A McIntosh Tuner Shoot-Out Report

Tim Britt & Ann Weatherwax <timbritt@...>
 

THE CHALLENGE

How does a mint McIntosh MR74 compare to a mint McIntosh MX117 (same
tuner as the MR75)?

INTRODUCTION

It's generally known here in the group we are confirmed
"tuner-holics" and that much of our listening is done from
several really good college public radio stations in our area.

Many of you know we think highly of the McIntosh MR74 tuner and chose
it for our "reference" tuner here at casa Weatherwax/Britt
after holding a shoot-out a while back. Our previous reference was a
stock Pioneer Elite F-91 which we compared to a freshly
Modafferi-modded McIntosh MR78, a stock Sansui TU-919, a stock Sony
ST-S730ES, and the McIntosh MR74. And the Pioneer F-91 had replaced a
stock Kenwood KT-815. (Other tuners we've owned and have extensive
experience with are a Marantz 125 and a Yamaha CT-1010 and we've
had both an Accuphase T-100 and a T-101 in our system for several
weeks {years ago} but we've never actually owned an Accuphase.)
You can peruse our finding when we did this prior shoot-out at
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Mcintosh_audio/message/254. We also have
a couple of Sony ST-J75 tuners which we'll write about later, but
suffice it to say if you can find one of these for under $30 and it
works, buy it immediately. You will not be disappointed.

Our list is not meant to be all-inclusive: There are many fine tuners
we will sadly never have a chance to listen to that are certainly
better than our MR74. Units that come to mind are Jim's reference
Kenwood, the Burmester, the Accuphase T-109V, perhaps an APS-modded
Sansui TU-919 or a TU-9900, or maybe one of the Rohde & Schwarz
tuners. But as they say down in Texas, "You dance with the one you
brung to the party" and for us, it's our MR74. And we have
noticed a "house sound," if you will in the McIntosh tuners
we have listened to that we find beguiling and appealing: We call it
the "Magical McIntosh Midrange" (MMM). If it is a
colouration, it is one we can happily live with, but whatever it is,
we have difficulty describing it other than to say the midrange on the
McIntosh tuners we have listened to sounds more "real" than
the midrange on any other tuner we've heard.

Since we liked the sound and the performance of the McIntosh MR74 so
much, several friends and acquaintances had been suggesting we should
also consider a McIntosh MR75 and/or a McIntosh MR80 as they thought
we might like one or both of these better than our MR74. We ruled out
the MR80 for several reasons: (1) It does not have AM, we get bad
storms in the winter here in the mountains and the local AM station
has the best weather reports; (2) The 4 FM presets have reliability
problems and eventually have to be re-built; and (3) We think the MR80
is butt-ugly (no offense to you MR80 owners reading this).

So we began casually looking for an MR75 (or the MX117 tuner/preamp
which uses the MR75 tuner). A while back, an MX117 showed up on eBay,
almost no one was bidding on it and we sniped it for much less than
they generally sell for. We had the seller ship it directly to
McIntosh in Binghamton, NY for a cleaning/alignment/refurbishing just
like we did when we got our MR74. So we felt this was a very fair
comparison of two different McIntosh tuners, which were not modded but
aligned and tweaked by the manufacturer's excellent service
department.

THE SMALL DETAILS

So, how did we conduct this shoot-out? What was in front of the tuner
and behind the tuner?

Well, in front of the tuner we use an APS-13 on a Channel Master rotor
feeding a Wineguard AP-8275 (their best 75-ohm antenna pre-amp). The
AP-8275 drives a 150-foot run of RG-6 cable that is normally
terminated into a single tuner. For testing purposes, we terminated
the antenna feed into a 1 in/2 out 75-ohm splitter so we could feed
both tuners simultaneously.

The selectivity setting of the MR74 stayed in the "wide"
setting throughout the testing, except where noted, while the MX117
has non-adjustable selectivity. Another significant design difference
between these tuners is that the MR74 has a 3-position noise filter
(Off/10 dB/20 dB) that "blends" the high frequencies to
reduce noise. The MX117 has a non-defeatable auto-blend circuit that
engages at low signal levels.

And bringing up the rear: Or what about the rest of the system?

For stereo speakers, we alternate between a pair of Polk
RT-2000p's and a pair of B&W DM3000's. Both are large floor
standing speakers: The Polk's were not a speaker we would have
considered until we read a phenomenally enthusiastic review of them in
"Audio" magazine by Anthony Cordesman, one of the few
reviewers we respect and generally agree with. In his review of the
Polk's Mr. Cordesman raved about their extraordinary dynamic
ability and very neutral midrange and high end. So we listened to a
pair, were suitably impressed and bought them on closeout when the
RT-2000i's replaced the RT-2000p's. The RT-2000p's use a
1" tweeter (aluminum deposited on a plastic & fabric dome) and a
6" midrange, with two 8" powered woofers.

The B&W DM3000's were purchased in England while on holiday and
were the last series of speakers B&W made before going to metal
tweeters. While we like the tweeters in the Polk's, we really
don't care for the metal tweeters used in any of the B&W's
much to the disappointment of our local B&W dealer. These speakers use
a 1" fabric dome tweeter and two 8" Kevlar drivers in a
cascaded array (one goes from about 150 Hz down and the other goes
from 150 Hz up to 3000 Hz), and a 10" passive ABR. The enclosure
is bit unusual in that it is a pentagon so as to help break up
standing waves. We would call the Polk's a little more neutral
while we'd call the B&W's a little bit "warmer" and
more forgiving of poor recordings.

When we're doing the home theater thing, we use a Polk CS-400 for
the center channel with the RT-2000p's while we use a B&W HTM
center channel with the DM3000's. The rears never change, a pair
of Polk LS F/X speakers (always in the bi-pole mode) fed from an M&K
Goliath II passive subwoofer. And there is a Sunfire True Sub for the
front channel subwoofer (and the .1 feed from 5.1 material).

Electronics? Front channel/stereo amp is a McIntosh MC2205. Center
channel amp, when used, is a McIntosh MC2125 run in the mono mode.
Rear channel amp, when used is another McIntosh MC2205. Now for the
complicated part: For stereo listening, we alternate between a
McIntosh C28 pre-amp and a Marantz 3800 pre-amp. We have not yet tried
the pre-amp of the MX117. We like tone controls as we also listen to
78's, and besides, not all FM broadcasts, or recordings are
perfect.

For A/V use, we'd love to have a McIntosh MX134 (or the current
MX135) but we don't have the $6000 these cost new. We brought
home an Onkyo TS-DX696 A/V receiver to try as a preamp, compared it to
an MX134 we were trying out, and while we heard a slight difference,
we didn't hear $5500 worth of difference. The MX134 went back to
the dealer and we welcomed the TS-DX696 into our system, used solely
as a pre-amp. No disrespect to McIntosh, but the Onkyo TS-DX696's
pre-amp is "voiced" amazingly close to the MX134 and we're
not sure we could really tell them apart in a true blind listening
test.

Sources? Well, is there anything else to listen to other than a good
tuner? Seriously, we are also "vinyl-holics" with over 20,000
albums in our basement. Our primary turntable is a J.A. Michell
GyroDec/Rega RB-300/Shure V-15vMR (not the xMR – we think the vMR
is better sounding). For 78's, we use a FONS CQ-30/SME 3009
Improved/Shure V-15III with the 1 mil conical stylus Shure used to
make. [NOTE: If anyone has an extra one, e-mail us and we'll buy
it since it has long been discontinued by Shure]. We also have a Sony
PS-X7 direct drive turntable with the carbon fibre arm Sony made and a
Shure VST-III (almost identical to the V-15vMR). The Sony was (and
is) a Linn killer and will trounce most other good belt drive
turntables, but it never got reviewed and Sony discontinued it after
18 months.

For SeeDee, we use a Sony DVP-NS500V SACD/DVD/CD player run into an
Adcom GDA-700 DAC (for better sound and HDCD decoding). For tape, we
use both a Sony ES cassette deck, and for open reel, a Teac A-4010GSL
run into a Teac AN-180 Dolby unit. But no Mini disc, no DAT, no MP3
player (We have never downloaded anything – The MP3's
we've listened too REALLY SUCK), and no iPod. Oh, and we get
Sirius service free through our DISH network receiver, but we find we
can't listen for long periods of time to Sirius – It's too
unsettling.

And we saved he most important component for last: The listening
room. Our den is 12' x 24' with an 8 1/2' acoustical tile
ceiling. The floor is pegged oak and there is a full basement
underneath, however, instead of the usual 2 x 10's under the
floor, the guy who built the house used STEEL BEAMS. The builder was
the owner of the town's hardware store and he really went all out
when he built this house in 1954. Besides using steel beams, he
heavily insulated the house's walls and attic, reinforced the
roof for the winter snow loads, and even attached storm doors and
windows, all back in 1954. And because the local bank was frequently
robbed back in the 1950's (or so we're told), he put a
10' x 12' walk-in safe in the basement with a humongous
Mosler door to store his money and his gun collection. And in the den,
he paneled the walls with wormy chestnut 1" planks. We don't
know if it's the wormy chestnut or what, but this room is the
absolute best sounding listening room we have ever had.

Our listening biases are first and foremost, the midrange must be
absolutely natural and uncoloured – We suppose this is our
"British Bias." Next, the music must sound good at low levels
as well as at high levels. Then we look for a 3-D sense of spatiality
and depth as well as image height – This is generally best heard
with full orchestral music and/or opera. Next, the system must be as
comfortable reproducing macro-dynamics in the music as well as the
all-important micro-dynamics. Finally, we are more interested in the
music sounding "real" as if it is actually being played in
our room rather than the sound we hear being a 100% accurate
reproduction of the source: Would you rather eat real steak or a 100%
accurate, protein-enhanced soy reproduction of steak? This is
"audiophile anathema" and we suppose this means we like a
minimal amount of colouration in the sound, but we just cannot specify
what this colouration is nor can we define it.

This equipment and listening preference discussion may be a bit long,
but we wanted to give you a sense of our listening tastes and how we
evaluate what we hear when we compare tuners.


SOURCE MATERIAL

We live in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains where the NC/TN/VA
borders intersect, at a 3,500' elevation, mountains surround us,
and the stations we most often listen to are:

Freq: Call Sign: City/State: Distance: Format:

88.5 WFDD Winston-Salem, NC 74 Miles Public Radio

88.7 WNCW Spindale, NC 63 Miles Public Radio

89.5 WETS Johnson City, TN 36 Miles Public Radio

89.9 WDAV Davidson, NC 74 Miles Classical

90.3 WFHE Hickory, NC 37 Miles Public Radio

90.7 WFAE Charlotte, NC 90 Miles Public Radio

91.9 WVTF Marion, VA 28 Miles Public Radio

99.7 WRFX Charlotte, NC 88 Miles Clear Channel Rock

Notes: 89.5, WETS is the public radio station at East Tennessee State
University and they frequently broadcast live music from their studio.
Most of these broadcasts are either bluegrass or another variant of
Celtic music. The sound quality, is of course, wonderful.

WRFX is a ClearChannel station that is the flagship station of
"The John Boy and Billy Show" for those of us born with a
little red on the back of our necks. The real reason it's here
is: (a) The John Boy and Billy Show can be hilariously funny at times;
and more importantly (b) their tower is 88 miles from our antenna and
it is a real tuner test to pull this one in with a quiet signal. Only
several have accomplished this feat in our location.

WHAT WE HEARD

With the MR74 in place, we heard a slightly narrower soundstage than
with the MX117. However, without access to the original broadcast
source material, it is impossible to say if this is more or less
accurate. We also noted slightly more front-to-back depth, slightly
higher image height (particularly on classical orchestral music and
opera) with the MR74. Another thing that surprised us was that the
highs were much more extended – This was very audible on brushes
hitting cymbals, for example.

In the all-important midrange, we noted strings sounded better, like
the instruments were actually in the room with us. The differences
were slight, but we'd say all strings sounded like they had more
rosin on them. And both high-level and low-level dynamics were
slightly better.

With the MX117 we experienced and heard a slightly wider soundstage
compared to the MR74, but slightly less front-to-back depth and
slightly lower image height on classical orchestral music and opera.
Again, without access to the original broadcast material it's
impossible to say if this is more or less accurate. We were surprised
the highs were not as extended as they are on the MR74: The MX117 is a
much newer design that dropped use of the IF RIMO filters used in the
MR77, the MR78, and the MR74 - The MX117 uses pizeo-electric filters
in it's IF section and the selectivity is fixed unlike the
wide/narrow selectivity available on the MR74.

We did note the MX117 was a slightly hotter, slightly more sensitive
tuner than the MR74. This was very audible on the 99.7 ClearChannel
rock station: With our antenna pointed towards Charlotte we got a very
good listenable signal while the MR74 was not as quiet on this station
and there was a bit of noise in the signal. However, we found we could
clean up 99.7's signal on the MR74 when we switched its
selectivity to "narrow" and engaged its noise filter. When we
did this, 99.7 on the MR74 was just about as quiet as it was on the
MX117, but the sound was a bit duller – We think it was duller
because of the blending and possible roll-off of the highs by the
MR74's noise filter in the 20 dB setting.

We found both tuners to be equally quiet with no audible background
noise on the stations we listened to with the only difference the one
cited previously when listening to 99.7.

FINAL NOTES

Adjacent and alternate channel selectivity specifications of the MR75
are higher than the "wide" setting specifications for the
MR74, so perhaps this accounted for the slightly better high frequency
response and slightly better dynamics we heard with the MR74.

So how do these two tuners compare to the legendary McIntosh MR78?
Well, we no longer have the Modafferi-modded MR78 we previously
listened to (and borrowed) when we selected our MR74, but we can
distinctly recall more differences between the MR74 and the
Modaferri-modded MR78 than we heard between the MR74 and the MX117.

To sum up, listening on the MR74 sounded just a bit more
"real" than listening on the MX117. All of these differences
were slight – We could easily live with the MX117 if we didn't
have an MR74 to compare it to. They are both superb tuners and
there's just something about that McIntosh "look" of
their older tuners that's extremely compelling. But in the end, we
thought the MR74 just sounded a bit more "real" and
"natural" when compared to the MX117. That "Magical
McIntosh Midrange" was just a bit better on the MR74.


Copyright 2004 by Tim Britt and Ann Weatherwax. Not one stinkin'
word of this missive may be reproduced without our written permission.
If you violate this copyright accord, we will hunt you down, pluck out
your eyeballs and feed them to British homing pigeons on steroids
(they'll always be able to find you for follow-up snacks!). If
you use this copy or make reference to this copy or electronicaly link
to it via the Internet in an eBay or Audiogon listing you hereby agree
to award us 100% of the proceeds from your sale, you plagiarist!

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