My Mactone (website) adventure started last year at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, when I went to visit my good friend Bob Clarke of Profundo. He brought a pair of Trenner & Friedl Osiris loudspeakers, perhaps the only T&F design I hadn’t heard up to that point, to a room hosted by NYC high-end audio dealer In Living Stereo. The system included a Clearaudio turntable with a Hana ML cartridge, and some gorgeous Japanese amplifiers from a brand named I’d never heard of, so Bob gave me the skinny on them—Mactone’s Kenjiro Matsumoto started making these precious, bespoke tube amplifiers in 1964, and he’s still at it. The entire system at RMAF (featuring the Mactone MH-120 amplifier and XX-7000 pre) had such a lovely sound, almost vintage in its tone and yet decidedly modern when it came to the ability to render music with the utmost detail and fidelity.
I picked the In Living Stereo room as one of my favorites at the show. For weeks afterward, I was haunted by the sheer beauty of the sound I heard in that room. It possessed such vitality, I thought, which was why I used the word “alive” to describe the experience. Everything sounded utterly alive, so much so that I read one other reviewer’s take on the room and he used the exact same word as well.
It’s now several months later, I’ve noticed that I have a huge chunk of that same system in for review—the Hana ML cartridge, the Osiris speakers and the Mactone MH-120 power amplifier and XX-7000 preamplifier. (A Mactone phono preamplifier was also in the RMAF system, which is hopefully an experience for another day.) This is, once again, amplification that I would call precious—I feel strangely honored to be in its presence. For every minute I’ve spent with the Mactones, I felt that the sound was indeed alive, that it had a beating heart that pumped blood into the music like nothing else I’ve heard.
Mactone MH-120 power amplifier
When Steven Mishoe of In Living Stereo sent me the MH-120 amp and XX-7000 preamp, I was a bit confused at first. First of all, one box was much bigger and heavier than the other. I started unpacking the smaller box because I really wanted to see the XX-7000 first with all its gleaming, mirrored surfaces. As you might have already guessed, the smaller box contained the MH-120. It was smaller and more compact than I remembered. (The shipping weight of the XX-7000 preamplifier is 55 pounds.)
My second error was thinking that the $12,995 MH-120 was a low-powered design—for some reason I had 23wpc stuck in my head. (Another Mactone power amp has that power rating, it turns out.) I figured that’s why both Steven and Bob wanted me to try out the Mactone MH-120 with the Trenner & Friedl Osiris, which is fairly easy to drive (88.7 dB sensitivity with an 8-ohm impedance). I started planning out the systems I wanted to use with the Mactones based on the faulty premise that it didn’t have a lot of juice. That’s when Steven informed me that the MH-120 has 65 watts per channel, enough to drive almost every speaker I had on hand.
Most of the Mactone power amps are named after their output tubes—EL34s, 300Bs, etc. Therefore, the MH-120 uses four KT-120s, along with two 12BH7s and a single 12AU7. These tubes are protected by an outer case that allows you to see the magic glow, but you can remove it completely if you wish.
Steve described the Mactone MH-120 thusly: “The MH-120 operates at 65 watts per channel into 8 ohms. It’s able to be optimized to the listener’s taste, speaker matching and room acoustics with the 3-position presence knob. The first position (all the way to left) offers the greatest detail and bass. The middle position has a slightly warmer top end and attenuated bass response. The right position offers an even warmer top end with no attenuation of the bass. This last position is good for brighter rooms with a lot of hard surfaces like glass.”
His description was spot on. I wound up using the Mactone MH-120 primarily with the presence knob set to the middle, but there were times when I felt the need to adjust the sound to the specific recording.
Mactone XX-7000 preamplifier
Usually when you deal with a matching pair of tube separates, the power amp is the male peacock, so to speak. The preamp is usually a mere box with knobs on the front. In most cases, the tubes are hidden from view until you pop the hood. While the Mactone MH-120 is beautiful, it does resemble a number of Japanese tube amps out there—open architecture so the tubes can glow in all their glory, a classic champagne-colored chassis and a solid feel. In this case, however, the XX-7000 is the glamorous star, ready for its close-up. I’ll go as far as to say the Mactone XX-7000 is the most beautiful preamp I’ve ever seen up close. I can’t think of anything else that comes close.
One minor consideration—the Mactone XX-7000 preamplifier does not have a remote. If you’re seriously considering the Mactones, if you’ve already fallen under their spell, you won’t care. But if you’re the kind of audiophile who become accustomed to controlling everything from your listening chair—and sometimes I think I’m slowly becoming that guy—you’ve been warned. At least your Fitbit will cheer you on if you decide on the XX-7000.
Here’s the craziest thing. At $21,500, the XX-7000 is probably the most expensive preamp I’ve tested. There was a point where I thought, “Can it getter any better than this?” Evidently, the answer is yes—Mactone has another preamplifier, the XX-5000, which costs around $50,000. It doesn’t have a remote control, either. According to Steven, “both preamps are designed to maintain very high bandwidth with no softening of the bass (low output impedance), which is a problem with lesser tube preamp designs.”
The XX-7000 features five line-level inputs, and uses a total of ten 12AU7s—more valves than any other preamp I’ve used. As Steven explained to me, “All Mactone components are handmade, no circuit boards or labor-saving practices are used. All parts are point to point soldered by hand. Capacitors are oversized and transformers are premium.” Every square inch of the Mactones exudes an attention to detail that transcends the idea of “artisan quality.” These are amplifiers that are works of art, pure and simple.
Since the arrival of the Mactone MH-120 and XX-7000 preceded the Osiris speakers by a few weeks, I played around with a number of speakers. First up was the Fern & Roby Raven IIs, which are small single-driver, high-efficiency speakers that retail for $5750/pair, which might seem like a mismatch when you have almost $35K of amplification on hand. It wasn’t, especially when I remembered how much I loved the larger Raven speakers when I reviewed them last year. The Ravens and the Raven IIs use the same full-range SEAS driver along with similar cabinet construction. The Raven IIs are mostly just smaller, which gave me the impression—up to that point—that these sounded similar except for the deepest bass.
When connected to the Mactones, the Raven IIs suddenly sounded like the Ravens. There was more bass, more depth, more texture to the overall sound. In my opinion, this says a lot about both the Mactone and the Raven IIs.
Encouraged by this success, I switched to the Von Schweikert Audio ESE speakers ($20,000/pair), which I thought was a more likely pairing. Even though the ESEs have a sensitivity of 91 dB, the impedance is only 4 ohms and designer Leif Swanson always stresses the need for a beefy amp with at least 100wpc in order to achieve the dynamics that the ESEs can supply in spades. I did notice a certain lack of dynamics with the pairing, a reigning-in of SPLs, even though every other aspect of the performance was exquisite. It was excellent, but not optimal.
Finally, the Trenner & Friedl Osiris loudspeakers arrived, and I never looked back. For most of the review period I listened to this combination with the PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifier, the Palmer 2.5 turntable with the Audio Origami PU7 tonearm and both the ZYX Bloom 3 and Hana ML cartridges. Cabling was switched between MasterBuilt, Furutech and Cardas Clear. I used two separate Niagara power conditioners from AudioQuest—the 1200 and the 3000. As I’ll explain shortly, they became necessary.
I only had one small issue with the Mactones during the review period. While the MH-120 is warming up, it can be a little noisy. I heard both transformer hum and a second distinct and higher-pitched drone while the units warmed up. Fortunately, both noises gradually went away after a few minutes. I’ve dealt with this many times before with tube amplifiers made overseas—sometimes the transformers are excited by voltages under 110—say, 106 or 107, which can be common in older US homes.
If you find that’s an issue when you listen to the Mactones, put a voltage meter on your outlet and see if it’s an under-achiever. I was just about to do that when the AudioQuest Niagaras arrived, and boom! The problem was gone. (Good thing, too—my voltage meter is packed away in a box somewhere in the basement.) If you’re going to spend this much on a pair of amplifiers, you should probably investigate some sort of quality power conditioning.
Once properly warmed up—and it didn’t take long—I was instantly seduced by the sound of the Mactone amplification. Remember Pepe LePew? I was that cat with the accidental white stripe painted on its back. I was no longer focusing on the music. It was focusing on me, constantly finding out ways to win me over. Depending on the type of music, I was hypnotized, excited or emotional. Usually I get goosebumps when the sound’s this satisfying, but I caught my heart racing once or twice. This is why we listen to music, right?
As I spent more time with the Mactones, I started paying close attention to that slight vintage tinge, that feeling of the past that seems to brush gently against every note. With more modern recordings, such as Rasmus Kjaer’s brilliant Turist, that classic feel can come at the cost of a very small reduction in decay—perhaps the audiophile who craves the sound of the Mactones might not be into electronica. At the same time, the immediacy is ramped up, that almost SET-like notion of reaching out and touching the sound if you so desire.
With classic reissues from Analogue Productions, Classic Records, MoFi or anyone else you can think of, that slight patina works in the Mactones’ favor. With AP’s Dream with Dean reissue, Dean Martin’s voice was a couple of steps closer than usual, and I was able to hear what the recording engineers were adding to the mix. I’ve always assumed that this was a purist recording with very little twiddling with the knobs, but the Mactones were so in-sync with the music that I started to see the bigger picture. We’re talking deep, deep, deep into the mix here—the Mactones can sound like vintage tube amplification, but at a rarified level.
Here’s the thing, though. If I felt the sound was not quite perfect, I simply played with that presence knob. More often than not, that slight shift in perspective cured all ails. By the end of the review period, I wanted all amplifiers to have a presence knob. I know, it’s a rudimentary form of equalization, but with one knob and three settings, I felt I could rule the world.
Many of my tube-loving audiophile buddies have profound brand loyalty when it comes to amplification—they’ve become so copacetic with a particular manufacturer that nothing else comes close. I have friends who insist on everything from old McIntosh and Fisher amps from the ‘60s, or modern designs from Shindo Labs, BorderPatrol, VAC—whatever else you can imagine.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this brand turns out to be my valved soulmate. I was so instantly smitten with the sound of the Mactone MH-120 and the XX-7000, so much so that I knew I eventually needed to launch some get-rich scheme in order to procure them.
Love can lead to obsession, however, and I’m left with one or two nagging questions. First, the Mactones were such an exquisite match with the Trenner & Friedl Osiris, but these petite floorstanders are at the low-end of T&F’s higher efficiency line. What would these amplifiers do with the Pharaohs or the RA Boxes or the Isis? And if I bought more ambitious speakers from my friends from Austria, would I then want to move up the Mactone line? If Matsumoto-san prides himself on his bespoke approach to building precious amplifiers, could he make me a statement product? Can I afford to plunge down this rabbit hole? No, not really.
Let’s face it, though—this is why we belong to this hobby. Sure, we love music, but we also want the path of our audio journey to stop at a place that is so rewarding and so beautiful that we can barely contain ourselves. I try to be a calm person most of the time, but the Mactone MH-120 and XX-7000 have exposed me to a new level of tube amplifier performance, one that makes me wonder if I should just stop right here.
Highly recommended, and an Editor’s Choice Award is mandatory.