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REVIEW: The McIntosh MB 50 Streamer

It has never been a better time to be a music lover and audiophile. With the multitude of sources available to play back your favorite music, there is something for everybody. Whether you choose vinyl, CD, laptop, even cassette or reel-to-reel tape, the music lover is free to indulge their passion in any which way they feel fit. The latest entry into the world of musical sources is the digital streamer. With wireless operation from a handheld device and the ability to explore hundreds of thousands of songs at the touch of a finger, the streamer has opened a gaping chasm into the world of music in a way that was simply unimaginable in the past.

The McIntosh MB50 streamer is a compact component that despite its diminutive stature, is all McIntosh; the glass front panel and glowing green logo is in keeping with the rest of the herd. As does hassle free set up and operation, and sound quality which is pure McIntosh. Having reviewed the MC301 mono amplifiers and the C52 preamp from McIntosh (issue 79), the MB50 is in keeping with where McIntosh is going sonically with their latest offerings. That combination possessed a sweet, smooth, colorful and organic presentation that was anything but “solid-state” in the worst sense of the word. Like that powerful duo, the MB50 has an accessibility, a musically rewarding character that gets out of its way putting the music first.

Analog outputs for both balanced and unbalanced cables connect the MB50 to your system’s amplifier or preamplifier; digital outputs are also included if you choose to use an outboard DAC. One analog, plus two digital inputs let you connect audio components such as CD players to the MB50, allowing it to act as a mini-preamp; a very handy feature. Two Wi-Fi antennas help ensure a secure network connection for smooth playback; the MB50 can be hardwired to your network via a USB-to-Ethernet adapter (not included).

A significant advantage of DTS Play-Fi compared to many other streaming options is that with its Critical Listening mode, native playback of up to  24-bit/192kHz high-resolution files is available with no down-sampling as of January 2017 (Existing Play-Fi customers only need to update your app to the latest version to utilize this feature). Many common audio formats are compatible with the MB50, including mp3, m4a, FLAC and Wav files; along with support for DLNA.

Don’t let the size fool you

I first heard the MB50 confidently take control of a system made up of  Audio Research amplification and Sonus Faber speakers at the McIntosh Group’s WOM (World of McIntosh) townhouse around the corner from my home in SOHO NYC. I was a bit shocked that such a little box could provide such big musical sound and when the ever enthusiastic Joshua Dellinger, McIntosh Group Experience Director for WOM installed an MB50 in my system, we had music within a matter of moments. While I still had some lingering reservations solely based on its small size, they quickly melted away. What we have here is relatively modestly priced ($2,000 MSRP) streamer that easily holds its own in my reference system

With Spotify and TIDAL preinstalled in the DTS Play-Fi App along with Apple Air-play, a universe of music is available in a flash. Delanger’s great taste in music and the ability to download his recommendations at will has expanded my library in some unexpected ways. The Techy yet always soulful James Blake and modern prog-rockists Animals as Leaders are just a couple of hip, super cool additions to my classic rock and Jazz heavy playlists. While not every customer will have access to the factory guy’s set up savvy, worry not. The few minutes required to install and configure the DTS-Play-Fi app is all you need. If you can install Angry Birds on your iPhone, you can set up the MB50.

The MB50 joined the duo of the now discontinued Krell Connect, and the streamer section of the Dan D’Agostino Master Audio MLife integrated amplifier/Streamer/DAC in my system. Each component possesses a sonic profile; a way with the sound that defines the manufacturer’s musical point of view. The Krell Connect’s dynamics give music a propulsive thrust and “Jump” that is incredibly engaging. The MLife streamer, while unable to isolate the streamer section from the integrated amplifier section, is uber-resolving and controlled from the very top to the deepest depths.

Extended listening

The MB50 competes on its own playing field. It’s priorities lay in the way it liquifies textures and renders densely colored instrumental timbre. Instruments and voices sound incredibly real in a way that allows the brain to relax and become deeply engaged. These qualities were unheard of from modestly priced digital a decade ago and still evades some even more costly designs of today. The MB50 is a digital source neutral enough to clearly define each recordings inherent character while squeezing musical nuggets from even badly flawed recordings, expanding the musical universe in all directions. It has enough resolution to offer something special when you feed it a great recording.

Listening to the above mentioned James Blake “Voyeur” From Overgrown, the MB50 presents the swelling, looping themes with lucidity and smoothness. Textures and musical color fill the room, and instrumental lines remain distinct and un-tangled from one another. The ability to effortlessly follow each musical idea is very compelling particularly in music as densely packed as this. Deep bass pours into the room in a more organic way rather than the D’Agostino’s presentation handles low bass. The layers of swirling synth chords surround the vocal line, yet the whole piece holds together superbly. Mr.Blakes “Retrograde” follows the recipe with a build up of circulating themes adding up to a deep, dense, intensely musical if a bit dissonant experience.

The MB50 handles classic rock with ease as well. “Hold on loosely” from .38 Special flat out rocks. The MB50 has a temporal rightness that is never slow or plodding. The music has great swagger, and the guitar solo is gripping. The MB50 at holding a recording together with great cohesion and musicality. There are no odd distortions, be it upper midrange glare or high-frequency grain that irritate the ear destroying the immersive experience. Transients are clean, clear, and utterly natural. The music feels a bit more relaxed without being sleepy or bogging down the presentation. When necessary, the soundstage provides a significant expanse from front to back in addition to providing plenty of left to right information. The Mlife has a bit more focus down to a granular level giving images slightly more inner detail and presence, but the MB50 matches it punch for punch when it comes to over all stage size. Very impressive.

Love it

These days in high-end audio, the term “Value” is thrown about with casual abandon. $20K amplifiers and $30K speakers are often referred to with such terms. My system is an excellent example of modern high-end audio excess. In this context, the only way to characterize the McIntosh MB50 Streamer is that of a flat out steal. Whether your system has evolved into one like mine, populated with uber-expensive components, or you are just beginning to build a modest system with hopes to expand up the food chain down the road, you can rest assured that the MB50 will rise to the demands of either and all scenarios. Add the fact that it has optical inputs and outputs as well as volume control capability makes recommending the MB50 the surest bet in some 20 years of reviewing gear. Would I still love a $100K DCS digital stack? Sure I would but for now I’m having a ball with the MB50. – Greg Petan

The McIntosh MB50 Streamer

MSRP: $2,500

Factory Site:          www.mcintoshlabs.com

Click here for more product specific information

Click here to find a local McIntosh Dealer to audition the MB50 

The Gold Note Vasari MM Cartridge

With so much happening at the pinnacle of the analog world these days, and so much excitement around the mega dollar turntables, phonostages, and cartridges, there hasn’t been much buzz on the entry level. Many of us lament the days of walking into a record store and finding some great records for four bucks, but the same goes for phono cartridges. With decent cartridges in the four-figure range, what’s the new audio enthusiast to do?

Four words: Gold Note Vasari Gold. And you can get one for $385. Too often the moving magnet cartridge is overlooked, and with this example, the team at Gold Note has put a lot of the ethos that is in their top range cartridges into a cartridge for the enthusiast on a bit of a budget.

Forgoing the boron cantilever and a few other exotic bits, the Vasari Gold is still assembled by the same staff of craftspeople that produce the entire Gold Note line, and it shows. Comparing it directly with the Machiavelli Gold ($3,000) and the Donatello Gold ($1,075), the family resemblance is clear. The Gold Note cartridges all share similar sonic attributes: a full-bodied sound, with high dynamic swing, solid tonal contrast, and saturation.

Directly comparing the Vasari to the other two Gold Note offerings reveals less fine resolution and extension at the frequency extremes as well as less delineation of fine detail, but this is to be expected. If the $385 cartridge sounded as good as the $3,000 cartridge, what would the point be? Comparing the Vasari to a few cartridges in it’s price range, such as the Ortofon 2M blue, the Ortofon Quintet Blue, and my other favorite, the Denon DL-103r is illuminating.

It’s just right

If you find the sound of the Denon a bit too warm and the Ortofon offerings a bit cold, the Vasari will be your Goldilocks – just right. And it doesn’t need a step up device. Not that it’s a bad thing, per se, but when you are trying to put a top notch analog rig together as cost effectively as possible, adding an MC phonostage or a step up transformer isn’t terribly frugal.

There is an immediacy to moving magnet cartridges that most music lovers find engaging. What the Vasari lacks in ultimate resolution, it makes up for in jump factor. The Vasari captures all of the raw energy of Oingo Boingo’s classic, “Only a Lad,” mounted to the current Rega Planar 3 just reviewed. Staying in the 80s groove, the Sincero’s “Take Me To Your Leader” is equally punchy and engaging. Slowing the pace with Nick Drake’s classic album, Pink Moon, the Vasari brings out the depth in Drake’s vocal work here, producing an expansive sonic landscape for this acoustic adventure to unfold between your speakers.

The Vasari is an excellent tracker, zipping through the peaks of Stanley Turrentine’s Sugar, keeping the sax, drum and bass bits all in perspective, allowing each instrument to shine individually, yet not letting the stereo image fall apart when all four musicians are playing at full tilt. Not every MM cartridge can handle this, yet throwing all of my tortures at the Vasari proves no problem. And check out the quality of the stylus on this baby!

You can get all the Vasari’s specs here, but most important to get you up and rolling is the 2.0-gram tracking force suggestion. This proves perfect on both the Planar 3 and the VPI Traveler (That I use for portable applications, but I’m NOT a DJ!) turntables. The Vasari also proved an excellent update to the cartridges mounted to those tables, so if you are currently sporting an entry level MM cartridge, this could be a quick and easy upgrade to your system.

Easy to integrate into your system

With 4.0 mV of output, the Vasari should provide no problem to any MM input. We put it through its paces with everything from a recently restored Marantz 2245 receiver, all the way up to the mighty Pass XS Phono. While you probably won’t be using the Vasari as the top dog in your arsenal on a mega system, it proves an excellent daily driver cartridge. Even at this level, and I was surprised when putting either the Pass XS Phono or the Audio Research REF Phono 3 in the system, how much music the Vasari can reveal.

The Vasari is easy to set up, and using merely the supplied VPI and Rega tools works well. Should you have more accurate tools, the Vasari will reward you with better channel separation and an even smoother top end. So, if you can talk your dealer into setting it up, or you have access to the right tools, the Vasari is a finer paintbrush than its modest price suggests.

As good as digital is getting, modest analog gear doesn’t always convey the elusive analog magic, but it’s a pleasure to report that the Vasari Gold delivers on all levels. Whether you are building a frugal analog front end or just upgrading that $99 cartridge your turntable might have come with, I suggest putting the Vasari on your list. It’s just right.






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