|McIntosh Laboratory MX-136 AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Brian Kahn|
|Thursday, 01 May 2008|
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McIntosh has been nothing short of an American institution in the world of high-end audio for over 50 years. While McIntosh is best known for their stereo gear from the tube era, they have kept their line current with modern components such as music servers and multi-zone audio-video preamps, or “controllers,” as McIntosh calls them. McIntosh’s newest such controller is their MX-136, which at $9,500 (as configured with TM-1 tuner) occupies the top position in the tier of McIntosh AV preamps.
Opening the MX-136, I found that McIntosh eschewed trendiness in favor of tradition. While most of the new A/V preamps I have seen at recent trade shows are small to medium in size, with either TFT screens or multi–line LCD and rows of same-sized buttons. The MX-136 is a full-sized unit with a nine-inch-tall by 17-and-three-quarter-inch-wide faceplate on an 18-and-three-quarter-inch-deep chassis, weighing 31 pounds. I first found the large faceplate to be a bit awkward, but soon came to appreciate its ability to transmit the needed information with elegant simplicity.
As one would expect, the MX-136 is a full-featured AV preamp that can decode Dolby Digital EX, Pro Logic IIx, DTS-ES and NEO:6. In addition to these now-expected audio formats, the MX-136 has unanticipated and welcome assets, such as two balanced audio inputs and a Moving Magnet Phono input. The MX-136 also has a pure analog audio path available for optimum stereo sound quality. The volume control is a digitally controlled unit that ensures that all eight channels track within .5dB.
The MX-136 is no slouch in the video department either, with video up-conversion from composite and S-Video to component and then to HDMI. HDMI video signals up to 1080p can be switched, but not processed. Composite, S-video and component 480i/p signals can be up-converted to 480p, 720p or 1080i signals.
The faceplate features McIntosh’s traditional black glass framed by silver vertical corner pieces. The glass features silk screening on the reverse side to protect against wear. A large display, which crosses the center section of the faceplate, reads out the sources for inputs A and B flanking the volume, all displayed in McIntosh’s trademark blue hue. To each side of the central display is a trio of traditional silver knobs arranged in an inverse triangle. The knobs to the left select the B input and adjust trim levels; the knobs to the right select the A input, volume and surround mode. The glass panel beneath the main display has backlit indicators, which show the incoming and outgoing signals, as well as the signal format. For example, if an incoming signal is two-channel stereo, only the L and R symbols will light up, a 2.1 signal will cause the “Sub” symbol to light as well, etc. A row of rocker buttons across the bottom selects a variety of functions, including tuning, power and so on. While it sounds complex and looks a bit old-fashioned at first sight, the MX-136’s front panel is extremely easy to use and elegant in its simplicity.
Despite the large size of the back panel, there is very little blank space. All 11 analog audio inputs and three outputs are accompanied by dedicated composite and S-Video jacks. There are two pairs of balanced inputs, an eight-channel input, balanced and single-ended eight-channel outputs, DB-25 multi-channel output and zone B output. There are also three optical inputs, three coaxial digital inputs, three digital outputs and three antenna inputs. On the video side, there are four HDMI inputs and five component inputs, with one output of each format. In addition to the plethora of inputs and outputs just described, there are various control ports that allow the MX-136 to be controlled by remote keypads and custom control systems, such as Crestron, AMX or Control 4.
I started my MX-136 experience by placing it into my stereo system in a set-up as similar as possible to the one for the McIntosh C-220 stereo preamplifier I recently reviewed. I used Classe’s CDP-202 CD player as a source, feeding the McIntosh through its balanced analog inputs and Krell’s Theater Amplifier Standard for power. Connections were by Cardas’ Golden Presence line and speakers were Martin Logan Summits. The antenna utilized was Magnum Dynalab’s ST-2.
I then transferred the MX-136 to my theater system where it belonged. I was thankful for the four HDMI and five component video inputs, which allowed me to connect all my sources without sacrificing video quality. The MX-136’s limited digital audio inputs, three coax and three optical, proved to be restrictive, as the HDMI inputs on the MX-136 are video-only. While many who are in the know argue that digital audio over HDMI suffers from increased jitter and that a separate digital audio connection provides superior quality, there should be additional digital audio inputs if this is the chosen route. This becomes especially important if you wish to utilize the high-quality DACs in the MX-136 rather than those in your source units. Lastly, not being able to accept audio over HDMI precludes the possibility of accepting a high-resolution multi-channel PCM signal, which is currently only being output over HDMI.
I connected my Marantz DV-9600 DVD player and Toshiba XA2 HD DVD via HDMI. The rest of my sources were connected by component and S-Video. I utilized the MX-136’s up-conversion capabilities, so that I only had to connect my Marantz VP-11S1 projector via HDMI.
Setting up the unit required pressing a button on the front panel to enter the set-up mode. Once in the set-up mode, I was easily able to navigate my way through the menus, renaming the inputs to describe the sources I was actually using. The MX-136 lacks the automatic calibration features found on many popular high-end receivers, as most purchasers of this McIntosh will have the unit professionally installed by their dealer. Nonetheless, I was able to set the unit up quickly, using my trusty and affordable Radio Shack SPL meter.
The McIntosh comes with a comprehensive owner’s manual that does a very good job of spelling out all the various set-up options and what the various choices mean. Even though most people who purchase this unit will have it professionally installed, the manual will be informative for those who are curious about the MX-136’s operation and the technology it contains.