Book Review: McIntosh: "...for the love of music..."

McIntosh: "...for the love of music..."
by Ken Kessler. McIntosh Laboratory, Inc., 2006. $150.00. Hardcover, 12" by 12" by 1.25", 315 pp. ISBN 0-9787236-0-0.
Available from McIntosh dealers and McIntosh Laboratory, Inc., 2 Chambers Street, Binghamton, NY 13903. Tel: (800) 538-6576.

When I reviewed Ken Kessler's book Quad: The Closest Approach, in Stereophile's February 2004 issue, I offered the opinion that the list of companies it might make sense to write an entire book about would be short: "Had I to make a list, it would begin with: Quad, Nakamichi, ReVox-Studer, AR, KLH, Levinson (all incarnations), Klipsch, Bose...."

Oops. Talk about missing the obvious—I neglected to mention McIntosh Laboratory, the longest-established high-end audio-electronics company in America. As far as I know, McIntosh Laboratory loses out only to loudspeaker builder Klipsch as the oldest surviving major US specialty audio company—McIntosh was founded in 1949, Klipsch in 1946. (Frank McIntosh's earlier enterprises offered first consulting and design services, and then manufacturing, for commercial broadcasters; there seems to be no dispute that 1949 is the proper start date for his consumer-electronics venture.)

I think it fair to say that with this volume, Ken Kessler has outdone himself. Ken has been a great writer for a long while, so I don't think that in the few years since his Quad book he has suddenly become a better writer. Rather, I think it is that in writing about McIntosh rather than Quad, there might have been two synergistic things at work. First, anyone who cares about audio is going to feel, consciously or otherwise, that to write about Quad is in some way to approach the Holy of Holies on the highest holy day. Audiophiles and music lovers feel a certain reverence toward Quad, and rightly so. But the urge to speak in hushed tones (as it were) might cramp one's writing style just a bit.

The other factor is that what we all thought we knew about McIntosh was often wrong, and in every case a lot less than the complete story—which Ken's book delivers in spades. Most audiophiles over a certain age know the outlines of the Quad saga. But the McIntosh story contains much terra incognita. In Ken's new book there is both the thrill of the chase and the pleasure of discovery. McIntosh and rock music, from Woodstock to the Grateful Dead (and quite a few studios)—who knew? A McIntosh-branded SOTA/Graham-derived turntable prototype? Tell me!

The brand McIntosh is most often compared to is Harley-Davidson, but that is a two-edged sword. Both companies did their share of wandering in the wilderness. Which leads directly to what I think is the most important point I can make in this review. Even though this book is published by McIntosh itself, it is as candidly revealing as any business history I have read from an independent publisher. McIntosh: "...for the love of music..." is not a happy-slappy PR puff piece but a genuine history. Indeed, I found the behind-the-scenes business chapters to be absolute page-turners.

In Kessler's book you learn that, from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, McIntosh offered no new products. What kept the company alive during those years was the business generated by the ongoing road show of the McIntosh Amplifier Clinics, which had established from the outset McIntosh's reputation for peerless customer service and absolute truthfulness in performance specifications.

Back in the day, if the owner of a Mac amp brought it in to a Clinic and one of its tubes tested as not in spec, McIntosh would replace the tube for free, no questions asked. Even more effectively, owners of competing amplifiers could get their amps tested, and learn how well or poorly they met their own manufacturers' specifications. Through the 1960s, most other amps fared quite poorly, but Clinic guru Dave O'Brien offers a gracious word for Marantz. (Sad to relate, O'Brien died on January 9, 2007, the day the book was released)

Other unexpected instances of candor include Audio Classics' Steve Rowell's statement that there was a middle period when McIntosh products' sound quality was not equal to their build quality, looks, or reliability. There's the revelation that getting back into tube gear required overcoming a degree of internal resistance (or perhaps it was even impedance). Kessler's interview with Ron Fone, whose four-year transitional stint as nominal president in my view defines the phrase unsung hero, illuminates the minuses as well as the pluses of Clarion Co., Ltd.'s ownership of McIntosh. And let's not forget the heartwarming story of the McIntosh dealer who sold, claiming it was a demo model, a used, broken, and shoddily repaired Mac amplifier—to Len Feldman of Audio magazine. Ouch.

One vignette that exemplifies the pickle high-end audio is in today is of a McIntosh retailer who regularly hosted an after-hours champagne-and-hors-d'oeuvres reception at the conclusion of the annual Amplifier Clinic. After a few years, the dealer stopped doing that, even before McIntosh discontinued the Clinics. Why? Because the same people showed up year after year, ate and drank, socialized, reminisced...and bought nothing. McIntosh discontinued the Clinics because their new solid-state amplifiers' specifications were beyond the resolution of the Clinics' test equipment, and, at the time, it was becoming more and more difficult to find replacement tubes (and, perhaps, because people would bring in their amps, get a clean bill of health and maybe a free tube or two, nothing).

From celebrity owners such as Howard Hughes, in his Las Vegas redoubt, to the project of fitting McIntosh car-audio equipment into Ford's GT (which can't be called the GT-40 because Ford neglected to trademark the name of its Le Mans–winning race car, while a maker of replicars did), McIntosh: "...for the love of music..." gives an encyclopedic view of a legendary audio brand.

More important, it goes some way toward countering the oft-repeated putdown that McIntosh was a brand for doctors and lawyers, but that neither McIntosh's engineering nor its sound was competitive. Audio scribes Sam Tellig, Paul Seydor, and Paul Bolin weigh in on that issue, and tube guru Tim de Paravicini is quoted as saying that McIntosh's Unity Coupled Circuit is the only one he wishes he had designed.

As we've come to expect from Ken Kessler projects, the production values are lavish. The cover and the book's entire color scheme reflect McIntosh's black-and-gold glass faceplates and blue meters. The photographs, photo editing, and layout are fittingly world-class. There is even a bound-in gold ribbon for a bookmark. In addition to a foreword and introduction, there are 19 chapters of content, four appendices (including a timeline), an index, a bibliography, and lists of McIntosh products by model number and name.

Well done. Highly recommended—even if your amplifier doesn't sport big blue meters.