McIntosh MC275 Series IV Stereo Amp and Quad II Classic Monoblock Amp

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers
McIntosh Labs MC275 Series IV
McIntosh MC275 Series IV Stereo Amp and Quad II Classic Monoblock Amp

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers.” So wrote Emerson in his seminal essay “Nature,” perhaps the most famous complaint in American literature. (I wonder what he would have made of audiophiles?) Here we live in an age when distortion, dynamic range, noise levels, and uninterrupted recording times—to name only four areas indisputably superior to anything 40 years ago—have reached a state-of-the-art that great recording musicians of the past would have killed for, while audiophiles, like so many Miniver Cheevys, sometimes appear to want nothing more than a return to that very past. There’s even been a recent resurgence of enthusiasm for mono. What’s next? 78s? Wax cylinders?

These thoughts were prompted by the appearance of two vintage amplifiers from manufacturers that helped make high-end audio a consumer reality: McIntosh in the States, and Quad in England. Over a year ago, the former reintroduced its MC275 all-tube stereo amplifier, a legendary 1961 design by Sidney Corderman. Quad recently reintroduced the Quad II monoblock, calling it the Quad II Classic, presumably to distinguish it from the II-forty, a higher- powered spinoff from the II (reviewed in Issue 135). Dating from 1953, the II was Peter Walker’s first domestic amplifier and put his company on the map.

What explains the near-simultaneous appearance of two such retro products? It’s the market, stupid. Both amplifiers are coveted on the secondhand circuit, so why not cater to the demand? According to Ron Cornelius, McIntosh’s Product Manager, the new MC275 is so successful that there are quarters when it is the company’s highest- selling product. It’s hard to imagine the Classic not following suit, especially in the U.K. and Far East, where this amp, no less than the MC275, is the stuff of legend.

The MC275 arrived first. “Don’t even bother to break it in,” Cornelius told me, “just hook it up and start listening.” I did, and was immediately rewarded with some of the most natural musical sounds I’ve heard from my Quad 988 electrostatics. Given comparable source material, the reproduction is as free from electronic artifacts— particularly edge and glare—as any I’ve heard, with tonal neutrality and an absence of identifying characteristics that made it hard for me to believe I was listening to electronic reproduction.

Having just read Kevin Bazzana’s superb Glenn Gould biography, I’ve been on a Gould kick. I started off with his recording of Beethoven’s first sonata. Typical Gould sound: close-up, dry, smallscaled, percussive, precise to a “T,” but in no way hard or abrasive. And there is the ubiquitous vocal obbligato, a valuable tool when it comes to assessing resolution. An accurate component will let you hear the pianist’s humming and wordless vocalizing; if they’re too present, detail is being emphasized in the wrong way. The MC275/988 combination gets it as right as I’ve heard.

Turn to Sony’s unedited release of Vladimir Horowitz’s 1965 return to the concert stage and you have a completely different piano sound: massive, explosively dynamic, with a rainbow of colors splashed all over the walls of Carnegie Hall. The engineers miked this rather closely, so there is a sense of the pianist’s Steinway sounding almost too big for the venue.

To a person, an informal group of listeners found this amplifier among the most attractive they’d ever heard. But the MC275 doesn’t get its attractiveness by coloring or otherwise catering to this or that taste. About the most we could come up with in the way of specific characteristics is that, like all tube units, this amp is a little dark way up high and lacks the last iota of transparency of the very best solid-state units. Mind you, in calling attention to this, I’m splitting the thinnest of hairs, as even these characteristics are mostly noticeable in direct A/B comparisons and only if you care to concentrate on them.

When it comes to large-scale material, the 275 becomes the theoretical window on the concert hall. Lately, I’ve also been on a Klemperer kick. Recorded by EMI in Kingsway Hall with the New Philharmonia, his last set of Beethoven symphonies present a remarkably persuasive picture of an orchestra in a big hall, dovetailing depth and panorama with a craftsman’s precision. The MC275 has a difficult-to-define sense of solidity and roundedness, voices and instruments emerging with uncommonly convincing texture and harmonic integrity. Like the company’s MC402 amplifier (my current reference), it perfectly mediates detail and warmth. The midrange is in the finest McIntosh tradition, and its liveliness doesn’t come at the expense of bogus projection or sloping highs and wooly lows. When called for, bass is detailed yet strong (though without noticeable “slam”). Every note from Ray Brown’s bass on Soular Energy [Groove Note SACD] is audible as a distinct pitch, yet there’s no lack of warmth, dimensionality, or naturalness.

And the Quad II Classic? Though inevitable, comparisons are hardly to the point. To begin with, the power differences are ridiculous. The Classic is rated at 15 watts—one fifth the 275’s—but under real-world conditions, as Quad’s published specs indicate, its undistorted output is closer to 11 or 12 Class A watts. On most music played at healthy levels, the amp is a real honey. Its delicious midrange is rich, smooth, and colorful. It renders strings, voices, winds, saxes, and small ensembles of all sorts with a sweetness, delicacy, and beauty that are less than completely accurate but no less than completely gorgeous. Ultimate neutrality is sacrificed upon the altar of beauty, but what are audio cults all about anyway? Can you think of a single one that’s developed around a component known for its speed and detail?

Once you go beyond the midrange, however, the gods of the highs and the lows demand their tribute, and the Classic comes up a little short. Take the Gould Beethoven. The amp holds its own until the bass lines become assertive, whereupon there is a distinct softening and loss of control, especially if you advance the volume. The top end is similarly softened, though there isn’t as much detail lost as you might expect. Drop in Bitter Ballads [Harmonia Mundi] with Andrew Lawrence-King’s harps and psaltery, and the impression is always one of great harmonic richness and air, not of restricted extension.

One of my constant references is Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West [Analogue Productions SACD and LP], a superbly realistic recording of a saxophone, close-up, vivid, and dynamic. Rollins’ tone sometimes turns edgy and aggressive, expressive qualities of his playing and not artifices of the vintage recording. The MC275 reproduces it that way. Not so the Classic, which buffs the edges to an almost impossible-to-resist satin. So is the way with this amplifier. It softens and somewhat prettifies everything that passes through it, not objectionably but audibly.

Where exactly do these products fit in today’s marketplace? The Quad II Classic makes an easy answer difficult because it’s obviously a niche product. Its 12 watts may be Class A, but that’s still a mite lite by modern speakers’ standards. I auditioned the Classic through a cherry pair of original ESLs that were restored by Quality, Service, and Distribution, the most reliable Quad technicians in America. The first thing I played was Sitkovetsky’s Goldbergs [Nonesuch], arranged for string orchestra. In about 15 seconds I was seduced by string sonorities so sweet, lovely, and creamy that I nearly bought the speakers on the spot. The same goes for classic vocalists, from Sinatra to Fitzgerald to Fisher-Dieskau. Fans of the Golden Age of Vocal Recording will, I predict, go crazy for this amplifier.

But as I kept listening, I became less and less happy with the low-end— admirably full but a little swollen and lacking in control. Quad 57s have somewhat of a reputation for being thinsounding. However, particularly when they are used on the floor, their sound is quite warm and full, with a difficult-tocontrol mid- and upper-bass. (Walker never fully solved this problem until he designed the 63.) Unfortunately, the Classic is weak in exactly the same area. So unless your listening is confined to midrange-rich music, this is not a combination I endorse. Aside from mini-monitors, I’d also tread carefully when it comes to dynamic speakers, even something as neutral and easy-to-drive as Harbeth Compact 7ES-2s. Here, the Classic’s lack of dynamic oomph and low-end control made for some ropy reproduction, though the top end remained sweet and the midrange luscious. For my tastes, the most synergistic pairing came with my 988s—not least because they have a better low-end than the 57s, altogether lovely at moderate levels and never fatiguing. At $2700 the pair, the Classics are hardly “good value.” I wouldn’t buythem over Quad’s own 909 (at $1350 less) or II-forty (at just under a grand more), this without even referencing the $3500 MC275. But niche products exist for niches, and cults worship the very qualities of their objects that make them unique. Though I’m not a member of this particular one, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy nearly every minute I spent with these beauties.

If the Classic remains very much an amplifier from the time of its origin, the MC275 is in every sense a truly modern design that’s built upon and yet extends its vintage tradition. It is so neutral that it’s not the sort of product that attracts cults. Indeed, at the risk of raising some eyebrows at McIntosh, in my system it stole a bit of thunder from its bigger brother, the 100-watt per channel MC2102, which by comparison is subtly midrange-dominant. At a rated 75 watts per channel—though 90 is typical—it’s doubtful the 275’s lower power would be audible; but if you need more, it’s bridgeable into a 150- watt monoblock.

Not long ago, one of my TAS colleagues asked me to read a review of a product about which he was extremely enthusiastic. He concluded that it was, among other things, a fantastic bargain. I told him he should strike that comment if he really wanted to persuade readers that it was as good as he says. Why? Because we live in a time when quality is so equated with price that unfortunately, for far too many audiophiles and reviewers, “bargain” has become code to mean the product for which you settle when you can’t afford the product you really want.