Performance of these inputs improves in direct ratio to the volume control’s numeric setting. When set high, either to play music loudly or compensate for a low-output source such as a moving-coil cartridge, the sound blossoms. Highs become more extended, providing a much-appreciated breath of air. Dynamics turn noticeably more vibrant. Moreover, at these settings, the 1098 displays a panoply of orchestral colors, as evidenced on “Jupiter” from the Super Analogue Disc LP reissue of Holst’s The Planets.
But it is the Rotel’s multichannel input that makes the strongest case for playing music through this controller. Whereas the stereo inputs must run through a switching IC in order to give users the option of engaging digital processing, the multichannel input is always pure analog; it has the most direct signal path in the box. Minus the burden of any switching or processing circuitry, all that it needs to function is a gain stage and a volume control. The sonic benefit is not small.
With its multichannel input in action, the 1098 takes on an infectiously boisterous personality. Dynamics no longer flop but pop. While still vaguely present, edginess is considerably ameliorated. And pace is irrepressible. Meanwhile, all the bestcase strengths of the stereo inputs are preserved and amplified.
Of course there are still drawbacks, as one would expect at this price point. Instruments are not as harmonically fleshed out as in real life, or as wrought by the Aesthetix. Dynamics are somewhat crude and could be more nuanced. Resolution and transient detail, while quite good, fall short of the reference gear. For example, the Rotel cannot quite capture the room reflections in the aforementioned Bright Eyes track. Finally, while nicely weighted, bass is rather indistinct. On the DVD-A of Ray Brown’s Soular Energy [Hi-Res], the Rotel replaces with a more generic version the strikingly variegated instrument summoned by the analog preamps.
Nonetheless, these are all relatively minor sins of omission, which are vastly preferable to those of commission. The biggest problem with the 1098’s multichannel input is that there is only one, for ultimately this controller is capable of sound that is as good as or better than you’re likely to find in analog gear at anywhere near its price.
Deep inside the MX-119’s sleek exterior lays a great preamplifier struggling to get out. You can hear it in the Mac’s wideranging and highly refined dynamics. Listen, for instance, to “Bydlo” from the Classic LP reissue of RCA’s Pictures at an Exhibition. If properly produced, the crescendo in this movement should be downright scary. When I heard it through the MX-119, my neck hairs stood up. Yet this controller can be delicate, too. It easily conjures the small but critical vocal inflections that lend poignancy to Bright Eyes’ music. These dynamic capabilities extend down deep, where Ray Brown’s acoustic bass retains its ability to surprise with short, accented bursts.
The Mac also reveals its inner strength through the colors of an orchestra. As “Jupiter”—which includes everything from ballsy brass to wisps of percussive flourishes—makes clear, this controller’s palette is plenty diverse (though still not to the degree of the Aesthetix). Again, this quality extends to the low frequencies, where Brown’s bass shows its chameleon nature. Overall, the MX-119’s presentation is vibrant yet, like the best analog, emanates smoothness and ease.
So what’s the problem? It’s that all this goodness must seep through a persistent electronic glaze. Rather than air enveloping the players, there is gel. This glaze should not be confused with a harsh grain, which would preclude the relaxed qualities this controller possesses in spades. Rather, the glaze smoothly but consistently pervades the music, submerging clarity, curtailing depth, restricting highs, and erasing low-level details like note decay and reverberant space. Macs have traditionally exhibited a laidback, polished sonic quality. But the MX- 119 goes beyond that to approach the plasticity that is the dominion of mid-fi.
Still and all, the inherent qualities of the C46 preamp (thoroughly described by Paul Seydor in Issue 147) within this controller go a long way toward salvaging the listening experience. Despite my sonic objections, the MX-119 delivers in enough musically important areas to consistently draw me in. My hope is that McIntosh will address whatever— insufficient shielding of the analog circuitry from digital and video noise, perhaps— may be creating the glaze, thereby allowing the undeniable qualities within this controller to fully emerge.