Few if any other hi fi brands have the bragging rights of McIntosh. Try this for starters.
The company started out 74 years ago in Maryland, USA as McIntosh Laboratory in 1949. In 1965, its amps were used to power President Lyndon B Johnson’s inaugural speech and in 1969, to delight the 400,000 strong Woodstock Music Festival crowd.
McIntosh hi-fi owners include, past and present, Howard Hughes, George Harrison, Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Tom Cruise. Over the decades, the brand has been around the houses with different owners from America, Japan and Italy and it currently resides with a US private investment firm, Highland Partners.
What hasn’t changed over the years is the individualist approach to design and engineering: big, brutal and instantly recognisable from 100 paces. The model we have on review is one of the more petite examples to carry the distinctive logo. Cute doesn’t often appear in the same sentence as McIntosh but the MHA200 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier is sort of that, with lashings of distinctiveness thrown in for good measure.
The MHA200 represents the ultimate in hi-fi specialisation since it does just one thing, nothing more. Connect the amp to a source or preamp, plug in your headphones and you are good to go. Okay, that’s a little simplistic but in essence that’s what it does.
The unit has a footprint not much bigger than a bag of flour but weighs more than twice as much which gives an indication of the build philosophy.
The MHA200 uses a pair of ‘Unity Coupled Circuit output transformers’, the same technology McIntosh was founded on back at the end of the 1940s and still used with its full-size vacuum tube amplifiers. The use of tubes, or valves, sets the MHA200 apart from other headphone amps although there are pros and cons to this approach. On the plus side, tube amps produce a wonderful, warm, rounded sound with a realistic soundstage between your ears. The downside is that they are larger and more fragile than the solid state alternative using transistors, the tubes will eventually have to be replaced because they wear out and the amp gets hotter than a solid state version so it uses more power. When it isn’t in use, the MHA200 automatically switches to standby after 30 minutes with only a small red indicator lamp to tell you that it is still plugged in but resting.
This stripped down, built for a purpose, functionality, results in a minimal number of controls. In essence there are just two: the left-hand button has four impedance settings, increasing the output the higher the value you choose. McIntosh recommends a setting approximately in the range of the impedance of your headphones, for example, one set of headphones I used has a 40 ohms rating so I started with the 32 setting but found the next step up (100) produced a slightly more relaxed sound at a more comfortable volume. There are no fixed rules, try it and see what you like seems to be the answer.
The right-hand knob sets the volume and has a useful 'Reference Point' at 12 o’clock. Setting it to this mid-point allows the volume to be controlled at a comfortable level from either the source or pre-amp. I found this option gave a finer control compared with using the MHA200’s own volume control.
The reference point also acts as a safety reminder not to go bonkers with the volume, it’s a good starting point from where you can gently increase the volume to a level you are comfortable with and not do your ears a mischief.
If you are someone who adores the encapsulating listening of headphones, the MHA200 will transport you to a new dimension. The combination of that characteristic ‘valve’ sound, the detailed resolution, the wide-open three-dimensional soundstage creates a sublime moreish cocktail. it takes whatever’s coming in through the source and transforms it into a rich, rounded, wholly satisfying, listen, topped off with dash of warmth, but still with the requisite gusto and vivacity that prevents it lapsing into slipper-wearing comfort.
The music just sounds more like what we expect/want things to sound like in real life, there is nothing digital and stark creeping in here, music sounds as it should.
And by warmth we don’t mean coloured or processed, just more developed in every way. Comparing it to the amp stage on a similarly priced integrated amp, it wasn’t so much the increase in definition and resolution that stood out but more, dare I say, a natural, analogue sound.
Where there may be a slight question is with the depth, snap and weight of the low end, which was dynamic and exciting on some recordings and a less than stellar on others. The driving bass line on The Ethiopians’ Reggae Hit the Town is usually enough to get you up and moving spontaneously - here it was a bit lacking, although granted it’s not a great quality recording. On the other hand, with a crisp recording by the Tennessee trio, Paramore on Tidal MQA, the delivery of the frenetic low end was fuelled by oodles of excitement.
Tracks streamed from Qobuz and Tidal, and from my hi-res (and some very much not so hi-res) NAS library, were handled with aplomb. There was so sign of the slight edgy hint that can creep into some digital signals. Some equipment we test sounds great with hi-res material but doesn’t quite come to the fore with tracks of a lesser stature. That's not the case here: I tried a ropey recording from a ripped CD of Amos Milburn’s Chicken Shack Boogie, originally recorded around the same time as McIntosh was formed. The power of delivery, the fervour, the completeness of the notes of the sax and Milburn's distinctive vocals bursting through really brought the whole track to life. Never heard the likes before!
This amp is the antithesis of black box thinking and as such, it’s worth putting it on show. It isn’t a design to be tucked away in a cupboard, it wants to be noticed. If you have tubes that glow, celebrate them!
If you already have a complete music system, adding a separate amp specifically for headphones could be considered an extravagance. Until, of course, you listen to it and fall in love with the sound. Then the justification is relatively simple; the captivating delivery, design and operation will work its magic.
One of the many tempting virtues of the MHA200s is its seamless integration, thanks in part to the dinky-dimensioned footprint. It could neatly slide in next to a full system and the provision of a 3.5mm trigger socket that connects by cable to a preamp allows the MHA200 to spring into life when the preamp is switched on. This doesn’t limit you to using a McIntosh-only system, it works just as well with other pre-amps as well.
However, there is a small, hoary adage that springs to mind here: “don’t spoil the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar”.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the design, the quirkiness, and the substantive build quality, with the exception of the knobs for selecting the impedance and volume. Yes, they are chromed to match the top plate, but they’re plastic, they feel like it and for £3000 worth of amp, I’d expect something more in keeping with the rest of the design – metal would be a good start point. Of course, it has no effect on the sound, but in terms of quality feel, McIntosh could do better.
To counter that mini-gripe, the brilliant chrome, mirrored, top plate looks classy and it subtly reflects the green glow from the tubes, especially when the room lighting is dimmed. Chrome surfaces and green glowing tubes may sound a bit arcade-like but it really is an extremely tasteful, elegant combination
The MHA200 is supplied with a removable cage to protect the tubes, it’s simply a matter of undoing a couple of screws to take it off. And while the unit looks much more adorably impressive without it, the tubes do get hot, so it probably makes sense to keep it in place, especially if you have marauding children in the house.
If you are passionate about your headphone listening, the specialisation of the MHA200 to do just one job means it should be a front runner for consideration. The differences between the rich, warm, accurate notes of the McIntosh, compared with the slightly starchy results from the headphone stage on my usual amp, make this a sensible option – of course it goes without saying that you need a decent pair of headphones in order to appreciate the depths of its abilities.
Orchestre Divertimento Bacchanale Saint Saens et la Mediterranee
Maybe not one of the greatest of recordings but the performance from this less well-known French orchestra is magical, as they explore the cultural diversities Saint Saens discovered in North Africa. The clarity and delicacy of notes of the harp are spellbinding and when the Arabic vocals kick in, you will be transported.
Van Morrison Accentuate the positive
Even at 78 years old there’s no stopping the Van. Here he is with his 45th studio album, having an exuberant time covering the classics and sounding youthful and energetic. He may even be smiling, I certainly was. Excellent mood improver.
Young Fathers Heavy Heavy
Scottish indie band’s fourth album and a joyous riot of confusion, excitement and the unexpected. Fabulous tight detail in the bass and excellent separation with voices and sounds assaulting your ears from every which way.
You have to be into your personal listening to justify the expense of an amp specifically for headphones, if you tick that box, you can be rest assured that MHA200 will pay you back in enjoyment with interest while making the headphone stage on your existing integrated or pre power amplification seem a tad ordinary