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McIntosh MS300 Music Server

Part IV

May, 2006

Chris Montreuil

 

That Enchanting Look

What McIntosh review would be complete without a bit of fawning over the comeliness of the MS300's design. In the looks department, the MS300 has it all over the competition. The sheen cast by the glass veneer and the wonderfully eerie green illumination, a staple of the McIntosh line, highlights the retro charm of the MS300's well populated knobs and buttons visage. With the lights down, this baby shines like no other. In fact, it is one of the few pieces in my system that visitors immediately noticed upon its addition. "Hey that wasn't here the last time I was over," was the typical response from those who had been over pre-McIntosh.

Having seen Mac products at various trade shows, I took it on principle that the MS300 would have an impeccable fit and finish. Needless to say, I was surprised to find the faceplate was loose to the point of being able to be pushed inward toward the chassis. These build oddities appeared on the back panel also where the power cord dangled precariously from its receptacle. On a couple of occasions, I happened to bump into my equipment rack and noticed the MS300 lost power from the loose connection. Aside from those flaws, the quality of materials and solidity of buttons presses and toggles gave that reassuring feel that the MS300 was designed to last.

Sonic Performance

I realize the main selling point of a music server is in the convenience it provides, but for me, sonic performance is critical, and here the McIntosh clearly delivered. On Redbook audio digitally captured in lossless mode, I could discern no tangible difference between the MS300 and my reference current digital reference Pioneer 59avi. I ran the musical gamut of my collection from Bjork and Beck, and the gist of the experience was that both sources sounded wonderful through the digital inputs of the Anthem D1. I can safely say the MS300 was more than competent sonically.

I was able to evaluate the performance of the MS300's A/D stage on the two-channel recording I made of "The Golden Age" off Beck's Sea Change in SACD. Since an analog recording is currently the only option for those who wish to put SACD/DVD-A material on the MS300, I felt it important to gauge its performance in this area. Played back through the digital out of the MS300, the track sounded remarkably similar to my usual high-resolution connection which is the Pioneer 59avi's analog out to the D1's 5.1 analog in (in both analog bypass and A/D mode on the D1). If I had to get ultra critical, I would say there was a loss of air and resolution compared to playing it through the Pioneer, but overall the presentation was quite good, and without direct comparison, hard to fault. My collection of SACD and DVD-A material is small enough that I do not mind getting up to swap discs so for me the loss in sound quality, however slight, justified using the Pioneer for all high-resolution material. For the lazy or less picky among us, I am sure the analog captured version would suffice.

Before I get into operational performance, I should comment on the iRadio feature. The MS300 boasts a sizeable collection of internet radio stations all played back with varying levels of compression. I took a look through the available stations and actually managed to find some interesting selections that play music you wouldn't find on a traditional radio station in a million years. The MS300 even allows you to add stations by manually entering a valid URL. I have listened to quite a bit of Internet radio played back via the no-fi integrated speaker system of my G5, so I was curious to see how the streams would fair on the MS300.

Unfortunately played through my reference rig I received a healthy dose of compression reality. While some of the higher bitrate stations sounded serviceable, I'm talking 100kbps and up here, some of the low bitrate stations sounded thin and harsh. It actually served as a useful reminder how easy it is to accept inferior source material when played back on inferior equipment. Once you hear a heavily compressed source on a higher end system, the amount of information that is lost in the translation becomes glaring. That said, I could happily listen to the less compressed stations on a regular basis, as the deleterious compression artifacts were far less evident.

The iRadio caveat aside, it was quite a relief to be able to take the MS300's audio performance for granted. For its main function of serving as a digital source for PCM based music, I found it indistinguishable from my current digital source, and that is exactly what the end user should expect/need to justify its inclusion in his or her system.

Click Here to Go to Part V.

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