McIntosh MVP 861 Universal Disc Player

McIntosh ranks among the best-known names in high-end audio. Since the company's inception in the early 1950s, McIntosh products, with their immediately recognizable black-glass front panels, have earned a place in homes of passionate audiophiles throughout the world.

The latest McIntosh product to fall into my journalistic maw, the MVP 861 universal disc player, replaces the MVP 851 DVD-A player I reviewed about two years ago. This new machine represents McIntosh's first foray into the world of universal disc players. It can play CDs and DVDs as well as DVD-As, SACDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs with CD audio or MP3 files. With built-in decoders for SACD, DVD-Audio, Dolby Digital, and DTS, the MVP 861 delivers a one-box solution for all currently available audio and video disc formats.

The Core
The MVP 861 universal player looks much like McIntosh's previous MVP 851, but underneath its classic McIntosh exterior lurks a passel of new capabilities and components. According to McIntosh's Ron Cornelius, "The MVP 861 is a totally new design, although both players do share the same type of oversized R-core power supply and utilize PCM resolution at 24/192." The MVP 861 uses three pairs of the latest dual-mode PCM/DSD Burr Brown DACs. These can decode DSD data without any conversion to PCM. "SACD was a challenge for our design engineers," says Cornelius, "as the typical 1 to 3 percent THD+Noise at 10 KHz of most consumer SACD players was not acceptable. The MVP 861 will better this specification by 10 to 12dB."

The MVP 861's new video section supports both 480i and 480p outputs. The black level can be set to US or Japanese standards (for techies, that's either a 7.5IRE setup or no setup). European users will be pleased to learn that the MVP 861 also supports PAL playback. DVI and HDMI fans may be disappointed to find the MV 861 does not have either of these two digital-video outputs. Cornelius defends McIntosh's decision not to include these outputs, saying, "The current DVD players that change 480i native DVD to HDMI 720p or 1080i are all using the same popular video chipsets that generate video artifacts. Since the MVP 861 makes no attempt to manipulate the native 480i DVD video signal, it is free of macro-blocking, red push, white crush, and other side effects of upconversion caused by this chip set. McIntosh believes that premium display monitors are best left to rescale the picture with their specific built-in devices, since these match the actual pixel structure of the display."

(We must note here that all the DVI- or HDMI-equipped players we have tested to date will also put out digital video signals at 480p, leaving it to the display to upscale the signal as needed. One player, the Pioneer DV-59AVI, will even put out digital video at 480i.—TJN)

Regarding DVI and HDMI in McIntosh's future products, Cornelius concluded, "HDMI is a great connector, especially when we have the software to use it, which will be with HD DVD and Blu-ray discs. Until then, we do not see an advantage on DVD playback over good old flexible and inexpensive component cables."

Audio output options include both coaxial and TosLink digital outputs, single-ended RCA and balanced XLR stereo outputs, and single-ended RCA 5.1-channel surround outputs. Internal level and delay controls for the multichannel outputs can be adjusted via onscreen menus.

First Taste
Setting up the MVP 861 takes only a few minutes and can almost be accomplished without the aide of the instruction book. The onscreen menus give you access to all meaningful video adjustments including aspect ratio (including squeeze mode), display type (CRT, DLP, etc.), black level, and progressive output. Audio adjustments include speaker size, channel levels, delay times, digital output formats, 2-channel bass enhancement (sends bass info to the subwoofer as well as the main L/R speakers on 2-channel source material), and rudimentary bass management. A built-in test-tone signal makes setting individual channel levels easy, but adjustments can only be made in minus dB increments. This means you must first determine which speaker has the lowest output level and then lower the other levels to match it. Unlike the MVP 851, the 861 does not have the ability to remember settings for individual titles.

The MVP 861's remote control seemed very familiar to me since it is the same one used by Lexicon's MC-12 pre-pro. By necessity, Lexicon users need to develop a system to determine which remote is which. I constantly found myself adjusting the volume on the McIntosh's remote when I wanted to adjust the volume on the Lexicon. Silly me. Except for constant mix-ups, I found the McIntosh remote easy to use, since it does light up, and all the important functions can be found easily.

If you are the type of person who hates to wait for anything, you may notice some lethargy in the MVP 861's operations. While it takes the Lexicon RT-10 only 9.1 seconds to load a DVD and be ready for playback, the MVP 861 takes 14.1 seconds. Merely ejecting a disc takes the MVP 861 2.3 seconds, while the Lexicon RT-10 performs this function in 1.3 seconds. Once in top menu, both players get to a chapter selection in 1.2 seconds.

Full Meal
The MVP 861's audio and video quality certainly live up to McIntosh's reputation for stellar performance. Its 480p progressive output equals any player I've reviewed. Only the more expensive Meridian 598 DVD-A player and Lexicon RT-10 match the MVP 861's performance level. On test patterns from both Video Essentials and Avia test discs, the MVP 861 had sufficient acuity to resolve even the highest frequencies on the test patterns. The challenging Snell and Wilcox moving zone plate test also looked exceptionally clean from the MVP 861, with no sparkle or extraneous color and motion artifacts. The MVP 861 does exhibit a trace of stair-step edges on the fluttering American flag during the Video Essentials montage of images, and the slow pan across the stadium seats from the same segment exhibits only the very slightest bit of motion anomalies.

As you might expect, an outboard Faroudja Native Rate video processor produces a sharper picture since it outputs 720p, but the MVP 861 equals it in terms of motion rendering, color neutrality, and lack of decoding artifacts. Like the Meridian 598 and Lexicon RT-10 DVD players, the MVP 861's 480p performance exhibited little for me to fault. After several hours of going back and forth, I could not discern any meaningful differences in the picture quality between these three players. Perhaps the MVP 861 had a slight edge in motion-artifact control, but the Meridian's picture exhibited a smidgen less noise, and the Lexicon had a slightly more natural color palette. Bottom line, they all deliver an exceptionally high-quality 480p image.

As a player of CD, DVD-A, and SACD, the MVP 861 creates beautiful music. A/B listening sessions pitting it against the CEC TL-2 CD transport, Lexicon RT-10 universal player, and Meridian 598 DVD-A player left me with many pages of listening notes comprised of superlatives. Using their digital outputs for CD playback, all four players produced similar soundstage dimensions. The CEC TL-2 and Lexicon RT-10 had a slightly superior depth, but this may be a result of their AES/EBU digital outputs, which the other two units lack. Coupled to the Meridian 800 A/V processor, the Meridian 598 produces slightly more depth and realism on DVD-A sources, but the "home team advantage" of Meridian's digital upsampling and MHR (Meridian High Resolution) Smart Link connection may account for its supremacy. I suspect that if I had a McIntosh audio processor, the MVP 861 might reign supreme through an S/PDIF digital tether. When all things are nearly equal, as it is with these fine players, you can't discount the effects of synergistic component mating.

Using analog outputs, the MVP 861 produced sonically stellar results. Compared with the Lexicon RT-10's analog output, the MVP 861's more musical and slightly sweeter upper frequencies were immediately obvious. The Lexicon didn't sound bad by any means, but the McIntosh definitely delivered a less matter-of-fact harmonic balance that makes many imperfect commercial recordings sound better. On my own concert recordings, the McIntosh erred slightly on the side of euphony, but with conventional software, the McIntosh had a slight sonic edge. On Faith Hill's Cry (Warner Brothers 48001-9), a lush-sounding but overly compressed DVD-A recording, the MVP 861 seemed more compelling, but on the Grateful Dead's American Beauty (Warner Brothers/Rhino R9 74385), the Lexicon produced a more musically revealing result that may not have been as euphonic, but ultimately more satisfying for me.

DVD-As played through the Meridian 800 A/V processor using the analog outputs from both the McIntosh MVP 861 and Lexicon RT-10 paled in comparison to the Meridian 598 player's Smart Link connection, which keeps the DVD-A signal in the digital domain. The 598's superiority was not subtle. Through the Meridian combination, DVD-As sounded immediate, detailed, dimensionally palpable, and substantially more emotionally involving. After these listening sessions ended, I prayed to the audio gods that I may live long enough to see a time when all DVD-A players have digital connections for DVD-A playback.

On the venerable but still exceptional-sounding SACD release of Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical SS 37779), both the Lexicon RT-10 and McIntosh MVP 861 delivered a quiet noise floor that uncovers all of Gould's vocalizations. The McIntosh endowed Gould's Steinway piano with a smidgen more euphony, while it had a more metallic edge through the Lexicon. On Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks (Columbia CH 90323), "Buckets of Rain" had a more relaxed and natural ambience through the McIntosh, but the Lexicon preserved his last sigh at the end of the tune with a bit more resolution.

Last Mouthful
Why do audiophiles buy McIntosh components? Some choose McIntosh because of the unique and classic good looks, but most are swayed by the company's reputation for reliability and sonic excellence. The MVP 861 follows McIntosh's tradition of combining physical quality with fine performance. Some videophiles may be disappointed by the MVP 861's lack of digital video interfaces, but most will find its analog video performance more than compensatory. On currently available audio formats, the MVP 861 delivers a level of musicality and refinement that will satisfy any music lover.

"No one ever got fired for buying IBM" used to be business gospel. The audiophile parallel is, "No one was ever disappointed by a McIntosh audio component." The second truism still applies.

Highs and Lows

• Excellent picture
• Superb sound
• Robust build quality

• No DVI or HDMI output
• No disc memory