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Reviewer: John Potis
Analog source: Merrill-Scillia Research MS2 table, Hadcock GH Export arm, Ortofon Kontrapunkt H cartridge; 1985 AR Turntable with Merrill mods/ Hadcock GH Export Arm Garrott Bros Optim FGS Cartridge
Digital source: Accustic Arts Drive 1/Audio Aero Prima SE DAC
Preamp: Bel Canto Pre2P, McCormack MAP-1
Power amp: Art Audio Carissa, Bel Canto e.One REF1000 Monos, Canary CA 330 Monos Blocks, Cyber 211 Monos, Musical Fidelity A5 Integrated
Speakers: Tidal Audio Pianos, Thiel CS 2.4, Ohm Acoustics Walsh 4 with 4.5 mk.2 upgrade, Hørning Perikles, Klipsch LaScala IIs
Speaker cables, interconnects & digital cables: JPS Labs Superconductor 3
Power cords: JPS Power AC, Analog AC, Digital AC, Aluminata and Kaptovator
Powerline conditioning: Balanced Power Technology 3.5 Signature Plus with ZCable Cyclone Power Cord
Sundry accessories: Sound Mechanics Performance Platform, 2-inch Butcher Block platforms with Quest for Sound Isol-pads, Vibrapod Isolators and Cones, Ultra & Heavy Zsleeves, Viablue QTC spikes under speakers, Auric Illuminator, Gingko Audio Mini-Clouds
Room size: 12' by 16' with 9' ceiling
Review component retail: $9500 list ($7500 street price)
At the time of this writing, Mactone's Mr. Kenjiro Matsumoto is 75 years young. Born in Tokyo, he started in the audio business with his father's support when he opened an electronics retail shop. He was selling TVs, refrigerators and such while at the same time building original phonographs of his own design - turntables as they are called today. He graduated from Tokyo Denki Daigaku University of Electricity where he mastered the basics of electricity and electronics to fortify his audio design hobby and move it into the direction of an eventual career. In 1964 during both the Tokyo Olympics and a period of economic growth, he founded Mactone. This was also a time when the large Japanese manufacturers were entering mass production of transistor amplifiers and abandoned the vacuum tube. Mactone was destined to buck this trend and concentrate its efforts on valve gear.
Initially business was brisk and Mactone hired seven employees in its first year of operation but things stalled upon publication of the first highly critical Mactone review in an audio magazine. In no time the employees were gone and products already sold were being returned. Mr. Matsumoto was left with no recourse but to refund those sales, all the while determined to return Mactone from the brink of despair. This time, growth would be slow but steady.
Like most tube designers, Mr. Matsumoto places paramount importance on the power transformers and often refers to them as the engines. Kenjiro-San designs and renders transformer prototypes himself before outsourcing manufacture to his favorite iron specialist. Kenjiro-San designs for his domestic market first which specifies smaller listening rooms for city dwellers where space is at a premium. He therefore prefers to eschew pentode operation with its higher power yields yet without the "soft transparency" of the triodes he prefers. A regular at live concerts, Kenjiro-San equates tubes with 'live" music. His favorite piece of music is Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, a composition he first heard upon the conclusion of World War II. He is of the opinion that greater appreciation of classical music would go a long way toward curing certain social ills today.
Kenjiro-San speaks little if any English and the above information was supplied by Mactone's international distributor since 2001, Shiba-San of Sibatech (pronounced cybertek). As its name would imply, the MA-300B under review is a 23wpc stereo amplifier utilizing the 300B output valve. More specifically, it uses four of them, two per channel configured for push-pull operation. It features an input sensitivity of 0.5V/23W/8ohms, a frequency response of 10Hz to 50kHz -1dB and a power requirement of 115/230 VAC at 50/60Hz. Those are all the performance specifications one gets on the MA-300B. A pair of 12BH7 drivers and a single 5814A tube round out the glowing bits.
Weighing in at a surprisingly easy 46.4 pounds, the MA-300B is considerably lighter than expected. My Canary CA330s monos produce 26 watts per channel from the equivalent pair of 300Bs yet each mono weighs 50% more than the stereo MA-300B. The Mactone doesn't sport the extreme build of the Canarys but its construction is more than just adequate. It's plenty sturdy, there's simply not as much iron inside. The MA-300B measures a relatively compact 11.4 inches wide by 8.3 inches tall by 15.4 inches deep and should fit easily on most racks - unlike my gargantuan Canarys.
Once care is taken to remove and then not replace all fingerprints, the MA-300B is a handsome amplifier with a bright gleam emanating from the polished stainless face. All other panels are finished in powder-coated black so you may touch the MA-300B anywhere without leaving traces save for the face. A small push-on power button, a smaller red LED of appropriate luminance and three small knobs adorn the front panel. Moving left to right, the first two are mono potentiometers to adjust gain and the last one allows the listener to dial in varying amounts of negative feedback, thereby affecting the qualities of the MA-300B's timbre. More about this anon.
Around back the MA-300B is no more cluttered than on the front. A fuse, IEC power input, two pairs of binding posts -- one each for the right and left -- and one pair of RCA inputs are what you'll find. There's lots of space back there and I never felt squeezed making connections. The MA-300B is not intended to drive unusually difficult loads. That's fine because few high-efficiency speakers present them. Mactone specs out the amplifier at 8 ohms and I think it's a safe bet that the output transformers are tapped for nominally rated 8-ohm speakers. The MA-300B sits on four attractive but hard footers likely selected more for resonance tuning than isolation. All in all, I find the Mactone's design and construction nicely done. It certainly has the look of something hand-made, probably one at a time, but it seems well put together and is very attractive. If that statement leaves you scratching your head, all hand-assembled kit is not equal. I once had it explained to me that one must somehow make allowances for handcrafted gear as one would for British road cars. That argument didn't exactly fly with me but the Mactone seems to make the issue moot.
|The only operational issue presented by the MA-300B is that it does get considerably warm. That's quite the tube forest encased in a relatively small space and the sheet metal above and to the sides of the tubes does get quite warm to the touch, not as warm as the tubes themselves though. We're not talking dangerously warm, however and I don't think it poses a serious risk to tiny fingers or wet noses. Still, this is not an amplifier you'll want to stick into an enclosed cabinet either.
Cough. You know, as I answer reader e-mail and lurk around various forums to witness exchanges, I can't help but get a little frustrated at the amount of misinformation pertaining to Single Ended Triode (SET) amplification. Mistaken impressions that triode amps and the speakers that love 'em are soft, sweet, amber or otherwise euphonically colored are still propagated with surprising regularity so a few moments on the subject probably won't be wasted. While it's true that some tubes used with the wrong speakers can and will produce such a sound, a properly matched speaker + SET combination will sound anything but. It's true that triodes don't sound as cold, hard and sterile as the worst of solid-state amplification but that doesn't make them sweet and syrupy either. In fact, when properly applied, triodes are some of the most transparent and ruthlessly revealing audio devices extant. So clean, clear, uncolored and fast are they that they'll leave no room for silly notions. SET amplifiers have been called unpredictable tone controls and to the extent that they may be intolerant of certain loads, this may be true. It wouldn't exactly occur to me to leash the Mactone to my Thiel CS 2.4s for more reasons than one. But when properly matched with the right types of speakers -- of which there are more and more all the time -- SET amplifiers are as predictable as any other amps and I don't find it to be the case at all that my own tube amplifiers suffer identity crises as I exchange appropriate speakers.
Of course, while the Mactone does use the 300B, it's not a single-ended amplifier. It's configured for push-pull which theoretically should have several consequences. First, the amplifiers should be stable into a wider range of speakers. Of course the relatively modest 23-watt output will necessitate a degree of voltage sensitivity but the push-pull configuration will allow use with a slightly wider assortment of speakers. The Mactone will also produce more power than a comparably fitted paralleled SET amp would. Lastly and theoretically, the push-pull amplifier adds a degree of complexity to the amplification process as the amplifier splits and then recombines signal phase, something SET aficionados contend will never sound as pure as an unadulterated signal never split in the first place.
The last point is perhaps the most poignant where purists are concerned. And it is true that there is a purity to most SET amplifiers that neither the Mactone nor my own Canary push-pulls can quite achieve. Let me repeat - can't quite achieve. Quite is the operative word. There's a difference but it isn't huge and the push-pull triode amplifier still sits considerably closer to the classic SET amp than it does to solid-state amplification and even pentode amps. That means that push-pull triode amps can still be amazingly clean and distinctively transparent yet harmonically rich and musically involving. And if you haven't guessed yet, I think the Mactone MA-300B is a superb example of the genre.
Interestingly, Kenjiro-San makes many references to "soft" sound. At first I thought that maybe this was an issue of lost in translation because we don't often think of "soft" as a positive attribute. Yet after hearing the MA-300B, I believe I understand what Kenjiro-San is talking about.
After some prodding from fellow moonies Steve Marsh and Edward Barker, I recently located some NOS Mullard GZ34 rectifier tubes for my Canary CA330s, one of the few tube-rectified 300B amplifiers Canary makes. They promised a smoother, warmer and more refined sound. I received the bottles weeks ago but had yet to install them. I'm glad I waited.
When the Mactone arrived, I had just installed the amazingly powerful Bryston 28B-SST amplifiers and, frankly, given what they are, huge kilowatt transistor behemoths, I was amazed by what I was hearing. But that's a story for another day. For some perspective on the Brystons, I replaced them in my Canary 300B system. Speakers were to be the same 96dB Hørning Perikles loudspeakers I had been using. (Yes, I was using 1000-watt solid-state monos on high-efficiency speakers - I told you that's a story for another day!) What I heard surprised me. The Canarys were slightly yet importantly brighter than the Brystons. "Aha!" A perfect time to insert and evaluate the Mullard GZ34 rectos. Indeed, the Mullards had a pronounced yet subtle effect on the sound which became slightly smoother, warmer and a tiny bit less brash through the upper midrange. We're talking about a subtle change, a matter of a mere few degrees but important degrees. Once your rig achieves a certain level of performance, improvements usually come in small steps - subtle yet important nudges in the right uphill direction. The next day, it was time to try the Mactone.
I started the day with a couple of hours on the Canary amps and then swapped in the Japanese stereo amp. Interestingly, the MA-300B still sounded warmer and less brash than the Mullard-ed Californians. Tonally, it was more akin to the big Brystons. Remember, those aren't your typical transistor brutes. At their price of $15,000/pr and with a concomitant mass of almost 200lbs of solid-state iron, the Bryston 28B-SSTs are amazing amplifiers. No, they don't have the inner resolution and illuminated-from-within character triodes impart, Mactone included, but tonally the latter sounded closer to the Brystons than my own Canary tube amps.
As I sit here and re-read that last line, I'm reminded of how a careless writer can indeed damn a truly excellent product with faint praise. That danger is very real. Certainly, a 300B amplifier that sounds like a kilowatt transistor amp can't be a good thing, can it? Well, if the Bryston 28B-SST wasn't the best solid-state amplifier I have ever heard, it probably wouldn't be. But in this case it is. What I'm trying to get across is that the Mactone does indeed sound warmer and slightly smoother than my Canary CA330s. So when Kenjiro-San speaks of "soft" sound, I think that's what he means. He's talking about full-bodied warmth without the sharp edge that some amplifiers produce even if that sharper edge can, and usually does, present the illusion of greater transient speed and more sharply defined resolution. Now, there's no way I'm going to call the MA-300B or my tube monos cold or hard-edged yet when combining them with certain high-efficiency drivers like Lowthers, one can easily imagine how even a little less edge can be a good thing.
Speaking of hard edges and soft sounds, this would be a good time to discuss the feedback control on the MA-300B's front panel. This rotary control has three stepped positions marked 'I', 'II' and 'III'. The first position indicates 1dB of NFB. The second position, according to Mactone, implies 4dB while the third position retains that value but adds another 3dB at 50Hz for some bass contouring in the event that the amp is installed in a smaller or problematic room. Keep in mind that this amplifier was designed and voiced for the Tokyo market with its smaller spaces.
In practice and in my system, there was no question that the first position of one dB was preferred. There were no discernable gains to be had by adding feedback which made the sound slightly blurry and diffuse. Dynamics slowed down and became indistinct. Image outlines lost focus to be less delineated. In short, I found the feedback knob's effect disquieting as much of the life was robbed from the music with each further rotation. Only the first position was correct in my system but I can envision the type of system where one of the other positions may well represent a more musical presentation. Speakers that accentuate the leading edge of transient detail and are lacking in body to be highly etched sounding would probably benefit. Speakers that present too much detail as to be distracting might benefit. Speakers that are so artificially hifi as to distract from the music may enjoy one of these other settings. However, the owner of these speakers would be subject to a period of acclimation. I would expect the initial reaction to be just as I experienced but over time, the listener may become more inclined toward the less hyper-focused, less artificially detailed and etched presentation. In any case, it certainly was educational to hear these effects.
Given the surprisingly light weight of the Mactone, I was startled by its bass performance. Weight usually means big power supplies and big power supplies mean current which means lots of power and control in the bass. Right? Ordinarily it does. Yet in the bass, I found the Mactone to be the equal of my Canary amps. I'm not going to stretch credulity and favorably compare the Mactone's bass with that of the Brystons. 300Bs couldn't hope to match the brawn of a 1000-watt solid-state amplifier. Nobody would expect them to. But I was surprised enough and very pleasantly so how this 46.4lbs amplifier stood favorable comparison to 124lbs of Canary brawn. If you're not versed on Canarys, their bass is certainly one of their many endearing qualities.
It takes an act of God to make the Perikles thunder with bass so they almost never really did. That said, "Rangoon Moon" from Double's 1986 LP Blue [A&M SP 5133] came across as well as the speakers ever had managed and the bass showed genuine weight, body and speed if not ultimate slam. The lower registers of the keyboards on "Urban Nomads" sounded surprisingly good, well articulated and weighted with the appropriate amount of heft and body. Bass aside, the soundstaging was nearly miraculous. Tons of depth and the illusion of real space filled the room. But when "Tomorrow" started, I was genuinely surprised at what the Mactone prompted from the Perikles: real bass weight and power. "Love Is A Plane" filled both of the front corners of my room with sound effects and placed them well back on the stage. "Captain Of Her Heart" just blew up the room with a huge billowing sense of space. What was in constant evidence throughout the recording was a beautiful sense of rhythm and snap. The myriad percussive instruments on "Woman Of The World" had it and even seemed to play off the timing of their own reverb. Even chirping acoustic guitars from the far left and right of the stage sounded much like percussive instruments as they served to enhance musical timing. When "Your Prayer Takes Me Home" started, I knew that my previous observation regarding the engineer's use of reverb to reinforce the sense of rhythm was on the money as a half beat after the vocal, I'd get an echo of the last word bouncing off the back corner of the room. I can't quite imagine dancing to this music but toe tapping was as involuntary as it was sustained. Of course the vocals emanated from a point in space with clarity and transparency that was typically 300B, i.e. holographic and magically there.
Speaking of dancing, David Bowie's Lets Dance [Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-083] had the same kind of bounce, beat and speed. Of course, this is what the Perikles are all on about and the Mactone proved to be equally receptive to the notion. The amp controls bass remarkably well for its size and weight and that's not necessarily a small feat considering the Perikles' two large 10-inch Beyma woofers. The Perikles with its 96dB rating is the type of speaker that demonstrates the difference between producing high SPLs and properly driving a speaker. Flea-powered amplifiers need not apply because the Perikles does require more power and current to line up its ducks. The wrong amplifier will have the Beymas drag a bit and blur the presentation to undermine the sense of rhythm but the Mactone performed beautifully. I generally use a subwoofer on the Hørnings but I found that the Mactone drives them so well in the bass that I didn't need to. I'm not claiming that it brought about new depths of bass extension to approach that of the subwoofer but I heard surprising bass power and cohesiveness that was very satisfying without augmentation.
Overall I found the Mactone similar to my recollection of the SilverTone Audio Model 3.2, which isn't too surprising given that both amplifiers utilize Full Music 300Bs - though the SilverTone runs a mesh plate. Still, the Mactone sounds like the more powerful and dominating of the two. Would that be because of the Mactone's 23 push-pull watts versus the SilverTone's 8 single-ended units or other considerations? I can't say for sure. Cue up David Bowie's "Ricochet" and hear what I mean. The Mactone elicits some of the fullest, most in-control and coherent sound from the Hørnings I've heard. Impressive once again was the sense of timing and speed on "Criminal World" with its repetitive convergence of Stevie Ray's guitar, electric bass and bass drum. If you're looking for musical detail and insight, you won't garner any more into Bowie's voice than through this combo.
Reference Recordings' Reflections [RR-18], a series of duets featuring Jim Walker on flute and Mike Garson on piano, was obviously a very different musical experience but just as pleasing. How two instruments and their naturally reverberant tones can be used to map out an entire soundstage is something one needs to hear to understand as they certainly do here. The walls of my room melted away, leaving behind a naturally spacious facsimile of the original venue. This isn't one of those piano recordings captured from two inches above the soundboard. It features a beautifully balanced sense of power and tone, only flexing its muscle during fortissimos. One does easily sense the untapped power of the piano's lower registers with every hammered strike though, so easily perceptible is the texture of its growl and so beautiful is the symbiotic yet texturally contrasting personality of the flute. The latter's ethereal presence ascends and fills the hall in juxtaposition to the more earth-bound disposition of the piano such that accurate descriptions require the heart of a poet rather than the ears of a reviewer. The presentation was nuanced and as musically detailed as it was required to serve the music rather than Walker's gasps of breath and other artifacts. In short, the Mactone did a wonderful job of keeping perspective and keeping the music and the performance at the fore. This time the toes remained still as it was the spirit that soared in response to the majesty of the art. Beautiful stuff, both the composition and its recreated performance.
Neil Young's Harvest Moon [Warner 9362-45057-1] was just as artfully reproduced. The soundstage was huge and everything within emanated with pinpoint precision. Both Young's voice and his guitars came across with a natural clarity that was neither spot lit nor supernaturally present though all the performers were solidly reproduced. This is significant because more and more I'm finding Lowther-based speakers to sound just a little thinner than most to require the kind of tonal saturation of tubes to fill them out. Jeff Day said of the Shindo Monbrison and Cortese that "...this Shindo combo is a little colored and veiled but compared to the feel of real life, it's spot on..." and based on my prior ownership of the Shindo Partager preamp, this statement really resonated with me. I perfectly understood why some love the Shindo products. They are drenched with harmonic saturation almost to the point of - well, being colored. 'Transparent' and 'tasteless' are not two words I'd use to describe the Partager I owned. That makes Shindo a great match for single-driver speakers sorely in need of body and warmth. In other systems however, I never felt that the Shindo was open or neutral enough and I remained constantly aware of its coloration. Fortunately, the Mactone doesn't go nearly as far but it does offer a slight yet welcome warmth. I wrote earlier how the Mactone is less brash than my Canarys. It has just a touch less upper midrange energy for added smoothness. Combine that with the usual degree of body and warmth and the Mactone indeed is one unusually endearing musical performer. In terms of system matching, I believe that the Mactone will be synergistic with a great number of speakers. I can't think of any speakers with which the Mactone would be combined power wise that would be too dark or too sweet to make for an overly sweet and syrupy combination. Quite the contrary. I think a lot of speakers and listeners would appreciate what little personality the Mactone adds.
With a street price of $7500 (including tubes), the Mactone MA-300B isn't cheap but considering its musical attributes as well as the price of the competition, it represents very good value. If one only uses a single source and is prepared to deal with dual volume controls, the MA-300B could be used as a single-input integrated of sorts to increase the value equation. I didn't try it but it's an obvious option. Twenty-three 300B push-pull watts may not sound like a lot of power in this day 'n' age but it would surprise many and certainly beats the 6 or 7 watts most 300B SETs put out. I liked the fact that it's a relatively compact unit that doesn't weigh a ton. In the flesh, it's uniquely if not esoterically handsome and will therefore be appreciated by most. Of course it will be those musical attributes that one should find most important and the MA-300B won't disappoint on those grounds either. If it was designed as an artistically adept amplifier that emphasizes musicality to afford its owners the opportunity to listen for hours on end without fatigue, then Kenjiro-San has achieved his goal admirably. The MA-300B is an accomplished amplifier that maintains a high degree of neutrality while avoiding the edge of some amplifiers. It's warm and full-bodied but not to the point of overt coloration. Its push-pull operation and output power make it compatible into a wider range of speakers and within the context of available power, if it has any weaknesses, I never did spot them. This is one great amplifier, period.
|Quality of packing: Very good.
Reusability of packing: My loaner was not received factory fresh which indicates excellent reusability.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: Very easy. The MA-300B is very easy to handle, just be aware that the weight is concentrated toward the rear (transformers).
Condition of component received: Excellent.
Quality of owner's manual: Manual? What manual? We don't need no stinking manual!
Completeness of delivery: Good but see above.
Website comments: The website is rather sparse on specific information. I'd rely on correspondence from the distributor for more details.
Warranty: A liberal two years on everything but tubes. Talk to the distributor for details.
Human interactions: Correspondence with US distributor Steve Klein was timely and complete and questions put to the international distributor (Shiba-San of Sibatech) were answered amazingly prompt.
US distributor's website
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