Reissue, replica, reincarnation -- call it what you will. Just thank the audio gods that somebody at McIntosh has a sense of history. Unlike other makers who have squandered their heritage or merely milked it as it suited them, McIntosh has -- with the Gordon J. Gow Commemorative MC275 Power Amplifier -- performed an act of such aptness, such 'correctness' that it brings a tear to this anachrophile's eye. As with the revived Dynas and the limited run of Radford STA25 MkIVs, the 'new' MC275 is an answer to many prayers. Because, as any tube freak or hi-fi collector will tell you, the McIntosh MC275 is one of the most sought-after vintage amplifiers of all time, right up there with the Marantzes 8 and 9, the early Citations, Kerr-McKoshes and original Futtermans. It was one of the last valve Macs, the essence of McIntosh design at its most refined.
We are not talking small amounts of money when we discuss the top audio collectables. Think $5000 or $10,000 (US) for the prime items which turn up shrink-wrapped in the Akihabara district of Tokyo for those anally-retentive hardware fetishists who think that vintage cars should be wearing their original tyres. For any manufacturer to remove the collector's pain of finding a decent sample of an early classic (and then finding the money for it) is a mitzvah. Not only does the Gordon J. Gow MC275 provide you with an actual, factory-assembled, fully-blessed product, it does it at a price similar to or below that of currently available mint originals: £3595. Hell, McIntosh even gives you a facsimile owner's manual.
By the time the '275 was introduced in May of 1961, McIntosh was already established as one of the key high-end manufacturers of the day, battling with Marantz, Harman-Kardon and very few others. (Note: the British hi-fi amplifier industry didn't discover the high-end until Tim De Paravicini came along in the mid-1970s.) The company was into its 12th year, it had a reputation for solidity, dependability and customer service (still unrivalled to this day) and it had class. Those McIntosh clinics, the world's niftiest travelling hi-fi show, were major events in this casualty's youth.
Meanwhile, transistors were rearing their ugly little tails and the 1960s would herald the first of the weird-load loudspeakers: hungry, ornery, awkward little suckers which demanded a lot more than 15W from a brace of EL34s. No, the tough speakers of that era were nothing like the 2 ohm terrors which are the norm for the 1990s, but more power was needed for, say, an AR-3A than a Klipschorn. And McIntosh's MC275, like the model number suggests, delivered a real 2x75W. Better still, it could be mono'd for double that power. McIntosh would make '275s until 1973, eventually abandoning valves for solid-state...and unwittingly creating a demand for an item not recognised as a collector's item until the hobby of using vintage equipment was born in the Orient a few years later.
Throughout the entire period, Gordon J. Gow was near or at the helm of McIntosh. He started with Frank McIntosh as Vice President in 1949, and was promoted to President in 1977. Among his achievements were the co-inventing of the McIntosh Unity Coupled Amplifier Circuit and he is credited with establishing McIntosh's global reputation. He served as President until his death in 1989. I had the good fortune meet Gordon only once, but I recall his fastidiousness, his attention to detail, and -- above all -- his devotion to McIntosh. And even though we had an amicable argument about tubes vs transistors, with Gordon preferring the latter, it's somehow fitting that the company has chosen to remember him with a valve unit. No, make that THE valve unit.
Every knowledgeable Mac collector I've met has, when asked 'What's the best Mac ever?', cited either the MC275 or one from the other end of the range, like the wee MC30. Will they be pleased with the reissue? Yes, but only if they're prepared to treat it as an update of a vintage design, because McIntosh decided (wisely) to incorporate a number of sane modifications, the external ones all found on the sloping section of the chrome chassis. They include the following changes to the original spec:
* Gold-plated XLR inputs for balanced operation, fixed at 2.0V for rated output, have been fitted to allow for use with modern pre-amps.
* An increase in gain to accommodate the balanced inputs, and a resultant change in the valve complement, were necessary. The 12AU7 tubes were replaced with 12AX7s and the 12BH7s were replaced with 12AZ7s. Power, though, is still derived from KT88s/6550s.
* Alongside the unbalanced RCA type phono inputs, positioned as per the original on the vertical section below the sloped panel, are switches for choosing between balanced and unbalanced operation and mono or stereo operation. The level controls for the unit remain in the same position as per the original.
* Screw tags for the speaker connections (4, 8 or 16 ohms stereo or 2, 4 and 8 ohms mono) were retained out of some sense of purist, anachrophilic masochism, but they now run horizontally instead of vertically. They still suck.
* Removed during the updating process were the octal output socket connected to the high impedance transformer taps, the three position mode switch, the balance control and the mono volume control (the left/right level controls deal with balance, while the right channel becomes the mono channel in single-channel operation).
* Internal upgrades include close tolerance film resistors, polypropylene coupling capacitors and fibreglass printed circuit boards.
* The aesthetics -- of crucial importance to those who cherish anything of a vintage mien -- have been absolutely preserved bar the changes to the sockets and switches. The chrome-plated chassis, big black transformers and oh-so-Fifties-America badging have been retained, while the modern demands for safety mean that all MC275s are supplied with a perforated valve cage.
Partly because I don't have access to a mint, original '275 and partly because I haven't heard an original in three years, I almost passed on this review. But, as I learned with the Dynaco Stereo 70 Mk II review, even if I did have a perfect original to hand, 'There's no going back.' If you found an old MC275 which had never been used, one which had been in climate-controlled storage for the past 20+ years, it wouldn't make for a valid comparison. For one thing, internal components suffer from age, and it's unlikely that exact replacements are available. For another, the 1993 version of the MC275 contains far too many updates in the signal path to allow for valid comparisons -- the tube changes alone are enough to alter the performance substantially. (This is why, for example, the Radford STA24 MKIV, with its KT77s, is so unlike a MkIII, whatever the other similarities.)