REVIEW: The Stunning McIntosh D100
Monday, January 6th, 2014
by Michael Liang & Michael Mercer
35 years before Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started making Apple MacIntosh computers, Frank McIntosh and Gordon Gow were building McIntosh power amplifiers for music lovers, musicians, and audio professionals. The most famous documention of pure McIntosh power was demonstrated at a 1974 concert by The Grateful Dead. The system became known as the "Wall of Sound": forty-eight McIntosh power amplifiers totaling 28,800 watts were used to power the mammoth array of speaker cabinets.
Today, McIntosh is known around the world as a prestigious American audio company with an unmatched reputation for performance, reliability and product longevity. There are few Hi-Fi monikers as iconic as the McIntosh name - glowing green within glistening black glass faceplates. Well, almost nothing. Equally famous are their backlit teal meters, calling out to us like the audiophile equivalents of insect lamps. Zap!
Together, these hallmarks personify care, precision, and an unwavering dedication to the craft. And when you see it, you know you're about to experience the latest generation of a rich audio legacy. Since the D100 is a DAC as well as a digital pre-amp and headphone amplifier, it doesn't sport a backlit analog meter. Wait! Don't go! It does feature a teal LCD display that is every bit as alluring.
We were excited to say the least when McIntosh presented us with the D100 for review! Being both McIntosh devotees and headphone junkies, we hoped that it would live up to its namesake. Instead, we found that it achieved far more than that. It is nothing less than the progenitor of a new and soon-to-be illustrious branch of their family tree.
McIntosh has proven - with the D100 - that they are taking high performance personal audio most seriously indeed. As a stand-alone DAC, or a pre-amp, or an all-in-one DAC/headphone amp, this state-of-the-art component easily serves as an indispensable accompaniment to any system. During our review process we happily discovered that it excelled in all these functions.
Design & Build
Standing in at just under 4" tall and slightly over 13 lbs., the D100 is McIntosh's baby 2-channel digital preamplifier. Like all other McIntosh components, the D100 shares the classic façade, knobs, handcrafted black-glass front panels, and LED lighting. Also, as with all McIntosh gear (or nearly all for that matter) the component is a grand combination of elegant form meets function. It sounds terrifically musical wherever you utilize it: as a digital pre-amplifier in your two-channel system, a stand-alone DAC, a DAC/pre combo ahead of a headphone amplifier, or an all-in-one personal audio solution as a DAC/headphone amp! And, it looks great while doing so...
Functionality & Usability
The grand thing about the D100 however, besides its classic contemporary look, are the components vast features. As we stated above: It sounded wonderfully musical wherever we used it: as a digital pre-amp in our two-channel systems, a stand-alone DAC, a DAC/pre combo ahead of our headphone amplifiers, or as an all-in-one personal audio solution as a DAC/headphone amp!
The D100 has five digital inputs: Two COAX, two toslink, and the USB. The USB DAC utilizes a ESS Sabre 8-channel DAC capable of handling up to 32-bit/192kHz. CEntrance, a technology leader and personal Hi-fi manufacturer (not to mention a favorite here at Audio360.org) provided McIntosh with their well-known USB implementation. CEntrance specializes in achieving seamless USB handshakes between interfaces, and smartly McIntosh sought them out to help make the USB portion of the D100 work flawlessly with a variety of USB devices. We were able to use everything from our MacBooks to our iPads (via the CCK - aka Camera Connection Kit) as transports via USB. Michael and I both favor using our iPads as digital transports, so that was a great technical attribute of the D100.
The thing also comes packed with variable and fixed inputs and outputs. That's a precious rarity today, especially considering you get both XLR and RCA's on both! We hate to use this overly abused term: But the words "digital Swiss Army Knife" come to mind.
The headphone output's impedance is 47 Ohms. This seems a bit high, but I need to thank our friend Jude Mansilla over at Head-Fi.org, as the D100 made their latest Winters Buyers Guide, and in his assessment of the headphone amp he clarified that despite the high number, he was able to use it with a variety of headphones. Luckily some of those he listed were in our collection! And I (M. Mercer here) may not have tried some of the headphones I went for if it weren't for Jude's guidance there. Funny, as I'm usually the guy who tries things in high end audio that typically don't make sense on paper - but often work out to be wonderfully musical! Admittedly, personal audio has made me more aware of issues like proper impedance matching and such...
Anyway, despite the seemingly high output impedance of the headphone amp section, and my brain dump above, you should know that we enjoyed the headphone output very much. It's also powered by an independent headphone amp circuit. This may have aided the D100 in achieving a very low noise-floor, having the independent circuit. Nonetheless, the various options made this review a downright fun experience.
Below is the list of associated gear we used during our evaluation:
- Zu Audio Omen Def loudspeakers (w/ upgraded cross-overs & updated drivers)
- Nola Boxer S1 loudspeakers
- Focal Mezzo Utopia loudspeakers
- Cary Audio 805 Anniversary mono-block tube amplifiers
- Cary Audio vintage SLA-70 Signature tube amplifier
- Classe DR-9 stereo amplifier (David Reich-designed solid-state amp)
- ALO Studio Six tube headphone amplifier
- E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amplifier
- Burson Audio Conductor (used for its solid state headphone amplifier)
- Schiit Audio Vali tube hybrid headphone amplifier
- 128GB Apple iPad Air running McIntosh AP-1 iOS music app (via CCK kit for USB output)), McIntosh ST-1 iPad stand
- 32GB Apple iPad2 running MacIntosh AP-1 music app (via CCK kit for USB output)
- Sony SCD-1 (as transport only)
- Oppo BDP-105 (as transport only)
- MacBook Pro Retina (w/ SSD drive) using Amarra software, MOG and Spotify Premium streaming services
- McIntosh C2200 (tube preamp)
- M. Mercer:
- Audeze LCD-X
- Audeze LCD-XC
- MrSpeakers Alpha Dog
- MrSpeakers Mad Dog
- Grado SR-225i
- Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear
- M. Liang:
- KOSS ESP-950
- Bowers & Wilkins P7
- Bang & Olufsen H6
- Denon AH-D7100
- AKG K 702 (65th Anniversary Edition)
M. Mercer: I have to admit right off the bat: My favorite system incorporating the D100 was to utilize it as a DAC and digital pre-amp with my ALO Studio Six tube headphone amplifier, and my Audeze LCD-X planar magnetic headphones.
The sound was hallucinatory; holographic and all-enveloping. Listening to Carabou's remix of Radiohead's "Little by Little" off their Radiohead TKOL Remix was resplendent. I realized I've used that term before, but this time the experience did the adjective justice - or maybe it was the other way around. The sounds hovered, before striking with a velocity both fierce and clean. The bass and the midrange existed on their own planes, but also sounded as fluid as I've experienced. The spaciousness was divine.
The same results occurred with everything from Deer Hunter's Halcyon Digest to Trentemoller's new Lost LP. The sound was open and dynamic. The vibe was so electric, so engaging, I often woke up from my desk after being audibly tazed! I couldn't stop listening. For me, that says more than all my ramblings!
I had an equally thrilling experience using the D100 ahead of my treasured E.A.R HP4 tube headphone amplifier as a DAC and DAC/pre-amp combo. The McIntosh and E.A.R had a terrific sonic synergy, like the ALO Studio Six. The music was soulful, captivating, everything a good sound system should sound like. I spent most of my listening eval time with these combinations. What can I say? I loved the experience so much it was difficult to tear it down.
I also used the D100 as a DAC ahead of my Schiit Audio Vali hybrid tube headphone amp. Whenever I listen to that thing I can't fathom it's $119 price-tag. This isn't a cop-out, I'm trying to say that the Vali is like Schiit's gift to headphone enthusiasts without deep pockets (full review coming here soon).
The sonic pairing was also a musical one. With my MrSpeakers Alpha Dog and Mad Dog, the sound was clean and coherent - but most importantly excitable. The Vali's transient attack is surprisingly fast, and without that tubiness many of us associate with tube gear. No smudge, no muddiness, the combo of the D100 and Vali was so enjoyable I didn't care that I was using a $2,500 DAC with a $119 headphone amp! It sounded like music!
That's the whole point to me.
I found myself tapping my feet and bobbin' my head to "Little Pusher Girl" on Justin Timberlake's 20/20 Experience (not afraid to admit it) and pounding my fist while bumpin' Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP. So what's there to complain about?
The experience using my Sennheiser Momentum on-ears with the Vali was equally impressive. I know, I gotta dislike something about this component right? Sorry, thus far I haven't found any quibbles with it.
Feeling like I needed a bit of solid state in this mix, I decided to set up the D100 as the DAC ahead of the Burson Audio Conductor. Bam! This was a fierce sonic marriage. I especially loved it for electronic music; the type of experimental music that tests the lower and upper regions of your system.
"Somebody's Sins" off Tricky's False Idols LP has this rippling bass line and a kick that brings it in and out of the track. The sound was mesmerizing through the D100 and Burson Conductor. I wanted more.
I fed it tons of my latest favorite bass tracks of late, a few of those being Alix Perez's "Move Aside" (Feat. Foreign Beggers), Four Tet's "Parallel Jalebi", and Shlohmo's "Bo Peep" (Do U Right). The sonic foundation never buckled. There was space, speed, impact, just about everything I look for in a system like this.
Yup: This ended up being my favorite headphone rig for electronic music. It was a sheer blast to behold.
As for use with transports: Most of my transports listed are part of my office reference systems (headphone and two-channel) and my main reference stereo system. However, like Michael, I also love using my iPad2 with a CCK (Camera Connection Kit) as a digital transport whenever I can.
The funny thing is: Whenever I worked an audio convention and used my iPad as a source - like we did for CEntrance when we showed off the DACmini or DACmini PX - I always used the McIntosh AP-1 music app as our player! Simple reason honestly: It looked cool. The iconic teal VU meters, that move with the music upon playback, was a cool little feature. So when the D100 came I couldn't wait to hook up my iPad2!
The result? Again, just what I expected: the USB handshake occurred without incident. I plugged in my iPad (using the CCK) to the D100, powered up, launched the McIntosh MP-1 audio player app, and I was rockin. I utilized the D100's headphone amp here with my Audeze LCD-X planar magnetics. Here I found the sound a tad cleaner, which surprised me. While Playing Pinch & Shackleton's "Monks on the Run" off their self-titled LP the sound and velocity of the strike of this bell and these hi hat hits resonated like I've rarely heard before. I don't mean resonated like the sound was blurry and artificially extended. I mean the resonance sounded more natural, and it resonated with me. The sibilance was rendered beautifully, and trailed off quickly into the blackness of the D100's low noise-floor. There's also this pounding bass synth at the end of this track.
The combo of my iPad, the D100's DAC, and headphone amp showed me what my Audeze LCD-X's are capable of when it comes to low end response. The sound was a massive, but controlled chaos. I loved every minute of it. I must've hit repeat at least twenty times with this track. The sound was equally impressive with vocals, as proven when I threw on Elliott Smith's "Between the Bars" off Either/Or. The soft moroseness of Smith's vocal delivery was poignant and alluring. Those of us who followed Smith's career up to the insane end (yeah, he stabbed himself in the chest, that guy) often claim that we can hear the despair in his music. I think I can. Or maybe not as I'm never gonna plunge a knife into my chest, but I still think I get him. Regardless, listening to the entire Either/Or album through this combo was a wonderfully sad experience to behold.
When I installed the D100 in my main two-channel system it had big shoes to fill. I spent years looking for the right pre-amp (with impressive phonostage section) and I found it in my E.A.R 868 tube pre-amp. That component brought my system to new musical heights, in everything from detail retrieval to an expanded soundstage - and, most importantly, it brought an element of warmth and texture I was longing for. So I installed the D100 with some admitted trepidation. I also elected to use it as a DAC as well, replacing my Oppo BDP-105 as the main DAC in that system.
To my astonishment, the system with the McIntosh was not as cold or analytical as I suspected. Granted, I missed a bit of warmth, but I threw that up to the lack of tubes in my pre-amp section. Still, the music sounded lively and inviting. Playing "Ingenue" off Atoms for Peace AMOK, the experience was a groovy one. The sound was silky smooth without sounding congested or sloppy in any way. I guess "precise" would be the right word here. I wasn't concerned with the system, just the music. I love the flow of this LP - and the system with the D100 flowed beautifully. I went on to try some experimental stuff like Four Tet and the minimal genius Steve Reich, and the imaging was lush even with simple music. It wasn't overly glossy, rather it brought out all the right details, allowing the music to transcend all my thoughts about the system and what it was doing, etc. I give it a big thumbs up in this capacity.
I also had a terrific experience using the D100 with my vintage Cary SLA-70 signature tube amplifier and new Nola Boxer S1's in my office system. I've been living with the Nola's for while now, taking notes and listening for my upcoming review. However, the Nola's are so pleasant to listen to I've been slacking on the writing end admittedly. I just wanna listen and pick through my records! The Boxer S1's ooze soul. They sound effortless and as airy as any two-way I've heard with strong tubes under em.
Introducing the D100 where I was previously using the line-stage section of the Burson Audio Conductor - the sound took on more sparkle. Now, I love the Burson headphone amp (as stated above), but the D100 seemed to do what a great line-stage/pre-amp should: bring out the dynamics, both micro and macro, and let the emotive power of the music flow through the amplifier and speakers without imposing it's own sonic stamp. It should also bring the gain up and down without noise - as you make the music louder the resolution should remain constant, and the same in reverse. In personal audio there are some headphone amps that have issues of channel imbalances at low levels. The D100 in my office system sounded even from top to bottom.
Overall, I've been so impressed with the McIntosh D100 that I'm figuring out how to buy it without my commander-in-chief (the wifey) going justifiably nuts. Honestly, she has a point. Last year was a big audio year for the Mercer household. I got my dream pieces after all! My E.A.R 868 and HP4, and the ever-calling-me ALO Studio Six. So why do I feel I need to buy the D100? Because it brought out the best in my systems. It did what I look for in any component: Help to strip away, even if only a little, the "hi-fi" out of my sound system. It didn't just sound like music, it was music. Now, before the D100, I achieved that with my Mytek Stereo-192 DSD DAC. And I have no complaints about the Mytek. But with the D100, I ended up forgetting - more often than not - about all the gear I was listening to. I found it easier to focus on the music, and clear my mind. Isn't that was great audio should do? It's what the D100 does.
Michael Liang: As is often the case, Mercer has already touched on everything I wanted to say about the D100's performance, thus making my end of this review very easy:
I'm done... LOL! But seriously, there is one thing that I would like to reiterate: listening to the McIntosh D100 really is like being tazed by music. It's that stunning.
Mercer doesn't know this, but the McIntosh D100 came with a remote control. I intentionally kept it from him because I wanted to see if he could set up and operate the unit without the remote. That's what so great about every McIntosh audio component. The user can have the product singing with merely the buttons on the front panel. Other manufactures should implement this, and the Hi-fi world would be a better place for electronics consumers.
Say what you will about Apple products, but there are no other computers or tablets on the market that are as plug-n-play with your audio system as the Mac and iPad. The D100‘s integration with the iPad Air running McIntosh's AP-1 iOS music app; propped up by the $50 McIntosh ST-1 iPad/iPhone stand adds the famous McIntosh blue meters to the system. This combo not only looked great, the iPad Air (as a transport) rivaled my beloved $5,000 Sony SCD-1 SACD player (as a transport)! By now, I am only holding on to the SCD-1 for nostalgic reasons and some SACD playback. Speaking of which, I would like to see the addition of a balanced and unbalanced "pass-thru" input on the next D100. This will allow fans of SACD and DSD to utilize the D100 as preamp.
The D100‘s unbalanced variable outputs came in handy when using the KOSS ESP-950 electrostatic headphones (currently in for review). My main gripe with the ESP-950‘s design is the L/R independent volume controls. To remedy this I let the McIntosh handle the job: Setting the ESP-950's volume knob to Max. This is the ideal set-up because the D100 uses a digitally controlled attenuator system with a tracking accuracy of 0.1dB which yields far better results than the KOSS attenuator - especially at low levels.
I queued up an album that's been played over and over again, either on a system or in my head: The Beatles Love soundtrack. I knew the KOSS ESP-950 was a great headphone when I first heard it on the Astell&Kern AK120 at CanJam last year, but the McIntosh D100 took my listening experience from pleasant to stunning.
The precision in the stereo separation was beyond what I experienced on this headphone on a different DAC preamp. Vocals, instruments and bass had good pace, where it gave me a sense of realism. Like Michael Mercer, I was grooving to the music.
If you haven't experienced the ESP-950 before (preferably on a McIntosh digital preamp) you need to add it to your bucket list. And, KOSS being a legendary American headphones manufacturer, their flagship ESP-950 electrostatic headphones paired with the McIntosh D100: Well, this combo is as American as apple pie and as delicious.
Switching output devices is easy because all outputs on the D100 are active so it doesn't matter if you want to use the front panel headphones output or an external amp from the rear outputs. The D100's internal headphones output is nothing to sneeze at. Putting it through its paces with a variety of headphones showed that McIntosh engineers had headphone listening in mind. The output was not an afterthought.
Even the rather source picky and somewhat hard to drive AKG K702-65th anniversary edition headphones sounded beautiful, giving me what that headphone is capable of. On the D100, I would give the new Bang & Olufsen H6 five stars: Elevating the listening experience to music utopia. What kept coming to mind when using the D100 was dynamics, dynamics, dynamics.
The sound is so moving it wants to take you out and go dancing.
Pairing the McIntosh D100 to my luscious Cary Audio 805 mono block amps driving the Focal Mezzo Utopia speakers was absolutely magical. Here you get the voluminous sweet midrange of the 300B (driver)/845 output tubes with the speed and authoritative control of the McIntosh digital front end. The various artist album Wretches & Jabberers - the original motion picture soundtrack (with a McIntosh sound system utilized for critical listening during the mixing process) sounded depressing, but in a good way! Especially in Carly Simon's "The Letter". The ambient sound and sub-sonic lows in the track was chilling. I could not stop listening to the entire album. Pink Floyd's The Wall Live in Berlin was another stunning demonstration of mixing sweet tubes with McIntosh solid state. Here is where the 805's green "cat's-eye" closes, showing the amp has reached full output power - I was transported to Berlin in 1990.
Yes, $2,500 is not pocket change for most of us, but McIntosh components will provide a lifetime of musical enjoyment. Just do a search on eBay and you will find functioning McIntosh audio products for sale that were made 50+ years ago. And if you think digital components don't hold value, a quick eBay (eBay.UK) search showed a circa 1999 McIntosh MDA700 recently sold for almost $1,000 USD, plus shipping cost. I can't think of another audio manufacturer with products that hold resale values like McIntosh. The D100 is an impressive representation of the legendary McIntosh sound combined with modern digital features in a timeless, classic McIntosh chassis. If I didn't already own the bigger McIntosh digital preamp (C50) I would definitely add the D100 to my system as the digital front end.