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McIntosh Laboratory MA-7000 Integrated Amp Review

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by Sean Fowler on April 05 '09

McIntosh Martin Logan.jpg

From the U.S.A with love


It doesn’t require a potions degree from Hogwarts to apperceive your familiarity with the McIntosh name. For 60 years, the venerable company has held to the tradition of serving generations of audiophiles, musicians, and wealthy professionals with first rate audio electronics. It’s one of the few brands in the business that is so synonymous with hi-fi that even a non-enthusiast muggle stands a chance of recognizing the trademark vintage green moniker and big blue power meters. Today Sonicflare takes a look at one of the latest additions to enter the McIntosh catalogue, the MA7000 integrate amplifier.


Under the hood


Weighing in at nearly 100lbs, measuring roughly 17.5”W x 9.5”H x 22”D, dishing out a solid 250wpc into 8, 4, and 2 ohms, and flashing a shelf tag of $8000.00 USD, the MA7000 asserts itself as the most substantial, most powerful, and most expensive integrate to ever adorn the McIntosh stripes. Sporting a massive retro look that un-bashfully exudes confidence, power and refinement, it’s the proverbial antithesis of slim lifestyle sized hardware. When around the MA7000, it’s easy to lose ones sense of propriety. After wrestling the unit out of its shipping carton and setting it on the equipment, you cannot help but feel that it is one of the most bad-ass integrated amplifiers ever released by a mainstream manufacturer south of the $15,000 mark.  So what exactly is under the hood of this thing?


In a nutshell, the MA7000 is a modified MC252 amplifier with an analog passive-pre-amp attached to it. The pre-amp section on board the MA7000 is virtually identical to the MA6900 integrated. What sets the MA7000 apart from its little brother is the amplification section, which takes the MC252 and gives it a better circuit layout for improved sound quality along with ThermalTrak technology for lower distortion and more efficient operation. According to McIntosh, the amplifier housed inside of the MA7000 outperforms a stand-alone MC252. 


From the polished stainless steel chassis to the glass front panel and the big blue illuminating power meters, everything on the MA7000 communicates bona fide Mac-ism. Exclusive to the MA7000 are a set of machined aluminum rack handles that flank each side of the front panel. I found these handles to be as practical as they are aesthetically pleasing, as the extra grip they provide makes it easier to manage dealing with the 97.5 pound piece while moving it around and positioning it on an equipment rack. Another first for the MA7000 is a full set of balanced inputs and outputs which enables connectivity to a wider array of products. It is important to note however that the MA7000 is not a natively balanced design and instead operates off the standard single-ended circuit. 


Many integrate amplifiers in this price class are often purist in nature and thus lack many features that are found even on inexpensive entry level components. McIntosh feels this shouldn’t be so, and incorporates a number of useful additions to the MA7000 uncommon with competitive products in this range such as a built-in high quality Moving Magnet (MM) Phono-stage for the vinyl lover, a first class headphone section for the ‘can’ enthusiast, and a very effective 5-band equalizer for those who want to toggle between linearity and color, the latter being particularly useful when listening to recordings that never received the audiophile treatment. Just a little more bass here or a little less treble there and suddenly you’ll find yourself listening to music you long discarded due to inept sound quality. 


For McIntosh, bullet proof construction is equally as important as sound quality and features. Built to provide decades of reliable and consistent performance, the MA7000 is chalk full of technologies that help prevent life shortening wear and tear on both the unit itself and your loudspeakers. From the use of long lasting fiber optic lighting to a number of innovative circuits such as McIntosh’s own Sentry Monitor, which protects against voltage spikes, and Power Guard, a circuit that monitors the input and output signals and adjusts voltage on the fly to prevent harmful clipping, it’s difficult to imagine an electrical circumstance that could pierce through the MA7000’s built-in protection. 


The MA7000 also includes Autoformers, which are low distortion transformers that output consistent power into loudspeaker impedances of 2, 4, or 8 ohm’s. With 250 watts per channel, there aren’t too many loudspeakers on planet earth that the MA7000 cannot power well. To top it all off, McIntosh employs its own ThermalTrak technology to ensure that the amp stays nice and cool. While most amplifiers rely on a separate transistor to control the bias along the main voltage rails, ThermalTrak devices are physically attached to each output power transistor inside the amp. This allows for instantaneous bias control which results in lower distortion and more efficient operation. It also means that the amp will run cooler and ultimately last longer.


Throw in data ports for home automation, a full functional remote control, an exceptionally well written user manual and a 3 year warranty and the only thing missing from this piece is an attachment that serves you breakfast in bed.


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Performance Summary: The Yin


There’s a longstanding joke among some audiophiles that McIntosh solid state components sound more lush and romantic than their tube counterparts. Because I am such a greenhorn with Mac gear, I’m unable to form a worthwhile take on the matter. That said, my stint with the MA6300 integrate last summer confirmed that at least one current-production transistor piece of theirs has a presentation that can be categorized as lush. Since most ubiquitous manufacturers keep to the sacrosanct tradition of maintaining a ‘house sound’ throughout a product line, I felt it was safe to assume that the MA7000 would inherit the MA6300’s character, albeit en’ improved form. As it turns out, my assumption was far off the mark. 


The moment the MA7000 began playing music was the very moment I realized that the only thing this piece had in common with the MA6300 is a similar look and the same brand logo. There was no doubting it, not even for a second. While the MA6300 has an enjoyable sound that is reminiscent of classic 60’s and 70’s era hi-fi, the MA7000 takes on a modern and polished presentation that is all about resolution, transparency, and linearity. There is no detectable grit to the highs. No blossom and bloom in the midrange and bass. Instead, the sound is balanced, powerful, controlled, and clean. Wise tales be damned, the MA7000 is a piece that proudly champions solid state chops without ever attempting to sound like something that it’s not.


With all EQ parameters set to flat, the MA7000’s lack of an obvious aural fingerprint makes it an easy candidate to submit under the “tell it like it is” camp. It’s the type of piece that will show you everything going on in your system, for better and for worse. For some listeners, this open, dynamic, transparent, and detail oriented sound will be music to the ears. For others, it may be a bit too much of a good thing. If you happen to fall into the latter camp, don’t worry. McIntosh has already got you covered with the built in EQ, which not only allows you to flavor the sound according to your taste, but also allows you to adjust the sound per individual recording! Also, bear in mind that linear sounding amplifiers enable you to color the sound in different ways, be it your cables, your source, or what have you. Personally, I prefer the sound with the EQ set to flat.  Leaving things in this configuration, I feel that the presentation of the MA7000 rests comfortably between the classic ‘up close and personal’ and the ‘mid-hall’ denotations. This means that the sound is forward enough to capture the raw energy of a live performance without ever rubbing your nose in it. Ultimately though, every component has its own character. If I had to pick a word to describe the MA7000’s sound, it would be ‘dark’. Well, ok, how about “slightly dark”. 


Straight out of the box, one of the most standout virtues of the MA7000, aside from its power and fine integration of the main frequency bands, is the amount of detail it effortlessly extracts from a recording. Though its rendering of detail is unquestionably revealing in nature, the MA7000 sounds incredibly smooth on the top end and never dips into the grit and grain territory that plagues many other high end “tell it like it is” components. Of course, along with this clarity comes all the wonderful sense of air and separation around the instruments and vocalists that one should expect from a component at this price point, thus enabling you to hear further into a recording and to gather a fresh perspective on familiar music. 


Much like the top end, the midrange on the MA7000 is quick, full of detail, air, and sports a very open and linear sound. Those of you who believe that the midrange is the most important aspect of sound reproduction and feel that it should never suffer from artificial flavoring will absolutely love how the MA7000 plays music. It simply recreates whatever is fed through it. If the recording is open and rich sounding, that’s what you’ll get. If it’s lean and thin, that’s what you’ll get. This is certainly not an integrate that suffers from the “sameness” effect, which is a byproduct of tonal color that ultimately causes all of your music to sound the same. Instead, the MA7000 allows you to explore your music collection and enjoy a varied experience from disc to disc. 


Glancing at the MA7000’s monstrous façade, it’s easy to assume that the bass will be as bombastic as the look itself. After all, there is usually a parallel between the way a component looks and the way that it performs. Although the appearance of the MA7000 suggests that it may overwhelm your system with gargantuan bass, what it actually delivers flows right in line with the rest of its presentation, preferring instead to give a quick, detailed, finely balanced, and tactile response. With the MA7000, the measure of good bass is all about how it integrates into the music, which as many would argue, is exactly how it should be. 


Make no mistake about it though, the MA7000 can rumble when called upon to do so. In fact, the MA7000 may be one of the few integrates that can genuinely surpass numerous high power separate components in terms of delivering raw visceral dynamic power. If someone were to tell me that the MA7000’s ability to provide the current necessary to accurately reproduce the sensation of a live performance were its most salient attribute, I wouldn’t disagree. Indeed, even at low volumes, the mighty integrate has the ability to project sound in a way that mimics the interplay between live instruments inside of a room.


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Performance Summary: The Yang


Picking apart components of this pedigree can be challenging because most of the pieces that occupy this echelon are fairly well engineered and well rounded products. Usually it takes a direct compare and contrast sessions against two similar components to fully assess what one item brings to the table that the other does not. In this review, I’m going to use the Karan Acoustic KA I-180 integrated as an example. 


At $10,500, the Karan is notably more expensive than the MA7000. It’s also marketed towards a completely different type of buyer – the purist. The MA7000 by contrast is built to appease a wider audience ranging from the audiophile to the wealthy professional and anyone in between. Still, they are nonetheless pricey super-integrate amplifiers and as such, are worth a direct comparison.


Keeping it simple, for $2500 more than the MA7000, the Karan KA I-180 will give you stronger bass, a more open and organic sounding midrange, superior linearity, and a wider sound-stage. Subjectively speaking, the Karan’s ability to dance between the lines that typically separate the transistor sound from the tube sound is a virtue that few transistor amplifiers I’ve happened across possess. If you’re a purist that demands the very best stereo performance and have no interest in features and do not mind the wait period for a new amp (provided you can find one), than the Karan is for you.


Looking to the MA7000, though disadvantaged in terms of price, the MA7000 is more dynamic, sports better treble clarity, and can handle far more difficult impedance loads. The McIntosh MA7000 is also found in more dealer showrooms worldwide, thus making it far easier to audition than the Karan Acoustic integrate. The MA7000 also benefits from McIntosh inventorying a plethora of parts to ensure that they will have some available in case there is a need for repair decades after your purchase. At the end of the day, both products are exceptional considering their general design and who they were built for.


Comparisons aside, the only complaints I have to lobby against the MA7000 have nothing to do with its performance and everything to do with simple but noteworthy oversights. For starters, this unit does not have even one single ended (RCA) output. So if you want to attach a sub to the MA7000, you will have to either go from the balanced output (or buy an XLR-to-RCA adapter should your sub lack a balanced input), or ghetto rig your sub into the system by removing the jumper connecting the main in/power out and then use a Y splitter to connect to your sub. Second, there is no HT bypass. Sorry home-theater buffs! Third, there is no way to disable the lights on the big blue power meters. If you enjoy listening to music in a pitch-black room, you may have difficulty doing so with two bright blue lights beaming towards your eyes. These hiccups aside, I feel that the MA7000 leaves little room for improvement. 


The Finale


Big, powerful, reliable, and endowed with the sonic chops necessary to ace the performance parameters audiophiles have come to know and expect, the MA7000 is a fantastic integrated that is hard not to love. Couple its sonic accomplishments with its intuitive layout, noiseless operation, and rock-solid build, and you’ve got the kind of piece worth rushing home to after a day of hard work. For those of you shopping the upper leagues of hi-fi in search of a final destination from of a one-box design, the MA7000 may be one of the most compelling solutions to have come around in a long time. Very highly recommended!



McIntosh Laboratory

2 Chambers Street, Binghamton, NY 13903-2699

Websites: http://www.mcintoshlabs.com

Phone: 1-800-538-6576