McIntosh D100 Digital Preamp Review
Contrary to received wisdom, all hi-fi does not look the same
As I have remarked before, the pace of technical change in two channel hifi is pleasantly relaxed compared to the breakneck world of AV and multichannel. That being said, whether we like it or not, the way many people are building and assembling systems is changing and changing quite significantly as well. First the DAC came back from the dead and now exists in greater numbers than I suspect it ever did during the heyday of the two box CD player.
Having started to eat away at the need to spin CD’s by being heavily based around USB inputs, the DAC then started to absorb the functions of the preamp. The thinking is logical enough. Although a fringe group of the truly committed like myself might continue to make use of analogue inputs for turntables, in an all-digital system, there is no need for a separate preamp if you decide to control volume at the DAC stage (a spin-off of this is the integrated amp with digital inputs that achieves the same function). If you connect the DAC preamp to a power amp or active speakers, you have the makings of an ultra minimalist audio system.
This is all logical stuff but what happens when one of the oldest names in the business decides to give this methodology a whirl? McIntosh have carved out an enviable reputation for building equipment that is generally as free of compromise as is humanly possible and they certainly don’t rush into making new products if one they make is still perfectly OK. The MC275 power amp has been in production for over half a century and some other members of the family are also impressively long lived. Despite this, the company is no reactionary history lesson - they produce some formidable AV processors and know their way around digital. As such, the D100 you see here is a very new product from a very old company who don’t do things by halves. How does it work out?
McIntosh describes the D100 as a ‘digital preamp’ and although this is an accurate enough description of the product, it can leave a few aspects of the design out of the description. At the core of the D100 is a five input DAC with a volume control to allow for direct connection to an amp or pair of active speakers. Additionally McIntosh has fitted a headphone amp to allow the D100 to be used without speakers at all if this is your want.
The more astute of you may be thinking as you read that, ‘hang on, this sounds more than a little like a Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus and the last time I checked, that was a good deal less than three grand.’ This much is true. The functionality of the D100 is replicated on a number of devices that cost quite a bit less than the McIntosh does but the bald feature list doesn’t completely describe what the D100 can do. The first is that unlike most other digital preamps, the D100 has a preamp circuit that is completely separate from the digital board.
The reasons for doing this are fairly compelling. If you are acting directly on the digital signal of a DAC you have two options about how to adjust volume. The first is bit reduction which physically reduces the size of the signal the DAC handles. As the name suggests, physically clipping the amount of data in the signal isn’t a great way to maintain quality so this is not ideal and certainly not for McIntosh. The second way is to use DSP to adjust the volume level in the digital domain without actually losing any information. This is much more effective at retaining the overall quality of the recording but it does tend to make adjustment a little slow and unwieldy.
By fitting a conventional preamp to the D100 - albeit one on a rotary encoder rather than a classic volume ‘pot’, the D100 feels like a normal preamp. If you rapidly twist the volume control on the D100, the volume climbs or descends at a ‘proper’ speed rather than coming to terms with the world around it and slowly ‘ramping.’ Furthermore, with an encoder in place, the D100 has a full remote control that means it is possible to use it at rather more than arm’s length although the remote itself is certainly in the running for the ‘most buttons that have no actual bearing on the operation of the product’ award.
The other benefit of implementing a preamp this way is that it also doesn’t have to be part of the signal path. As well as the variable outputs, there are fixed level ones too that ensure that the D100 can be used as a completely normal DAC into one of McIntosh’s preamps and integrated amps (of which there are many). The preamp isn’t deactivated in this instance, it is completely absent from the circuit.
The digital inputs (two coax, two optical and one USB) are all rated to 32/192kHz and make use of the latest and greatest ESS Sabre DAC. This can handle eight channels at once which means a full balanced operation via dual differential decoding - effectively decoding the signal and for want of a better phrase the ‘anti signal’ at once and combining them to further reduce errors. The implementation is McIntosh’s own rather than an off the shelf exercise. The USB is - as you might expect - an asynchronous type with a dedicated PC driver to ensure best results.
Then of course, there is the appearance. It would be easy to describe McIntosh gear as ‘retro’ but this isn’t strictly accurate. True enough, the styling looked like this decades ago but it didn’t really ever look like what anyone else was doing even then. The gothic font for the logo which glows when powered up, the sizable control knobs and gloss front panel are something completely removed from the usual and will either be very cool or naff depending on where you stand. Me? As far as I am concerned, if we had a cool wall for hi-fi, this would be in a cryo tank.
It is also beautifully built. The chassis is finished to a superb standard and everything feels very solid indeed. It is also a lesson in logic and clarity. The knob on the left selects the input, the one on the right does volume. The red button turns it on and off and a small black button accesses the incidental menu functions. The large display is easy to read and at a glance, tells you all you need to know about the running of the DAC - input, sampling rate and bitrate. The styling might be distinctive but it has no effect on the functionality.
Against this, there isn’t much to complain about in function terms. The USB input seems well implemented but at this price is going up against some products that can handle DSD over USB (the actual number of things worth playing on DSD can be counted on the fingers of one knee but in the same way I might lose four stone, it is possible that this might change). It might have been nice to have an AES balanced input too but I’m not going to lose any sleep over that. The remote as mentioned, is no looker but it works well enough.
As luck would have it, the D100 turned up at the same time as a Yamaha A-S3000 integrated amp; four grand of VU meters, a power transformer the size of a pumpkin, and most importantly, a direct input. As such, the D100 was connected to the direct input of the Yamaha via a Chord Chorus interconnect meaning that volume was controlled via the D100. I also connected it via the fixed level outs to the Yamaha and my full time resident Naim Supernait. Speakers used included my standard Neat Momentum 4i’s but also a pair of PMC fact.8 floorstanders.
Sources used on the D100 included my Lenovo ThinkPad T530 running Foobar and Spotify which I installed the dedicated driver, a Naim ND5XS streamer and a Rega Apollo CD player. Material used included lossless and high res flac and compressed Ogg Vorbis files via Spotify as well as Test Match Special over internet radio.
Some months ago, I visited the McIntosh distributor Jordan Acoustics to listen to a complete set of McIntosh electronics with Art loudspeakers. As days go it was a pretty good one and it gave some useful information into what McIntosh is trying to do with their electronics. The system had extraordinary dynamics and scale but never made music sound forced or larger than it should. The way that the system balanced accuracy and engagement was seriously impressive. Naturally, it looked awesome too.
What the D100 does is bring some of these attributes to any system that it is a part of. The presentation has the same balance between accuracy and engagement that the more expensive complete system possessed. The way that the D100 performs means that popping off to a dealer for a ‘quick listen’ is fairly pointless. The McIntosh is all about control and cohesion - it is only after you realise that you have been ploughing through your music collection for several hours, across multiple genres and different mastering qualities and it hasn’t put a foot wrong at any stage that you get an idea of what it is about.
The reasons for this all-round ability stem from the way the McIntosh manages to be detailed and extremely revealing but equally free of any trace of harshness of aggression. The amount of information that the D100 can find in most music is truly exceptional but the way that this information is presented is sufficiently refined and relaxed way that means that even when the album is rather lacking in the quality stakes, the D100 doesn’t rip it to shreds, it simply finds the music and avoids bringing every rough edge to the fore. This is something that is in some ways more impressive than some more expensive McIntosh products that will be rather less forgiving under the same conditions.
There are some aspects of the performance that do stand out above the unerring competence. The McIntosh has a midrange performance that is almost liquid smooth and extremely controlled. The performance is in keeping with a small number of products I’ve listened to where the performance is not ‘analogue like’ but instead has the same unforced and absolutely compelling quality that a studio master tape does. There is no unnecessary warmth or bloom to the performance just a superb smoothness.
The bass response is also excellent. The McIntosh has genuinely deep and detailed bass that underpins everything extremely convincingly. You don’t have to be listening to electronica to feel the benefit either (although when in doubt - why not?). The bass guitar in Ray LaMontaigne’s Three More Days has a real impact and simply makes the entire performance feel that little more real. It can be agile when required. I’m not sure that McIntosh developed the D100 with Birdy Nam Nam’s Trans Boulogne Express in mind when they voice equipment but the McIntosh pounds along with real enthusiasm and attack.
The other area where the D100 excels is the preamp. The volume control is linear, well implemented and a cinch to use. Thanks to the remote, it feels like a proper preamp and something that can actually work as part of your hi-fi system rather than being perceived as a sort of go between that lives nearer a computer than it does the rest of the system. This functionality is a double edged sword though. If you don’t need the preamp and want to use the fixed outputs, the McIntosh is still unquestionably excellent but doesn’t look quite such smart value against the competition. There are a great many line level DAC’s at this price point and some of them offer inputs over a greater number of connection types than the D100 does. To get the most from the McIntosh, you really want to make sure that volume control is going to be used. Given that the active speaker is making a bit of a return to domestic audio, a system comprising computer, D100 and a pair of actives would be compact (pending not choosing a pair of speakers the size of wardrobes), capable and extremely cool.
Finding actual fault with the McIntosh’s actual sonic performance rather than making a subjective call on value is harder. The appeal of the McIntosh lies in the long term listening satisfaction it generates but if you want your hifi to deliver the music in short doses of shock and awe it might not be your thing (although surely you want a system you can listen to indefinitely?). It also showed that while fairly forgiving of less than perfectly recorded music, it doesn’t like low bitrate material very much. Spotify (premium) was just about OK but I’d caution against going much more compressed than that.
- Superb audio performance across a wide variety of music
- Genuinely excellent preamp
- Excellent build and superb aesthetics
- Doesn't like low bitrate material
- No DSD over USB or AES input
- Not what you'd call cheap
McIntosh D100 Digital Preamp Review
There is no hiding that £3,000 is a great deal of money for most of us. The D100 might be at the bottom end of McIntosh’s pricing structure but if you say to a normal member of the public "don’t worry, it’s only three grand", you’ll be on the receiving end of some funny looks. The law of diminishing returns is making its presence felt as well and I can’t say in all honesty that the D100 is twice as good as the Naim DAC v1 that Steve Withers tested recently.
Spend some time with the McIntosh though and the case it makes for itself is more compelling. This is a product that is superbly well implemented and a genuine pleasure to listen to and live with. The performance across a wide variety of music is utterly compelling and unlike so many DACs with volume controls, it really feels like a preamp. When you consider the excellent build, superb aesthetics and the sheer satisfaction of using it, the McIntosh D100 is likely to delight anyone lucky enough to own one.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £3,000.00
Ease of Use8
Value for Money8
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