My vintage McIntosh MX-110 preamp surprised me today. Follow up post #61!

Discussion in 'Audio Hardware' started by Steve Hoffman, Nov 11, 2011.

  1. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host Thread Starter

    I have a $190,000.00 playback system in my listening room (the gear is not mine, just a loan) and I've been listening a lot these past few days to all types of music.

    Today, since the kids were home from school and running around downstairs like little wild native Americans (still politically incorrect to say that, I guess), I took my 1966 McIntosh MX-110 Z out of the cabinet in my vintage system downstairs and lugged it upstairs for a little test.

    Now, the unit is stock, with all the original Mac tubes it came with. The gentleman I bought it from for a grand last year is a fussy old-time audiophile with the good habit of saving all the receipts, tubes, etc. from all of his gear so I know the history of this machine. His Marantz 7C preamp got the big use at his house and his McIntosh MX-110 really didn't get much, hence the original good testing tubes in it.

    Before he shipped it to me he kindly replaced the bridge rectifier, aligned front end, IF strip and the MPX section and replaced one faulty cap so the thing tests like new. The dude paid for the fix-up himself even though I offered to reimburse him. Nice guy, from the midwest.

    At any rate, the thing is minty. I hate that word but it's not new because it's 46 years old but it is flawless, both inside and out. You know it's low mileage when the fragile paint is still on all of the tubes even the Telefunkens.

    At any rate, in my system upstairs I am using the giant Venture Audio Grand Excellence III speakers, the amazing Tenor 350M monoblock OTL amps, the Concert Fidelity CF-080 linestage, the Modwright Sony 9100ES tubed Platinum Signature Truth digital player and the McIntosh MCD500 player, Kubala-Sosna bi-wire and FMS interconnects.

    Now, I've been playing a few things over and over today, a CD-R of my (I guess unissued) Beach Boys "Brian Wilson Productions" comp of the mono 1964-66 Beach Boys stuff, some Nat King Cole SACDs I worked on, Art Pepper + 11 and a few other things. Trust me, I know all of this stuff quite well.

    So, all I did was set the McIntosh MX-110, Panloc wood case and all on the top of my rack and carefully switched out the Concert Fidelity linestage and hooked the amps up to the MX-110 along with my Modwright disk player. I made no other changes to the system, just one preamp substituted for another preamp.

    I let the McIntosh warm up for an hour or so and left the room, playing my usual break in disk "Romantic French Fantasies", John Longhurst at the organ console of the Mormon Tabernacle at Salt Lake City on Klavier KCD 11069. It's wicked good for tube warm up break in with some really head banging organ stuff..

    At any rate the disk ended, I came back in the nice warm room and put on the same stuff I was playing earlier in the day. Sat in the same spot, let it rip after adjusting the volume.

    Let me just say that the unit is as quiet as a mouse. Didn't hear anything, no buzzing, hum or anything to tell me that it was on. Very quiet.

    First I played NAT KING COLE "Just One Of Those Things" album, the second song "A Cottage for Sale" in stereo. Has nice dynamics, tonality, life like sound, etc.

    Holy cow, it sounded WONDERFUL on the MX-110. I mean spooky real. I was astounded at how good it sounded. The McIntosh was really holding it's own in the system.

    Now, of course, the bass suffered from a bit of slow down. The macro and micro dynamics were also missing a bit and this is where the Concert Fidelity linestage excels (and for $20,000.00 it ought to) but the McIntosh reproduced the sound with authority and a really spooky 3-D sound that is not like real life, but larger than life.

    Interestingly, the TONALITY, the crucial thing, stayed pretty much the same in the system which was really interesting to me. Usually these old tube pieces are quite colored. Not this gem.

    I played the Beach Boys and Ella Fitzgerald "Clap Hands" and some Ray Charles Atlantic stuff, the Beatles, the Art Pepper, a Deep Purple cut, the usual mismosh. Everything sounded so interesting with this MX-110. Not totally accurate but a sort of enhanced reality brought on by this liquid, expressive midband that just took my breath away.

    Of course, it's fun for only so long in this system and then I need to go back to reality. It's like eating the hot fudge out of the jar. You really like it but you couldn't do it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, dig?

    But I can tell you that the old time engineers really knew what they were doing and this preamp/tuner from 1966 really held up under the strain of being the key component in a majorly expensive and wonderful sounding system.

    My point? I dropped this antique thing into the heart of a world class stereo system and the sound didn't go to hell, it stayed right up there in Groovyland. It will do the same for you if you have a modest system or a fancy shmancy system.


    Get one and it will sound just as good for you as it does for me. Buy a stock unit on eBay or something and have Terry DeWick restore it for you and you'll have spent $1,500 or even less on a component that has truly stood the test of time. Get the "Z" version, the last before the unit went out of print. I believe it sounds the best of all of them. Your MX-110 will improve the sound of a "first time" system and it will hold its own as your system improves, a key point, IMO.

    I see them all the time on the Bay and if you buy from a good seller you can have a gem, the centerpiece of your stereo for years to come or your entire life without having to take out a second mortgage..

    Trust Steve on this. This is good stuff. I like it better than my Marantz 7C for tonality and liquid magic. You can also flavor the sound a bit by tube rolling in the V15, V16 and V17 spots to adjust the sound to your liking (brighter, more moody, etc.) as touched upon in this thread:

    McIntosh MC-30's, MX110 tube discussion. Perfect 6U8, 12AX7, tube? See post #43 for Steve's input.

    UPDATE 6/18/12: POST 61:

    Review FOLLOW-UP.

    I wanted to try something, basically unscientific but what the hell. Something in the design of the MX-110 makes music sound more lifelike. What? The tubes and the miles of wiring? I doubt that but about the TAPE OUT function? What if I used the TAPE OUTS and went into my regular CONCERT FIDELITY linestage? I would be bypassing most of the wiring and tubes. Would it still sound wonderful?

    Well, I just tried it. Like this:

    My Modwright Sony 9100ES tubed Platinum Signature Truth digital player has TWO sets of outs. I took the second set (same interconnect as first) and went into AUX of the MX-110. Then, out of the MX-110 TAPE OUTS and into my Concert Fidelity CF-080 LS hybrid. So, I could play a CD or SACD and essentially be able to switch back and forth from the "pure" signal into the CF or the signal THROUGH the MX-110 which is fed into the CF.

    With me so far? I took a vocal CD that I love dearly (along with a few other rabid fans) the DCC "Let's Dance! Chris Montez All-Time Greatest Hits" DZS-056.

    Now, before I go on, yes, I realize that the MX-110 signal is also being hit with the CF Amperex Bugle Boy stage on the way to the Tenor amps. Sort of a double whammy.

    So, I played the A&M songs on the disk. Adjusted the level so Chris' voice sounds like he is standing right in the room. Switched back and forth and WOW.

    The MX-110 treated version was more 3-D sounding, even with most of the thing out of the loop. The straight CF sound was noticeably more 2-D sounding (and it's one of the best holographic linestages I know of, that's why I use it).

    The MX-110 even in this reduced capacity has the ability to turn a recording of a voice to more of a real life voice (especially when helped by the CF). The tonality pretty much stayed the same but the holographic quality of the music was enhanced and not to be denied. I gave my wife the old BLIND test and she immed. picked the MX-110 version as the most REALISTIC of the two. This is always a good thing in my book. Fascinating stuff...

    So it can be used as a $1,000.00 "sound enhancer". Pretty neat.

    Attached Files:

    Walter Koehler likes this.
  2. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    Great review, very interesting!

    Did you spin any vinyl through the MX-110? How is the phono stage?
  3. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    Edit: I see at the end of the review that you will try the phono section when you have time.
  4. WHitese

    WHitese Forum Resident

    This pumps me up to try one real soon!! This could be a nice marriage between the triode hybrid Berning EA230 and the MX110.
  5. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host Thread Starter

    Yeah, I'll give it a try. I'm sure it's nice but I dunno if it can compete with a modern unit. I use it downstairs with my vintage Tannoys but anything will sound good on those. The key is to try it on a super revealing system as described above.

    Separates the men from the boyz 2 men..

    Now that my listening room is back to the way it was, I miss the McIntosh in the system. It really added a wonderful non-reality to everything. Quite seductive and lifelike. It made even bad sounding sh** sound good.

    I might have to hook it back up for a while!

    Heck, the McIntosh MX-110 cost less than the interconnects that I hooked the CD player up to it with.
    SandAndGlass and Walter Koehler like this.
  6. inperson

    inperson Forum Resident

    In two days the prices will go up to $2000 per unit, ha ha!
  7. TLMusic

    TLMusic Musician & record collector

    Your description of the magic McIntosh sound reminds me of how I'm often confused by audiophile concepts like neutrality, accuracy, coloration and distortion.

    What I mean is that many would describe a MX-110 as colored and inaccurate, yet you are reporting that it makes things have the impression of live music events. A three dimensional feeling and eerie lifelike seduction seem like things to aspire to. In a way, that means it's more accurate and true to the spirit of the music.

    Just some random musings...

    Love that vintage tube gear!
  8. WHitese

    WHitese Forum Resident

    Many people have tube gear that isnt up to spec. I had all kinds of tube gear that had pretty tight bass and control overall...but the only time I had stuff not refurbished, it didnt last in my system.
  9. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host Thread Starter

    That's very true, it's an unanswered question to me. I have no answer but neutrality, accuracy, etc. are very important to me as a mastering engineer. I need to hear come back to me exactly what I put in. The system has to be able to do that or it's no good for me.

    That being said, the option to have a yummy Juicy Fruit type playback by just slipping in the McIntosh MX-110 in to the system is one that I will take advantage of from now on. Well worth the $1,000.00 I paid for the thing.
  10. HiFiGuy528

    HiFiGuy528 Formerly Dj_AmTraX

    Bay Area
    What settings and camera/lens did you use? Those pictures are gorgeous.
  11. Gary

    Gary Nauga Gort! Staff

    Stupid question time. Is that pre in your first post pictures the Z version?

    If it is, I don't have a Z - but I thought I did... :confused:
  12. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host Thread Starter

    Look on the back, there will be a Z in the serial number.. The Z has Panloc buttons, the weird 6D10 Compactron tube, etc.

    From AudioKarma:

    MX 110 versions


    There were actually three versions of the MX110 built. (As always with McIntosh gear of this era, there may have been some other minor sub-species).

    The first series was built from March to October of 1962. The “spotting features” of this first series are: 1. Wide removable gold anodized aluminum end caps. 2. Centrally located thumb-wheel balance control. 3. ON - OFF switch is integral to the VOLUME control.

    The second series was built from October 1962 to March of 1963 (1,894 units). The “spotting features” of this “mid” series are: 1. Wide removable gold anodized aluminum end caps. 2. Centrally located concentric BALANCE control / POWER: ON or off.

    The third series was built from February 1963 to the end of production in September 1969 (9,949 units). The “spotting features” of the final series are: 1. Narrow, fixed anodized aluminum end caps. 2. Centrally located concentric BALANCE control / POWER: ON or off.

    I’ll leave it to the technical guys to pitch in with any differences in the electronics.

  13. Gary

    Gary Nauga Gort! Staff

    Thanks, Steve. As yours are in original, mint-o condition, mine are the polar* opposite. :D The writing on the back is not clear but I think I can see a Z there. The glass lettering was rubbed off on one side by the previous owner when he was trying to clean it so I got it pretty cheap. I had it redone but the paint could not be replicated so it's a little off.

    The glass is impossible to find. The McIntosh labs in Binghampton do not have one. So I'm SOL (Sweet Out of Luck). :)

    But it sounds great which is the important part.

    I'll have to research what the "aluminum end caps" are. If they are the removable silver metal pieces on each side of the glass dial (that hide two dials per side), mine would be a Z series. Hooray! :D

    *Get it? USA vs Canada. Polar opposite in Canada? :laugh:
  14. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host Thread Starter

    You have a Z..
  15. Gary

    Gary Nauga Gort! Staff

  16. ChadHahn

    ChadHahn Forum Resident

    Tucson, AZ, USA
    I picked up a MX-110 Z last month. I got the urge to get one (probably because of this site) and saw one for sale in Phoenix on Audiogon. It came with the wood case and had just been gone over. The price was pretty good and it wasn't too far away so I got it. It had a bit of a mix of tubes in it but I replaced the 6U8s with RCAs and put Teles in the 12AX7 spots.

    I have a pair of MC30s and I was using a Dynaco PAS-3X as a pre. I was pretty happy with that but when I hooked up the 110 it was night and day. The phono stage is terrific. I was hearing all sorts of things I didn't hear with the Dynaco. My test disc is Mark Knopfler Shangri La and I was heard him take a breath before starting to sing. I hadn't heard that before.

    I have my Mac Mini music server running through the Aux input and it too sounds better than before. In fact I've been giving that a lot more use lately.

    The only problem with it is I need a better antenna so I can pick up the couple stations I listen to better. I was using a NAD tuner and it picked up fringe stations with just a Terk powered antenna so I got a little spoiled. Fortunately I don't listen to the radio much, but it seems a shame to have a big tuner and not use it.

    I did have Raytheon 12AX7s in the MC30 but with the MX110 they weren't sounding so great so I replaced them with the Telefunkens from the Dynaco (I guess it had a use after all!) and now everything sounds very nice.

    I'm glad I got mine before the threads about it. Now if the prices go up it will it won't matter to me :)

    Jeffczar likes this.
  17. Gary

    Gary Nauga Gort! Staff

    I'm not impressed with radio around here. I just use some spare wire - it's good enough for me. :)
    SandAndGlass likes this.
  18. ChadHahn

    ChadHahn Forum Resident

    Tucson, AZ, USA
    There's a Jazz station out of Phoenix that is normal NPR new during the day but plays good jazz at night with a minimum of talk. I'm not sure where the translator is but the signal isn't very strong where I am. That and the local community radio station are the only two I'd listen too and the community station has lots of "commercials" where they play some instrumental and talk over it about all the underwriters and goings on around town. They do this every three songs or so it seems. Very irritating.

  19. Sneaky Pete

    Sneaky Pete Forum Resident

    I love that preamp but I'm afraid the price might mysteriously jump up now.

    Thanks for the review interesting reading. It is great that you found a real old school gentleman to buy from. Gives me a little hope for humanity.
  20. fortherecord

    fortherecord Forum Resident

    Upstate, NY
    I love my MX110 which I just bought. It's the second one I've owned. Its a great classic preamp!
  21. JA Fant

    JA Fant Well-Known Member

    Nice pics!
  22. bliss53

    bliss53 Active Member

    Great pictures. I agree that there is great value and sound in selected vintage gear. A friend with a much higher end system than mine has tried a ton of different preamps in the search for the right fit. The best performer so far was my C11 that he has on loan. It has a set of matched telefunken smooth plates. Second best was my Conrad Johnson PV5 he had on loan prior to the C11.

    Attached Files:

  23. nightfall

    nightfall Forum Resident

    Northern Virginia
    I bought my MX110Z in 2004 and had it brought up to spec by Terry DeWick. Total cost of unit and service was approximately $1100 - the best money I ever spent in my life! The MX110's sound is absolutely magical! It's my main preamp, I do not want to replace it with anything else. I concur that anyone contemplating buying one should buy one if you have the money, as the prices are still reasonable. Every unit will need to be serviced to some degree to obtain maximum performance. I highly recommend Terry in Knoxville, TN. The tuner sounds amazing as well, although I still slightly prefer my Scott 310E for its unreal three dimensional sound.

    Attached Files:

  24. Steve Hoffman

    Steve Hoffman Your Host Your Host Thread Starter

    That is a beauty, thanks for the picture.

    When I was first getting in to tubes in the middle 90's (thanks, Kevin Gray) I got a fairly good MX-110 for $400.00 and enjoyed it. Nobody wanted it then, they were all after the C-22.

    When I found my mint C-20 I sold the MX-110 but missed the 3-D sound. The C-20 had it as well but not as authoritative as the MX-110. Then, I got Bobby Darin's MX-110 which was dead mint but needed much work as it hadn't been even turned on since the early 1970s. I sold that unit to a friend in the Secret Service who is still using it today.

    My current one is not going anywhere. I still have it up here in my listening room and I know I'm going to hook it back up again soon. I miss that sound.
  25. nightfall

    nightfall Forum Resident

    Northern Virginia
    That Bobby Darin had good taste....and knew a good value when he saw it! :agree:

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