McIntosh MA9500 Integrated Amplifier REVIEW
This is a review written by Terry Ellis February 2023.
For my video review please see my YouTube channel link here
If you had to name one HiFi brand which is world famous, I am sure it would be McIntosh. It is always a privilege to have a McIntosh in my system for review but just because it’s a McIntosh doesn’t automatically mean it gets a thumbs up from me, it of course has to earn it. When a HiFi product costs just shy of £15,000 I am really fussy and nit-pick a lot because I think its important to do so. So did this very formidable integrated amplifier, with a built in DAC and phono stage, blow me away?
Initial Impression, Specs and Features
If you are new to very high end audio you could easily think that a product like the MA9500 costs as much as it does because of the green logo that glows on its front, and maybe some of the high retail price is a brand-name-tax, like with cars and other aspirational products. However when you unbox the MA9500 and try and pick it up, it is nearly 46kg weight, straight away, tells you that there is a lot of something in its casework. It has some big transformers and autoformers and you begin to appreciate why this McIntosh costs a lot more than your mainstream HiFi integrated amplifier. In fact, not even the mighty Gryphon Diablo 300, which is a 38kg beast, gets close to the sheer size and weight of this Mac, it really is a big beast of an amplifier.
Three hundred watts of power into eight, four and two ohms, thanks to the infamous McIntosh autoformers, means the MA9550 is going to be suitable for driving most speakers including some very large and demanding ones. On the rear, the MA9500 offers a lot of connections for balanced and unbalanced analogue inputs, probably more sources than any audiophile could ever own however if you wanted to compare eight different CD players, this could be the amp to do it.
There is also an analogue input for home theatre bypass and some jumpers if you want to disable the amplification stage and just use the preamplifier. I really like and appreciate this flexibility, but it would be a waste not to use the in-built amplifiers but, with this amp, you have the choice.
In addition, there are many digital inputs, including HDMI with ARC, USB and coaxial. Here’s me nit-picking, I would have preferred to see at least one of the coaxial inputs sport a BNC connection to save this audiophile having to use an adaptor. The DAC is McIntosh’s recent DA2, which they say is improved over the former DA1, and it has McIntosh propriety MCT input which if you have one of their SACD transports this will be important to you.
Coming back round to the front, the MA9500 has the classic McIntosh look. It’s quite busy, with all the knobs and screens that visually fight for your attention, and I have mixed feelings about the aesthetics. I do love VU meters and the motion of them here can be mesmerising to sit and watch them. However, sitting about twelve feet away I couldn’t see them very clearly; maybe I just need glasses.
A press in of the input selector provides a few menu options. One is to disable the illuminated VU meters, which would be sacrilege, perhaps more useful is being able to dim the brightness of the small bottom screen. The small bottom screen is interesting, because you need it on in order to show important information such as the volume, shown as a percentage. I could just about see the volume from my listening position, but you could struggle if your eyesight is not too good. It would help if the volume level was displayed larger at times, maybe when the volume is being adjusted to make it easier to see. In many ways, when you have this much power in an amplifier, it maybe doesn’t matter as you will rarely go much above half-way, even when listening to vinyl, so just crank it up until the neighbours complain!
A big part of the front visual design is the many dials which, to me, look and feel a bit plastic, although I am not sure if they are plastic. The resistance and feel of them is fine, but not the same extreme high quality of some price competitors such as Luxman. One feature I do like is the eight parametric equalisation adjustment controls which are easy to use being on the front. This is a huge positive feature of the McIntosh, being able to tune the sound of your system is a massive advantage, and while parametric equalisation is not as comprehensive or specific to your room as a full room correction system like Dirac Live, it’s better than nothing, and works exceptionally well without impacting the sound in any negative way. It can also, helpfully, be turned on and off from a button on the front.
The great thing about this system is it doesn’t matter which input you are using, or whether it is digital or analogue, once you have dialled in the sound balance you like between the amplifier, the speakers and the room, it can be always on for you regardless of what you are listening to. However, there is no visual indication of what you are changing, which can an issue if you want to experiment and revert back to how you liked it. Also its very likely you will move the equalisation controls by accident when cleaning the front panel there are no numbers or any such system to get back the settings back to exactly where they were. The only solution I can think of is to take some photos so you can put the controls back by eye, I appreciate the difficulty of creating a numbered visualisation so maybe a ‘click’ system like REL subwoofers would be preferable so the user can count how many clicks of adjustment they are making.
For me, the real beauty of the McIntosh is when you dim the lights and see it glow, combined with some RGB ambient lighting it does look rather striking. .
I tested the MA9500 with all manner of things plugged into it and I have also used it to power two totally different speaker systems, the Gryphon EOS2 and the Audio Physik Spark. Neither of these speakers are hugely demanding for a big amplifier like this but they are both very transparent in their own ways, and both showed me totally different strengths of the McIntosh.
Overall, the MA9550 sounds clean, clear, crisp, fast, lively and quite neutral. This was a surprise to me because I was expecting a warmer softer and ‘squidgier’ type of sound character but not at all. I compared the McIntosh to the slightly more expensive AVID HiFi Sigsum integrated amplifier, which is definitely a cleaner, clearer and more open sounding integrated and this comparison showed to me that the Mac does have some character.
I think Mcintosh have chosen to go for a very pleasing overall sonic character with the MA9500, which is strong in all areas, not necessarily not stand-out in any one but with no particularly weak points either which I think is a character that will work really well across a wide variety of music, music sources and speakers.
The vocals it present are always clear, large, expressive and have a little bit of sweetness, which I really liked. It delivers vocals with a nice rounded character to them which makes listening for hours very pleasing and never a chore.
The treble will perhaps be a touch “play it‘safe” for some, but that will depend on the speakers and maybe which resistance taps you connect your speaker cables to. I tried eight and four ohm, but not two. Using the Gryphon EOS2 speakers I connected to the 8 ohms taps ands noticed the treble could be slightly too much of a good thing at times, but I maybe used the the wrong speaker taps. The EOS2 are six ohm speakers, so I probably made a rookie mistake here. The Audio Physic Spark are four ohm speakers and I used the four ohm taps and found the the treble to be spot on. It was nicely balanced for enjoyment while sounding clear and crisp but maybe a touch play-it-safe for bite. I didn’t mind that and definitely prefer it to the other way around.
The bass was interesting as you would think three hundred watts would automatically mean for a huge powerful bass, but the Mac doesn’t sound like that. In fact, the much more affordable NAD M23 has a more obviously strong and punchy bass, this is one of the characteristics I really like about the NAD amplifier. The Mac is a little more reserved in its bass delivery and it appears the available power is being used more for control and smoothness, it delivers very lovely bass transitions in music. In fact it is a very graceful sounding amplifier for one with so much power, and this is of course where the parametric EQ becomes very useful. I was able to tune the bass more to my liking, which was especially useful with the Audio Physik Spark speakers and there is so much headroom available you don’t have to worry about the amplifier running out of puff.
Using the equaliser I was able to enrich and embolden the sound as much as I wanted but the bass was never quite as tactile and punchy as from the NAD M23. Instead, there was a smoother nature to the MA9550’s bass, maybe more akin to a tube amplifier, but not the same. Either way it was very pleasing and I am not saying any of this meant as a criticism, more as a point of difference.
That just leaves soundstage. Using the Gryphon EOS2 driven from the MA9500, the sound was big and bold, with a nicely layered soundstage left to right and front to back, even though they were placed up against my front wall as their design requires. This showed off the Mac’s ability to be big and bold, with great timing but it was with the Audio Physik Spark where I noticed how clean and clear the MA9500 sounds. This combination had a totally see-through sound, with some amazingly deep soundstaging. The pairing also demonstrated their ability to provide small detail intricacies whilst staying smooth and musical, providing I didn’t go mad with the volume. The MA9500 was able to do the very good HiFi thing of sounding extremely open, spacious, precise and holographic again impressive for amplifier with this much power.
DAC and Phono Stages
Testing built in DAC2, was easy, its a very good that sounds clean with no obvious shortcomings and works very well with the amplifier. I did compare it to my reference DAC which is the Chord Electronics Hugo TT2 and the Chord sounded better in some keys areas. It sounded more solid and secure, with more authority, better soundstage space and specificity, and with all the same positive sonic traits I have mentioned above, the strengths of the MA9500 were all still there. My take away here is the built is a very good option for those who prefer to have everything in the one box, however it is possible to better it, factoring in the retail price of the TT2 being close to £5000. In a way it would be nice if there was an option to buy the MA9550 without the internal DAC if you never plan to use it.
The internal phono stage I really liked, I like how easy it is to change the capacitance to suit your cartridge. It is adjusted in the menu, and I much prefer this to dip-switches. I also like that there is an MM and MC stage for long-term flexibility. Most important was that I really liked the sound of the MM phono stage. It sounded big, bold and smooth and with enough resolution to show me things about my turntable setup that I could work on and improve, and then I hear the improvements I was making. I could easily sit and listen to records all day with this phono stage and amplifier setup. It has an easy-going character with enough quality to keep it interesting and there were good dynamics, and a big bold character, I enjoyed this presentation a lot.
I am no stranger to big, powerful and expensive integrated amplifiers. I have reviewed a lot of them and some have impressed me for sounding big and bold and others for sounding warm and lush, with others standing out for sounding very authoritative and powerful, some impress for trying to have no sound of their own. At this price level they are all great in their own distinct ways.
The McIntosh MA9500 appears to be want to sit in the middle of the pack, offering a bit of everything that makes amplifiers at this level great. I do think this approach will work well with a lot of speakers and therefore have appeal for a lot of audiophiles. I also think lots of audiophiles will appreciate the in-built flexibility for tailoring the sound and much more.
There will also be a lot of audiophiles who love the MA9500 because its a McIntosh and the prestige that accompanies having such an amplifier if their system and I cannot deny there is something special about that.
A Special Performer Award is Pursuit Perfect Systems highest accolade and is in recognition of exceptional product performance regardless of price
For the full specification of the McIntosh MA9500 Integrated amplifier please see their website linked here