Why is PTA reviewing the McIntosh MX100 A/V Surround Sound Processor?
It’s no secret that we love music here at Part-Time Audiophile, and our preferred listening is a properly set up two-channel system. In my home, my beautiful two-channel setup lives in my family room, where it must integrate TV, a stack of HDMI video sources, and add surround channels for movies. This should be an easy solution, right? Hook up all your video sources to a processor and feed the decoded audio to your fancy two-channel preamplifier via Home Theatre Pass-Through. Your kids will be toe-tapping to that not-so-lovely, compressed audio provided by satellite TV and video streaming services.
Words and Photos by Mohammed Samji
Integrating HDMI sources into my family room has been the most friction-filled part of my system. HDMI devices suffer from incompatibilities with more standards than I can count. No one wants to take the dreaded support call from their teenager that no audio or video is coming from the TV while they are watching Stranger Things.
My ask is simple. Give me a device that can accept four to six 4K HDR/Dolby Vision capable HDMI sources, allow for reliable and fast HDMI switching for my television, and provide high-quality digital decoding that I can feed to the rest of my system. This should be reliably controlled via IP or RS-232 via Control4 to make it easy to use with a single remote control. To date, nothing fits the bill.
I have lived with the Emotiva RMC-1L ($3,995 USD) for the last two years. It is not a product I would ever recommend, but it was the best I could find. I have kept it in my system since it had decent audio performance, but its stability, slow performance, and lack of integration with Control4 have annoyed me.
The good news? I think we finally have a high-quality product that might fit the bill, a product that can reliably integrate my HDMI sources, integrate with Control4, and sit proudly alongside my rack of audio giants: the McIntosh MX100 A/V Surround Processor ($5,500 USD).
Introducing the McIntosh MX100 AV Surround Processor
On paper, the McIntosh MX100 looks very unassuming with its four HDMI inputs, two digital inputs, and all the balanced outputs you could ask for to support Dolby Atmos. All this is packed into a low-profile 2U rack-mountable case.
I asked McIntosh why they built the MX100 and who they built it for:
“The McIntosh MX100 was primarily designed for the Custom Install market, although it is certainly a fine performer in a stand-alone non-rack mounted system. We felt the “satisfy all possible connection scenarios” with lots of legacy analog inputs was negatively impacting what the product could be, and after making some thoughtful decisions, we were able to end up with a digital-only, 2 RU height solution. The design allows for support up to a 7.2.4 installation.”
I also wanted to know how it compared to other larger processors that they sell:
“MX100 is unique in providing only digital inputs, fits within a 2 RU tall chassis, and uses a web page-based user setup interface. Our other AV Processors offer a multitude of analog inputs for both audio and video, and they also provide video scaling abilities which the MX100 does not.”
That’s music to my ears, as it encompasses everything the bigger Mac processors have in a smaller package without the extra inputs and video scaling. Sounds like a perfect match to me. Now let us see how it performs.
McIntosh MX100 Un-Boxing and Setup
The MX100, like all McIntosh gear, is packed beautifully. Get ready to unopen a box within a box before you find the MX100. Alongside the MX100, McIntosh provided a mic stand and calibration microphone for room correction.
MX100 integration with Control4
Before the McIntosh MX100 even was connected to anything, I placed it on my dining table and powered it up. My next task was to confirm that Control4 could manage the unit since if I was going to insert it into my rack, I had to ensure that all my HDMI sources continued to work with our existing control system and single-room remote.
With McIntosh MX-100 still sitting on my dining room table, all I needed was a power and ethernet cable to get it on my home network. I picked up the phone and called my Control4 authorized dealer, HomeTechonomics. In less than 10 minutes, Jeff Chen from HomeTechonomics could remotely add the certified MX100 driver to my system, map the inputs to my current HDMI sources, and configure my D’Agostino Momentum HD Preamplifier to engage Home Theatre Passthrough when the MX100 was in use. I was also now able to get discrete volume information displayed on my Control4 remote since the certified driver could query the McIntosh MX100 for volume. (This never worked with the Emotiva, which only supported IR control).
I picked up my family remote and clicked Netflix to confirm everything was working. Control4 powered up the McIntosh MX100 over the network, set the correct input, and the D’Agostino Momentum HD Pre-amp powered on and switched over to HT Passthrough, ready to accept the decoded audio signal from the MX100. Perfect. Just Perfect.
McIntosh MX100 Racking and installation
I pulled the Emotiva from my rack and replaced it with the McIntosh MX100. I used this cleanup opportunity also to update my HDMI cables. All sources were upgraded to use AudioQuest HDMI 48 Cinnamon cables to start. I experimented with other AQ cables later in the review, but I will discuss that later.
The HDMI output cable from the McIntosh continues to be a 14-year-old Analysis Plus that runs through a tight area and a wall, so it is too much effort to change it. It has always worked, so luckily, I have not had to crawl to replace it.
Installation was straightforward, aside from installing the rack ears. The screws from the factory were super tight, so I sheered the screws on the right side. For now, the MX100 is resting on a shelf. I will work those screws out another time.
McIntosh MX100 User Interface
With the unit securely in the rack and cabled, I took a moment to admire the simplicity of the front panel and associated user interface. Most other processors have their front panel covered with more buttons than a 747 cockpit and act like an IQ test on how to configure it.
The McIntosh guys got it right. The front controls focus on the three most important use cases that come into play once a unit is set up. Specifically: power/standby, change volume (via the right dial), chance input (via the left dial), and nothing more. Once the unit is set up, why do I need any other buttons?
McIntosh MX100 Detailed Setup
At this point, I could walk away from the rack, get comfortable in my listening seat, and use my laptop to connect to the MX-100 and complete the initial setup.
A quick scan of my network via my UniFi Network App (for my router and wireless) revealed the IP address of the MX100. From here, I connected to that address – 192.168.1.40 and was ready to complete the setup from the browser.
I have scars from setting up prior surround processors. You dig through trees of cryptic menus to the menu to find everything you need. Not this time. The McIntosh MX-100 website was the best-designed user experience I have seen on a high-end audio product. It felt like a seasoned designer worked on it, and it was not an afterthought that some developers tacked on as a debugging tool. THANK YOU!
In about 10 minutes, I had labeled and named my inputs, configured my speakers, set my distances, and adjusted the SPL on my surrounds to match the Wilson Audio Alexx V mains. I had yet to crack the manual; there was no need to get official documentation since everything was very common sense.
McIntosh MX100 First Use
With everything connected, speakers configured, and the Control4 remote programmed and tested, we were ready to test the system. The sources terminate at my modern Sony OLED 65 AF8 TV. I rolled through my XBOX One, Roku Ultra 4K, AppleTV 4K, and Disk Hopper3 4K sources.
For each, I went back into settings to see the best video settings that would be allowed. The sources had no issue connecting at 4K with HDR support in all cases. Dolby Vision also successfully worked on Roku Ultra. This was HUGE progress over what I could before the McIntosh MX100 was in place.
Previously I could get basic 4K reliably but enabling HDR would cause HDMI syncing to be less reliable. Dolby vision was never successful in the identical setup with the Emotiva vs. the MX100. The only changes were the new AQ HDMI cables and the MX100. I always thought the issue was my 14-year-old Analysis Plus cable that runs through my walls, but I had no problems with the MX100.
The reliable 4K connection was not the only difference. Each time the McIntosh MX100 switched inputs, it would lock the HDMI picture in about a second or less with no weird flashes or video dropouts. In contrast, during the 2-5 seconds the Emotiva RMC-1L would take to lock during which time the video would come and go. None of those issues were experienced on the MX100.
I asked McIntosh how they were able to implement reliable and quick HDMI switching. They responded:
“In reality, there are only a small handful of high speed HDMI solutions out there, although the software that drives them may be adjusted to some degree, depending on the application. The MX100 uses Panasonic HDMI ICs, but we customized the software to provide connection stability improvements.”
At this point, I was so happy I re-packed the Emotiva in its original box and gifted it to my little brother. I was never going to use that again in my rig. Hopefully, he does not read this review. (He did…)
The reality is I was still in the honeymoon stage with MX100. If it was going to hold a spot in my rack, it needed to show me that it could keep up this rock-solid reliability for months and provide a level of audio decoding that inspired me. Otherwise, it was back to the search to find the perfect surround processor.
HDMI Cable Fun
The initial installation showed that the combo of my sources + AudioQuest Cinnamon + McIntosh MX100+ Sony AF9 grooved with 4K HDR & Dolby Vision. I kept the system in this configuration for three months to test its long-term reliability. In my experience, the AudioQuest Cinnamon 48 HDMI feels like the sweet spot for price/performance at $169. I could live with that cable forever and not feel like I needed to buy something insanely expensive.
To mix things up, I asked AudioQuest to send me some other HDMIs. My system is highly resolving, so I wanted to see if there was any perceptible difference with the insanely expensive AudioQuest HDMIs. To dial it to 11, I tried the extreme AudioQuest Dragon 48 HDMI cable, weighing in at $2995. I have been a longtime fan of AudioQuest Dragon power cables and was curious to see if the Dragon HDMI cable could make a notable difference in performance.
I spent an afternoon going back and forth using scenes from Netflix’s Squid Game to compare the two cables. The video performance between them seemed comparable. Maybe the black contrast on the video was even slightly better on the Dragon, but the Cinnamon was so good I am not sure there was much difference. On the other hand, audio performance was notable between the two. Watching the same scene at the same volume with the Dragon provided a little more micro-detail and a quieter background. This was especially notable during quiet scenes or as you hear an actor sigh or breathe. The Wilson Audio Alexx V loudspeakers, coupled with the Dragon HDMI created the perfect harmony.
Many will say this is a bunch of garbage and that HDMI should work or not work. I suspected that the Dragon was doing a better job at reducing jitter. I reached out to Garth Powell at AQ to get some more insight into the differences in the Dragon vs. Cinnamon and why I might be hearing some audible differences:
“Though jitter is always somewhat affected by induced noise, performance always comes down to the amount of noise that can be dissipated over many octaves. Just as important is the linear draining of the noise that’s left, because even the best filters will never bring induced noise to zero (particularly at the highest radio frequencies). It’s also very important to know and understand that for audio applications, digital circuitry eventually converts to analog. The noise comes in and is distributed everywhere. This is where the worst aspects of masking effect are most apparent, though digital transfers are better when noise is minimized as well.
“The cables’ characteristic impedance and accurate adherence to the HDMI-2.1 standard is the same for our modestly priced Cinnamon 48 as it is for Dragon 48. It’s simply a matter of how much noise can be dissipated and linearly drained over the widest range of frequencies.”
McIntosh MX-100 Long-Term Use
It has been four months since I initially powered on the MX-100 and placed it in my rack. It has been used almost every day by someone in my household. Over that four months, it has never had a single issue and has never required a power cycle.
Control4 integration continues to be flawless. I have never had the unit miss a beat when executing macros or commands from my remotes. My support calls from my family went to zero.
McIntosh MX-100 Listening
Stability issues aside, my prior Emotiva RMC-1L performed well sonically. I was not expecting the McIntosh MX-100 with its off-the-shelf ESS DACs, to be a sizeable improvement. That turned out to be wrong; the MX-100 was much more engaging.
In my room, I do not have a center speaker. I always use a phantom center speaker to keep my room clean, resulting in me never really loving the vocal tracks in movies. I always felt that the center audio in my phantom config left me wanting more. I am not sure what is different in the MX-100, but for the first time, I did not feel the need to continue to convince myself to order a Wilson center speaker for my room.
McIntosh MX100 Conclusion
When I started this review, my ask was simple. Please give me a device that can accept four to six 4K HDR/Dolby Vision capable HDMI sources, allow for reliable and fast HDMI switching for my television, and provide high-quality digital decoding to feed the rest of my system with. All of this is reliably controlled with Control4.
The McIntosh MX100 exceeded all my expectations. This small 2U package is simple, with its excellent web configuration, user interface, and elegant front controls optimized for the most critical use cases (power, input, and volume).
It provided rock-solid 4K HDMI support with fast and flawless switching. That, paired with the ability to be controlled reliably via Control4, makes a device I can depend on. It just works. I am not troubleshooting, re-starting devices, or wondering why HDR or Dolby Vision aren’t enabled.
The audio performance is terrific and is easily the best I have experienced in my room for the streaming services my kids enjoy. I feel proud to have it alongside my excellent gear in my rack from dCS and D’Agostino.
Is it perfect? Almost. Here is my small wish list. Add two more HDMI inputs (I can live with four, but I wish I had six for future HDMI sources I accumulate). The Audyssey room corrections did nothing for me, but I am not sure my room needs much adjustment.
The McIntosh MX100 filled or exceeded every requirement I set when I started this review. If you need a surround processor to build a dedicated theatre or add HDMI sources to your two-channel setup, look no further; the MX-100 may be one of your best options.
Please don’t skimp on HDMI cables; I have found that the middle-of-the-line AudioQuest Cinnamon 48 HDMI was terrific with reliable 4K connectivity. If you want to splurge, the AudioQuest Dragon 48 HDMI did elevate the audio performance.
I purchased the review sample.
Price: McIntosh MX100 AV Sound Processor ($5,500 USD)
- Wilson Audio Alexx V Loudspeakers
- Dan D’Agostino Momentum Phono Pre-amplifier
- Dan D’Agostino Momentum HD Pre-Amplifier
- Dan D’Agostino Momentum S250 Amplifier
- dCS Vivaldi DAC, Master Clock & Up sampler
- AMG Viella Forte Turntable with two AMG 12JT Turbo Arms
- Lyra Atlas Lambda SL & Lyra Atlas Lambda Mono cartridges
- HRS M3X Isolation Bases, nimbus couplers, and damping plates
- Wilson Audio Pedestals (under all sources and amplifiers)
- Transparent Audio Opus and Magnum Opus Gen 6 Interconnect Cables
- Transparent Audio Gen 5 Reference XL Speaker Cable
- Transparent Audio Opus Gen 6 Balanced Phono cable (Atlas SL)
- AnalogMagik Balanced Phono cable (Atlas Mono)
- AudioQuest Niagara 7000 Power Conditioner
- AudioQuest Dragon Power cables
- AudioQuest Ethernet & HDMI cables ( Cinnamon and Dragon )
- Nordost QKore 1 & 3 grounding blocks
- Synergistic Research HFTs in various locations around the room