Never let it be said that variety is in short supply amongst hi-fi designers. In direct contrast to nearly every other integrated amplifier in this series, the McIntosh MA6900 stands out like an off-roader amongst grocery carts. Indeed, two specifications make it immediately apparent that the McIntosh arrived from a completely different direction than (especially) the slim-line Krell and Pink Triangle or the diminutive Red Rose Rosette: this device measures a massive 17 1/2x7 1/16x18 1/8in (WHD) including connectors and it weighs a serious 41lb.
• Read a Ken Kessler review of the Pink Triangle Inergral Integrated Amp Reviewed.
• Check out this review of Krell's FBI top-of-the-line Integrated amp reviewed.
Because McIntosh is as much a tradition as it is a hi-fi manufacturer, and because its current owners haven't dumped all over its legacy as has happened with other luxury products (I can name car and watch companies which have been whored to death), there is no identity crisis. The MA6900 unashamedly reeks of retro, of Mac-ism, with its real glass front panel, its gilded knobs, its massive 'Peak Responding Output Meters' - blue-lit analogue dials being as important to McIntosh as the round cream-coloured modulometers are to Nagra. Mac's meters are calibrated in 'watts output', and they 'respond 95% full scale to a single cycle tone burst at 2kHz - almost 10 times faster than a professional VU meter.' They look so cool when the room is dimply lit that you're forgiven for shutting off the lights just to bask in their glow.
It's genuine time-warp stuff, despite the modernism imparted by its suitability for custom installation and home theatre integration. There's a shopping list here which is true to the Binghampton Creed, just as Jaguars (X-type aside...) should boast wood and leather interiors: a stainless steel chassis; the massive, proprietary 'Output Autoformers' which provide amplifier matching for 2, 4 and 8 ohm speaker loads; controls - fashion be damned! - for loudness compensation, mono selection and five-band equalization via rotaries operating at 30, 150, 500, 1500 and 10k Hz, +/-12dB, the design being an 'Exclusive McIntosh Equalizer Circuit'.
Competition and Comparison
You can compare the McIntosh MA6900 against other integrated amps by reading our reviews for Krell's KAV-300i integrated amp and the AMC CVT 3030 integrated amp. You can find more information available in our Amplifier section and on our McIntosh brand page.
As is obvious, McIntosh is the antithesis of the still-current-after-25-years School of Minimalism. No doubt due to its primary audience consisting of wealthy professionals, McIntosh doesn't believe its clientele should suffer any inconvenience. Thus, the MA6900 also boasts full remote control over six program sources (Phono/Aux, CD1, CD2, Tuner, Tape, and Video, including one XLR balanced input marked CD), with all functions operated by 'Logic Driven Electro Magnetic Switching' for reliability and low distortion.
This integrated, by the way, boasts so many layers of protection that one cannot imagine any circumstances under which it would take out your speakers or your home: thermal sensors to turn off the output when improper loading or ventilation causes overheating, turn-on delay to prevent thumps, 'Power Guard' circuit - a waveform comparator which monitors the wave shape of the amplifier input and output signals - to prevent clipping while protecting speakers from damage, an electronically-regulated power supply to maintain stable operation 'even during "Brown Outs" or low line voltage', direct-current speaker protection which shorts the MA6900 to ground if for any reason a DC voltage appears at the amplifier output, Sentry Monitor to sense the dynamic operating time, voltage and current of the amplifier output stage to confine it to non-destructive limits and more. Paranoia? Sure - but so-o-o reassuring. Especially if you've ever seen flames from your system. As I have.
Although the front panel is crammed with lights, meters, buttons and rotaries, there's a sense of sanity about it because the design is symmetrical and wholly functional. The meters occupy the upper half, flanking the Power Guard tell-tales. Below are two large rotaries for balance and volume, on either side of the five equalizer controls. Below this, from left to right, are the IR sensor, a row of six buttons for source selection, a headphone socket, six more buttons for mono, output selection, mute, loudness and standby, and lastly the primary power on/off. McIntosh recommends leaving the unit in standby when not in use; warm-up takes a good hour by my aural reckoning.
Your eyes will pop out when you see the back, wondering if someone slipped in an A/V receiver when you weren't looking. The upper section contains two vertical rows of multi-way binding posts for 2/4/8 ohm speaker selection; XLRs for the balanced CD input sits in-between. Across the bottom are the IEC mains input, followed by a dozen small sockets and a large screw terminal for controlling an external video switcher (offering five more A/V inputs), powering up other components, mating the unit to a keypad for a second room, and other functions related to custom installations. The remaining sockets are conventional, gold-plated phonos for all sources and tape in/out, pre/main separation, and a tiny toggle to choose set the phono/aux to either (mm) phono or line level; there's also an earth post for a turntable. The remote performs all major functions, as well as controlling other McIntosh components such as CD players and tuners.
If you accept that the McIntosh experience is to audio what Leica cameras are to (film) photography, the performance is almost secondary because you assume it will be stellar. The reason you 'buy into' McIntosh is because you want to be part of that culture, of unparalleled back-up, Mercedes-like reliability, faultless build-quality, timeless styling, small 'c' conservatism. But all of that is worth nothing if it doesn't deliver sound quality approaching the best. Fortunately, after a dark era when the company seemed to go out of its way to aggravate subjective listeners, the company returned to performance-related matters and has not had to apologise for anything for nearly a decade. The MA6900 will, then, confound those who refuse to accept that something so sensibly, intelligently designed and manufactured can hold its own against self-immolating, cranky, ugly, over-priced but politically-correct garbage from the cottage industry.
In direct contrast to Pink Triangle's Integral, which offered a wide but shallow sound stage, the McIntosh offers a blissfully deep soundstage but one which barely extends beyond the speakers. I used the Mac with Wilson WATT Puppy System 6, Wharfedale Diamond 8.1s and Apogee Scintilla speakers, and the effect varied not one bit. When you consider that this amplifier is sized like a monster stand-alone power amp rather than a convenience-and-compactness-to-the-fore integrated, this aspect does make it sound 'small'. I say that only because the consensus seems to suggest that stage width is more important to most listeners than stage depth (which explains how certain fifth-rate British amplifiers have managed to survive for so long). It's not that the Mac is a poor stereo performer - the stage depth will dazzle you - but it does confuse listeners who have grown used to sound way beyond the speakers' edges. Yes, it can be remedied in part by repositioning your loudspeakers, but at the expense of stage depth. Then again, you have a lot of the latter which you can sacrifice.
Like the Gryphon, the MA6900 was easy to listen to for hours due to its delicacy and refinement, while at the same time offering seemingly limitless power and an ability to behave like a wild animal when required. But I noticed another curious phenomenon, one which will amuse reviewer Jimmy Hughes, who - I believe - was one of the first to postulate that every piece of music has an optimum playback level.
This, of course, is logical: if you were sitting at a specific position at a given concert, there would be a 'true' sound level. Whatever, it was a rare observation of Jimmy's with which I actually agreed. The McIntosh made this concept an even more vivid concern, and setting the volume reminded me of focussing a manual camera. It provided a narrow band where the level was nigh on perfect. A dB or two either way and it lost precision, grew a shade shouty, or became nasal. And rather than seem a hindrance, this quality merely reinforced the notion that the McIntosh was a true high performance device, much more than a universal player for soft-arsed dentists or lawyers who buy gear according to the range of facilities.
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