McIntosh MA12000 Integrated Amplifier Review
Rafael Todes is moved by the seismic sound of this mammoth integrated amplifier…
MA12000 Integrated Amplifier
Founded in 1949, McIntosh is one of those iconic high-end hi-fi brands with a very distinctive proposition in terms of both look and sound. This illustrious US company made its name with classic tube amplifiers, then successfully switched to big, muscular solid-state designs – albeit with a special twist.
The massive MA12000 integrated does nothing to dilute the McIntosh legend. It combines a hybrid valve stage preamplifier with a 350W RMS per channel transistor power amp to produce the gutsiest amplifier ever fielded by the company. This unit retains the classic corporate look, with a pair of iconic 'McIntosh Blue' power meters, a shiny black glass front panel, rotary control knobs, with a proudly displayed illuminated logo.
Weighing in a 50kg – or nearly 64kg with packing – it's a two-person lift, and even then, it would help if both were regular gym-goers. Still, when you've unboxed the beast, you'll likely be satisfied with the fruits of your labour. Those two oversize meters glint menacingly from the front panel, either side of the four LED uplit 12AX7A preamp valves set just inside, behind the front fascia. They glow as red as a witch's cauldron at switch-on, only turning green when the unit has warmed up and is ready to play.
Overall build quality is – as you might expect at this price – excellent. The unit has aluminium end caps with built-in handles and a beautiful stainless steel chassis, polished to a mirror finish. On top is a block diagram that shows the connections at the back. I found this to be somewhat of a stylistic eccentricity, but I have to admit that it's mighty handy when trying to plug things in. After all, it's not the sort of integrated that you can easily slide out of your equipment rack…
The proprietary technology associated with McIntosh amps is Autoformers, which guarantee in this case that the full 350 watts is always delivered, regardless of speaker impedance. Thermal Trak is used to minimise distortion and operating temperature. Using a solid-state power amp section, the MA12000 actually runs quite cool. Another patented technology called Power Guard prevents the amp from clipping; the preamp tubes change back to red when this is engaged.
This amplifier does an awful lot of things. There's a phono stage with both moving coil and moving magnet inputs, for starters, with a good variety of adjustments possible – both resistance and capacitance. These are operated from the remote control, making instantaneous adjustment extremely straightforward. Then there's an eight-band graphic equaliser, which goes from 25Hz to 10kHz, which is a feature I haven't seen on an amplifier since the late nineteen seventies. I'm not a fan personally, but it can be bypassed and provides useful support if your listening room has wayward acoustics.
McIntosh's DA2 Digital Audio Module includes seven digital audio inputs – two coaxial, two optical, one USB, one proprietary MCT (for McIntosh's SACD/CD transports), plus one audio-only HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) for film and TV. The DA2 supports hi-res on the USB input, doing DSD 512 and DXD up to 384kHz, while the coaxial and optical inputs are capable of 24-bit, 192kHz, with Roon certification. The MA12000 doesn't earn the soubriquet of 'Swiss army knife' in my book because it lacks a streaming module. Of course, you could easily add a network bridge, out-of-sight if required, but I can't quite understand its omission on this otherwise “do-it-all” design. There are eight analogue inputs, of which two are balanced, with a balanced and unbalanced output to connect to an additional amplifier if needed, and also the now-obligatory headphone output.
I hooked up the McIntosh to my reference B&W 802D3 loudspeakers via Townshend F1 Fractal cable for this review. The MA12000 took the place of my VAC Phi 200 valve monoblocks, used with a passive preamplifier. For streaming, I used the dCS Bartok as a source with Qobuz in hi-res where possible, playing out to the amp via analogue balanced line-level cables.
Even-tempered, effortlessly powerful and very sweet is how I would describe this amplifier – although not strictly neutral. One of my current favourite recordings is the Soprano Regula Mühlemann singing Mozart Arias Volume 2. It is beautiful to hear and superbly captured. Listening to Idomineo showed this amp in all its glory. The soloist's voice had the right combination of body and texture, as well as a superb portrayal of her emotion. The orchestra sounded precise and clean, the sort of sound you hear which has vanishingly low distortion and effortless dynamics.
However, if you take stereo soundstaging super seriously, then this may not be the amp for you. This is because it doesn't do front-to-back layering quite as well as it does everything else. This will likely bother classical music fans more than it troubles others, as it's most noticeable in acoustically recorded music. Move to electronic programme material such as the 2000 remaster of Kraftwerk's Autobahn, for example, and this is soon forgotten – not least because of the expansive left-to-right stereo imaging. It sounded big, enveloping and generous – its soundstage large enough to intrigue my poor little cockerpoo dog, which in all fairness is easily confused. He became an unlikely but now devoted fan of this behemoth of an amplifier.
Bass was tighter and more immediate than my VAC Phi 200's power amps, proving crisp and snappy. The MA12000 also showed up Autobahn's tonality in technicolour and did a lovely job with the modern jazz of Kenny Burrell.Chitlins con Carne sounded strong and punchy. Sometimes I could hear the decay on the percussion sounding a little less organic than my VAC reference amps as if hi-hat cymbals were cut off just a little quickly. Yet this is a minor point and was hard to spot given that the McIntosh served up such an engaging sound overall.
Listening to a Philips vinyl pressing of Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, with Haitink and the London Philharmonic surprised me, as I had not expected the MA12000's phono stage to be so good. From this 1977 Philips recording, I am used to a mushy midrange, with a lot of the critical detail not being adequately resolved – yet here it was with complete clarity. My Inspire Monarch turntable, SME Series V tonearm and Lyra Etna moving coil cartridge were really cooking on gas together. I reckon it's a skillfully designed and executed phono stage that's far from being a last-minute addition – indeed, it's one of the best I've ever heard in my system. The Beethoven came to life like the sorcerer's apprentice!
Indeed, playing a Living Stereo vinyl release of Vienna Blood (1960) was nothing short of miraculous. The orchestra sounded huge and sweeping, the McIntosh eking out every ounce of charm from the record groove. Rhythm and timing were impeccable, with the infamous and oft misconstrued Viennese lilt as clear as a bell. It was amazing how the MA12000 energised this museum piece of a recording. The headphone stage proved equally good too, serving up a really open and mellifluous sound. My pair of Sennheiser HD800S cans had rarely felt happier, conveying all the joy of the music.
The bundled DAC module sounded highly respectable, but of course, couldn't match the standards of my very expensive, standalone dCS Bartok streaming DAC. Listening to Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic via Qobuz yielded a well balanced and musical performance. It lacks the air and space of the dCS yet still came over as enjoyably dynamic. Solti's reading of Mozart's Magic Flute fed from an Esoteric K-05 CD player served up similarly impressive results. I heard a smooth, warmish sound that was alluringly spacious left-to-right with vast reserves of power and fast and expressive dynamics. Had the MA12000's phono stage not been such a star, I'd have been well impressed with its DAC functionality!
It is hard to gauge products such as the McIntosh MA12000. After all, how can you rate it for value? I think the key to understanding it is the intended market. It's unlikely to appeal to those wanting absolute performance at the price, with no frills. At the same time, it's way too good to be dismissed as a 'lifestyle' product or as 'eye candy'. Instead, it's a striking looking, bang-up-to-date muscle amp with great sound.
Think of it as a one-stop shop for all your audio needs, if it helps. If you divide up all its constituent parts, then its value for money begins to look more sensible, as it comes with an excellent phono stage and very good DAC and headphone stage. Still, some will lament its lack of built-in streaming – and I can't see its eventual replacement, whenever that comes, not having it. Whatever. This is a fascinating product that gives those with lots of money to spend yet another lovely thing to spend it on!
Gifted violinist Rafael is one quarter of the Allegri String Quartet, playing second fiddle. Once a member of the CBSO under Sir Simon Rattle, he now teaches at London’s Junior Royal Academy. A long-time audiophile, he’s still on a quest for the perfect sound.
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