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The American player combo performs in incredibly coherent self-assured fashion. The discs I played showed their own faces but sometimes different to what I was used to. Visiting acquaintances and friends had different opinions, sometimes wildly so. Some called the sound flat and impersonal, others thought it thorough and uncolored. Some shook their heads over its extremely fine balance while others pointed at the weaker extremes of the audible spectrum. It’s true, McIntosh escapes easy evaluation. The description seems easy and the characteristic pointers of its kind of presentation are quickly determined but assessing it all is not so simple. This is why I spent time with the Mac trying to sort everything out before coming to any general conclusions. The first one of those is the most important: this is pedigreed high end. This seems simple but was not for me. The second: this player sounds better with an external preamplifier (preferably a tubed one) than driving the power amp directly from its built-in preamplifier stage. And third: this is an incredibly 'even' player which pays a certain price for this evenness.

The American player has a very precise, brilliantly arranged sound. Phase relationships seem maintained with an iron fist. Nothing happens by chance. The sound lacks any nervousness or blurring and all elements are presented without errors in the time domain. Hence this player sounds equally good with whatever kind of music one throws at it. I did listen to the Andrew Sisters, Depeche Mode; Genesis with Ray Wilson vocals and Thom Yorke from The Eraser. Each time I got a strong and clean transmission. "Clean" is an important word in this context because it defines the work done by the creators of this gear. And yet this is not the cleanliness we know from units by dCS or Esoteric where in my opinion there sometimes is a lack of fill. On the other hand we don’t get the saturated, colorful and somewhat analogue sound as we know it from the Accuphase DP-700, the top Jadis, the Reimyo CDT-777 & DAP-999EX combo or a Wadia (e.g. 27ix). It would seem closer to the Ancient Audio Lektor Grand SE or Lektor Prime but not really. The McIntosh has a slightly lower acoustic center and differently placed accents  with a smaller soundstage that’s more focused on the listening axis and favors the direct sound of the instruments over their reflections in space (the Lektors are the exact opposite). So it will be best for me to start at the beginning. The McIntosh two-box source has its own easily distinguishable sound. It sounds exactly like the company’s transistor amplifiers.

This is a very precise but not bright sound very well controlled over the entire spectrum. This is not the saturated Accuphase or Jadis sound I mentioned earlier which seems a bit colored by comparison. I do not know where exactly truth sits as in the end, I am only comparing one concept to another and all are flawed by not being compared to reality. But this is what it sounds like - as though the Accuphase and Jadis introduced a sort of sonic booster to create a more analog impression from a digital source. McIntosh does not or at least makes no impression that could be described as interference. It is a digital format and should not make us believe that we are listening to an LP, which has its own problems. Here we get a nice idea of what actually was recorded on the disc. And yet the 1000 components do not underline recorded flaws. This is a big achievement and only in such cases can we really talk about hi-end – at least in my opinion. We should know what is wrong but it should not obstruct the music. In general turntables fulfill this demand and it is why they are so glorified. The Mac sounds even but goes deep into the recording, defining the individual instruments and layers without artificially emphasizing them. In a short demo it may seem to be a slightly flat presentation because there is not “pushing forward” of individual elements, no brightening, no rounding off.

Everything is in its rightful place as derived from the recording itself, from the internal tension between the musicians—if the recording be of that kind—or how the paralleled multitracks relate to each other and how the sound engineer placed them. A very neutral timbre follows from that but the extremes play a lesser part. Yet the McIntosh does not just play midrange. That would be an oversimplification and perhaps true for Ayon’s CD-1s but not today’s testers. Still it is clearly audible that  upper treble and lower bass are slightly withdrawn. This is no felony but I think stems from a desire to linearize the frequency response over the widest possible range. However, when listening to Lars Danielsson from Mélange Bleu (bass) or Hear Ye!!!!Hear Ye!!!! by Red Mitchell and Harold Land (treble), I knew those areas to be slightly softened and subdued. Perhaps that’s why it all remains so perfectly neutral though not with the brute force of a steamroller or a surgeon's incisiveness but due to a certain completeness? At the same time one should be careful with the upper midrange, which is a bit stronger. It is not underlined but has a powerful attack just like the other sub ranges. This system does not soften or downplay here to require a suitable environment. I would opt for naturally soft systems, albeit without contouring as this is not needed. This will produce a large virtual sources with strong outlines. Only old recordings like the Andrew Sisters did not sound as expected with their depth and softness but perhaps it is actually recorded like this. Interesting. All newer recordings sounded splendid, be it Depeche Mode, Genesis, Thom York or Dire Straits. First you hear all the music, only later the recordings’ flaws. These components can create a specific climate of suspension when needed or engage you with drive like on The Doors’ L.A. Woman.

I am a real fan of the common sense approach the McIntosh people apply with their fanatical attachment to measurements and high-quality workmanship. It is shared with another giant, the Swiss Nagra company. This sound isn’t for everyone. It must be a mature decision to know that this is your sound. It does have the advantage of remaining equally attractive ten, twenty, thirty and more years into the future as can be followed easily by reading up on company’s 60-year history [Ken Kessler, McIntosh: „…for the love of music…”, Birmington, 2006]. This is the sound most  loved by McIntosh followers. It is incredibly clean without brightening or becoming clinical while maintaining the original character of the recordings. And about company reputation, I am sure that this system will operate in equally excellent shape many years from now. The same cannot be said about many audio products. It’s an exceptional set of characteristics and—common for the hi-end—distinctly not for everybody. Those who like Reimyo, Accuphase and EMM Labs should remain with their favorites. Yet even then it is worth to listen what the best of the competition is up to as nobody is perfect. Of course cabling plays a big role in the final result and in an ideal world and system, I would propose the Tara Labs Omega Onyx and Zero though this would be cost more than the electronics by themselves. Nonsensical then? I wouldn’t say that. I heard that combination and for me those are complimentary parts. But on the more reasonable side, Tara’s 0.8 series would be equally attractive. The XLO Limited darkens the whole a bit and Acrolink brightens it too much.