There is a certain iconic romance associated with McIntosh Labs, America’s de facto institution for high fidelity playback. Well into its 70th year of existence, McIntosh has been around longer, went farther, sprung higher and generally enthused audiences more than any other American HiFi shop. How could one resist? Classic American styling, top notch construction quality, solid engineering and genuine high-end customer service and support – something many a “high-end” company could only dream of – all lead to the same conclusion: McIntosh not only draws people to music, it does so reaching more people than most other shops could ever hope to. Today’s styling cues are perhaps best associated with the legendary blue-ish tint (the actual color, like that quintessential Tiffany’s blue, is a trademark owned by McIntosh Labs) VU meters and that oh-so magical looking green font used for the McIntosh logo and product name.
How iconic is McIntosh Labs you ask? Consider that upon entry to chez K, visitors and friends alike first catch the magical glow of Wilson Audio’s Alexx speakers, followed almost immediately by comments surrounding the MC611 amplifier pair, particularly when the amps are turned on and that spellbinding blue shine of those power display meters (8” across) draws your attention. “Oh, are these McIntosh amps?” “Wow, you have not one but two (!), McIntosh amps?” “Are these those famous amps I heard of, can’t think of their name, no wait, McIntosh!?” In my almost twenty years of reviewing HiFi, no other brand – outside of Wilson Audio – has garnered as much immediate attention as this pair of MC611s. Undoubtedly, a testament the reach and prominence of McIntosh outside of our HiFi circles.
Having sought to review McIntosh gear for some time, the opportunity finally presented itself towards the beginning of the year: a few email exchanges later, a freight company representative dropped off two rather large – crated – boxes. “What are these anyway”, the rep quipped in broken English. “Amplifiers. You know, for music playback?” “Man, those are BIG!”, my helpful rep responded. Indeed. Even the crated wooden box of the mighty Boulder 1160 stereo amp wasn’t as large as a single MC611 shipping box. Opening the packaging, I immediately knew: McIntosh is truly a professional business, that means well, business. Weighing in at a tick under 100lbs unboxed, each, it’s obvious that McIntosh designed the packaging to ensure safe delivery under just about any circumstances. Definitely a two-man job, a friend and I moved the amps into position, now taking the place of my trusted, reference EINSTEIN The Silver Bullet Mk II OTL amplifiers. Giddy to see the blue glow of the VU meters, setup and connection is about as straightforward as can be. Connecting my Nordost Valhalla 2 Banana plug terminated cables to the Solid Cinch speaker tabs (1 set are available for each speaker impedance of 2, 4 or 8 Ohms), followed by Valhalla 2 balanced interconnects coming from my EINSTEIN The Preamp and lastly, a pair of LessLoss C-MARC power cables, a quick spot check, and a satisfyingly tactile flick of the power switch on each pair of MC611s brought the meters to glow.
Rated at 600 Watts of output power, regardless of load, courtesy of McIntosh’s use of autoformers, the MC611 is an updated design based off the MC601, which brought to life this model’s updated design theme. Claimed improvements are vast and many: doubled filter capacity, resulting in 55% greater dynamic headroom from 1.8dB to 2.8dB and resulting improvement in low frequencies; an LED backlighting for the VU meters for improved color accuracy and longevity; a balanced S/N ratio of 124dB for balanced and 120dB below rated output; slightly updated visuals with the classic McIntosh circuit topology being printed on the top part of the chassis. As my industry friend and impartial mentor for all things audio, Arian Jansen (of SonoruS audio) said, “This is a fundamentally well-designed amplifier; it’s the American version of Luxman”. If anyone can take apart – figuratively – an amplifier or audio circuit on the fly, Arian would be my firm bet. He’s not disappointed me once. That said, there are countless examples of well-engineered and well-designed audio circuits out there; the question ultimately is how they sound and the music they reproduce.
I make no bones about the fact that my EINSTEIN OTL amplifiers are in fact the best I had ever heard. Fast, ultra-wide bandwidth, powerful (yes, I know, generally surprising for a tube amp, let alone an OTL), The Silver Bullet Mk II has been my system’s anchor for some time. Even on the big Wilson Alexx speakers, which most who have and haven’t heard, find very hard to believe. The magic of the EINSTEIN crown jewels lies in their ability to produce music, more so than any other amplifier I have heard. Leaving behind a liquid, purposeful midrange clarity and top end extension, I enjoy music through these quite much. If there is one area where they can’t compete with bigger amplifiers, it’s in power output and overall bass definition. Much of it stemming from simple physical design limitations, an OTL amplifier’s output is roughly halved with each halving of the speaker load, the EINSTEIN’s simply can’t rock it like I sometimes want to. Sometimes, I feel like turning it up to 11, not merely 9. Cue my search for powerful amps. Therein lies the rub however. In my time searching far and wide for powerful amplifiers that also sound musical, I haven’t had much luck. Until the MC611s came along.
From the first note I heard, via Technics SL-1000R / Dynavector XV-1s / EINSTEIN The Phonostage, off Michel Legrand’s self-titled (and now quite legendary and positively stunning all analog IMPEX reissue) Legrand Jazz, there was gobs of musicality. A certain rhythm. Pace, timing; ‘Round Midnight, a downtempo, musical tour de force, rich in Legrand’s colorful composition, shows not only incredible intimacy with Miles’ playfulness, but incredible cinemascope wide and deep soundstage. It’s been overused as a descriptive term, forgive me: you really get the sense and scale of the intimate, tight arrangement. The MC611s not only let all the color shine through, they showed no signs of holding back MD’s trumpet. Attack, sustain, decay came through with such clarity and power you – I – rarely hear through high-power amplifiers. Mind you, this was evident not only at indicated 6 Watt meter mark, where amps traditionally perform very well, but also at the 60 Watt meter mark, with peaks registering higher still.
On a very recent discovery, French singer, Keren Ann, performing her latest album, Bleue, via Tidal’s MQA’d track Bleu, played through AURALiC’s Vega G2, leashed to Roon, you are at once transported inside Keren’s lush, svelte, smoky, soulful breath of each verse. The arrangement overall is sort of a Carpenter-ish adaptation for the 21st century. Opening softly with sequenced drums, a mild guitar riff and Keren’s center-stage vocals, the comparison to Karen Carpenter is more than just skin deep. Through the MC611s, you can hear the quality of the recording, which, for a pop singer in this day and age is unfortunately rare. No matter the output level, though lately, mostly because of how closely the big Macs mimic the overall tune of my trusted EINSTEIN OTLs, I have been on a late-night listening kick. Barely pushing past an indicated .60 Watts, the big Wilsons seem no less leashed and standing at attention. Clarity, focus and that liquid mid-range still grab your attention, particularly on albums like Keren Ann’s. Try cueing up Paul Weller’s latest live at Royal Festive Hall recording of past hits and sounds, and you’ll be hard pressed to believe that you are anywhere else but a member of the captive audience in the best seat of the house. The dramatic shifts you hear when switching between recording venues – undoubtedly a fundamental aspect of the big Wilsons mid-room setup with more than enough space to breathe – is quite profound, particularly when you switch from close mic’d cuts like Annie Lennox’ Nostalgia album [Tidal – MQA] to something like [Classic Records] epic 4 single disc 45rpm transfer of The Pines of Rome. Here, the pianissimo opening to La fontana del Tritone al mattino, opens up the brilliantly recorded Chicago Symphony conducted by Fritz Reiner. What Richard Mohr did on this recording is spectacular and genuinely a magical show of engineering. The MC611s transcribe the record venue with such clarity and – when needed – limitless power output that listening sessions approaching live symphonic sound bring forth the dramatic contrasts just as composer Respighi intended to. Dynamic headroom? Gobs of it. Splash, pizzazz? More than you can ask for. Where I miss the ultimate in resolving power brought forth by my reference OTLs, the McIntosh MC611s make up for in spades with sheer fun, playful limitless scaling of recorded venues.
Toro y Moi’s latest album, Outer Peace, is another terrific demo of the inherent strength of the big Macs. Looped, sequenced, Pro-tool’d beats, synths, and vocals, Chaz Bear keeps raising the ante on this fine album. On Freelance, the album’s seventh track, a pulsating, catchy beat line carries the song’s rhythm. Here, the big Wilson Alexx produce such profound, powerful and dynamically wide-open bass, that when pushing the MC611s to an indicated 600 Watt peaks (!), your chest and ears best be prepared for the musical salvo coming at you. Mind you, I generally do not listen to music at 600 Watt peaks; this was merely an attempt to bring home Apollo 11’s F-1 engine test firing at earth and house shattering volume levels. But, even as I turned down the volume within fifteen or so seconds (I do value my hearing, after all), I was impressed by the scale, authority and shear power the MC611s are capable of unleashing when paired with appropriate speakers and willing participants at the volume control.
What then do we have with McIntosh’s latest series of big-power amps? To me, these amplifiers demonstrate firstly that you can have high-output power in a musical sounding package. No matter what genre, source, vinyl or otherwise, I threw at these amps, the transformative nature of each cut – when called for – was heard clearly and undeniably. There are amps that make music sound more or less similar; there are amps that contour music emotionally; there are amps that reveal the last bit of detail, ambience and microscopic inflections of each note played. There are very few amps however, that manage to package all these attributes into one design that does it all generally equally well. That breed of amplifiers is rare indeed – yet, McIntosh somehow managed to do just that at a price point that in today’s terms is downright affordable. Add to that genuine high-end support, an honest Made in America badge, and knowledge that these amplifiers will sound as good in twenty year’s time as they do the day you bought them and you have yourself a winner. I was prepared to spend considerably more for a high output solidstate amp; that the MC611 won me over and left money in my pocket was a genuine surprise that I didn’t see coming. Well done and most definitely worth an audition. Highly recommended, A++++.
Product: McIntosh Labs MC611 Solid State Amplifier
Price: $15,000 per pair
Product Page - LINK
Brochure - LINK
Owner's Manual - LINK
Connection Diagram - LINK
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EINSTEN The Preamp
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EINSTEIN The Silver Bullet Mk II, OTL mono block amplifiers
McIntosh MC611, mono block amplifiers
Kubala-Sosna Elation!, speaker cables, interconnect and power cables
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eero in home mesh network / WiFi