McIntosh MHA-100 headphone amplifier review
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lockjaw

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4500 dollars, are you kidding me, for a headphone amp? Why would anyone spend that kind of money?
 
I started my journey into the world of headphones with the goal of putting together a system to maximize that elusive price vs. performance ratio curve.  Given the lack of local high-end stores, I went to Audiogon and stocked up on what the reviews suggested were quality products at a good price.  I decided to spend about 1,000 dollars or less for each piece of the chain: DAC, AMP, headphones.  Figured it's worth trying a bunch of gear in the comfort of my home even knowing I'll lose money on the re-sale.  What a great opportunity to host a hifi party, crack open a few bottle of pino, burn a few Cubans <cigars that is, we head-fi rs are mostly pacifists>, and play with super-cool equipment.
 
The stuff:
 
Benchmark DAC1 ($450 used)
Audiolab MDAC ($600 used)
McIntosh MX 121 pre/pro (already own, 6k)
Ray Samuels Audio Raptor (800 used)
Lehmann Black Cube Linear (499 used)
Senn HD800 (1000 used)
Mr. Speakers Alpha Prime (1000 new)
 

 
 
I'm sharing this information to let everyone know the care in hopefully forming a great system and eventually how the McIntosh fits in.  I went with a 1,000 dollar retail range as that seems to be the price point where one gets great quality without total bankruptcy.  Time and time again I've gone below and wish I spent just a little more or above and wondered why. 
 
Some quick take home points before I launch into the amps.  I've found the DAC plays the least significant role in overall sound quality.  All the DACs I tested were about the same except the Benchmark which was clearly of lower fidelity.  One can hear SLIGHT nuances between the pieces and that is only with direct and near instantaneous AB comparisons.  If blinded and not going instantaneously AB, I doubt I could tell the difference.  Amps are a TOTALLY different story.  The Audio Labs MDAC perhaps is the best of the DACs I had, by an angstrom! 
 
As far as headphones, I went with the HD800s for their amazing detail and wide soundstage.  Their brightness is really fatiguing, and bass is lacking, otherwise amazing.  The Alpha Primes are also superb, great bass and detail, a smaller sound stage as expected with closed back cans.  You really can't directly compare them given their completely different sounds, strengths, and weaknesses.  I'd be happy with either.  I'm into jazz and classical now so I reluctantly sold the Primes.  Took a hit at 850 (ouch).
 
 
 

 
 
Comparing the solid state Lehmann vs the tubed Raptor was a fascinating exercise is design and taste.  I was hoping to find an amp that adds some bass and removes treble from the HD800s without robbing their amazing detail.  If you're reading this, it's a forgone conclusion that neither amp was perfect.  Tubes were wonderful and smooth with great bass, perhaps a little bloated, still but enjoyable, definitely an initial "wow" factor.  The highs were tamed but fine detail was ever so slightly missing.  I know this describes many tube amps and makes sense when you read up on how tubes work.  The Lehmann sold state was completely different.  Superb detail but thin bass, somewhat fatiguing.  I could listen to the HD800s / Lehmann for about 30 minutes before switching back to the Raptor.  30 minutes later I felt I was missing something and was back to the Lehmann!  Sounds schizophrenic.  I could have lived with either amp but felt there must be something else out there.  I figured, hell with it, what does $4,500 dollars get you??
 

 
 
My heart raced as I released the Mac from its cardboard prison.  Mostly I was tachycardic for fear of dropping the dam thing.  It's heavy..... and expensive.  I Foobar'd over my favorite test track via ASIO USB and returned my HD800s to their rightful home, on my head.  I expected the clouds to part, a conical beam of white light shining down upon me as the angels sang out in audiophile bliss.  What I got?........ a very good  "polite" sounding $4500 dollar amplifier, where's my 4500 dollar "wow" factor?!!!  Time to calm down, let's give it a longer listen.  10 hours later I was still listening with no intention of stopping.  I realized my tympanic membranes weren't spilling HD800 treble induced red, the bass was deep and tight, image was precise and large, treble detailed, relaxed, no fatigue!  The McIntosh did everything well without the limitations of either the Lehmann or Raptor.  How does one describe the McIntosh sound?  I would say laid back, refined, balanced.  This amp simply does everything well, and consistently so.  High quality tracks are magical, lesser quality rock-and-roll still sound great.  Somehow the Mac manages to de-emphasize recording flaws.  This same rock collection sounded terrible on the Lehmann as every detail, good and bad, were piped out for my HD800s to brutally reproduce.  I honestly think this amp was designed with the HD800s in mind.  Great synergy.  (I had already sold the Alpha Primes to help fund this purchase).     
 
I sum my thoughts this way: On a first listen, the rock-and-roller takes the Raptor, the Jazz guy favors the Lehmann.......... the audiophile buys a McIntosh.
 
I'm not trying to be arrogant, that just sounded too cool.
 

 
 
So what does 4500 dollars buy you?  One word, refinement.  I'm going to be honest, both the Raptor and Lehmann amps are great and I could have lived happily ever after with either.  Audio is my hobby and I don't mind spending extra for that last bit of fidelity.  In the case of the MHA-100, you are working with a gorgeous piece of tech which will last you a lifetime.  It's a headphone amp, an analog pre-amp, a DAC, and even powers a set of bookshelf speakers at 50 watts.  I'm driving KEF ls50s with no problem.  The speaker amp in the MHA100 is every bit as good as any larger solid state McIntosh, save for the limitation regarding speaker size.
 
A few words on the DAC in the MHA-100.  It's very good and one doesn't have to spend another small fortune on an external.  I did a direct AB comparison between the MHA100 dac vs an overachieving Audio Lab M-DAC.  Of course, both sounded great, like I said, the DAC made the least difference to my ears.   The MDAC is ever so slightly better.  I had to go back and forth 50 times until I was able to convince myself of this.  It's really that close.  Would I turn down a D100 or Lampizator, no, but I don't feel I need to buy one either.
 
 

 
I hope this review wasn't too useless.  If you're on the fence about spending this much money, I totally understand.  Don't even try rationalizing the price such as: calculating total cost per minute of listening over 10 years, stellar re-sale value, or the cool-as-hell dancing blue meters! :)  For me it's been worth every penny.
 
Thanks!   -Steve
 
 
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FatBox360

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Thank you for this excellent review. Now I need to start selling my extraneous body parts on an internet in order to afford one of these.
 
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buson160man

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 The mac is a bit ( actually way ) too pricey for me. I do own a ray samuels raptor amp and with a bit of tweaking the raptor can sound pretty damn good. For one I highly recommend a fuse upgrade. I replaced mine with a hi-fi tuning supreme fuse and got a noticeable improvement in sound quality. For one things got a lot quieter , Things also tightened up a bit. I tried a couple of tube upgrades. Some where positive and some were not. I settled on a genalax gold lion 12 au7 on the input but went back to the original Phillips 5687 output tubes. Unfortunately the output tube ray samuels uses are not currently produced by anyone so nos is your only source for as long as you can get them I recommend you buy at least a couple of sets of phillips 5687 tubes while you can still get them
   Since ray samuels did not include a power cord .I found that a harmonic technology ac-11 power cord worked pretty well with the raptor amp.
 
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lockjaw

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I totally agree with you on the Raptor, it's a superb amp, one where tube rolling is absolutely worth doing.
 
If you look around you can get the MHA 100 used for a decent price.  I saw one on audioclassics for 3300.  Some dealers may give a discount for a "floor model", just call around.  Even at 3300, that's a lot of cheddar.
 
Funny how Ray didn't include a power cord.  Good thing I have a closet full of misfit cables.  The Raptor and HD800 have real nice synergy. 
 
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lockjaw

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It's a lot of money, no doubt.  I was able to sell my old McIntosh tube amp to pay for it.  One paid for the other, so that was nice.  Mac stuff really holds its value nicely.

 
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If you really want to get the best out of the HD800 I would recommend you to change the cable to a high quality OCC Copper. I went with the AphroditeCU29.com Zeus Quad22. Robert recommended to hardwire the cables and even he sent me his personal HD800 to make an A/B comparison and the hardwired was a little better IMO but I did not want to loose the flexibility of rolling cables so we compromised and sent him my HD800 to replace the wires that go from the connector to the driver. The stock wire are SPC and very very thin. They were replace with the same internal wires in the Zeus.
 
All this was done before I bought he MHA100 (which was one of the first ones purchased). The result was all the brightness was gone, the bass was deeper and tighter, the midrange got more body and the soundstage got more holographic.
 
When my dealer called me to let me now that he had his MHA100 demo in I took my HD800, PM1, HE-6 and W3000ANV with me along with some of my test tracks. All the headphones sounded great (even the HE-6 powered on the High Gain and high impedance setting) but I though the HD800 had a leg over the rest. After my sales rep took a listen (She is a musician by trade) I asked her which headphones she liked better and she pointed to the HD800 too.
 
I am not sure if they use the HD800 during the development of the MHA100 but fr sure it is a great match.
 
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Ikkaariainen

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Excellent write-up, interesting to note your take on the relative value of the DAC's in the big picture...
 
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lockjaw

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 If you really want to get the best out of the HD800 I would recommend you to change the cable to a high quality OCC Copper.
 
You know, I've never tried upgrading stock cables.  The internet debate on this gets pretty intense.  From a physics perspective, I don't see how a cable can change the music, this assumes a decent gauge stock with minimal resistance and obviously a short run.  I think one has to actually try before saying there's no way improvements are possible.  I bi-wired by old B&W N805s and could have sworn the bass was deeper and tighter. 
 
How big of an upgrade might I experience?  Clearly detectable or more of a fine nuance requiring repeated AB switching.
 
The scientist in me says there's just no way one can tell, but I had best try for myself.
 
What would be a good cable without breaking the bank.
Definitely don't want to hard wire
 
thanks -steve
 
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buson160man

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You know, I've never tried upgrading stock cables.  The internet debate on this gets pretty intense.  From a physics perspective, I don't see how a cable can change the music, this assumes a decent gauge stock with minimal resistance and obviously a short run.  I think one has to actually try before saying there's no way improvements are possible.  I bi-wired by old B&W N805s and could have sworn the bass was deeper and tighter. 
 
How big of an upgrade might I experience?  Clearly detectable or more of a fine nuance requiring repeated AB switching.
 
The scientist in me says there's just no way one can tell, but I had best try for myself.
 
What would be a good cable without breaking the bank.
Definitely don't want to hard wire
 
thanks -steve

      You are right on the money about B&W speakers they really respond to bi-wiring. In fact once you have tried bi-wiring there is no way you are going back. These days I am into active speakers which eliminate speaker wire issues altogether. As far as headphone cables go I am a recent partaker of upgrading the headphone cable on my audeze lcd2 v2s. I jumped in reluctantly in a big way with the cable pro reverie top dog upgeade cable(unbalanced). To be frank it has transformed the lcd 2 v2 into the headphone I had hoped it would have been when I first bought them a couple two three years ago. The cable costed me two thirds of the price of the LCD 2 V2 ouchhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! but I am very happy with my lcd3 v2s for the first time. With this cable I am now hearing the lcd2 v2s for the first time in all its glory.
     I have had good experience with cable pros offerings might I suggest trying one of their sennheiser upgrade cables. They make ones for other sennheiser models but if you ask ted he might accommodate you and adapt the connectors with one of his more affordable headphone cables. He is very flexible and very accommodating.
 
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Thanks for the great review!

Awesome stuff! The mha-100 is the last thing I'll buy audio wise in a very long time. Its been on everyday, 5-8 hrs plus, for the last couple weeks powering headphones on my dome. Amazing sound and pure audio bliss.
 
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Roy Munson

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Great read. Thanks for taking one (many?) for the team.
 
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I understand that you want the very best, but I'd rather put my Money For Value into source components and phones.     
 
Imagine what a Stax SR-009 would do for you in comparison to a a somewhat marginal increase from an amp.
 
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I understand that you want the very best, but I'd rather put my Money For Value into source components and phones.     

Imagine what a Stax SR-009 would do for you in comparison to a a somewhat marginal increase from an amp.

To start, regardless of any opinion, we have to expend the cost in source.

I have heard both. Have you?

The SR009 driven from the top of the line OPPO and Blue Hawaii did not leave me dreaming about it, in a "I must have" sense. Sure I'd like it. But all that is quite a bundle. it's fantastic, yes. But, lacked some pixie dust. It was certainly there. But wasn't enough for me to compel a purchase presently (as I'm in the market for a summit-fi like setup)

A 2 hr. audition a week ago of this amp driving the favorite of my own headphones, and top of the line Audezes, did. 'Marginal increase' it is not (if you do not have a Class-A rated setup already). I can't get it out of my head. I may just have to go out and buy it today if the weather breaks. If I can get over this dac's inablity to decode dsd.

But to summarize ... Don't underestimate the benefit of a device that gives us the pixie dust with hundreds of headphones, vs. expending the cost for one setup.
 
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I have heard both. Have you?

The SR009 driven from the top of the line OPPO and Blue Hawaii did not leave me dreaming about it, in a "I must have" sense.

A 2 hr. audition a week ago of this amp driving the favorite of my own headphones, and top of the line Audezes, did. I can't get it out of my head. I may just have to go out and buy it today if the weather breaks.
 
A lot of people favor the BHSE/SR009 combo but I agree with you it has never wow me. To my taste the only SR009 combo that has wow me is the A-10/SR-0009 with Mullard CV4004 tubes. A fried of mine has it with a Bricasti M1 DAC and the Bryston network player.
 
I am testing the HE-1000 later this month and I have high hopes for them with my MHA100. I am hoping that combo will prevent me to go and spend $6,500 + $1,000 in tubes for the A-10.
 
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