Class 1a Featured Pick:

McCormack DNA-500

     For music lovers, this brand new power amp has now captured the top honor as the best solid state amp on the planet. It excels at all the things a solid state amp is supposed to do well, and then it leaps way ahead of other solid state amps with sonic breakthroughs in natural musicality that transcend what other solid state amps can offer. The sound of the DNA-500 combines relaxed authority, effortless transparency, grace and subtlety, and a musically natural liquidity.
     With a rated 500 watts per channel on tap, the DNA-500 can be expected to play music with powerful authority, and it does. What is unexpected is the relaxed ease with which it wields its muscle. Many other solid state amps sound constricted or forced, as if they are pushing the music at you, and the more powerful among such amps merely force more of this pushy sound at you as they play a loud transient. In contrast, a loud dynamic transient from the DNA-500 comes through as a relaxed "WHAPPP!". The DNA-500 is having such a relaxed, easy time reproducing the transient that there's no sense of strain or pushiness; indeed, the DNA-500 almost seems to be having fun handling this dynamic transient. From the DNA-500, this dynamic transient hits you the same way live music does, and this helps the DNA-500 to sound more like music and less like most other solid state amps.
     The DNA-500 is superbly transparent, revealing subtle details of music that most other solid state amps simply miss (or veil, or block with their solid state clogging). But here too it is an effortless sonic quality that sets the DNA-500 above other solid state amps. The DNA-500 reveals detail without sounding detailed. The details it reveals are an integral, natural part of the music, not a separate analytical dose of detail artificially tacked on to the music (as with other very transparent solid state amps). With the DNA-500, the music just flows out of the amp, and you hear more of the music (and what the music has to offer, and what the music is all about). This is transparency in the service of music, not as a 'hi-fi' goal in itself. Tube amps have been able to achieve this, but it has been an elusive goal for solid state amps, and the DNA-500 scales new heights for solid state amps in this quest.
     Contributing to the relaxed ease and natural musicality of the DNA-500 are hints of liquid bloom and open airiness, such as heard from the best tube amps, but rarely in the world of solid state. The DNA-500 surpasses every other solid state amp at conquering and banishing the typical solid state artifices of analytical sterility and closed in sound. In fact, the DNA-500 is so superior to other solid state amps that it took only one musical note, one simple guitar pluck, to reveal that this new amp was the new music lover's champion among solid state amps.
     The DNA-500 reproduced the attack of the guitar pluck (from one of Joe Harley's excellent CDs) with articulation and speed, and yet with a relaxed, open airiness, instead of the typical solid state artifacts of hardness or bright edginess that usually accompany articulation and speed. The sustain of the guitar string had a natural nylon liquidity, without the hard plastic glare typically imposed by silicon. The guitar's body had rich warmth and weight, not the thin leanness one typically hears from solid state. The subtle timbres and textures of the guitar pluck and sustain were revealed with stunning transparency, yet with a disarming effortless ease, instead of the analytic hyper-outlining heard from other solid state amps. Even the bass of the DNA-500 could already be heard to be superb: powerful and weighty, yet well controlled and defined. Incidentally, a single pluck of even a small-bodied violin (which we think of as being an instrument with primarily treble spectral content) actually has bass energy all the way down to (but not including) DC or 0 Hz, so a guitar pluck can indeed inform about bass capability.
     On complex musical material, the DNA-500's excellence shines even more strongly. Thanks to its stunning transparency combined with its relaxed ease, the DNA-500 effortlessly reproduces the manifold subtleties of complex music, letting the delicate details through even while the massive musical tuttis are overwhelming you. Most other solid state amps have a sonic sense of strain, glare, or clog, which usually gets worse as the music gets loud and/or complex, and which therefore actually blocks musical information, making it difficult to hear into the texture and orchestration of complex music (as well as making it aurally fatiguing). In contrast, the DNA-500's relaxed ease and effortlessly revealing transparency invite you into the music, even when it gets complex. Furthermore, the DNA-500's dynamic authority (discussed above) dishes out loud crescendos and loud transients with that same relaxed ease, so there's no strain, glare, or clog when the music gets loud as well as complex.
     The DNA-500 is equally at home and equally superb on all types of music. For example, intimate vocals are beguiling and entrancing, more like the best tube amps and far better than other solid state amps. The DNA-500 so transparently reveals subtleties of the human voice that it heightens the sense of musical reality, to give you that goosebump sense that it is the real singer in front of you rather than an electronically amplified facsimile. The amp's rich warmth gives the singer a real, three dimensioned chest and body. Its open airiness lets singers breathe, instead of making them sound like they're singing in a closet (as most other solid state amps do). Its touch of gentle liquidity is a welcome relief from the screaming glare that other solid state amps impose on the upper midrange and/or lower treble of singers belting into the mike (or on the infamous 10 kHz EQ peak that Sony/Columbia puts into some of their recordings, e.g. Barbra Streisand).
     Likewise, rock, jazz, symphonies, choral pieces, Broadway shows, and soundtracks are all handled superbly. The DNA-500 has the power and authority to handle the most massive, complex sounds. And it does so with such relaxed ease that it becomes a pleasure to revel in this massive complexity, rather than a fatiguing pain as it can be with most other solid state amps. Again, the DNA-500's superb transparency allows you to hear into the music's many complex strands and subtleties, and the DNA-500 trumps other highly transparent solid state amps by revealing music's many details with a natural airy delicacy, not strident over-articulation.
     The bass of the DNA-500 is superb, besting most other solid state amps. Most solid state power amps are too lean and constipated in the bass, but the DNA-500 is full, powerful, and weighty. Its bass has an impact that gives you a mighty kick in the stomach, but in that relaxed and authoritative way that says "Hey, son, there's plenty more reserve where that came from" (instead of the constipated kick from some other solid state amps that somehow seems to short-circuit and limit itself before you have enjoyed the full impact of a bass transient). Some other solid state amps (and many tube amps) are loose and poorly defined in their bass, but the DNA-500 has excellent definition and tight control, even in its generous fullness. Incidentally, we found the same excellent combination of bass qualities in the DNA-500's ancestor, the DNA-2.
     Stereo imaging is excellent, and here too the DNA-500 gains a leg up on other solid state amps that might also have excellent inherent stereo imaging. Because the DNA-500 is so musically natural in its portrayal of musical instruments, voices, etc., the stereo images of its musical portrayals possess a more believable palpability. In other words, if two competing solid state amps have the same inherent stereo imaging capability, the amp that makes a stage center vocalist sound clinically artificial in a typical solid state way won't sound as believably real in its projected stereo image as the DNA-500, which allows the same stage center vocalist to sound musically natural and real. The DNA-500's stereo imaging is further helped by this amp's superb transparency, which accurately reveals subtle imaging cues contained in good recordings.
     The DNA-500 also excels in clean purity, i.e. low distortion. Interestingly, because the DNA-500 is so musically natural, one almost doesn't notice how clean and pure it is. Some other solid state amps evince a diamond hard, clinically sterile sound, which calls attention to itself as seemingly clean and pure. But this hard, sterile sound can actually be a symptom of expansive odd order distortion, a common problem with some solid state circuits (in contrast, some other solid state circuits and most tube circuits tend to have compressive odd order distortion which sounds different, usually soft and grundgy). The DNA-500 sounds like clean real music, and you can't ask for more than that. There's no hint of the hard sterility that plagues many other solid state amps.
     If we had to pick a nit with the sound of the DNA-500, it would be that the quality of its trebles is a little soft and defocused. It sounds like a premature Gaussian rolloff, which imparts a slight feathery soft edge, instead of a precise hard edge, to each treble transient detail. The DNA-500 is still superb at revealing and individuating each treble detail, indeed more so than other solid state amps that provide sharper, harder sounding edges outlining details (this harder sound in these other solid state amps is like a glare or clog that actually can block or obscure the more subtle individual musical details). It's just that the quality of each musical detail, so transparently and individually revealed by the DNA-500, has these feathery soft edges, a slight softening of sharp focus. Many listeners will hear this sonic effect as benign or even musically euphonic, even helping to remedy the excessive sharpness heard from most recordings that are too closely miked (analogously, photographers intentionally put a gauze filter in front of a camera lens to flatter the face of a human subject, by slightly defocusing the wrinkles and pores of human skin). Thus, subjective reactions to the DNA-500's slight treble softening will vary among various listeners, depending on their musical preferences, and in this objective report we merely point out the fact that we notice its existence.
     The McCormack DNA-500 has an interesting heritage, which goes back to the old DNA series of power amps (DNA-.5, DNA-1, and the highly rated DNA-2) produced by the former McCormack Audio Corporation in California. Steve McCormack himself then started SMc Audio, to perform upgrades to these amps. Steve's talents for doing upgrades to improve sonics date way back to his first company, The Mod Squad. The SMc Audio upgrades prove that Steve's abilities to sonically fine tune and significantly improve a circuit are hotter than ever. The original McCormack production amps were very good, even excellent, but they did have a slightly clinical, hard, bright white light solid state sonic quality. The SMc upgrades totally transform the sound of these very same amps. They become warm, rich, liquid, sweet, and very musically natural, while still retaining excellent transparency and detail. If you own an old McCormack power amp and want more musically natural sound from it, these custom SMc upgrades are highly recommended. Now, custom upgrade mods with exotic parts are fine when you're doing just one amp per day. But what about real production quantities? How could these improved sonics of the SMc upgrades reach the wide marketplace? Enter two gentlemen from Virginia. They formed the new McCormack Audio Corporation of Virginia, and commissioned Steve to incorporate the benefits of his SMc upgrade mods into new amp designs that could be manufactured on a real production line and sold at a reasonable price. The results have been seen recently in the DNA-125 and DNA-225. The DNA-225 is a very fine solid state power amp, and its sonics include most of the musically natural liquidity we find in the best SMc custom mods.
     And now there's the latest evolvement from this heritage, the new DNA-500. Its sonic performance scales new heights, in our judgement significantly surpassing even the DNA-225 and the SMc mods of the old McCormack models. In particular, the DNA-500 sets new solid state standards in open airiness, relaxed ease, and powerful authority. How does the DNA-500 do it? It isn't just more power. The topology of the DNA-500 is unlike all other prior McCormack amps. Each channel of the DNA-500 is essentially a bridged pair of DNA-225 amps, operating as a fully differential amplifier. We have independently found, in a number of research experiments over the years, that a balanced or differential topology consistently tends to sound different than an equivalent single ended version. The balanced or differential version tends to sound more open and airy, more dynamic and authoritative, and more relaxed and at ease, all contributing to more natural musicality - while the single ended version tends to sound more precise, closed in, and constricted. Thus, the DNA-500's topology may well be the key to its sonic superiority over even its own DNA-225 progenitor. And the overall sonic achievement of the DNA-500 also owes its debt to its DNA-225 innards, as well as to its heritage in the SMc mods of the old McCormack amps.
     Incidentally, the slight treble softening defocus we hear in the DNA-500 might possibly be due to the fact that this differential amp employs a transformer coupled input. We asked Steve about this, and he replied that he had tried many, many solid state input configurations, in place of the transformer, but that they all introduced some kind of artificial solid state or electronic glare into the sound of this superlative amplifier. Steve felt it was paramount to keep artificial solid state glare out of this amp, so it could achieve the verity of musical naturalness. So the best engineering choice was to accept the slight limitations of the transformer, since it alone provided musical naturalness and absence of artificial solid state sound. And we have to agree with this engineering choice, especially in view of the magnificent and revelatory musical sonic performance Steve achieved with this solid state amp.
     Some people prefer their power amps to be solid state, and for several possible reasons. There are practical reasons: nothing to wear out, more power per dollar, ability to drive difficult (low impedance) speaker loads. And there are technical reasons: wider bandwidth, lower measured distortion, higher current drive, lower source impedance (so the amp better acts as a pure voltage source, thereby furnishing flatter frequency response regardless of speaker impedance variations). But people preferring solid state, even for these good reasons, have in the past had to make a compromise in another very important area: natural musicality. They have had to put up with solid state amps that, whatever their practicality and measured technical excellence, simply did not sound like real live music does. These other solid state amps imposed, to varying degrees, various kinds of sonic vices upon the sound of music: brittleness, pallid sterility, glare, thin leanness, excess brightness, etc.
     But now, finally, the new McCormack DNA-500 brings true musical naturalness to solid state. If you crave solid state amplification, this amp can give you the best of both worlds. In the world of solid state, the DNA-500 excels in all the technical qualities that people prize about the best of solid state: transparency, clean purity, bass, authoritative power, etc. Indeed, in virtually every single one of these sonic aspects the DNA-500 equals or surpasses the best that solid state has ever achieved. For example, its bass quality and authority matches the best that solid state has ever achieved (including the legendary Iverson amps). Its intricately revealing transparency throughout most of the spectrum handily surpasses anything any other solid state amp has ever achieved (rivaled only by the Clayton amps). Only in treble speed and articulation is the DNA-500 itself slightly bested, and then only by a very few solid state amps (Clayton, Electrocompaniet).
     So the McCormack DNA-500 comes up aces in that one world, the world of solid state technical excellence. Then, when we consider the other important world, the world of natural musicality, it's no contest. Here the DNA-500 simply runs way ahead of any and every other solid state power amp. Its reach, and its grasp, are both broad and deep, extending far beyond the musical capabilities of other solid state amps in many different ways, and in each and every way to a startling degree, a startling margin of winning superiority. No other solid state power amp comes even close to being so naturally liquid, so effortlessly relaxed, so delicate and simultaneously so authoritative, in bringing you the sound of real live music from your recordings. It's like solid state magic. Music through the DNA-500 sounds more dynamic and vivid, yet simultaneously less offensive and in your face, than from other solid state amps. Music has more true inner detail through the DNA-500, yet simultaneously sounds less fatiguingly detailed, than from other solid state amps. Music from the DNA-500 kicks you with a bigger Whappp!, yet simultaneously sounds more effortless, than from other solid state amps. Music through the DNA-500 is more exciting (and excitingly real), yet is simultaneously more relaxing, than from other solid state amps.
          The price of the DNA-500 will be about $6000, a mere fraction of the prices of the big name solid state competition that it sonically so thoroughly trounces (e.g. Levinson, Krell, Jeff Rowland). Availability is targeted for July 2001. Do I hear a mass licking of chops?

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