIntosh certainly didn't cut corners on the casework, jacks, or faceplate.
At 11.5" x 3.575" x 13.75" (WxHxD), The MP100 is not going to take up a lot of space in your rack or even on a credenza which is where I used it for most of the review. The unit is almost nine pounds and feels like a brick in your hands. In some respects, the MP100 feels rather old-school McIntosh from the 1980s with its selector dials for setting the load capacitance and load resistance. Its performance, however, is decidedly 2022 and it exemplifies the concept of a Swiss Army Knife with many tools at your disposal.
The MP100's back panel is very neatly laid out; you will find a left, right, and ground input for moving magnet cartridges, and a separate input for moving coil cartridges. There's a pair of balanced XLR outputs along with a set of unbalanced analog RCA jacks as well. You have more than enough room for even the thickest interconnects. The MP100 is also capable of converting your records into digital files that can be sent to a network amplifier or even an active loudspeaker with digital inputs.
There are optical and coaxial outputs, as well as a USB Type-B output for archiving vinyl records onto your computer's hard drive if that's something that appeals to you. The digital output is limited to 24-bit/96kHz for any DAC, network amplifier, or active loudspeakers (with digital inputs). There is no support for DSD or the proprietary lossy compressed MQA format.
I did not try this feature because of the focus of the review was the MP100s impact on vinyl playback and how it interacted with the Pro-Ject Debut PRO Turntable that I reviewed at the same time. The MM input offers 40dB of gain, while the MC input has 60dB of gain. You can connect the MP100 to two separate pre-amplifiers using the balanced and unbalanced outputs.
I'm going to focus on the Grado Opus3 and Ortofon 2M Black because I think they are the types of cartridges that MP100 users are most likely to use as well. The Denon worked really well, but I still prefer it with my step-up transformer and the Croft; the McIntosh phono preamplifier is a lot better than the Croft overall but the synergy of the three products just works for me.
McIntosh components have a "house" sound and if you're expecting the MP100 to deliver that — you might be only mildly disappointed. I erroneously expected the MP100 to be more organic sounding; with that McIntosh sense of propulsion that makes it so good with so many different types of loudspeakers.
The speed and force are certainly there.
I was stunned to hear how different the Grado Opus3 sounded compared to the Croft and SimAudio phono stages that I usually run with it. The Croft can be noisy with higher output cartridges and while that doesn't diminish how special it is delivering its signature pace, vibrancy, and clarity — the McIntosh MP100 is dead silent.
Possibly the lowest noise floor I've ever heard from a phono preamplifier. Those silent backgrounds only add to how much more you hear when listening to your favorite recordings. Donald Byrd and Eric Dolphy are played a lot in my home and the Opus3 / MP100 combination delivered them both with greater clarity, more resolution, a deeper soundstage, and more impact than I am accustomed to. Bass drum and acoustic bass had far more definition and texture with almost every jazz recording; I've heard more body and color from other tube phono stages, but the MP100 loved the organic nature of the Grado wood body.
The Ortofon 2M Black isn't quite as organic sounding as the Grado but it's not overly neutral either. The Thorens table also imparts some warmth to the sound and the MP100 changed the presentation in a few areas.
Listening to Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' "Into My Arms" demonstrated just how much the McIntosh MP100 impacts both the transparency and presence of the music. The opening piano notes were pushed slightly forward but with more weight and Cave's voice was carved very neatly in-between the loudspeakers. The Grado put more meat on the bones but the 2M Bronze was far more detailed sounding and more precise.
The MP100 expands the size of the soundstage but it's definitely not exaggerated.
I cued up the White Stripes' "Ball and Biscuit" and "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" and was curious how the MP100 would handle all of the added distortion and Meg White's pounding. The Opus3 hit with more impact and Jack White's guitar sounded more authentic but it definitely didn't deliver as much resolution or detail. The Ortofon was very forceful in its own way and there was more specificity to the imaging; what little exists on the recording. The MP100 handles all genres of music in the same way; dark backgrounds, excellent clarity, detail, and foot-stomping energy when required.
"Fever" from Elvis Is Back is both a hauntingly beautiful track and one of the best tests of any component if you really want to know how it handles male vocals; It was well worth spending $50 on the repress many years ago. I listened to the MP100 and the aforementioned cartridges through the Magnepan LRS and Q Acoustics 3050i which are my dining room loudspeakers and one of the most underrated and affordable products around. I've heard this track through dozens of speakers and amplifiers and it can sound completely different in terms of presence and just how forward Elvis sounds in the room.
The LRS are ideal loudspeakers if you listen to a lot of vocals; the MP100 and the 2M Black pulled Elvis further into the room and locked him firmly in place. Bass and percussion had more impact but slightly less texture than the Opus3 which made Elvis sound more tactile even if he wasn't as far forward in the space.
The MP100 is one of those rare components that makes everything connected to it better — I rarely say that about anything.
Detail, resolution, clarity, dynamics, and presence?
This little box from Binghamton brings that to the party all day and night. The MP100 is neutral enough that I think one can get away with a wide range of cartridges if you're looking to create a specific sound and perspective — I just wouldn't go too neutral on the cartridge. If you've always wanted a piece of McIntosh gear in your high-end system — this might be the biggest bargain there is.
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