For a lot of folks, McIntosh Labs gear (website) is the stuff that audiophile dreams are made of. The idea of actually owning and using this gear, especially something as impressive as their new McIntosh Labs MC 1502 amplifier, took me back to my youth.
In the days before the internet, people used to actually get together to pass around information and share ideas. Imagine that. When I was a kid, I seemed to gravitate towards people who were older than my usual peers. Some of my best education came from those adults who taught me stuff, such as how to accurately date vintage Gibson Les Pauls or which classical guitar transcription of a Bach Cello Suite was the best. I found out about US import Marshall guitar amplifiers that had 6550s and not 6CA7 vacuum tubes like the better sounding UK versions. I was taught how to properly align tape decks and was turned on to music not generally heard on the radio.
Then there was Yank Francis. Yank was the school bus driver when I was in seventh grade in Rockville, Maryland. He had long hair, John Lennon style glasses, and a perpetual smile. He was probably all of 19 but seemed like a learned sage to my 13-year-old self. So after bonding with him on the bus route over our mutual interest in classical guitar, Yank invited me to hear some tunes where he lived in his parents’ basement, conveniently a few blocks from my house. I readily accepted. I realize this sounds a bit sketchy in today’s world, but things were different in 1971. There was nothing nefarious about an older music mentor getting together with a young music person who was hungry for knowledge.
The glow of the tubes and the warm sound issuing forth from his (or his Dad’s) McIntosh MC60 (?) chrome chassis tube amp cast a spell on me that continues to this day. As Yank played records and extolled the virtues of Jethro Tull’s Stand Up versus Benefit, I readily accepted the McIntosh vacuum tube gateway drug without being aware of future implications, such as the arrival of this McIntosh Labs MC1502.
Made In Binghamton, New York
McIntosh, of course, was founded in 1949 by Frank McIntosh and Gordon Gow, and few people would argue against Mac being THE most iconic of all American high fidelity electronic component manufacturers.
The original factory location in Silver Spring, MD was moved in 1951 to Binghamton, NY where it remains to this day. In its long and storied history, Mac has been at the forefront of amplifiers and other components used in music reproduction. Powering both the Woodstock music festival and later the Grateful Dead’s famous Wall Of Sound P.A. system, Mac is firmly ingrained in the minds of audiophiles all over the world as THE electronics to aspire to own. McIntosh is still using the founder’s original innovative Unity Coupled Circuit design for output transformers in all their vacuum tube amplifiers to better match power tube output to speaker loads. It’s here, in the McIntosh Labs MC1502.
My own experience with these amps, outside of the Yank Francis tale, had more to do with excellence in solid-state circuits. One of the first real recording studios where I worked has a custom TAD/JBL monitor system bi-amped with an MC2500 on the bottom and an MC2105 on the horns. The power, detail, and smoothness of sound in that system is still a benchmark for me today.
Traditionally, most folks would describe the sound of vintage Macs as warm and classically tubey. While I can’t say that much about the sound of a vintage MC240 or MC275 that I heard back in the day, I probably wouldn’t consider those to be reference quality compared to modern tube amps. But that’s not a fair assessment given the mists of time and past systems I’m thinking about. So what about this new McIntosh Labs MC1502? It sounds AMAZING in all the ways that I love about what modern vacuum tube amplifiers do.
Watts Not To Love
By my count, McIntosh Labs currently makes four vacuum tube power amps: MC2152 (limited availability), MC1502, MC275, and the dual-mono MC901 for bi-amping which has a 300-watt tube amp and a 600-watt solid-state amp on the same chassis! The iconic MC275 is currently in its sixth iteration and has received numerous accolades from the audio press. Taking a classic 75 watts per channel design–introduced in 1961, discontinued in 1974 and reintroduced in 1994–and further refining it for lower noise, increased bandwidth, and improved overall sonics proved to be a resounding success.
The McIntosh Labs MC2152 reviewed by Marc Phillips last year was an all-new 150 watts per channel design, introduced in 2019 as a limited edition product to commemorate 70 years of Mac excellence in the marketplace. The McIntosh Labs MC1502 reviewed here is a direct replacement for the MC2152, with new cosmetics that enhance that vintage look. In a way, my review can be considered a companion piece to Marc’s thoughts since they are basically the same amplifier.
When I noticed that the MC275 and the MC1502 both use 12AX7, 12AT7, and KT88 tubes for the output section, I wondered if the McIntosh Labs MC1502 was simply an MC275 with twice the tubes and a beefier output transformer. Mac states that the MC1502 is 7db quieter than an MC275 for a signal to noise ratio of -105db which would indicate that SOMETHING is different in the circuitry rather than simply a doubled up MC275.
At 118 pounds, with a shipping weight of 135 pounds, the McIntosh Labs MC1502 is a BEAST. While it didn’t exactly make the Pass Labs XA-60.8s look small, it is an impressively dominating package at 18” X 21” and 10” tall.
Unpacking the McIntosh Labs MC1502 was a breeze. I thought it was cool that Mac ships the amp with all 16 tubes installed and protected by a form-fitting foam insert. Two screws remove the wire cage so that the foam can be pulled out to reveal all those sexy tubes. Dayum.
With the amp in place on the floor in front of my equipment rack, Sergei, an out of work Russian weightlifter I hired for the occasion, admired the beautiful updated vintage look–as did I. I peered around back to see Mac’s patented Solid Cinch binding posts for speaker wire connections. Snazzy! The user is supplied with taps corresponding to 8, 4, and 2 ohms. Apogee ribbons? Pfft, no problem.
A choice of single-ended RCA or balanced XLR inputs is selectable with a switch. I tried both but felt like there was something a little more special about the sound of the balanced inputs, but not by much. With most components I test, I hear and have a stronger sonic preference for one over the other. But here it was a bit of a tossup.
On the front panel of the McIntosh Labs MC1502 you’ll find two large knobs, one for power or remote trigger and the other for Tube Lights. Ahh yes, a festive green LED glow can be turned on or off to illuminate the eight small signal tubes. NICE! On a side note, when you first power up the amp the row of small signal tubes displays a bright white illumination in pairs–as each pair reaches operating stability–and then the lights go away leaving the standard thermionic glow. Fun for the whole family!
I wanted to remove the protective cage covering the tubes but I figured Speedy, our tabby cat, might get curious so I left it in place. Wow, this is one gorgeous hunk of retro-styled, tube goodness. But how does it sound? Stunning.
Release The Kraken
My two reference amps are a pair of 60 watt Pass Labs XA-60.8 Class A solid-state monoblocks and a Qualiton APX-200 mkII 100 watts per channel KT-90 tube amp, made by Audio Hungary. If MoJo Rising Tube Corp makes a 30, a 75, a 150 and a 300-watt amp, my money is on the 75 watts sounding the sweetest with almost the same bass authority as the 300-watt model. So I was more than curious about what a 150 watt per channel tube amp designed by the Gods of American Tube Glory would sound like in my system.
Like a warm hug from your Dad at Christmas time, but he’s wearing a freshly pressed white dress shirt instead of a worn-out old cardigan. That’s what the McIntosh Labs MC1502 sounded like in my system.
Being the ever-curious experimenter and having LOTS of speakers on hand, I tried the McIntosh Labs MC1502 on quite a variety of transducers. I auditioned the amp with Qln Prestige Three, Acora Acoustics SRC-2, Audiovector Arrete R 6, Chario Cygnus, and Marten Oscar Trio loudspeakers. I didn’t have horns or electrostatics or planar-style drivers around, but the gamut of dynamic loudspeakers gave me a damn good sense of this 16-tubed beast’s virtues.
The rest of the system was as follows: Rega P10 with Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge, VAC Master Preamplifier with built-in phono stage, Innuos Zen Mini streamer feeding a Denafrips Pontus or BorderPatrol SE-i DAC, and the Pass and Qualiton amps for comparison. All cabling was Cardas Clear Light with some power cords and a filtered AC strip by Furutech.
Super Size Me
I figured with all that iron and glass, the McIntosh Labs MC1502 would need some serious burn-in time to look and feel its very best. Truth be told, it didn’t change dramatically from the first time I powered it up. Yeah, it got a hair smoother as the hours rolled by but its essential character remained the same.
Similar to other modern tube amplifier designs, the McIntosh Labs MC1502 didn’t scream TUBE SOUND. Yet there was something more than an invisible exercise in total linearity. Before listening, I expected it to sound super-rich in that classic tube amp way. Not really. I assumed some kind of larger-than-life slam to the bass. Nah, although when the music got big and tonally rich the Mac was right there for every bit of it. When the music had gobs of subs, again, all was revealed. It was almost like the Mac is stealthily waiting for its prey to appear, then effortlessly springing into action without calling attention to itself.
In comparison, it made the Qualiton sound quite colored, though not unpleasantly so. I still love the sound of the APX-200, but now I have a new tube amp accuracy benchmark with the McIntosh Labs MC1502, thereby revealing the extent of the Qualiton’s departure from linearity.
With this amp, Mac has been able to take a classic pentode A/B power tube circuit (which I assume is running ultralinear) and reduce the amount of glare I usually hear in this style of circuit to near inaudibility. There is just enough of that flavor to give recordings more immediacy and impact than a typical solid-state amp, but not enough to ever sound grainy or harsh.
The same goes for imaging. In comparison to the Pass amps, I noticed that the lusciously refined and silky midrange of the XA 60.8 was a bit of a tradeoff to the slightly more forward but more dimensionally enveloping sound of the McIntosh Labs MC1502. The Pass also seems to manufacture something in the sub frequencies similar to a Krell KSA-250 I owned back in the day. If you’ve ever heard one, you know what I’m talking about. It’s addicting. But then the Mac NEVER seemed even slightly rolled off or less than super-controlled when I threw music at it with lots of low bass.
For some reason, the Acora SRC-2s were comfier with the Pass and the Qualiton. The Mac didn’t sound bad with the SRC-2, just not quite the best match. The QLNs, however, sounded fabulous with the MC1502. With the Marten Oscar Trio, the Mac was magical. Since I am reviewing the Oscar Trio, I used the McIntosh Labs MC1502 during the majority of my listening time with them. Something about the speed and detail of those ceramic drivers in the Oscar Trio were a great match to the quickness and agility of the Mac, coupled with just an aperitif-sized helping of tube roundness to the dynamic envelope.
I’ll Describe A Few Selections Cause I Hear Folks Like That
As usual I played mostly vinyl with the McIntosh Labs MC1502 in the system, but there were a few digital standouts worthy of mention.
I have a love/hate relationship with Muse mainly cause I can only take so much of that guy’s voice, but for four or five tunes, I’m ALL IN. When I played some fav cuts off Absolution and The 2nd Law ripped from CD into the Zen Mini, I was in heaven. As the Mac jumped into action on “Madness,” it was like a lion tamer appeared that had been taught how to move speaker drivers. The pseudo-dubstep bass synth was a living breathing thing roaming my living room, goaded into performing but held in check from rampaging by the MC1502. Mr. Over Emotive had a massive In Yo Face vocal presence with none of the annoying edge. The guitar solo oozed and crackled outta those white Marten ceramic drivers with the Mac lion tamer’s whip keeping it at the edge of the vulnerable crowd of onlookers. I’m not even gonna go into how “Stockholm Syndrome” sounded. You get the picture.
Suzanne Vega’s Nine Objects Of Desire was more impressive sounding than usual. I like to use the low tuned drum on “Stockings” to tell me about the way a component handles percussive bass sounds. The McIntosh Labs MC1502 power amplifier had massive control and impact reaching down to the ultra lowest frequencies. Suzanne’s voice had more clarity and texture on top than I am used to hearing. Coupled with plenty of warm, fleshed-out body to the sound, this was a good thing indeed.
As good as the best sounding digital was, playing records is when the McIntosh Labs MC1502 showed off even more of its refined sonic attributes. Peter Gabriel’s Up, off 45RPM 12” vinyl, sounded incredible. All the instrumental layers and textures were delineated so clearly without losing any sense of warmth and density in these mixes. The slam on the low end was stunning in a way I’ve never heard my system sound. I switched things around several times to be sure it was the Mac that was showing off the lows on this gorgeous production. Yep. It was.
Switching back and forth between the McIntosh Labs MC1502 and the Qualiton APX-200 was eye-opening. The APX-200 is an imaging and textural delight, surpassing most amps I’ve had in my system. It finally met its match in the MC1502. The Mac was cleaner, clearer, more extended at the frequency extremes, especially the ultra lows, and had just as much dimensionality. Being clearer and cleaner without any grain or chalkiness to the sound, the McIntosh Labs MC1502 effortlessly portrayed all the depth, width, and layering in this Tchad Blake mixed extravaganza. Not as smooth and buttery as the Pass amps, but the extra edges and dynamic snap of the Mac were not accompanied by any additional glassiness that I usually hear in a pentode, push-pull circuit. Pick any cut, they were all revelatory.
Little Feat’s The Last Record Album is a longtime favorite of mine, musically and sonically. On the cut “Long Distance Love,” Lowell George was floating in the space between the speakers, singing his heart out. The bass was huge and controlled with equal weight descending through the scale. I like listening to this record because it’s not anywhere near bright but it contains so much detail and information, wide dynamics of a style seldom heard anymore. The Mac was right there for all of it. I could almost see the orange, script logo, MXR Dynacomp compressor pedal used by these guys to squeeze, sustain, and fatten their clean guitar tones.
Roxy Music’s Avalon is another of my audiophile chestnuts that still gets a lot of play around here. On the title cut, I heard all the attributes described for the previous other recordings and a few additional details that stood out. The stereo echo combined with reverb to make an appropriately romantic soup for Brian Ferry’s voice has never been clearer. Listen for the occasional discrete echoes coming from the right and left as they fade into the reverb. The reverb added to what sounds like Neil Jason’s Fender fretless Jazz bass is subtle, but there.
As far as I’m concerned, the folks in Binghamton have an unqualified hit with the McIntosh Labs MC1502. It has the cleanliness, low noise, and bandwidth of the best sounding modern amp designs with just enough of the special sauce that I love about tubes and transformers. True high-end audiophile sound in all its refined glory, without any rare tube types, finicky setup, or usage idiosyncrasies. Plus, LOTS of power and some fun features all in a beautiful package built to last a lifetime and beyond.
With an MSRP of $11,000, that may seem like a lot to some folks but I consider it to be practically a steal, especially considering it’s made in America. So grab a mask, jump on your Harley (with a Mac sound system), and go hear one. You can thank me later. Highly recommended.