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The McIntosh MHA150 is more than meets the eye

  • McIntosh Labs is, by all accounts, an iconic audio firm. Throughout their 70 years of operation, McIntosh gear has been reviewed countless times and their history thoroughly documented in a number of places – see former employee Roger Russell’s meticulous website coverage for a definitive take on the subject.

    I grew up listening to a MAC1700 receiver (from the late 1960s). That relatively modest McIntosh product, its tube tuner imbuing the numerous local jazz stations of the era with a strong sense of tone. Back then, the MAC1700 drove a set of Altec Valencia speakers with an authority that was surprising given its conservative 40 watts-per-channel power rating. Over the years, I’ve heard from many others for whom the MAC1700 could be considered a gateway drug, and I’ve owned more than my fair share of McIntosh amps, preamps, and assorted other components – all of which performed admirably in their respective roles.

    Despite these positive experiences, I’ve avoided reviewing McIntosh gear all these years for the simple fact that they focus on large, speaker-oriented components and my reviews lean towards personal audio.

    That changed this year as I spent some quality time with the McIntosh MHA150 headphone amplifier (US$5000). The MHA150 is an updated version of the MHA100 that debuted in 2014. McIntosh very specifically uses the term “headphone amplifier” but, as we shall see, that doesn’t really do the MHA150 justice.

    In actuality, the MHA150 could be seen as a multi-faceted integrated amplifier capable of driving speakers with a stout 50 wpc. It sports one pair each of RCA and XLR inputs, as well as a single unbalanced output used for feeding either an external (power) amplifier or a subwoofer. This analog connectivity admittedly pales in comparison to McIntosh’s MA5300 integrated or C49 preamplifier, but keep in mind the MHA150 is only 11.5 inches wide versus the full 17.5 inches of those components. Also, the built-in DAC makes having numerous analog inputs less critical than it might otherwise be.

    Next comes the DAC section, which has been reworked since the MHA100. The MHA150 gives us an (unspecified) ESS DAC chip fed by our choice of USB, coaxial, TOSLINK or the proprietary MCT link for use with dedicated McIntosh transports. All four inputs handle high-res PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz, whilst USB goes all the way up to 384kHz with PCM and DSD256. Interestingly, the MCT link also handles DSD signals from SACD media when used with a compatible McIntosh transport such as the MCT80 – which just so happens to have an identical small(ish) form factor.

    Then we have the headphone output, which is arguably the main attraction. It uses a 1/4″ socket (no balanced output here) where transformer-coupling via McIntosh’s Autoformers allows it to accommodate a wide range of headphone types. The simple-to-use menu system lets one select low (8-40 ohms), medium (40-150 ohms) or high (150-600 ohms) impedance options, as well as toggle between normal (250mW) and high (1 full watt per channel) output. Then there’s the selectable HXD crossfeed option which is a proprietary solution attempting to recreate a more blended, speaker-like presentation – more on that later.

    As if that wasn’t enough, we get several trim options for pairing with lower or higher voltage analog signals, as well as 5-stage selectable bass boost in 2.5dB increments centered around 40Hz. There’s also stereo/mono switching and a left/right balance adjustment, all of which apply to both the headphone and speaker outputs. All of this adds up to quite a few different ways to (hopefully) achieve harmony with your gear and your preferences.

    Now, it’s all well and good to pack in a ton of features, but what I appreciate here is that McIntosh has made those features logical to use. Settings are saved independently for each separate input, and the headphone out allows the creation of 5 additional profiles with their own impedance/power, HXD and bass boost selections. These can even be named – I have one called “HD800”, another called “Empyrean” and so on. Little touches like these turn what could be an overwhelming number of options into a neat, manageable system which, after initial configuration, just works without causing distraction.

    In terms of outward aesthetics, the MHA150 is classic McIntosh. Love it or hate it, the firm has a unique design language that will never be mistaken for anything else. That means a black glass front panel, a big green McIntosh logo and, of course, those blue VU meters – whose illumination can be disabled if one so desires. It also means MHA150 pairs nicely with pretty much any McIntosh component from the late 1990s onward, including other small(ish) form factor units like the previously mentioned MCT80 transport, MB50 streamer, and MP100 phono pre.

    While aesthetics are subjective, fit and finish is not. The MHA150 is built to an undeniably high standard. The switchgear is a joy to use. McIntosh engineers have obviously spent time “tuning” the feel of the knobs until they got everything just right. These tangible qualities can’t be conveyed in pictures and yet they really make an impression once we get hands-on. Also worth noting is the oddly-shaped remote, which actually feels great in the hand and can easily be used in the dark. Contrast this with the archetypal upscale audiophile wand: unnecessarily heavy, milled out of solid metal and containing rows of tiny non-backlit buttons arrayed in no particular order. Pretensions aside, I know which one I’d rather use.

    During installation and setup, I could immediately appreciate the more compact size of the MHA150 as compared to the full-size McIntosh gear I’ve owned. My custom made audio console can handle whatever I throw at it in terms of weight, but doesn’t have unlimited depth. Remember: I mostly deal with headphone-related gear which tends to be more compact. The MHA150 being 18 inches deep makes for just about a perfect fit once we factor in cable connections and back panel breathing room. I believe the last McIntosh integrated I owned was something like 22 inches deep, pushing the limits of many stands/consoles. I also appreciate the narrow width of the MHA150 and the fact that it “only” weighs ~32 pounds (14kg). Will the MHA150 fit comfortably on every desktop? Nope. But neither is it beyond the realm of possibility, particularly if one is willing to rearrange desk layout.

    The all-in-one nature of the MHA150 allowed me to build a relatively simple system around it. Starting with clean power via an Equi=core 1800 balanced power conditioner, I fed everything with Audio Art Power 1 ePlus AC cables. My primary source was the Nativ Vita which I tried via USB, coaxial and Toslink just to see if I could spot a major audible difference between them. I couldn’t. Music streamed from an Asustor AS6404T NAS located in another room, which houses my ~7TB collection and serves it up via Roon. The remaining cables also came from Audio Art with the exception of the iFi Gemini3.0 USB cable. On headphones, I started out with the wonderful Meze Empyrean planar magnetic, which have become my goto cans of choice over the past few months.

    First Impressions
    I should have known better than to expect the sound signature of the MAC1700 from a modern McIntosh. That old unit was warm, lush, somewhat syrupy and overall voiced towards a “make everything sound better than it should” sort of presentation. But I realize that it was made almost 50 years ago and had a very different focus – primarily, the FM radio broadcasts of that era. So when I played my favorite/best Hendrix recordings (ripped from the early Japan Polydor P20P discs) and heard a complete lack of editorialization from the MHA150, I had to shift my expectations a bit. The MAC1700 gave us highly flattering feel-good sonics but it also held back a portion of the recording. The MHA150 served up a more transparent, clear presentation, free from euphonic coloration.

    Once I got over that mental hurdle, I could hear the MHA150 for what it is – a superbly capable source and headphone amplifier. It drives the Meze Empyrean with an authority I only associate with the best in class (at this price point). Transient response, bass texture, imaging, and treble refinement are simply superb — and on a level that I’ve experienced only from the very best headphone amps to grace my review system: the Niimbus US4+, the Pass Labs HPA-1 and the Cayin HA300. Note that those are typically dedicated headphone amplifiers without integrated DACs or speaker-amp functionality, yet their prices aren’t far off from the versatile MHA150. All up, an interesting development that I didn’t anticipate.

    Further Listening
    Have I mentioned how addicting Roon can be? I love being able to quickly string together a bunch of varied tracks, using both my own library as well as Tidal and Qobuz, to create eclectic playlists with no discernible rhyme or reason. I threw everything at the MHA150/Empyrean combo and the pair never failed to impress. Audiophile-approved material sounded utterly convincing: the Reference Recordings release of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, an SACD rip of A Love Supreme, and Eric Bibb’s transcendent Spirit & The Blues in DSD128. All breathtaking. But the “real world” music I listen to most often was also incredibly well represented: the indie synth-rock of Mutemath. Carpenter Brut’s electro-throwback Trilogy. The Ohio Players, oozing funkiness on Skin Tight. Grimy underground hip-hop from Aesop Rock and Cannibal Ox. A crushing mixture of metal from Revocation and Gojira and Thulcandra. The MHA150 serves it up to the Empyrean in spectacular fashion, performing admirably regardless of genre or recording quality.

    But allow me to break things down a bit more.

    My first concern was the potential weakness of the DAC section. Typically, combo devices are primarily classified as either headphone amplifier or DAC. The remaining portion is often treated as something of a bonus – it’s there, but it isn’t of the same caliber as the main attraction. With McIntosh focusing on the “headphone amplifier” terminology, I worried that MHA150 might be somewhat compromised with respect to D/A conversion.

    Such fears were misplaced. Isolating the DAC section by tapping the line-outs to feed my reference Pass Labs HPA-1, I heard results which would easily command $1500 or more if sold as a stand-alone product. The sound is clear and articulate, but not overly analytical, with excellent treble detail and well-sorted soundstage. By comparison, Mytek’s Liberty ($995) lacks a bit of control and extension on both ends, and can’t delineate fine spacial detail with the same precision. The result ends up much the same as when Phil Wright pitted the Liberty against its elder sibling, only this time around with the MHA150 standing in for the Brooklyn+. I don’t have a Brooklyn+ presently but, leaning on audible memory, the MHA150 DAC section could be in the same league, and quite possibly a bit better in some respects. And I would unquestionably choose the integrated McIntosh DAC over the original Mytek Brooklyn (non plus version). That the McIntosh all-in-one is comfortable hanging in that space means this is no throwaway bonus feature.

    Next comes the self-described main draw of this versatile machine – the headphone amp. I listened using the integrated digital section as well as the Wyred 4 Sound 10th Anniversary DAC for a second opinion. Again starting with the Meze Empyrean planar magnetic cans, which aren’t obscenely difficult to drive, the sonics produced by this amp are superb. It presents as powerful, dynamic, and completely wide open, with a sense of purity and refinement that few other amps – regardless of price – can match. I particularly enjoy the way it resolves higher frequencies – trumpets have an extended yet well-controlled “bite” to them, whilst cymbals convey the proper “splash” of energy along with the corresponding decay trail. Again, this is a level of performance I’ve heard from only the absolute best headphone amplifiers out of the many that have been in my system. I own several dozen headphones at the moment, plus amplifiers and DACs numbering well into the double digits, yet I could happily live with just the MHA150/Empyrean combo. It’s that good.

    Having said that, I admit that half the fun of headphone listening is the different perspectives brought by owning multiple models – something few of us have the budget or space to accomplish with speakers. Rotating through my collection, it is difficult to find a headphone which the MHA150 doesn’t care for. Focal’s Elex doesn’t need a ton of power yet benefits greatly from a very well controlled amp, and the MHA150 grips it with an iron fist. Same with Sennheiser’s picky HD800. The McIntosh won’t transform it into a rich, full-bodied Sony MDR-Z1R, but it does help bring out the incredible resolution and speed that the Sennheiser has to offer whilst minimizing treble zing as much as possible. Those who still can’t quite relate to the high-strung German might try a modest dose of the MHA150’s bass boost. An extra 2.5dB (or even 5dB) helps lend the HD800 a better sense of solidity without gumming up what is otherwise nicely separated. And speaking of the Sony Z1R…. superb tonality and imaging when paired with the McIntosh amp, plus a lush, inviting midrange, make for a seriously addicting combination. This is a headphone that can sound overcooked when paired with some amps, but the neutral, transparent nature of the MHA150 is a long way from being too much of a good thing.

    When faced with other planar magnetic cans that pair best with potent amplification, the MHA150 fairs surprisingly well. With uber-amps often putting out 3 to 4 watts per channel (or more) these days, the 1 wpc on offer from the McIntosh might seem a bit anaemic. In actual use, I find it plenty powerful for all but a few ridiculous loads. The HiFiMAN HE1000, various members of Audeze’s LCD family, and the MrSpeakers Ether C are all superbly well represented – I really couldn’t ask for more.

    The two exceptions I managed to uncover are notoriously difficult to drive. That would be the HiFiMAN Susvara and the latest variant of the Abyss AB-1266. Both actually sound quite respectable with MHA150 but I know they are capable of more, and in my experience, that is only unleashed with extremely potent amplification. This would likely apply to any version of the Abyss, as well as a few other difficult HiFiMAN models like the classic HE-6, the discontinued (and underappreciated) HE-4, and the more recent HE-6SE. Again, all of these likely sound quite enjoyable via MHA150, yet would also have room to grow from stouter amplification.

    The flip side of that equation is that MHA150 is astonishingly capable in driving sensitive in-ear monitors. You want a dead-silent background, with zero hiss, for favorites like Noble Audio, Ultimate Ears, or Campfire? Set the power output to “Low” (250mW max) and the MHA150 does that perfectly. It’s not often a big desktop amp delivers such finesse when fronting highly sensitive IEMs but the MH150 gives us exactly that. Most people write-off IEMs as being more appropriate for portable use, but I think that’s a mistake – the $2999 64 Audio A18t blows the doors off most full-size cans, and absolutely deserves to be heard in a dedicated high-end stationary setup. I’d argue that even the best DAPs in the world still don’t take full advantage of top IEMs the way MHA150 does.

    Other complaints are few. I wouldn’t mind seeing an XLR output around back, but that’s a minor niggle indeed. Potentially more significant, though still probably in the realm of nitpicking, is the fact that I don’t really care for the proprietary HXD option.

    HXD stands for “Headphone Crossfeed Director” and like all crossfeed implementations aims to achieve a more speaker-like presentation. It does this by blending the signal before it hits your ears, as speakers do naturally whilst headphones, by their very nature, do not. McIntosh doesn’t tell us what their secret sauce is but they do claim it “brings added dimension” to the soundfield. My experience suggests the exact opposite: it crushes the presentation and puts everything center-stage. I may have enjoyed it on a few older hard-panned jazz or classic rock tracks, but aside from that, I left it disabled.

    Over the years, I’ve noticed that crossfeed implementations seem to be highly subjective. Some just work better for certain people, and I’ve never been able to correlate exactly why this might be. I will say that the McIntosh solution is more heavy-handed than others I’ve heard, and this may be an attempt to reach users who until now have primarily listened via speakers. Being more of a headphone enthusiast perhaps puts me outside of the target market, as my brain is already used to processing a headphone-oriented signal. Whatever the case, I’m still totally sold on the headphone output of this machine, despite my thoughts on HXD.

    But wait – aren’t we forgetting something? So far I’ve been very complimentary of the DAC and headamp capabilities of the MHA150, but there’s one more thing to discuss before making a final value judgment: the speaker outputs. Delivering 50 watts per channel via patented ThermalTrak transistors from On Semiconductor, the speaker amp section need not take a back seat to the headphone portion.

    My main speakers are the Usher Mini One Diamond towers. While not terribly inefficient (87dB sensitivity), they live in a rather large and oddly shaped room and are typically driven by the powerful Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks. Swapping in the drastically less powerful MHA150 would be a rather unfair comparison, and it really isn’t likely to be used in a system like this anyway.

    For a more appropriate setup, I contacted Dan Sawyers of Audio Geeks who set me up with a loaner pair of Gallo Strada 2 + desktop stands. These fit perfectly on my audio console and are a great match for the MHA150’s intended use. I’ve also lived with the first iteration of the Strada in this same room so I’m fairly aware of their signature and capabilities. Audio Art’s top-dog SC-5 ePlus cables leashed the MHA150 to the Gallo speakers. Photo-friendly placement, where the Gallo flanked the McIntosh, proved surprisingly capable but best results called for the widest spread possible on my audio console, putting the Gallos roughly six feet apart.

    The result? Lifelike clarity, palpable texture, and incredible speed from the patented CDT3 transducer (don’t call it a mere tweeter…), along with a holographic soundstage boasting pinpoint imaging capabilities. The original Strada system was impressive in this regard, but the Strada 2 elevate the sense of realism. While not plumbing the depths, Gallo’s dual 4″ carbon fiber drivers benefit from rear boundary reinforcement to generate a pleasing amount of kick along with a suitably full-bodied tone. It works phenomenally well with small venue jazz, acoustic singer/songwriter, and a cappella vocals – genres one would associate with high-quality smaller speakers in general – but is also quite capable with classic rock, metal, and trance due to the sheer speed/resolution involved. And while I love the effervescent presentation of the upper mids and highs, I also very much appreciate the fact that it never veers into what I’d call “overly caffeinated”. Control is emphasized as much as clarity, particularly in the troublesome treble region where many transducers fall short.

    Goosing a bit more low-end presence via the MHA150’s bass boost unlocks most other genres but a visceral experience – organ music or dubstep – remains out of reach. The sonic signature of the MH150’s loudspeaker drive apes its headphone output – clear, precise, extremely resolving but not clinical or overly bright. It’s a fine line which McIntosh manages to walk without stumbling.

    Sawyers generously offered to send along the matching Gallo Acoustics TR3d subwoofer for a true full-range experience, but I declined on grounds that it would complicate the setup and somewhat detract from evaluating the MHA150 on its own merits. Was I building this system for personal use, I’d likely want to include the TR3d at some point, just to fill out those bottom registers – though I did very much enjoy the Strada 2 minus their sub.

    As it stands, the McIntosh’s 50 wpc seems plenty for moderate or even loud listening levels in medium-sized rooms and using what I’ll call “reasonably sensitive” speakers. In the modest 12 by 16 foot space used for this project, with the Gallos rated at 90dB, I had gobs of volume and drive to spare. And of course near-field listening unleashes even more possibilities. Bottom line – the integrated amp section is as much a success as the headphone stage, when used in the right context.

    Final Thoughts
    The old MAC1700 was a magical component that, when paired with the Altec Valencia, made for a wonderful listening experience. It wasn’t all that versatile and tended to make various speakers and sources sound more alike than different. It also had a rudimentary headphone output that I wouldn’t recommend for anything more than casual use with basic headphones. Still, nostalgia runs strong, and I love that old machine for what it was.

    Five decades down the line and we get the McIntosh MHA150: a marvel of versatility. Its headphone amplifier is more than price-competitive at its US$5000 asking but also gives us an excellent DAC plus a very decent loudspeaker amplifier for an all-in-one solution that demands hard work to find its audible compromises. Minimizing cable clutter and the risk of hardware mismatches, the MHA150 is an easy choice for all but the most difficult to drive headphones and/or demanding speakers in larger rooms.

    Let’s talk value. The MHA150 is certainly not cheap. Yet when we adjust the MAC1700’s 1969 MSRP of US$599 MSRP for inflation, we get US$4200. That’s not far off the price of the MHA150, despite the new model having a more robust feature set, excellent onboard D/A conversion, increased power in the speaker amp, and a vastly superior headphone output. Now that’s what we call progress!

    Further information: McIntosh

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    Written by John Grandberg

    John Grandberg is a US-based audio journalist who has been immersed in the scene for over a decade. A recovering percussionist, he has a particular affinity for headphones and associated gear.

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