McIntosh Labs MC312 Power Amplifier
McIntosh Labs is a longstanding entity that defines the term 'legendary' when high-end audio hobbyists discuss companies that helped create the market for top shelf home playback equipment. In fact, McIntosh celebrated its 70th anniversary recently. Clearly, they set standards, and continue to offer new and interesting products to this day. The upstate New York based company has had its trials and tribulations, but it has never been in better standing, and its products continue to be desirable globally. McIntosh is currently owned by McIntosh Group, a company that also own several other highly regarded brands including Audio Research and Sonus Faber.
McIntosh became well known for their tube amps early on, and lust inducing industrial design that to this day is unmatched. Their tuners and preamplifiers are truly legendary. In fact there is an entire cottage industry built around collecting and restoring these components, and vintage aficionados pay high prices for well-preserved units. Of course the McIntosh name became synonymous with classic tube amplification. Interestingly, they later moved into solid state designs as times changed. In keeping contemporary, the company currently has an impressive suite of digital front ends, turntables, and even speakers.
In late 2018, McIntosh introduced the MC312 power amplifier, the subject of this review, a model that is an update of their MC302 amp. It retails for $7000, and offers some notable upgrades over the previous model. The power output is the same, at 300 Watts per channel stereo, but the higher filter capacity increases the dynamic headroom by some 27%. Other changes include improved internal components and wiring.
The MC312, like all the high powered solid-state amps in their lineup, uses their proprietary Autoformer technology. It is designed to deliver the amp's full 300 Wpc regardless of speaker load. In fact, unusually, the MC312 has 2, 4, and 8 Ohm taps at the back of the chassis. I am quite familiar with the McIntosh solid state sound, and with the Autoformer technology, as I owned their MA6600 integrated amp for a number of years. That amp had no trouble driving any speaker I had on hand, and was rated at 200 Watts per channel.
The MC312 also has balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA outputs, as this enables bi-amp'ing or use of a powered subwoofer. There is also onboard circuit and speaker protection to protect your speakers and to prevent clipping. In addition to this you'll find a link to allow for the automatic powering on or off of other McIntosh components. When the MC312 arrived, it was clear that this was a two man job to unpack and install it. At over 100 pounds, and with a glass front panel, it took both muscle and finesse to get it into my audio rack safely. Once that was done, it was hard not to marvel at the build quality, which is off the charts, and the distinctive appearance. It had all the hallmarks of classic McIntosh, including the blue lit meters, the beautifully machined round power and selector knobs, and superb quality connectors around back. The amp was connected in balanced mode with XLR cables and the 4 Ohm tap was used.
Bouncing to the excellent Mobile Fidelity SACD mastering of The Byrds 1968 opus, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, was equally rewarding. The trippy, spaced out folk rock swirled around the speakers, with little nuances in the mix I had not previously noticed on this album. The MC312 yet again reminded me of how Mobile Fidelity continues to produce excellent archival releases. The MC312 made it easy to distinguish each band member's contribution, from David Crosby's rhythm guitar and harmony vocals, to Roger McGuinn's 12 string guitar. The seamlessness of the presentation made for a very engaging listen.
A related release I spun, an original pressing of The Byrds' mastermind Roger McGuinn's 1973 self-titled solo album, was so nicely textured, it warranted several plays through. McGuinn, free of The Byrds moniker, threw in everything from traditional folk, Caribbean, and even some jazzy touches on to this album. The rock solid center image the MC312 produced was really spotlighted here. The timbre of McGuinn's voice was superbly rendered, and the richness of the acoustic guitar parts was on target. The MC312 also showed me here, it had an exceptionally clean, open, and accurate midrange.
Changing gears, I cued up a fantastic new release by New York based jazz saxophonist, Jerome Sabbagh co-billed with guitarist Greg Tuohey, on No Filter. This unique release was recorded and mixed to analog tape, and cut to vinyl by the legendary Bernie Grundman with an all analog mastering chain. The LP comes with a 24 bit download card as well. The music is sublime, very much reflective of the urban environment it was recorded in, with dark and light themes percolating throughout each side. The timely track titled "Chaos Reigns" was a tour de force via the MC312, with all the syncopation and interesting accents remarkably cohesive. The MC312 proved without a doubt it excelled at pace and timing here. The amp also was exceptional at articulating bass lines, which captured the propulsions of the music wonderfully.
The MC312 also put the 24-bit/48kHz download of Memphis roots singer Valerie June's Pushin' Against A Stone in a new light for me. This 2013 release is beautifully recorded and put June on the map as a distinctive stylist who blends Americana, for lack of a better term, with bits of psychedelic, and ethereal, bluesy rock. The songs have deep emotional resonance, and the mix is just modern enough to balance things out. The MC312 easily let me hear a large amount of space between the instruments and the pure bell-like tone of June's voice, highlighting its transparency. As a side note, I highly recommend the follow up to this album called The Order Of Time.
The final album I played with the MC312 in the system is a little known progressive rock masterpiece Go, by Stomu Yamashta, who is joined by Steve Winwood, and legendary drummer Michael Shrieve, a key member of the original Santana. The music is expansive, with epic string arrangements and beautiful song structures. Hearing this with the McIntosh providing solid imaging and excellent depth was really the climax of my time with the MC312, as it allowed me to discover this hidden gem in a brand new light, goosebumps in tow. The MC312 was perfect for presenting the wide screen, symphonic qualities of this recording due to its wide sound staging.
In fact, throughout the time the MC312 was in my system, I had an irresistible urge to "crate dig" through my own music collection and pull out lesser known music, and the pleasures revealed that came from these buried treasures was most welcomed. A component that makes you want to listen to as much music as possible, such as the MC312, is what it is all about. The MC312 was able to shine new light on well-worn favorites.
I tried hard to find fault with the MC312's tonal balance, but to no avail. It was simply ideal for my system and my room. I felt the perspective was not quite in the front row, and definitely not in the back row, but actually somewhere perfectly in the middle. Dynamic contrasts were really natural when present in the recordings. This may be all or partly due to McIntosh's Autoformer technology with its constant power delivery, and the low noise floor. To this listener, these are hugely important factors, especially with relatively power hungry speakers like the Magnepans or even somewhat efficient speakers in a larger listening space.
To me Magnepan speakers are among the most seamless, coherent transducers on the market, and that could be a reason the MC312 was so enjoyable in my system. The two products share many of the same characteristics, including transparency, musicality, and perspective. Another huge factor they have in common is very low distortion, which accounts for the superb imaging, midrange transparency, and smooth treble performance.
Ergonomically, the MC312 was mechanically dead quiet, ran cool, and provided trouble free performance over the course of the review period. One would expect nothing less than this for an amplifier in this price range, and considering its pedigree. Also, for those not enamored by the blue meter lights, they can be turned off. For me they are a mark of distinction, and added to the ambiance.