McCormack Micro Integrated Drive headphone amplifier

What, I hear you asking, is an integrated drive? The MID is part of McCormack's much lauded "Micro" series (see my review of their Micro Line Drive in Vol.18 No.6), which are designed to offer the same dedication to quality as McCormack's full-size components, but at a lower price (and in a smaller package). The MID was initially the Micro Headphone Drive, sporting two ½" stereo phone-jacks on the front panel, a two-position input switch, and a volume control. The rear boasted two inputs and an output (controlled by the volume pot). It was designed to be a high-quality headphone amp and a minimalist preamp. In this configuration, I ran into it at the 1995 WCES where—almost as a gag—Steve McCormack had made up a few ½" stereo phone-plug to 5-way binding post connectors. He could, he explained, run small speakers from the headphone outputs. There was a serious purpose behind the joke, of course. Showing that the MHD could drive speakers spoke volumes for its ability to drive headphones.

I even got my hands on one of those units—and enjoyed it very much as a headphone amp and as a preamp. But before I could commit my thoughts to the care of WordPerfect, Joyce Fleming of McCormack Audio called to ask me to ship the unit back. Steve had changed the output MOSFETs and connected them to sturdy binding posts on the rear panel. Thus, the Micro Headphone Drive became the Micro Integrated Drive, capable of putting out 5Wpc.

That's a pretty insignificant amount of power—why bother? Well, I found lots of uses for it: You could hook it up to your computer and use it as part of a very high-quality multimedia package; or you could use it as part of an office or bedroom system; you could even, as I intend to do at HI-FI '96, travel with it and a pair of small efficient speakers, to provide a little musical sustenance on the road. Besides, we live in a time when there are $60,000 integrated amplifiers with just as little wattage—I'm sure that neither Joyce Fleming nor Steve McCormack would own up to it, but I suspect a satiric barb in there, somewhere.

Like the other Micro series components, the MID is handsome and very solidly constructed, and uses extravagantly expensive controls, parts, and connectors. Remembering Audio Alchemy's response to the same question, I asked Steve McCormack how they kept prices reasonable while stuffing the Micros with costly parts. There was a long pause. "Actually," he said in a subdued voice, "I'm often accused, by [my partner] Joyce in particular, of putting in more than I should [given the price at which we sell them], but I just can't escape the desire to put in as much as I possibly can. When you're dealing with these price ranges, you have to make compromises, so it becomes a real matter of juggling what to trade off. When I have the opportunity to make something better, I find it impossible to leave it alone. It does dig into our profit margins, but I'm a happier guy."

Like the Micro Line Drive, the MID employs a combination of op-amps and JFETs. This gives McCormack "a lot of the convenience of designing with op-amps along with much of the same performance qualities that I hear from fully discrete circuits." Then, it feeds the signal into a complementary pair of MOSFETs fitted with a biasing circuit. "It's interesting how this changes its nature," states McCormack. "Now we've created a small power amplifier. Because it is a power amplifier, it's a marvelous line amplifier. It'll drive any sort of cable, any length of cable, any kind of input circuit—whatever. In some ways, it has made me rethink some of my ideas about building preamplifier circuits. It suggests that the ability to run a low-impedance load with a fairly serious amount of current may actually improve the performance of the MID as a preamplifier, whereas traditional thinking might suggest otherwise."

Man likes marvelous things—so he invents them and is astonished
The McCormack is a marvelous headphone amplifier. It sounds fast and tight and liquid. Although some might find it a shade lean, I found its lack of warm'n'fuzzy midrange a relief. I've already said that I miss the HeadRoom Audio Image Processor when it is not present, and so I did. But it's hard to cavil about the sound of the MID.

"Third Uncle" was meaty and propulsive; the opening stutter of bass was solid and almost physically present. Dunt-dah, dunt-dah and then in tightening intervals with the same motif duntdahdundahdunda...through the McCormack, it sounded as solid as someone bouncing a quarter off a suitcase.

"Rasd..." was also served well. The big frame drum shuddered so that the air practically sizzled—an effect clearly articulated in contrast to the snares bouncing off the membrane. The silence at the end of the track left the ensemble's reverberation suspended in the air so palpably that it almost seemed like an imitation of itself—how could anything sound that perfect? I had a hard time keeping to the point while listening to the McCormack; one cut would stretch to two, two to a whole disc, and the disc would, more often than not, remind me of one other thing I'd like to hear. Can I complain about that? No! But it did stretch out the reviewing process.

I mentioned that some might find the MID lean-sounding—it certainly adds the least warmth of the three headphone amps reviewed here—but is it tonally correct? I think it is. It's fast and tight and as detailed as can be. Timbres do not seem simpler than they are, but exult in their quirky little signatures. By contrast, the Audio Alchemy HPA's warmth is additive.

As a preamp, the MID also shines. Steve McCormack wasn't kidding about its ability to drive long cables into nearly any impedance—I regularly used my 60' interconnects, both to drive the MID as a headphone amp, from a remote source, and to drive amplifiers in different rooms.

No $700 preamplifier has any business sounding this transparent. Period. And it takes charge of an amp like you wouldn't believe. Pair it with any adequately powered amplifier and say good-bye to flabby anything. Musical, that is—it won't put a six-pack on your abs. (Mine either, dammit.) Of course, it's pretty minimal—it only has two source inputs and lacks a tape output or any other amenity. Except, that is, for that glorious sound. In reviewing the Micro Line Drive, I said, "It is capable of transparency and an immediacy that damned few megabuck preamps can aspire toward." That's equally true of the MID. If you don't listen to headphones, you'll get more flexibility from the MLD, but if you do listen to cans, the Micro Integrated Drive could be the way to go—if you don't mind plugging and unplugging sources.

So how is it as an integrated amp? Surprisingly good. Don't expect a lot of controlled bass or high sound pressure levels, though. But driving speakers with a sensitivity in the 88–92dB/W/m range, such as the RA Labs Black Gold References I used, it can really play some music. It images well, stays true to tonal color (other than lightness in the bass), and rocks like a little dickens. Earlier, I said I'm taking one to HI-FI '96—when I get it there, I'm going to find the most efficient pair of horns there and just crank this sucker. I bet it'll wake the neighbors.

I don't know how many buyers looking for an integrated amplifier are going to consider the McCormack Micro Integrated Drive desirable, but the extra flexibility is practically free. Those of us wanting a reference quality headphone amplifier, and possessing offices, computers, or multiple systems, we're the customers the MID was really targeted at—and, if I'm a fair example, we'll be staying up late just to think of places (and ways) to use this affordable little wonder.

McCormack Audio Corporation of Virginia
2733 Merrilee Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031
(703) 573-9665