Dreaming the Not-Impossible Dream Radio Days

Radio Days

McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. —an Abbreviated History

New York City’s Radio Row, the birthplace of America’s post-World War II audio industry, is gone. The area, intersected by Manhattan’s Cortlandt and Greenwich Streets and the surrounding blocks, that for decades hosted a thriving electronics trade, made way for (and not without a fight) the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Now they’re gone, too.

All of the Radio Row retailers like Heins and Bolet, Leonard’s, Harvey’s, Rabson’s, and Cantor the Cabinet King are also gone, although they live in the memory banks of many native-born baby boomers. And many of the mythical audio brands founded by audio pioneers like Avery Fisher, Hermon Hosmer Scott, Sidney Harman, and others who began by buying army-surplus electronics parts on Radio Row, are either gone or exist in name only, associated with products that have little, if anything, to do with the heritage of the brands that carry their names.

Only against that backdrop can you begin to appreciate what near-mythical addresses like 24 Thorndike St., Cambridge, Massachusetts; or 111 Powdermill Rd., Maynard, Massachusetts; or 2 Chambers St., Binghamton, New York mean to generations of audio buffs.

Once homes to Acoustic Research and H.H. Scott, 24 Thorndike St. and 111 Powdermill Rd. are now generic office spaces. But, 2 Chambers St. in Binghamton is still home to McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. just as it has been since 1956, seven years after its founding by the late Frank McIntosh.

McIntosh was both an accomplished cellist and an electrical engineer who spent eight years at Bell Labs working in the radio division. In 1942, he joined the war effort at both the Radio and Radar divisions of the War Production Board in Washington, D.C., and opened a consulting firm specializing in radio-station and sound-system design. He hired Maurice Painchaud who went from being a draftsman to being responsible for the entire manufacturing process.

A year later, he met and hired Gordon Gow, a Canadian Air Force veteran and MBE (Member of the British Empire) medal winner for his radar-related inventions, to help with the R&D for a new amplifier.

The three went on to form the core of what became McIntosh Laboratory, Inc. In 1951, the company moved to Binghamton. Five years later, in need of more space, the company moved to 2 Chambers St. where it has been ever since. Why Binghamton? It was a center of high tech at the time. IBM was founded in nearby Endicott, New York. General Electric and Link Aviation, builder of the world’s first flight simulators, were also close by.

The powerful low-distortion, wide-bandwidth amplifier the company invented and built was initially aimed at the professional broadcasting industry. At the time, consumer hi-fi as we now know it didn’t exist. Whether or not you know what a unity-coupled output stage is, it was the team’s major invention, and it drove the company’s success for more than 50 years.

McIntosh designed and created preamplifiers and, of course, a legendary line of FM tuners. Early in its history, it designed and marketed a line of loudspeakers. Later, it got involved in multichannel sound, digital audio, and even car audio. The Grateful Dead used McIntosh amplifiers on the road, and McIntosh powered the sound system at Woodstock. Celebrity ownership of McIntosh gear dates back to the ’50s and continues to this day, from Harold Lloyd to Howard Hughes to The Beatles.

The switch to transistors created challenges for all of the American hi-fi companies, as did competition from Japan. It put some out of business. McIntosh had, and continues to have, a huge fan base in Japan, and in 1990, the company was bought by Clarion, the Japan-based car audio company, at a time when it would have otherwise gone out of business.

Vintage McIntosh tube gear had become highly collectible, so in 1992 the company returned to manufacturing vacuum-tube-based electronics with a commemorative edition of its iconic MC275 amp and, later, a tubed preamplifier.

McIntosh’s current president, engineer Charlie Randall, joined the company in 1985 and became president in 2001. D&M Holdings purchased McIntosh from Clarion in 2003. Under Randall’s leadership, and with resources provided by its parent, McIntosh is in the midst of a strong resurgence.

That the iconic company still exists, still manufactures at its Binghamton factory, and still does so with the same dedication to the ultrahigh-quality standards of fit ’n’ finish and technical and sonic excellence that made the brand a legend, is nothing short of miraculous.

They still wind and pot their own transformers at 2 Chambers St., and they still can and do manufacture the distinctive glass fascia for any product ever built there.

No other consumer electronics company that I can think of has maintained over so many decades such a consistency of classic, industrial design. Return a McIntosh product of any vintage to 2 Chambers St. and it can be repaired and returned to you matching original factory specifications. It seems as if just about every electronic product McIntosh has ever manufactured still has enthusiasts worldwide. —Michael Fremer

(Source: Ken Kessler, McIntosh, McIntosh Laboratory, Inc., 2006)

COMPANY INFO
McIntosh Laboratory, Inc
(800) 538-6576
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COMMENTS
Jarod's picture

Good lord I love this system! Love to demo it actually. I've always drooled over that beautifull green glow. Think ill use this space to comment on how badass the Hi-End issue was! A great issue that i read cover to cover twice, and this review was my favorite review. Only thing is how in the name of mutiple drivers could you not show a pic with the grills off? I wanna see all those drivers! You even had space to do it cause you showed the speaker set on two different pages. All is forgiven though. Let me fetch my drool rag.

willdao's picture

Hi, Michael,

Thanks for a compelling review (as ever).

Can you tell me whether the pre/pro can output 11.2, for simultaneous wides and heights in a "full" Audyssey DSX setup? D & M's Denon currently has the only piece of equipment I know that can output 11.x, as opposed to just 9.x.

Thanks, again for a great review...back in the early '90s, I saw/heard a demo with a Vidikron PJ (and Faroudja line-doubler) and a full McIntosh system, including speakers. I'll never forget it; it's what compelled me to dive more deeply into HT--albeit at a more modest investment level (although I did grab a Vidikron Crystal One back in the day).

Will

P.S I agree with Jarod--let's see those "spider eyes!"

McBlackerston's picture

Check out the McIntosh XR100 website for pictures with the grills removed. They are quite impressive looking. Spider eyes indeed.

http://www.mcintoshlabs.com/us/products/pages/ProductDetails.aspx?CatId=...

Jarod's picture

Thanks for the link McB. I actually looked them up after I had first read the review. They are indeed very impressive looking! So intimidating. I love them. Its the type of speaker that you can just look at and tell its gunna sound incredible.

Nuz1's picture

I enjoyed the read and have been specifically waiting for reviews of the mx121 & mc8207. But I was really hoping for more description of the amplifier and how it compares to others in and around it's price range. Two paragraphs in how many pages?!?

Obviously it's a top pick so that gives it credibility--but compared to what? What equipment does the reviewer feel to be a direct competitor. Is it worth more 6 times the cost over an emotiva with a similar specs?

It makes me wonder if there there was just too much great equipment to be under review for one article?

michaelc's picture

I really enjoy reading your articles. McIntosh certainly produces some very good equipment. I have some questions about the MX121.

You mention the functional similarities between the MX121 and the Marantz AV7005. Would you please comment on the sonic differences between the two processors (especially wrt movie dialog/soundtracks)?

Does the increase in price reflect an equal increase in the sonic performance?

Does the MX121 processor have balanced circuitry throughout the signal path (or is the balanced input just a connector as I understand it is on the AV7005).

Thanks.

FlyhiG's picture

Well not quite for the masses perhaps. But one can dream. Great review are some fan static gear. Having a Mac integrated amp that I find to be awesome, would go with these Mac AV units in a heartbeat for home theater.
Always thought McIntosh could not really build great speakers just because their amps are so very great. When finally had a chance to audition a pair used for the back surround in this system. Incredible.

Expensive yes,but as is said, "The Quality Is Remembered Long After The Price Is Forgotten".

Really enjoyed the background history of Radio Days.

sfdoddsy's picture

I was reminded whilst reading this press release of the recent Lexicon/Oppo brouhaha.

Do you really expect us to believe that a prepro the same size as a Marantz Av7005, from the holding company of the AV7005, with a remote that is the same as the AV7005, with the same connections as an AV7005, and the same menu, and the same features, is not in fact an AV7005 with a cooler faceplate?

Since the 'reviewer' has an AV7005, could he resolve my cynicism and pop the lid on both and show us the innards?

Michael Fremer's picture
First of all, for the 'reader' to put quotes around the word reviewer is indicative of his attitude towards me. It's offensive but after all, this is the "Internets" and if you're not going to be offensive, why bother being on it?

If you'd spent any time reading my reviews here or in Stereophile you'd know that I'm hardly one of those all too common elsewhere "publicist/reviewers." So rather than calling you a cynic, I'll just say you're misinformed and move on.

It was easy to see just from looking into the top cover openings that these units did not look the same inside and I don't think you read all that carefully if you use the phrase "same connections".

Only the video connections were the same and in the same location and that's because it was the same video board, which McIntosh admitted to me upfront. And yes, the two units share the same basic operating system and it's a very good one, but the two were not identical in every way.

I drive a Saab 9-3 Turbo-X XWD automobile. It's a fantastic, fast car. It uses the same RADIO head unit that GM uses in Chevies, but otherwise there's no performance connection i can assure you. This is similar. So McIntosh uses a very good video board also used in the 7005. So what?

The Marantz 7005 is a better value for sure. I own one. But the McIntosh is a better sounding and more highly refined product. McIntosh maintained control of what it does best, which is in the analog signal processing and pre-amplification and the overall design of signal paths, layouts, etc. not to mention the overall construction quality that's certainly more important to some than it is to others.

mars2k's picture

McIntosh has always been over priced and frankly I have never been a fan of their equipment or clunky design vocabulary. And then there is the sound,…ehhh…eeesh does this junk come with earplugs?

Across the board if you took the same money and bought a collection of brands you could put together a far superior system. Look to Bryston (a 9BSST2) or Classe for amplification. Look to Oppo for a truly well respected universal player (how about a good comparison test BDP-95 with the Mac?)

Any number of speaker choices Dynaudio, Monitor, Focal, Revel , etc, etc., etc would offer better sound.

For me, McIntosh is an old retail brand that made its name when there was less competition. It’s an expensive choice for those who do not know any better but have heard the brand name mentioned by others of the unwashed.

Today there are so many other choices and for the same investment the selection is so much more exciting

For processors choose Anthem, Lexicon or even Onkyo would be better choices because you’re correct in saying the processor space is moving so fast. With Onkyo you could replace the proc every couple of years as formats evolve. By the way this will continue to happen with new disk and diplay technologies continue a’pace. The same goes for DACs, constant improvement, spend less, upgrade often.

On the other hand you can spend a fortune on this big old clunky bullet proof McIntosh gear and be stuck in the 50’s forever.

hyfynut's picture

Really ? A dream system article with GRILL ON speaker pics ? Really? Let's see some interior pics of the amp and pre-amp while we're at it. Those are the things that we'd all like to see in our dream system , build quality and design topology.

mikicasellas's picture

Hello Michael,

I am looking for a processor to upgrade my Anthem MRX 700,

This MX 121 is interesting in deed, and i dont know why but the D2V it has been always my goal to achieve...now i'm considering this unit, how do they compare?

Some dealers said to me that the MX 121 is better sound wise and better scalable. Some other said to me the D2V is clear the winner and better build...

Could you please give me a hint on this?

Miguel Casellas

ckrescho's picture

Nice. Marantz sourced parts. I may as well just buy Marantz and save thousands.

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