McIntosh MHA100 Headphone Amplifier
By Michael Mercer and Michael Liang
In the days leading up to CES 2014, McIntosh extended a special invitation to Audio360 to check out a prototype of their upcoming headphone amplifier: the MHA100. Having reviewed their D100 digital preamp just prior to CES, and having found it most worthy, we were of course thrilled to accept the invitation.
Actually, how we felt about the D100 was completely irrelevant. The fact is, when McIntosh calls to tell you they have a new headphone amplifier, you just go. Like a zombie rushing towards some fresh brain, nothing else matters.
And so, our own Michael Mercer arrived at the McIntosh suite, well-armed with his broken-in Audeze LCD-XC and his versatile Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable system for his audition.
The LCD-XC was an obvious choice, since he knew that the McIntosh suite would be jam-packed with all sorts of small and large-scale in-room sound systems. He needed to experience the component without distraction, and being his reference closed-back headphone, the LCD-XC was tasked for the mission.
What he did not know, was what outputs the MHA100 offered. Luckily, his Moon Audio Silver Dragon cable system employs a series of slick adapters, allowing him to be prepared for anything. Note: anything means 1/4", 3.5mm, RSA balanced and 4-pin XLR balanced terminations.
If we're to be honest, Mercer had huge expectations for the MHA100, even if the unit at CES was only a working prototype. The DAC wasn't quite done so it was used as a headphone amp only, with a different DAC ahead of it. Yes, the component was clearly - at that point - a work in progress.
But again, zombie... pile of fresh brain... didn't matter.
Well of course, he had a blast listening to the Mac! And more than a few CES attendees could attest to that after witnessing the spontaneous dance that erupted.
Mercer reported back that the 100 was his "favorite listening experience of CES 2014, hands down" and we've been itching to take the McIntosh MHA100 headphone amp/DAC for an audible test drive
Design & Build
The MHA100 looks cute AND sexy.
The cute part of it comes from looking like a miniature version of their 98 lbs McIntosh MC302 power amplifier. The sexyness is purely the eye-catching and timeless look of McIntosh. No other audio component in the world has the unmistakable, gorgeous McIntosh blue meters.
Hold on, before you dismiss the MHA100 by saying it's your grandpa's Hi-Fi, you should know that there is some advanced technology hidden behind the classic glass McIntosh faceplate. The famous twin blue meters are backlit by blue Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) and has a response time of almost 10 times faster than professional VU meters. The illuminated logo and panel letterings are lit by the combination of custom designed Fiber Optic Light Diffusers and extra long life LEDs. The Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) multi-function display can be adjusted for brightness to suit the user's environment. And that's just for the meters!
Moving on to the rest of the unit, the MHA100's Input buttons are backed by electromagnetic switching rather than mechanical switches that will deteriorate with wear. An ultra-precision, digitally controlled attenuator with a tracking accuracy within 0.5db is at the heart of the buttery smooth volume knob.
But the marquee feature that sets the MHA100 apart is the inclusion of McIntosh's patented Autoformer technology which offers users three headphone impedance ranges (8-40, 40-150 and 150-600 ohms). This allows you to enjoy a wide range of headphones from ridiculously-sensitive in-ear monitors to power hungry audiophile headphones. Yes HiFiMAN HE-6, we were looking at you there just now.
In addition to the Autoformer technology, McIntosh's Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD) is exclusive to their MHA100. This allows high quality recordings to image like conventional speakers in your headphones. Understanding how crossfeed works is complex, but thankfully using it on the MHA100 is not. Like HeadRoom amps from days gone by, McIntosh gives us two simple options, ON and OFF. That works for us! We can utilize the time saved from reading the owner's manual to enjoy more music.
The point is, works more like your son's hi-fi (which is a good thing). But did we lose anything in translation? Does it still have the soul-shaking power of your grandpa's hi-fi system?
After we received our review unit here at Audio360, Mercer proclaimed that "this is what my grandfather's McIntosh gear used to sound like: Capable of finesse and grace when it came to the subtle nuances of his favorite classical movements, and balls to the wall power when it came to my noisy Nirvana records that made him cringe in his listening chair while I pumped my angst-ridden fists into the air and onto the floor when Dave Grohl went off the chains on the drums! Those are glorious memories, and I forgot about much of that time period in my young life before I cranked up the MHA100!" That's the beauty of music (and music reproduction): It can transport you to another time and place - good or bad.
Speaking of speakers, the MHA100 isn't a one trick pony. Although the MHA100 is marketed as a headphone amplifier, it drives speakers as well! You no longer have to choose between listening to your favorite headphone or speakers. A quick turn of the output knob and the MHA100 goes into 50w per channel mode.
But wait, there's more! An advanced 32-bit DAC that supports sampling rates of up to 192kHz is also included. To put that in perspective, you don't even have music at that bit rate and sampling depth. A decade from now, when people are arguing that 24-bit/96 kHz isn't truly high-res and is only fit for peasants, you'll be ahead of the curve.
And if you act now, they'll throw in the preamplifier feature too.
Functionality and Usability
Getting the MHA100 fired up and singing was a cinch. Power, and a single USB cable from my MacBook Pro to the asynchronous USB 2.0 input, was all that I needed to get music playing through headphones. I didn't have to install any drivers on my Mac, but Windows PC users will need to. Speaking of drivers, it appears that CEntrance was behind the USB software. This was first observed when we reviewed the D100.
Dialing in the MHA100 for my favorite headphones (Beyerdynamic T1) was as easy as turning the output knob to 100 - 600 Ohms. This lets the MHA100 know that you want a full watt of power flowing to your headphones from the Autoformer.
For speakers, I've chosen the critically-acclaimed (that's just a fancy-schmancy way of saying that us reviewers like it a lot) KEF LS50. This compact bookshelf speaker is rather hard to drive due to its 85db sensitivity, but since the MHA100 is a McIntosh (a legend in power amplifiers) I think 50w would be fine.
When it comes to speaker amplifiers, I like to test for noise at full volume before I do any listening. This is done by playing a zero-bit track (silence) with the volume level at maximum. Some amplifiers would exhibit noise (hiss) through the speakers and headphones output on this kind of test. A noise-free amplifier would have a blacker background in the music because the noise level is lower than the music.
The MHA100 passed with flying colors on both outputs.
When it comes to testing gear, I'm not very "green". I leave the test gear ON all day and night so I was very surprised to see the MHA100 powered OFF when I came home from lunch.
A quick search in the owner's manual showed an Auto Off feature. Well **** that! Let's get this Auto-Off feature turned off so we can get some real testing done.
My Beyerdynamic T1 headphones are already nicely burned-in, so I ran my new Audio-Technica ATH-AD2000x instead, letting it burn-in alongside the MHA100. During this time I gave the MHA100's internal DAC some ear-time, sending the signal from the MHA100's unbalanced RCA output to my SPL Phonitor 2 headphone amplifier. Linking the two up was the job of Nordost's Heimdall2 RCA cables.
Before the arrival of the MHA100, I was enjoying the Phonitor 2 with the Wyred4Sound µDAC. It was immediately clear to me that the MHA100's internal DAC was several levels above the µDAC in terms of being able to extract significantly more detail from the music. Bass had a snappy toe-tapping factor that I wasn't getting from the µDAC. But to be fair to Wyred4Sound, the µDAC is only $499 while the MHA100 is $4500.
Bringing things up to a slightly more level playing field in cost, even with the PS Audio NuWave DAC at $999, and Benchmark DAC2 HGC at $1995, the McIntosh still takes the win. Not that there's anything bad to say about those DACs, but the MHA100's on-board DAC simply sounded more musical. It proved to me that McIntosh didn't skimp on the digital end.
The stereo speaker amp in the MHA100 turns it into a high-end all-in-one solution for $4,500 bucks. Now, would I like to see a cheaper option that cuts out the speaker amplifier? Sure I would. But I understand this way of thinking from a market perspective. After all, how many high performance headphone amp/DACs do you know of with an on-board 50-watts-per-channel stereo amp?
Now, when it comes to McIntosh, my cousin Kenny (a serious McIntosh devotee for many years) found that their amps usually tested above their power ratings on the bench. I don't have the testing equipment necessary for such a technical eval - however, I was psyched to marry the MHA100 with my CEntrance Masterclass 2405 coaxial desktop monitors, rated precisely for 50 watts! That's the exact power output rating of the DACmini Integrated that comes with the 2504's in CEntrance's amazing Audiophile Desktop System package.
The results? In two words: Downright musical! I love the CEntrance 2504s, as did fellow Audio360er Kevin Venable when he got a chance to hear em during our event (T.H.E Headphonium at T.H.E Show Newport) this year. The 2504s, when mated with a revealing and steady amplifier with a decent damping factor - a spec far too overlooked in amplifiers today IMO - threw out a soundstage that is remarkably deep and wide considering the size of these small bookshelf speakers!
The subtle, gorgeous timbre of Tori Amos's vocal during "Wild Way" off Unrepentant Geraldines (in 96kHz/24-bit) was resplendent. Amos has such emotive power in her voice, even when she's whispering, as I can always feel the intensity behind her words on a resolute system. The MHA100 and CEntrance 2504s did an incredible job of capturing the yin and yang of Amos's piano playing as well - as she quietly strokes the keys one minute, and practically slams them through the keyboard at others! This dynamic contrast always makes me smile - and there was plenty of grinnin' goin' on!
The pounding kick-drum and wispy, panning vocals samples in Four Tet's "Parallel Jalebi" off Beautiful Rewind were so lush and powerful, yet controlled. The elements weren't so controlled that the sound was sterile however. I hate overly polite audiophile gear - sorry to admit! I think music needs to breathe, and its elements extend, then dissipate naturally. This was certainly the case with the 100's speaker amp section and the 2504s! I was deeply impressed, despite my already-high expectations.
I know this was stated before, but I feel obligated to repeat it: This is what my grandfathers McIntosh gear used to sound like! His stereo system was magnificently detailed and graceful when needed, while also chock full of dynamic slam and power underneath its uber-revealing sonic character.
Now, did I think of my grandpa's system in those terms when I was a kid? Of course freakin' not. But I remember being floored by the lifelike audible images emanating from his Allison-looking loudspeakers (he built his own loudspeakers) as I sat on the floor listening, while he enjoyed a scotch or three after golf in his listening chair. It's true: I hadn't considered those most-cherished memories until I got the MHA100 cookin' with my Audeze LCD-2s w/ Fazor.
Suddenly there I was, a kid again, sitting on the floor in my grandfathers den, eager to hear what's coming next! I was audibly hooked within twenty minutes of play-time with the 100. No shit, as Mr. Liang had the amplifier well broken-in by the time he dropped it off at my place. I was grateful things kicked off that way.
However, the amplifier continued to open-up as I played more and more music, so I left signal running through it as often as possible, even when I wasn't listening. I figure, for a new buyer, an estimated 200-500 hours for premium break-in is probably a fair bet. But I enjoyed music through the MHA100 every step of the way there!
One of the albums getting tons of spins here in the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab lately is Eno & Hyde's High Life (I reviewed it HERE at Positive Feedback). The digital LP is 44.1kHz/24-bit, and the recording is airy, dynamic, and textural without any veiling or congestion of the mid-band.
With the MHA100, my Audeze LCD-XCs, and Double Helix Complement2 Cable, the sound was so lush, so airy, and, at the same time, had tremendous low-end weight and slam. The breezy guitars were like waves, rolling in and around the vocal samples, hovering just above the percussive elements. The overall effect was soothing, yet head-bobbingly alive.
The system managed to capture the essence, the subtle ambiance of the record through its spectacular detail retrieval, therefore rendering its meditative sonic qualities beautifully. I must've kept this album on repeat for hours one night, switching between my Audeze LCD-XCs and MrSpeakers Mad Dog Pros.
Both cans married wonderfully with the MHA100, and though the higher efficiency of the XCs aided in their achieving more overall dynamic gestalt; the Mad Dog Pros exhibited such warmth and texture, the sound was like a warm blanket with little to no mass (meaning the warmth did not mask any details - picture one of those thin runners blankets - it keeps the body warm but its paper thin).
The transient attack of both headphones were lightning fast through the MHA100, a characteristic that proved a sonic theme with each set of cans I plugged into the 100! That tells ya something about the amp's speed and precision.
I also loved the fact that while it was forgiving with regard to headphone pairing, the sound signature remained excitable and formidably dynamic but not aggressive. That may be difficult to fathom, but it seemed to bring out the very best of the cans I chose to pair it with, or perhaps its more accurate to say the synergy was magical.
Either way, I had so much fun with this amp/DAC that mid-way through my listening tests I got a little distracted by considering what I needed to part with in order to buy it! That says far more than my flowery prose ever could.
Another sonic attribute of the MHA100 that I enjoyed immensely was that its speed and precision mentioned above (indicative of high quality solid-state electronics) did not, as I find with some SS amps, render a sound that's so linear and exacting it ends up sounding too "hi-fi-ish", in other words: soulless. Sometimes the magic in music is in the imperfections. I have to give credit to Grammy-Award winning Producer/engineer Frank Filipetti for telling me that - and I agree wholeheartedly!
I'm not saying the MHA100 is sloppy by any measure, quite the opposite actually. The amplifier (and DAC) have terrific qualities that are difficult to quantify in technical jargon. The unit's got soul. It drips with it, whether playing Donny Hathaway Live or Hecq's new remix album Conversions, the MHA100 captures and reproduces that intangible thing about music that appeals directly to my heart, and not just my brain. That's a key factor in picking Hi-Fi gear for me. Is the product so uber-revealing, and so sparkly, that it misses the vibe of the music altogether, turning playback into an intellectual exercise rather than a spiritual one.
For me, I'm looking to connect with music on more than an "ear-candy" level. I wanna be moved. I want to be brought to tears, whether through joy or sadness. I just want a reaction, and sometimes the more expensive stuff misses that mark for me. It may sound transparent, detailed, and all those snazzy audiophile buzzwords, but it doesn't get me in the gut. Do I forget about the componentry and focus on the music?
The McIntosh MHA100, when paired with any of the headphones mentioned above, gave me those reactions I cherish so very much - and not at the expense of micro or macro-dynamics, detail retrieval, or upper end bloom. It's got all those things in spades, but they don't overshadow the emotive power of the music - and that is the key for me as a music addict!
And speaking of detail retrieval, and the audiophily aspects of sound reproduction, I was not surprised when I heard McIntosh enlisted the aid of engineering wizard Michael Goodman at CEntrance for the USB implementation of the USB driver for the DAC in the MHA100. Why? Because he did such a great job for them on the D100 digital pre/DAC/headphone amp - which Liang and I loved in our review HERE at Audio360! In fact, I loved the D100 so much it never left my office! I bought it, and its been the main DAC in my desktop reference systems ever since. It even pulls double-duty sometimes as I recently re-discovered how much I love the headphone amplifier section.
So, while it's impossible for me to compare the DAC in the MHA100 directly with the DAC in the D100 - as we're always hearing the combination of the headphone amp and DAC in the MHA100 - I believe the MHA100's USB DAC section could've been better served had they either enlisted the same team that built the inner workings of their reference DAC, or maybe teamed up with Gordon Rankin or Kevin Halverson (of HRT) to complete the USB dac in the 100.
There's a reason for my assumption here (because that's what it is): I ended up stacking the MHA100 and D100, using the D100 as DAC ahead of the MHA100, and the results were nothing short of sonically stunning! Now, it would be easy to dismiss the many advantages the D100 has over the MHA100 in terms of its USB DAC implementation and execution: But while we like to take it easy over here at Audio360, we don't go easy on our music gear! So truth be told: The D100's got obvious advantages - just the fact that the DAC itself has far more room in its chassis (as the D100 is, essentially, a DAC that also acts as a digital line-stage with a modest headphone amp) means it could have all sorts of things goin' on in the USB DAC section that the MHA100 doesn't.
For example - it could have a larger power supply, and it might be better isolated from other circuitry, whether galvanically or merely physically, and that helps a great deal. It could also utilize a better chip set. We all know that. Hell, even the wiring could be better quality. I honestly don't know precisely what makes it sound better, I just know that when I put the D100 ahead of the MHA100 the system was more revealing with the MHA100 acting as a headphone amplifier.
Actually, that stack provided me with one of the best overall musically engaging experiences I've had when it comes to desktop headphone rigs! This was especially true when paired with my Audeze LCD-2s w/ Fazor and my Nordost Heimdall 2 headphone cable. Fazor is Audeze's new technology that was first employed in their LCD-X and LCD-XC headphones, and is now incorporated into all the new cans in the Audeze line-up. The new technology, developed by Audeze, aids greatly in enhanced sound-staging (but more on that in our collective Audeze review coming up soon).
This magnificent combination was so sonically addictive my poor wifey started complaining after my third 20+ hour listening session. Sleep deprivation was a definite concern for me on her part. Not for me however, as I was glued to that system! I ended up listening to a wider variety of music than I normally venture through in a typical sesh - from classical to jazz, underground dubstep to hard techno, I was lovin' it all! Someday I'm going to own that stack, no matter what I gotta do to make it happen! Human sacrifices aside (well...).
Getting back to bizness: The last impression that I would want to leave with you is that the MHA100's internal DAC is substandard. This is not the case whatsoever. I was having fun as an audio geek, and because the 100 can be used strictly as a headphone amplifier, why the hell not? But if I didn't own the McIntosh D100, I would be more than happy with the MHA100 as an amp/DAC combo. As a matter of fact, I was thrilled with the unit as an amp/DAC combo throughout most of my listening tests. So know that if you own a legacy DAC that's won your heart over you can utilize it, and I believe that's a smart choice on McIntosh's part.
The bottom line for me? The MHA100 is a reference-level, musically engaging headphone amp/DAC combo from top to bottom. It exuded a soulful presentation that I always seek in audio equipment. It played my tunes, and got out of its own way while doing so, allowing for the music to shine. That's a serious challenge for a headphone amplifier and DAC of this size and weight! However, much of that could be attributed to the massive transformers, that were thankfully sunk into the chassis to level-out the design (they seemed larger at CES). And we know what those large McIntosh Transformers means! It's got balls (pardon me), and the finesse I've come to expect from top-shelf McIntosh.
If you're seeking a slick, modern, high-end performance headphone amp/DAC that happens to drive the hell outta desktop speakers as a bonus - look no further than the McIntosh MHA100. Geez, I don't even need another reference headphone amp, or DAC! Nonetheless, I'm still suffering from MHA100 withdrawal! With the hopes that my wifey doesn't see this line anytime soon: I'm still figuring out what to sell in order to add it to the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab sonic arsenal! McIntosh did something I've been longing for from them (and like I said earlier in this review - I love my D100): They built a headphone amp worthy of the McIntosh legacy.
Bravo gents! Bravo...
Sound is very subjective. Some people like neutral, some like it warm, and some like it bassy and energetic. The fact of the matter is it depends on your mood, the environment you're in, and the genre of music being played. For example, a neutral sound signature isn't so nice listening to music while doing things around the house. On the flip-side, a bassy and energetic sound signature wouldn't be so pleasant with Jazz music relaxing on the easy chair winding down from a crazy work day. The difference between a Hi-Fi system from consumer audio products is the system's ability to scale. It should be able to reproduce the entire frequency spectrum at whisper low level and swing into party mode without any sound degradation. The MHA100 is definitely hi-fi.
As I mentioned earlier, this model is primarily viewed as McIntosh's first dedicated headphone amplifier. The 50W/channel speaker outputs initially appeared to me to be a feature-added item that the engineers threw in for the marketing department.
To my surprise, it holds the legendary McIntosh power and sound. The KEF LS50 is not an efficient speaker, but MHA100 had the power to deliver similar sub-sonic bass found on my old sweetheart the McIntosh MC352 (350w x2). The track "I will not forget you" by Sarah McLachlan on Mirrorball, the Complete Concert sounded so lively it felt like I was at private concert in my listening room.
I've been enjoying headphones almost exclusively in recent times. Listening to MHA100 and KEF LS50 speakers reminded me how different the listening experience was when the room is involved and the feeling of sound pressure. It's a musical enjoyment that headphones can't deliver.
Going back to listening on the Beyerdynamic T1. Some say this headphone is bright. On a bad pairing, it's a valid concern. On the McIntosh MHA100 the T1 exhibited no treble hot spots at all. The pairing is nothing less than stellar. Bass hit hard with full of headroom while the midrange was incredibly organic. The speed of the music moved like a flash of lightening that goes from bright flash to a pitch black sky leaving no evidence of the hit. I credit this to the famous McIntosh Autoformer technology and the MHA100's ultra low noise floor. The sum of each attribute contributed to an overall sound that is similar to $100K+ McIntosh systems.
Let me remind you that this is through the headphone jack of the MHA100 and on a $1300 headphone. Talk about getting the most bang for your buck! Every headphone I threw at it was like falling in love with the headphone again. I revisited my AKG Q702 (Quincy Jones Edition in black) and said to myself WOW! this headphone is among the most Hi-Fi sounding headphone I've ever used - when paired with the MHA100. The crazy low street price of only $199 on Amazon is a steal. I loved the pairing so much I bought a spare Q702 (in lime green this time) just in case AKG decides to kill this model. I spent a little time with the HXD feature and found it to work best on low to mid tiered headphones that doesn't already have soundstage. But for me, I prefer to have it OFF.
In the beginning I was skeptical of the MHA100 mainly because of the speakers output feature. I wanted so badly for McIntosh to make a dedicated headphone amplifier I saw very little if any value in the speakers tap. After using the MHA100 on my system in my environment, my view has changed. It's nice to be able to go from headphone listening to speakers with a turn of a knob. Not one feature in the MHA100's design felt like a value added feature that the engineers threw because the marketing department wanted to charge more. The MHA100 is four McIntosh products in a single box backed by the legendary McIntosh sound and performance. If I didn't have to allocate funds to repair a bathroom shower that developed a leak behind the wall. The MHA100 would definitely be the heart of my system in the family room where I can enjoy music through headphones or speakers.
Buy it, buy it now.