McIntosh MC501 monoblock power amplifier Page 3

The stygian depths of Sugar's "Let's Feel the Music," from Shine (Korean CD, Starworld/BMG PD-6621), and the stomping, bugged-out "Dream" from their new Double Rainbow (Japanese CD, Toys Factory TFCC-81650, footnote 5), were nothing less than definitive. Whatever I asked the Macs to do in the bottom two octaves, they did. There was no drama unless the music demanded it, no "Hey, listen to what I can do" exaggeration, and no wussing out. There was only what I would describe in a person as complete and unqualified professional excellence.

The MC501's midrange was far more like that of the best tube amps than that of any but the very finest solid-state amplifiers. Its greatest virtues were perfect echoes of those provided by fire bottles. Voices, especially women's voices, were fabulously snared. On The Cropredy Box (UK CD, Castle Music CMETD815), the live document of Fairport Convention's 30th-anniversary concert at their annual festival, Vikki Clayton's unnerving channeling of the late Sandy Denny on "Come All Ye," "Reynardine," and "Matty Groves" was an "I'm there with a pint in each hand" experience. Clayton's vocal resemblance to Denny was at times so complete that it was as though Sandy were still with us. The Macs served up Fairport in the finest fashion, with richness, soul, and everything but the smell of Cropredy.

Justine Suissa's opulently sexy vocal on Armin van Buuren's "Burned With Desire," from 76 (CD, Ultra L 1168-2), and the deliciously soulful and luscious voices of Sia Furler and Sophie Barker on "Destiny," from Zero 7's Simple Things (CD, Quango/Palm QMG 5007-2), melted me into a small puddle in my listening chair. Posh, plush, lush, and generous are the words that best describe the MC501's midrange.

The Mac's ace in the hole was that this intoxicating loveliness was not bought at the price of diminished dynamic nuance or retrieval of detail. Strings were as persuasively wonderful as voices. Sir Granville Bantock's Celtic Symphony, performed by Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic (CD, Hyperion CDA664501), is a silken glory; the Mac was more than up to the task. On the other side of the orchestral spectrum, Ravel's Rapsodie Espagnole (LP, Vox Box QSVBX 5133), performed by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and the Minnesota Orchestra, had the crisply defined sound and deftly located images that are typical of Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall. The venue's defining characteristic is clarity, not a round glow, and the MC501s came through with flying colors without shorting my hometown hall's ability to blend sounds into an atmospheric whole.

The Mac did something very few solid-state amps can do—it breathed, with sometimes long and languorous pauses. The '501 caught attacks and decays with the tempered variety of intensities that one seldom hears from audio components, however expensive or exotic, but that's heard every day from real instruments and voices.

The Mac's treble performance was something of an enigma. It never seemed to have the purely unfettered extension of such amps as the Halcro dm58 or Edge NL-12, but when I attempted to identify what it was lacking I always came up empty. When I looked for maximal spatial resolution on recordings such as the Ravel and Bantock, it was there. There may not have been the precise description of every mouse hole in the wainscoting that the Halcro dm58s so effortlessly summon, but neither was anything meaningful missing. Ride cymbals had a feathery and polished sound of brass—no dullness, no harshness or white-noisey nasties—the MC501 was true and right. So did the fault lay within the Mac or within my conditioned audiophile responses? The longer I listened, the more I came to believe it was the latter. I heard never so much as a hint of glare, grain, or glassiness unless it had been engineered into the recording.

The Macs' soundstaging was comparable to the very finest—[cough] Halcro—that I have heard. There was sometimes a smidgen less depth, but width was superlative, and so was the Macs' sense of place. Say what you will about modern studio recordings—sensitive and intelligent musicians and engineers do some mind-bending things with electronic virtual space. Ron van den Beuken's "Clokx" (a dramatic and mesmerizing remix of the piano intro to Coldplay's "Clocks") and "Timeless" (both from Ultra.Trance:3) threw colossal and wholly plausible soundstages into my room. Depth was abyssal, and breadth was Cinerama spectacular.

Images were placed in space with an authority and solidity so great that there was no electronic artifice to notice. Things were just there, without exaggeration or underplaying. The Macs' dynamic performance was exemplary. They never seemed to work hard at all, even on material designed to break an amplifier's will—such as the Poem of Chinese Drums, from the third Burmester demo CD. Low-level dynamics were as refined and delicately nuanced as ever I have heard, and on all types of music.

What made me think about the MC501s so hard my head hurt was their ultimate ability to resolve the smallest details that I've heard from the likes of the Halcro dm58 ($27,990/pair) and Lamm ML1.1 ($22,690/pair). It was not the case that the Macs were unable to resolve subtle and revealing detail. They did so without breaking a sweat. The question was one of degree, not of kind. I always seemed caught by the feeling that the Halcros and Lamms resolved a worthwhile bit more than the Macs managed, but at the same time, the '501s seemed to be lacking nothing that made music so meaningful.

It's possible that the slight difference in resolution between the Macs and the Halcros and Lamms is due to the Macs' use of negative feedback. Contrariwise, the negatives normally associated with the extensive use of negative feedback—an obvious darkness on top and lack of treble dynamics—didn't exist when I listened to the MC501s. Perhaps the enormous collective experience of the McIntosh design team has given the company an institutional memory of how to resolve these seemingly eternal contradictions.

The best reflection on the overall character and presentation of the MC501s is that I constantly found myself listening to whole CDs and LPs, not just isolated cuts. The Macs were so uniform and consistent from top to bottom, and so continuously good, that they politely escorted hi-fi concerns out of the listening room and invited back in the love of music for its own sake—but with no loss of what are considered to be the "audio" virtues.

Where shall we honeymoon?
Listening to and living with the McIntosh MC501s was rather like going to a high school reunion and hitting the trifecta. Not only was the beautiful girl I had the terrible crush on way back when more beautiful than ever, she was successful, available, and asked me out to dinner. So sue me, I fell in love all over again—the big Macs were an unstinting delight to live with with all types of music. As noted, they may not deliver the last, infinitely minute degrees of resolution and palpability that the more-expensive Halcro and Lamm amps manage to find, but they deliver more than enough to make the experience of music deeply rewarding to the inner man, not just the cerebral audiophile. They brought musical joy by the truckload. I've never had a harder time taking off my music lover's hat and putting on my reviewer's mortarboard (dunce cap?) than when listening to the Macs.

I have never experienced as much pure musical pleasure as I did when the MC501s were teamed with the VTL TL-7.5 Reference line stage and the Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be speakers. I have heard marginally—I stress marginally—better in absolute sonic terms, but if it were my own money being spent at retail, the big Macs would be my no-brainer choice as my amplifier to own for the long run. At their price of $8200/pair, they're untouchable, and only a few amps at any price offer such a rewarding combination of power, reputation, build quality, and overall sonic acumen. Like the Legacy Audio Focus 20/20 loudspeaker I reviewed in January 2004, the McIntosh MC501 offers a singular combination of value and performance.

Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can indeed go home again, at least when the amps at home are from McIntosh.

Footnote 5: The one English word other than "baby" that I clearly caught in this song, which is an unlisted Easter egg at track 39 and sung in Japanese by the Korean Sugar girls, was "dream," so "Dream" it is. If you can dig an exotic stew of Euro-Japanese techno dance, Joe Satriani-styled guitar work, and Rick Wakemanesque church organ, you'd best check it out immediately.—Paul Bolin
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