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Product Review - McCormack Audio DNA-225 Two-Channel Power Amplifier - July, 2001

Jason Serinus


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Specifications:

Power: 225 Watts RMS Per Channel into 8 Ohms, 400 Watts Per Channel into 4 Ohms, 20 Hz - 20 kHz, at less than 1% THD

MFR: 0.5 Hz - 200 kHz 3 dB

Input Impedance: 100 k Ohms

Size: 6 1/2" H x 19" W x 16" D

Weight: 54 Pounds

MSRP:   $2,795 USA


McCormack Audio Corporation of Virginia, Inc., 2733 Merrilee Drive, Fairfax, Virginia 22031; Phone 703-573-9665; Fax 703-573-9667; E-Mail tech-spt@mccormackaudio.com; Web  http://www.mccormackaudio.com

Introduction

A number of years ago, when I attended the founding meeting of the Bay Area Audiophile Society, I discovered that quite a few members possessed two high value, "relatively affordable" product lines: Audio Alchemy digital front ends and McCormack amplifiers. Certainly McCormack's had a reputation for outstanding quality - the first time I spoke with Robert Harley, he told me that the McCormack DNA 0.5 and 1 were "THE" lower-priced alternatives to Krell amps - and this led to its high profile within the audiophile community.

Quite familiar with the Audio Alchemy line and many of its Perpetual Technology successors, I have always been eager to audition the McCormack line chez Serinus. I therefore jumped at the opportunity to review Steve McCormack's new models.

The first McCormack amps were built to a price point. After Steve McCormack left his original company, he started SMc Audio, which offered upgrades to the DNA-1, DNA-0.5, DNA-2, and DNA HT-1. As McCormack writes on website, "I have always been proud of the performance achieved by the DNA amplifier series. However, these amplifiers were originally designed to fit a certain price structure, and I had to make various compromises in order to do that. I'm very pleased with how they turned-out, but I had always wondered what performance levels could be achieved without those compromises."

Further, he says, "The upgrades I've developed effectively answer that question - and then some! Wow! I'm still amazed at the performance I'm hearing. It's as though the system is simply gone, and I have been transported into the performance. The music is revealed in an utterly convincing, involving way. This is an across-the-board improvement in dynamics, imaging, transparency, soundstage, etc. But it's also something more. These amplifiers really convey the soul of the music, and that's more important to me than the details."



Two of my frequently visited BAAS colleagues have had their McCormack amps upgraded by SMcAudio. One is the ubiquitous Joey, frequently mentioned in my equipment reviews because he is my frequent companion for equipment and CD evaluation, as well as for live concerts. Joey opted for the highest possible Revision A Gold Edition of the DNA-1, which basically takes the DNA-1 as far as it is able to go.

Late in 1997, McCormack Audio returned, now owned by the Conrad-Johnson Design Group, and located in Virginia. The new line featured redesigned amps and preamps, again built to a price point, which incorporated Steve's latest thoughts on design. For review purposes, Steve supplied me with both the top-of-the-line DNA-225 amp and RLD-1 preamp (the preamp review is forthcoming).

Over the course of many months, I compared the McCormack solid state amp with both my reference Bruce Moore Dual 70 tube amp and with Joey's Rev. A Gold revision solid state McCormack DNA-1. (Joey brought over his upgraded DNA-1 on two separate occasions in order to perform extended comparison.) Preamps rotated between the solid state RLD-1 and tubed Bruce Moore Companion III (review forthcoming). As you might imagine, there was a world of difference between these amps and preamps. While comparing the $2,795 McCormack DNA-225 to the $4,300 Bruce Moore may not seem fair, it is certainly fair to compare it with Steve McCormack's upgraded DNA-1. Furthermore, evaluating these products as a music lover who perceives major differences between solid state and tube products makes, I believe, for a valid comparison.

Building a Relationship

The McCormack duo arrived shortly before my Bruce Moore Companion III preamp's volume controls underwent modification. In fact, the DNA-225's huge reserves of power were in part the catalyst for the Moore's modification. The Companion III is outfitted with shunt attenuators, each of whose "clicks" raises the volume by several dB. When paired with the DNA-225, it could not supply the correct volume levels. Pop music was either way too soft (on click 3) or way too loud (on click 4). Late at night, I found that even the first click resulted in music too loud to play when neighbors in adjacent apartments were asleep. This problem was experienced as well with classical, albeit less severely. This is a common experience with preamps equipped with step or shunt attenuators. Joey has the same problem when he listens to his McCormack through one of the latest iterations of the Audible Illusions Modulus IIIa.

While the Companion's attenuators were being recalibrated, the McCormack RLD-1 served as my preamp. Comparisons of the DNA-225, Bruce Moore Dual 70, and Rev. A Gold Edition DNA-1 were accomplished both with the RLD-1, and the shunt attenuator-modified Companion III.

Somewhere in the midst of my listening experiences, I managed to have a failure in my Moore amp. With it in the shop, I had lots of time to experiment with the McCormack products. I was also in the midst of reviewing a slew of mainly classical and some folk/light rock CDs for a number of publications, and needed to listen to music quite frequently, so the McCormack products got quite a workout.

When the Moore equipment finally returned home, my writing assignments increased exponentially. Occupied with preparing music features, performance previews, and performance reviews for Opera News, andante.com, SF Chronicle, SF Examiner and a host of other publications, I found my main focus switching from listening to recorded music to attending and writing about live performances. Immediate deadline followed immediate deadline, and my opportunities to compare equipment, let alone write about it, became scarce. It took many, many months until I could write this review. In the process, however, I had lots of time to live with the McCormack units, and to introduce the DNA-225 to both Joey and our Editor for Tube Equipment, Paul Knutson.

I extend my extreme gratitude to Steve McCormack for his patience and understanding.

Listening

I listened to so many recordings through these various combinations of equipment, that attempting a complete list would prove impossible. Suffice it to say that some of my standards, including the Grammy-nominated Reference Recordings Bolero, the JVC XRCD version of Terry Evans' Puttin' It Down, the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin's recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, Leontyne Price singing Charpentier's "Depuis le jour," Eileen Farrell singing Verdi, Susan Graham singing Reynaldo Hahn, the Chung Trio performing Beethoven's Archduke Trio, the TAS Hearts of Space sampler, as well as a bunch of music that Joey brought over on more than one occasion (Gillian Welsh"s "I'm Not Afraid to Die" on Hell Among the Yearlings, the Naxos recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto in D Major, Op. 61a (a piano/orchestral arrangement of his Violin Concerto), got quite an airing. If you look at the two classical music review sets on this website that precede publication of this review, you'll discover a good 20 recordings that were also heard through the McCormack equipment.

No matter which preamp I matched the amps with, results proved consistent. Nor did retuning my Chameleon III speakers, or changing powercords in the course of reviewing the Shunyata Sidewinder, Black Mamba and Viper v2, change my opinions. On the contrary, the differences in sound between these amps when I alternated the Shunyata powercords only served to confirm my conclusions about these products.

What I Heard

The McCormack DNA-225 is a mighty amp indeed. It throws an enormous, arresting soundstage, one that literally knocks you over with its immensity. Not since I owned a Krell KSA 50-S have I heard such an enormous soundstage chez Serinus. The McCormack soundstage seems boundless in both height and width, and it's very exciting to experience.

The DNA-225 has tons of power. When I played the marvelous Reference Recordings Bolero, which ends with everything in the orchestra blaring away in climactic unison, every instrument was crystal clear; so too was its position in the orchestra. My Bruce Moore may cost $1,600 more, but it cannot handle huge signals as cleanly. Unless you're playing music in an enormous space, and using highly inefficient speakers, I cannot imagine you running out of power with this amp.

The DNA-225 also has fabulous bass. While the Moore Dual 70 is superb when it comes to bass, the DNA-225 seems to extend even lower. And the DNA-225's bass is very tight and very fast; its bass is even more powerful and impressive than the "upgraded as far as possible" DNA-1. Nothing, absolutely nothing, seems wanting when it comes this amp's massive power. If you are a rock 'n roll or New Age man on a modest budget, you will absolutely want to audition this amp.

When it comes to the midrange, however, the wonderful richness of tubes wins out. The McCormack's midrange is quite serviceable - it is not as recessed as the Krell's - but it certainly does not approach the midrange heard from the Dual 70, let alone the richness experienced in live classical performance.

Highs, too, are quite different from the other amps I auditioned. That the DNA-225's highs are brightly illuminated is not in itself a problem.Through my Chameleon speakers, I actually find the brightness of the McCormack DNA-225's highs closer to what I hear in an up close, live classical performance than the darker highs of the Bruce Moore Dual 70. But I do not find the DNA-225's highs ideally musical. They seem a bit coarse and lacking refinement. Closer to what you might hear over a pop music sound system, they are very much in your face. The DNA-225's highs do not sing in the same way that the highs of both the Bruce Moore Dual 70 and upgraded DNA-1 sing. Keep in mind now, that I am a tube fellow.

That I preferred the upgraded DNA-1's highs to the DNA-225's suggests that if the DNA-225 were also upgraded without regard to price point, it could potentially equal if not surpass the more musical highs of the DNA-1. I also note that the McCormack-225's soundstage is nowhere as outer space, its midrange as recessed, or its highs as unnaturally sweet and bright as the Krell KSA 50-S. I would choose the McCormack DNA-225 over the Krell KSA 50-S any day.

Other differences immediately surfaced between the McCormack and Moore. Though the McCormack is stunningly powerful and immediate, it lacks the depth, transparency, and liquidity offered by the tube product. It is no slouch in these departments, especially if mated with a good tube preamp, but it is not outstanding in these regards.

This brings me to my final observation. I am a classical music lover, first and foremost. During the spring of 2001, there were weeks when I attended between two and four live classical performances. During my first extended weekend of reviewing for the Examiner, Opera News, and andante.com, I attended four live classical performances in three days. Each was in a different venue, and each offered a "reviewer's seat" in an acoustically superior location.

Unless a hall is dead or has serious acoustic problems, or the music is boring, one does not find oneself sitting in a concert hall preoccupied with thoughts of transparency, soundstage, and liquidity. If the music arrives at one's ears relatively intact, one simply closes one's eyes and takes it all in.

In a relatively short length of time, I've gotten spoiled. I get high off the real thing, and I want more, more, more. So when I return home to listen to recordings, especially recordings of music I've just heard live, I demand a great deal of veracity from my system.

Time and again, I find myself preferring the liquidity, depth, transparency, and naturalness afforded by the Bruce Moore's tubes. Tubes have their flaws, noise and distortion being high on the list. But so do live acoustic venues. And in both situations, the musical flow is what counts. To my ears and soul, tubes, as well as tube-like solid state such as the initial Pass Aleph series and its successors, sing to a greater extent than the McCormack DNA-225. But, most consumers like solid-state sound, and the DNA-225 excels in that arena.

Conclusion

In a recent publication, UK's Paul Messenger relates his recent experience testing eight high-end power amplifiers, priced between $2,000 and $4,500 and split evenly between tube and transistor types. When Messenger last performed such a group amp test, in the late 1970's, he found it "quite difficult" to hear differences between various models. This time, however, thanks to great increases in the quality of products, he found it "easy."

"I was no less surprised to find how easily the tube amps outclassed their solid-state rivals," he writes. "As theory relates, the transistor amplifiers could go louder, and generally did a better job in the bass. But they lost out big time to the tubed units in midband dynamic expression, time coherence, and transparency. Since that group test, I've found it difficult to listen to my regular Naim solid-state amplification. I keep missing the midband deliciousness that only tubes seem able to supply."

Messenger's experience pretty much reflects my own. But this has a great deal to do with the kind of music I listen to. If your main musical pleasure derives from live and recorded performance of pop music that is usually amplified, the McCormack DNA-225 will quite possibly suit your needs better than a tube product.

A case in point. Many reviewers claim that the Grateful Dead managed to achieve the best amplified sound of any group of its kind. I have stood in THE sonically ideal spot for an evening Grateful Dead performance at the Oakland Coliseum. I can state this with certainty, because my Deadhead friends who worked at Oakland's Pro Home Systems spent years discovering where sound from all speakers converged, and arrived at the venue when the doors opened at 10 am in order to secure that ideal space. The McCormack DNA-225 will take you very close to this experience, far closer than a lot of tube gear, including the Moore. It's not an experience in which depth, air, and liquidity matter; what's important is what rocks you, slams you, and moves you. In these areas, the DNA-225 excels.

The DNA-225 is a great amp. You'll only find out if it's right for you by bringing it home and listening to it in your system.

Jason's Sound System

Michael Green Chameleon III tunable speakers (rewired with Nirvana hook-up wire and fitted with Scan Speak 2905/9700 tweeters)
Hsu subs (stereo pair with their own amps)
Bruce Moore Dual 70 tube poweramp with Svetlana KT-88 tubes
Bruce Moore Companion III tube preamp (rewired with Nirvana hook-up wire)
Theta Gen. 5A single-ended DAC
Perpetual Technologies P-1A with Monolithic Power Supply
Audio Alchemy DDS-Pro transport
PS Audio P600 Power Plant power synthesizer with Multiwave
Nordost SPM Reference speaker cable to the Chameleons
AQ 3' Clear II speaker cable to the Hsus
Nordost single-ended Quatro Fils interconnects from Theta to preamp and amp
AQ 1m. Diamond II co-ax interconnect from Hsu sub amps to preamp
Nordost Silver Shadow AES/EBU digital interconnects from Theta to P1A to AA transport
Shunyata Black Mamba power cables on the transport, P-1A, and amp; Shunyata Sidewinders on the DAC and preamp; plus PS Audio Lab Cable on the Power Plant
Michael Green Deluxe Ultrarack and Basic Racks, plus MG audiopoints and room treatment
Black Diamond Racing cones under Theta inner tubes, maple cutting boards and bags of sand, homemade bass traps
Shakti stone atop Theta and Shakti On-Lines on most powercords
Bedini Ultraclarifier, Audioprism Stoplight and Blacklight, Gryphon Exorcist
 

- Jason Serinus - 

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Copyright 2001 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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