technology profile - audio
Founded in 1949, McIntosh is known for home audio systems that deliver the ultimate experience in music and film.
By George McClure
MCINTOSH LABS IS AN ICONIC AMERICAN BRAND that defines the ultimate home audio experience for discriminating listeners around the world. We recently had the pleasure of speaking with David Mascioni, Director of Global Marketing for the company; here are the highlights.
GEORGE: Please tell us about the origins and history of the company.
DAVID: Frank McIntosh was interested in engineering and radio his whole life. In 1946 he set up a Muzak franchise subscription music service. This required high-power, low-distortion amplifiers — but none of the amplifiers available at the time could meet his requirements, so he decided to build his own. In 1947 the McIntosh Scientific Laboratory company was created, and Gordon Gow was hired to help develop the high-power, low-distortion amplifier. The result of their work was the Unity Coupled circuit.
A few name changes later and McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. was officially founded in 1949. As the company grew, it needed more space and, more importantly, more engineers, so we moved from Silver Spring, Maryland to Binghamton, New York, bursting with engineering talent as the birthplace of IBM, Link Aviation, and several other technology companies. With the growing team, McIntosh opened a new factory in Binghamton in 1956 which remains the company's headquarters to this day.
"McIntosh is one of the few companies to offer a complete solution from source components to the preamplifier, to the amplifier, to the speakers, and even the cables that connect everything.”DAVID MASCIONI
DIRECTOR OF GLOBAL MARKETING
GEORGE: McIntosh is one of the very few audio companies with a factory in the United States, which even includes manufacturing your own printed circuit boards (PCBs). How have you managed to avoid shipping these operations overseas?
DAVID: The short answer is that building products is our true passion, one that we stay obsessively focused on.
McIntosh has always invested significantly in our manufacturing capabilities, which is how we stay competitive. We purchase the circuits boards from various suppliers but populate and install them ourselves. We did this all by hand years ago, but in the 1990s, we realized that this was taking far too much time, so we invested in machines to install parts robotically – allowing us to better serve our customers.
Most recently, we invested in SMD machinery, which installs smaller parts that get attached without wires to the boards — this is the way cell phones and computers are built. Eliminating wires means higher reliability and less noise. This investment came at a high cost, but it allows us to produce circuits for about the same cost as having them built overseas. Moreover, they take up less room inside the chassis, so we can pack more features that our customers want. The lower noise and higher reliability are excellent bonuses and fit the McIntosh philosophy nicely. Even with all this automation, there is still quite a bit of hand populating and hand soldering done at our factory.
GEORGE: What is the significance of the Blue Watt output meter that is featured in so many McIntosh products?
DAVID: We always say that you need to stay within the limits of the power of your system — meaning, we do not recommend pushing your product to try and fill a vast room with loud music if you do not have the high power needed. Using an amplifier without meters, and trying to stay within its limits, is like driving a car without a fuel gauge and trying to not run out of gas — the meters serve an important purpose of alerting the user of the power available.
Then, there is this unique look that it gives our product. Our iconic blue meters are part of our brand DNA and have become our signature look recognizable around the world. It gives a visual expression of what our products can deliver, which resonates a lot with our customers.
GEORGE: McIntosh has been involved in a number of famous moments in music and pop culture history. Please tell us about some of the most significant ones.
DAVID: In the 1960s, when concerts outgrew night clubs and small venues and moved into arenas and stadiums, there were not professional sound reinforcement systems to clearly project the music to crowds numbered in the tens of thousands. A good example is The Beatles' first concert at Shea Stadium in New York City where they simply played through the public address system — but that was too little power, and the music couldn't be heard over all the screaming fans.
When Woodstock was being planned in 1969, the organizers demanded good sound for the attendees. They hired Hanley Sound to design and manage the sound system. Hanley had already used McIntosh amplifiers at a variety of music festivals and when told how big Woodstock might get, he knew he had no choice but to use a lot of McIntosh amplifiers. The result was clear, powerful sound for all 400,000 attendees.
McIntosh amplifiers went on to be used at a festival held at Watkins Glenn Raceway with a crowd of 600,000. Perhaps most famous was the Grateful Dead Wall of Sound, which was used on tour in the mid-1970s by the Dead, who were adamant that all fans in attendance were treated to the best sound quality possible.
GEORGE: As a company that has a longtime commitment to tube-based amps and preamps as well as high-performance turntables, McIntosh is uniquely capable of offering state-of-the-art analog performance. What do you think is driving the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl?
DAVID: We see analog experiences becoming more and more desirable in today's world. Over the past ten years, the digital world conquered most of our lives, both in the home and workplace. More recently, as we spend more time at home, there was a desire to reconnect with physical items and activities – including vinyl. Music has meaning and memories, a treasure you can hold in your hands or ritualistically play on your turntable. Moreover, for the younger generations, vinyl is an authentic “new” experience that can feel very special after growing up in the digital age.
Vinyl invites listeners to enjoy a complete record, in the order purposefully and thoughtfully curated by the artist. This allows listeners to discover and connect with a more significant part of the musician's work versus only one hit track. We are excited about the opportunity to connect with the new generation
discovering analog, investing in their music experience.
GEORGE: You have several integrated amplifiers which offer a vacuum tube preamp section paired with a solid-state power amp. What are the advantages of this hybrid approach?
DAVID: Anytime you put music through a tube, the sound is changed. Now, if you put a dozen engineers in a room and ask them why, you will get a dozen different answers, but it’s a fact.
Tubes impart a smoothness and long-term listenability to the sound that’s amazing to hear. Ken Zelin, McIntosh’s Training and Education Manager, likes to call this “tubalisciousness.” Tubes can be placed in either a preamp OR amplifier section, but preamp tubes are small, light, last a long time, and do not produce much heat. Furthermore, solid state amps need little-to-no maintenance and can feature high power in a smaller package, so combining a tube preamp with a solid-state amp makes sense.
Our customers seem to agree because our three hybrid integrated amps are among our best-selling models today.
GEORGE: Now that streaming services are capable of providing CD and even higher-resolution quality, a music streamer can serve as a high-performance source component. What are some of your offerings in this area?
DAVID: We have two new products currently available in this lifestyle space — the RS150 and the RS250, however, they do not stream themselves. Their previous versions, the RS100 and RS200 streamed.
That meant a constant “stream” of updates to the devices, which bothered some users. For this new generation, we are leaving the streaming action to be performed on the smart devices that the user already has (and is familiar with), and the RS150 and RS250 become “cast-to” devices.
You can use Spotify Connect, Airplay2, Chromecast, Bluetooth, Tidal Connect, or ROON, and listen on these models. That makes the product experience more custom to user preference, more flexible and easier to use.
GEORGE: Though McIntosh is perhaps best known for music playback, you also have elegant surround-sound solutions. Can you give us some info on the new MX180 AV processor?
DAVID: The MX180 was designed to allow state-of-the-art (even 8K) video to be combined with the sound of a great movie theater. Not everyone has a custom video room built with perfect dimensions, so we incorporated RoomPerfect technology. This allows a dealer to use a precision microphone and measure your room with special test signals, typically from 20 or more locations. Then RoomPerfect identifies what sonic imperfections exist and the source of the issues, then calculates filters to compensate for all these imperfections. It makes a huge difference and can make a lesser room good, and a good room great. It is, by far, the most crucial feature we integrated into the MX180.
GEORGE: McIntosh also makes cutting-edge speakers. Tell us about that story.
DAVID: Gordon Gow, who ran McIntosh at the time, was very close friends with Rudy Bozak, who had a speaker factory in Connecticut, Bozak being one of the top speaker companies of that time. Bozak speakers needed very little power to drive them, and had good bass, but Gordon was always trying to convince them to build a speaker with lower-distortion bass. Rudy resisted, saying that to create a speaker with lower distortion meant lowering the speaker’s sensitivity and the speaker would require more power.
Eventually Gordon persuaded Rudy to produce a speaker for McIntosh, the McIntosh F100. It had dramatically lower distortion than the Bozak branded speakers but required more power. Unfortunately, the design left something to be desired and the product was a sales flop with only a few pairs sold. Soon after, Bozak and Gordon parted ways which led McIntosh to create its own speaker in the early 1970s.
Gordon liked his music loud, which helps explain why McIntosh has always been at the forefront of building high power amps and speakers that can handle tremendous power. The original line consisted of the ML1, ML2 and ML4, with the number designating the number of 12-inch woofers inside the cabinet. These speakers all had extremely low bass distortion and had a new woofer design that was awarded a U.S. patent. They were quite successful, too. Later they followed up with a slightly smaller model ML10. Today, these original speakers are only increasing in value due to their mid-century cabinet style, amazing bass response, and ability to play at high volumes.
McIntosh is part of McIntosh Group, along with its sister brand Sonus faber, an Italian speaker company recognized for performance around the world. This allows us to share ideas, innovations and technologies to build the best audio gear in the industry.
Our speakers are all special and fit specific, otherwise unfilled needs. The McIntosh XRT1.1K and 2.1K speakers serve a specific audience in the loudspeaker market that want their music clean, clear and LOUD. We are best known for building big amps, up to 2,000 Watts, but our audience identified a need for a speaker that could absorb that much power, so we built them. You need to spread the power among several drivers to handle that much power. For this reason, you will find not one, but 45 tweeters in our XRT2.1K speaker, in a line array that goes from the floor to over your head.
This specific engineering design increases power handling to the point where the speaker is almost indestructible, with the ability to lower distortion, and control consistent volume with distance. Meaning, if you have a deep room filled with people for a party, the ones close to the speakers can still converse, while the guests in the back of the room can still hear the music — it's astonishing what a line array can do in a large room.
McIntosh also offers two smaller speakers with a bass response that would have you searching for a hidden subwoofer. The XR50 is only about a foot high, but it sounds like it's four times its size, a power-hungry model that is built for folks with McIntosh amps in smaller spaces, perhaps a city apartment or vacation home.
Our XR100 tower speaker handles 600 Watts of power, is only about nine inches wide, and has bass down to 25Hz. Less powerful, you can drive it with 75 Watts. It is for those who want loud and gutsy music but may not be able to fit a prominent speaker in their space. Gordon Gow would have approved of it.
GEORGE: For the music or movie lover, you offer a number of complete McIntosh systems. What are the benefits to this approach?
DAVID: McIntosh is one of the few companies to offer a complete solution from source components to the preamplifier, to the amplifier, to the speakers, and even the cables that connect everything. A truly one-stop shopping experience where customers know that each component was built to partner with the other. While some customers love the idea of selecting individual components, others might consider this to be overwhelming. These systems were curated for those who want a system that is designed, from the ground up, to work in harmony — and with only one remote needed!