|McIntosh Laboratory MX-136 AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Brian Kahn|
|Thursday, 01 May 2008|
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Music and Movies
In order to compare the stereo preamplifier capabilities of the MX-136 to the C-220, I listened to some of the same music I used to review the C-220. Playing the track “Your Latest Trick” from Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album (Warner Brothers), I found that the soundstage, when played through the MX-136, was very slightly compressed when compared to the C-220, but still very good, especially in width. Imaging was precise within the soundstage. Mark Knopfler’s vocals were slightly thinner through the MX-136, but still easily recognizable as his. The instruments were clearly portrayed with good detail. However, I found that there was a very slight glare, not uncommon with a good share of solid state gear, on the brass instruments.
I then listened to Peter Gabriel’s album So (Geffen). The track “Don’t Give Up” features a duet with Gabriel and Kate Bush. Bush’s vocals were portrayed with good accuracy, detail and no audible harshness. The MX-136 was again slightly less palpable than the C220, particularly through the midrange, and had a bit of dryness compared to C-220’s tubes, as any purist might expect. Nevertheless, when compared with other high-end AV preamps, it’s easy to hear how the McIntosh is true to its roots. Audiophiles will not be disappointed in the musical reproduction from the MX136, even if it splits its time playing back movie soundtracks.
Before moving to multi-channel audio, I listened to the optional TM-1 AM/FM tuner module. The area that I live in, outside of Los Angeles, is surrounded by foothills that make the clear reception of FM radio signals nearly impossible. I was never able to get a signal that came close to CD quality (as some suggested I might), but the tuner’s sound quality equaled that of any standalone tuner that I have used in this location. The tuner’s performance as far as excluding interference from nearby stations (likely an effect of my location) was extremely good, as was its ability to pick up weak signals. I have no doubt that, in an area with moderately decent radio reception, this tuner unit would be a serious performer for those who still dial in some FM music from time to time.
Multi-channel audio and movies is what the MX-136 was built for and it absolutely shines when used for these purposes. Watching Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (Buena Vista Home Entertainment) on DVD, I looked at the picture both from running HDMI out of the Marantz DV-9600 and component video (both at 480i), and had the MX-136 compare the signal to HDMI. In the past, with other processors, I have noticed severe artifacts resulting from this conversion. However, with the MX-136, there were no artifacts and the component video converted to HDMI video signal was completely watchable. Comparing the two signals, the pure HDMI signal appeared crisper and with slightly less noise, which I attribute in great part to the quality of the originating signal. The audio performance of the MX-136 with this movie was quite strong. The bass notes of the cannon fire were deep and powerful as expected. The characters’ individual voices were extremely natural and easily discernable throughout the multitude of people talking in the crowded scenes. The MX-136 was able to separate the various sonic cues without being overly analytical and dry.
I first became aware of The Transporter (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment HD DVD) during a recent DTS demo. I never saw the movie until a friend of mine loaned me the HD DVD (yes, I have friends who actually bought HD DVD players, as well as discs) while I was reviewing the MX-136. The Euro-techno music that permeates the film’s soundtrack was never overly harsh or brittle. There is a fight scene in which the lead character storms the antagonist’s house. As with Pirates, it was easy to track individual voices and sonic cues throughout the scene. I noted that the MX-136 does not simply gloss over or beautify every signal it is fed. This film is full of fight scenes and explosions that have many effects dubbed in, some of which are poorly done and easy to identify when listening through the MX-136.
Diana Krall’s multi-channel music album Love Scenes (DTS DVD-Audio) is full of lush jazz vocals that let the MX-136 really shine. Many AV preamps can do a decent job with movie soundtracks, but multi-channel music can be much more challenging. Krall’s sultry voice on “Peel Me A Grape” was reproduced with an artful blend of liquid smoothness and detail. The MX-136 did an equally fine job with her voice on “All or Nothing at All,” during which I could close my eyes and come so very close to placing myself in the room with Ms. Krall and her band. Don’t tell Elvis.