Processors

McIntosh MX150 7.1 A/V Surround Sound Processor (SSP)

ARTICLE INDEX

Introduction

McIntosh Laboratory is well known for producing some of the finest quality luxury audio components on the market. I've always been a fan of McIntosh products and I enjoyed visiting the McIntosh suite at CES 2011 this past January. I was intrigued by the MX150 A/V Control Center, which is McIntosh's take on the ultimate home theater processor (SSP). I asked for a review sample, and a few months later couldn't believe that I actually had an MX150 on my front porch.

The MX150 came to market in early 2010 and offers support for HDMI 1.3, on-board decoding of DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD high-resolution audio formats and support for two zones. While those features are pretty typical these days, the MX150 comes with an extensive array of control functionality which allows the MX150 to easily serve as the central control device for an extensive home theater. The MX150 also includes an atypical room correction system called RoomPerfect. Read on for a much closer look at the MX150 and to see exactly what McIntosh put into their ultimate control center.

Specifications

  • Design: 7.1 Channel SSP
  • Codecs: Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD, DTS, DTS-ES (Discrete, Matrix), DTS 96/24, DTS-HD Master Audio, DTS-HD High Resolution Audio
  • Precision: 24-Bit/192kHz A/D, D/A
  • 2-Zone Operation
  • RoomPerfect Automatic Measurement System
  • Inputs: 5 HDMI, 9 Digital (4 coax, 4 optical, 1 AES/EBU), 11 Stereo ( 9 RCA with Phono stage, 2 XLR), 7.1 Audio, 2 S-Video, 5 Component Video, 2 Composite Video, 1 Ethernet (RJ-45), 1 USB
  • Outputs: 10 RCA and XLR Audio, 1 HDMI, 2 S-Video, 2 Component Video, 2 Composite Video
  • Dimensions: 7.6" H x17.5" W x 15.5" D
  • Weight: 31 Pounds
  • MSRP: $12,000 USA
  • McIntosh

Design

While McIntosh refers to the MX150 as a control center, it is first and foremost an A/V processor. The look of the MX150 is classic McIntosh with a glass front panel and symmetric controls surrounding a bright blue fluorescent display. The MX150 is a great-looking piece of equipment and it is especially beautiful in a darkened room. The glass panel is illuminated by LEDs paired with fiber optic light diffusers. All of the controls on the front panel have a very precise feel and the volume knob is wonderfully smooth in operation. Under the display are a series of yellow indicators which show the channels received in the input audio stream and the channels that are output from the processor. The other four indicators under the display show whether the MX150 is receiving an analog signal, a digital signal, a high resolution audio signal, and whether the RoomPerfect system is engaged.

The rear panel of the MX150 supports an amazing array of components and connections. The processor supports two zones and references to "ZA" and "ZB" refer to Zone A and Zone B, respectively. The MX150 receiver supports five HDMI 1.3 inputs and one HDMI 1.3 output. This is enough to handle a satellite or cable receiver / DVR, a Blu-ray player and a gaming system with two inputs to spare. The MX150 supports a full complement of analog audio and video inputs with five component video inputs, two composite video inputs, two S-Video inputs, 9 sets of stereo analog RCA inputs including one with a precision phono preamplifier, and a 7.1 multi-channel input. The MX150 supports nine digital audio inputs (four coaxial, four optical and one balanced AES/EBU). For balanced analog audio, the MX150 includes two sets of XLR stereo inputs.

In terms of outputs, the MX150 supports a full complement of eight speakers with both XLR and RCA outputs for each channel and subwoofer. Two pairs of auxiliary outputs duplicate the front left and right channels. The auxiliary jacks offer configurable high-pass filters, which allows for bi-amplification of the front channel speakers if desired. The MX150 offers two component, two composite, and two S-Video outputs. The second component video output supports BNC connectors for the best possible component video connection. The MX150 component and analog video outputs are not active for Zone A when the HDMI output is active.

The MX150 includes a USB jack but its purpose is not for playing digital media. The USB jack is used to provide a backup destination for all the MX150 user configuration settings. This is useful in the unlikely event that the MX150 needs to be reset. The processor also includes an Ethernet jack; however, it is not used to access digital media sources. The Ethernet jack provides access to a browser-based application which can be used to configure and control the MX150. You may also notice a compact flash card just under the Ethernet jack. This card is used to store all of the firmware for the MX150 and is used by dealers and McIntosh service personnel to update the MX150.

The rest of the connections on the MX150 are all used to control the processor or the components connected to the MX150. These connections help give the MX150 its name of A/V Control Center. The MX150 includes two McIntosh proprietary IR sensor inputs in addition to two standard IR inputs. There are eight data outputs that allow for the control of McIntosh components from the MX150 remote. There are also two additional data outputs that can be used to control other compatible equipment. The MX150 offers two trigger inputs, four trigger outputs, and two power control jacks which can be used to send power control signals to compatible equipment. The MX150 also includes an RS-232 jack which can be used to control the MX150 with an external control system.

From a design and implementation perspective, the MX150 is different from other processors on the market in three areas. The first difference is room correction. Despite being part of D&M Holdings, the MX150 does not borrow any of the Audyssey room correction implementations from any of its Denon or Marantz cousins. The room correction system utilized in the MX150 is RoomPerfect which was developed by Lyngdorf Audio in Denmark. RoomPerfect is designed to compensate for problems in the listening room while maintaining the original tonal quality of the speakers. The system relies on measurements taken at the primary listening or focus position combined with measurements taken elsewhere in the listening room. When the system gathers enough information about the room, it calculates target curves and filters for the room and listening position. We'll discuss this in more detail in the next section.

The second major difference is that the MX150 does not provide any video processing. While the MX150 will convert analog video to HDMI, it does not alter the resolution. For HDMI video, the MX150 acts as an HDMI switching device and simply passes the HDMI signal to the display. While I was initially shocked at this implementation, given the price of the MX150, I quickly appreciated that this approach allows McIntosh to focus on what they do best, which is audio. This also allows McIntosh to not have to constantly chase the HDMI upgrade train every time a new version of HDMI comes to market.

The third major difference is that the MX150 does not provide a pure analog pass-through. While the MX150 supports a wide assortment of analog inputs, they are all converted into the digital domain within the processor. The primary reason for this is that McIntosh expects that RoomPerfect will be processing the signal. In case you were wondering, regardless of whether RoomPerfect is turned on or off for a particular input, the MX150 is always working with a digital signal.


Setup

The MX150 comes in a very large shipping carton that weighs 55 pounds. After unpacking everything, the MX150 still weighs a substantial 31 pounds. Given all the connections on the MX150, I decided that I would actually read the entire owner's manual first before just diving into making connections. The documentation that McIntosh provides is an interesting blend of exceptional detail, custom installer instructions, product overview, and setup and operational material. For example, the documentation spends four pages listing the defaults for each item in the installer menus and also tells you how to make cutouts in a custom wood cabinet should you want to custom install the MX150. McIntosh includes eight separate 11"x17" diagrams with the manual, which provide color-coded connection diagrams, detailed descriptions of each connection, and an overview of the MX150 installer and user menu hierarchy. The challenge with the documentation is that there are lots of important details buried everywhere throughout the material and diagrams, so it's best to read everything very carefully.

Making connections to the MX150 is really simple. The main listening room is referenced as Zone A or "ZA" on the rear panel. I didn't worry about finding pre-configured inputs to match my equipment and instead just installed things starting at input number one for each connection type. The MX150 has 5 HDMI inputs to which I connected my DirecTV DVR, PS3, and an Oppo BDP-95. I ran an HDMI output cable from the MX150 to my HDTV. I also connected the stereo XLR and the multi-channel analog outputs of the Oppo BDP-95 to the MX150. I connected my Apple TV to the MX150 via component video and optical digital. The MX150 is able to convert the video signal from composite video and component video to HDMI, so this really simplifies system configuration and minimizes your video cables.

The second zone functionality on the MX150 is limited to analog connections only. Since my Oppo BDP-95 was connected via HDMI and analog, I only had to worry about my Apple TV. Fortunately, it's a first generation Apple TV so I ran an extra set of analog audio cables to the MX150. I was really disappointed that McIntosh did not include the ability to play a digital source in Zone B. Companies like Anthem have offered this capability for years. Devices like the latest generation Apple TV do not have analog connections, so processor and receiver manufacturers are going to have to provide this functionality eventually.

With the connections made, I was ready to start configuring the MX150. The "Installer Menu" provides access to all of the configuration options for the MX150. The menu system in the MX150 is pretty basic, but definitely gets the job done. The menus are very simple in design and do not offer any fancy graphics.

It is possible to get a bit lost in the menus at first as there are lots of options. McIntosh provides a full overview of the menu structure, so it's pretty easy to figure out where things are after a while.

A hidden gem within the MX150 is that it supports complete web-based configuration and control via an internal web application. I connected an Ethernet cable to the MX150 and the processor automatically configured itself onto my home network. I opened a browser, connected to the IP address of the MX150, and was rewarded with a beautiful application for configuring the MX150.

This web application provides complete access to both the user and installer menus and offers a much quicker interface for setting up the MX150. I will walk you through the highlights of the setup process using the web application.

The first place to start is with the "Speaker & Room" menu. This menu covers all the basics for configuring speakers and RoomPerfect. The MX150 offers six standard speaker size settings ranging from "XS" to "XXL". For example, a speaker setting of "M" indicates that the speaker has a response down to 80 Hz. A setting of "XS" indicates that the speaker has a response down to 120 Hz. A setting of "XL" means that the speaker plays down to 20 Hz and can handle LFE and bass output from other smaller speakers in the system when there is no subwoofer. If the default settings aren't enough to describe a particular speaker, the MX150 supports a custom mode for each speaker which allows for the configuration of bass cutoff frequency, cutoff order, roll-off, and gain offset. The four auxiliary speaker outputs (two XLR and two RCA) offer high-pass filtered output of the left and right channels. This is really suitable for bi-amplification but could also be used to drive two additional sets of front channel speakers if desired.

Once the speaker setup is complete, the "Verify speaker config" menu offers a really simple interface for testing whether each speaker is connected properly.

With the basic speaker configuration out of the way, the next thing to do is calibrate the room with the RoomPerfect system. The first step is to assemble the microphone stand and boom and connect the calibrated microphone to the MX150. McIntosh provides a 25 foot XLR cable which made it really convenient to position the microphone in my room. Since the microphone cable is a standard XLR cable, it is easy to extend should you need a longer cable. The "RoomPerfect" menu provides a "Guided Setup" option which walks through the process.

RoomPerfect relies on focus and room positions. A focus position is a primary listening spot in the room where critical viewing and listening takes place. A room position is another location in the room where casual viewing and listening takes place. I positioned the microphone at my favorite listening position. The microphone stand and boom allowed for easy positioning of the microphone over the back of my couch. I selected the "Guided Setup" option and just followed the directions.

The first thing that happens is a confirmation that you are about to delete all of the RoomPerfect data. After answering yes to this question and acknowledging that the microphone was connected to the MX150, the RoomPerfect system performs a volume calibration. The system lets you know whether the volume needs to be turned up or down before proceeding. In my case, the system requested a calibration volume of -13 dB and the MX150 was at -25 dB. I turned up the volume as requested and moved on to the next step which was distance measurements. The RoomPerfect system expects distance measurements to be entered in inches or centimeters. I double-checked my math and entered everything in inches. Then it was time for the measurement process.

RoomPerfect begins by measuring the focus position. The measurement tones produced from the system were quite unique and unbelievably loud. The tones sounded like large truck engine meets crazed organ player. The tones are so loud that my wife eagerly took the opportunity to escape outside and clean her car. The measurement process took about five minutes for the focus position. After the focus measurement, the RoomPerfect system reported a RoomKnowledge percentage of about 24% and prompted me to continue or abort. Room Knowledge is a reference to the acoustic properties of the room as measured by RoomPerfect. I chose to continue and the system prompted me to move the microphone to the first room position. The manual provides only general guidance on microphone placement and suggests moving the microphone around the room and to vary the height and direction. I avoided aiming the microphone directly toward any speaker and proceeded with the room position measurements.

After completing six room position measurements, I finally achieved a RoomKnowledge of 90%. Once that percentage is reached, RoomPerfect allows you the opportunity to stop measuring the room and complete the process. I wanted to see if I could improve on the 90%, so I continued adding more room positions. After two more positions, RoomKnowledge was 98%. I tried one more and I achieved 99%. I continued for an even ten room position measurements and decided to end the process with a respectable 99% for RoomKnowledge. I finished the process and RoomPerfect took a few minutes to calibrate the filters and correction parameters for the speakers and room. The system creates a target curve and two filters, one for the focus position and one for the global room itself. The entire process took just under an hour with each measurement series taking about 5 minutes.

The result was an overall RoomCorrection factor of 10% for my room. Unfortunately, I had nothing to gauge this against and the system provides no further insight into what was actually done. It would really be nice if the web interface would offer the ability to graph the target curve that was achieved using RoomPerfect. The documentation on the Lyngdorf Audio site indicates that a high RoomCorrection factor indicates larger corrections and vice versa. I was happy to be done with the process and was looking forward to listening to what RoomPerfect did with my room.

There are a couple of additional features with RoomPerfect that I should mention. The system supports multiple focus positions. This might come in handy if you have several favorite listening positions in the room. The focus positions can be renamed for clarity in the menus. RoomPerfect also allows you to add additional room position measurements. This might be useful if you wanted to try for a higher RoomKnowledge percentage at a later time.

I moved on to the "Source" menu to start working on the setup for my primary listening room. The MX150 comes preconfigured with a number of standard sources like CD, SAT, PHONO, DVR, etc. The system not only lets you rename these sources, it also lets you completely delete them from the MX150. While this might sound scary at first, the MX150 allows for 128 inputs with 118 being phantom inputs and the remaining 10 being directly accessible from the source buttons on the remote control. The phantom inputs can be accessed via the "Input" knob on the MX150 front panel or from the input scroll buttons on the remote. The beauty of this approach is that you can completely configure the inputs your way. In my case, I set up separate sources for each of the outputs on my Oppo BDP-95. For example, the "MultiCh Music" source automatically selected the multi-channel input and changed the surround mode to Dolby PLIIx Music processing. The "DVD Blu-ray" source automatically selected HDMI and applied Dolby PLIIx Movie processing. The "CD" source selected the XLR input and applied stereo processing.

In addition to assigning video and audio input for each source, the MX150 allows for the assignment of audio mode, volume and lip-sync offsets, as well as the IR data output for each source. Any source on the MX150 can also be assigned to any one of the default source buttons on the remote.

While most processors and receivers just offer the standard surround processing options, the MX150 is different in this regard and offers flexible configuration of its surround processing modes. The "Audio Mode Setup" menu offers the ability to configure the standard MX150 audio modes. Each audio mode supports a preferred voicing option. For example, the "Action" voicing provides a slight boost in low frequencies, while "Action + Movie" boosts low frequencies and applies a gentle roll off in the high frequencies. The "Neutral" setting offers a flat response.

In addition to the voicing options, each audio mode offers a "Stereo mode" menu option. This allows you to specify the preferred processing mode when the MX150 receives a stereo input signal. In this example, I've selected the default "Movie" audio mode, which offers Dolby PLIIx Movie and DTS Neo:6 Cinema processing among the options.

If I change the audio mode to "Music", the stereo mode menu now includes Dolby PLIIx Music and DTS Neo:6 Music processing in the options.

You may have noticed that not all of the processing options are listed in the menu. This is one area where I thought that McIntosh was trying to be just a little too helpful. What is happening is that the processing options are specifically tied to the default audio modes that McIntosh has included with the MX150. While many processors and receivers limit the processing selections based on the speaker configuration, the MX150 offers options based on the content type of the selected audio mode. While this is helpful for a more novice user, it can be confusing when you really want to customize. The McIntosh solution for this is to create your own custom audio mode.

The MX150 supports 16 user-defined audio modes. Each custom mode supports all of the functionality of the default audio modes such as "Music" and "Movie" plus a few extra options. I experimented with my own custom audio mode by creating one called "Pure 2CH" for unprocessed two channel music.

The first difference in the custom mode is that you can apply your own name. The next difference is that the complete list of processing modes is now available in the "Stereo Mode" menu.

For my custom audio mode, I selected the "Pure Stereo" processing selection which instructs the MX150 to turn off the RoomPerfect system.

The last configuration detail which applies to all of the audio mode types is the ability to arrange the processing modes for multichannel content. The first mode at the top of the list has priority for any given audio mode. Since the processing mode can be changed from the remote, arranging the list allows you to put your favorite selections in the order that best suits your tastes.

The rest of the configuration on the MX150 was pretty quick and straightforward. The "Zone B Setup" menu offers the basics of configuring sources and volume options.

Zone B supports 11 sources which can all be custom named and configured. The "System" menu allows for configuration of the triggers as well as setting the video system to NTSC or PAL. Each component video input and output can be configured to use YPbPr or RGB format. The trigger support includes two triggers at 12 volts and two which are configurable for 12 or 5 volts. Each trigger can have custom actions and each can be configured for duration and time. I connected 12 volt trigger cables to my two main zone amplifiers and my second zone amplifier. This allowed me to turn off my 5 channel amplifier when I was listening to stereo sources and it allowed me to easily control my second zone amplifier when listening to music elsewhere in my home.

To say that the MX150 is versatile in its configurability would be an understatement. While getting the system setup was pretty easy, it certainly took some thought to consider what might be the best approach for my theater. I was also amazed at all the thoughtful features that McIntosh has sprinkled throughout the MX150. In the Zone B Setup for example, the zone can be configured to automatically power on or off with the primary zone, or it could just operate independently which is the typical configuration. The system can be configured to turn on with a defined startup source and volume. All these little options help you configure the MX150 your way and they maximize usability.


In Use

For my listening tests, I was using a 7.1 speaker configuration from Definitive Technology, including a pair of BP-3000TL speakers with powered subwoofers for the front mains, a CLR 2002 speaker for the center channel, and four Definitive Technology UIW 94/A speakers for the surrounds and rear channels. Amplifiers included a Rotel RB-1080 and RMB-1095. Cables and interconnects were from Cardas, Monster and Emotiva. I used a variety of source devices, including an Oppo BDP-95 as my reference media player. I was really looking forward to hearing how RoomPerfect performed on the MX150.

I started off with some of my standard listening tests. For as many times as I've watched clips from Gladiator, what jumped out to me was a noticeable difference in focus and clarity in the front sound stage. The dialog between the actors was exceptionally well placed and movement across the sound stage was more perceptible. The MX150 easily reproduced the combat scenes and the noise of the crowds and chariots in the coliseum. I also was wowed at the video. Since the MX150 does not process the HDMI video, I was watching a direct feed from the Oppo BDP-95 to my display and it looked stunning. In Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, the MX150 drew me into the movie. I was noticing more detail in the sound and was amazed at subtle differences. For example, while I've watched Gandalf's staff get shattered by the Witch-king many times, this time it seemed to explode and travel just over my right shoulder.

In Battle: Los Angeles, the marines take on alien invaders and in the process destroy Santa Monica. This movie is non-stop warfare and the sound of the explosions and the destruction of buildings and aliens were immersive. The MX150 recreated the amazing sound effects in this film and made it seem like I was sitting inside the battle zone surrounded by all the mayhem. In Country Strong, the dialog between the actors was exceptionally detailed and well placed in the center of the soundstage. The MX150 preserved the auditorium quality of the on-screen performances which made it seem like I was listening to a live concert. In the Oxford Murders, there is an outdoor concert scene which was recorded at Abbey Road Studios. The MX150 did a superb job of recreating this portion of the movie. The concert sounded amazing, with clear separation between the instruments. The MX150 recreated the intensity of this scene as the actors searched for the suspected villain in this otherwise mediocre movie.

McIntosh MX150 A/V Processor

McIntosh MX150 A/V Processor

McIntosh MX150 A/V Processor

On the music side of things, I was once again impressed with the stereo imaging of the MX150. On the Ray Charles: Genius Loves Company CD, there was exquisite detail and separation in the voices, and the performance was absolutely center stage in my listening room. On track five, Fever with Natalie Cole, I could clearly make out distinct placement of instruments, and details like the strum of the strings on the bass was exquisite. From the snapping of fingers to Ray Charles' distinctive voice punctuated with outstanding percussion, I just sat back and imagined Ray and his friends performing these great songs. I played some of my favorites from Diana Krall and Michael Bublé. On the Quiet Nights CD it seemed that the band was right in the room. The MX150 delivered the detail of the drums, guitar and piano. Notes seemed to linger and pause with great precision and I really noticed the details in Diana's breathy vocals. On Georgia on My Mind from the Crazy Love CD, Michael Bublé's vocals and his orchestra sounded larger than life. The soundstage was huge and subtle details made me want to just sit back and enjoy. I did experiment with turning off RoomPerfect, but I quickly found that I preferred the results with the system engaged and I never looked back.

McIntosh MX150 A/V Processor

McIntosh MX150 A/V Processor

McIntosh MX150 A/V Processor

From a video perspective, the MX150 just switches the HDMI signal and I did not encounter any handshake problems. This was the first time I can remember not running a video processor in my theater for many years. While I didn't need any extra video processing for my Oppo BDP-95, I definitely missed not having a video processor when it came to watching some content from my satellite DVR. The nice thing about McIntosh's approach with the MX150 is that the decision to purchase an external video processor can be made separately based on the video needs of the user. The incremental cost of an external video processor is also probably not a concern for individuals that can afford the MX150.

From an operational perspective, the MX150 was exceptionally simple to use. I really liked having the ability to just select an input and have all the work done for me. I also enjoyed just having the inputs that I cared about. Zone B operations were also very simple. A small light is illuminated above the "Zone B Control" button on the front panel when controlling Zone B. Unfortunately this light turns off when you switch control back to Zone A, so there is no obvious indication as to whether Zone B is active. The ability to control the MX150 from the web interface is also a plus, but I found it impractical to use from the browser on my iPhone as the application refreshed far too often.

The MX150 comes with a basic remote. It is a slender design and fit nicely in my hand. The buttons are backlit which I really appreciated. My only complaint on the remote is that the source buttons are impossible to see in a darkened room since the labels are on the face of the remote and not on the buttons themselves.

The MX150 offers a really basic on-screen overlay when changing inputs or adjusting the volume. If you want to see the details for a particular source, just press the "Display Mode" button on the front panel of the MX150. This brings up a really nice overlay which indicates the current source, volume, RoomPerfect settings, and lets you know all about the audio and video signal being processed by the MX150.

This is a really nice feature and I was mystified that this info could not be displayed with the remote. As with many things on the MX150, it turns out that there is a way to make it happen. The MX150 remote is configured for an all McIntosh environment. While there are users out there with all McIntosh source equipment, there will certainly be people who will mix other equipment with the MX150. There is a menu option buried in the "General Setup" menu called "Enhanced RC Control". By turning this option on, the MX150 remote will provide some extra functionality.

The first gem is that pressing the "Info" button on the remote will bring up the display mode overlay. The second feature is found by pressing the Menu button. This brings up the MX150 "User Menu" which provides easy access to the sources, surround mode, and general settings that you might want to access while enjoying the MX150 as a user.

The "Surround Mode Selection" menu also gives you easy access to all the audio modes that are defined in the MX150.

I highly recommend turning on the enhanced remote functionality.


On The Bench

For the audio tests, I used the balanced XLR outputs of the Oppo BDP-95 and I measured the XLR output of the MX150. The audio bench results were simply excellent. At 1 kHz, THD+N was 0.00057%.

Here are the results for 19 kHz, 20 kHz combined test frequencies. There is no visible B-A peak at 1 kHz.

The IMD measurement was 0.0003%.

While the MX150 does not have a video processor, it does have an onscreen overlay which means that there is a chance the video can be affected. I ran through our core benchmark tests for Overscan, Whiter than White, Blacker than Black, Luma and Chroma Burst, and Luma and Chroma Plate on the MX150. I did not see any problems with the MX150 in terms of these tests.


Conclusions

The MX150 is an extremely versatile 7.1 A/V processor which offers an unbelievable amount of control and customization. McIntosh has certainly paid attention to the details and the MX150 can be customized to suit the personal needs and tastes of its users. This makes the MX150 very comfortable and predictable to use for everyone in the family.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the MX150 and I will seriously miss its performance in my system. The MX150 delivers an exceptional experience in terms of both usability and audio performance for movies and music alike. While the MX150 does not attempt to implement all the latest technology, it does deliver a solid feature set which McIntosh customers can rely on for many years. While it is certainly a luxury processor, the MX150 A/V Control Center is part of the McIntosh tradition of audio excellence and for those who can afford it, the MX150 can easily serve as the centerpiece for an amazing home theater.