McIntosh MC1201 monoblock power amplifier

While walking home from the office the other day I passed a gleaming, perfectly detailed Harley-Davidson, lightly customized, as many are these days. I didn't stop and drool, but I couldn't unsnap my eyes from it. As I drew parallel to that hawg, a Ricky Martin look-alike threw his leg over the saddle and thumbed the starter. No, you don't have to be a tattooed, beer-gutted redneck anymore to rear up and slam down on a kick-starter of one of those beasts. These days, it's all done with the push of a button. Dude.

Whirr...whirr...whirr...ka-BLAM! The bike didn't so much start as explode into life. Though I wore my best unimpressed New Yawker's face, I was keenly aware of its sound as I ducked an errant cab and finished sauntering across Sixth. The big twin settled quickly into its uniquely throaty, lumpy idle, and I instinctively waited for Biker Boy (lucky bastard) to give it the gas. Thonka-thonka-thonka blat ka-BOOM chatter-chatter-thonka-thonka... I could almost feel the vibration between my legs, the wind in my hair. Hey, it was windy!

Would Biker Boy accelerate past me as he blasted down 17th Street? Or turn up Sixth? The clutch took up the slack, and The Great American Icon turned the corner and roared up the Avenue of the Americas. Damn.

But I wasn't envious. I, too, had a Great American Icon—a pair of them, in fact—waiting for me in my listening room, warmed up and ready to rumble: the McIntosh MC1201 solid-state monoblocks, 1200Wpc, with the biggest power meters you ever saw this side-a Milwaukee.

Edifice rex
Like a Harley, each McIntosh MC1201 monoblock is a huge physical presence, a big hunka iron in anyone's language: 147 gut-busting pounds of stainless-steel chassis and beautifully finished, black-shrouded transformers and heatsinks. Do yourself a big favor and let your dealer install them. You're the one paying the long booty—why should you have to schlep?

The MC1201's front panel is dominated by a huge blue backlit Output Wattmeter under glass—plastic could warp, according to McIntosh's Larry Fish. The ever-affable Mr. Fish, VP of product planning (he worked his way up to VP/chief engineer in his 27 years with the company) is quite proud of the analog meters, which are handbuilt in the UK and were originally designed for automobile test systems. How apropos.

The meter is an audiophile big deal, as explained rather elaborately in the Product Preview I received from McIntosh. An amplifier's power output (in watts) is determined by multiplying its output voltage (E) by its output current (I): EI=W. However, the output meters on some amps are actually voltmeters; output current is not taken into consideration, the company patiently explains. Even though these indicators may be calibrated in watts, they're based on the "patently false notion" that all speakers have a fixed impedance regardless of frequency.

For a specific output voltage, McIntosh continues, the current varies inversely to the speaker's impedance. If the impedance is lower, the output current and power are higher. "Since McIntosh cannot control other manufacturers' speakers, we decided to provide extra output current to drive these mismatched low impedances and to indicate the real output power required to drive them. Therefore the meter circuit in the MC1201 electronically measures both voltage and current, multiplies them, and displays the real output power in watts."

The meter uses a circuit that accelerates the pointer movement. When the pointer reaches its peak excursion, "it pauses only long enough for the human eye to perceive its position, then drops." Fish proudly asserted that the pointer's operation is almost 10 times as fast as a professional VU meter. Another feature of this stupendously large meter is its ability to respond "95% full scale to a single-cycle tone burst at 2kHz." What you see is what you get!

Although the meter's primary output calibration is from 12mW to 1200W, there are smaller 2400W and 4800W indicator positions to the far right! Impressive. "The MC1201 cannot reach this power level continuously; however, it is possible for short-interval peaks to considerably exceed the 1200W continuous rating." When I read this, I had a brief vision of clamping the front brake, cracking the throttle, and smokin' the rear tire! For the record, I never got either amp anywhere near its indicated full-power output when driving the sensitive (92dB) JMlab Utopia loudspeakers. I think I nudged 120W during a particularly enthusiastic listening session late one night, but more could not have been asked.

Lower left on the front panel, a large but easy-turning switch changes the meter to Watts, Watts Hold, and Lights Off operation. In Watts Hold, the needle locks to the highest power peak in any sequence, the reading held until a higher peak passes. If no greater peak occurs, the indicator slowly returns to its rest position at a decay rate of 6dB/minute. In Lights Off mode, the meter functions as normal, with the back-lighting turned off. (Don't worry—you still get the cool, green McIntosh logos to light up your listening room.)

The Power switch has three positions: Off, Remote, and On. Off disconnects the main AC line, and Remote is used when the amplifier is turned on by remote control. (You'll need a connection between one of the Mac preamplifiers' Power Control Out and the Power Control In on the rear of the MC1201 to carry the 5V trigger signal.) The On position bypasses the remote control and powers the beast up.