McIntosh MC1201 monoblock power amplifier Page 4

It's funny—sometimes I can drop a component into the system and reach almost immediate sonic harmony. Most of the time, the process is more laborious. I keep three or four preamps around here, several amps and digital front-ends, several families of cables, all of which I've used over the past few years, and the sound of each is a familiar treat. I have a good instinct for what'll work and what won't. In general, I don't feed a high-output-impedance preamplifier (Balanced Audio Technology, Conrad-Johnson) into low-impedance amplifier inputs (Linn, McIntosh). When a component is fully differential-balanced, I run the whole system that way, if possible. Don't assume; some components like running on different phases of positive, others the same phase. I'm set up here to do either quite easily.

Cardas Golden Reference interconnect and Golden Cross speaker cable work fine with harsh-sounding components as they break in, and continue to sound utterly sophisticated as the sound improves. I try stuff powered from the Power Plant and directly from the wall. It's usually a struggle to get the device under test up on the bubble of best sound. When I do, it's "Hold!" and "Let's take that shot!" I begin to write the review, tweak a little more, then go back to my familiar references to finish things out.

Like the Cary CAD-1610-SEs (reviewed in December 2000), the MC1201s were a pain in the pancreas to set up just right. First off, and most noticeable, they took more than 100 hours to break in and open up, and 200 hours had gone by before I really got into them. It was an uncomfortable start—I thought I was staring a disaster in the face. (No matter what some negative nogoodniks bleat, we always tell it like it is at Stereophile.)

Best sound was achieved without a preamp, feeding the McIntoshes from the analog outputs of the dCS Elgar Plus on a dual-AES 24-bit/192kHz datastream, primed by the dCS Purcell or the dCS 972 D/D converters via Synergistic Research Designer's Reference interconnect, and Cardas or XLO The Limited speaker cables. I had to turn the ASC Studio Traps around to face more of their absorbent surfaces directly toward the drivers than is typical around here. Otherwise, the amps could still sound a little thin, electronic, and "hi-fi" on top. I'd say this was the one sonic attribute I remained aware of that I had to "fight" for best sound—that, and a big, bloated, but powerful bass that finally firmed up into audiophile-approved territory as the hours accumulated.

Run direct, get those Studio Traps just right, and, bada-boom bada-bing, audiophile-approved super sound. But remember: Without all this attention to setup and matching, the MC1201s sounded a little acerbic in the highs. Then again, you won't buy into the McIntosh ethos and order up a pair of these $15k/pair monoblocks unless you really want them. If you do, the implication is that you'll set 'em up and match 'em properly, or at least have it done for you.

Once the amps ran in and these elements were accounted for fine-tuning the room treatments, I got the sound described below.

Loitering with Intent
The MC1201s made a BIG sound in our loft. Everything about them, from their hulking physical presence to their sound, was enjoyably larger than life. In that way, they were similar to the tubed stereo McIntosh MC2000, an amplifier I described as being a star of stage and screen itself. But the MC1201s were more Harley-Davidson Macho, more massively solid-state in how they went about making that positively huge sound. In that way, they did draw attention to themselves.

I'm talking gobs of bass, effortless power and dynamics on big, complicated transients throughout the audible frequency band, and a huge, floaty, billowing soundstage in and on which the musical narratives took place. I'm not saying the MC1201 couldn't be subtle—for 15 big ones, you have the right to demand detail and finesse, and you get it. It's just that its priorities were different. To me, the McIntosh aesthetic, build, and sound are more like the two-page Cadillac ad that's been appearing in The New Yorker—an on-track shot of Caddy's Le Mans racer with a bumper sticker that reads "My other car is an STS." That's it exactly. Think Offenhauser roadster or Briggs Cunningham, Lance Reventlow and Scarab, Carroll Shelby and Cobra, Henry Two (and his nemesis, Il Commendatore) and the Ford GT40—proper American overweight monsters built like Kelvinators!

So let's roll up our sleeves and break out the welding torch, shall we? Reproducing classic recordings is just what these amps are cut out to do, so let's begin with a terrific new XRCD from JVC, Thelonious Himself (VICJ 60170), mastered in what engineer Akira Taguchi calls "big mono." Most XRCD masterings are notable for their somewhat soft and analog-like ambience. Nothing wrong with that, especially given the MC1201's propensity to slightly brilliantize the upper registers and make them a little glitzy, like a Harley. I mean, how can you criticize it? But in the end it's unmistakable and rather blatant, if you see what I mean.

In the event, with the Studio Traps turned in just so, the sound was excellent via the dCS direct. Listening to Monk that day seemed to define the audiophile experience for me—enjoying the music, thinking about how to express the sound and feeling, the meaning of a phrase, Monk's timing, the very thoughtfulness that went into each musical expression. The piano was, according to my notes, "very full-toned, with excellent overall power response, again slightly tipped up at the top, open if not completely without edge. But edge in the sense of the true nature of a piano's strings, which are, after all, made of metal." The soundstage, and the imaging thereon, were so BIG that they carried a real sense of being there into our listening room. Not subtle, but still very enjoyable.