When the McIntosh MP1100 phono preamplifier arrived at my doorstep, I was as excited as when I saw the first McIntosh product at 12 years old. I admit, I am a McIntosh fan boy, perhaps not blindly starry -eyed enough to buy the $1,800 USD McIntosh wall clock, but I have a long enough family history with McIntosh to prove my street cred. It all began with my grandfather who purchased a pair of MC-60s from a movie theatre and became one of the earliest McIntosh owners in Hong Kong. The post war period in Asia was a very difficult time economically, so high-end systems were rare birds in most households. Grandpa eventually passed the MC-60s onto my father, who later passed them on to my first cousin. After the MC-60s, we acquired the MC-75s, followed by the MC275. When it was my time to get serious with high end audio, I acquired almost every one of the vintage McIntosh tube amps, including the elusive MC3500 “Woodstock” amplifier, which I proudly own it to this day.
Words and Photos by Richard Mak
When I heard McIntosh was coming out with their first full chassis high end phono preamplifier, I immediately visited Mike Sastra at Audioclassics and told him “Please, I want one regardless of the price, and please find me a good serial number if you can.” That he did, and a few days later I was the proud owner of serial number 1001, so this article has not been written about a factory review sample, but about a McIntosh lover’s own unit which has been purchased before any demo listening.
Ron Evans designed the first separate solid-state power amplifier fitted with the Power Guard – the MC2205 – which came out in 1975. Other famous designs by Evans include the MC1000 amplifier (his favourite amp), the C1000 Preamp, MC2301 Tube Amp, the six-chassis 2,000 watt MC2KW and all the built-in phono stages since the C1000. Evans is a giant in the audio world, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person for the first time in 2005. Despite his status, I found him to be a friendly, soft spoken and humble man of few words. 12 years later, I consider it my honour to converse with Evans once again, to interview him about the MP1100 following hi retirement from McIntosh.
Like all McIntosh products, the MP1100 arrived in a double box carton, factory tested to withstand a six-foot drop so you can be sure it will survive any type of shipping abuse. When the 26 lbs phono stage is taken out of its protective box, it looks as classy and sexy as every Mc product. A titanium top cover displays a circuit diagram and a glass window reveals four 12AX7A tubes which glow green when powered on. Gone are the days of filament bulb lighting: all modern-day McIntosh products are fitted with fiberoptic LED lighting. This is why the current blue colour on the famous Mac VU meters differs from the slightly greenish-blue of old days when tiny light bulbs were used.
The MP1100 sports some serious operational features which should be enough to satisfy the most demanding of vinyl enthusiasts: Two line inputs, and three phono inputs (two RCA & one RCA/XLR). Each of the phono inputs has its own programmable gain (from 40dB to 64dB), seven loading, eight capacitance settings, and a choice of five equalization curves:
- RIAA: US standard since 1955. RIAA is to be used for all modern LPs.
- LP: Mainly for Columbia LPs pressed between 1948-1956, also similar to the DECCA curve.
- NAB: National Association of Broadcasters, for LPs requiring 6dB more bass boost than LP.
- AES: Audio Engineering Society, mainly for Shellacs and some Capitol records.
- 78s: Mainly for very old Shellacs, and an option where none of the other curves sound satisfactory.
The P1100 even comes with a scratch and rumble filter which can be activated on-the-fly to reduce noise on warped or scratchy records. The MP1100 is a hybrid tube/solid state unit with some serious engineering under its hood. As the signal engages any one of the three inputs, it is first met with the programmable resistance and capacitance loading components, all of which can be adjusted on-the-fly via the front panel or the remote control. It is then followed by ultra-low noise, discrete solid-state, complementary balanced amplifiers. Next is an adjustable attenuator which selects the overall gain, then the vacuum tubes which provide the main amplification. Finally, come the equalization profiles which are located in the feedback network of the tube amplifiers. There are two identical tube amplifiers per channel and they are connected in a balanced configuration which significantly reduces even-order harmonic distortions.
The signal remains fully balanced from the tube output to the XLR outputs. All selection switching on the MP1100 is done by Reed Relays, a type of electromagnetic switch held inside a sealed glass tube which produces no loud pops or noises when switching inputs. The MP1100 also comes with a feature not found in any other phono stages I have owned. It has a built-in Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) and digital outputs (Coaxial, Optical and USB). Once connected to a PC loaded with Windows 7 or higher operating systems, the A/D converter will allow you to convert any analog signal into digital files up to 192kHz 24-Bit resolution. Operation of the A/D Converter is the only function where I had to read the owner’s manual, it does require a bit of computer knowledge such as installing a Windows driver, and operating third-party software such as Vinyl Studio by Alpinesoft. For the analog purist who does not want to be involved in anything digital or computer related, rest assured the A/D Converter can be switched off entirely, without any interference to the signal path of the MP1100.
I utilized all three inputs on the MP1100, connecting them to a Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement (0.6 mV), a ZYX Universe Premium (0.24 mV), a Lyra Olympos (0.3 mV) and an ultra low impedance 0.6 ohm My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC (0.20+ mV). With my entire system connected via the 5-12V remote triggers, I press one button on the McIntosh C1000 Pre-amplifier’s remote, and it turns on the entire system including the MP1100. The tubes on the MP1100 glow orange as the front panel displays TUBE WARMUP, 15 seconds later the tubes glow green indicating the unit is good to go.
With 64dB of gain, the MP1100 has adequate gain to achieve sufficient volume with the 0.2+ mV MSL BC cartridge, but the overall dynamic contrast was much better with the 0.3 mV Lyra Olympos, or the 0.6 mV Goldfinger Statement, so I would say 0.3 mV would be the ideal minimum output cutoff. Below 0.3 mV you may need to use a Step-Up Transformer (SUT) into the MM 40dB gain setting. True to all McIntosh products, there is a complete absence of tube noise or grounding hiss. In fact, it is one of the quietest phono stages I have ever owned. Even with the ultra-low impedance and low output My Sonic Lab BC cartridge, there was no detectable background noise.
I pulled out Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue 45rpm reissue on Musical Fidelity, and I immediately heard the hallmark McIntosh house sound through the MP1100: Soft, relaxed, rounded and with an elegant yet subtle politeness which never brings listening fatigue. Panning across the romantically lit soundstage is the piano, with a velvety touch. Cymbals and drums on the left, with the trumpet and saxophone more in the centre, but all in their rightful spatial extension, in their proper size and with perfectly appropriate dynamic contrast. In other words, great sound staging and instrument separation.
The same can be said of Brahm’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on CISCO’s Reissue (LSC-2219). The presentation is rounded and musical, yet never loses the sense of scale of the orchestra. Individual instruments are not as pin-point or resolved as some, but it is this non hifi-ish nature of the sound which makes me love McIntosh. In the third movement, there is an extended solo cello with the backdrop of the piano. Both instruments float nicely in the air with plenty of texture and decay, yet they blend together which makes me focus entirely on the music, and not hifi characteristics.
Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, with Ansermet conducting the L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and Ricci on the Violin (Decca SXL-2155 ED1), is a rather abrasive and edgy recording, especially so on the Speaker’s Corner Reissue. Normally, I would much prefer the RCA recording with Szeryng and the CSO, both in interpretation and recording quality, but I pulled out the DECCA just to see how the MP-1100 would perform. On the Audio Research Reference Phono 3 (review forthcoming), the performance was rendered with all its unmitigated abrasive realism, including the ear- piercing higher notes of the violin, precisely how it was captured in the recording. The relaxed and rounded character of the MP1100 gave the violin just enough of a calming effect to make it more pleasing to the ear. Switching over to the LP equalization curve tamed the sound even more. Frankly, whether or not the record was made with the DECCA equalization curve did not matter to me. This was a sound that was most pleasing to my ears. If I were ever to play this album again, the MP1100 with the LP equalization would be my first choice.
The MP1100 offered equally remarkable performances of Cassandra Wilson’s “Red Bone” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” off the Blue Light ‘Til Dawn album. Credit should be given to Pure Pleasure for their fantastic re-mastering effort which renders this release much less glittery and edgy than the CD. Cassandra Wilson’s voice reminds me of Sade, but deeper, more throaty and stunningly realistic. The metal string guitar and percussion was rendered with remarkable clarity and impact: Hanging in mid-air with solid holographic imagery. The warmish tone of the MP1100 remains intact, not ultra-detailed, but also without any hint of grain or edge. Mid-range is full bodied, sweet and natural, while bass notes are polite, accurate and well controlled. The overall tonality reminds me of the Audia Flight phono ($6,100 USD), with the MP1100 being more laid back, and the Audia Flight more upfront and dynamic. It is also reminiscent of the Ensemble Fonobrio ($7,000 USD) which I have owned for many years, both the MP1100 and Ensemble carries a romantic elegance which is calm and steady, almost like riding in a Cadillac.
The same recording when played through the Audio Research Reference Phono 3 (with a 70dB gain setting) or the Burmester Phono 100, carried more dynamic contrast, resolution and deeper bass impact. On the MP1100 (with a 64 dB max gain), the picture becomes less intense and with a relaxed romantic sense of musical flow.
Petra Magoni and Spinetti Ferrucio’s Musica Nuda album (FONE – ANOF106) is another album which I particularly enjoyed with the MP1100. The recording is a typical audiophile war-horse with so much detail and texture and a sound which is almost bigger and livelier than the real thing. “Blackbird” is my favourite song on the album and carries so much clarity and detail that it becomes hifi-sounding on my Audio Research Reference Phono 3 and the Tenor Phono stage. Rather than focusing on the hifi effects of the individual instruments, the MP1100 drew me completely into the flow of the music without dissecting the individual parts. It was, to put it simply – mesmerizing. The same effect was carried through onto Carole King’s concert recording. Her duet with James Taylor on “You’ve Got a Friend” literally moved me to tears. I played the song in complete darkness with all the blue meters turned off, and the MP1100 transformed itself into a time machine which took me back Carnegie Hall in 1971. I was sitting not just in the front row, but right beside Carole King and James Taylor, totally immersed in the music.
As a McIntosh lover, I have waited long enough for their statement phono preamplifier but the wait has been worthwhile. At $8,000 USD, the MP1100 is not cheap, but hardly expensive in the world of high-end phono stages. Certainly cheaper than the last three phono stages I reviewed (CH Precision P1/X1 – $90,000 USD, Tenor Phono 1 – $50,000 USD, and the AR Ref Phono 3 $14,000 USD). Like all McIntosh equipment, the MP1100 is a safe purchase. The long list of user-friendly features combined with the naturally conservative McIntosh house sound makes it an easy decision for the McIntosh owner. For those new to McIntosh, the MP1100 is a serious contender in its price range. The MP1100 will not be my last phono preamplifier, but it is one which I intend to keep and treasure for a very long time. Highly Recommended.