REVIEW: MCINTOSH MA8900 INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
McIntosh’s new MA8900 integrated amplifier simply confirms the brand’s iconic status. Yes, I know, I know, it’s solid state. But trust me, it sounds so complete after an hour spent pleasurably in its company; you’ll want one.
Click below to open the StereoNET Digital Magazine review, otherwise read on.
MA8900 Integrated Amplifier
McIntosh’s new MA8900 integrated amplifier simply confirms the brand’s iconic status.
The Big Mc engenders a life-long loyalty as exemplified by an audio buddy of mine called, Ken who had to work hard for his first McIntosh, an MC275 valve amp.
Back in 1993, McIntosh surprised the audio world when it re-released its legendary 1961 valve power amplifier called the MC275.This limited-edition production run was in honour of Gordon Gow, Mcintosh’s long-serving president.
Subsequent reviews were not just glowing; they were hell-hot. So much so, the new MC275 became coveted and highly sought after for those that could afford the eye-watering $7000 or so price tag.
In hindsight, the rereleased MC275 looked as good as the original, but the sound wasn’t.
More than two decades since, my opinion hasn’t changed. The Gow commemorative MC275 had spongy bass.
Later revisions of the MC275 put things right. So right, in fact, I bought one in 2009.
In 1993, my mate Ken bought the Gow version. But not in Australia. It wasn’t available at the time, and the local distributor had a long waiting list. Ken was a long way short of the front of the queue.
Ever resourceful, he bought his from a Hong Kong High-End audio store along with a return airplane ticket.
With just a backpack on his shoulders, Ken carried a spanking new MC275, all 34.1 kgs of it, into Hong Kong’s airport terminal, and happily paid for the excess baggage.
Arriving in Melbourne, he carried it all the way from the Tullamarine terminal, hailed a cab, put the new Mc in the back seat and made for home.
He wasn’t the only one to go to elaborate lengths to own a spanking new MC275, proving the commitment of the fan base to McIntosh is unlike any other in audio.
Ken went on to adore his MC275. So did the few of us who got to hear it and see its tubes reflected against its upper chrome chassis.
A visual delight from its first release in 1961, the 1993 version looked as beautiful as the original and had that magic McIntosh liquid midrange, disinterested bass notwithstanding.
The $14,995 MA8900 is a different beast visually, but allow me to share with you how lust engendering it is in the flesh. Yes, I know, I know, it’s solid state. But trust me, it sounds so complete after an hour spent pleasurably in its company; you’ll want one.
It’s so formidable physically, and so pleasing aesthetically. It’s just so musical sounding that it makes me want to stomp all over anyone into the vows-of-poverty approach to life and the universe.
While I genuinely, deeply respect those renouncing the material life and the world of the flesh to focus on the spiritual, I just wish they’d get on with it and leave me out of the loop.
If a McIntosh amp the calibre and completeness of the MA8900 stand between redemption and me, I’ll take the Mc.
As for spirituality, Van The Man belting out “Ballerina’’ aided by the grace, power, presence and dynamic clout of the MA8900 is as much “otherworldliness” as I need these days.
Should I need more, I’ll press repeat on my Audio Research CD player or re-cue the SME V tonearm on my turntable.
Piles of lucre aside, what you’ll also need to unbox and install an amp of this size and weight are forceps like a gorilla. Or in my case a dutiful son and a couple of audio buddies built like Tarzan.
The Mc’s delivery driver was hairy but had neither the physique of ape or ape-man. As he told me that he had a “very heavy box on a pallet… to deliver”, I could sense his angst. No wonder, the MA8900 weighed 63.5 Kgs including pallet. Without the pallet, it was still a back torturing 43.5 Kgs.
“What the bloody hell is in there, boat anchors?’’ he said, pointing to the very, very, large, black, shrink-wrapped MA8900 carton.
“An American amplifier made by a brand that could be building Cadillacs,’’ I say back to him.
With a little help from a compact forklift, he moved the big Mc from his truck, down my driveway and left it on the doorstep. Job done, he was gone.
McIntosh doesn’t do small; I remember thinking after walking around a carton left on my porch that was big, bulky and heavy. So big, no one was going to cut it free from its pallet and make off with the 8900 down the street.
Later that evening and with a cast of thousands on hand to move it to the listening room, the MA8900 was unpacked and loaded onto my audio rack.
In situ, the MA8900 attracted plenty of admirers and accolades for its sheer, formidable presence, perceived build quality and that unique McIntosh styling.
If the large, blue power output meters ring your bells, make haste for any Mc. The pair on the glass fascia and the two chrome outer edges on the front of the chassis are the standard style signature for most McIntosh models.
So are large, visible transformers. The 8900 has three: a huge power transformer in the middle and either side hefty output transformers. This trio are built snugly just behind the facia.
As for the monogrammed heatsinks? Two run either side of the chassis just behind the transformers. Their humongous size used to dissipate heat away from the high current output transistor signals. This is a seriously powerful amplifier rated at 200 watts per channel into an 8ohm load.
And speaking of impedance, the rear of the MA8900 carries connection options for driving into 2, 4 and 8-ohm loads. The 4-ohm tap was tried with Yamaha NS1000s and Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeakers.
8 ohms sounded best. I’ve heard people describe the MA8900’s sound as “disinterested’’. My advice? Try the 8-ohm setting. Result? Plenty of life and verve to keep you entertained into the wee small hours.
And speaking of connections, since sparse and minimalist isn’t the McIntosh way, options abound.
MA8900 owners can knock themselves out choosing from six unbalanced and one balanced inputs, fixed moving magnet and adjustable phono stages, a pair of coaxial inputs, two optical inputs, one USB input, one unbalanced fixed output and two variable outputs. Yes, there’s also a headphone output, while the headphone amp is loaded with Mc’s patented technologies.
The USB input processes signals up to 32-bit/384kHz and supports DSD256, DXD256 and DXD 384kHz.
McIntosh describes the MA8900 as a “next generation’’ model. Meaning, when it comes to the ever-changing world of digital audio, it sports features that make it relatively future proof.
Each digital input, for example, cohabits in a McIntosh developed DA1 Digital Audio Module that supports an 8-channel, 32-bit DAC used in Quad Balanced mode with six digital inputs.
Owners can give each input a custom name and more importantly, the 8900 is Mc’s first integrated where its input works indecently.
But here’s the thing. McIntosh is now using digital modules that are easy to replace. Design features that ensure the 8900 and like designed Mc models remain future proof.
Elsewhere this amp is loaded with patented technologies including autoformer output stages and fuse-less protection circuits called ‘power guard’ and ‘sentry monitor’.
Big, Bold And Beautiful
The MA8900 was inserted in a system comprising SME 20/11 turntable, SME V tonearm and Koetsu Rosewood cartridge, Audio Research Reference 7 MK2 CD player, Elektra Audio pre and power amplifier driving Wilson Sasha speakers. Cabling used was Inakustik throughout, including the tonearm cable.
From the get-go, the new McIntosh drove the wicked Sasha speakers with arrogant ease. The sound was full-bodied, detailed, rhythmic, clear as a summer sky and effortlessly dynamic.
My curiosity piqued when I replaced the Sasha with Yamaha NS1000 speakers followed by 1994/5 Rogers LS35/As and a pair of rare B&W 805 Matrix. Every speaker proved an effortless match for the MA8900, so I switched back to the Sasha to exploit its full-range sound and explosive dynamics.
First port of call was the Mc’s built-in DAC using a MacBook Pro and my Tidal library as a signal source. My notes record the comment “quite enjoyable but lacking both the detail and transparency delivered via the moving coil phono stage’’.
The CD was leap years ahead sonically, and analogue via the SME combination light years ahead of CD or DAC.
Sounding like an audio dinosaur, I know. All I can do to assuage you I’m not anti-digital is ask you take yourself to any decent audio store and A/B digital versus analogue audio.
If you come down on the side of digital, you’ll have my commiseration.
Though I played dozens of vinyl and CD albums via the MA8900, one feature stood out whatever the source: a sense of cohesiveness that highlighted the way the MA8900 presented a highly detailed and clear sonic message without scrambling or pulling apart each element.
With John Lennon’s Steel and Glass filling my room with its sense of outrage, I felt I could lean over and touch the guitar or cheekily give the high hat a good tap.
This sense of realism made possible by the MA8900’s ability to conjure fine detail out of complex mixes was allied to a realistic soundstage with realistic depth, lateral spread, and height. So “realistic” is an appropriate word to describe the sound of the MA8900 driving the Wilson Sasha.
But the speaker brand I kept imagining would sing with the MA8900 is, Martin Logan. Intuition and years of grinding away at this hobby suggest a magical synergy between a Hybrid Logan and this doozy of an integrated model.
Logan owners, please take note.
So, the Mc could dish out the dynamic stuff, but feeling mischievous I played the Sinead O’Connor masterpiece called Streetcars.
Wow! Double Wow!
I had the sense this woman troubled by inner demons, but gifted the voice of an angel not only appeared in my room but was urging me to walk into the studio and hold her recording notes.
Streetcars is sparsely scored, mainly Sinead’s soaring voice accompanied by synthesiser. More a prayer than a song, by the time the lyrics got to the part where she intones,
“There’s no safety to be acquired/riding streetcars named desire’’,
I knew I was in the presence of one of pop music’s most unique and enduring voices. And I had had a great-integrated amp as the conduit into her music.
Speaking of great voices, the pairing of Simon and Garfunkel and their music helped to shape it has to be said, the vibe of a generation.
So, I pulled out a vinyl copy of, you guessed it, 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters'. I played the track the Only Living Boy In New York which is a song about friendship and the things that matter.
Insistent drums, muscular bass, and forceful guitars merge with otherworldly vocals replete with a multitracked chorus, on this superbly produced track. So beautiful I went on a bit of an S&G vinyl binge.
When I heard the slightly out of tune guitar on the track For Emily Wherever I May Find Her, performed live and pressed on the Simon And Garfunkel 'Greatest Hits' album, I understood just how much of a detail maestro the MA8900 is.
To prove I’m far from anti-digital, I closed the last listening session of a three-week review period with the 'Elbows' CD track called The Everthere. Sure enough, the skin folds on the Manchester group’s kick drum are tight and taut.
I was listening for an instrument that sounded like a wailing mandolin somewhere to the rear of the mix. It emerged from a moveable feast of instruments carrying the music to the listener on a complex weave of rhythm and timing. And it was clear and insistent, wanting a good amp to make it heard above the raucous din of instruments and vocals.
It isn’t hard to fall head over heels with an integrated amp with the sonic prowess of the MA8900. The technology and feature count also must be factored in to the eye-watering price tag.
Those that can afford the MA8900 will not all be wealthy. I imagine most audiophiles and music lovers are ordinary people who must save long and hard to shop for a model in this category.
And the category least you haven’t noticed is a high-end integrated amp. A perch on the top of the audio ladder where exotic rivals from Mark Levinson, Krell, and Gryphon abide alluringly but mostly unaffordable.
The MA8900 takes them all on and adds McIntosh’s legendary reliability and the newly derived nod to future proofing. The MA8900 doesn’t sound good- it sounds marvellous, on all types of music. It engenders a sense of pride of ownership, has Cadillac build quality, intelligent user features, and it’s bloody heavy.
A good thing, because once it’s brought home, unlike my review sample yours won’t be going back.
For more information visit McIntosh.
One of the veterans of the Australian HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in Australia, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.