MUSIC CULTURE MC 601 PREAMPLIFIER
Dr. John Richardson & John Fritz
When one thinks of German goods, one immediately thinks “precision.” Whether it be ball bearings or automobiles, the Germans have had a long standing reputation for doing it right. And that’s exactly what I think of when I look at and listen to the Music Culture MC 601 preamplifier; precision done right. Of course, none of this should be a surprise to me, as I’ve recently reviewed some nice German gear, namely the SPL Phonitor headphone amp and the Rein Audio X-DAC, neither of which was a slouch in either the build quality or sound quality department.
All of this makes sense when one realizes that Music Culture Technology (the company) was founded by Wolfgang Meletzky back in 2005; you may know Mr. Meletzky as the guy who earlier founded and was the main designer for another well known German audio company: mbl. Now we all know about mbl and its amazingly elegant (and expensive) omnidirectional speakers and electronics. However, Mr. Meletzky wanted the challenge of bringing gear that was nearly as good to a wider range of enthusiasts, many of whom couldn’t afford mbl’s offerings, so this is how MC got its start.
One look at the MC 601 and no one seems surprised about its high class heritage. This is one sexy piece of gear. Unlike some of the old school gear I favor, this preamp is sleek and modern. Finished in high gloss black with bright metallic pushbutton controls and an LCD screen showing the preamp’s status, I could see this piece in the rack of any enthusiast who appreciates good looks as much as good sound.
While all of the MC 601’s functions are accessible from the faceplate, it seems to have been designed to operate with the enclosed remote control. The remote itself is a heavy metal affair that was easy and intuitive to use. However, since my listening chair is right beside the rack where the MC 601 was housed, I opted to use the controls on the preamp’s front panel. Volume, for example, was easily manipulated using two pushbutton controllers: one to decrease the volume and one to increase it. The volume in dB was clearly noted on the LCD screen at each setting. Other front panel options include input selector buttons, display brightness control, and a mute, which I found convenient when cueing vinyl.
The rear panel sports four sets of single ended inputs, one set of balanced XLR inputs, two sets of variable RCA outputs, and a single set of XLR outs. Also included are one set each of fixed outputs and processor inputs, both RCA.
Users should note that the MC 601 is a line stage preamp only; there is no onboard phono stage available.
On then, to the sound...
All of my listening was done in the digital domain, using files stored digitally on an external hard drive and fed via a Mac Mini (using Channel D’s Pure Music player) through my Sound Devices USBPre 2 digital converter to an Antelope Audio Zodiac DAC using its S/PDIF input. The analog output of the Zodiac was fed directly into one set of RCA inputs on the MC 601 preamp, and from there to my Threshold SA 3.5e amplifier, which powered Shahinian Compass speakers. No subwoofer was used in this evaluation, and cables and power cords were sourced from Harmonic Technologies, Tel-Wire, and Darwin Cables. All components were plugged into my Spiritual Audio VX-1 line conditioner.
Perhaps this lovely piece of gear had the misfortune of arriving on the heels of the REDGUM RGi120ENR, a truly luscious sounding and powerful integrated amp. The REDGUM took me by storm, presenting me with sound as lovely as I could want. A hard act to follow, as it were. While the REDGUM grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, the MC 601 had more of a way of slowly leading me down the path to near perfection. When coupled with my Threshold SA 3.5e amplifier, I found myself at first listening somewhat reticently, but over time being slowly and inexorably dragged into a most wonderful listening experience. Yes, it took a few days of going “cold turkey” from the REDGUM, but I did it. There are indeed other fish in the sea.
While the REDGUM is all about neutrality and proper pacing (which is probably why it grabbed my attention so thoroughly), the MC 601 is about nuance. What it really does well is tease out the truest possible instrumental textures and tonal colors from a good recording, whether it be orchestral, chamber, small ensemble jazz, or classic rock. The synergy with the Threshold amp was uncanny and lent such a sense of realism to the music that I was drawn in hour after hour, making for numerous listening sessions that went far too late into the night. I can’t recall a system that made acoustic instruments sound so much like they do in real life; it’s something about getting the harmonics right. Well designed vacuum tube equipment is known for this kind of thing, and I was honestly not expecting it to such a degree from a solid state preamplifier.
Oh, and the bass...
I decided for some reason not to hook up my subwoofer. Maybe I was yearning for the pristine and simple experience of running signal from the preamp to the amp and then directly to a single pair of speakers. No matter, as the bass with the MC 601 in the system seemed to be more tuneful and go deeper than I remember, indeed to the point where it is almost felt rather than heard. Again, maybe an advantage of solid state over tubes, but here I felt that I was really getting the best of both worlds. Again, as in the rest of the frequency band, I got the distinct impression that there were natural harmonic textures in the bass that I have not heard with other preamps that I am well familiar with.
I get a lot of enjoyment out of listening to a high resolution digital transcription of Sir William Walton’s works on the Lyrita LP SRCS 49, which includes Scapino, A Comedy Overture, The Quest Ballet Suite, Sinfonia Concertante for Orchestra and Piano, and Capriccio Burlesco. This record contains beautifully recorded and played versions of these works and is an excellent demonstration/evaluation tool. With this recording, the MC 601 was truly in its element. I couldn’t get over how natural and real the orchestra and piano sounded, which is a testament to the MC 601’s ability to “do” instrumental textures and timbres. Again, even with this type of big orchestral music, I was never tempted to put my subwoofer back in the system: there was plenty of high quality bass. String tone was beguiling, as one might hear from very good vacuum tube amplification, with wonderful extension but without the metallic steeliness or edginess that often comes with lesser solid-state gear. I never felt that pace, rhythm, or drive were ever lacking with the MC 601, though it didn’t thrust these things to the forefront like the REDGUM RGi120ENR did. As I said before, the MC preamp has a way of taking the listener gently by the hand and leading him slowly down the grassy path to audio nirvana. I was especially taken by the beauty of the lower registers of the piano during Walton’s Sinfonia Concertante, which tonally might have been ever so slightly warm of neutral, but never in a way that was anything less than magical.
Space was also conveyed in an entirely proper and enjoyable manner. I like to use Walton’s Capriccio Burlesco as a test for orchestral soundstage and depth, as this piece was recorded from a somewhat distant hall perspective. Here, the orchestra should sound as if it is arrayed well behind the speakers, and with a good sense of hall reverberation. All of these spatial cues were rendered with accuracy and precision by the MC 601.
Another record in heavy rotation in the system lately is Coleman Hawkins’ Sirius (Pablo LP 2310707). This recording doesn’t merit much favor among critics, as it was the Hawk’s last studio recording, made in 1966 shortly before he died. Obviously, he was ill and not at his best, but these are primarily ballads, which he still manages to play with a subtle combination of strength and tenderness. No, this isn’t the Hawk blowing in top form, but I find it quite enjoyable nonetheless. Like the Walton recording above, I also find this one an excellent test of both space and instrumental timbre. This recording was engineered by Val Valentin, who recorded many notable and excellent Verve dates, so the engaging recorded sound comes as no surprise. No matter which cut you choose to hear, Hawkins is closely mic’d up front and slightly right of center, while the piano is up front left, and the bass and drum kit occupy the right side of the stage. Of course, the recording plays right to the strengths of the MC 601/Threshold combo with the complex tonal shading of the saxophone and piano and the rich textural harmonics of the plucked string bass. I’m not sure if Hawkins was recorded in a booth, or if the studio space was just small, but with the MC 601/Threshold amplification combo, you can easily hear the sound from the sax reverberating off the walls of his enclosure.
Perhaps my favorite cut on this album is Sweet and Lovely, a lightly swinging bluesy piece that highlights Hawkins and Bob Cranshaw on bass. Partway into the song, Cranshaw launches into a bass solo that grabs my attention every time I hear it. With the MC 601 in the chain, each plucked note is distinct, with plenty of decay and space around the instrument. Cranshaw sounds like he is behind and just right of Hawkins, with each occupying his own space, though they are obviously positioned close to one another. When I talk about the precision of the MC 601, this is just the sort of thing I am referring to, both with regard to harmonic rightness and spaciousness.
I always find it instructive to hear a piece of gear in someone else’s system, if only to tell me whether or not it will behave in other systems as it does in my own. In this case, I hoofed the MC 601 over to John Fritz’s house, as he will be doing the second opinion to my review. I’m happy to tell you that the MC 601 is no chameleon, as it continued to show its true colors in John’s system, which consists of Audio Research amplification and Wilson Audio MAXX speakers. As in my system, the MC 601 exhibited a slight sense of warmth that positioned it a bit south of absolute tonal neutrality; we both thought it sounded like a very good vacuum tube unit. Harmonic layers continued to be teased out, whether it be cello, saxophone, or female vocals. Let’s just say that Dusty Springfield’s voice in her famous rendition of The Look of Love displayed the timing and inflections that it’s known for; she seemed to be in the room with us. I’ll be curious to see what John has to say about the MC 601 in his part of the review, but I can say that it sounded very nice indeed in his system.
Just a few closing thoughts here before I turn the review over to fellow reviewer John Fritz. First, I got to hear an entire Music Culture system at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, and I was very pleased to find that the system there sounded much like my own with the MC 601 installed in it. I feel that the MC 601 has a certain “house sound” that it conveyed in my own system, and that’s not a bad thing for someone who is looking for the sonic attributes I’ve outlined earlier in my review of the preamp.
Second, on a lark, I decided to test the DAC output of my inexpensive pro audio Sound Devices USBPre 2 interface into the MC 601. While my experience with this DAC has been very favorable, I wouldn’t place it into “first class” territory. However, into the MC preamp using a good set of analog cables, I was shocked to find that I could barely tell the difference between the $650 Sound Devices DAC and the much more expensive Antelope Audio DAC! Maybe there was some sort of synergy, a very favorable impedance match perhaps, between the USBPre2 and the MC 601, but the results were astounding. Just goes to show that sometimes a little bit of careful component matching can go a long way toward achieving sonic bliss, and maybe even save the listener some money in the long run.
At the outset of this review, I must admit my preference for tube gear. With few exceptions, all of the preamps and amps I have owned in my three decades of dancing with the audio muse have been tubes or hybrids. Don’t get me wrong. I have heard the strengths of solid-state units: low noise, extension at the frequency extremes, taut and powerful bass, transparency and resolution. Yet very few solid-state offerings could replicate the delicate harmonic structure and textures of live un-amplified instruments the way tubes could. Tube electronics intrinsically possess “truth in timbre” something lacking in all but some of the pricier solid-state offerings I have heard. I hearken back to my first tube preamp, the Audio Research SP-6B. Listening to the SP-6B for the first time was a defining moment for me: for better or worse I was smitten and there was no looking back. The SP-6B had a magical way of making a cello sound like a cello, a trumpet like a trumpet, so natural was its presentation compared to solid state units of the day.
Given then, my predilection for tube preamps, I wasn’t expecting much from the moderately priced ($3,495) Music Culture Technology MC 601 Solid State Preamplifier. At best, I supposed I would hear a competent but ultimately uninspiring performance. As it turns out, I was wrong! This is one impressive preamp, even though I would not exactly describe its sound as tube-like.
The MC 601 belongs to Music Culture Technology’s “Elegance” Line of Electronics. The MC 601 is elegant indeed, with a look of understated refinement that is reminiscent of offerings from MBL and Electrocompaniet. Starting with the front, the middle of the black faceplate is graced with a blue digital display flanked on either side by small gold buttons operating source selection, mute and dimmer. The contrast between black, blue and gold is striking. Beneath the digital display are two buttons offering manual gain control. The numerical gain display is large enough to read from 15 feet or more. I ended up using the manual controls because the supplied remote wasn’t working properly: I could raise but not lower the volume. The back of the unit offers balanced and singled ended inputs and outputs. Curiously, I was not able to switch sources manually while the unit was on mute. Go figure. Overall build quality is exemplary and suggestive of a higher priced unit. Aside from the glitch with the remote, the MC 601 performed flawlessly during the review period.
So the MC 601 is a looker, but how does it sound? Is it a poor(er) man’s mbl? In truth, I was not at all familiar with the Music Culture Technology line of audio components and didn’t know what to expect when I inserted it in my system. What’s more, my Wilson MAXX speakers tend to be analytical and unkind to less than stellar components. I was skeptical. However, from the start, I was surprised to find that the MC 601 was never less than engaging in reproducing a wide range of music. It seems that the designers of the MC 601 have successfully melded some of the best attributes of tube and solid state to create a sound that was neither tube nor solid state like, but always musically compelling. Preamp designers have attempted this sonic alchemy before, mostly with mixed results. Often the attempt results in an overly dark or bland sound. Not here... no baby thrown out with the bath water in the design of the MC 601.
Most of my listening was done using my vinyl rig (VPI Classic 2 table, Benz Micro SM cartridge). I started my evaluation listening to the classic cut Way Out West (Analog Productions APG 008). This all tube recording features saxophone great Sony Rollins with Shelley Manne on drums and Ray Brown on bass. WOW allows me to readily home in on a component’s reproduction of instrumental timbres and low level details. Through the MC 601 Sony Rollins’ saxophone sounded breathy and natural, with just a slight darkening of tone compared to my ARC LS-25 MK II hybrid preamp. Rollins’ fingering was evident but not as pronounced as with the ARC. Manne’s sympathetic brush work in the first part of the cut was naturally rendered, but I thought the ARC was a bit more effective in capturing the wiry rasp of brush on drum head. Likewise, when Manne switches to sticks later in the cut, the ARC was slightly more resolving of skin tone and the overtones of the ride cymbal. However, this comparison was a close call, and this is indeed an impressive performance for such a moderately priced preamp.
It was evident from the start that the MC 601’s noise floor is exemplary. This was not a surprise to me as solid state preamps in general tend to be lower in noise than tube units. What surprised me is that the MC 601 seemed subjectively quieter than my ARC. The ARC, with its hybrid circuit, is also very low in noise artifacts. Consequently, with both preamps, I could hear deep into the mix of complex studio recordings. The various guitars, percussion and synths found in Al Dimeola’s Elegant Gypsy (Columbia 34461) were laid bare in an expansive soundstage, and it is was easy to hear the interplay of the gifted musicians as they kept pace with Dimeola’s blistering guitar work. Given a complex, multi-mic’d orchestral recording, such as Part IV of Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony (EMI SLS 5266), the MC 601 revealed with aplomb the juxtaposition of a large orchestra with an adult choir, boys choirs, and soloists, each occupying a discrete place on the soundstage. I could easily tell that the soloists were in front of the centrally located boys choir, and the adult choir, in turn, stood behind the boys choir in a wider lateral spread, surrounded in turn by an even wider spread of the orchestra.
Two distinct attributes of the MC 601’s reproduction of the soundstage are worth mentioning. First, unlike the ARC, whose soundstage starts at the front plane of the loudspeakers, the 601’s stage starts at a line that seems to be about one foot behind the speakers. This is most noticeable when playing orchestral recordings. An upfront in your face preamp the MC 601 is not, if that is your cup of tea. You are instead treated to a middle of the hall, almost panoramic view of the proceedings, which appeals to me. I happen to think that the MC 601’s presentation is more, if not entirely accurate, in light of the mic’ing distances employed in many classical recordings.
Next, I was mightily impressed with the way the MC 601 located the performers on the stage in a logical and seemingly natural relationship. Given any fine recording of an orchestra, the various sections of the orchestra are clearly delineated in their own space and appropriately sized. Of course, multi-mic’d recordings often spotlight and oversize instruments in the soundstage (e.g., a piano appears to be half as large as the orchestra). But put on a minimally mic’d recording, especially those employing the three microphone technique, and the MC 601 captures the illusion of orchestra playing before your very eyes (and ears) to a stunning degree.
My system holds sway in a large, dedicated room, and can reproduce the full dynamic range of a symphony orchestra with minimal distortion. I was curious how the MC 601 would fare on symphonic material with broad dynamic content. The MC 601 more than competently negotiated the profound dynamic swings present in the Power of Orchestra (Chesky RC 30). Prokovief’s Scythian Suite (Mercury Living Presence SR9006) was revealed in all of its pagan glory, the MC 601 giving appropriate weight to the insistent, pulsating like a migraine, bass drum in the first movement, and gravitas to the crushing climax. Similarly, the reach and majesty of the organ in Saint Saens’ Symphony #3 (pick one) was not diminished in any way by the MC 601.
Comparing the dynamics of the two units led to an interesting observation. The ARC seems to “load” it’s dynamics less evenly than the MC 601. The ARC seems to favor the upper midrange, resulting in a more dramatic sound. You might conclude that the MC 601 was limiting dynamics in the power range, but I don’t think so. It just lacked the ARC’s exuberance in this area, which at times can sound larger than life. I would characterize the MC 601’s dynamic range as composed and even handed.
Extended listening revealed the MC 601 to be slightly on the yin side of the sonic divide. Octave to octave balance was subjectively flat with perhaps a gentle midrange rise that lends a slightly rich hue to the proceedings. High frequencies were extended, without the sterile quality I hear in some solid state units. The delicate sparkle of a triangle and the metallic shimmer of crash cymbals were reproduced with a high degree of verisimilitude. The bass range was reasonably flat, taut, and muscular. Transients were crisp, without etch or overhang.
So then, we have a preamp that that is very slightly rich sounding with a mid-hall perspective, is not the ne plus ultra in resolution, but holds up well under the sonic microscope. But can it make music?
You bet. Here we come to MC-601’s greatest strength: its even tempered way of bringing out the best in any recording played through it. I do not imply that it possess a coloration that masks the differences between recordings or formats. You will not mistake a CD for an LP or an SACD for a CD. Rather, it does not spotlight flaws; consequently, your attention is drawn to the music making, and not to any sonic warts present in a recording.
I own several recordings of Shostakovich symphonies on the Melodyia label. All have an upper midrange/ lower treble peak that have me jumping for the mute whenever the trumpets play in their upper register. The MC 601 doesn’t conceal this deviation from the truth but you are able to listen around it and enjoy the music. Likewise, the MC 601 mitigates the sometimes shrill sound of the strings on some Mercury Living Presence LPs, with no apparent loss of detail.
The sonically magnanimous MC 601 worked its magic on all manner and quality of recordings. It was equally at home with AC/DC’s Back in Black (air guitar time), as it was reproducing the haunting folk melody in the largo movement of Dvorak’s’ Ninth symphony. The MC 601 adores female vocals: you will catch the fever when Peggy Lee sings, and Diana Krall will put you in the mood with her uniquely dark and sexy vocals. Put on the Julliard Quartet playing Bartok and you will experience intact the virtuosity and intensity of this famed ensemble. Basie swings, Sinatra croons, and Daltrey wails through the MC 601. The MC 601 can rock with the best and toe tapping and finger snapping are the order of the day with jazz recordings.
Music Culture Technology offers a complete system dubbed the Elegance line of which the MC 601 is an integral part. I initially wondered if the MC 601 was voiced as part of system and would be somewhat idiosyncratic when inserted into a “foreign” system. This was not the case as my listening sessions revealed. The MC 601 lends little character to the sound of system, so you can hear, for example, the differences in cables, while at the same time the music flows freely without highlighting deficiencies in a recording or component.
Music Culture Technology has successfully balanced resolution and musicality to produce a preamp that does not sound like tubes or solid state, but in its unique way does justice to the music. At its price point the MC 601 is a flat out bargain. It competes with costlier preamps, both tube and solid state. Whether you fall into the tube or solid state camp, do not hesitate to give the MC 601 an audition, preferably in your own system. You may, like me, be won over with its intrinsic musicality, classy looks and quality German craftsmanship.
Achtung audiophiles! Want a taste of German engineering, performance, and build quality at a down-to-earth price? Then check out the offerings by Music Culture Technology, among which is the MC 601 solid-state preamplifier. The MC 601 is a truly lovely performer on all counts and a real looker in the audio rack. For the audiophile and music lover alike, it absolutely deserves your attention and audition.
Inputs: XLR (1x), CD (2x), high level (2x), processor (1x), Option (1x)
Outputs: RCA(2x), Balanced (1x)
Frequency Range: CD - DC - 600 kHz, High Level - DC - 600kHz
Output level: 1Veff - 10Veff max.
Output Impedance: 100-ohm
Noise Distortion @ 1 kHz, 2V: <0,0007%
Input Sensitivity: High level - 315mV
Signal to Noise: CD - 98/101 dB, 1V/25W, High Level - 105/108 dB, 1V/25W
Maximum loading level: 10 Veff
Input Impedance: CD - 10 k-ohm, High Level - 50 k-ohm, processor - 10 k-ohm
Channel separation: High level - 100 dB
Power Consumption: 20 VA max.
Line Voltage: 230 Vac, 50/60Hz, factory setting - 115 Vac, 50/60Hz
Weight: 11 Kg, 24 lbs
Dimensions (WxHxD): 450x142x410 mm 18 x 5.7 x 16 inch
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