McIntosh MA352 Integrated Amplifier REVIEW
This is a review summary written by Terry Ellis August 2023
For the full review please see my YouTube video linked here .
The McIntosh MA352 hybrid integrated amplifier is not a new product, I think it was released back in 2020. I remember seeing the images for it and I struggled with the visual design because it is so unusual, but the idea of a tube pre with big McIntosh power is very alluring, especially with the price tag of £8,995, which is a lot of money, but it’s a lot less than the bigger McIntosh amps such as the MA12000 which costs about double. In that sense the MA352 could be seen as very good value for a big power McIntosh and, being a hybrid, gives it a distinction over other integrated amplifiers.
I’ll start with the visual design because, in the flesh, this is a much better looking integrated than it appears in photographs. From the side, with the flashy McIntosh writing it is a bit quirky although I think quite cool, but some might hate its looks because it is so different. Some will be also likely be indifferent to the LED illuminated tubes but I think they are fine. The tube warm up process is in particular is pretty cool to watch and, of course, you can turn the LEDs off if you want to be boring about it.
Turning the amplifier around there are enough analogue input connections for both single ended and balanced, with inputs for the built in moving magnet phono stage and two subwoofer outputs. However, strange to me are the speaker cable terminals being halfway up the back of the amplifier, which doesn’t really matter, but it does feel a little quirky again
On the front there is a headphone amplifier, which I didn’t test for reasons explained in the video linked here, and there are five bands of tone controls, or equalisation, depending on how you look at it, which could be really great for some audiophiles whereas others will want to disable them which you can.
I have the same gripe about this design as from my review of the formidable McIntosh MA9500 from earlier in the year, the EQ, or tone control, adjustments work well but they have no markings for the user to be precise with their adjustments and when you clean the amplifier, which you definitely will do with the chrome finish, the dials all get moved and you lose all your fine-tuned settings. Something to consider here I think for an amplifier of this value as it could well be your forever amp and having to keep manually resetting them might become a chore if your OCD about keeping your HiFi dust free kicks in, as mine does, often.
In typical McIntosh amplifier fashion this is a large footprint amplifier but at just under 30Kg it is not a heavy amplifier by McIntosh standards and that is probably because it doesn’t have the usual McIntosh autoformers (special transformers designed in-house and manufactured by McIntosh which allow any speaker type to be used with a McIntosh amplifier and have all of the power the amp is designed to deliver). The absence of the autoformers then effects the power, which is 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms and 320 watts per channel into 4 ohms.
How Does It Sound
The MA352 presents which a typical McIntosh sound if your familiar with it. But I think the MA352 is probably my most preferred-sounding McIntosh from the ones I have had in my listening room. Maybe it’s the tube preamplifier or maybe it’s not having autoformers or perhaps it’s just the synergy between the MA352 and the Sonus Faber Serafino speakers I am also reviewing at the moment.
To describe the MA352 sound is pretty easy. It is smooth, or should I say smooooooth! The sound is effortless, even when you crank the volume. It is very grown up and sophisticated, by which I mean instruments or musical elements are positioned perfectly with exceptional composure.
For me, the first key stand-out strength of the MA352 is the sound stage depth and three-dimensionality. Music can feel very deep and beyond the speakers with quite a set-back overall sound. I think this is largely the McIntosh and Sonus Faber pairing at work here. For some audiophiles this type of sound stage will be gold because there is also an impressive extended width to the sound stage.
The second big strength is the bass delivery. The big power available I am sure helps, but it is really solid and controlled and can go deep, making the Serafino sound almost subwoofer like in my small room, not REL 31 subwoofer like, but almost normal subwoofer like. Many amplifiers deliver extended and big bass, but the reason I like the MA352s bass is because it has that nice rounded, bouncy character to it, which adds some pleasing which I found was a more musical bass rather than a very mechanical bass that’s more technical start stop, start stop, like some other amplifiers deliver.
The next big strength might also be a downside for some, and that is the softness and smoothness to the sound. This is quite a romantic sounding amplifier, especially in the vocal region, which has a laid-back ease to it that never becomes aggressive, hard or forward, at least at the volumes levels I could play at which was always under half way, with the VU meters rarely hitting even 20 watts and that was loud.
Interestingly, the treble details are always clear and delivered with the same composure and smoothness. Some audiophiles may find the treble a bit too smooth with some speakers but, I have to say I really liked the character of the treble and the way the musical information was presented. It is stunningly clear with a lot of micro detail but it is more delicate than attacking in its delivery. This overall sound presentation does mean that you can listen to music all day very loud with no listening fatigue, which will be a huge positive for many owners.
The next big strength is the power available. I think you could drive some really big speakers with this amplifier and that makes it very flexible for the future if you’re a greedy audiophile who always wants to upgrade and go bigger.
Thats not forgetting the McInbtosh super-power compared to traditional integrated’s, the ability to change the tubes to tune the sound. This is not something I did for this review, but it is something I would do as an owner, partly because it would be fun to do it and to explore the sonic possibilities but also for modifying the vocal delivery.
Some of you would definitely love the vocals because they are everything I just wrote about above; they are clean, clear, smooth and delicately positioned in an impressive three-dimensional sound stage. The scale of them just keeps getting bigger the more you turn up the volume with their composure never wavering and so with certain speakers this would be ideal. Vocals, as I mentioned before, are delivered a little softer and they have an obvious character which I think is a McIntosh sound characteristic, which means they are also delivered quite neutral or maybe a little vanilla for tone and timbre.
Now neutral, or vanilla is a good flavour that works just as well in deserts as it does in coffee and so what I am saying here is that the MA352s vocal delivery is very versatile across a lot of music. However, vanilla is not as interesting a flavour as maybe strawberry, and definitely not as indulgent as chocolate. For personal preference I would want a bit more going on character-wise with the vocals. Given my recent experience tube rolling, admittedly it was power tubes, but I learnt different tubes really affect the sound, I just wonder if different input and driver tubes couldn’t be used here to add some more special character to the sound of this amplifier for its vocal delivery. I think it probably could, so to me that is a superpower which non hybrid amplifiers don’t offer.
I tested the built in moving magnet phono stage and its sound seemed to mirror a lot of what I liked about the MA352 but in a less definite way. When I compared the MA352 to the AVID Pellar phono stage the AVID clearly had much less of that smooth McIntosh sound. There was more of a focus on clarity overall. In some ways I preferred the McIntosh and in other ways I preferred the AVID but, overall, I found the built in phono stage was more pleasing or just balanced the best of the two with the amplifiers sound. But I didn’t test the vinyl capabilities extensively so please take my findings here with a grain of salt.
My first comparison was with the Galion TS120SE tube amplifier. This was the amplifier that showed to me an extra character to vocals from the Serafino speakers that I wasn’t getting from the MA352. Check out the Galion review and my tube rolling comparisons here to learn more of what I mean by this, but this comparison also showed to me the benefits of the power of the McIntosh for bass delivery and also the size, scale, and composure of the music at louder volumes. In these areas the Galion, while a very good tube amplifier, was still very much outgunned.
Next, I compared the McIntosh to a very powerful solid state integrated amplifier, the Leema Acoustics Tucana II Anniversary, which is a very honest and quite upfront sounding amplifier. With the right speakers it can certainly hold its own with more expensive amplifiers, and it’s only half the price of the MA352. This comparison was really interesting because the Leema sounded more neutral and more direct, its bass was lighter on its feet and punchy, rather than the deep, rounded and sumptuous bass you get from the McIntosh. There was also a lot less character to the music, from the Leema, which is interesting because it showed to me there is definitely some tube character coming from the tube preamplifier stage of the McIntosh which gives music this romantic sense of roundness of delivery with ease and grace. Music from the Leema was more tense sounding, especially in the vocals. I have to say in this instance, with the Serafino speakers, the MA352, despite costing far more than the Leema showed its worth and it felt a much better match for these speakers.
The MA352 is, overall, an excellent amplifier to listen to. It is so smooth and effortless you can listen to music all day. I found myself easily getting lost in the music, no matter what genre was being played. I really liked this McIntosh for electronic music because of the bass and how it romanticises and enriches the varied sounds and samples and how it then pulled me deep into the music in almost trance like fashion which, as far as I’m concerned is what electronic music is supposed to do.
My only real niggle with this amplifier, sonically, is that is maybe plays it a little safe and doesn’t have the bite I might want at times. I was craving a bit more character in the vocal region, but we are talking my personal preferences here, which is potentially unfair criticism.
I think the way this amplifier has been designed to sound it delivers it all with no really obvious weak points. This is a very good value for a big power McIntosh amplifier that takes you a long way towards a bigger McIntosh amplifier sound for a lot less money.
An Essential Audition Award is granted in recognition of a products high performance but with a certain uniqueness that makes auditioning even more essential.
For the full Specification of the McIntosh MA352 Integrated Amplifier
See the website here