THIS REVIEW APPEARED IN AUDIO ESOTERICA Issue 2016-#1. The full review is below, but it looks more beautiful on the original magazine pages, which you can downlaod by clicking the red button to the right.
The years pass and companies change. Not just their product line-ups, but often the whole market category at which they aim. This is true of hi-fi companies as much as any others, with many that were previously exclusively high-end retuning their brands to thelure of the mass market.
Absolutely none of that applies to McIntosh Laboratory. Its product line up is as high-end as ever. It maintains a build quality second to none, and with a somewhat retro look, managing to maintain a visual link to the company origins way back in 1949. Yet the old-school values have not stood in the way of modern requirements – which brings us to the products under review here – the McIntosh MCT450 CD/SACD Transport and the D150 Digital Stereo Preamplifier.
The only thing analogue about these two units are the D150’s outputs. The MCT450 is truly a transport. It has no DAC. And the D150 has no analogue inputs. It is for digital sources only.
Let us look a little more closely at the MCT450. This is a large unit, weighty, and like the D150 has McIntosh’s trademark black glass front panel, edged to left and right with a 14mm wide machined aluminium bar. The traditional block-letter style McIntosh lettering glows green. A standard blue-dot matrix display sits at the bottom, with the tray just above it. Push button controls are to the left and right. Down the sides, the bottom half of the casing features a chrome finish. This unit will not look at all out of place prominently displayed on an equipment stand.
The MCT450 plays CDs and SACDs, plus MP3 and WMA on recordable CDs. I stuck with the first two for this review, but it’s nice to have the convenience of the others. Facilities are provided for navigating through the folder structure of CD-R/RWs. The usual digital outputs are provided – optical and coaxial digital audio, plus balanced XLR. But these cannot be used for SACD and are muted during playback. If you want to play SACD you must use the 8-pin DIN output (it looks like an S-Video connection, but with more pins). A suitable cable is included in the box. So for SACD you will need a preamplifier with a matching input. The D150, of course, has a matching input.
The MCT450 has a key on the front panel for choosing the ‘layer’ of an SACD that you’d like to play. In fact, it chooses between the two layers – SACD and CD (where present) – and between the two SACD track formats, stereo and multichannel (where present). You should select ‘Stereo’ (or ‘CD’, I guess, but why?) when used with the D150.
The D150 could almost be termed a DAC rather than a preamplifier. However it does have two sets of analogue outputs: one set at fixed level, the other variable under the control of the volume knob on the front panel. Both are provided in the form of unbalanced RCA sockets, plus balanced XLR. There’s also a 6.5mm front panel headphone socket. The display on the front is larger than that of the MCT450 and there is a rotary input selector on one side and the volume control on the other. The volume control appears to work digitally, rather than as a potentiometer.
In addition to the DIN input are a couple of optical and a couple of coaxial ones – sampling up to 192kHz supported on these – plus a USB-B socket so that the D150 can be used as a USB DAC via a computer. In that mode it supports PCM up to 384kHz and DSD in standard and double speed versions. McIntosh doesn’t say much about the devices or techniques it employs for digital-to-analogue conversion. However, it does specify the output frequency response as 4Hz to 20,000Hz ±0.5dB and (depending of course on the source) up to 68,000Hz at -3dB. Total harmonic distortion is quoted as 0.0015% and the A-weighted signal to noise ratio at 110dB. The fixed level output is 2V RMS unbalanced, double that for balanced. The variable level output can go up to 8V RMS unbalanced and 16-V RMS balanced!
So, DAC or preamplifier? That depends on what you need. If your requirements are entirely digital then using it to control everything makes it a standalone preamp. But if you’ve got a mixed system – perhaps you’re using vinyl as well as digital – then you’ll need to include an analogue preamplifier. In that case it would be better to employ the fixed level outputs and treat the D150 as a DAC. I do like this flexibility.
Both units come with remote controls, about which issues must be raised. Some of the keys are common to both. For example, the play and skip keys on both remotes control the CD/SACD transport. But the power keys and number keys are specific to each unit. The problem with them is… they are identical! The only way to tell them apart is to look at the sticker inside the battery compartment ... or to press some buttons. Confusion is guaranteed. The only way to avoid that is to mar their elegance with some type of label (does anyone still have a Dymo machine?).
I used to use Windows computers for testing USB DACs, but over the last couple of years it was all switched to a Mac. The reason is that all decent DACs require a driver to be installed in Windows because, unbelievably, even the most recent version don’t support USB Audio 2.0, which is needed for anything beyond 24-bit, 96kHz. I get worried when I’m continually installing and uninstalling drivers. Macs have for the past few years natively supported USB Audio 2.0, so there are no special drivers required. In theory. A few recent DACs have needed them for no good reason I could see.
The McIntosh D150 does not, I’m happy to report. Upon being plugged in, the Audio Devices app in the Mac reported that the DAC was ready to accept PCM signals with sampling from 32kHz to 384kHz and resolutions of 16-, 24- and 32-bits. I didn’t test 32kHz, and this is often misreported. McIntosh does not claim this bitrate. DSD is handled by disguising it as high bit-rate PCM – this is called DoP (for DSD over PCM). Suitable player software is required for this. I use Audirvana Plus on the Mac to stream music from the Network Attached Storage. Audirvana likewise reported support for all sample rates from 44.1kHz up to 384kHz, plus DSD64 and DSD128, but not DSD256 (which is in accordance with the unit’s specifications). Not a biggie. Audirvana Plus converts DSD to a suitable high sample rate if the DAC can’t handle it natively. In this case it used 352.8kHz.
The DAC also worked very nicely indeed with both DSD64 and DSD128 over DoP, plus high resolution PCM up to 24-bit, 384kHz. It reports on the front panel in nice big letters the signal that it’s receiving, so you can be confident that any errors in your computer’s setup that might interfere with the delivery of the native signal will be readily spotted.
I did my duty. I had a good listen to a number of CDs via the MCT450 and D150, and as expected the performance was first-class. But what I really wanted to listen to, and what I spent most time doing, was luxuriating in glorious SACD stereo.
Oh. My. Goodness. Disc after disc of glorious high resolution sound. Most of it, to be fair, was analogue sourced. But even the Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic Beethoven Symphonies, recorded in 1961 and 1962, came to life, sounding decidedly modern and full despite the pre-Dolby analogue tape hiss. The tympani in the slow movement of the 7th had real distance and character within the mix. The threatened harshness of the massed strings was restrained.
Indeed, there was a kind of dynamic theme with these two units. Where there was percussion there was also both space and precision. The delicate treatment of the cymbals towards the end of “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” on Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow, along with the exact location in space, very slightly to the right of centre and a good metre behind the plane of the loudspeakers, had me sitting on the edge of my seat. Yet this delicacy sat easily with the power and authority of the opening drums of the following track, “Thelonius”.
The transparency – both equipment and the DSD recordings – was as close to perfect as I’ve experienced. The gentle swish of the clothing of members of the orchestra was all too clear in the quiet movement of Saint-Saëns’ first Cello Concerto (Pieter Wispelwey, Channel Classics), but so, equally, was every speck of expression in this glorious work.
Moving to the D150 as a USB DAC, this superb performance continued. I’m agnostic on issue of DSD/PCM superiority. But what I can say is that audiophile recordings of jazz works by Kent Poon provided in DSD128, DSD64 and 24-bit, 384kHz FLAC were rendered to perfection by the D150.
So, obviously, the sound from these McIntosh units was wonderful. But this did not come at the cost of convenience and features. (Well, aside from the inconvenience of remotes too easily confused with each other.) All the old-fashioned functions of CD players – often eschewed by high-end equipment makers for no good reason – are available, including programmed playback, repeat functions, and even random play. CD/SACD text can be brought to the front panel display and, where present, the relevant part is streamed across the display once on disc insertion and as each track commences. If I were to be really picky, I’d ask for a slightly deeper cut-out to the sides of the disc tray to allow easier purchase on discs. But that’s it.
In every respect, the two devices just ran happily and unobtrusively, doing what they were asked, and doing it to the highest possible audible standards.
The McIntosh MCT450 SACD/CD Transport and the D150 Digital Preamplifier bring together the very highest levels of high fidelity performance, and reliable, feature-laden delivery. This is truly impressive gear.
Inputs: 2 × optical digital, 2 × coaxial digital, 1 × DIN digital, 1 x USB-B
Outputs: 2 × stereo analogue fixed level (RCA/XLR), 2 × stereo analogue variable level (RCA/XLR), 1 × 6.5mm headphone
Other: 1 × power control in, 1 × power control out, 1 × data in, 1 × IR in
Dimensions (WHD): 445 × 98 × 330mm
Warranty: Three years
Discs supported: CD, SACD, CD-R/RW with MP3 and WMA
Outputs: 1 × optical digital, 1 × coaxial digital, 1 × XLR balanced digital, 1 × DIN digital
Other: 1 × power control in, 1 × power control out, 1 × data in, 1 × IR in
Dimensions (WHD): 445 × 152 × 416mm
Warranty: Three years