McIntosh MS500 Music Server Review Page 2

Listening

Fellow Libra and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Lindsey Buckingham is probably one of the best known guitarists in music thanks to his on-again, off-again tenure with Fleetwood Mac before being publicly fired in 2018. This then required the band to hire two gutarists to replace him (read into that what you will), but his solo career has been just as critically acclaimed as his time with Mac. He’s released six albums on his own and his third effort, 1992’s Out of the Cradle (TIDAL, FLAC, 16-bit/44.1kHz) is one of my favorite concept-type albums of all time for listening sessions because each song is part of a bigger story and flows so effortlessly into the next. It’s not one that I just grab a song off to fill in a gap for a playlist – I have to hear the entire thing or I just don’t feel right. With Buckingham’s signature lead guitar and unmistakable voice laid over every track (along with him playing bass guitar, keyboards, percussion, synths, drum programming, etc.) the album is rife with superlative production not just because of Buckingham’s experience, but because engineers like Richard Dashut (responsible for several Fleetwood albums like Rumours and Tusk) and mastering by none other than industry legend Bob Ludwig were also part of the mix.

The liquidity, rhythm and impeccable timing of the presentation through the MS500 put me in mind of classic tubey euphonics that I grew up with hearing Buckingham play through in the ‘70s and ’80s over various systems in my youth, albeit it with a transparency those dated set-ups lacked. The gorgeous and varied guitar timbre laid out by the player/DAC allows for easy separation between his many axe changes, and the 500 does a noteable job of keeping all the instruments distinguished from one another without ever allowing that detail to take away fro the big picture of musical drive.

Ethereal vocals are something I genuinely vibe on. That and vocal overdubs, gated mics and hyper-realistic studio-space decay to instruments or voices during playback. I love that sense of the space of the recorded event being captured on a track or album. it adds an atmospheric layering to the cuts that imbues you-are-there realism to listening sessions because of the sense of placement attached to each performer. Invitation by Heather Woods Broderick (TIDAL, FLAC 16-bit/44.1kHz) is just such a listening experience for me through my system with the 500. Hearing it through a dCS Rossini or totaldac spoils me for the big, spacious sound that each of those models is capable of relaying in my system. But, even though the MS500 clocks in at about a third to a quarter of the price of those two DACs, it is capable of giving you a taste of what those who can afford to invest heavily in a music-playback device like the aforementioned are getting. It would be foolish to say it sounds close, it doesn’t, but it sounds so fun, energized and smooth that it puts you in mind of those heavier hitters because of the sheer enjoyment it elicits when listening through it. The fact that it presents instruments and vocals in a rocksteady image with fantastic pitch accuracy certainly helps the McIntosh digital cause.

In 1988 I was graduating from high school, I skateboarded daily, was into punk rock, new wave, hardcore and classic rock… and I loved rap. Bands like Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Run DMC, L’Trimm, performers like Ice-T, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee were my bread and butter for mix tapes that I would listen to on my Walkman. So, it was with this in mind that I queued up the Colors Soundtrack (FLAC, 16-bit/44.1kHz CD rip) on the MS500 and got a solid reminder of old-school, propulsive ‘80s hip-hop and rap. Some of these tracks don’t have the most fantastic production on them, but through the 500 they took me directly back to my late teens. All the visceral energy and drive of cuts like “Let the Rhythm Run” by Salt-N-Pepa, Erik B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” or “Go on Girl” by Roxanne Shanté was laid bare in a sonic landscape free of digital artifice; this was an analog time machine through the McIntosh with the drum machines and electronic effects in use by Big Daddy Kane on “Raw” being translated with speed, tonal integrity and slam without ever overwhelming or clouding his propulsive dialog. Every throaty and chesty vocal inflection and growl came through with ‘in-yer-face’ presence putting me right back next to those live show stages from my youth as I pushed back against the crush of the other 17-year-old fans wanting to be as close to the music as possible.

Conclusion

The McIntosh MS500 serves up a solid dose of musicality and smoothness to its presentation in a way, that as I said, reminds me of that rich, analog goodness from the hi-fis of my youth, but it puts it on the sonic plate with a healthy dose of present day transparency, speed and texture in the context of my modern system that those old set ups could only dream about. It doesn’t do USB-B in, but it does do Ethernet and that’s just fine with me. For someone looking to take on the technical miasma that can be computer audio, cloud-based sreaming and local 16-bit/44.1kHz file playback (or up to 24-bit/192kHz) the MS500 has the chops to deliver a dose of high-end sound with a minialmist user interface and none of the fuss that digital audio can be known for. This is an experience that’s much more music focused than GUI-centric and that should go down very well with those people looking to keep what comes between them and listening to their music to a minimum.

Specifications

  • Total Harmonic Distortion: 0.005%
  • Frequency Response: 2Hz to 22,000Hz
  • Maximum Volts Out (Balanced / Unbalanced): 4/2 V RMS
  • Signal To Noise Ratio: 102dB
  • Output Impedance: 600 ohms Unbalanced and Balanced
  • Dynamic Range: 96dB
  • Dimensions: (W x H x D) 17.5" (44.45cm) x 3-7/8" (9.8cm) x 16" (40.64cm)
  • Weight: 13.5 lbs (6.1kg)
  • Price: $6,000 USD

COMPANY INFO
McIntosh Laboratory Inc.
2 Chambers Street - Binghamton, NY 13903-2699
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Doak's picture

Can find no info on this DAc chip.
Typo?

Rafe Arnott's picture
ESS ES9016S DAC is the chip being used. I confirmed this with McIntosh this morning. Thank you.
Doak's picture

Thanks Rafe, for the clarification.
I have not seen anything much about 9016. Seems everyone is using the 9028 or 90380 ESS Sabre PRO series. This appears to be an odd choice for McIntosh, particularly for a unit that costs $6K.

William R's picture

I suspect the engineers at Mcintosh know how to make that particular chip sound good and in the end that's all that matters.

markbrauer's picture

I thought this was the most telling content of the review...

"The Media Bridge application is very simple and un-distracting. At first I thought it might be too simple for someone like me who is used to Roon but... I started to notice I was focusing on the music longer than usual. Why? Because the Media Bridge app keeps choosing what I’ll play next so simple in its interface that I wasn’t doing that thing where I sit browsing album artwork, reviews, and band member linkages half the time I’m listening... This is an experience that’s much more music focused than GUI-centric and that should go down very well with those people looking to keep what comes between them and listening to their music to a minimum."

Well said.

Finally, someone else notices that Roon is, by design, very good at keeping one from their music. Oh, it's great for all the stuff that's peripheral to music, but it's a huge distraction when it comes to fully experiencing the emotional impact of the music. My streamer has a simple, easy to use app/interface, that allows me to quickly get to the music I want to hear. But it also came with a 3 month Roon trial. So I gave Roon an honest shot, using all its functionality to "help me discover" my music. The thing is, I consistently found I was enjoying my music less when using Roon.

I should mention that way back in the 1990's I discovered that I enjoyed music more when I left the album cover, liner notes, or CD case out of reach, across the room and sitting by the playback equipment. And when at classical concerts, as soon as the music starts I drop the program to the floor by my feet.

It's not that I am disinterested in the stuff peripheral to music. I spend time most every day perusing this site and others for recommendations on new music that I might be interested in trying. I have no trouble finding more than I can ever listen to (thank you Tidal!) While doing this "research" I keep my music app open and search for and "bookmark" the things I find so they are easily accessible when I sit down for some un-distracted music listening.

So Rafe, I think you're definitely on to something here.

Rafe Arnott's picture
but, yes, it is by design meant to supply an enormous wealth of collated information that without doubt adds to the experience of digital audio and can be overwhelmingly engrossing at times. Personally, I think Roon has added more to the gestalt of computer-based playback than anything else in the industry. Can it take you away from the music just like an album cover or liner notes? Oh my , yes :)
miro's picture

I am waiting review of MatrixAudio Element X, which is an excellent streamer for solid money ... regards Miro.

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