Published On: February 14, 1993

McIntosh MC 275 Power Amp Reviewed

Published On: February 14, 1993

McIntosh MC 275 Power Amp Reviewed

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.

McIntosh_MC275_amp.gif

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.

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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.)

Read more about the MC 275 on Page 2.
McIntosh_MC275_amp.gif

Not that this will deter the anachrophile; the looks alone will see
to that. Or, to put it another way, I don't know a single owner of the
new Harwood or Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso wristwatches -- modern reissues
of 60-year-old classics -- who feels that he or she is wearing a fake.
And that's because the externals are perfect renditions of the
originals, the manufacturers are the same and the internals are
actually better. In other words, gimme a Morgan over an MX5 any day of
the week. Or year of the century.

But, oh! is this amp contemporary. I spared it nothing, showed no
extra respect because it's a limited edition model (25-only in the UK,
probably no more than 3000 world-wide). I treated it like any amp fresh
off the assembly line. There's no on-off switch, the unit plugging
straight in for instant power. It warmed up to optimum in under an
hour. And I just dropped it straight into the system I was using: Krell
Reference 64 DAC and MD10 CD transport, Krell KRC pre-amp, Sonus Faber
Guarneri Homage loudspeakers
. Also employed were the Classé Thirty
pre-amp, the Primare 204 CD player, Sonus Faber Minima Amators and
Rogers LS3/5As. I used the unit in balanced and unbalanced modes, and
from each speaker tap, settling with balanced as best. The following
remarks are based primarily on use with the Krell electronics and the
Guarneris.

Call me a sucker. Call me the perfect rube to swallow this Antiques
Roadshow seduction and big tubes and historical veracity and hardware
contemporary with both my earliest vinyl purchases and my favourite
watches. I knew, no matter how much I protested that this amplifier
must be treated like any other despite the majority of owners being
collectors who might not even open the cartons, that I would swallow
the mythology like any malleable punter. And within 10 seconds I knew
that the MC275 (1993) was going to haunt me forever.

No, it wasn't the kitschy red, black and white owner's manual with
the fuzzy photo. No, it wasn't the genuine rather than retro
chrome-laden styling, looking as good now as it did then, when I was a
prepubescent audiophile pressing my nose against hi-fi shop windows. It
was the sound, the best balance I've heard yet between the new and the
old. It reminded me of a bunch of Audio Research amplifiers from eight
or nine years ago, while it's a bit fatter sounding than the current
ARC range. And that's a whole 'nuther kind of nostalgia for me, because
I think of 1980-85 as a mini-Golden Age, before digital technology
turned this hobby into a steaming pile of shit.

The MC275 does nothing so well as to deserve the accolade of 'Best'
in any category. Indeed, if it weren't for the styling and the
collector's value and sheer joy of owning a limited edition, I'd say
that anyone looking for a low-to-medium power, true high-end valve amp
need look no further than the ARC V70. Then you glimpse that gothic
typeface, silver-on-black, and you imagine -- if only for a moment --
that vinyl still rules, a digit is something you point in the air when
you want to tell someone to shove off and John Lennon has yet to meet
Yoko.

But your ears tell you otherwise. The spatial capabilities of the
MC275 are near-holographic, while scaled down slightly. This isn't the
biggest sounding amplifier in the world, regardless of programme
material or partnering equipment. But what it does have is exceptional
ability in portraying relative scale. Everything fits just so, and the
words 'small but perfectly formed' leap from your mouth. It's pukka 3D,
not Nintendo 3D, and it's open and clear, with nothing in the way of
texturing to suggest vintage tube hardware.

Bass? It's only so-so, with plenty of extension but marginal control
below a certain point. This is the main giveaway about the age of the
amp's DNA chain. But so what? Used with smallish speakers, the
flub-flubbery is filtered, the Guarneris, for example, not reaching
down far enough to expose this weakness. Conveniently, the upper and
middle bass are nice'n'tight, like Lycra on Kylie, so users with
smaller speakers won't ever hear what lurks below. But travel in the
other direction and you'll find out why I want to hit the jackpot at
Vegas in January to the tune of 3595.

Vocals and the MC275 go together like mint sauce and a bhajee. The
MC275 has a satiny quality that makes vocals, even Aphex'd in the late
1970s, sound like something off a Shaded Dog. Granted, it's a
coloration, but it doesn't half sweeten a shouty CD. The effect on
instruments, especially brass, is a sheen, a cuddly, rosy glow that's
probably so damned unrealistic as to border on Grimm, but, hey -- if I
want reality I'll become a social worker.

And yet there's enough speed and detail of truly modern proportions
to allay fears of rampant nostalgia. This amplifier does not turn a CD
player into an Ortfon SPU-GT. It does not disconnect woofers and
tweeters and fool you into thinking that you've suddenly acquired a
pair of early Quad ESLs. You couldn't get that finely-etched,
rock-solid 3D if the minor clues were swamped. Funnily enough, the
dynamics don't suffer despite the Swamp Thing bottom octave; the MC275
swings from quiet to loud deep to high and soft to hard with ease.

After years in the wilderness, pandering to dentists and lawyers
with lots of money and no appreciable concerns about sonics, McIntosh
has rediscovered its roots. I see those new faces at the Mac stand at
CES, including Ron 'The Silver Fox' Fone and Howie from Apogee. This
new blood has reintroduced a sense of audiophilia and aggression to
McIntosh, like someone in Binghampton, New York, having enough guts to
bring back the kind of amplifier that made McIntosh great in the first
place. It's good news. All good news. I just hope there's one MC275
left over in January, when I hit the big one at the Mirage. Because --
no foolin' -- this is one of only two pieces of equipment I've used
this year which has me bemoaning my lack of liquid assets, one I want
to own. (You'll read about the other next month.)

The 'new' MC275 is probably the coolest piece of hi-fi you can
actually buy today. Provided that you think a 1948 Indian Chief is the
coolest motorcycle, Bilko's the coolest Sergeant and Sinatra's just the
coolest. Period.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews from HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Find an AV receiver to integrate with the amp.
• Discuss audiophile equipment on AudiophileReview.com.

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