Mactone XX-3000 Preamplifier and MH-300B Amplifier
|Mactone XX-3000 Preamplifier and MH-300B Amplifier|
|An ambitious effort from Japan|
Shooting for the stars
As most of my audiophile friends know, I have a serious affinity for vacuum tube preamps. Ironically, I use a solid-state preamp – the Klyne 7 LX3.5 – as my reference, because its neutrality allows me to hear more of what my review subjects sound like. As a reviewer tool, it is indispensable. But I looove the attributes that tube preamps bring to the listening experience. Yes, the Klyne allows me to listen to music critically and more cerebrally, but tube preamps make music more of a joyful experience, though they may not be the last word in neutrality.
Dave Thomas accuses me of going on an annual “tube preamp witch hunt,” where he says that each spring I inexplicably begin jonesing for a tube pre to replace the Klyne. He could be right. Several months ago I found myself searching the web for a tube preamp that would be a new discovery. This is when I came across a manufacturer from Japan named Mactone.
I searched the web for as much Mactone information as I could, but alas there wasn’t much. So I decided to call the company directly. My contact at Mactone was a gentleman named Mr. Hiroshi Ishihara, who is a director at Sibatech. It is Sibatech that acts as marketer and distributor for some of Japan’s finest audio equipment. Their lines include, along with Mactone, 47 Labs, Zyx, Kondo and Abis. I have heard offerings from each of these lines at various high-end shows and they all sound good.
After several emails went back and forth between Hiroshi and I we decided to meet at the 2010 CES. The demo Hiroshi and Sibatech put on with Mactone electronics in the driver’s seat gave me mixed feelings. At one moment they played some music that I was not familiar with on speakers that I didn’t know and wasn’t that impressed with. But then they played a classical piece, whose name I still don’t know, and I found myself not wanting the music to stop. During the demo I had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Ishihara as well as with Mr. Kenjiro Matsumoto, President of Mactone, and with Mr. Masahiro Shibazaki, President of Sibatech, Inc. I found these guys to be very helpful and accommodating and after a brief discussion, they decided to let me do a review of the new Mactone XX-3000 preamp and MH-300B amplifier.
Getting familiar with the Mactone
The top-of-the-line Mactone XX-3000 preamplifier and MH-300B power amplifier arrived a few weeks later. Other than a couple of the preamp tubes falling out of their pots (the tubes were not packed separate in the preamp like they were in the amplifier), there were no delivery issues. Everything was packed neatly. The XX-3000 caught my attention with its attractive champagne gold colored faceplate. It was well built and a little on the heavy side weighing in at nearly 45lbs. The top of the preamp has a metal cover that hides the power supply transformer, which I would imagine is large based on the heft of this unit. The other half of the top of the preamp has a plastic shield covering the six 12BH7A tubes. This plastic cover has four 1” diameter holes in it that allow the tubes to breathe should things get warm. The side panels are black metallic.
The XX-3000 is rather basic in terms of functionality. A large selector control resides on the left side of the face plate that allows you to select from five inputs, CD and four line inputs. There is a control of equal size on the right side of the faceplate for controlling the volume. There are three smaller knobs on the front plate that control tape selection, balance and a power switch. The rear contains five pairs of input connectors (CD and four line inputs), three pairs of tape connectors (for the input/output) and two pair of output connectors. The connector inputs and outputs on the rear of the XX-3000 are very sturdy and seem to be well built though there is no indication of who they are made by. There is also a fuse holder and an IEC connector on the rear of the preamplifier and that’s about it for the rear panel. I would classify the look of the MH-300B amplifier as somewhere between the old budget-priced Golden Tube Audio, circa early to mid 1990s, and some of the offerings from Canary Audio. The amplifier has the same champagne gold color of the preamplifier and uses two 300B tubes per channel. The other tubes utilized in the amplifier are two 12BH7As and one ECC82 tube. There is a black cover that covers the amplifiers transformers and a plastic shield cover the area in front of the tubes blocking users from accidentally touching the tubes. There are for controls located in front of the plastic barrier. These are for power, a level control for each pair of 300B tubes and a presence control. The level controls act like volume controls and give the user some control over the out of the pair of 300B tubes its connecte3d to. The presence control, while it does work, did not seem to have a major affect on the sound. For this review, after spending a day seeing what sounded best to these ears, I left the presence control and the level controls turned all the way up.
How does it sound?
That brings us to the important part. How do they sound? In this portion of the review I will comment on the Mactone XX-3000 and MH-300B sound when used together. I will comment on how they perform with other manufacturer’s equipment in the next section of my review. Upon initial hearing, I felt the Mactone pieces excelled in their ability to convey music with a life like quality in the midrange. The Mactone pieces excelled in the way that they communicate midrange performance to the extent that I thought that several CDs I was listening to were audiophile grade reissues. The midrange sounds natural, vibrant and alive with rich tonal colors and an immediacy that draws the listener’s attention, especially to the way it handles solo piano and strings.
I thoroughly enjoyed what the Mactones could do with vocals. Vocalists felt eerily present in my listening room and you could clearly hear every detail of their vocalizations. Whether the singers were breathing into the microphone, turning their head to the side, taking deep breaths, swallowing, whether their tone was deep, raspy or mellifluous, they seemed alive in my room. The Mactones provide a good amount of detail and musical information and display it on a wide stage. In my listening room, the Mactones threw a deep, layered stage that was clearly extended past the outside edges of my speakers and seemingly extended past the rear wall of my listening room. Performers were portrayed as occupying their own space across the stage, with good dimensionality, height, and air. The high frequency aspects of the Mactone performance was generally good, smooth, and never got in the way of or took away from being able to enjoy the music. The bass performance also was good being more full sounding, especially in the mid-bass, than what I would typify as being “deep” or room shaking.
On Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio’s CD, In Full Swing [Odyssey], the Mactone combo rendered the music with a lot of naturalness and realism. Jane Monheit’s vocals on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Misty” come through as lush and sweet, while Wynton Marsalis played with amazing speed and articulation on “Tiger Rag” comes across sounding lively, inspired and involving. A live recording that the Mactone duo shined on was The Sheryl Bailey 3’s CD, Live @ The Fat Cat [Pure Music Records]. This recording really benefits from all of the ambiance and “live” sounds of the club and Mactone pieces showed their tube heritage by giving the listener a greater feeling of being there in the club while the performance is taking place. I enjoy listening to Ms. Bailey’s virtuoso guitar work on this disc but on the track “The Wishing Well”, Gary Versace’s work on the Hammond B3 organ is mesmerizing. Another live recording that gave a good example of the Mactone’s ability to reproduce a live recording would be Wynton Marsalis’ CD, Live at the House of Tribes [Blue Note Records]. Wynton’s brother Delfeayo has produced some of the most compelling live recordings, and in this instance, this CD, recorded by Jeff Jones, is one of the better live recordings I’ve heard. The Mactone amp and preamp do such a wonderful job of conveying the emotion and the energy communicated by Marsalis on, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” that I had to keep reminding myself that I was listening to a recording.
The odd pairing of guitar geniuses Jerry Garcia and David Grisman produced a wonderful sounding album in their tribute to Miles Davis, So What [Acoustic Disc]. The Mactone amp and preamp combined to let you hear the tonal contrasts and fingering techniques between these two guitar masters as did their nimbleness at handling the abundance of transient response and ambient cues in this studio setting. The Mactone duo shows good bass capability and power when reproducing Thomas Newman’s CDAmerican Beauty: Original Motion Picture Score [Dreamworks]. On the track “Root Beer” the bass was surprisingly strong, especially for the 23 watt MH-300B, and exhibited no stress or strain as long as I kept the volume level at a decent level. This was quite an impressive feat. Dynamic performance with this par was also handled with aplomb. On Jacques Loussier’s disc Plays Bach [Telarc Jazz], midway through “Gavotte in D Minor”, Andre Arpino has a driving, heart pounding drum solo that the Mactone pieces replicate with all of the energy and verve intact.
The XX-3000 and MB-300B do a wonderful job with pianos as well. The great Earl Wild’s performance of Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 [Chesky Records] with Anatole Fistoulari conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is an excellent example of this. The attack and decay on the keys, the sweeping, full bodied sound of the piano with all of its tonal character all add up to Mr. Wild’s confident interpretation of this piece. The Mactone amp and preamp do a fine job reproducing orchestral strings as they do with the English String Orchestra’s reproduction of George Butterworth’sParry Bridge [Nimbus]. The Mactone pieces do an excellent job of allowing the listener to hear the different string tones emanating from a wide deep stage. They also do a good job of allowing the listener to separate and follow the different lines being played by the orchestra.
Winding things up
The vacuum tubed Mactone XX-3000 and MH-300B worked best when being used together. With other electronics, there were times when they worked well and times when they did not. For instance, the Mactone XX-3000 did not work well with the massive XLH M2000 solid-state mono amps. I can’t say that either piece was at fault, but the results were not harmonious. This was the only amplifier during the review period the XX-3000 did not perform well with. I did get to use the XX-3000 with a pair of amplifiers whose sound I know intimately.
I spent more than a couple of weeks with the Thor TPA 30 mono-amps and a couple of weeks with a Plinius SA-102 with the XX-3000 driving them and feel I got a good grasp on how it performs with other amplifiers. With the Plinius SA-102, the XX-3000’s staging qualities and immediacy were clearly evident and remained involving. It also provided better bass performance and slam than it did with the MH-300B in that it showed the ability to delve deeper in the nether regions that I had heard it do previously.
In some instances the bass could seem a little too strong or have more of a bass presence than what I would have liked, but those midrange attributes made me not care. When I put my reference Klyne 7 LX3.5 into the system, I felt I had more extension in the highs and deeper tighter bass performance than I had with the Mactone preamp. The XX-3000’s performance with the Thor 30 watt mono amps was noteworthy. This combinations rendering of tonal colors, vocals and stage presence were not quite as good as with the MH-300B, but the transient attack, dynamics and slightly more open high frequencies caught my attention and allowed me to enjoy my music.
The MH-300B, again, performed its best with the XX-3000 but I also had good results driving it with my Klyne and with the Herron VTSP-2. With the Klyne, the MH-300B exhibited better performance at the frequency extremes and had better dynamics, but did not have the same performance in the midrange, and especially, with vocalists, as it had with the XX-3000. The MH-300B was most balanced when I listened to it with the Herron. It may not have exhibited the same level dynamics and low end performance as with the Klyne, or the same midrange performance as with the XX-3000, but it sounded balanced, doing everything at least well, and was always musical. I would still lean towards that magical midrange performance that the MH-300B had with the XX-3000 as that combination was the most musically satisfying. There was no combination that I used the XX-3000 or the MH-300B in that I didn’t like, though there were some combinations that I liked better than others.
In the end, I felt they sounded best when being used with each other as they are an extremely musical combination. Other than the XX-3000 not performing well with the XLH mono amps, there were no other surprises. The XX-3000 ($49,000) and MH-300B ($12,000) were good performers and exhibited no pops or sonic artifacts that gave concern. They both are well built, especially so in the case of the XX-3000 with its 40 lbs. plus weight. At their price points, especially for the XX-3000, the competition is more than stiff so make sure you have the opportunity to audition them at home and see how they perform in your system. The bottom line is Mactone makes some very good and very serious sounding equipment that deserves to be given a listen.
Mactone XX-3000 Preamplifier ($49,000)
Frequency Response: 30-70,000Hz -1dB
Output 1 & 2: 1 Volt
Input: CD, Line, Tape 100mV
Power Consumption: 60W
Size: 485mm (18.3”) W x 170mm (6.7”) H x 370mm (14.5”) D
Weight: 21kg (44lbs)
Tubes: 12BH7A x 6
MH300B Stereo OPT Power Amplifier (12,000)
Output Power: 23Wx23W into 8 ohms
Frequency Response: 20 – 90kKHz +0 -1dB
Input Sensitivity: 0.5V/23W (8 ohms)
Size: 290mm (11.4”) W x 305mm (12”) D x 210mm (8.27”) H
Weight: 17kg (37.5lbs)
Tubes: 300B x 4, 12BH7A x 2, ECC82 X 1
Suginami-ku, Tokyo, Japan
8-25-22 Higashi Suna
Koto-ku, Tokyo 138-0074 Japan
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