McIntosh Laboratories MC275 power amplifier Page 3

Be warned. Dennis Had is right: These amps can seriously mess with your head, particularly the single-ended jobs. These amps sound so right and so different from other amps, tube or solid-state, that you have to scratch your head and wonder. You also have to ask yourself some very serious questions about whether the hi-fi industry, such as it was, took a very wrong turn—oh, let's say, some time around 1938.

Why do speaker manufacturers produce such insensitive speakers, requiring muscle amps that don't sound nearly as good as one of these tube amps with a 300B? Why can't more manufacturers consider high sensitivity to be a key element in the design? Why all those complicated crossovers—found in most high-end speakers—that suck up such power?

You say 9 watts? Okay, Dennis, 12. Who's counting?

Yeah. Heh-heh-heh. (I laugh my evil laugh.)

Now back to the McIntosh MC275—Commemorative Edition.

Sorry. (Another evil laugh, footnote 5)

Here's a great tube amp, and by the time you read this, you probably can't have it.

McIntosh took 3000 or so orders for this special $3995 limited edition amp in 1992, including my order. Throughout 1993, the company has been producing the amps and filling the orders. No more will be made. (A few amps have become available, but only to the extent that any of last year's orders are canceled.)

So why write about the MC275? (JA hates it when a writer teases you about what may be an unobtainable product.)

The reason is simply this.

The McIntosh MC275 is a startling amplifier. From the moment I turned it on, I understood why it stayed in production for a dozen years, and why mint-condition used MC275s often fetch up to eight times their original purchase price. This is a classic. Long after most other amplifiers, tube or solid-state, are forgotten, the MC275 will still be a classic.

What's so special?

The history, for starters. This is one of the most famous high-end amplifiers ever made. It's also, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful amps ever made. The Mac 275 reminds me of a late 1950s or early '60s Cadillac. I'd have to own one of those on looks alone.

At $4000, the MC275 isn't cheap. The price is high partly because of the US-made Richardson KT88 output tubes. (The tubes are no longer made by Richardson in the US, but I understand that Richardson will be producing KT88s in France.) The tubes cost McIntosh more than $115 a pop—that's over $500 per MC275. Of course, McIntosh has to pass along the cost, but I'm told they haven't marked them up. They make their margin on the amp itself, not the tubes.

Actually, cheapskate—or former cheapskate—that I am, I found that a quartet of Shuguang Golden Dragon KT88 Super tubes worked just splendidly in my McIntosh MC275, so the original Richardson tubes are preserved for posterity. (You can also use 6550s, though I wouldn't. I tried some and greatly preferred the sound quality obtained with either brand of the KT88s. Time will tell about the reliability of the Golden Dragon KT88s, but I think they're fine-sounding tubes.)

What's really special about this amp is exactly the quality that I missed in the 9Wpc Cary 300SEs—namely, the quality of dynamic drive. These amps have an amazing amount of forward thrust. They punch out the music in a lively, exciting way—lots of push/pull going on!

And not just on jazz or rock. Classical music, too, benefits from this added power or thrust. There's more of a foundation on symphonic pieces. Cellos sound more exciting on string quartets. Even most solid-state amps sound weak or wimpy compared to the Mac. It's big, beefy, ballsy. It's like a 1960s Cadillac.

All of this dynamic drive is fine. The good news is that it's not at the expense of midrange and treble sweetness or overall transparency. The amps are smooth, sweet, maybe just a tad rolled off on top, with superior resolution and detail. Compared with some amps, however, the sound is, in soundstaging terms, a little forward rather than pushed back. This may be a characteristic of the KT88 output tubes.

Caution, though: This dynamic drive, this balls-out quality, which can be fine with speakers such as the ProAc Response 1s, may not be so wonderful with other speakers. A friend who knows the original MC275 very well warns me, for instance, that it's perhaps not the ideal amp for driving the Vandersteen 2Ci, which is already endowed with a very dynamic and generous bottom end.

How does the Mac 275 compare with the Cary amps? The Mac 275, in case you didn't get the point, is much more dynamic. Its sound is forward while the Carys are more laid-back. (The soundstage itself comes forward with the Mac; goes back with the Carys.) For sweetness and liquidity, the Carys are unsurpassed, but the Mac is very, very fine. Resolution of fine detail is superb with the Mac and the Carys.

The Mac 275 also offers a way out of the audiophile rat race that requires you to update your amp every two years. This is one of those rare audio products that transcends time. A cynic may say it's already obsolete.

Me? I may wind up with the Mac in the living room and a Cary amp in my main listening room (footnote 6). The Mac is yust a yoy to look at. But it's not yust a museum piece—it's a great-sounding amp that can hold its own against any of today's top tube amps. (Its sound reminds me most of the KT88-equipped Air Tight ATM-2, which retails for $5950.)

The MC275 is not without its drawbacks. There is no ON/OFF switch. (AC power was switched on and off by an accompanying preamp.) So you may have to do as I did and use an external power-switching box. The binding strip, while secure, takes only the smallest of spades—or bare wire. You may have to file down the sides of your spade lugs so they fit.

Like the original, the new MC275 can be user-bridged to run in mono, where it delivers 150Wpc instead of 75Wpc stereo. By the way, the input sensitivity is adjustable, and these adjustments can function as volume controls. You can run a CD player or processor straight in.

So what to do?

You might try to find one of these amps. Some dealers might have one or two (footnote 7). If you can't find a Mac 275, you're out of luck, because, according to McIntosh President Ron Fone, his company has no plans to go into regular production again with a tube amp (though they are reviewing the possibility of reintroducing the C22 tube preamplifier, again on a limited basis).

The Mac 275 is a classic. Actually, its sound quality—not to mention its build quality—embarrasses many of today's tube amplifiers. And it shows you how much overpriced junk there is around today.

Imagine if General Motors reissued the 1960 Cadillac Eldorado...or if Leica brought back the M-2...

Footnote 5: Larry Archibald is thinking about flying me out to Santa Fe so I can record the evil laugh for Stereophile's Test CD 3! (He didn't—Ed.)

Footnote 6: Some audiophiles have purchased this amp as an "investment." I phoned one of them, who advertised in Stereophile's "Audio Mart." He was trying to bag a quick $500 profit on his purchase. His daughter needed the money for her wedding, or some such story. I can't predict how well this amp will hold its value, but I'm certain it will do so far better than most audiophile products. I can think of a certain solid-state muscle amp that retailed for $4000 a few years ago. Now you'd be lucky to fetch $1500 for it. I don't advise purchasing any audio gear as an investment. On the other hand, I'm reasonably sure that if you're lucky enough to find a Mac 275, it won't lose 62.5% of its value over four years. (If you buy an amp for $4000 and sell it four years later for $1500, it will have cost you $625 a year in depreciation. That's $1.71 a day—7 cents an hour.)

Footnote 7: On the other hand, I have a brand-new B&K ST-140 coming in for review. Inexpensive though it is, this amp has proven in the past to be a superb combination with the costly Quads: one of those combinations that shouldn't work well, but does.


torturegarden's picture

I've lusted after one of these for many years. My lifelong goal is to one day have enough money to buy a McIntosh system.