McIntosh MX119 A/V Control Center

      When heard in its best sounding modes, the McIntosh MX119 A/V Control Center provides a richly enjoyable experience. Its sound is relaxing and comfortable, easy to instantly like, and easy to live with for long term listening. This is the kind of sonic enjoyment that McIntosh users have come to expect, and the MX119 delivers (in its best sounding modes). This comforting sound is the perfect complement to the reassuring classic elegance of McIntosh's trademark package design, with its gloss black glass panel, and the comfortable blue and red glow of its panel backlighting.
      Indeed, even though the MX119 is entirely solid state, its sound (in its sonically best modes) is reminiscent of the classic tube sound that has been a McIntosh hallmark since the late 1940s. One of the prizes in my audio museum is an early McIntosh C4 monaural preamplifier, and of course McIntosh honors its own tube tradition by making two channel tube products even today. So it's great to know that you can also get this same classic tube sound in a modern surround processor, for your multichannel system.
      The features of this classic tube sound include musically natural liquidity in the midranges, and trebles that are sweet, and slightly soft or defocused. As the foundation for this spectrum the MX119 brings excellent bass quality that is solid, tight, and well defined - thus superior to tube sound bass, and in fact better than I have heard from many solid state units. To complete the sonic picture, the MX119 achieves excellent overall spatial imaging, with superb lateral localization all around the surround stage. Finally, as icing on the cake, the MX119 optionally includes an amazing AM-FM on-board tuner module that is fully state-of-the-art, as good as the best separate tuners in many respects, and far, far better than the tuners offered in most other receivers.
      In a nutshell, the MX119 can give you excellent solid state bass for music and film sound effects; plus relaxing tube sound for the midranges and trebles that makes it a richly enjoyable, non-fatiguing pleasure to sit through a movie or concert or album; plus excellent spatial imaging all around you; plus a wonderful tuner that can bring you your favorite music (with surround enhancement if you wish) at the easy push of a button. That's an impressive package, and a perfect fit for the McIntosh enthusiast.
      Incidentally, McIntosh also offers the sibling MX135 A/V Control Center, which identically duplicates the MX119 circuitry, while also offering balanced audio connections (in a taller chassis, to accommodate all those extra XLR jacks on the back).
      We evaluated the MX119 on our high resolution lab reference system, which includes as reference audio sources the McCormack UDP-1 universal player and Cary 303/300 CD player, the Arcam DV29 DVD player as reference video source, Nordost Valhalla loudspeaker cable and Nordost Optix video interconnect, VonGaylord audio interconnect, and Von Schweikert VR4 Jr loudspeakers.
      Three of the MX119's many operating modes offer the enjoyable sound described above. Fortuitously, one of these best sounding modes is a two channel mode, while the other two are surround modes, for different applications. Thus, virtually all bases are covered by these best sounding modes. With this review analysis as a guide, you can utilize these three best-sounding modes to get the best sound from the MX119 in virtually all situations.

Two Channel Modes

      For two channel playback, the best sounding operating mode is called Pure Stereo, operating with an analog signal input. This Pure Stereo mode yields the richly enjoyable sound qualities described above, for all two channel analog sources (including the amazing on-board tuner).
      Interestingly, this best sounding two channel mode (despite being called Pure Stereo) actually utilizes the longest, most complex analog signal path through the MX119.
      In most other processors and preamplifiers, the shortest and most direct signal paths sound the best, since they put the fewest electronic stages and the fewest parts in the signal path to degrade signal fidelity. Indeed, that's why we always start our sonic analysis of a review unit with the shortest, most direct signal path, and then add one electronic stage or function (e.g. D-A conversion) at a time, listening to the progressive sonic differences as the signal path progressively gets longer and more complex. In reviewing the sonics of surround processors, we start with the multichannel analog direct throughput, since this puts merely an analog buffer stage and a volume control in the signal path.
      But in the MX119 the sonics via this direct analog mode (called External) proved disappointing. Evidently, the solid state IC chip used by McIntosh, for this electronic stage in the signal path, exhibits the sonic vices typical of many IC chips: an artificial, hard glare, which also clogs and blocks the subtler sonic details of a recording, and which makes the sound seem canned and closed in rather than open and airy.
      The next MX119 mode we tested, also with a simple signal path, is called 2 Channel on the display (curiously, the owner's manual does not even mention this mode, so it is completely undocumented, but it does exist, and is selectable via the remote or via the front panel rotary switch). In this mode the MX119 exactly replicates the circuitry of McIntosh's stand-alone solid state preamplifier, the C45. In this mode the MX119 was still sonically disappointing, again with artificial solid state glare.
      Finally, we tested the MX119 mode with the longest, most complex two channel analog signal path, called Pure Stereo. This mode adds an analog crossover stage to the above signal paths, so the circuitry of this crossover is now in series with the above circuitry (incidentally, this crossover still passes the full spectrum signal to the main outputs, provided the loudspeaker size is set to large in the setup menu). Evidently, something in the design of this analog crossover dramatically softens the sound. And, serendipitously, it softens the sound just enough, and in just the right ways, to offset the artificial hardness imposed by the other IC chip stages (which are still in the signal path), and then go a little beyond, to magically yield that wonderful classic tube sound we noted above. The hard midrange glare from the other IC chip stages is softened to become naturally slightly liquid, just as in classic tube sound. And the hardened trebles are softened to become sweet and airy, and slightly soft and defocused, again as in classic tube sound.
      Note that this treble softness and defocus, though technically an inaccuracy, is nevertheless euphonically natural, since it mimics the sonic effects you hear when listening to live music (or other sonic events) at a normal distance. The trebles of live sounds naturally become softer as they travel through a long distance of air, and they also become slightly defocused in a hall, since you are sitting in the far field dominated by indirect hall wall reflections, which arrive in random phase and partially cancel one another, thereby defocusing transients and attacks.
      Thus, the MX119 in Pure Stereo mode euphonically transforms typically too-closely-miked recordings into a more natural, indeed more accurate, semblance of what you hear live at concerts. Clearly, you should use the Pure Stereo mode for playing all your two channel analog sources in two channel format, including the on-board tuner.
      What about two channel sources that offer a digital output as well as an analog output? Stick with their analog output, and use the Pure Stereo mode, to hear the MX119 at its magical best. We tested the MX119's D-A conversion, and found it sonically very disappointing. It imposed an artificial solid state glare, and it was also tonally colored, overemphasizing the midrange, which in turn further exacerbated its canned quality.

Surround Modes

      For surround playback, the MX119's best sounding modes are Dolby, especially the Dolby matrix modes, and in particular Dolby Pro Logic IIx.
      Dolby Digital processing tends to sound a little soft or rounded, and tonally polite in the midrange. This slight Dolby softness partially offsets the hard glare that seems intrinsic to most of the MX119's electronic stages, and to its D-A conversion as well. And this slight Dolby tonal politeness in the midrange works to offset the tonal emphasis in the midrange that the MX119's D-A conversion imposes.
      Then, the Dolby matrix modes (EX or Pro Logic IIx) bring to bear even more softening and defocus, enough to completely offset the intrinsic hardness of the MX119's electronic stages and D-A conversion, and enough to magically achieve that midrange liquidity and treble sweetness of classic tube sound we described above. The Dolby matrix modes wreak this helpful softening, even for the main channels that are direct under straight Dolby 5.1 discrete, because the Dolby matrix derives information from the main channels by subtraction, which leaves them sounding softer, and somewhat defocused, indirect, and phasey.
      In most other surround processors these Dolby matrix softening changes are sonically detrimental (but are worth enduring because Dolby Pro Logic IIx provides such rich and believable surround spatial portrayal). However, in the MX119 these Dolby matrix softening changes are an important positive sonic ingredient, effectively offsetting the intrinsic artificial hardness of the MX119 IC chip electronic circuitry, and effectively creating that wonderfully enjoyable classic tube sound. For multichannel sources, this best sounding Dolby processing mode is engaged by selecting the Cinema 2 mode in the MX119. Incidentally, the Cinema 1 mode does not sound as good when playing multichannel soundtracks, with poorer portrayal of surround space and poorer imaging between loudspeakers than the Cinema 2 mode provides.
      Note that, for surround playback, it's important to offset the sonic foibles of the MX119's D-A conversion, since most signals destined for surround playback will probably be brought into the MX119 in digital format. Thus, it's marvelously serendipitous that Dolby Pro Logic IIx does such a magical job of also offsetting the specific sonic foibles of the MX119's D-A circuitry, to produce such enjoyable classic tube sound, for surround mode listening.
      Dolby, especially Dolby Pro Logic IIx, is also the best choice for enhancing two channel sources into a surround soundfield portrayal, again because its sonic softening effectively offsets the intrinsic sound of the MX119's IC chip electronics, to provide a richly enjoyable end result. For Dolby surround enhancement of two channel sources (including the on-board tuner), select the Cinema 1 mode of the MX119. Incidentally, the Music 1 mode also will work, to bestow Dolby surround enhancement upon two channel sources, but it does not sound as good (the Cinema 1 mode sounds even more naturally sweet, and provides much richer space and ambience).
      In most other surround processors we can recommend the DTS modes as sounding even better than the Dolby modes. For soundtracks, DTS Digital has a higher bit rate than Dolby Digital, hence less sonic compromise from compression data losses, so it makes sense that it sounds even clearer and cleaner than Dolby.  For surround enhancement, DTS ES and Neo:6 keep the integrity and fidelity of the main channels signals intact, in the process of deriving information from them to feed the various derived surrounds -- whereas Dolby EX and Pro Logic IIx subtract information from the main channels, in order to derive information for the various surrounds, so Dolby compromises the fidelity and accuracy of the main channel signals, leaving them softer, defocused, indirect, and phasey thanks to its subtraction. That's why, in most processors, we recommend DTS Neo:6 for surround enhancement of two channel material, over any Dolby system.
      Then, for surround enhancement of 5.1 sources, it's usually a cruel tradeoff choice, between the superior basic fidelity of DTS Digital vs. the superior surround spatial image portrayal achieved by Dolby Pro Logic IIx, thanks to its stereo back surrounds. Usually, when we're in the mood for hearing the best surround space from 5.1 sources, we choose enhancement using Dolby Pro Logic IIx, to feed 7.1 loudspeakers -- and, when we're in the mood to hear the best basic sonic fidelity from 5.1 sources, we choose DTS Digital, and play it in straight 5.1 discrete, with no matrix enhancement.
      The MX119 simplifies the above cruel tradeoff choices, and complex weighing of factors, of Dolby vs. DTS. In the MX119, all DTS modes sound disappointing, with an artificial solid state glare, midrange overemphasis, and canned quality. This might be so because the DTS modes are not well implemented in software, or because the added IC chips in the DTS signal path are adding yet more of that typical IC chip sound, or perhaps simply because DTS is more accurate than Dolby in revealing everything about the signal, including its degradation by the various MX119 IC chips the signal passes through.
      In any case, as noted above, the Dolby modes are the best sounding surround modes in the MX119, probably because the softening of Dolby processing (especially Pro Logic IIx) almost perfectly offsets the artificial solid state hardening imposed by the MX119's numerous IC chips, to magically yield a wonderful sounding tube sound as a final result. Since the final sound as you hear it is what counts, you should enjoy the MX119 in its wonderful sounding Dolby modes to the fullest, regardless of how these sonic results were arrived at. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, and don't question why Dolby sounds so enjoyable on the MX119, nor grouse excessively about the DTS modes being sonically useless in the MX119. It's my job to research and analyze why some modes sound better than others, and it's my duty to candidly tell you what I find, without hiding anything. But then you can simply follow my advice, and enjoy the Dolby modes. And also follow my advice by simply staying away from DTS on the MX119.
      Note the silver lining here. With multichannel (film soundtrack) sources, in most other processors, you have a cruel tradeoff choice between optimum sonic quality (by using DTS) or optimizing surround spatial imaging (by using Dolby Pro Logic IIx, with its stereo back surround advantage). But, with the MX119 there's no tradeoff and no cruel choice, since Dolby processing yields the best sonic quality as well as the best surround spatial imaging.

Automated Simplicity

      McIntosh aims to make its products user-friendly to a wide variety of customers, including many who are not technically inclined. So McIntosh deliberately incorporates many automatic features, and purposely simplifies things. Sometimes this is very helpful, making McIntosh products better than competing products for a wider audience. But other times this can be puzzling to the technically inclined user.
      For example, in the interests of simplification the various modes of the MX119 are labeled simply Music 1, Music 2, Music 3, etc. and Cinema 1, Cinema 2, etc. This is fine for users who don't know what Dolby or DTS are, nor how to make a choice between them. But, for those of us who do know what these choices mean, and who want to deliberately choose Dolby or DTS for a particular application, this puts an extra translation table in your workflow path, a translation table you have to learn and memorize from the owner's manual.
      And then, to compound this roadblock, the taxonomy distinguishing the various modes, as explained in the manual, is sometimes illogically counterintuitive and confusing. For instance, Cinema 1 is nominally the Dolby choice and Cinema 2 is nominally the DTS choice, and you do indeed use the Cinema 2 mode to select DTS instead of Dolby for sources that are two channel or analog -- but then (counterintuitive surprise!) you also have to use the (nominally DTS) Cinema 2 mode (not the nominally Dolby Cinema 1 mode) if you want to select Dolby Pro Logic IIx (instead of straight Dolby 5.1 discrete), for a digital multichannel source putting out straight Dolby 5.1 discrete. As another example, the so-called Pure Stereo mode is actually the least pure stereo mode, since the signal goes through more circuitry stages than it does in the External mode and in the (undocumented) 2 Channel mode. Even small details are confusing; since McIntosh is owned by a Japanese company, and sells much of its product into Japan (which often reads right to left), it is logical for Japan that the front panel prominently displays the selected zone B (secondary) input on the left, before the zone A (primary) input displayed on the right, but for the rest of the world this is confusingly counterintuitive, every time one looks at the unit.
      Once again it is a silver lining that the MX119 sounds its best in only a few modes. Thus, we can advise you to stick to using just these few modes, which will not only give you the best sound, but will also greatly simplify your learning curve and eliminate the above confusions.
      To sum up our recommended modes, there are really only three. Use Pure Stereo for analog two channel sources played back in two channel stereo. And, incidentally, do not use the digital inputs for bringing in two channel sources to be played in two channel stereo. Then for surround enhancement playback of two channel sources, use the Cinema 1 mode (it's OK to input this signal, destined for Dolby surround enhancement, in either analog or digital format, since the Dolby softening will be magically efficacious for either format). And then, for surround playback of multichannel sources, use the Cinema 2 mode to activate Dolby's Pro Logic IIx, for better sound and better spatial imaging (ideally with a seven loudspeaker surround array) than Cinema 1 would give you. Also, remember of course to select the Dolby track rather than the DTS track in your DVD player.

Details of Sonic Performance

      The MX119's strongest sonic suit is the unique way it marries, into a single unified sonic portrayal, the best of solid state bass with the best of classic tube sound for the midranges and trebles (when the MX119 is operated in its best sounding modes).
      The MX119's bass quality is excellent, with strong, deep impact, and tight, quick definition. You of course want this high quality of bass for all those film sound effects, as well as for music.

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