Integrated amplifiers have often been touted as space savers. Combining two components into one, the typical integrated amplifier also does away with a set of interconnects, and results in a smaller package than would be possible with separates. This saves not only on real estate, but on price as well. You’ve heard all this before.
McIntosh Laboratory’s MA9000 integrated amplifier measures 17.5”W x 9.45”H x 22”D, costs $10,000 USD, and conforms to no preconceived notion of what an integrated amplifier should be.
The MA9000 is specified to deliver 300Wpc into 8, 4, or 2 ohms. Hook it up to your biggest, baddest loudspeakers, and the MA9000 will surely tame them. Its central power transformer and adjacent Autoformers result not only in a weight of 101 pounds, but also in the confidence you’ll have in its ability to power anything tethered to it. And you’ll want to put the MA9000 front and center, where you can see it -- not only its front panel’s two blue power-output meters, flanked by massive aluminum endcap-handles, but also the display window toward the bottom of the glass faceplate. During my time with the MA9000 I grew to admire this display for its simplicity and usefulness. It tells you the input you’ve chosen, the sample rate if you’re using a digital input, and the volume as a percentage of maximum output (0-100%).
Below the display, from left to right, are: a High Drive headphone output that includes a crossfeed circuit that McIntosh has labeled Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD); Outputs 1 and 2, to respectively activate the main speaker outputs and the balanced preamp outputs; an Equalizer button (more on this below); Mute; and Standby/On. Directly below the left meter is a knob for adjusting Input, and below the right meter another knob for adjusting the Volume. Between these are the eight smaller knobs, for the equalizer -- McIntosh calls them discrete tone controls. These are manually adjusted (+/-12dB) and are centered at these frequencies: 25, 50, 100, 200, 400, 1000, 2500, and 10,000Hz. The only other features on the front panel are two small LEDs that tell you the status of the Power Guard circuitry, which protects your speakers against clipping that could send tweeter-destroying distortion into them, should you somehow manage to overdrive this thing.
Around back is a host of connectivity options. At the very bottom of the rear panel are six pairs of single-ended RCA inputs, and separate MM and MC phono inputs. On the left is one set of fixed outputs that can be used for a recording device, and next to these is a set of preamplifier outputs and power-amp inputs linked by jumpers (required for normal operation); in short, the MA9000’s preamp and power-amp sections can be used individually. Completing the bottom row of connections is a set of grounding posts for a turntable. Home-theater pass-through capability is included as well. Above all the RCA jacks are two sets of balanced XLR inputs and a set of XLR outputs (selected with the Output 2 button on the front panel). There are also the requisite control trigger inputs and outputs and, most notably, a removable panel (upgradeable, should McIntosh see fit to do so), on which are the inputs for the built-in DA1 digital-to-analog converter: two coax, two optical, USB, and MCT, the last for connection to a similarly equipped SACD transport, such as that of McIntosh’s own MCT450 SACD/CD player. The DA1 will accept 24-bit/192kHz via coax and optical, and, via USB, PCM up to 32/384, and DSD256 and DXD (352.8kHz). The MCT input tops out at DSD64, and will also accept CD’s 16/44.1. Bookending the inputs and outputs are the speaker binding posts, with taps for speakers with nominal impedances of 2, 4, and 8 ohms. These taps are McIntosh’s custom Solid Cinch posts -- massive, gold-plated affairs that grab hold of spades with a spring-loaded assuredness as you tighten down the nut.
Directly behind the transformer and autoformers are McIntosh’s Monogrammed Heatsinks. In addition to a fairly discreet “Mc” logo midway down each sink, the “Mc” logos are actually heatsinks themselves, and the shapes of the letters are in continuous cross-section from top to bottom. It’s clever and impressive. The sinks sit on a chassis of stainless steel polished to a high luster. I’ve always enjoyed the look of the McIntosh products, and over the course of the review period I grew fonder and fonder of gazing at the MA9000. My 11-year-old son described its look and feel as “retro cool,” and I think that pretty well sums it up. Not only is the look classic, but the build quality is outstanding. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen expensive audio products whose relatively simple aluminum cabinets have misaligned joins. Contrast that with the complex construction of the MA9000, whose materials include glass, stainless steel, and aluminum, among others -- it all fits together perfectly. I guess that level of manufacturing excellence is part of what you can attain when you have in-house control of virtually all aspects of machining and assembly, including the glass cutting. McIntosh has been doing this a long time; they’ve got the building of audio products down pat.
Setup and use
I used the MA9000 exclusively with a pair of TAD Micro Evolution One loudspeakers. My two sources included my Apple MacBook Pro laptop and an Oppo BDP-103 universal BD player, and wiring was with Siltech Explorer-series interconnects, speaker cables, and power cords. To control the MA9000 I used McIntosh’s HR085 remote handset, which worked terrifically -- it was very responsive and easy to navigate. The HR085 controls every aspect of the MA9000 except the equalizer.
I mentioned above how much I enjoyed the front-panel display -- I could quickly see the sample rate of the DAC input, and the volume readout, and could quickly dial in just the setting I wanted. Coming directly from the Devialet D-Premier, I found this a big change -- the Devialet’s readout is visible only when you’re looking directly down on it from above. Some commenters have said that they find the Mac’s blue meters distracting, but I didn’t. I did watch them occasionally -- and enjoyed it when I did -- but over time they just faded into the background at the front of my listening room. Most of my listening was done using the coax digital (Oppo) and USB (MacBook Pro) inputs.
I was immediately impressed by the tremendous presence of voices through the McIntosh MA9000. Lana Del Rey’s opening words in “White Mustang,” from her Lust for Life (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Interscope/Tidal), had a sound comprising tonal density and shape that made this singer’s voice feel tangible. In “Love,” her voice had much the same quality as in “White Mustang,” except that its image was more ultrafocused at the center of the soundstage -- in the other track, it was a little more reverb-y and not quite so focused. “Love” was recorded a touch more straightforwardly, with fewer electronic effects, and the MA9000 presented it as such. My point here is that the MA9000 was easily able to reveal the slight differences in how Del Rey’s voice was processed for these tracks. There was no glossing over of the differences, no homogenization. The bass beat that punctuates “Love” was springy through the MA9000, even bouncy, yet with real punch and physical impact. I had a sense that the MA9000 and the small woofers in the TAD speakers were mating especially well -- almost like an active speaker, without a passive crossover inserted between.
The bass underpinning “Something Just Like This,” a collaboration with Coldplay on the Chainsmokers’ Memories: Do Not Open (16/44.1 FLAC, Columbia/Tidal), was firm and deep. The low frequencies 28 seconds into the track startled and impressed me with their immediacy, the big Mac getting the absolute best bass from the TADs that I could ask for. I imagine that many listeners would have been taken aback that these speakers could produce the depth and power in the bass that I heard with the Mac providing the propulsion.
The sound of the acoustic piano in the opening bars of Alexis Ffrench’s single “Bluebird” (16/44.1 FLAC, Sony/Tidal) was simply beautiful, the MA9000 reproducing the light, hopeful sound with all of this music’s bloom and flowing nature intact. Of “Bluebird,” Ffrench has said, “I wanted to write something with a certain immediacy that spoke to people and connected with them, as that’s always at the forefront of my mind. The training for a classical musician is steeped in words and academia but my main aim is always to communicate with people.” There is a childlike innocence to this track that relaxes the soul while offering hope for the future. The MA9000 delivered this music without being so incisive as to dissect it. It was the perfect conduit for the beauty of “Bluebird” to settle into my room without being forced or hyper-analyzed.
All of this is to say that the MA9000 was very easy to listen to. It didn’t beat me over the head with detail, nor did it gloss over the elements of the music that make audiophiles feel closer to the performance. In this respect I think it accomplishes a rare feat: a truly balanced sound.
Considering only the pedigrees of the components I’ve been using for the past number of months, you might think my system’s sound had taken a plunge. I’ve gone from a stack of Soulution electronics that included the 711 stereo power amplifier ($65,000) and 560 DAC ($35,000), to a vintage, sweet-sounding Coda Model 11 stereo amp ($5500 new 20 years ago, $1500 used) and a Hegel Music Systems HD30 DAC ($4800), to the McIntosh MA9000 integrated ($10,000). It’s easy to think that adding more boxes, particularly more expensive boxes, automatically leads to more musical satisfaction. But my experience with the McIntosh MA9000 unequivocally proved to me that that’s not necessarily true. And lest you think I’m adjusting my expectations downward based on the MA9000’s price and/or the fact that it’s a integrated -- well, that wasn’t the case either. While it’s true that the Mac lacked the wild resolution of the Soulution gear, and didn’t have the golden class-A sound of the Coda-Hegel combo, it brought its own charms to the table that I found myself enjoying just as much as those other combinations of electronics.
What charms? The McIntosh was super in the midrange. In my room, singers of all types had presence that gave their music a real human touch, with no electronic artifacts that reminded me that I was listening to recordings. The bass was firm and athletic, giving rock and pop a rock-solid underpinning. Imaging was steady as she goes, not diffuse or wandering, and absolutely locked in when the recording called for it. Lastly, the highs had the detail you’d expect from any good modern component, yet were never emphasized or tipped up in a way that made them stand out from the rest of the audioband. These attributes made the MA9000 easy to listen to for hours on end.
I tested the MA9000’s analog inputs by running the Oppo BDP-103 into the McIntosh’s RCAs. As you might expect, the MA9000’s DA1 DAC module was far superior to the Oppo’s. The Oppo sounded blunted and less energetic overall, and there were times I didn’t hear some fine details in the music that I knew were there. I fairly quickly returned to the MA9000’s digital inputs and didn’t look back.
More interesting was the use of the tone controls. I cued up the Ayoub Sisters’ eponymous first album (16/44.1 FLAC, Classic FM/Decca/Tidal) and listened to “Call to Prayers (A Message of Unity)” and “Piè Jesu.” The album, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in London’s Abbey Road Studios, has quickly become a favorite of mine, as the Ayoubs also cover tracks such as “Uptown Funk” and “Billie Jean.” The recording was perfect for detecting minute tonal shifts -- violin, cello, and piano are the prominent instruments, and the sound quality is smooth and rich but also detailed and natural. A cello’s strings are tuned approximately to 65Hz, 98Hz, 146Hz, and 220Hz. I was able to attain an even richer sound, without thickening the sound of the cello too much, with a slight bump at 100Hz while playing “Call to Prayers.” Listening to the piano about halfway through this track, I also raised the 1kHz band about 2dB, but quickly backed off -- the sound became a touch too glassy, and therefore not as tonally accurate. My point here is not how the MA9000 sounded with any given track with the equalizer/tone controls engaged, but that these controls worked as advertised, allowing the user to fine-tune the sound ever so slightly, track by track. You also have the option of adjusting the tonal balance of your speakers to something more to your liking. Go ahead and tame that bright tweeter, and give the woofers a modest bass bump if that’s what sounds good. I won’t tell your audiophile buddies -- I promise.
Devialet vs. McIntosh
I had on hand an original Devialet D-Premier integrated amplifier-DAC ($15,995, discontinued), and thought it would be fascinating to compare it with the McIntosh MA9000. Looking at these two components side by side, it’s hard to imagine how anyone drawn to one could also find the other attractive. The Devialet is sleek and modern, the McIntosh massive and retro. Yet I found myself appreciating both, just as I can appreciate a fine sports car and a rugged pickup truck -- the D-Premier and the MA9000 are both well designed, visually, and it was easy to like whichever one I had in the system at the time. Sonically, it was much the same: they were obviously different, but each had a sound I found enticing.
The Devialet D-Premier’s strengths were audible straight away: It was easy to hear the crystal-clear, dimensional sound that has always been the hallmark of Devialet amps with “Fruit Stand,” from the Onyx Collective’s Lower East Suite, Part One (16/44.1 FLAC, Big Dada/Tidal). Saxophonist Isaiah Barr’s menagerie pays tribute to New York City in this track, and man is it ever cool. The smooth sound of the recording was made even more so by the Devialet’s quiet, tactful delivery, Barr’s sax floating in space just to right of center, and the light percussion and double bass respectively adding rhythm and foundation. I was thoroughly impressed by how the Devialet let through the sound of the space around the instruments with dimension and nuance. The sound was transparent, with no sonic artifacts that led me to believe the music was recorded, not live.
The MA9000, by contrast, pushed Barr’s sax a little closer to my listening position, and “Fruit Stand” sounded a touch less smooth but more dynamic overall -- and, as a result, a bit more human. The percussion also sounded a tiny bit more forceful through the McIntosh, and the overall sound a smidgen less atmospheric than through the Devialet. The D-Premier’s perspective was farther away; with the McIntosh, I felt as if the performers were close enough that I could reach out and touch them. With “Fruit Stand,” the sound was definitely cooler with the Devialet. The McIntosh had more of a human touch.
“Let You Down,” from NF’s Perception (16/44.1 FLAC, NF Real Music/Tidal), was driving through the Devialet, the machine-gun lyrics delivered with all the disappointment and pain steely and intact. The D-Premier produced excellent senses of pace, rhythm, and timing, while keeping the voices clear and matter of fact. In addition, there was actually some semblance of a soundstage painted in my room, and an extra-firm bass foundation delivered right at track’s end. Such was the Devialet’s resolution that I could hear the compression in the recording -- it made me wish for a wider dynamic range that this recording just doesn’t contain. The MA9000, in contrast, sounded fuller and more solid, with less apparent emphasis of pace, rhythm, and timing, and more focus on the instruments. The piano sounded bigger through the big Mac, with the performer, again, closer to my listening position.
Overall, the Devialet D-Premier’s primary traits of transparency, resolution, and a slight coolness were fully revealed in comparison to the McIntosh MA9000’s closer, more intimate sound, the latter displaying denser, more tangible images. Which will you prefer? As obvious as were the differences between these sounds, the differences in how these two integrateds are styled and built are even greater. The Devialet is sleek, compact, and European; the McIntosh is substantial, bold, unabashedly American. I can appreciate either look, my preference depending on the day and my mood. Devialet’s amps have received many awards from the SoundStage! publications over the years -- and the McIntosh equaled them. High praise indeed.
McIntosh Laboratory’s MA9000 is one of the most complete audio products I’ve reviewed. Not only is its sound quality stunningly good -- full, resolving, powerful, present -- so are its build quality and styling. The user interface is ergonomically correct in every aspect, and its feature set eclipses that of most of its competitors. For $10,000 you get a first-class power amplifier, preamplifier, and DAC, with an analog equalizer thrown in to boot. Although I didn’t test the phono stage or the headphone amp, they round out a package that, when all is taken into consideration, must be considered a screaming bargain. When the fit’n’finish that McIntosh has lavished on the MA9000 is factored in, the result is the most easily recommendable product I’ve reviewed in years -- a Reviewers’ Choice with a bullet, and an early leader in our 2018 race for Product of the Year.
. . . Jeff Fritz
- Speakers -- TAD Micro Evolution One
- Integrated amplifier-DAC -- Devialet D-Premier
- Sources -- Apple MacBook Pro running Sierra 10.12.6, Roon, Tidal streaming; Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player
- Cables -- Siltech Explorer interconnects, speaker cables, power cords
McIntosh Laboratory MA9000 Integrated Amplifier-DAC
Price: $10,000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
McIntosh Laboratory, Inc.
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 723-1545
Fax: (607) 724-0549