I've never hidden my love of McIntosh products. I proudly display my MC275 amplifier in the front right corner of my listening room when it isn't in use. The MC275 is also one of the first items I show everyone who visits this room. My friends aren't impressed by $20,000 DACs, $40,000 speakers and certainly not impressed by $10,000 cables in a positive way. The McIntosh MC275 on the other hand easily impresses everyone. I love this amp so much that I'll let my daughter use it when she is old enough, but only on the condition that she gives it back to me when she's done. This isn't a hand-me-down product. I'm keeping it.
Compared to my beloved MC275 the MS500 Music Streamer is a bit of a different animal. It combines a touch of McIntosh with technology from Autonomic. Autonomic has produced its Mirage line of digital products for many years, mainly focused on the custom integration market. It's this Mirage series on which the MS500 is based.
Looking inside the MS500 it's possible to see how the product is split nearly in half between Autonomic and McIntosh. Autonomic's Mirage platform and technology are used for everything computer related that resides on one board. McIntosh has designed everything audio related on a different board and the beautiful chassis. I say everything computer related for Autonomic because there's a full Linux based computer running inside the MS500. Much the same as there's a full computer running in your pocket right now in the form of a mobile phone.
McIntosh aficionados will be happy to learn that Autonomic does the computing (streaming, library indexing, serving up a graphical user interface, etc...) but hands off the digital audio signal to the McIntosh audio board inside. Once the digital signal is received the McIntosh audio board sends out both an analog signal via RCA and XLR connections and a digital signal via coaxial S/PDIF and Toslink.
When I first began using the MS500 I assumed I'd stick with the digital outputs. I love the dCS Rossini DAC currently in my system and try to use it whenever I can. Plus, my familiarity with this DAC helps me evaluate anything new in the system. Fortunately for the MS500, I decided to give the analog outputs a spin quicker than I had planned. What I heard was very nice. The sound was about what I expected from a McIntosh product with this split design philosophy. The MS500 certainly isn't a D1100 all-out McIntosh DAC, but the product doesn't pretend to be McIntosh's flagship digital to analog converter.
The target customer for the MS500 is someone seeking ease of use, multi-zone audio (optionally), good quality sound, McIntosh pride of ownership, solid customer service, and zero interest in the technical minutiae.
The MS500 is certainly simple to use. It worked right out of the box with the iOS app on my iPad Pro and the sample tracks included on the built-in sold state drive. The user interface leaves much to be desired for many who eat sleep and breathe this stuff, but could be just what the doctor order for those who want an app that's much more straight forward. For example, there is no Preferences section within the app to customize something. It's all preconfigured without anything to screw up. Much of the content browsing is also text based. People who get overwhelmed by metadata and albums covers should be right at home with an understated format of artist, album, and track names (no track numbers or lengths to be seen when browsing streaming content).
Multi-zone fans will appreciate the capability to have synchronized libraries between several MS500s and complete control via the iOS or Android application. Given that I only had a single unit in for review I couldn't test multi-zone features.
I mentioned the MS500 target customer having zero interest in the technical minutiae a couple paragraphs earlier. What I mean by this is the MS500 has some quirks that may bother diehard technical audiophiles but those quirks are likely something the average MS500 customer doesn't understand or want to understand.
For example, the MS500 can't output bit perfect audio. This means it's incapable of outputting the exact audio via its digital outputs that came in through a digital input (Ethernet or local storage). To some this is blasphemous. However, many MS500 customers may be asking what's bit perfect and concluding they don't really care as long as the product works and checks all the other boxes. These music lovers also likely don't care that the MS500 outputs all audio at a single user specified sample rate and bit depth.
What makes the MS500 a tempting unit for music lovers such as myself is its built-in access to content. The MS500 can access all the usual suspects such as Tidal, Deezer, and Spotify. Taking things to the next content level, the MS500 can access SiriusXM and Pandora. Hardcore audiophiles may not care about these lossy services but people who are fans of content / programming unavailable elsewhere find them invaluable. In addition, both SiriusXM and Pandora are nearly impossible for most manufacturers to integrate into their products. These guys are too big to care about HiFi and have told many companies to take a hike unless they can move millions of units. The MS500 also supports internet radio via TuneIn, which I came to really like over the course of this evaluation.
For Your Listening Pleasure
As a music lover and audiophile the sound quality of the MS500 is important to me. Even if I wasn't an audiophile and I just wanted "something better," the quality of the MS500's sound would be important as well. We've all seen countless devices with terrible sonics being purchased by millions of people for decades. When something better than those options comes along, it's a good thing.
I haven't had an Autonomic Mirage unit in here for several years, so I can't really compare the Mirage to the MS500 from memory. I'd venture to guess that the McIntosh MS500 is substantially better given its split design (Autonomic/McIntosh). The McIntosh designed audio board is a premium upgrade compared to what's available in mass market products and many custom installation products.
I connected the MS500 to my Constellation Audio Inspiration preamplifier and Constellation Audio Inspiration mono amplifiers. The amps fed my TAD CR1 loudspeakers much the same as all other reviews I've conducted over the last several years. I set the MS500's analog output level to fixed gain (disabled or variable gain are also options) as I wanted to use the attenuation of my preamp. I think this is a logical configuration for many in the target audience who may also use a pre/pro for volume control. An additional configuration I'd like to try is connecting the MS500 directly to a pair of powered speakers on my desktop. The built-in volume control and McIntosh aesthetics could be a thing of beauty.
I divided up my listening evaluation between music I coped to the local SSD inside the MS500, streaming lossless audio from Deezer and Tidal, lossy audio from Pandora, and a local Jazz radio station (KBEM Jazz 88.5) via TuneIn.
I'll start with what the diehard audiophiles would call foolish, internet radio. I've had a TuneIn account for years, but forgot the password and couldn't get TuneIn's password recovery options to send me an email to reset it. Fortunately, one doesn't need an account to use TuneIn with the MS500. I tapped the TuneIn Radio tab in the iOS app and browsed to my local radio stations with a few additional taps. I settled in with Jazz 88.5 and leaned back in my chair.
Given that all my listening to this station is in the car when I drive my daughter to her Waldorf School, the sound quality I heard through the MS500 shouldn't have surprised me. I knew it would sound better via the MS500 than my 16 year old Alpine / Boston Acoustics car system. But, I assumed this lossy source, no doubt 64 or 128 kbps, would sound terrible because my system would present all its flaws right in front of my face. It also doesn't help that I can A/B this station with a local high resolution copy of whatever it's streaming.
The bottom line is that I loved streaming my local Jazz station through the MS500. It sounded so much better than I expected. In a way this is the essence of what HiFi is all about. Taking whatever source or music one listens to and making it sound as enjoyable as possible. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I instinctively grabbed my iPhone to Shazam several tracks I heard. Sure the MS500 iOS app would have told me the artist and track, but old habits die hard when listening to the "radio."
The track that sounded best to me, and was most memorable, was What Will I Tell My Heart by Lou Donaldson. I could have flipped over to Tidal or Deezer to stream the lossless version, but I enjoyed the Jazz 88 stream so much I didn't bother. Sure the highs and lows weren't as extended and the air around the instruments was as spacious, but I didn't care.
So much of the MS500 is all about content and how to make it sound as good as it possibly can. This is a message I wish the HiFi industry would send out to the world. We don't care what you listen to, but we'll make it sound better than you've ever heard it. No more forcing great recordings of terrible albums in ultra high resolution upon civilians. It should begin and end with content and giving the listeners an experience they won't soon forget.
Switching to Tidal lossless streaming and locally stored music on the internal SSD, I was very impressed by the sound quality of the MS500. The MS500 is definitely that "something better" for which many consumers are looking. The McIntosh analog output stage really gives life to the music where many products in this category fall flat. Listening to Eric Clapton's new album Happy Xmas, yes I listened to a Christmas album while evaluating a high end audio component. Call me crazy, but I challenge everyone to give it a listen and tell me it isn't a great album. Hell, I'm an atheist and I can't stop listening.
Clapton's version of Home for the Holidays is not only wonderful but it sounds really good through the MS500's analog output. His voice, guitar, and backing vocalists all have a very pure sound. Clapton's voice has a calming effect on me that when mixed with the terrific tone emanating from his guitar amp and reproduced through the McIntosh MS500 is incredibly enjoyable. Throughout this track one can also hear an appropriate amount of what I'll call Christmas bells. The level and amount of the bells is perfect and keeps the song enjoyable rather than kitschy. Through the MS500 these bells are crystal clear when one wants to hear them and fade into the background at other times. This displays a good level of separation between the instruments that most lesser quality music streamers just don't deliver.
Note: Clapton fans seeking a dose of his guitar and great tone should most certainly put on track one, White Christmas. It sounds fantastic.
Note 2: This album may be the one that finally displaces Mariah Carey's Merry Christmas album in many households (yes!). Guys finally have a comeback to that album when our wives request it :~)
OK, I was going to get a little more audiophile to wrap up the listening section of this review, but I think Clapton's version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from the same album accomplishes everything just as well. A great little opening bass line followed by a deep bass groove throughout the track lays a great foundation. Through the MS500 this bass sounds really good. Deep, foundational, and very crisp. The decay of the cymbals within the first couple seconds of the track and continuing throughout also sounds just beautiful. For the musically obsessed like me, it's also possible to hear the recording environment when listening to the drummer play the hi-hat. The reverberation off the studio walls is clear and present.
Clapton's smooth vocal sounds very soothing and pure on this track. But, it's his judicious us of guitar that makes me want more. It's as if he is teasing us with tone. A lesser musician would no doubt take over and push the guitar in our faces, but not Clapton. I could seriously listen to this track all day through the MS500 without a hint of fatigue. The sound is pure yet lush, very enjoyable, and classic McIntosh.
I'm fond of saying everyone has his/her speciality. I look at a turntable like it's a rocket surgery project, but give me the most convoluted digital product and it'll be right in my wheelhouse. These specialities hold true for audio companies as well. McIntosh has always nailed the analog side of HiFi. The company also offers a great D1100 DAC that I reviewed and placed on the C.A.S.H. List earlier this year. However when it comes to a complete digital platform capable of streaming, integrating with Crestron, and building iOS/Android apps, etc... McIntosh has elected to outsource this specialty. I don't blame them, it's difficult work. The MS500 has Autonomic technology where it counts and McIntosh design and DNA where it counts.
I must also note that it's impossible not to enjoy the beautiful design of the McIntosh MS500. It's black glass, glorious green illuminated logo, distinctive red power button, and classy aluminum end caps are legendary and look even better in person.
The MS500 is a great product for the music lover who isn't obsessed with technical details and just wants to listen to his/her music in high quality. This music may be internet radio at 64 kbps or high resolution audio from the local SSD. I'm guilty of enjoying a very sonically limited stream of my local Jazz station equally as much as I enjoyed the high resolution Pearl Jam albums copied to the MS500's local drive via the included music synchronization app. The MS500 handles both sources equally as well. It will reproduce one's favorite music from less than perfect sources better than most people have ever heard.
- Product - McIntosh MS500 Music Streamer ($6,000)
- Product Page - MS500
- PDFs - MS500 Product Brochure (1.6 MB) | MS500 User Manual (8.5 MB)
- Source: Roon ROCK, 2018 MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Mojave)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 2 MQA, dCS Rossini, EMM Labs DA2
- D-to-D Converter: dCS Network Bridge, Sonore Signature Rendu SE, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Pro
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Transparent Audio Reference 110-Ohm AES/EBU Digital Link, Transparent Audio Reference Speaker Cables
- USB Cables: Transparent Audio Premium USB Cable
- Power Cables: Transparent Audio Reference Power Cables
- Power Isolation: Transparent Audio Reference Power Isolator
- Ethernet Cables: Transparent Audio High Performance Ethernet Cables
- Network: Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 24, Ubiquiti UniFi Switch 8-150W x2, Ubiquiti UniFi USG Router, Ubiquiti UniFi AP HD x2, Ubiquiti FC-SM-300 Fiber Optic Cable x2, UF-SM-1G-S Fiber Optic Modules x4, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload