I am sure that any audiophile who knows me will confirm that if most audiophiles changed their equipment as often as I do, there would be a lot less audio manufacturers around. My audio philosophy has really not changed since I entered this hobby upon graduation from law school in the 1980’s. I have always looked for what I consider the most natural sounding components that also give the best value for the money. With loans to pay off, a mortgage and then kids, I was not in a position to spend tons of money on audio components. I would never stretch our family finances just to buy audio equipment. There is no doubt that many people would consider a set of speakers that cost $3,500.00 in the 1990’s to be extravagant. In fact, I once had a neighbor who lived in a McMansion on top of a hill across the street a bit who thought I was nuts when he saw my system and record collection. He didn’t see the need for anything more than the $500.00 rack system he bought from that long gone department store chain, Bambergers. He didn’t even seem to mind that the tweeters on his speakers were blown. Mind you, this guy had 7 cars, one for each day of the week. To each his own I guess. But by audiophile standards, what I have spent to get what I consider exceptional sound, is modest. Thankfully there are plenty of companies out there that have products that appeal to the value oriented audiophile. Sonically, I have always gravitated to a handful of designers whose sound signature corresponds to mine. They are Richard Vandersteen, Mike Moffat first of Theta Digital and now Schiit Audio as well as the subject of this piece, Steve McCormack.
I first became aware of Steve McCormack with his first company, The Mod Squad, that would modify certain CD players to improve sound quality. While I never bought one or had a CD player modded by him, I liked the ones I heard. Steve was also known for his Tip Toes designed to be placed under pieces of kit to reduce vibrations and improve the subjective sound experience. Needless to say, that has turned into quite a business in audiophile land. One day, during lunch, I headed down to Chestnut Hill Audio in Center City Philadelphia to check out what was new. It was there that I heard the new DNA-1 amp that Steve brought to market with his new Company aptly named McCormack Audio. The amp was hooked up to a pair of Vandersteen 2Ci’s and I was impressed with what I heard. The sound was open, rhythmic, and had real bass impact. As a jazz fan and one who spent some time in jazz clubs, bass response is real high on my list as far as sound quality goes and the DNA-1 really excelled there for me. The proprietor of Chestnut Hill Audio, Jack Rubinson, let me come back at close of business on a Saturday, and take the amp home to listen in my system until the following Tuesday morning. At the time, my amp was the Aragon 2004. I found that the DNA-1 bettered it in all respects, so I bought it. It wasn’t exactly cheap for the times, at $1,750.00, and it took a bit of negotiating with the finance committee to get it but ultimately, it was mine. This was in 1992. I still have the receipt a copy of which I have attached.
By way of a little background, the monicker DNA standards for Distributed Node Amplifier. Instead of a small number of large storage capacitors, the design of this amp, including the upgrades that are the subject herein, call for a larger number of smaller capacitors with one placed adjacent to each output device. This is claimed to distribute the current and establish an individual power reservoir for each of the sixteen transistors. The specs for the original amp are as follows:
The DNA-1 gave me many years of enjoyment, without a lick of trouble. The only issue I had was in the early 2000’s when the fuse holder cracked and popped out of the back of the unit. By that time, McCormack Audio had been sold to Conrad Johnson who continued to manufacture the expanded line of DNA amps under the McCormack brand. The sent me a couple of new fuse holders for free and I was back in business in a few days.
However, in July of 2019, the amp developed a fault and wouldn’t drop out of protect mode. I was pretty sure that one of the rail fuses has blown, which I could fix myself. Mind you, the amp was 27 years old at the time. I had been reading up before this on Steve’s new company, SMc Audio, that was in the business, in part, of rebuilding older McCormack amps, including my DNA-1. Basically, they would take back the amp, remove all of the old parts, clean off the old boards, and replace everything else with upgraded parts, a better transformer, better caps, Cardas binding posts, Furutech power inlet, etc. Given that we were in the middle of the summer, which due to the heat in my room and frequent thunderstorms, drastically reduced the amount of time I spent listening to the system, I called SMc Audio, spoke to the tech Pat, and sent the amp in for the upgrade. Even better was the price. The Gold upgrade cost me less than the amp new 27 years prior, namely $1,700.00.
As part of the rebuilding process Steve wanted to know what the rest of my system consisted of as well as the dimensions and layout of my listening room. I am not sure exactly why, but I assumed it was to make sure that the amp impedance and the like we’re a good match for the pre amp and speakers I was using. Fortunately, Steve was very familiar with my speakers, the Vandersteen 3A Signatures, as he had a pair and used to demo his products at shows with them. I have always kept the original boxes for all my equipment, so boxing the amp up was a breeze and I dropped it off at Fed Ex for the long trip to Vista, California where SMc Audio is located. It took a week to get there. Rebuilding the amp took about a week, which included a couple of days of burn in time. During the process, Pat provided me with a couple of pictures of the process, one showing the empty box with all of the innards removed and a side by side picture of the old and rebuilt amp. Copies of these pictures are below.
While I had read reviews on line of others who had the had their amps upgraded by Steve, you really never know what you are getting until you get it. It took another week for the amp to return to Chez Whip. When it did, I unboxed it and hooked it back into the system. The first thing I noticed was how quiet the amp was. The old amp had a transformer built by Counterpoint that had a bit of a buzz that was faintly audible at the seating position, but importantly, not when music was playing. When I turned the amp on, that buzz was gone. I thought, OK, that’s good and then left the amp running for a few hours before doing any serious listening. When I returned later in the evening, I played a couple of tracks that I was familiar with and use to evaluate rooms at shows. All three are live tracks with room ambiance and deep bass. The tracks are Renewal from the Monty Alexander release Uplift, CC Rider from the Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown release Overseas Special and Starbuck’s Blues from the Ray Brown release Live at Starbucks. All three are on CD. When I listened to these tracks I loved what I was hearing. The bass was deeper and fuller, tight and fast but with no bloat. The tonal balance was similar to the old amp, but the treble was clearer. Cymbals had more of the metallic sound of the real thing. Oh, and the sound of pianos. Wonderful. I also noticed a lower noise floor. I could hear deeper into the soundfield with more lower level detail, things like toe tapping and the like. I am sure the upgraded transformer helped here. The soundstage was wider as well as deeper. They instruments had more of a rounded and three dimensional sound. Every aspect of the old amp I loved was improved with this upgrade. I fully expected that I was done with the upgrade game, at least as far as the amp was concerned. I was a happy camper. Then came Covid.
Interestingly, while the sound was greatly improved, the specs noted above really didn’t change all that much. The only real significant difference was the power output which went from 150 watts into 8 ohms to 185 and likewise double into 4 ohms. The specs did not change after the installation of the gravity base system noted below.
With everything shut down, I had way more time to listen to the system and, cruise the web. For no reason really, I headed over to the SMc Audio site. Truth be told, the website is rather sparse, one page really and could use some work. At the bottom, I noticed that it said coming in 2020, the gravity bass system available for all of their upgrades. So...... I sent an email and asked what this was. In a couple of hours Pat called me and briefly explained what it was, what it did and more importantly, what it would cost me. Pat explained that it was a brass plinth that they had developed for use in David Berning tube amps that cost a fortune. Pat explained that they were shocked at what it did when sized and placed into the chassis of their amps, pre amp and CD players. Whatever they upgrade can be fitted with some form of the gravity base system. It was one of those you have to hear it type of things. He explained that it was not yet available when my upgrade was performed but that they would give me credit for what I paid already towards the total cost of the full upgrade which was $3,000.00. However, with Covid, I was not in a position to go without my amp so I politely declined and said I would revisit this later.
I know that I have not provided a ton of information about what the gravity bass system totally entails, but the guys at SMc Audio have been a bit tight lipped about the gravity bass is and how it works. The best I could get out of them is that, "The Gravity Base System is a permanent modification to the chassis utilizing a custom brass base. The modification is irreversible and we don't disclose much more about it including our method of attachment and adhesion."
As months passed and and as summer approached, I was back in the same place as I was the year before, a room that was too hot for much listening and a system turned off due to daily boomers. I called Pat and asked when they could do it. He said they had the base they would use for my amp in the shop so they could do it right away. Also, because I am such a nice guy, they would throw in some new caps they really liked as well as a new rectifier, transformer and a Panzerholz fuse cap. I am not sold on the efficacy of the latter thing but since it was free, it was for me. I then went though the same process described previously. Back went the amp, the innards were stripped out. The gravity base was attached to the chassis and the electronics reinstalled along with the select upgrades. I have attached below a picture of the bottom of the amp with the base attached. A similar structure was placed inside the chassis with the electronics attached to that. Frankly, I am too lazy to open the amp up to take a picture of the new insides. Too many screws.
When the amp returned, I was not really prepared for what I heard. The gravity base transformed the amp and took it to a whole other level. The sound was smoother, with no sense of fatigue at all. Bass was rock solid. There was a fullness to the sound across the board. More meat on the bones to use a phrase. Besides the bass, this was very obvious on a drum kit. The bass drum thwack and the sound of the snare drum was much more lifelike. Much more like the sound of a real set of drums in your room. Instruments such as a tenor sax had a more three dimensional sound, warmer, more like the real thing. The same was true for vocals. On great recordings, it is almost like the vocalist is right in the room with you. Depth, width and clarity are all significantly improved with the gravity base system. Listening to a great recording such as Waltz for Debby at 24/192, I can now follow some of the conversations in the crowd rather clearly, much more so than before. By the way, what is wrong with the crowd, tacking during such a great musical performance? But I digress. The addition of this upgrade also took away a slight edginess to the sound that I didn’t even know was there. Listening at high volume levels is a true joy, although my wife wouldn’t agree!
So, the point of this article is that if there are any owners of any of the series of DNA amps that SMc Audio can upgrade out there, or any of the other McCormack products, please consider doing so and by all means, get the full gravity base upgrade. I have heard quite a few mega expensive amps over the years and can’t really believe that they would sound much better than this amp, in my system, in my room. This amp is that good. At $3,000.00 plus shipping, I am thrilled with the sound. I really struggled writing this piece as I didn’t want it to sound like ad copy. Nonetheless, I can without hesitation, recommend this upgrade path. It has been a true audio bargain for me.