HOME THEATER & SOUND -- www.hometheatersound.com



September
2002

Reviewed by
John Potis

 


McCormack Audio Corporation
MAP-1
Multichannel Preamplifier

Features SnapShot!

Description

Model: McCormack Audio Corporation MAP-1

Price: $2395 USD
Dimensions: 19"W x 3.5"H x 11.25"D
Weight: 18 pounds

Warranty: Three years parts and labor (upon product registration)


Features
  • Two sets of 5.1 analog source connections (RCA)
  • Three pairs of stereo line-level inputs (RCA)
  • One pair of tape outputs
  • 12V DC trigger output
  • Full-function remote control
  • Proprietary Ambiance Retrieval Mode (ARM) for use with stereo sources
  • Gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs
  • Brushed-aluminum faceplate
  • Digital volume readout
  • Optional plug-in phono stage

I’ve been enjoying multichannel sound in the home theater for nearly 20 years. But that’s home theater. For music, I’ve been a stuck-in-the-mud two-channel Neanderthal for what may be too long. I figured that the object of the home theater was to recreate what the movie’s creators intended. They certainly did not produce multichannel soundtracks so that I could mix it down to two channels. Conversely, musical artists didn’t record to two channels so that I could use some one-size-fits-all processor to blow those two channels up to 5.1 or more.

It’s not even a case of what makes music natural, but a case of wanting to hear what the artist intended for me to hear. I’ve dabbled with surround processors from the leading manufacturers, but stereo is what I’ve always come back to for serious music listening. But with the advent of multichannel SACD and DVD-A, the times are changing.

My conundrum is this: my two-channel roots have taught me that one does not get the best musical performance from mass-market receivers -- particularly the ones with enough bells and whistles to wake the dead. My adoption of multichannel SACD has ignited my search for electronics that better suit my audio sensibilities: the multichannel preamplifier and five-channel power amp. The problem is that multichannel preamplifiers are intended for use with source machines with on-board surround processing, as they feature no surround processing of their own. I have a number of VHS tapes and laserdiscs that I wasn’t looking forward to relegating to the two-channel experience, and that left me out in the cold. Until I learned of the McCormack MAP-1, that is.

Description

What sets the McCormack MAP-1 (Multichannel Audio Preamp) apart from the rest is that it includes an analog ambiance-retrieval system. It seemed at first as though it worked just like Dolby Pro Logic. I was wrong, but I’ll get to that. What made the MAP-1 similar to the rest is that it features analog inputs for up to two 5.1-channel components, as well as another three pairs of stereo inputs. (A plug-in phono card that retails for $395 is available.)

The MAP-1 is impressive for its build quality, which immediately reminded me of my Conrad-Johnson PV-12A preamplifier. Conrad-Johnson recently purchased McCormack Audio, and now Conrad-Johnson builds McCormack products right there in the same factory. The MAP-1 features sturdy casework; a large, easy-to-read, no-nonsense LED display (that doesn’t become obtrusive in the dark); and a thick, brushed-aluminum faceplate. The front panel has small pushbuttons for power, volume, left/right balance, mute, set up, source select, and activation of its surround processing. Almost all of these functions are replicated on the remote control. The total package exudes understated elegance and attention to detail.

Around back you will find an IEC receptacle for the power cord, a 12V trigger, and some of the most substantial gold-plated RCAs ever to grace a piece of gear in this price range. You just don’t find this build quality on A/V gear at this price point.

But this is a McCormack piece, not Conrad-Johnson. Those familiar with McCormack’s history will recognize the stamped logos on the vibration-absorbing sorbathane-like feet that read: "Mod Squad." McCormack started its corporate life in the mid-'80s as a little concern called Mod Squad, which made a name for itself with aftermarket modifications that were generally accepted as real improvements over "stock." They accomplished this through attention to detail often overlooked in the original design process. Eventually Mod Squad became McCormack Audio Corporation of Virginia, and although Conrad-Johnson may manufacture McCormack’s products, they still receive the same obvious level of attention from their designer, Steve McCormack.

Mr. McCormack is completely responsible for the voicing of the MAP-1 (along with all products bearing his name) and I’m told that its audio circuit "is just the stereo RLD-1 replicated three times in one chassis. Like all McCormack products, the emphasis is on achieving near-state-of-the-art performance at a fraction of the price. Parts are selected for quality and value. Generally we have found that high-quality parts contribute a great deal to performance at a relatively small increase in total cost. Parts quality for the MAP-1 is exactly the same as the RLD-1."

The MAP-1 comes with a sparse four-page owner’s manual, but its set up is simple, straightforward, and completely intuitive -- another indication of its high-end roots. Make all your connections, plug in the power cord, and power it up. The MAP-1 features no video facilities so there is no on-screen display. No matter, there are no nested menus to navigate either. Do note that the MAP-1 includes no test signals of its own, so you will need a test disc -- which is a method that I have found to work better than internally generated signals anyway. Balancing channels is a simple task, however, you do have to go through the process at least twice. The first time through is with the source connected through the 5.1 analog inputs (or twice if you use two of them) and then once again with a two-channel source -- though you will likely want to adjust this one by ear with music playing. Reckoning that most people will prefer a reduced surround presence when using the Ambiance Recovery Mode (ARM) from two-channel sources, the MAP-1 mandates that you store their settings separately, and adjustment of one does not affect the other. Very smart.

What I expected from the ARM was a rudimentary compromise for people in my position. What I got was one slick and well-executed feature that worked much better than anticipated. I said that I thought it sounded Dolby Pro Logic-like, but I was wrong. It’s better. It’s much better for use with music and very good on movies. The difference between the ARM and Dolby Pro Logic is in the amount of extraction from the front right and left channels. Approach either right or left speaker and you will hear a good deal of dialogue/vocals still present there. Rather than completely removing them and directing them to a hard center-channel, the level is reduced slightly and then shared with the center. Unlike Dolby Pro Logic, which has the effect of collapsing everything, including soundstage dimension, to the center-channel, McCormack’s ARM has a much more gentle and natural effect. It anchors dialogue/vocals while still preserving a natural soundstage -- instruments located between the center speaker and one of the main speakers stay put. Try Live in Concert [Push PSHJC-90203-2] from Daryl Hall and John Oates to see what I mean. First, the room explodes to the size of the recorded venue, vocals are anchored center stage, but instruments are naturally placed across the stage. Oh, did I mention that live music sounds particularly good with ARM? It does.

If you are squeamish about giving up all the flexibility of your surround processor in favor of the processors built into today’s DVD players, but have never really looked into what is available in that regard, I urge you to do so. As it turned out, the processing flexibility I found available inside my DVD player turned out to be more extensive than what my Yamaha DSP-A1 offered, and accessing that flexibility was just as convenient. And when you consider how cheap the processor is when you buy it with the DVD player, it just makes a lot of sense, now and in the future, to assemble a system this way.

Sound

Sound quality of the MAP-1 is what you would expect of a high-end, basic preamp in this price range, which is to say that it didn’t have much of a personality at all. DVD movies sounded much like I’m accustomed to hearing them, but there was an added measure of transparency and overall cohesiveness. The soundfield seemed to gel a bit better, at times manifesting less sense of a gap between the rear and the front. When I was supposed to be immersed in the scene, such as in one of the many scenes of confusion and mayhem from Chicken Run, I did not sense a group of chickens behind and to the side of me and another group in front of me. I was completely surrounded by a gaggle of chickens.

On concert videos such as Tom Petty’s High Grass Dogs, I never got the sense that we in the audience were not part of the experience; we were all wrapped up, with the band, in one venue. Soundstaging across the front of the room was extraordinary, too. On "Walls" Petty is featured prominently center stage; but off to the left, reduced in volume and with reduced prominence, yet identifiably on the same stage, were Tench’s keyboards. There was no sense of Petty sitting at the apex of a triangle, and the low-level clarity of those keyboards was absolutely captivating. The MAP-1 was demonstrating the transparency and crystal clarity of a very high-end music preamp. But what surprised me most was the MAP-1's performance with multichannel SACD.

My multichannel room is comprised of wall-hanging Magnepan MGMC1s and the MGCC2. As this is also a real living space in our home, my options of hanging the front MGMC1s were limited. The right and left speakers are placed far apart, which gives me a huge soundstage when combined with the center-channel speaker. But there are some SACDs and even concert videos that make limited or no use of the center-channel speaker. This can result in soundstaging that is vague at best and completely disconnected at worst. I was surprised to find that the MAP-1’s presentation is so tight that it even firmed up the soundstaging on these discs. Take Chesky’s David Johansen and the Harry Smiths SACD [Chesky SACD 225]. "Katie Mae" demonstrated a beautifully laid-out soundstage with real depth and excellent image specificity, if not exactly pinpoint -- which is much better than I’ve heard it before. If this recording didn’t begin life as a real musical event I’ll eat the liner notes. Kudos to the MAP-1, and shame to the industry that has yet to standardize even the simplest of recording protocols.

Comparison

The McCormack MAP-1 brought to mind several components I’ve used in the past. The successful synthesizing of surround from two-channel music and concert videos reminded me of the very best that I have ever used: the $3495 Parasound AVC-2500u. The MAP-1’s ARM circuit was every bit on par with the Parasound for a lot less money. The MAP-1 has no Dolby Digital or DTS processing of its own, but I can honestly say that I didn’t miss it in the least -- the processing performed within my Sony DVD player seemed flawless, and I’ve never had a use for the hokey surround modes offered by most processors and receivers.

In the area of ergonomics, had the MAP-1 featured an easy-to-use and on-the-fly front-to-rear balance control, it would have exceeded the exceedingly easy-to-use B&K Reference 30. Fortunately, due to the lack of nested menus, this feat is easily accomplished as well. As for the handling of the analog signal for multichannel SACD, the McCormack gets the highest marks for being utterly transparent and exceeding the performance of my own Yamaha DSP-A1 by a wide margin.

Conclusion

At this point in time the McCormack MAP-1 does everything I need a multichannel preamplifier to do, and it does so extraordinarily well. Highest kudos to McCormack, not only for remembering that some of us enjoyed home cinema before the world went digital, but also for implementing ARM so well. The MAP-1 sounds great, it performs every function that a complex system such as mine requires -- it looks great, is a joy to use, and is built extremely well. With a price of $2395, McCormack is going to sell a lot of these. And they can start with this one -- it's staying right here with me.

Review System
Speakers - Magnepan MGMC1 (mains and surrounds) and MGCC2 (center-channel), Velodyne SPL800 subwoofer (2)
Amplifier - Rotel RMB-1095
Sources - Sony DVP-NS500V DVD player
Cables - JPS Labs
Projector - ProScan PS36700 direct-view monitor
 

Manufacturer contact information:

McCormack Audio Corporation of Virginia
2733 Merrilee Drive
Fairfax, VA 22031
Phone: (703) 573-9665
Fax: (703) 560-5360

Website: www.mccormackaudio.com
E-mail: tech-spt@mccormackaudio.com

 


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