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Review: McIntosh MA-252

Test McIntosh MA-252
Should you let yourself be won over by McIntosh?s latest amplifier? With the McIntosh MA-252 integrated amplifier, the American brand proposes its first hi-fi hybrid stereo amplifier combining tubes and transistors at a very unusual price. For less than ?5,000, the McIntosh MA-252 is anywhere from two to ten times less expensive than the brand’s other amplifiers. Does this mean that McIntosh had to make some sacrifices along the way? Are performance and efficiency really part of the package? Here are a few answers to these questions.

McIntosh is one of those manufacturers which hardly needs an introduction. The American brand has become a legend after decades of building extraordinary products. Absolutely all of a Mac?s components are designed and built in the USA. This fact, along with the exceptional acoustic performance ensured by each McIntosh product, has allowed the brand to set 5-figure prices for even its most accessible models regardless of whether tubes or transistors are used.

Test McIntosh MA-252

While the preamp?s tubes are warming up, the LEDs installed in the baseplates glow with a golden hue.

As the brand’s first hybrid integrated amplifier, the McIntosh MA-252 is a novelty. Combining tubes and transistors is nothing new: brands such as Magnat, Taga Harmony and Jolida implement this technique regularly. But can any of them match MacIntosh?s expertise?

McIntosh MA-252: Tubes, Made in the USA

The McIntosh MA-252 amplifier?s integrated preamp is equipped with four vacuum tubes (12AT7 and 12AX7A models made in the USA). Three countries produce the majority of today?s vacuum tubes: China, Russia, and the USA. While the USA maintains a tradition of impeccable quality, tubes produced in China and Russia are more of a toss-up (although some are very good). The tubes used for the MA-252 are exclusive, top-shelf models. Their job is to prepare the incoming analog signals and transmit them to the McIntosh MA-252?s powerful transistors. The McIntosh MA-252 delivers up to 2x100W into 8 Ohms and up to 2x160W into 4 Ohms.

Test McIntosh MA-252

The McIntosh 12AX7A tubes used for the amplifier?s integrated preamp.

McIntosh MA-252: proprietary technologies

The amplifier section benefits from Power Guard and Sentry Monitor technologies. Power Guard technology ensures that the amplifier?s power remains controlled at all times in order to not surpass its capacities or damage the speakers. The Power Guard system detects excess power and automatically clips the signal accordingly. When this occurs, the LEDs installed beneath the tubes blink orange. Sentry Monitor technology works to ensure that no short circuits are caused by the speakers or by irregular fluctuations in impedance.

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McIntosh?s monogram is inscribed on the side of the MA-252 amplifier.

McIntosh MA-252: genuine power

What sets McIntosh amplifiers apart from the competition is that they are designed to be equally efficient at the lowest and highest volume levels. Mac amplifiers also boast very low levels of distortion at full power. McIntosh clearly intends for its amplifiers to withstand highly demanding conditions, which explains why the brand uses PowerGuard technology to allow the volume to be turned up without any risk for the amplifier.

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The McIntosh MA-252?s volume control and power button.

McIntosh MA-252 : design

The McIntosh MA-252 amplifier comes with a remote control, a heavy gauge power cable, a set of four tubes (protected by foam packaging) and just as many protective grills. The amplifier is flanked by two enormous heat sinks which bear the monogram of the brand’s logo. The volume dial / power button, source selector and headphone output are found on the amplifier?s front panel. An MM phono input, two RCA inputs, one balanced XLR stereo input and a wideband mono output for a subwoofer are available at the back.

Test McIntosh MA-252

The MC monogram is inscribed in the McIntosh MA-252?s heat sink.

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An incomparable design…

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The McIntosh MA-252?s connectors.

McIntosh MA-252: test conditions and listening impressions

We listened to the McIntosh MA-252 amplifier with Tannoy Legacy Cheviot and Jean-Marie Reynaud Emma speakers. We used Viard Audio Silver HD12 speaker wire to connect the speakers to the amplifier. For a DLNA source, we used the Hegel H190 amplifier connected with  Viard Audio Premium HD RCA-RCA cables. A word on the context of our listening sessions: we began by listening to the Tannoy Legacy Cheviot speakers connected to the very good Hegel H190. After a few fruitful hours, we connected the Tannoys to the McIntosh MA-25. The results were amazingly? refined.

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The McIntosh MA-252 with the Tannoy Legacy Cheviot speakers.

The McIntosh MA-252 is notable most of all for adopting a straightforward approach to audio restitution. The amplifier succeeds in convincing the listener that music should always sound ?like that.? Admittedly, a pair of hi-fi speakers can’t compete with the power and energy of a full sound system, and the MA-252 only offers a transposition, if not a miniature version, of the original work. This is perfectly normal. The amplifier?s strong point is its ability to make music sound natural, even at low volume. The MA-252 doesn’t offer more bass or more treble, nor anything else along these lines. What it does offer is, quite simply, a sound signature which is smooth, energetic, and consistently serene as it breathes life into each detail. This is very enjoyable, and it points to McIntosh?s mastery of the science of sound.

The smallest details are extracted from the recording and presented with incontestable expertise. All the timbres are accurate, the energy is evenly distributed across the entire audio spectrum, and the soundstage is wider and more elaborate than ever before.

Surprisingly, the usual exuberance of tubes is totally absent, but the amplifier is warm and smooth.

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When the tubes are warm (this takes a few seconds), the LEDs light up green.

We tried challenging the McIntosh MA-252 with a few demanding tracks (Portugal The Man, Imagine Dragons?) in order to catch it off guard, but didn’t succeed. Whatever we listened to, an overall sense of coherence persisted. On the other hand, ultra-compressed recordings have little to offer: they seem to lose energy and the soundstage is restricted. The listening experience is far from being tedious, but it is not particularly enjoyable, either. Consequently, we recommend using the MA-252 to enjoy high-quality recordings. When the music is recorded and mixed in hi-fi conditions, it?s another story entirely. For example, Melody Gardot Live in Europe (FLAC 24/48) instantly brings the speakers alive to fill the room with a rich and warm sound. We could hear and locate each pluck of a string, and the notes only trailed off after a long decrescendo.

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McIntosh MA-252: compared to?

Hegel H190: while the Hegel prioritizes neutrality and rigor, it is colder than the MA-252 and surpassed by the latter in terms of spatialization and accurate timbres.

Lyngdorf TDAI-2170: the Lyngdorf is very good but less consistent and spontaneous. The MA-252 is smoother.

Devialet Expert 130 Pro: the Devialet is equipped with multiple digital inputs and is more powerful, but it is colder and less nuanced than the Mac.

Moon Neo ACE: the two devices aren’t in the same category, and the Moon is equipped with a streamer, but its sound signature is similar to that of the MA-252.

Conclusion

Adaptable, solid and refined, the McIntosh MA252 makes speakers sing with ease. The listening experience is unique, and there isn’t any need to be an avid audiophile to enjoy it. A benchmark model, the McIntosh MA-252 is an amplifier that will prove hard to replace. It will allow you to find speakers that are the best suited to your tastes, and it will pamper them appropriately. A first-class amplifier for an outstanding price.

What we liked:

  • The design
  • The refined sound signature
  • The balanced energy
  • The reasonable price

What we would have liked:

  • Nothing else.

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This post is also available in: French

About the author

Tristan Jacquel

Tristan est rédacteur chez Son-Vidéo.com. Passionné de musique, d'acoustique et de high-tech, il réalise notamment les tests matériels pour notre blog.

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