In the world of high-end audio, there are solid-state tribes and there are tube tribes. Usually the two pretty much stick to their own camps, except for scattered skirmishes when they cross paths at the watering hole.
Each tribe believes theirs is the one true path, and questions the auditory capabilities of the other side. This is why I’m always surprised to see any attempts at the two co-existing in the same room, let alone the same system.
Yet, one of the better sounds I heard last year came at the Los Angeles Audio Show, where a brave retail exhibitor paired a longtime tube manufacturer’s preamp with a pair of hulking monoblocks from a different company specializing in formidable solid-state power. The sound from this culture clash was remarkable. There was warmth and emotional connection in spades, combined with detail, high-frequency polish and impressive bass slam. Luxuriating in this attractive amalgam, I wondered aloud in my room review why such hybrid systems weren’t more common.
There are good reasons, I guess. From a sales standpoint, you might risk alienating the stalwart members of one tribe or the other. And then there’s the fact that most high-end brands these days concentrate on either tubes or solid-state, and want to sell you an entire homogenous front end.
But there are some companies that offer both. One is Binghampton, N.Y.-based McIntosh Laboratory Inc., which for decades has made components with either glowing filaments or solid-state innards. While most of the rigs I see McIntosh and its distributors put together for shows focus on one technology or the other, surely the company has customers who blend the two.
That thought may have been on the minds of McIntosh’s designers as they booted up their CAD drawing boards to create a new integrated amp. I first saw the result of that effort, the McIntosh MA252, on silent display at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last October. Looking at what appeared to be a tube preamp section lifted straight from a McIntosh collectible mated to one of its modern solid-state amps, I was captivated. I immediately asked for a review sample.
Waiting Is the Hardest Part
Getting an MA252 took awhile. The model I saw sitting on a table in Denver last October was only a prototype, intended to get a buzz going, with the details remaining hush-hush until the official release date. With some newspaper-honed reporter tactics, however, I managed to dig up enough information to give Part-Time Audiophile readers the first scoop on this intriguing integrated. But that only made the wait for the actual working device that much harder.
I learned that the MA252’s preamp section uses a pair of 12AX7a tubes and two 12AT7 tubes, while the solid-state amp delivers 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms or 160 watts into 4 ohms. In addition, there’s a pair of balanced inputs, two pairs of unbalanced inputs, a moving-magnet phono stage, tone controls, a subwoofer output, a headphone jack and single set of gold-plated speaker connections.
That’s a lot of features for an integrated, but perhaps the biggest surprise was the cost. McIntosh typically aims its products at the middle level of the high-end market — not in the stratosphere, but above bargain-hunting entry-level. Yet, I discovered the price tag on the MA252 would be $3,500. Now, I really had to get my hands on one.
Out of the Box
Four months after I first spied the MA252, an early production model left the McIntosh factory bound for my listening room. The MA252 arrived in a sturdy box that was almost twice the size of the unit. Inside was a cocoon of custom-fitted heavy gray foam. I took the thick top slab off, exposing the top of the integrated. I lifted the component out and noticed there was a rectangle of pink foam surrounding the tube section.
The tubes were already installed. The pink foam slipped off easily. In slots in the top of the foam were protective metal cages for each tube. I removed those and installed them, taking care to align the McIntosh logos on the plastic top caps to face the front.
Thus assembled, I studied the handsome styling of the MA252. The bottom half has a retro look, with a polished stainless-steel chassis, similar to McIntosh’s famous 275 amp and other classic-era components. Above that is a black module that holds a large display facing the listener and using the company’s trademark blue and green illumination on the lettering. The sides feature more shiny stainless-steel trim, prominent heat fins and a cast-aluminum name badge in the style of McIntosh’s venerable tube products.
Leaving the unit unplugged, I attached the output from my Mark Levinson 30.5 DAC to the balanced inputs, using a pair of AudioQuest Sky interconnects. Next, I plugged in Tara Labs solid-core cables carrying the signal from my recently restored and modified Thorens TD125 Mk. II turntable and connected its ground wire to a post at the bottom of the MA252. The tonearm I just had installed was an upgraded SME 3009 Series II, with a Shure V15 Type III cartridge and a new Jico sapphire stylus.
Finally, I tried to install my Transparent Reference XL speaker cable, but the diameter of the center shafts of the MA252’s robust binding posts were too big to accept the thick spade lugs. So, I switched to a pair of Merrill Audio’s underrated ANAP cables, which have lugs with more separation, and successfully connected my Revel Studio loudspeakers. I now was ready to plug in the supplied heavy power cord.
Adding AC automatically put the MA252 into standby mode, indicated by a glowing red light on the front. I employed the supplied remote to turn on full power, which immediately caused the tubes to glow an orange color at their base, signaling the start-up process had begun. In a few seconds, the glow on the tubes turned to green. They were ready to play music.
I used the remote — a small, slim unit — to choose the digital input and turn up the volume. (There also are two knobs on the front of the MA252 that can be used to achieve the same thing.) I also made sure the bass and treble controls were set to flat.
I pushed start on my Pioneer Elite PD-R19RW CD player, which was pressed into service as a transport after my two other dedicated disc-spinners failed days apart. Its digital out was fed to the Levinson via an MIT Reference cable.
The opening track on the disc I loaded, Dire Straits “So Far Away” from a Japanese import XRCD copy of Brothers in Arms, began playing. The initial sound was promising, but I turned the volume down to start the burn-in period, which lasted about a week.
Strait to the Point
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I commenced my formal listening with the same Dire Straits track. Brothers in Arms was among the first all-digital albums released in the CD format, and it can sound cool and mechanical. The XRCD process brings out a bit more texture and resolution, but no one ever is going to call this recording buttery.
On the MA252, though, “So Far Away” had a warmer tone, with instruments appearing illuminated from within and the snare drum having less of an aggressive ‘80s-style crack. Yet, the throbbing rhythm guitar still had good weight and the overall pace of the track was spot-on. No tube drag here.
Despite the smoother nature of the aural image, the MA252 didn’t obscure textures and details. Throughout this song, for example, Mark Knopfler plays the instrumental hook, as well as tag lines, fills and a solo, on a heavily processed guitar. Underneath, keyboardist Guy Fletcher adds various low notes to augment Knopfler’s riffs. On some rigs, these elements blend together into one thick sound, but with the MA252 I could hear each player individually.
I switched to the recent Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab one-step, 45-rpm vinyl release of Donald Fagen’s first solo LP, The Nightfly. This also is a digital recording, but MoFi has done a masterful job with its deluxe reissue. (See my review here.) Compared with my usual reference rig, which consists of 600-wpc Pass Labs X600.8 monoblocks and a Pass Labs XP-12 preamp — both solid-state — the MA252’s presentation seemed pressed to achieve quite the same top-end extension, bass slam and crisp-edged leading edges on notes. But considering the two Pass units together retail for almost 10 times the cost of the MA252, that wasn’t surprising.
What the MA252 did do well, though, was present a very pleasing, easy-on-the-ears sound that didn’t degenerate into mushiness. Even though the McIntosh integrated lacked the ultimate reach and definition, both high and low, as a megabuck system, it did have notable balance within its range.
The Nightfly’s propulsive single “I.G.Y.” was impressively rendered by the MA252. Fagen’s voice, which engineer Roger Nichols placed deeper in the mix than most pop vocals, had slightly more prominence than I usually encounter. Fagen’s synth solo midway through also stood out, leading me to conclude that the McIntosh unit was particularly adept at retrieving the midband of recordings.
That’s not to say other parts of the frequency spectrum suffered unduly. On an Analogue Productions pressing of Soular Energy, the late Ray Brown’s bass was reasonably full and rounded, if not quite as powerful as on bigger amps. Meanwhile, Gerryck King’s tasteful drumming had a silky sheen, and Gene Harris’ piano sparkled although upper right-hand runs were less bright than a live instrument.
For a combo unit with only four small tubes, the MA252 brought plenty of valve euphonics to recordings, and I mean that in the best possible way. The rich sound of the hybrid integrated made most recordings — especially CDs — pleasant to listen to. As my wife commented admiringly while popping in the room one afternoon, “That amp sounds silky.” It was this attribute that kept me up way too late on quite a few of my review sessions, digging out favorite albums and wondering how they would sound — which always is high praise for any component.
The MA252 also had a nice touch with more intimate recordings. Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon,” from the Fruit Tree vinyl box set, had a lush immediacy that made me want to raise the volume and just soak up the late English singer-guitarist’s ethereal performance. Likewise, jazz vocalist Lyn Stanley’s version of “Break It to Me Gently,” from her excellent one-step vinyl pressing of The Moonlight Sessions Vol. 1, showed off both the audiophile siren’s admirable phrasing and former David Bowie pianist Mike Garson’s inventive accompaniment.
All in Your Head
Since the MA252 comes with a front-panel ¼-inch headphone jack, I thought I’d give it a try, as you can easily spend the total cost of the McIntosh unit on a dedicated can amp these days. I used a gold-plated adaptor to plug in a pair of 3.5 mm mini-plug-equipped Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 headphones and re-listened to many of the tracks I’d played over the Revels. I chose the $350-a-pair Momentums, a fine-sounding product, as being representative of the price level of cans a typical MA252 owner might have.
Right away, it was obvious that McIntosh had not treated the MA252’s headphone output as an afterthought. The MA252 created a clean, spacious soundstage in my head. Instruments were well-defined, with bass particularly tight and tuneful. There was not as much weight or texture as a more expensive set of cans and a dedicated tube amp might produce, but the McIntosh easily bested the headphone out on my Pioneer Elite and blew away the sound from my iPhone jack. Many buyers likely would find it suitable unless they became tempted to pursue more sophisticated headphone equipment.
Integrated vs. Integrated
As I noted before, comparing the MA252 with separates that totaled $32,000 was not exactly a fair fight, although it did allow me to see how the McIntosh compared with today’s state of the art. Still, I wondered how the hybrid component would match up with an all-solid-state integrated. So, I borrowed a Luxman L-505ux, a well-regarded model close to the MA252’s price that also offers 100 watts per channel and has its own phono stage.
I started off with the Bluebird re-release of saxophonist Illinois Jacquet’s The Black Velvet Band. The 1940s-era recordings were digitally remastered for this vinyl LP, which brought out textures and detail but also added some edge to the horn section (which featured, in addition to Illinois on tenor, J.J. Johnson on trombone and Leo Parker on baritone sax).
On the album’s opener, the appropriately named “Jet Propulsion,” the Luxman portrayed more of the barely controlled fury produced by the eight-piece band, with the horns having some bite. The MA252, in contrast, excelled at presenting the group’s arrangement as a cohesive whole, with Jacquet’s instrument sounding slightly buffed down, but luscious and swinging, and Shadow Wilson’s drums coming off as less splashy.
A vinyl copy of Roxy Music’s Avalon brought a similar result to what I heard with the solid-state Pass gear. The MA252 offered a smoother, slightly compressed playback, while the Luxman produced a drier sound with more high frequency detail and extension, and deeper bass.
I also returned to the Donald Fagen one-step of The Nightfly. Again, the vocals on the MA252 were more forward, while the far upper frequencies were slightly subdued. Another thing I noticed on this track was that the McIntosh integrated offered a nice layering of instruments and did a decent job of recreating the studio’s ambiance, but it did not throw as deep or wide a soundstage as the Luxman unit or the Pass separates, with the latter being among the very best in that regard.
Yet, as good as the Luxman was — and it was very, very good — the MA252 brought a superior ease and tactile connection to the music that was addictive. As an illustration of these qualities, a planned hour-long listening session with an audiophile friend (the Luxman’s owner) turned into three hours before we knew it, putting him seriously behind on getting dinner in the oven. The MA252 will do that to you.
Put It in the Will
One other factor that sometimes is given short shrift in reviews is build quality. McIntosh products, in my experience, offer not only first-rate fit-and-finish, but also are reliable over the long haul — the very long haul. You can see this yourself by perusing eBay and observing how many estate-sale-find McIntosh antiques from the 1950s and ‘60s are up for sale in still-working condition.
My MA252 not only survived shipping (no easy feat), it also stood up to some unintended abuse. As I was bending over the front of the unit, installing my turntable interconnects, my less-than-six-pack abs pushed the right-front tube out of its socket. As I moved back, it rolled off the preamp section, fell onto my teak cabinet and then onto the floor. I muttered an especially creative, hyphenated expletive and picked the tube up, wondering how I was going to explain this to McIntosh. Bracing for the worst, I gingerly straightened out some bent prongs, plugged the tube back in and hit the power button. The MA252 went through its startup routine and played perfectly.
The McIntosh MA252 offers an alluring combination of tube romanticism and solid-state resolution and authority. Any shortcomings are relatively minor and mainly found at the extremes of its frequency range. It also has a slight midrange emphasis that is pleasing on pop and jazz vocals, combined with an overall smoothness that is flattering to instruments like horns and violins in particular and CDs in general. Still, this integrated also plays vinyl with aplomb — using its own very capable MM phono stage — and avoids any sogginess or congestion that can result from having too much of a good thing.
To be sure, the MA252 didn’t have the resolution, dynamic reach or weight of the much more expensive tube/solid-state combo (separates) I heard in LA. Some all-tube rigs can get you even closer to the soul of the music and other all-solid-state systems will have exceptional detail and bass slam. Still, the fact that McIntosh was able to achieve the MA252’s own commendable level of performance for $3,500 is a minor miracle.
With many Part-Time Audiophile readers increasingly expressing frustration over the ever-climbing price tags in this hobby, the MA252 offers an attractive option to serve as the heart of a reasonably priced system. Additionally, since it’s an integrated, buyers will have one fewer pair of interconnects to shell out for. And they won’t need an external phono stage or headphone amp.
Apart from being tough and cost-effective, though, the most laudable attribute of the MA252 is that sonically it brings its owner more than a taste of what much loftier-priced high-end audio promises. The ability to connect the listener to the music makes this tube-solid state integrated a special component by any standard. I could happily listen to the MA252 for a long, long time.
If anything can, the hybrid McIntosh MA252 is the kind of “best of both worlds” product that could convince its two tribes to live together in peace. Highly recommended.
- Design: Hybrid integrated (tubed preamp, solid-state amp)
- Power output per channel: 100 watts into 8 ohms or 160 watts into 4 ohms
- Speaker impedance: 4 or 8 ohms
- Total harmonic distortion: 0. 03%
- Frequency response: +0,-0.5dB 20Hz to 20kHz
- Phono stage sensitivity (moving magnet): 3.0mV
- Dimensions (WxHxD): 12″ (30.5cm) x 7-5/8″ (19.4cm) x 18″ (45.7cm)
- Weight: 28 lbs (12.7 kg)
- Price: $3,500
- Manufacturer: McIntosh Laboratory Inc., (800) 538-6576, www.mcintoshlabs.com