Review: McIntosh Laboratory MXA60
Back when shirts were velour and popular music's dominant beat was four-on-the-floor, just like your Super Beetle, high-end stereo systems were both the size and price of that beloved Volkswagen. If you wanted the highest quality sound, you went for a McIntosh Laboratory system, which would likely still be functioning flawlessly. For sixty years, McIntosh has been breaking new ground and serving up fine fidelity. The brand's name and iconic style is recognizable even by non-audiophlies.
When sonics are all that matter, it's hard to fault a rack filled with amplification, line stages, and sources. Most people, however, choose to sacrifice that last little sonic nudge in exchange for fewer obstacles to vacuum around. Small systems, even from audiophile brands, are fraught with compromise. They tend to sound as small as they are, but the tradeoff is that the unit comfortably fits on a shelf and can do everything the pile of iron in the big cabinet does, often with better ergonomics and a single remote control.
As it celebrates its 60th anniversary, McIntosh continues challenging itself, this time turning its attention to a shelf-sized audio system worthy of the classic glass front panel. When the press release about the MXA60 landed in our inbox, we were both intrigued and skeptical. Confident of its efforts, McIntosh arranged for us to go visit the MXA60 at the Natural Sound showroom in Framingham, Massachusetts. Natural Sound's Ken Zelin let us tie him up for a good portion of his day at the well-respected establishment, and gamely indulged our geeking-out.
Gallery: McIntosh MXA60
It certainly looks like it belongs in the family. The front panel has a pair of blue-backlit wattmeters, and a window in the center shows off the preamplifier section's 12AX7 tube that glows green like the McIntosh logo directly below. While it may be taken as a luxurious indulgence, the glass front panel has practical origins. First, it won't collect scratches over time like a panel rendered in plastic will tend to do. High-end audio gear can be in service for many years, so that durable beauty is important. Not only is it impervious to the effects of fluffernutter fingerprints, as Ken described it, but McIntosh will be able to zip you out a faceplate thirty years from now after your grandkid discovers hammers. Try that with your injection-molded stereo.
The chassis of the MXA60 is classic McIntosh, with polished metal and matte black finishes. Trademark solid construction is in full evidence throughout, and the power transformer is encased in its own housing . The cast aluminum housings for the speakers are finished in gloss black and brushed satin metal. Attention to detail is in evidence all over the MXA60. Even the speaker grilles have a special bezel that the tweeters nestle into for better high-frequency dispersion. Taking the long view, McIntosh equips the MXA60 with preamp outputs, so you can still use the amplifiers and enormous towers that you bought back when you still had hair.
The amplifier in the MXA60 is no slouch on its own, punching out 75 watts per channel. McIntosh uses a clever technique to avoid clipping. McIntosh's Power Guard uses an electro-optical limiter for and extremely fast and musical response to peaks that would exceed the current available and drive the amplifier into nasty distortion. In fact, the MXA 60 analyzes distortion to keep the amplifier from exceeding its capabilites. Those protections don't neuter the performance of this unit in any way, and the results keep the euphonic neurotransmitters flowing. Electro-optical limiters are some of the most revered designs in the world of recording for their transparent operation, so its appearance here speaks to a commitment to sonic integrity.
Nuts and bolts out of the way, Ken asked if we wanted to maybe hear the MXA60 in action. We resisted the urge to make a silly crack about the Pope in the woods and just enthusiastically agreed that it was time to fire it up. And then it happened. We were expecting it to sound good; it is a $7,500 audio system with possibly the best radio tuner in the world and an internal optical transport that plays CD and SACD discs. From the first downbeat, we were impressed. This thing is punchy, even on a super-dynamic Taiko-drumming track, we didn't hear any distortion on transient swings that are notoriously difficult for amplifiers to cope with. Despite the very compact dimensions of the ported enclosures for the speakers, and the small size of the drivers themselves, there's satisfyingly fat low-end.
We advanced to the next track, a modern jazz rhythm section with female vocalist, and the sound was enveloping; like the wall had opened up. There's a tightness to the sound, everything is well controlled, and the soundstage is wide and beautiful. We were digging the rhythm section, and when the singer first came in, it was as if she were standing four feet in front of the band, inches from where we were. We even took a step back to avoid tripping over the microphone stand, the imaging was that crisp. High frequencies are plenty airy without any of the icepick-in-tympani sensation you might fear. This is a seriously impressive little machine with a detailed, solid sound from a compact footprint.
For many buyers, the McIntosh MXA60 is all the audio system they'll ever need. The classic small playback system gotchas have been managed to near oblivion by McIntosh's efforts. This unit has preamp ins and outs and can work with a subwoofer if needed. It does other slick things, like remembering tone control settings for each source, yet the interface is clean and simple. Even those with a critical ear could be satisfied with this unit as their exclusive system. It's great-looking, easy to use, and flexible. Kudos to McIntosh for building on its classic virtues while keeping up with the modern zeitgeist.