Return Of The Mac McIntosh MXA70 Review (Part 1)

9/27/2014 10:47:59 AM
Here's a small system with bags of charisma and retro charm - but you'll have to pay big money for it

The small system isn’t a new idea. Indeed, those outside the rarefied climes of separates hi-fi would probably regard it as the norm. After all, do we really need yards of pressed steel casework, acres of cables and multiple power plugs? For that reason alone, since the late seventies when Aurex sold its first microsystem, many folks wanting decent quality sound from a system taking up only a small space have eschewed traditional hi-fi.

In the case of the new McIntosh, there’s an extra dimension - if you pardon the pun. You see, it’s a rather special brand. Those who are older will have known it for a good many decades, and know that traditionally the company makes very high quality - and seriously large - separates. Its amplifiers are a particular favourite of mine, not just because of the sound but also the retro styling, which has never really gone out of fashion.

Description: McIntosh MXA70 has a smoothness and a refinement you wouldn't expect from a mini system

McIntosh MXA70 has a smoothness and a refinement you wouldn't expect from a mini system

In the MXA70, you see the latter in full effect. It looks like a McIntosh amplifier that’s shrunk in the wash. The two power meters are pure affectation; in practice they’re pretty useless because the ballistics of the needles aren’t fast enough to capture peaks. The reason they’re fitted, of course, is that they are iconically McIntosh; it would be like a late fifties Chevrolet without fins, were it not thus equipped. So not only is the MXA70 a high quality mini system, it is a McIntosh too, and advertises its status from the moment you power it up and those meters start glowing bright blue back at you.

The problem is that it costs $9,950, not an inconsiderable sum. Who would pay such an amount for a product such as this? I suspect the company wants to sell to existing customers - who doubtless have a spare bedroom or four plus a kitchen and triple garage to fill with sound. And there’s also that new demographic, lifestyle consumers who want a lovely thing - that just happens to play music.

Description: McIntosh MXA70 angle view

McIntosh MXA70 angle view

The MXA70 is a smallish, but not tiny one-box system that comprises a power amplifier, DAC, analogue preamplifier and a good-quality headphone amplifier that sports a new adaptation of McIntosh’s Autoformer technology to give three headphone impedance ranges. Added to this, there’s a Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD) feature to allow high-quality recordings to image like conventional speakers, the company says. Last but not least, there’s a pair of very nice looking compact loudspeakers bundled, too.

The amplifier section is an old-school Class AB design using the company’s ThermalTrak output transistors, said to have precise bias current control for ultra-low crossover distortion. It’s claimed to deliver 50W into 8ohms, although the company says it isn’t rated for 4ohm operation. The DAC section uses the popular Burr-Brown PCM1795 DAC chip, and offers coaxial, optical, AES/EBU and USB inputs; two line inputs are offered, one via RCA phones and the other via XLRs.

The supplied loudspeakers are made in the USA and are very well presented. A 20mm dome tweeter with dampening cloth surround, said to give high sensitivity and an extended response free of break-up modes, is fitted. At 2kHz this crosses over to a 100mm treated paper (with a rubber surround) bass unit, using a curvilinear cone profile. A fairly complex 14-element crossover is fitted, and sensibly includes a self-resettable fuse. McIntosh says second-order filters are used on both midrange/bass and tweeter for improved power handling and vertical dispersion.

Description: McIntosh MXA70 rear view

McIntosh MXA70 rear view

The MXA70 is a beautiful thing to look at, with an excellent finish. From the mirrored lower chassis to the flawless satin black of the transformer casings, there’s nothing not to like. The binding posts are good and chunky, and McIntosh supplies two runs of good spade-ended loudspeaker cable. The blue fluorescent front panel display matches the power meters perfectly, and the control knobs resemble grown-up McIntosh products, although the action on the volume control is a bit sharp.

How to compare

It's hard to compare the McIntosh MXA70, because there's nothing on sale quite like it. Prospective purchasers might look to something like Naim's SuperUniti with stablemate Focal Electra II 1008 Be standmount speakers ($5,050). It isn't quite as compact, has a wider feature set including uPnP streaming, more power and more upgradability. The sound is considerably better too, with a more open and dynamic character and lots more detail. It sounds more musical, more three dimensional and as good as any other grown-up hi-fi around at this price. That said, it isn't the wonderfully easy 'plug and play' design that the McIntosh is.

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