McCormack Power Drive DNA-1 power amplifier DNA-1 Deluxe in March 1995
Since the McCormack DNA-1 was introduced in early 1992, this $1995 power amplifier has been one of the safest recommendations I could make (footnote 1). The amplifier combined uncommon musicality with the ability to drive any loudspeaker load with ease. Specifically, the DNA-1 had a smooth, grain-free treble, a liquid midrange, articulate bass, and a spectral and rhythmic coherence many more-expensive amplifiers lack. In addition, the DNA-1 had excellent bench performance, particularly the ability to increase its output power as the load impedance dropped—meaning that the DNA-1 wouldn't lose its cool when asked to drive low-impedance loudspeakers. These factors made the DNA-1 the amplifier to beat in its price range, in my view (footnote 2).
McCormack Audio has recently begun selling a "Deluxe" version of the DNA-1, which is the same amplifier as the standard DNA-1, but with higher-quality parts in selected areas. The RCA input jacks and output binding posts are Cardas (both of which are first-rate); the output wiring is van den Hul; and some resistor positions have been upgraded from generic 1% metal-film types to Caddock and Vishay brands. The Deluxe model I tested probably had a few other circuit refinements compared to my original review sample; what high-end designer can leave a circuit alone for more than three years?
The Deluxe designation adds $360 to the amplifier's price ($2355), and owners of standard DNA-1s can upgrade to the Deluxe version for $400.
It took several days before the DNA-1 Deluxe started to break-in and sound good. Out of the box, the treble was a little bright and hard, and soundstage depth was lacking. If you audition this amplifier, make sure it's both been broken-in and is warmed up before you reach any conclusions.
Once the DNA-1 was settled in and warmed up, it really sang. Just as I remembered the DNA-1 to sound—I didn't have a standard DNA-1 for comparison—the Deluxe had a smooth treble, liquid mids, tight bass, and terrific soundstaging.
The Deluxe appeared to expand on the DNA-1's strengths. First, the Deluxe surprised me by its ability to resolve spatial cues. The Genesis II.5s are very revealing of changes in an upstream component's depth, image specificity, and soundstage transparency. Even after switching from the Audio Research VT150 tubed monoblocks, which have unparalleled portrayal of spatial detail, the Deluxe's resolutions of depth, soundstage layering, and bloom were musically satisfying. The Deluxe was able to present the music as individual instrumental and vocal images, separated from each other by air and a sense of bloom around precisely defined outlines. Many amplifiers in the Deluxe's price range tend to destroy these spatial distinctions. The Deluxe opened up the soundstage and let the music breathe.
Moreover, the sound didn't flatten or become congested when the music got loud and complex. Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark (Barking Pumpkin R2 71600) is particularly revealing of a component's ability to present instruments as individual entities and maintain space between them during complex passages—this often dense orchestral music can easily degenerate into a roar if any component in the system is lacking. Even after hearing this disc countless times through the Audio Research monoblocks, the Deluxe surprised me by how well it kept the musical threads separate, and by its ability to throw a wide and deep musical panorama.
The DNA-1 Deluxe also excelled at presenting smooth midrange and treble textures. While not as liquid as the Audoo Research VT150s, the Deluxe nonetheless lacked the brittle treble so often associated with solid-state amplifiers in this price range. Cymbals were free from the syndrome that overlays the sound with a layer of white noise, and violins sounded warm and smooth rather than edgy and strident. The Deluxe was, however, decidedly brighter, more incisive, and less delicate in the mids and treble than the VT150s. Although it sounds smooth and clean, you wouldn't mistake the Deluxe for a tubed amplifier.
Finally, the Deluxe had a very musically satisfying bass presentation, tending toward lean and tight rather than full and round. The Deluxe sounded like an overdamped loudspeaker, with a precise, articulate, and detailed rendering rather than one that adds warmth at the expense of bass agility. The Deluxe's sound was the antithesis of thick, bloated, and slow.
The VT150s had more bloom and warmth, but the Deluxe excelled at revealing bass nuances. I was particularly taken with the Deluxe's rendering of Stanley Clarke's amazing playing on Chick Corea's Light as a Feather (Polydor 827 148-2). By virtue of its fast and tight bass, the Deluxe seemed to better convey the energy and excitement of this performance. In fact, the Deluxe's upbeat and rhythmically involving quality was a constant thread throughout the listening.
Specific sonic descriptions aside, I found something about the Deluxe's overall presentation to be musically involving. The amplifier had a natural quality that was the antithesis of synthetic or mechanical. The music seemed to flow with a sense of ease and listener involvement rare in any power amplifier, never mind one so affordable.
Without the original McCormack DNA-1 for comparison, it's difficult to say how much better the Deluxe version sounds. Before you spend the extra $355 for the Deluxe, give both models a listen, or ask your dealer for an opinion.
What is without question, however, is that the DNA-1 Deluxe is an extraordinary amplifier for its price. The Deluxe had a natural, musical, and easygoing sound that belied its affordable price. In particular, the Deluxe didn't have the typical mid-priced solid-state sound of a metallic treble, hard midrange textures, and limited soundstage depth. Instead, the Deluxe was smooth, liquid, transparent, and spacious. I also greatly enjoyed the Deluxe's tight, articulate, and tuneful bass. Finally, the Deluxe had excellent dynamic capabilities and a strong rhythmic drive.
The icing on the cake was the Deluxe's beautiful build quality and layout. The internal wiring and construction are meticulous, inspiring a feeling of quality and pride in craftsmanship.
While not in the same league as the $12,000/pair Audio Research VT150 tubed monoblock, the $2355 McCormack DNA-1 Deluxe is hard to criticize for its price. In fact, the DNA-1 Deluxe is one of the great bargains in high-end audio.—Robert Harley
Footnote 1: See my review of the DNA-1 and an interview with its designer, Steve McCormack, in April 1992 (Vol.15 No.4). Tom Norton reviewed the smaller DNA-0.5 in the February '95 Stereophile (Vol.18 No.2).—Robert Harley
Footnote 2: Tom Norton, however, preferred the identically priced Aragon 4004 Mk.II in a comparison with the DNA-1. See Vol.15 No.9, p.144.—Robert Harley