McIntosh, as a company, has a distinctive look to their equipment, it's love or hate. The first time I saw a McIntosh amp was a couple of years back at Nintronics, the MA9000. With its big blue VU Meters and Glowing green Gothic logo, it catches your attention, and it found mine, although at first not in the right way, but with time the look grew on me as I started to appreciate something that was more than a black or silver box.
I had been using the Anthem MRX710 AV Receiver with my Jamo Concert 8 bookshelves. These paired beautifully with the Anthem but were not big enough to fill the room, so with time, I replaced them with some Focal Sopra's No.2. I had been pretty pleased with the results, and the soundstage had opened up, it had depth, bass, and more detail. The timing was tighter, and I started to perceive depth to the tracks. But on the less forgiving tracks, it would stumble, for example, Genesis Mama, around 3:26 the deep growl of the organ kicks in really pulling the bass speakers down to those low impedance power-sucking levels. Then 4:10 Phil Collins Snare punches through bringing the whole orchestration into a crescendo. It is an amp killer, and the anthem would die, so it was time to look further.
So I wanted something that had the power of solid-state amp but the musicality of valve. I needed something to tame those tweeters and manage the bass. Adams suggested the MA352, with a valve preamp stage to refine the signal and a solid-state AB amp to keep those 7" bass speakers in shape, so here we go.
The MA352 is an analogue hybrid integrated amp that comes in a polished stainless steel chassis with seven dials at the front for Trim Selection, Volume, Power, and a five-band EQ. Then there is the centrepiece; two 12AX7a and two 12AT7 high-quality caged valves with the McIntosh gothic logo stamped on them and each valve glowing green. These combined with the signature blue VU meters and monogrammed McIntosh heatsinks, it punches you between the eyes. Now it has to be a centrepiece to any HiFi with it's a big, bold statement, and it screams McIntosh (but with a modern twist).
For this demo, I am using a Chord Hugo 2 connected via Audioqest's Cinnamon USB cable to Roon Music Server and then Audioqest Earth RCA's to the McIntosh amplifier. The Focal Sopra No. 2 were connected using Sommer orbit 225 MkII speaker cable. All equipment has had at least 100 hours of burn-in.
When powering up, the display tells you the valves are warming and glow orange. This changes to green, and all is ready to sit back and enjoy the VU meters throbbing blue.
The left dial is for input selection if pressed, it goes in to trim selection, and if held, it goes into setup mode. The right dial if pressed toggles on and off and if turned scrolls though the menu selection. I kept chasing these options and then pressing the power button by mistake, which meant a ten-second delay as the valves warmed up again. You can customize each input name, disable any inputs not used, and adjust the brightness level. You can also turn on and off tube LEDs, VU meters, and the information display.
The amplifier also allows for Passthrough; this is where the AVR sends a signal to the Integrated amp to bypass the preamp stage and use the amp entirely as a power amp, which was perfect as I did not have separate surround speakers. I needed lights off in Passthrough mode and on when in Integrated, unfortunately, this is not an option.
A good starting point for me is Dominique Fils-Aimé track Birds 24/88.2 from the album Nameless; this starts with a lush plucked double bass standing in front of you! Then the finger snaps open up the soundstage left and right, followed by Dominique's sublime vocal filling the mid-range. Nothing here is missing; it is all controlled with warmth to the performers on stage. You can lean forward and touch each one of them.
Then Arne Domnerus: Jazz at the Pawnshop - High Life opens with the applause and distance tambourine while the audience murmurs away, and glasses clinked. A lot is going on; the microphones pick up everything. Yet again, you are there, but this time in the middle of it. You can tell it is an intimate space; there is a musical warmth as you draw into this session. You can start to appreciate all the nuances that are going on; feet are tapping, hands clapping, and conversations continue from the listeners.
Okay, let's pull away from acoustic and try something more ambient. Drowned Sea from Plaid off the album Polymer. Ambient techno and which starts with a post-industrial rhythmic pattern and ricochets back and forth across the speakers. There is plenty of detail here; the bass has enough depth to feel as the amp flexes its muscles at kicking those speakers. Everything is precise, mid and treble are still there with the MA352 still conducting all speakers with precision and not allowing anything to take over.
It has been an incredible journey; I feel honoured to have had time with such a brand. I can appreciate how this technology is still developing; the MA352 is no exception. It is subliminal in what it can achieve, and it manages so much in one integrated package, but this is high-end Audio, and you expect everything to perform well, don't you? The brand has a following for a good reason, they have been doing this for 70 years, so they have a few tricks up their sleeves and a distinctive sound too. If I were to compare it to a car, I would say the Shelby Cobra; it has presence, musicality, but is not analytical. If you are after pulling out every minuscule detail, then this amp is not for you. It has quirks such as the permanently on front LED, a finicky control system for changing settings, and its looks. These are part of the McIntosh DNA, it is undoubtedly a sight to behold, and it's stubborn at that, but sit back and listen to that Ford V8.