The way I see it, the early aughts marked the apex of the optical disc player. Back then, Redbook CD was the format of choice for the majority of music lovers. In the USA in the year 2000, sales peaked at just shy of a billion units. But wait! A fresh new duo of high-resolution formats – Super Audio CD and DVD Audio – promised higher levels of fidelity. This caused mainstream brands like Panasonic, Sony and Pioneer to offer high-end disc players with sticker prices as heavy as their weight. Elsewhere, more esoteric audiophile brands like Wadia, Accuphase, and, well, Esoteric, developed players that made those mainstream players seem affordable by comparison.
And yet by 2010, a complete shift in the market had taken place. Disc spinners had begun their descent into mainstream obsolescence. Younger folk were foregoing physical media. The SACD and DVD-A were effectively dead. File-based playback had come to claim the digital audio throne. USB DACs were becoming more common. Back then, it seemed almost mandatory for every high-end CD player review to ask: is this the last player you’ll ever buy?
Ten years on and that question looks a bit silly. We’ve recently seen CD players pop up from Rotel, Audiolab, Pro-Ject, Technics and ATC. And here I am reviewing a reference caliber disc-based player from McIntosh: the MCD600 (US$7500). Why would I do such a thing? Well, for starters, I was left seriously impressed by the McIntosh MHA150. That unit’s versatility and raw performance as a headphone amplifier were enough to overcome any reservation I initially had about its US$5000 price. Crucially, the MCD600 is a disc-based player with a twist – one that seems very useful for anyone taking first steps towards CD in a world of post-physical-media listening.
The McIntosh MCD600 is a beefy full-size (and then some) player weighing in at nearly 30 pounds. It plays standard CDs as well as Super Audio CDs, and also functions as a DAC via several digital inputs. It has fixed and variable outputs in both RCA and XLR formats, allowing it to pair directly with a power amplifier with no separate preamp required. Digital volume control is built-in. As is a headphone amplifier. All of these features are welcome but none reckon as the twist in this tale.
That would be the MCD600’s ability to handle file-based playback from optical media. Users can take their digital music collection, purchased from Bandcamp, HDtracks, Acoustic Sounds, 2L Records, etc, burn them to a DVD-R, and the MCD600 will play them back in quality on par with an original disc release. This means FLAC, WAV, ALAC, and more, including hi-res PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz as well as DSD64/DSD128. It also handles music from flash drives inserted into its front-panel USB socket, which allows for significantly more storage space than optical discs.
Design and Features
Externally, the MCD600 is classic McIntosh. Like it or not (and I very much do), the company tends not to stray far from what one might call an “iconic” appearance. Not to say that if you’ve seen one McIntosh player, you’ve seen them all, but the differences between each generation fall on the micro rather than macro scale. The MCD600 continues McIntosh’s recent trend of using dual knobs for source and level controls, which earlier players did not have; nor, lacking multiple inputs and volume controls, did they need. The headphone jack should now be somewhat familiar to McIntosh users but for those paying close attention, the small front panel USB port hints at something more – without being obtrusive enough to upset those classic good looks.
McIntosh gives us a handy block diagram on the player’s top panel, showing why the MCD600 deserves its reference status. The design is based around an ESS Sabre ES9028Pro 8-channel DAC chip running in ‘quad-balanced’ mode, reportedly for best performance. More importantly, a custom FPGA handles clocking and data-marshaling – a first for McIntosh, and certainly one key upgrade over prior flagships: the MCD550 and MCD1100.
Another difference from those models is the power supply: here a highly-regulated switching design that uses a large R-core transformer. The older MCD-series models used more typical linear power supplies, which is generally a safe bet, but when done right, a switching design can also offer superb performance. A similar power supply design is used on the acclaimed MVP-901 universal player.
The MCD600’s all-new disc transport mechanism is also a custom McIntosh affair: a sturdy aluminum tray and advanced digital servo. This transport spins discs silently at twice the normal speed (yes, really) and it uses a RAM buffer to help reduce jitter.
The typical McIntosh attention to detail prevails on the output stage. The digital volume control feeds the variable outs but is bypassed for the fixed outputs. The same volume control circuit also feeds the newly redesigned headphone amp section which claims “increased gain and output power” compared to previous models – a claim I certainly put to the test. All in all, a thoughtful and ambitious design that makes good use of proprietary technology not found in previous McIntosh players.
The MCD600 gave me a great excuse to bring out the big guns: Niimbus Audio US4+ and Pass Labs HPA-1 headphone amplifiers, paired with top headphones such as Audeze LCD-24 Limited Edition, Meze Empyrean, Kennerton Audio Thekk, and many more. I also used a custom-built KGSSHV electrostatic amp paired with the new Kaldas Research RR1 Conquest earspeakers. Audio Art’s superb cables handled all connections whilst an Equi=Core 1800 balanced power conditioner laid the foundation for pitch-black sonic landscapes. This gear represents the best of the best for my particular tastes – the culmination of trying almost everything out there and landing on my favorites. And the MCD600 felt right at home in this collection.
Playing standard CD and SACD titles on the MCD600 works just as you’d expect: insert the disc and start listening. Front panel controls are very straight forward, as are the dedicated transport buttons on the remote. If you’ve ever used a CD player before, or perhaps even if you haven’t, you’ll be very comfortable in no time.
Finding success with home-made disc burns proved slightly more complex. The first hurdle involved figuring out what combination of optical media and burning software played best together. The manual claims almost everything should work, including DVD-R, DVD+R, and their rewritable counterparts. Using the native burning capabilities of Windows 10 plus some old TDK DVD+R discs I had in storage resulted in stuttering playback at best and complete failure-to-read at worst. Switching to BurnAware Free and TDK DVD-R media of similar vintage yielded perfect playback, though I’m not sure which change actually fixed the problem.
A blank DVD gives us 4.38GB of usable space to play with. FLAC albums encoded at 16-bit/44.1kHz take up between 300 and 500MB each, with hi-res PCM file sizes becoming larger as sample rate increases. Doing the math, this means a single blank disc will hold a dozen or so standard FLAC albums, or something like 3 to 6 hi-res albums. That may not seem like much in the age of multi-terabyte music servers but perhaps is interesting to some as the first step towards computer audiophilia but minus the actual computer for playback. I found surprising joy in burning themed discs – Funky! Sad! Road Trip Music! – plus the more obvious (to me) collections such as Foundational jazz or 80’s Electro. It certainly brought back memories of trying to make the perfect cassette tape or CD mix for a particular occasion.
Playback controls for burned discs took me a bit of time to master. Although the remote has a standard control pad with up/down/left/right and a big “select” button in the middle, those are not utilized when playing burned media. Instead, we use a functionally similar pattern which is mapped onto the 2/8/4/6 buttons on the number pad, with the “5” button in the middle making the selections. Once I got used to that, it was a simple affair to browse through folder trees, but I still wonder why McIntosh couldn’t use the part of the remote which seems naturally suited for this operation.
The most straight forward starting point was simply to queue up some of my favorite (commercially available) discs and listen straight from the headphone jack. This removes many variables and arguably gives us the purest sound from this device.
Paired with the Audeze LCD-24 planar magnetic headphones, the MCD600 plays it big and bold on the Reference Recordings SACD release of the Pittsburgh Symphony doing Beethoven and Strauss. This performance has been described as having “lightness, grace and muscular strength in equal measure”, and the same could be said for the MCD600 driving the limited edition Audeze cans. There’s a sense of ease and flow — the hallmarks of quality amplification and those qualities remained ever-present when switching discs to Israeli punk band Man Alive or Colombian singer/songwriter Marta Gomez. While not exactly on equal footing in terms of dynamic bombast or tonal richness, I definitely hear a familial resemblance to the McIntosh MHA150. That, I suppose, makes sense as the MHA150 is marketed primarily as a headphone amplifier whilst headphone functionality here is more of a bonus. Still, a very pleasing performance as far as this headphone enthusiast is concerned.
Swapping in different headphones eventually reveals a pattern. While the MCD600 headphone output plays quite nicely with planar magnetic headphones, it seems pickier with designs based around dynamic drivers. Sennheiser’s classic HD650 comes across as fluid and unwavering, while the highly-strung HD800 is clean and detailed if somewhat lacking in authority – as it typically is without herculean amplification efforts. But AKG’s K701 and K812 both seem a bit… off. Bloated seems too strong a word, but they do feel a bit hazy in detail, and sort of flabby on the low end. Ditto, the otherwise enjoyable Meze 99 Neo and Sony’s MDR-Z1R.
Then it hit me – high impedance headphones do just fine but low impedance designs struggle. Checking the specs again, I see the headphone stage on the MCD600 is listed as having a 47 Ohm output impedance – far higher than the sub-1 ohm output we find on most dedicated headphone amplifiers. This is the culprit impacting both frequency response and damping factor, manifesting more significantly on low impedance headphones than the 300 Ohm Sennheiser models. Planar magnetic designs are, in most cases, purely resistive, with essentially flat impedance to negate any impedance anomalies. Thus, while the 47 Ohm output impedance of the headphone stage isn’t necessarily ideal in terms of efficient power transfer, it still has plenty of juice to drive most planar models, with the usual exceptions such as the HiFiMAN Susvara, HE-6, etc.
The takeaway? McIntosh did a great job with the headphone stage in general, and then walked back some of that excellence with a surprisingly high output impedance. That means it’s somewhat limited in terms of headphone synergy, so choose your matching headphones wisely.
Listening, Part II
Or, do what I usually do in these situations, and move on the bigger and better things – that would be dedicated outboard headphone amps. This lets us hear the true potential of the player without any limitations imposed by the MCD600’s own headphone section.
With the Niimbus US4+ interceding as headphone amplifier between those same low impedance headphones and the McIntosh reveals a more correct timbre and tonality; the treble snaps into focus; the bass is drastically more solid and authoritative. Of course, these improvements go beyond improved impedance matching. Better amplification will always reveal more of what a transducer can do. And what of those planar magnetic headphones, already so beguiling via the McIntosh’s headphone circuit? Yep, they sound even more so with high-end outboard amplification.
Throwing in the FIM SACD release of Tsuyoshi Yamamoto’s Midnight Sugar and listening through the Meze Empyrean made me want to kick back, put my feet up, and light an expensive cigar – and I don’t smoke. The richness of the sonic palette, the immersive presentation, the dynamic contrast of the drums as they alternate from subtle to explosive! The MCD600 mainlines the most challenging aspects of this recording. Rarely have I heard a source component nail the ratio of tonal sweetness to technical excellence so adroitly.
Next came a burned DVD-R containing some of my favorite DSD tracks – sort of a modern-day mix tape, if you will. You get about 15 tracks on a single disc, so choose wisely. Me? I went for some Albert King, older Peter Gabriel, Kraftwerk, Dead Can Dance, Nick Drake, Porcupine Tree, Doobie Brothers, Miles Davis, Eden Atwood, Earth Wind and Fire, Ceephax, Grant-Lee Phillips, The Human League, and finished up with tenor saxophonist Gene Amons. Some of this was purchased in download form but much was ripped from my original SACD copies, and some even started life as vinyl. Inserting a disc and playing through these tracks of varied provenance was a blast. The MCD600 again resolved considerable nuance, spatial information, and the varied timbre of each performance.
On the aptly named “She Put On Her Headphones” from Lau’s 2019 release Midnight and Closedown, I heard beautiful, delicate shading and colors with the MCD600 feeding my powerhouse electrostatic amp driving the RR1 Conquest earspeakers. That treble is spot on, lacking even a hint of etching or sizzle. The internet seems to hold a stereotype that McIntosh gear is somewhat warm or soft or possessing of some other euphonic coloration, but what I hear is superb articulation and finesse. Switching to the rare (but brighter) Stax SR-4070 sees the McIntosh’s masterful treble portrayal hold up well.
Whenever I evaluate gear with music that could be portrayed (rightly or not) as high-brow audiophile music, I always counterbalance that with some “real world” recordings, which could also be portrayed as mediocre in quality. Filling that spot this time out was “This Is a Rebel Song” – not the original Sinead O’Connor version but a cover by the punk band No Use For A Name. This version has a guest female vocalist and is actually quite pretty despite its harder-edged presentation. I’ve heard a lot of multi-thousand-dollar sources which sound beautiful playing exquisitely recorded 18th-Century Flemish Harpsichord music but rather underwhelming with this sort of material. Not so the MCD600. Though not on par with top-shelf recordings, there’s still plenty of magic to be found here. Punchy, fast-paced drumming, surprisingly sweet vocal harmonies, and just the right thickness to capture those intense guitars, the MCD600 is no trailer queen source.
Odds and ends
My focus is usually headphones driven by dedicated headphone amps. I have little need for the McIntosh’s variable outputs. I dropped the MCD600 into my relative modest sounding (compared to my headphone rig) speaker-based setup, normally occupied by an older-but-still-formidable SimAudio Moon Orbiter universal spinner. The preamp I’ve been using is a vintage Accuphase C-200, feeding Merrill Audio Thor monoblocks and driving Usher Mini One Diamond speakers.
When acting as a stand-in via fixed outputs, the MCD600 solidly outperformed the SimAudio player, which about a dozen years ago was priced in the same ballpark as the McIntosh. I heard greater textures and more colorful tonality, plus a sweetness to the vocals that I very much enjoyed. It’s a perfect example of how a component can sound excellent in isolation, yet upgrading really shows where it could have been improved.
Switching to the MCD600’s variable outputs and thus bypassing the Accuphase preamp was not as successful in this particular system. While sounding faster and more detailed, it exposed a dependence on the Accuphase for a bit of vintage midrange-magic and seductive darkness. The McIntosh running as a pre-amplifier came on as a bit too overly caffeinated.
Unfair? Maybe. I’ve built this loudspeaker system to tame the Usher’s highly-resolving diamond tweeters. I don’t feel all that comfortable passing complete judgment on the MCD600’s ability to drive an amplifier directly and sound great doing it. I do think it has potential to work in a wide variety of situations thanks to a maximum 8V output via RCA or 16V in balanced mode. Many DACs with integrated volume are still limited to 2V or 4V, which can often result in anemic sound. But again, it’s really system dependent.
Lastly, digital inputs. We get S/PDIF in both coax and optical formats, but no USB. What’s up with that? A product claiming DAC capabilities but doesn’t feature a DSD-capable USB input? Seems out of place, right?
McIntosh explained this away by pointing out that many of their matching preamps and integrated amps already feature USB inputs, which I suppose makes sense on a basic level. But if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I actually have a different theory. My unprovable theory is that cutting-edge USB implementations are extremely difficult to design. That and the associated technology continues to develop at a lightning-fast pace. External USB to SPDIF converters tell us that state-of-the-art designs can be superseded. Getting top-notch performance out of a USB input is definitely still a challenge.
Reliability is another issue. McIntosh encountered this first hand when their MCD1100 players exposed USB issues that needed to be shipped back to the factory for a fix. The more recent MCD550 had a generally reliable USB input but still wouldn’t play nicely with Linux – which is used by numerous music servers. Unless McIntosh wants to be like Schiit – who has gone through five generations of USB solutions in 10 years and dealt with the corresponding logistics of customer upgrades – it might make sense to offload USB to another device altogether. Berkeley Audio Design does it, so why not McIntosh?
Niggles aside, the MCD600’s presentation nails just the right mixture of accuracy and emotion, putting it up there with some of the best players and DACs I’ve had in my system. The usability is excellent (once you get over the control scheme for file-based playback), the aesthetic timeless, and the feature set robust. And of course, McIntosh will be around for decades to support it. Being more subjectively direct: for my taste, the MCD600 satisfies in a way that no previous McIntosh disc player has. It gives us uncompromising performance, and – wait for it – could be the last disc-player you ever need.
Further information: McIntosh