McIntosh MHA100 Review: The MHA100 is perhaps the finest headphone amplifier currently in production. With an exceptional build quality and class leading performance McIntosh Labs have excelled themselves. This headphone amp has already become a legend in our books.
With an extensive history spanning from pre-
Iconised by a pair of striking blue analogue VU meters, a black screen printed glass faceplate and, of course, a classic lime green logo, the American Hi-
Having not said this before, the MHA-
McIntosh are widely known for going to the the far ends of the earth to ensure that the purchaser receives an immaculate unit with absolutely no discernible faults and, certainly this instance, I can confirm that the MHA-
Entering into the package is a simple affair and includes a basic bound manual, a plastic McIntosh branded terminal post nut wrench, ergonomic remote control (that requires two AAA batteries), and a single region specific 1.2m IEC. At first glance you might wonder why the wrench is plastic, and the reason is simple; to not damage the binding posts and ensure that the finish is not tarnished in any way. Although frivolous, it is important to note that the wrench itself is not easily damaged and will survive multiple uses. With regards to the remote control, McIntosh have chosen to rely on an infrared design to inhibit any unwanted radio frequency interference from the sensitive internal circuitry. With this said it functions flawlessly across a large room in incandescent light and has a wedge shape form factor which comfortably rests in the upper palm. The remote control can control most features found on the faceplate of the MHA-
Harbouring a comparably dinky little footprint of just 29.2cm x 14.1cm x 45.7cm to that of the ‘standard’ McIntosh separate, the MHA100 appears noticeably dwarfed and more designed for convenient ‘alcove’ placement rather than a traditional central HiFi plinth. I am pleasantly surprised that the McIntosh design team have clearly understood that any calibre of headphone amplifier cries out for a comfortable domestic placement that is, undoubtably, away from the traditional HiFi floor standing environment. With this said, stylistically, the MHA100 is not any less authentic as a result of these facts. McIntosh have paid their dues to the headphone loving gods and shared the same timeless design aesthetic that is so well loved across the product range. This high calibre execution extends to every corner of the device, however, the most instantly familiar quality is the black screen printed glass faceplate with the continuous glowing green McIntosh logo and seductive blue backlit bouncing analogue VU meters. It has to be said that the MHA100 has to be seen to be believed, all front panel features appear intuitive and intelligently labelled with buttery well metered stepped (to 0.5dB increments) and unstepped potentiometers, and beautiful push buttons which, by the way, use electromagnetic switching for an extended lifespan. McIntosh clearly build products to last decades without feeling so unsightly.
Located within the centre of the faceplate is a single blue dot matrix display that provides a simple click through menu system to control the various system parameters that appears to work with minimal complexity. This central menu system is intuitive and the classy blue stark contrast makes the system legible from a small distance away. Furthermore, the sharpness of this small screen is spot on as no ghosting or blurring of the pixels is evident, but the user has the option to tailor the luminosity of the screen for perfect environmental placement. In terms of usability, the navigation of the various parameters is controlled by the stepped potentiometers and settings can be engaged by clicking the potentiometer into the chassis. I can see no reason why navigating the MHA100’s settings would be difficult. Situated just above the dot matrix menu screen are a pair of the infamous McIntosh analogue VU meters. These VU meters are truly beautiful and appear to have continuous dark baby blue backlighting that is free of blemishes and a needle fine trigger that is reported to be ten times more responsive than professional audio meters -
Across the top of the MHA100 you can’t help but notice the two labelled autoformers for each stereo channel. This patented technology is rather difficult to explain, however the output audio signal via the single ¼” front pannel output is tapped straight from the single wound autoformer where the user has the ability to select between three output impedance's to match the sensitivity of the headphones being used. The three impedance ranges appear sensible for current headphone specifications where the selectable ranges are; 8Ω -
Having previously mentioned the trade marked HXD™ function, McIntosh have chosen to not complicate matters by simply offering a single On/Off selector for the Headphone Crossfeed Director. Essentially labelled as ‘Crossfeed' by many other premium Hi-
At the rear of the device you immediately notice that this is not just a headphone amplifier, this is a mini integrated system if the user so chooses to use it in this way. Most noticeable is the large passive finned heatsink which clearly harbours the 50w per channel amplifier circuitry deeper into the device, and either side are two 24ct gold plated binding posts to allow for biamplification with or without banana plugs. Below the amplification circuit is where a whole host of analogue and digital inputs and outputs can be found. First, on the far left, is the IEC input which has a significant amount of room surrounding it to allow for custom IEC’s that feature oversized connectors. To the top of this is a single fuse porthole which is easily user accessible to replace with premium fuses such as the Synergistic Research SR-
In terms of usability the MHA100 is a device that doesn’t overcomplicate the practice of delivering impressive sound to the user within seconds. The MHA100 is super user friendly and intuitive whilst offering a whole host of options that would typically be seen on a device labeled as an integrated system. With a rock solid build quality the MHA100 will undoubtedly last many years. However, whilst some may consider that placing a DAC in such a legacy system is a slightly risky move due to the inevitable technological development of DAC chip design over the coming years, I have no doubt in my mind that the prestige digital to analogue capabilities of the MHA100 will continue to impress in the long term.
In order to process this review we have used an array of technology including; Beyerdynamic T90, Fostex TH900, Grado RS325e, Beyerdynamic DT250, Audio Technica ATH-
As the MHA100 is first and foremost marketed as a headphone amplifier the following text specifically focusses on this area.
Before any detailed analysis is embarked upon, I cannot help but set the tone of the following descriptive by confidently stating that the MHA100 is one of the most sophisticated headphone amplifiers currently in existence. The MHA100 follows a familiar royal suit of being so open and so effortlessly detailed that the overall presentation is inherently natural regardless of the caliber of headphones being used. This is, of course, a very personal experience that the MHA100 seems to warmly nail without genre prejudice or any distinguishable distortion that would otherwise dull the experience. Noting the word ‘experience’, the MHA100 is not a cold amp, it is a second to none headphone amplifier that provides a translucent window into the life and soul of the music being consumed where the listener intimately feels the music to the extent that they can pseudo place themselves amongst the instrumentation. Now, there are very few devices on the market that can do that -
The MHA100 has vibe, it categorically has life because with the MHA100, McIntosh have built a well timed unit that has a superior, apparently adaptable, transient attack and decay that, for some reason, feels the groove perfectly and presents every genre and every note played with utter perfection. For example, the MHA100 never feels too slow when a powerful bass line dominates the lower frequencies that becomes invaded, every so often, by a percussive transient note attack. Again, even the smallest of micro-
Briefly coming back to the noise floor itself, I have to say that the MHA100 exhibits such a low noise floor that it is practically impossible to hear at any volume. I strongly believe that this quality plays a part alongside the ultra low harmonic distortion characteristics of the autoformers to enable the MHA100 to have excellent staging that extends past the traditional realms of stereo recordings and the limited capabilities of the headphones themselves. Even without the Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD™) being active, headphone listening with the MHA100 is natural to the extent that the brain and ears calculate the sound to be coming from further afield, that the sound is not stuck to the side of ones head, and that the panning is naturally presented similar to a concert experience. When the Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD™) is active the soundstage is increased in width and depth to create a more Hi-
The audible bandwidth of the MHA100 is vast, however with a reported frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz it would appear that McIntosh have underrated their device due to the fact that the upper and lower frequency boundaries appear to extend well. The sub-
Legendary in design and performance, McIntosh component systems are often iconised by a pair of soft blue glowing analogue VU meters, a lime green logo, a glass faceplate, only finest in-