Crown Macro Reference power amplifier Lewis Lipnick
I still have fond memories of my Crown D-75, D-150, and DC-300 power amps (footnote 1). In those days back in the early '70s, I was working in the recording industry, and Crown was the premier manufacturer of cost-effective studio-monitor and sound-reinforcement amplification. It wasn't until BGW, Crest, and a few other companies began entering the pro-sound market that Crown met with any real competition. There are still lots of studios and sound-reinforcement outfits using Crown amps, and just about every roadie (footnote 2) I've ever met has spoken highly of Crown's reliability under adverse conditions on rock tours.
I can attest to this reliability. During a location recording setup in 1970, I dropped one of my 75s from a height of about 20' onto a concrete stage. The unit bounced twice and suffered severe cosmetic damage, but still worked. As they say, Crown amps are built like tanks.
Of course, nothing's perfect. Crown's Achilles heel has always been the sound. The old amps sounded mercilessly bright and glassy—not exactly an audiophile's dream. So when Crown decided to enter the marketplace with a no-holds-barred attempt at big-time power and great sonics, my ears started to twitch. But let's get the nuts and bolts out of the way before talking about sound.
Crown manufactures two versions of the Macro Reference amplifier. The Studio version is standard, with the slightly more expensive Esoteric offered to those more interested in high-quality sonics. They have identical front panels and chassis, with most of the differences found on the rear panel: the Esoteric has two pairs of solid-brass Cardas binding posts and two gold-plated RCA inputs, vs the Studio's standard pair of plastic five-way binding posts and 1/4" phone inputs. Internally they're identical, except for different input sensitivities (775mV for the Studio, 1.4V for the Esoteric), which can be switched to 26dB gain (equal to 3.9V sensitivity) on both units. Features such as a ground lift and switches to choose between stereo, bridged mono, and parallel mono are all controlled from the rear panel.
The back-lit front panel has left and right input-level controls, a power switch, and a multitude of LEDs to indicate signal strength (input or output), input signal presence, and various operational conditions. This is a fan-cooled amplifier, with two vertically oriented black-foam dust filters taking up a significant portion of the front face. Since heat is vented through the two sides of the chassis, clearance above the amp is unnecessary. The variable-speed cooling fan is thermostatically controlled, and only runs when necessary. Even so, I found its noise distracting when listening at low levels.
Crown has incorporated several interesting technical features, most of which will be more valuable in the pro-sound world than in home systems. One of these features, Programmable Input Processor (PIP), allows the user to plug-in custom input/control modules. A PIP-FX is included as a standard feature to provide balanced XLR inputs. Other PIP modules include a fourth-order Linkwitz-Riley crossover network, "constant-directivity" horn equalization, computer control interface, and several other functions often found in studio and in-field monitoring applications. Another feature, Output Device Emulator Protection (ODEP), is a clever way of comparing the condition of each output device with its own safe-operation condition, thus assuring linear performance.
The list goes on; it's clear that Crown has designed this amplifier to withstand the same hard use and abuse that its earlier products could withstand.
Back in the Dark Ages when I was studying at the Peabody Conservatory, my bassoon professor gave me some advice that has served me well in my professional musical career: "If you can't say anything good about another musician's playing, don't say anything at all—unless you are asked for an opinion." Well, I wouldn't have said anything in this case, but I was asked. Here's my assessment.
No music. This amplifier made no music. Not to say that it wasn't sonically impressive at times, but the music got lost somewhere between input and output.
Sonic spectacle and musical accuracy don't always go hand in hand, but this was a textbook case. It's clear that Crown wanted to change its image with this amplifier, and it did. Gone was the bright, hard quality of earlier years, replaced by a dark, thick, grainy character that obscured all the finer details of the musical performance. No matter which digital processor, preamplifier, or interconnects I used, the quality remained the same: thick, woolly, and opaque, with a brittle, forward midrange. I auditioned all three samples, but the results were the same. Dual-mono operation did nothing to improve the situation; in fact, it sounded somewhat worse.
To a musician, transients—and what comes immediately after them (no matter how minute)—tell so much about the performance: Is the guitar player using a pick or finger? Is that trumpet player single- or double-tonguing that passage? Is the bass drum being struck with a hard stick or a felt beater? All these things combine to provide the listener with the excitement of the live performance. And here the Macro Reference failed: In fact, I don't think I've ever heard another component obscure so much of the music.
One might describe the transient characteristics of this amplifier as slow, since all musical attacks were somewhat rounded and indistinct. At the same time, however, some attacks (especially in the midrange) took on a hard, metallic quality that appeared to come immediately after the beginning of each musical transient. This can almost be overlooked with a solo instrument or voice. But when a full orchestra is playing, with so many various lines going on simultaneously, this makes for a muddy puddle of musical goo.
I can see how someone who doesn't consider musical accuracy a priority could be overwhelmed by the sheer force and impact of this amplifier—it did have an enormous amount of power. It also had gobs of bass—but it was bass without pitch definition, clarity, or harmonic texture. As someone who makes his living playing the contrabassoon—the lowest non-keyboard instrument in the symphony orchestra—I know better than most that bass really does have pitch and harmonic content. Of course, much of the pitch that we perceive in the nether regions of music is defined psychoacoustically by the related harmonic structures above the fundamental pitches—that's why it's so difficult to discern the lowest pedal notes of large pipe organs without the addition of couplings at the octave and twelfth above. The Macro Reference is the first amplifier I've heard that actually seemed to delete harmonic structures in the program material. This not only adversely affected the tonal quality of the bass, but everything above as well.
Other than the sheer force and bass slam generated by the Macro, there were few positive sonic attributes. There was some soundstage depth, but it was frequency-dependent and constant, regardless of what was contained in the program material. Fine dynamic shadings were apparently beyond the abilities of this amplifier, which made for uninteresting and uninvolving listening sessions.
By this point you're probably either chuckling or madder than hell. After all, it takes chutzpah for a reviewer to proclaim that an amplifier made no music. But just what is music? It all depends on your individual perception. Some people find anything with the slightest dissonance to be sheer noise, while others revel in earsplitting spls that could crack a concrete foundation. In either case, the listener who's serious about accurate reproduction is probably looking for something that will present a credible re-creation of the original music, or at least something that provides a sonically and musically satisfying experience.
Which brings me back to the fact that the art of musical reproduction is highly subjective. After all, some of us are into harmonic accuracy, while others are more interested in soundstage, or frequency extension, or sonic transparency, and so on. But when the component in question effectively deletes the musical intent of the performance, further discussion is moot.
That was my basic problem with the Crown Macro Reference in the context of my high-end home-audio system. Listening to recordings of performances in which I'd played was a frustrating experience with this amplifier. The fabulous sonics and musical intensity of our recently released performances of Shostakovich's Symphonies 4 and 8 (Mstislav Rostropovich, National Symphony Orchestra, Teldec 9031-76261-2 and 9031-74719-2) were effectively neutralized. All semblances of musical finesse were covered with a thick layer of sonic haze. Transient attacks of the woodwinds and brass were dulled, timpani and bass drum were indistinguishable, ditto celli and double basses, and etc.
Similar results were obtained while listening to my own solo performance of Gunther Schuller's Contrabassoon Concerto (recorded live in concert with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra in 1981). The contrabassoon's complex harmonic structures sounding against the colorful accompanying orchestration presents a formidable challenge for any system. Although I've heard my instrument sound a bit too bright or too dark with various amplifiers, I've never heard it sound this strange. There was no pitch or focus; just a tubby, covered tonal quality resembling a bass tuba with a head cold. I agree that the ungainly contrabassoon doesn't always produce dulcet tones, but hearing it with this amp added insult to injury.
The human voice suffered a similar fate with the Macro Reference. Although k.d. lang is one of the few nonclassical singers who actually sings in tune!, this amplifier somehow managed to change the tonal center of her voice, making the pitches unrecognizable. As soon as I replaced the Crown with any other amplifier I had on hand, the pitch returned and her beautiful voice was restored. Nor did Bela Fleck's banjo escape rough Macro Reference treatment. In the title cut on Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Warner Bros. 26562-2), his instrument's wonderful dynamic twang was transformed into a dull thunk reminiscent of plucked rubber bands. As one of my NSO colleagues put it: "With this amp, it sounds like the strings are on the inside of the banjo." Other listeners had less charitable comments, all unprintable.
All three of the "comparison" amplifiers I had in-house outshone the Macro Reference so well in every area that further comparisons were ludicrous. While the Krell KSA-250 couldn't supply the Macro Reference's enormous deep-bass volume, it provided an involving and transparent musical presentation second only to the original music. The Krell KSA-250 is, in my opinion, a truly great amplifier and a sonic benchmark. The Audio Research D-400 was a bit more colored (dark), slightly less transparent, and less impactful than the Krell, but also provided a very moving musical experience. The Boulder 500AE (in dual-mono configuration) was quite different from the Krell and Audio Research (somewhat more forward, with less soundstage depth), but still managed to blow the Crown out of the water. Even my old Adcom GFA-555 provided a more convincing musical experience than the Crown.
Perhaps someone who never listens to live music, or who is more interested in audio pyrotechics than in nuance and finesse, may find this amplifier satisfactory. But that is not, in my opinion, what accurate musical reproduction is all about. The Crown Macro Reference is very possibly the best sound-reinforcement amplifier ever built. I've heard these monster amps drive multiple-woofer towers at extremely high spls at outdoor concerts, without clipping or distortion. In such scenarios, they're without peer. But this type of application doesn't have anything in common with the more refined art of listening to music in the home.
I don't like writing negative reviews of audio components any more than I like making disparaging comments about musical colleagues. After all, listening to music (just like making music) should be addressed in a positive vein because it's something with the potential to make us feel good. But in this case, the product in question did something to the musical performance that is unacceptable: It negated the performers' musical integrity, and replaced it with a very unmusical presentation. In short, it got in the way.
If all you want out of your audio system is "lots of bass," the Crown Macro Reference may be just the ticket. But if you're more interested in dynamic shading, harmonic accuracy, transparency, and the more introspective aspects of music-making, look elsewhere.—Lewis Lipnick
Footnote 1: Crown still manufactures updated versions of these old workhorses in 1993. Although the $549 D-75 remains basically unchanged, the $879 D-150A II and $1199 DC-300A II are significant improvements over the original designs. Several newer models, such as the $2050 Com-Tech 1600 (540Wpc into 8 ohms), are more commonplace nowadays, and very popular among the pro-sound community.
Footnote 2: For those unfamiliar with the lingo of the music business, a roadie is a tech-type stagehand—a wire-pulling, speaker-hauling sound nerd who travels with rock bands or other pop-music organizations. Back in the '60s, yours truly worked as a part-time roadie while going to music school (as did Stereophile Editor JA, who filled the gaps between musician gigs).