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McIntosh MCD1000 CD Transport and MDA1000 D/A Converter

Part II

December, 2005

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Setting the Stage

Shortly before writing this review, I attended a two-hour Bay Area Audiophile Society demo at the brand new private showroom of a Bay Area dealer. The equipment on display listed for far more than most of the equipment I own. It also looked gorgeous. Every component save for the speakers was isolated from vibration on special platforms, with additional $289 support thingies in between platforms and gear. Power conditioning was by IsoClean, a quite costly system I'll be reviewing before long. After market power cables, expensive interconnects, and an extraordinarily impressive, imported CD spray that costs $89/bottle should have added up to one glorious afternoon of sound.

Instead, the music sounded pretty awful. Whether the cause was the speakers (most likely), the lack of room treatment (certainly a factor), amplification that sounds best with bright horns rather than more traditional designs, the phase of the moon, or some combination thereof could not be ascertained with certainty. What was certain was the lack of deep bass, an excessively bloated midrange, and very little energy on top.

Music that should have sounded wonderful was devoid of life. The soundstage was impressively huge, with tremendous width and height, but there was virtually no space between instruments or instruments and voice. We heard a wall of sound, one that surely has its place in a Phil Spector recording, but quite inappropriate when listening to baritone Matthias Goerne singing Schubert's Schwanengesang (Swan Song) to Alfred Brendel's piano accompaniment. No ring to the piano, a midrange so vast that it threatened to swallow half the room, and no bite to the voice. Awful. Given that I had heard and reviewed the man perform live just a week earlier, I could not be fooled. Nor could another attendee pretend that the hash he heard on the Latin Big Band recording he uses as his demo reference sounded like much more than trash.

Now imagine driving home with a fellow BAAS member to listen to some of the same music we had just heard on the McIntosh gear. The contrast wasn't as great as returning to planet Earth from some distant galaxy; it was more like reuniting with friends you've been separated from for much too long.

It was a relief to discover some of my favorite longtime companions in fine voice. Matthias Goerne still sang magnificently, Terry Evans was still the inimitable Terry Evans, and octogenarians Candido and Graciela continued to turn out Cuban music like no other combo.

Set-Up and Options

I have always found a direct connection delivers the truest signal. I thus bypassed my Theta Gen. VIII DAC/preamp entirely and plugged the McIntosh directly into my Jadis DA-7 Luxe amp (foregoing use of my tuner during the review process). While McIntosh asserts that balanced connections offer the quietest signal, my Jadis only accepts unbalanced (RCA) inputs.9

Charles Hinton of McIntosh Technical Support offers the following commentary on this choice:

"The balanced connection will always add the advantage of noise cancellation. Whether a noticeable improvement results depends upon whether you have any ambient RF noise to cancel in your environment.

"The additional sonic improvements provided by balanced connections are often lost by sending it through a preamp that is not fully balanced, so connecting directly to an amp keeps the fully balanced signal, PLUS avoids adding the circuitry of the preamp to the signal path.

[If you have the option], use balanced when connecting directly to an amp. I find it sounds noticeably better than sending it through an unbalanced preamp."


When I briefly experimented with setting the MDA1000 to Fixed Output and plugging it into the preamp section of the Theta, I heard far less of a difference in sound than I would have expected. Regardless, because I wanted to both duplicate my reference configuration as much as possible and get the best possible sound, I performed my evaluations with the MDA1000 plugged directly into the amp.

Besides replacing my reference transport and DAC/preamp with the McIntosh transport and DAC, set-up was the same as usual: identical interconnects, power cabling, supports and tweaks (see list at the end of this review). Connections were constantly Caig ProGolded, with demagnetization and test tones frequently run. Please note that I did not employ my subwoofer during the audition process. Nor did I use the Marigo 3-D Signature mat, which has a noticeable effect on sound. My goal was to perform as true a comparison to my reference CD/DAC as possible.

Most of my listening was done using the Jadis DA-7 Luxe amp. I did briefly try the PS-Audio GSA-250 amp, recently reviewed for this website. What I wish I could have tried were the previously reviewed Parasound JC-1 Halo monoblocks in balanced input mode. As you will read below, I think these might prove an ideal match for the McIntosh combo.

Listening

I recently received a new Telarc release that includes the Atlanta Symphony's world premiere recording of David Del Tedici's "Paul Revere's Ride". The work calls for huge orchestra, amplified soprano, and full-blooded chorus. Throw in a wind machine, lots of percussion, and other sound effects, and you've got quite a test for a system.

Going back and forth between my reference transport and DAC and the McIntosh gear, I was impressed with how satisfying the McIntosh system can be. As I got into the minutiae of contrasts - the triangle shone and rang more freely in space through the APL-modified Sony transport/Theta Gen VIII combo, and its decay seemed less truncated and a bit more lifelike - the snap in the opening track of Paul Revere's Ride sounded sharper through my reference setup, with more air around it. Of course, at this level, the differences are more one of preference than of quality, as the McIntosh is indeed superb.

Because of design considerations, it is likely that most McIntosh lovers will choose to purchase both the MDA1000 and MCD1000. In the eventuality, however, that you already own a fine DAC or transport, and wish to upgrade only one component in your chain, I also evaluated each component by itself. My observations are included below.

Since I've already mentioned baritone Matthias Goerne's Schwanengesang, let's start with that recording. Listening through the McIntosh combo, I noticed an unexpected extra weight to the piano's midrange, as though its bass resonance had received an artificial boost. Whenever a midrange note was sounded, the piano seemed to resound with greater weight than one would hear in real life.

I also noted a certain lack of shine on top. The piano's top notes did not ring as much as they might in real life, and the high end of Goerne's voice was less prominent than I was accustomed to hearing. The emphasis was far more on the midrange, to the slight detriment of the top. Depending upon the tonal balance of one's cabling, amplification, and/or speakers, this lack of neutrality might prove of benefit.

Furthermore, the McIntosh presentation seemed a tad gray around the edges, with less immediacy than I am accustomed to. The "blacker black" you often read about in audio reviews translated in this case into "almost black." Instead of silence in the space between and around voice and piano, there was a slight grayness that detracted somewhat from the color of the sound. Again, take this in the context of basic sound that was quite beautiful and arresting.


Click Here to Go to Part III.

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