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McIntosh

Laboratory
B Y PA U L S E Y D O R

In the early years of home high fidelityfrom,


say, the mid-Fifties through the early Seventies
McIntosh and Marantz pretty much had the crmede-la-crme electronics market to themselves. Indeed,
it could be said that they practically defined it.
Saul Marantz divested himself of his company
in the late Sixties to the Japanese, but McIntosh
continued, and continues, to grow and prosper.
Asian companies eventually acquired it, too, but
despite the changes in ownership, McIntosh itself
was left fairly autonomous, its several owners
realizing that its value lay in its heritage and identity.
That identity began to form in the late Forties
when Frank McIntosha man with considerable
experience in broadcasting and in designing
professional sound systems, and also, like more
than a few of the early audio pioneers, a musician
(cellist)started thinking about an amplifier capable
of dramatically higher power and lower distortion
than anything available at the time. He hired Gordon
Gow as an assistant and between them they invented
the unity coupled circuit, which is still in use
today. The resulting 50W-1 amplifier demonstrated
unprecedented performance in its day: 50 watts
at less than one percent distortion, response flat
to within 1dB from 10Hz100kHz with less than
10-degrees of phase shift between 10Hz30kHz. At
five percent distortiontypical of good amplifiers
of the timethe W-1 could have been rated at 80
watts.
By 1949, McIntosh had set up the company that
soon became known as McIntosh Laboratory, with
Gow as general manager and Maurice Painchaud as
controller. Two years later, Sidney Corderman was
hired and put in charge of research, engineering,
and development. McIntosh himselfwho was

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McIntosh Laboratory

Left: Gordon Gow and


Frank McIntosh.
Top: Maurice
Painchaud.
Bottom right: Sidney
Corderman.

always called Mr. Macessentially left the running of the company to


these three men. And so it remained until the deaths of Gow in 1989 and
Mr. Mac himself in 1990. In 1951, the company moved from Maryland to
Binghamton, New York, where more than six decades later it still remains.
Throughout its long, distinguished history McIntosh has brought out so
many products of high excellence that it would be almost an insult to name a
best (or even a handful of the best). Nevertheless, there are certain signature
products that define the companys overall character, its goals and values, and,
of course, its style. In the Fifties, the C8 preamplifier, the C60 and MC30 amplifiers, and the MR55 tuner (unusual for the time, it featured AM as well as FM)
set a performance standard that few other manufacturers could even aspire to,
let alone meet. Its only serious competitor in what might be called the blue
chip market was Marantz. If you could afford a product from one or the other,
you bought it. If you couldnt, you bought what your budget allowed and lusted
after the Mac or Marantz of your dreams. One thing that distinguished all preamplifiers before the onslaught of minimalism in the mid-Seventies was that
control units really should offer both control and controls. The C8 came with bass
and treble, plus five-position knobs for rumble and loudness compensation,
and ten slide switches labeled Record Compensation for pickups and phono
equalization, which was far from standard in the days before the advent of the
LP and the RIAA equalization curve.
Apart from the olde English font for the company name, what you dont
find in the McIntosh components from the Fifties is the famous, virtually
iconic McIntosh look: the black glass faceplates, the imposing blue meters,
the gleaming metal knobs, the rows and columns of knobs and buttons
cleanly, logically laid outa model of order and elegance. Initially the first
black panels were Plexiglas and covered only part of the fascia; the rest were
in brushed gold with stenciled lettering. But soon customers complained that
the Plexiglas was prone to scratches, the stenciling came off easily from the

frequent touch of fingertips, and why couldnt the whole fascia be glossy
black, which looked way classier? Eventually the faceplates were made from
glass with the stenciling on the inside, which required a special custom-made
dye for the combination of lettering that appeared gold in a normally lighted
room and glowed teal blue when the lights were dimmed. Thus was born
the signature McIntosh style, which proved very complicated and expensive
to manufacture. But its doubtful any McIntosh owner ever wished it away
or regretted the extra money it cost. Part of the appealnot to mention
the prestigeof owning a McIntosh is that classic look, which, because it is
classic, is and will be forever contemporary.
This look also translated into something else. McIntosh components
were and are always physically large, heavy, rugged, and massiveobviously
intended for serious business. Yet the image the company courted and built
appears to have anticipated the lifestyle components of today, albeit on a
grander and far more imposing scale. McIntosh took pride in ownership
very seriously, and obviously intended its preamps and tuners to be not just
displayed but proudly so. While there was nothing pretentious about them,
owning them conferred upon the buyer a certain difficult-to-define but real
sense of cachthey were very embodiment of class. The amps were initially
industrial in appearance, yet once the blue meters and black glass panels were
introduced, even they became too beautiful to hide: Mac components were
in some respects the first luxury products of the audio industry, with a style
that involved a distinctly clubby aesthetic, redolent of an English-style study
or library. Doctors, dentists, lawyers, business executives, and celebrities were
the obvious buyers, and it was easy to get the impression that the menit was
always men in those dayswho owned McIntosh components also owned
smoking jackets that were actually used for their intended purpose, a snifter
of cognac to accompany the cigar or pipe full of tobacco, with Brubeck on
the turntable or Mozart over the airwaves. Not too surprisingly, the company
soon acquired a sizable list of celebrity clients, which included Harold Lloyd,

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McIntosh in its Own Words


Sidney Corderman on the role of listening in product development: McIntosh
has always used a scientific, measurements-based approach. If a design
doesnt measure well, it isnt going to sound good. If it measured well, we
would move on to listen to evaluate the sound quality. That was where
final judgments were made. There was a case when we first developed
the MC60 power amplifier. We sent the first MC60 to Ewing Nunn, an
individual who produced a small quantity of vinyl discs at his recording
company. He had an excellent ear. He evaluated it and said it didnt
sound good. We had measured it and we knew the distortion was very
low and the frequency response was very flat. We couldnt understand
why he didnt like it. He sent it back and we studied it for quite a while.
Finally using a new test instrumenta wave analyzerI was able to find
that the ripple from the power supply was combining with signals going
through the amplifier, making intermodulation products. There was
120Hz intermodulation on each side of fundamental frequencies. He was
hearing it. We added a filter choke to the power supply that corrected the
problem. We returned it to Ewing, and he loved it. And we were off and
running with our new model.
David OBrien on the amplifier clinics: A major positive benefit of the
clinics was to demonstrate to both dealers and consumers that McIntosh
electronics performed as advertised, while the majority of Brand X
components did not. I knew from previous experience that McIntosh
components performed as advertised. I also knew there were a lot
of inflated claims by other manufacturers, but I had no idea of the
magnitude of the situation. The greatest misinformation came from
the biggest manufacturers, who did the most advertising in industry
publications. Such revelations resulted in dramatic sales increases for
McIntosh productsit was quite common for a McIntosh owner to place

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McIntosh Laboratory

a unit on my test bench with words something like, Remember me? Last
year I had a Brand X amplifier that didnt perform well at your clinic, so I
traded it for a McIntosh. This experience was repeated innumerable times
over the years.
Gordon Gow on the room: The room becomes the fifth component. The
input device, turntable, tape machine, preamplifier, power amplifier, and
the loudspeakersand now the room can affect both the sound character
and the musical balance to a degree that can completely nullify the
investment in really expensive equipment. To give an example: At home
I have roughly about $10,000, maybe $12,000, of stereo equipment
the best loudspeakers we make, the best power amplifier, the best
preamplifier, tuner, and a super-quality turntable, cartridge, and arm.
Without compensation for the room, that system will not even produce
stereo. You cannot even hear stereo until you do an acoustical analysis of
the room from each loudspeaker and compensate each loudspeaker. It
required eight filters on each side in order to produce stereo, but, having
set them up accurately and comprehensively, the degree of stereo imaging
in both spaciousness and depth is about as good as I have ever heard. In
fact, I might even brag that it is probably better than anything else I have
ever heard.
Charlie Randall on the Mac image: We have very retro-looking cosmetics
even though we have made big changes over time. But the customer who
buys McIntosh wants McIntosh. Consistently, he always knows that he
can go back and get another piece, two years later, ten years later, fifteen
years later, and the system is going to match. You know, we never go from
black to silver, or bronze, or whatever. Theres always the consistency in
the system.

The storied
McIntosh factory
in 1964.

Howard Hughes, all four Beatles, Brian Wilson, and the Grateful Dead. In
1969, the companys amplifiers were used at the Woodstock festival, and in
1974, the Grateful Deads Wall of Sound at the San Francisco Cow Palace
was powered by an epic 28,800 watts of McIntosh amplifier muscle. Savvy
moviegoers know that whenever Hollywood wants to use a sound system
to suggest a well-heeled character with lots of money, McIntosh is the go-to
company, as the Matt Damon characters system in Martin Scorseses 2006 The
Departed amply demonstrates.
In the early Sixties, the company debuted what must be by any reckoning a
pair of signature products: the MC275 stereo power amplifier (1961) and the
C22 stereo preamplifier (1963). Although both were anticipated in look and
function by the C20 preamp and the C240 amp of two years earlier, it was
the later units that helped define the state of the art in electronics throughout
most of the rest of the decade. The C22 was almost a dock brief of what
the hub of a sophisticated system at the time was supposed to consist of:
provision for two record players (manual and changer), two tuners (AM in
addition to FM, since most serious tuners in those days, including Macs after
the MR55, were FM only), two tape decks with full monitoring, MIC input,
tape head, and AUX. (What was connected to that in those days? No domestic
televisions made the audio outputs available.) In addition to tone controls,
loudness compensation, and a full complement of scratch and rumble filters,
there was a mode selector that included stereo, stereo reverse, mono to both
channels, right to both channels, left to both channels, and full mono to one
or the other channel (clearly system testing, balancing, and adjustment was a
paramount concern back then).
If any single McIntosh product could lay claim to first place among equals,
it would have to be the MC275 amplifier, authored by Sidney Corderman, by
then a legend in the making himself. Based on the MC75 monoblock of a few
years earlier, this unit generated 75 watts per channel, and twice that when the
amp was run in mono mode (available at the flip of a switch). With its sloping
chrome panel that housed input jacks, speaker terminals, and level controls,
its chrome-plated base supporting the three transformers in one row, the four
output tubes in another, and the six input tubes in a third, and the McIntosh
name and model number proudly emblazoned in bas-relief along one side of
the base, the MC275 is the most beloved of all McIntosh products. Its sound
was notable even then for its neutrality and musical naturalness and authority.
It enjoyed a twelve-year run until 1973. As befits its high reputation, when

Top: McIntosh
wound its own
transformers in this
dedicated area of the
factory.
Bottom: Todays
McIntosh products
retain the brands
iconic black glass,
green front-panel
legends, and blue
power-output meters.

McIntosh introduced a commemorative product in the mid-Nineties in honor


of Gordon Gow, the MC275 was the chosen product, soon followed by the
C22.
At the beginning of the Sixties, McIntosh took an unprecedented step
in public relations and customer satisfaction: the famous amplifier clinics,
whereby customers could bring their McIntosh amps or those of other
manufacturers to local dealers around the country and have the performance
verified by a sophisticated series of tests conducted by David OBrien, hired
expressly to run the clinics, which continued for thirty years. Those rare Macs
found wanting were fixed or replaced free of charge (even defective tubes
were replaced for free). (At one of these a young fellow brought his own
home-brewed amp; when it didnt test as he expected it to, he took it home,
made some modifications, and brought it back to be re-tested. His name was
Bob Carver, but thats another story told elsewhere in this book.)
The Sixties began with the development of some of the finest tube products
and ended with solid-state. This was true of McIntosh, as of Marantz, Harman
Kardon, and most others. By 1973, McIntosh would stop manufacturing any
tube gear. The C24 solid-state preamp appeared in 1964, followed three years
later by no fewer than four power amplifiers. The first two, the MC250 and
MC2105, were, interestingly, styled to resemble the chrome-bottomed openchassis designs of the MC240 and MC275. The second two, the MC2502 and
MC2105, were the first to sport the famous McIntosh meters and the blackglass-front look. Only one of the companys solid-state designs from these
years ever attained classic status among hardcore audiophiles: The MR78
tuner, introduced in 1972, is the only FM tuner to be as highly prized as
the legendary Marantz 10B, with an adjacent-channel selectivity measurement
that trounced any tuner made up to that time.
When McIntosh ceased manufacturing tube units, it lost some of its prestige
among hardcore audiophiles. The first issue of The Absolute Sound appeared in

McIntosh Laboratory

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Left: Building
the MC240;
this photo
shows the scale
of McIntoshs
production
capability.
Top: MC2505
solid-state amp.
(Photos courtesy
of McIntosh.)

1973, founded and edited by Harry Pearson, who made a distinction between
ordinary high-fidelity components and those devoted to only the finest in
sound reproduction, which he called the high end. It was a name that caught
on and stuck. Before long, the tube revival would be in full swing with Audio
Research Corporation and Conrad-Johnson in ascendance. Pearson referred to
the Seventies and Eighties as the dark days of McIntosh, a review in TAS
tarnishing the brand with the most condescending of judgments: McIntosh
components were the ultimate in middle-brow audio, appealing to doctors and
lawyers, in other words, those in it for the prestige, not the sound. Was there any
sonic basis for these judgments?
Yes and no. No, in the sense that its seriously doubtful McIntoshs solid-state
amps and preamps were anything other than excellent, as the brisk market for
any McIntosh gear readily testifies. (Id rather have an old McIntosh than a
new anything else, someone once said.) But yes in the sense that McIntoshs
solid-state amplifiers were certainly different from the rest. Macs engineers
always regarded reliability as being co-equal with performance in importance.
What good is the best-sounding amplifier in the world if its constantly breaking
down? The stability of transistors in those days was a serious worry, especially
with power-hungry speakers of low-impedance loads. McIntoshs transistor
amplifiers employed, and still employ, autoformersin effect, transformers
in the output stage to enable the amp to match speaker impedances better, to
deliver power more efficiently, and to ensure stability. But when some transistor
designers made a fetish of DC-to-speed-of-light-frequency response, any sort
of transformer was considered a no-no (a curious prejudice, given their necessity
with tube amplifiers), because a transformer would not pass a DC signal. This
could have a subtle effect on very deep bass response, causing some phase shift,
which might extract a small price in ultimate definition and perhaps extension.
Whatever, Macs solid-state amplifiers sounded different, one difference
ironicallybeing that they exhibited so little in the way of obvious audiophile
characteristics (i.e., detail, tight bass, crystalline highs, etc.) and almost
nothing of the typical transistor abrasiveness and harshness of the technologys
initial years.
Beyond that, there can be no question that the company had an image problem. The traditional styling didnt help, the frank appeal to the more conservative
and/or upscale market that could afford them, the fact that the products actually
worked and werent subject to an endless series of quarterly modifications (thus
supplying more news for the subjective journals and their more or less quarterly
publication schedules), the emphasis upon measured performance as opposed to
subjective evaluation. Regarding this last point, however, unlike, say, Peter Walker
at Quad, the engineers at McIntosh actually did believe in listening evaluations
once all the laboratory work was done and before a product was finally released
(see McIntosh in its own words). But it hardly mattered: McIntosh survived

without the endorsement of the high end, and was perfectly happy to do so,
moving quite successfully into multichannel, home theater, and digital.
But its very difficult for a company to lose its founders. When Gow died in
1989, Mr. Mac the next year, and Painchaud retired two years after that, it became
clear that a change in direction was needed. The Japanese firm Clarion bought
the company, and a few years later, D&M Holdings (for Denon and Marantz)
bought it from Clarion. Ironically, it was the Japanese with their reverence for
tradition who were initially responsible for the companys decision to get back
into production with tube amplifiers. In 1993, the MC275 was brought out in a
limited edition of 4500 units in honor of Gordon Gows passing. Some inside the
company were skeptical it would sell at all. It turned out the only reason the amps
didnt fly off the shelves is because they never made it to the shelves: The entire
run was presold before any ever reached stores. Plainly a rapprochement between
the company and the high end was in the making. In 1999, to commemorate
the companys fiftieth anniversary, Sidney Corderman designed the MC2000
Commemorative Edition, a 135-pound behemoth of a tube amplifier, 130 watts
per channel, with a titanium-clad chassis and massive handles that resembled
solid gold. Like the commemorative MC275, it also was issued in a limited run
of 559 units and they, too, sold out fast. This led to the slightly smaller but still
very imposing all-tube MC2102 stereo amp, rated 100 watts per channel, and the
companion C2200 all-tube preamp, both products part of the standard lineup.
And in 2010, Harry Pearson gave the C2300 preamplifier a TAS Editors Choice
award and a glowing (pun most definitely intended) review.
During these years McIntosh also scored several brilliant successes with solidstate technology: The C100 and later C200 preamplifiers were both sonically
and technically state-of-the-art, while the MC402 amplifier registered with
stunning purity, transparency, and power. Since then, both tube and solid-state
have been living in happy coexistence within the McIntosh catalogue. In 2001,
Charlie Randall, a McIntosh engineer who had joined the company as a student
at the end of the Gow era, was made president. Randalls embrace is large. He
was part of Cordermans design team for the memorial products, doing all the
MC275s circuit board layout and prototype building. He also possesses an
engaging, outgoing personality that helped broker a new relationship between
McIntosh and the high-end community, as well as the press and consumers, and
he remains as committed to two-channel audio as to expanding McIntosh into
the new century. In 2012, the Fine Sounds Group, an Italian firm that also owns
Sonus faber, Audio Research, Wadia, and Sumiko, acquired McIntosh. Two years
later the ownership of Fine Sounds shifted, and with Randall now the head of
both McIntosh and Fine Sounds, the group has relocated its headquarters to the
United States, which in turn means that ownership of McIntosh has come full
circle back to North America.
The McIntosh brand has also come full circle in another sense: As diversified
as its product range now is, the core offeringspreamplifiers and power
amplifiersthat made the company great are once again as highly regarded by
the audiophile community as they were at the very beginning more than sixty
years ago. This is because throughout all the social, economic, and technological
vicissitudes, McIntoshs several owners, one and all, have remained steadfastly
committed to the values that made it and continue to make it one of the most
honored and respected names in high fidelity. Rarely has a clich rung truer: The
legend lives on.

McIntosh Laboratory

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