Today we reviewed the McIntosh MA352 amplifier, an entirely analog integrated stereo model. It features a hybrid configuration that combines vacuum tube preamplification and transistor amplification, just like the McIntosh MA252 that we had the pleasure of listening to a few months ago.
Capable of delivering twice as much power as the latter, with 200 watts per channel into 8 ohms and very low distortion, the McIntosh MA352 has a promising spec sheet… Sold for €8750, can this extraordinary amplifier with its distinctive appearance transform watts into musical emotions? The answer is in this review.
McIntosh MA352: the brand
McIntosh Laboratory is an American manufacturer of high-end audio equipment, founded in 1949 by Franck McIntosh in Maryland. McIntosh builds legendary devices that are developed and assembled by hand in its Binghamton factory. The expertise of the brand with the iconic turquoise VU meter is recognized worldwide.
Since its creation, McIntosh has provided audio equipment for pivotal moments in music and pop culture history, such as President Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration speech, the Woodstock festival, and of course the Grateful Dead’s famous “Wall of Sound”.
McIntosh was founded in 1949 in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was the commercial broadcasting industry that allowed the American manufacturer to cut its teeth in the post-war economy. Fans of music equipment discovered the importance of owning a powerful amplifier and warmly welcomed the brand’s very first amplifier, the McIntosh 50W-1.
In 1950, Gordon Gow was named executive vice president and the company launched its first preamplifier, the AE2.
In 1954, the MC30 and MC60 amplifiers were the first to sport the chrome chassis that would become a characteristic design element of McIntosh products. Today, it has been replaced by polished stainless steel, which provides a similar result but is much less fragile.
Boosted by rapid overall growth, McIntosh quickly outgrew its workshops. In order to expand its business more comfortably, the American firm built a new facility at 2 Chambers Street in Binghamton in 1952. It remains there to this day, the building having continued to grow alongside the company.
In 1957, McIntosh presented its first AM/FM radio receiver, the MR55. It was the first audio “source” developed by the manufacturer, who rapidly became a frontrunner in the radio tuner market.
For McIntosh, the 1960s were marked by innovation and the arrival of the famous backlit front panel. Among the leading products launched during the decade were the MC225, MC240 and MC275 McIntosh tube amplifiers, all assembled by hand.
As the decade came to a close, the American manufacturer was in the spotlight. In 1969, McIntosh amplifiers were used for Woodstock’s sound systems, an event that marked a turning point in the history of music.
In the 1970s, McIntosh continued to expand and develop its catalog by introducing new product categories. The first McIntosh speakers were released, paired with new compatible amplifiers and new radio tuners. The glass front panel and blue VU meter reinforced the brand’s identity.
Released in 1972, the McIntosh MR78 radio tuner redefined the performance of FM tuners of the time. In response, other members of the audio industry had no choice but to improve their products.
On March 23, 1974, the Grateful Dead revealed their “Wall of Sound” at the San Francisco Cow Palace. In total, 48 McIntosh MC2300 amplifiers provided a total output power of 28,800 watts and drove the 586 JBL speakers and 54 Electrovoice tweeters of this revolutionary sound system.
The 1980s introduced new challenges and provided McIntosh with new opportunities. In order to compete internationally and overcome the effects of the recession that was inhibiting sales, McIntosh continued to innovate to win over a new generation of customers.
Presented in 1980, the McIntosh MC2500 was a true powerhouse that could provide up to 2 x 500 watts, regardless of the impedance of the charge (1 ohm, 2 ohms, 4 ohms or 8 ohms).
At the same time, the American manufacturer was developing new speakers, notably the XRT20 which was released in the early 80s. Designed by McIntosh’s head of R&D Roger Russell, this three-way speaker was comprised of two distinct elements: a cabinet housing two 12” woofers and an 8” midrange driver paired with a column that integrated no fewer than 24 1” soft dome tweeters.
During the 90s, McIntosh integrated the car audio (1994) and home theater markets, introducing the first THX-certified multichannel audio system. The latter included the McIntosh C39 Audio/Video Control Center preamplifier, the McIntosh MC7106 6 channel power amplifier and the HT Series speakers.
McIntosh continued to develop in-vehicle audio solutions for Harley Davidson, Ford and Subaru, as well as high-end audiophile products such as the Reference System presented at CES in 2005 and the McIntosh MT10 turntable released in 2007.
To celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2009, the manufacturer released its first compact, all-in-one hi-fi system, which included a CD/SA-CD player, an AM/FM tuner, a tube preamplifier, an R-Core power supply, 2 x 75 watts of output power and a pair of 2-way compact speakers.
During its 7th decade of activity, McIntosh addressed the shift towards digital and dematerialized music with the McIntosh McAire, its first wireless speaker. With AirPlay compatibility and an audio USB port, it features six drivers powered by Class D amplification that delivers up to 2 x 30 watts.
More recently, McIntosh made a name for itself in the connected speaker field with the RS200, which features eight drivers and a total output power of 650 watts. Compatible with DTS Play-Fi and AirPlay2 multi-room technologies, it benefits from WiFi (DLNA) and Bluetooth connectivity. It also features an HDMI ARC port, an optical input and a USB port so that it can be used as a DAC with a computer.
70 years of innovation
2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the brand known for its VU meters. To celebrate these seven decades of innovation, the American manufacturer released a new stereo power amplifier: the McIntosh MC2152. Providing 2 x 150 watts with 2, 4 or 8 ohm speakers, this majestic amplifier features a new design, with a matte black chassis in anodized aluminum and carbon fiber side panels and could be admired at the 2019 Paris Audio Video Show.
The McIntosh MC2152 uses eight KT88 output tubes along with four 12AX7A and four 12AT7 tubes, half of which are assigned to each audio channel. The 12AX7A tubes handle the input signals, while the 12AT7 tubes handle the driver and power amps.
McIntosh MA352: packaging & accessories
The McIntosh MA352 amplifier comes in a large cardboard box and is protected by thick pieces of foam. The four vacuum-tubes are already installed and are protected by a block of foam inside of which the four protective cages are inserted for transport.
The McIntosh MA352 amplifier comes with a remote control and a power cable.
McIntosh MA352: presentation
The McIntosh MA352 is an entirely analog hybrid integrated stereo amplifier: it combines a tube preamplifier with a transistor power amplifier. The manufacturer announces a total output power of 2 x 200 watts into 8 ohms and 2 x 320 watts into 4 ohms. It only features analog inputs (XLR, RCA and Phono MM) and has a pre amplified stereo output (RCA) along with a headphone output on the front panel. It also benefits from a Pass Through mode which means it can be used as a power amplifier with an A/V receiver that has a pre-out output, for example.
The McIntosh MA352 stereo amplifier is a hybrid model. The preamplification is handled by 12AX7A and 12AT7 vacuum tubes. These very high-quality tubes prepare the entering analog signals which are then transferred to the Class AB power section composed of powerful direct coupled transistors.
Thanks to this design, the McIntosh MA352 manages to marry the best of both worlds: the very lively, almost corporal sound of the tubes, and the energy, speed and power of the transistors.
PowerGuard and Sentry Monitor technologies
The McIntosh MA352 amplifier uses the proprietary Power Guard and Sentry Monitor technologies to ensure high constant power without exposing the speakers to damage. The Power Guard system, designed and patented by McIntosh, controls the power level of the current sent to the speakers to prevent clipping. Photo-optic elements capable of reacting within 1/1000th of a second regulate the power levels sent to the speakers, therefore protecting the drivers and the amplifier. A circuit continually monitors the waveform of the input and output signals. The PowerGuard technology then dynamically adjusts the input level to avoid clipping and audio distortion.
The Sentry Monitor technology checks for potential short circuits in the speakers and abnormal impedance variations. This protection circuit works without fuses and deactivates the output stage before the current can go over the “safe” operating level. It is then automatically reinitialized.
Thanks to this set-up, the McIntosh MA352 amplifier is able to ensure high constant power without the slightest risk of damaging the connected speakers or the electronic circuits. This stereo amplifier can therefore drive any compact or floorstanding speaker without any difficulty, even models with complex loads, with multiple and/or large diameter drivers and low impedance.
The McIntosh MA352 amplifier adopts the iconic design of the brand’s electronics. There is a robust chassis that rests on anti-vibration feet and is covered by a sheet of stainless steel on the front and on the top. Two massive aluminum heatsinks flank the power amplification section. The manufacturer has decided to add a small design embellishment: the central fins of the heatsink take the shape of the brand’s monogram when seen from above.
The stainless steel front panel sports a volume control knob that is also used as an on/standby button (by pressing it) to the right. The source switch is located symmetrically to the left of the front panel and is also used to access the settings menu (balance, activation/deactivation of the EQ, display brightness, VU meter backlighting, tube LEDs, renaming the inputs, setting the input level…). In between the two are five small knobs that allow you to adjust the EQ of the response curve across five frequency ranges (30Hz, 125Hz, 500Hz, 2kHz and 10kHz).
Behind the tubes are two large VU meters with blue backlighting, a distinctive feature of the brand since the 60s, and the LCD control display with blue characters on a black background.
The McIntosh MA352 amplifier only features analog connectors, as its USB port is reserved for maintenance. It has three unbalanced RCA inputs, two balanced XLR inputs and a phono input for turntables with a moving magnet cartridge. A pre amplified RCA output is also present if you want to connect a power amplifier or subwoofer.
The McIntosh MA352 also features a trigger input and output, two Data Port connectors, an RS232 port and an IR input, all in mini-jack format.
As well as being able to power a pair of speakers, the McIntosh MA352 amplifier is also capable of driving most hi-fi headphones available on the market whose impedance lies somewhere in between 100 and 600 ohms. To do this, it features a headphone output in 6.35mm jack format on its front panel. This output benefits from Headphone Crossfeed Director technology which, according to the manufacturer, provides a sound restitution similar to that of two traditional speakers.
McIntosh MA352: key specifications
- Integrated stereo amplifier
- Vacuum-tube preamplification (2 x 12AX7a and 2 x 12AT7)
- Class AB transistor amplification
- PowerGuard and Sentry Monitor technologies
- RIAA MM preamplifier
- Tone control
- Output power: 2 x 200W (8 ohms) and 2 x 320W (4 ohms)
- Distortion: 0.03% from 20Hz to 20kHz
- Frequency response (+0, -0.5dB): 20Hz to 20kHz
- Frequency response (+0, -3dB): 10Hz to 100kHz
- Signal-to-noise ratio (phono input): 82dB
- Signal-to-noise ratio (line input): 93dB
- Damping factor:
– 8 ohms: >200
– 4 ohms: >100
- 3 unbalanced RCA inputs
- 2 XLR balanced inputs
- 1 MM phono input + grounding
- 1 subwoofer output (stereo RCA)
- 1 headphone output (6.35mm jack, on the front panel)
- 2 mini-jack control connectors
- Screw speaker terminals compatible with gold-plated banana plugs
- Power consumption in standby mode: < 0.5W
- Dimensions (W x H x D): 445 x 251 x 521mm
- Weight: 29.9kg
McIntosh MA352: listening conditions
For this review, we connected the McIntosh MA352 amplifier to a pair of Elipson Legacy 3230 floorstanding speakers (whose review we will be publishing very shortly) using Viard Audio Silver HD12 HP speaker cables.
We used several sources with this McIntosh integrated amplifier. We chose the iFi Audio iDSD Pro 4.4mm connected DAC to listen to digital audio files (FLAC and DSD) shared from a computer connected to the local network and for streaming CD-quality and high-resolution music via Qobuz on the Müzo Player app. We connected the Rega Planar 3 turntable, which was fitted with a Denon DL-103R moving coil cartridge, to a Thorens MM08 phono preamp to play 33 RPM records. We also made use of the Pioneer UDP-LX500 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player’s high fidelity audio section to play audio CDs.
Once the amplifier was connected to the speakers, sources and power supply, we turned it on by simply pressing the volume control knob. We then had to wait a few seconds for the tubes to warm up. While they were preheating, the diodes under the tubes were orange and “Tube Warmup” was displayed on the amplifier’s screen.
Once the tubes were “warm”, the diodes changed to green and the screen indicated the selected input and the volume level.
McIntosh MA352: listening impressions
When reading the McIntosh MA352’s spec sheet, one might fear that the sound is characterized by an avalanche of decibels that destroys everything in its path. Those familiar with the brand’s amplifiers know that this is not the case.
The output power of the MA352 was perfectly controlled and harnessed for the music. It was expressed with authority when the track called for it, but never overwhelmed the listener. This amplifier allows you to experience music to the fullest by letting the dynamics and all the energy, as well as the subtleties and slightest nuances, be expressed freely.
The width of the soundstage, balance of the frequency ranges, precision of the timbres, impact of the lows and clarity of the highs: the McIntosh MA352 combined all of these qualities with ease, no matter the style of music we listened to. The Elipson Legacy 3230 speakers kept pace, delivering the music with precision and vitality.
On Dominique Fils-Aimé’s track “Birds” (album Nameless, Qobuz 24/88.2), we were in awe of the precision and realism of the sound, from the very first seconds. The delicate bassline unfolded before us with great credibility. We could hear and even feel the slightest vibrations of the strings. On either side of the room, the finger snaps sounded incredibly authentic. The tone of the artist’s voice was perfect, the drums in the background were also very realistic. When we closed our eyes, it was as if the artist and their musicians were in the room with us.
Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams” (album Rumours, DLNA – DSD 5.6MHz) took on a completely new dimension. The McIntosh MA352 amplifier extracted all of the track’s essence and delivered it with softness, energy and accuracy. It was a treat to listen to.
A completely different feel with the track “The Dragon Boy / The Bottomless Pit” from the anime Spirited Away (album Hisaishi meets Miyazaki Films, 33 RPM record). The McIntosh MA352/Elipson Legacy 3230 pairing managed to express with intensity all of the emotion of this orchestral score. The delicate and sometimes unsettling phrasing of the piano and violins pierced us, and the energy of the brass and percussion instruments swept us away, making us relive the highlights of this very beautiful movie by Miyazaki with a great deal of emotion. The dynamic shifts were phenomenal and were never harsh.
McIntosh MA352: compared to…
McIntosh MA252: the same look (without the VU meters), the same design, the same energy, precision and musical enjoyment. The main differences between the MA352 and its “smaller sibling” are the latter’s smaller size and lower power. It is destined to be used with less demanding speakers, even though it is perfectly capable of powering 3-way floorstanding speakers with a large woofer. The McIntosh MA352 on the other hand can drive speakers with multiple low frequency drivers, even those with a large diameter, very efficiently and without ever faltering.
Atoll IN300 SE: not quite as powerful with “only” 2 x 150 watts into 8 ohms but just as energetic, the Atoll amplifier can also power the vast majority of speakers on the market. Neutral and balanced, it provides slightly drier lows than the McIntosh, and has a somewhat “colder” sound.
McIntosh MA352: conclusion
The McIntosh MA352 amplifier impressed us with its overall performance and the way it brings music to life. The “warmth” of the tubes and its ability to make vocals and instruments materialize before the listener contribute to an emotion-filled listening session.
Using its output power and energy wisely, this amplifier is dynamic, precise and delicate. It makes the most of the connected speakers’ qualities, as long as they are correctly positioned in the room. Consequently, the soundstage is spacious and extensive, the timbres are highly precise and have substance. Everything sounds smooth and natural.
Impossible to fault, the MA352 is only average when given over-compressed or poorly produced audio files to work with, something the amplifier can’t be blamed for.
What we liked
- The expertly managed dynamics and output power
- The rich timbres
- The softness and nuance
- Its ability to bring music to life
- Its iconic design
What we would have liked
- An integrated DAC and digital inputs