Back in the mid-Nineties, I was still in the throes of home-theater madness and wrote: “Very soon, stereo will be only an output setting on your multichannel system.” Obviously, I was wrong. But many audiophiles do require a system that can serve for both home-theater multichannel playback and two-channel music. The majority of dual-system buyers opt for a digitally enabled multichannel receiver or preamp/processor, but some would prefer a more analog way to reproduce their analog sources than a digital preamp. NuForce has a solution: the MCP-18 multichannel analog preamp. It was designed to handle both multi-and two-channel analog sources in the most sonically unobtrusive manner possible. It is basically a source-selector and gain-adjustment device whose signal path has been optimized to obtain maximum transparency and minimum coloration. Priced at $995, the MCP-18 offers audiophiles a budget high-sound-quality alternative to multichannel digital pre/pros, while still retaining a system’s multichannel capabilities.
Technology and Ergonomics
The MCP-18 looks very much like NuForce’s companion model, the AVP-18 A/V processor. Both have a rhomboid-shaped front panel whose sides and top slant inward. For front-panel controls, the MCP-18 has two good-sized knobs on either side of a centrally located LED display panel. The MCP-18 has two sets of single-ended RCA 7.1 inputs, one pair of two-channel balanced XLR inputs, and two pairs of two-channel single-ended RCA stereo inputs. Outputs for the MCP-18 include one set of 7.1 single-ended RCA and one set of 7.1 balanced XLR connections. Both sets of outputs are simultaneously active.
Although the MCP-18 supports 7.1 channels, the main right and left front channels have a slightly different signal path than the rear, side, center, and subwoofer channels. According to NuForce’s Casey Ng, “What we wanted to do with the MCP-18 was to have it first and foremost serve as a superb two-channel preamp. We borrowed heavily from our P20 and HAP-100 designs. The front left and right channels use a digitally controlled, discrete-resistor-ladder circuit. This uniquely implemented resistor ladder is in the feedback loop of the high-performance op-amp circuit so as to have minimal impact on the signal chain.”
All of the MCP-18’s channels use silver contact relays for input selection to maintain signal integrity, but only the front two channels employ a resistor-ladder volume control. The other six channels use a combination monolithic switch/input selector and AGC (Automatic Gain Control) volume control. After the volume controls and linestage section, the signal goes through a single-ended-to-balanced conversion circuit (a phase-splitter) that generates the balanced signal.
When I asked Casey Ng about the MCP-18’s circuitry, he told me: “Basically, there is no ‘secret sauce’ in the MCP-18. The only secret is that our NuForce HAP-100 and MCP-18 are the world’s lowest-cost high-performance preamps that offer a stepped attenuator. Our own P20 is $5k and was originally intended to be the best-priced high-end preamp with a stepped attenuator. The MCP-18 has a very similar circuit and performance.”
The individual output level or trim of each channel of the MCP-18 can be adjusted independently via either its front panel or a credit-card-sized remote. The MCP-18 remote can also select inputs, adjust the overall volume, mute the signal, and turn the MCP-18 on and off. One control you won’t find on the remote is a left/right channel balance adjustment, but you can use the individual trim settings to achieve the same results.
I used the MCP-18 as both a two-channel and multichannel preamp in my desktop and in my room-based systems. Depending on your front speakers’ capabilities, the MCP-18’s “purist” design and ergonomics may require some re-jiggering of your setup. Obviously, the MCP-18 was designed for use in a 5.1 or 7.1 multichannel system. If you have a player with multichannel analog outputs, such as the Oppo BDP-103, you merely hook up its outputs to one of the MCP-18’s two multichannel input sets, select it, and you get 5.1 or 7.1 (depending on your system’s capabilities).