However, at no point during auditioning this CD with either the ultra-revealing Josephs or the more expansive, warmly voiced Dynaudios did the McCormack exacerbate the listening experience by adding any sort of treble emphasis. Over the past several months, I've consistently found the DNA-500 to have a delightfully smooth, sweet, airy top end, a warmly ingratiating way of depicting high frequencies that is long on transparency and detail and thankfully short on analytical qualities. On the ferocious Ornette Coleman-like interplay of Ginger's free-jazz chart "Dangle The Carrot", the DNA-500 added a welcome foundation of bass, not as an exaggerated low-frequency emphasis but as body and scale. This helped flesh out the leading edge of the transient on Artie Moore's bass, lending more image specificity and harmonic detail to the tenor sax of Fred Hess and trumpeter Ron Miles. It floated their lines in an unencumbered, vocal-like manner while giving them just enough added dynamic presence to pull them slightly forward in the mix so as to not get swallowed up in the complex swelter of Baker's fulminating, conversational polyrhythms.

I also was also very impressed to hear how the DNA-500's immense bass foundation added to the scale and dimensionality of Baker's drumset. It has a an extremely close-miked perspective, with a very wide left-right stereo spread - so much so that with some systems, there is a tendency for the drum set to kind of broaden and flatten out in the lateral domain. The McCormack helped restore a subtle degree of front-to-back depth and dimensionality to the drum kit, serving to emphasize the liveness and immediacy of the recording. The DNA-500's massive reserves of power and its ability to flesh-out and float clearly defined images over a vast soundstage with nimble, vividly articulated dynamics was especially welcome on the CD's musical showpiece, trumpeter-musical director Ron Miles' "Jesus Loves Me". Here reed virtuoso
James Carter joins Miles and Hess on the front line. With a less authoritative amp, the horns have a tendency to kind of bleed together and fall back into the overtone wash and harmonic complexity of the drums and piano.

Talk about resolution! The McCormack DNA-500 helped squeeze every last bit of subtlety and air out of the music, with such a nicely modulated balance of dynamic authority and (here's that metaphor again) graceful relaxation that the experience was never fatiguing. I reached for another recording that features an inspiring performance with a less refined and inviting acoustic than I'd have wished for (and which has kept me from reaching for it as often as I'd like based on the magnitude of the performer and her performance): Impromptu by the gifted harpist Emily Mitchell, the wife of Jazz trumpeter Lew Soloff. Again, while I would characterize the McCormack's overall perspective as clear, subjectively neutral and warmly balanced, its top end smooth and sweet, the lack of apparent brightness should not suggest that it is unduly rolled-off or laid back or artificially forgiving - it is a very revealing instrument.

I mean, it's not as if the DNA-500 papered over this recording's flaws. While recorded at a very good facility -- Studio A in New York's Clinton Recording Studios -- to these ears it is too closely miked, with far too much gain as though they wanted to put you right on the harpist's stool. They drive the transducers too hard without enough room sound. At softer volumes, the instrument glistens and shimmers but when Emily brings the pot to full boil, the sonics get grainy and lose some luster. I believe that the deepest note on the harp is a low C at around 32 Hz (only the third white key up from the far left on a piano to give you an idea about what a profound deep bass vibration that is). The DNA-500's sturdy bass foundation and purely textured open midrange brought most of the ambient air back alive and helped flesh out a
believable shape to the image of this big instrument even though the strings were practically making your nose buzz. That was due in part to the DNA-500's solid, uncolored articulation of the deep bass and its ability to handle those massive swings in current for low-end transients and big dynamic shifts. It did so without breaking a sweat or shortchanging resolution at critical transition points between the bass, midrange and treble, either in the form of intermodulation or harmonic distortion, muddled colorations or frequency peaks. Nor did the relaxed character of the top end detract from the crystalline character of the instrument or etch-o-sketch it into my forehead. Rather, I eased into the performance and lingered on delicate inner details without wearing my ass out. Clearly the DNA-500 is not just some brawny brute that misses the forest for the trees. All that power and real-world bass control translates into sensitivity and a real sense of ease on both delicate, acoustic fare and music with more robust dynamics.

The DNA-500 doesn't necessarily emulate tube amplifiers but it is so thoroughly musical, richly textured and warmly involving throughout the entire midrange -- so well balanced from top to bottom, so easy to listen to for long periods of time without fatigue --that it might suggest the inviting humanity and forgiving overload characteristics of tubes to some well-traveled listeners, if perhaps not that elusive juiciness and iridescent detail that send chills down your spine-like tubes.

But we're splitting hairs here. I was so deeply moved by the luminosity, transparency and clarity of the DNA-500's mid-
range, by the layering, depth and serenely inviting airiness of the sound, that I wanted for nothing save when operating in pure Class A[nal] A[nalysis] Critic's Mode. To satisfy myself that differences in midrange performance were more a matter of style than substance, I resorted to three prized pieces of Vintage Vinyl and a vocal CD purchased for just this occasion: a 45 RPM/180g audiophile masterpiece from Groove Note, Just Friends by the LA Four (originally on Concord); two out-of-print classics never issued on CD, Jack DeJohnette's New Rags (ECM) and The Varese Record [Finnidar]; and finally, The Very Best of Maria Callas [EMI], a collection of well-known arias from romantic operas.

I came away completely reassured. I was particularly impressed by how the DNA-500's pinpoint resolution sorted out Bud Shank's tenor from a little bell Jeff Hamilton used for an accent on the LA Four's "Nouveau Bach". There was an organic acoustic connection and nice timbral balance between the instruments with each image clearly delineated in time and space, the breathy, vocal-like rise time of the saxophone out front on the right and the
transient immediacy of the bell emerging into the foreground and receding into the background in a delicate decay of overtones. Very nice layering. Likewise on "Just Friends", I was impressed by how the McCormack handled the frequency extremes in the more visceral passage without sacrificing midrange coherence, layering or ambient cues. The manner in which the amp sorted out the differences between the transient attack and textured decay of Ray Brown's woody bass and the airy midrange purity of Laurindo Almeida's nylon string guitar was most compelling. Then there were the furious dynamic shifts of Varese's Ionization in these rare 1950 EMS recordings done under the composer's supervision. I was particularly tickled by how the McCormack's added weight conveyed all the buoyancy and harmonic complexity of the big bass drum, while effortlessly sorting out the tiniest, quietist percussive details and delineating a remarkably deep soundstage in this startling mono recording.

On the title tune from DeJohnette's New Rags, the DNA-500 readily portrayed the contrasting acoustic purity of drums and saxophone on one hand, the electric immediacy of a solid-body guitar and an amplified bass on the other in Manfred Eicher and Martin Wieland's spacious 1977 analog mix with its opulent acoustic wash of ambient textures and wild dynamic swings. Most compelling was how the amp brought out the front-to-back immensity and dynamic realism of the drum kit which extended all across the lateral plane without seeming disembodied, incoherent or out of scale to the other instruments. I can't recall experiencing such a perfected vision of Jack's drums on this recording in the actual three-dimensional physical rendering of the kit, let alone its nuances of tuning, texture and touch.

Finally, from the fluttering, woodwind-like delicacy of Lady Callas' delicate conclusion to Cilea's "Ecco: respire appena'lo son l'umile ancella" (from Adriana Lecouvreur) to her emphatic exclamation point in closing out the famous "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen, the sense of an unfettered human voice, soaring freely across a huge soundstage and projecting all the way to the top balcony was electrifying. The DNA-500 conveyed the textured, breathy delicacy of the Cilea with uncommon poise while delineating each dynamic step in her phrasing on the Bizet aria with such lifelike accuracy and acoustic purity, that you could readily track the note's journey from the inner recesses of Callas' diaphragm right up to the point where she was bouncing that dramatic capper off the back wall of the theater. The physical immediacy of Lady Callas' concluding note (and the big, ringing flute transient that closed out the solo performance of "Density 21.5" on the Varese record) were so startling that, for a second, it seemed as though the system simply disappeared and the performers were live in my listening room. And that, after all, is the aural illusion we all long for in good audio, sans any gauche parlor tricks.
At this point in the listening process, I was satisfied that Steve McCormack had indeed fashioned an honest skylight with which to gaze at the stars.

Somewhere along our collective past, audiophiles drew a line in the sand. "Solid-state gives you accuracy and control but is coldly analytical; tubes may give you warmth and character but they're unduly colored."

Perhaps once in the past. Nowadays, things aren't that cut and dried anymore. Solid-state and tube circuit designers have had a surprising influence on each other's work, arguably nowhere more so than in the marriage of conrad-johnson and McCormack. Teamed with either of my tubed preamps, the VTL 5.5 or the Rogue Audio Magnum 99 (as well as my hybrid Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista), the DNA-500 allowed me to transcend my system - well, as much as any audio re-viewer is ever able to get past the compulsion to over-analyze the interactive process of system synergy and sonic attributes of individual components. I was able to experience music more directly which is the whole point -- involvement
-- not to determine who can appreciate the best $40,000 loudspeaker or CD player, or who can hear a 0.5 dB peak at supersonic frequencies that even elude Lassie.

I love tube amps. I still enjoy my Mesa Baron. I wish I owned some speakers that would be appropriate for something as cool as those 6-watt Art Audio PX-25 amps I got to briefly cuddle up to at Home Entertainment 2003 in San Francisco. I still miss the powerful VTL and Rogue Audio monoblocks I got to linger with for extended auditions back in the Stereophile epoch. Alas, for some people the reality of tubes, the care and feeding of the gear, might be tantamount to owning a dog. Do you really want to get up every morning to take Fido for a walk? For others who have both audiophile aspirations, accommodating budgets and harbor aspirations to driving bigger speakers in bigger rooms to fuller volume and dynamic levels -- or who simply want to keep things simple -- the DNA-500 lets you have your cake and eat it too. It gives you power, refinement and efficiency in a no-compromise single-chassis stereo amplifier.

And might I add -- with an ironic compassionate cough for the benefit of those readers to whom $6995 is not a walk in the park but the outer limits of an entire system -- that the McCormack DNA-500 represents an unbeatable audiophile value that can go toe to toe with any and all comers under $10,000 and more than hold its own against some even more expensive monoblocks. For someone well-heeled enough to contemplate a $12,000-20,000 system, with an eye towards future upgrades, the DNA-500 could be a good long-term investment, a solid sonic cornerstone that can grow as your system and your appetites grow or as you move to bigger spaces, able to accommodate larger, more power-hungry full- range speakers. Based on my experience, it's hard to imagine a speaker that would make the DNA-500 say Uncle.

In my aural game of critic's poker, the DNA-500 certainly delivered everything in the way of dynamics and musicality I've come to love and rely on in my own reference muscle amp, the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 (when a substantial number of this limited-edition run of 500 were sold through Audio Advisor, they were seriously under-priced at $5400). The Nu-Vista 300 is still a gem - ask the analog rabbi Michael Fremer who was still using his last time I checked in. There's something very unique about the sonic signature of those 6CW4
tiny triodes in the gain stage wedded to a bipolar output stage. They confer a sparkle and effervescence to the midrange that is still uniquely satisfying. Having said all that (and what follows is audiophile nitpicking at its finest), I found that with its slightly more modern pedigree and greater reserves of power, the McCormack threw an even bigger soundstage, with a more velvety open midrange and comparable levels of layering and detail. However, where the McCormack was really able to stare down the Nu Vista was in the domain of dynamic headroom and bass control. I found I could push the DNA-500 appreciably harder without any apparent strain, nor did the sound simply get louder - it got bigger without favoring any pet frequencies or losing balance and linearity. At more modest listening levels, the DNA-500 likewise maintained a firm grip on the music while revealing all manner of subtleties.

In toto, the DNA-500 sets a new standard for value and performance in solid-state amplifiers. It is beautifully balanced, harmonically sweet and seductively detailed. It is warm yet clear, with the full body and bouquet of a red and the transparency and piquant bite of a fine white wine. It is quick and nimble and offers immense transient impact and immediacy. It deploys its massive reserves of power in a relaxed and inviting manner, balancing delicacy and vigor, suppleness and slam. It doesn't sweat the big gestures nor overlooks the small ones. It allowed me to experience all manner of music on a capacious soundstage with enormous scale and dimensionality and proved utterly revealing and supremely accommodating to all of the gear I matched it with, both upstream and downstream. In short, the McCormack DNA-500 conveys the immediacy, intimacy and aura of recorded music with compelling accuracy, commanding authority, soulful purity and a minimum of muss and fuss. It's easy to listen to and even easier to love.

PS: After reading carefully over Chip's submitted review, I called him in his NYC haunt. "It sounds like you really tried hard to find any shortcomings but came up short, didn't you?" In typical fashion, our blissfully blasphemous man with the heart of gold confessed: "The thing's a four-balled motherfucker. I took my best shots to see if I could make it glitch but sorry - I couldn't find anything to complain about." That and the fact that our own Les Turoczi purchased a DNA-500 for his solid-state reference compelled me to dip our award seal into its blue ink pot - Ed.
Steve McCormack replies:

To the Chipster, Srajan and 6moons -
What can I say? I am completely delighted as you might expect. I certainly don't have anything to add except to express my profound appreciation for Chip's thorough examination of the DNA-500's performance. Chip's experience mirrors my own precisely, so I kept finding myself thinking "Yes, that's it - he's got it exactly!" One of Chip's comments really did stand out for me, however: "... for a second, it seemed as though the system simply disappeared and the performers were live in my listening room..." This is what I love about the DNA-500. It really is able to act as a "window on the performance."

Chip said something else that resonated strongly with me. Referring to the seemingly limitless power of the DNA-500, he pointed out that it delivered this power with tremendous authority when necessary, but "... also with a graceful sensation of elegance that allows the subtlest instrumental textures and acoustic details to glow in the dark as it were." This ability is extremely important. Many audiophiles are of the opinion that smaller power amps are better at being "graceful" or "quick." As one McCormack dealer mentioned to me, the DNA-500 sounds like "a small tube amp on steroids." In fact, the DNA-500 gets out of the way of the music and lets it shine through in a natural, unforced way. I want my amplifiers to serve the demands of the music, not to impose some character or personality of their own. I believe the DNA-500 accomplishes this feat to a greater degree than any other amplifier I have heard.

Finally, the DNA-500 serves as a lesson in what it means to drive a speaker with relaxed ease and complete command and authority. The power factor combined with fully balanced push-pull drive allows the DNA-500 to control even very difficult speakers with effortless, matter-of-fact authority. The level of dynamic realism produced can be rather startling as Chip pointed out (and a heckuva lot of fun, if I may say so)!

A fabulous review, guys - thank you so much.

Best regards,
Steve McCormack
Manufacturer's website