Editor's Note: I must say that I've never had more people email and message me about a single product before publication of a review than I did with the McIntosh D1100. Once I mentioned that I was reviewing the DAC and once I published an image of the D1100 in my system, the floodgates opened. Sorry to everyone who didn't receive a direct response from me. I figured I'd just get the review done and address everyone at the same time. - Chris
Airstream trailers, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and Red Wing boots. All are American made classics, that have influenced popular culture. Eric Clapton was a fan of Red Wing boots, long before the brand teamed up with him to create the Clapton Classics and sponsor his 2001 world tour. Shelby Lynne wrote, and Doug Sax mastered, an iconic song called Something To Be Said About Airstreams for her album Tears, Lies and Alibis (recorded to analog tape). Jimi Hendrix is immortalized on the posthumously released South Saturn Delta album, sitting on a 1964 chopped Harley-Davidson Panhead. On a personal level, I can't imagine my 1980s youth without hearing my dad play the Harley-infused Easy Rider soundtrack on every long road trip and every trip to the store down the street.
When it comes to music and audio reproduction, I challenge anyone to find a more iconic American made brand than McIntosh. Sure the Grateful Dead used McIntosh amplification for its wall of sound, but the brand has also been coveted by music lovers, celebrities, and audiophiles for decades. There's good reason for this success. McIntosh manufacturers great stuff. Period. But, like any company or persons at the top of their respective fields, McIntosh even has its own detractors who use the epithet McIntrash in an attempt to defame the storied brand. You know you've made it when you have a group of haters.
Over the years McIntosh built its stellar reputation around the world mainly because of its amplifiers. The McIntosh MC275 tube amplifier is one of those reputation building products. I purchased an MC275 in 2008, and I'm looking at it in my listening room nearly ten years later. I'm not an audio collector, but I guarantee this amp will never leave my house as long as I'm alive.
D1100 Digital Preamplifier / DAC
Given its analog heritage, McIntosh isn't typically thought of as a digital powerhouse. Back in 2007, a few months before Computer Audiophile was founded, the company launched its MS750 music server. It's hard to believe for some, but McIntosh offered music servers long before most of the industry and before some of the popular music server companies today were even in business. The MS750 wasn't groundbreaking by any means, but it was one of the only games in town for awhile.
At the end of 2016 McIntosh launched the D1100, what it calls a reference level digital stereo preamplifier and digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Others will simply call the D1100 a DAC with volume control. Either way, it's the top of the McIntosh line for inputting digital data and outputting analog audio.
I know it has been done before, but I'm going to briefly write about the look and feel of the McIntosh D1100. This thing oozes coolness, solidity, craftsmanship, and all the other adjectives one can use for a marvelous audio component. There's just something about the D1100 that captivates me. It's the digital equivalent of a tape machine, aka an audio fireplace. The illuminated gorgeous green lettering and beautiful blue meters have absolutely no equal in all of audio.
The technical features of the D1100 are very good, even if they aren't as alluring as the unmistakeable fit and finish of the product. The D1100 uses an ES9018 DAC chip and is the most advanced chip McIntosh has used to date. This is a reference 32 bit 8 channel DAC, used in quad balanced mode splitting the chip in half (right/left). I highly recommend not falling into the numbers trap when it comes to DAC chips. ESS has other chips, such as the ES9038PRO, with higher model numbers (9038 > 9018), and some specs that are "better" on paper, but that's only a very small piece of the audio puzzle. Much of the secret McIntosh sauce lies elsewhere.
The D1100 has inputs for almost everybody, and then some. All the standard inputs are available (3 optical, 3 coaxial (2 RCA and 1 BNC), plus 1 each of MCT, AES/EBU and USB). I really like the inclusion of the S/PDIF BNC input, as it's much better than the more common RCA connector.
Outputs on the D1100 are more than sufficient and somewhat configurable. There are two variable analog outputs, and a single fixed output. The variable inputs can be enabled/disabled with the push of a button on the front panel. When enabled, the variable gain or volume control, is done all in the analog domain. It's a classic McIntosh design and the only way this company does it. The fixed analog output is used when connecting the D1100 to an external analog preamplifier. Potential customers will be happy to know that the blue meters on the front panel of the D1100 still work when using the fixed analog outputs. Even though the volume control doesn't work and has no effect on the output in this configuration (as it shouldn't with a fixed output), setting the volume to about 50% ensures the meters can be seen dancing back and forth to all one's favorite music.
During the review period, I used both the fixed and variable outputs, and both the AES and USB inputs of the D1100.
Manufacturer's Comment: "In regards to setting the volume to 50% in order for the meters to move when using the D1100’s fixed outputs, there actually is a “METER LEVEL Fixed - Output” trim setting that can be set when using the fixed outputs so that the meters will still respond to the audio signal without having to set the volume to an arbitrary level. Instructions can be found on page 21 of the owner’s manual. When the D1100 is connected to our C1100 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier via our supplied umbilical cords, then the D1100 meters will automatically be set to the Fixed – Output setting with no user intervention required."
Click to enlarge
The USB interface
I really want to get right into the glorious listening experience I had with the D1100, but first I must address a couple issues with the DAC. Being honest in a review means addressing the good with the bad. Nothing is perfect, and the D1100 is no exception.
Manufacturer's Comment: "With a plethora of computers used to play back music, we became aware there was a change we could make to the D1100 hardware to better prevent crashes associated with the Windows OS. The issue only occurred when a PC was connected via USB and even then it did not occur all the time or with every computer. But to make the D1100 the best it could possibly be, we felt it important to make the modification. This hardware change has been implemented for a while now in the D1100 manufacturing process but unfortunately the unit used in this review did not have this change."
To be blunt, the USB interface and Windows USB driver for the McIntosh D1100 is less than mediocre. It's the most finicky and problematic USB interface I've ever used. When it's working, the sound quality through this interface is terrific. However, I can't gloss over the many pain points I experienced throughout the review.
McIntosh uses a USB controller chip from SaviAudio, the Bravo SA9227. I believe this chip is at the heart of 99% of the problems I experienced with the D1100. Readers should note that when installing drivers for a USB DAC, they are really installing drivers for the USB controller chip inside the DAC. In this case, installing the drivers for the D1100, means installing software from SaviAudio (named SaviTech during the installation). This software was incredibly problematic on my systems.
This afternoon I redoubled my efforts to check the issues I found with this USB interface. I connected my MacBook Pro to the D1100 with a 2 meter AudioQuest Diamond USB cable. My MacBook Pro runs both macOS and Windows 10 natively, so I can test DACs with identical hardware. I don't use any virtual machines when testing or listening. Upon connecting the DAC and selecting a track for playback in JRiver Media Center, Windows froze, the gave me the blue screen of death (actual image). I reproduced this issue three more times within an hour. Making it work again involved a digital dance between the DAC and my MacBook Pro, powering off each one in different sequences and un/replugging the USB cable.
Once I had it working, I was able to play PCM audio up through 24/352.8 and DSD up through DSD256. Just as the spec sheet describes. However, this is only with JRiver Media Center using the ASIO custom driver from McIntosh (SaviAudio).
I removed the troublesome driver and tested the new Windows 10 native USB Audio Class 2 drivers with the D1100. This native driver worked pretty well with JRiver. Because this native driver only supports DoP, playback of DSD is only supported to DSD128.
Using Roon with the native Windows 10 driver or the custom McIntosh driver was a crapshoot. I couldn't get any DSD to work with the native driver, but I could get it to work most of the time with the custom driver (not DSD256).
All my software related issues were related to Windows and the McIntosh (SaviAudio) custom driver. Using Mac and Linux based devices, the DAC worked fairly well, but couldn't play DSD256 due to lack of native DSD support on Mac and the Linux kernel for this DAC.
Manufacturer's Comment: "The “fade-in” issue described in the review is a result of the DAC chip being used for both PCM and DSD audio. If the fade in was not present, DSD tracks could make a popping sound when they started playing. To avoid this, a very minute fade in was added."
One problem that is present on all platforms (Win, Mac, Linux) and in several McIntosh products including the D1100, is what I'll call the fade-in issue. This issue isn't software specific, thus can't be escaped 100% of the time by using a different operating system or playback application. When playing music through the USB interface only, the first 1/4 to 1/2 second of the tracks can't be heard because the volume of the DAC quickly fades-in from mute to the normal volume level. In other words, one missed the first half second of music because the DAC must fade-in from muting. This happens with all manual track changes, but leaves continuous playback unaffected. For example, playing Dark Side of the Moon from start to finish would only expose one to the issue for the first track.
I found that it's possible to minimize the issue by using JRiver because it only shows the issue for the first track selected, and not manual track changes thereafter. The D1100 and Roon, and all other apps and operating systems show the issue all the time (except continuous tracks).
The issue boils down to the fact that the DAC chip is normally muted until it receives non-silence data. But, this non-silence data can't be just any non-silence data, it must be at a minimum volume level for the DAC to unmute. When the track reaches a certain volume level, the DAC unmutes and quickly fades-in to the music. In other words, the fade-in is triggered by a minimum amplitude, not by the start of a stream of USB data. Many DACs use a similar mute technique to reduce or eliminate pops on sample rate switches, but this is the only DAC I've seen that requires a minimum amplitude to unmute the volume.
As I said earlier, I have to be honest with all aspects of the DAC. This isn't a fluff review. As one can see, my honesty benefits McIntosh greatly with respect to all other parts of this DAC and its wonderful sound quality. The main driver issue is only caused when using Windows. Users without a Windows computer needn't worry at all about such problems. The fade-in issue is a problem no matter what application or what operating system is used.
Now for the fun part of my job, honestly writing about my experience listening to the McIntosh D1100.
Roon playing 24/352.8, DSD128, and DSD256 (automatically converted to DSD128) on macOS.
The McIntosh D1100 Listening Experience
Much of the review period was spent listening to the D1100 as a full digital preamp / DAC, using its analog volume control. The variable output of the DAC was connected directly to the XLR input of my Constellation Audio Inspiration monoblock amplifiers. I fed the D1100 mainly from a Sonore Signature Rendu SE. I spent a little time using the AES input of the D1100 just for testing.
It's only appropriate to begin telling this sonic story with a little Shelby Lynne. The third track on her album Tears, Lies and Alibis, titled Like a Fool, is my absolute favorite Shelby Lynne song. I saw her sing this one live, from a few rows away, in front of an audience of 250 people.
Listening to Like a Fool through the McIntosh D1100 brought some serious life to not only this track, but the entire album. In the left channel throughout the track is a gentle electric guitar that kind of provides a guide for Shelby's vocal and acoustic guitar. This electric guitar has incredible tone through the D1100. Each note has subtleties, harmonics, and overtones that are incredibly rich and lush.
On one hand this guitar sounds as colorful as I've ever heard it, with terrific nuance and notes that fade away with rich tonality. On the other hand, I hesitate to call anything colorful because I don't hear the D1100 as adding color to this music. Rather, the D1100 has a certain presentation to its reproduction that brings out this vibrant sonic image. To put it into photographic terms, the D1100 just might lean toward Fuji Velvia RVP 50, with all its beautiful saturation and everlasting appeal.
Listening to track five, Something to Be Said About Airstreams, the McIntosh D1100 took me back to that Shelby Lynne show at the Dakota in Minneapolis. The stage was small, and I can still picture her drummer back to the right and a guitarist to the left. Listening to this track with the D1100 driving my amplifiers directly, I heard a right-sized soundstage reminiscent of that unforgettable show. This is a smallish, intimate recording and it is presented this way through the D1100. The overall sound leans more to the thick side than the thin, and just a bit less open and airy than the similarly priced combination of a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2 and Alpha USB. Like many of the finer things in life, it comes down to preference and what helps one get lost in his favorite music.
In 2001 I happened to be in London in early February. On the afternoon of Saturday, February 10th, I checked to see who was playing at Royal Albert Hall. Eric Clapton's last of five shows kicking off his Reptile World Tour was scheduled to take place that evening. I took a taxi over to the venue and purchased some tickets from a guy on the street. 100 GBP and a couple hours later, I was sitting next to the stage watching Eric in his Red Wing boots, open the show with Key To The Highway.
Bringing this back around to McIntosh, I listened to Eric's album Reptile at 24 bit / 88.2 kHz through the D1100 digital preamplifier / DAC. There's no way I'm going to wax poetically about how close the D1100 and the live event sounded. Audible memory just isn't that good, plus the sound is much better at home than through any PA system. However, I do remember listening to the second track of the evening, Reptile, and getting mesmerized by the groove and guitar. Perhaps it had something to do with seeing the guitar god for the first time, or not.
Anyway, listening to this same track at home through the McIntosh D1100, I was able to set the world aside and mentally float into the music without even trying. The tone of Clapton's guitar jumping around the solid bass groove from Nathan East was just perfect. I'm not sure it's fair to ask for anything more from an audio component. Transport me back to a live event or out of my everyday life. The D1100 offers that with ease.
Later on that February 10th, 2001 evening, Clapton played Travelin' Light, with backing vocals from The Impressions. The most memorable part of that song, for me, is the vocal performance by The Impressions. Those guys were great live. Playing the same track through the McIntosh D1100 driving my system at home, I was again very impressed by the backing vocal. Sure, Clapton's electric guitar sounded spectacular, but it's the backing vocal that gave me the warm fuzzies.
The Impressions enter the track at about 0:15, and the vocal is simultaneously smooth and full of texture. As Clapton sings, 'Travelin' light," they can be heard stretching the word "L-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght." Each time they sing, I can't help but enjoy the palpability in their unified vocal. The D1100 doesn't gloss over these small but critical details. Rather, the DAC presents them very life-like and organically. There's something so right about how it sounds in my system.
Note: Here's a less than good video from February 3, 2001 at Royal Albert Hall. It, at least, gives readers an idea of what the McIntosh D1100 is bringing me back to, with The Impressions backing Clapton live.
Switching gears to a more audiophile type of recording, I listened to Red from Randi Tytinvag a few times while I had the McIntosh D1100. This is one of those crisp and clean recordings that lacks any character. In a way it reminds me of sterile solid state without any emotion, but just may be technically correct, type of thing.
The first track, Red or Dead, features an opening vocal from Randi that can pierce one's ears on a sterile system. Through the D1100 this track is not only very listenable, but it's like a different track entirely, compared to some DACs. Maybe the D1100 takes the glaring shine and the sharp edges off this one. I'm unsure exactly what's going on, but it's really nice.
At the same time as it saves one's ears, the D1100 enables all the breath and tiny vocal inflections to come through unadulterated. At times it sounds as if randi has swallowed the microphone because of all the detail that can be heard through the D1100. Given its performance thus far, there's no way the D1100 is adding extra detail or edge enhancement through noise or other means. This DAC has a way of reproducing music in an incredibly engaging, yet transparent style.
Moving to a male vocal with which I'm perhaps most familiar, I played quite a few tracks from Eddie Vedder. Reproducing Eddie's voice gave me a chance to really hear differences between the D1100 and my similarly priced comparison system from Berkeley Audio Design. Setting aside the major feature differences between the DACs, the most apparent difference between the two units is a much fuller reproduction of Eddie's voice through the D1100. Listening to the track Society from the Into the Wild soundtrack, I heard just a touch more congestion right in the middle of Eddie's baritone range, compared to the Alpha DAC.
Switching to the acoustic / vocal composition Guaranteed, that closes out the album, this mid-bartone congestion was absolutely gone. The voice I've come to love was on display in all its glory through the D1100. Eddie's voice on this track is reproduced with a delightfully deep yet soft tone. On systems like this, with the McIntosh D1100, it is tracks of this caliber that I can listen to all night long. It isn't a typical audiophile recording, but it was mastered by Bob Ludwig and the music can't be beat. When this music is brought one step closer to me through a great HiFi system, nothing else in the world matters at that moment.
As an example, this specific track has two complete minutes of silence right in the middle. Don't ask me why, it's just there. However, when listening one last time, I sat through the entire two minutes without flinching, waiting for the guitar and Eddie Vedder's baritone to come back and sustain these tranquil moments as long as possible. I can't say that I've sat through two minutes of silence when listening to any other DAC. Maybe it has happened, but it wasn't nearly this memorable.
Part One Wrap Up
Listening to my favorite music through the McIntosh D1100 digital preamplifier / DAC for the last several weeks has been wonderful. McIntosh as a company is an American classic. The D1100 as its reference digital component is also a classic in another sense. Its fit and finish are pure McIntosh through and through. Blue meters and illuminated green lettering are an unmistakable combination that hundreds of high end companies would die for and music lovers from all over the world enjoy on a nightly basis.
The sound quality of a wide range of music played through the D1100 was rich, vibrant and lush, yet incredibly detailed given the right recording. My favorite rock and roll was reproduced in all its grungy glory, with power and fullness. At the same time, more traditional audiophile recordings, played through the McIntosh D1100 DAC, still displayed extreme detail and provided x-ray like information about each performance.
I recommend the McIntosh D1100 very highly, as it deserves all the praise it will receive in the coming months and years.
Coming in Part Two - I'll be sending the D1100 back to McIntosh for the update mentioned in the manufacturer's comment earlier in the review. It's only fair to get the unit back here for further testing and listening. If the update resolves my issues, and I trust McIntosh when the company says it will, the D1100 could very well make the Computer Audiophile Suggested Hardware (CASH) List.
- Product - McIntosh Labs D1100 Digital Preamplifier / DAC
- Product Page - D1100
- Owners Manual - PDF Link (4.9 MB)
Where To Buy (CA Supporter):
- Source: Roon ROCK, MacBook Pro Running Roon, JRiver (Windows 10 and macOS Sierra)
- DAC: Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Series 2
- D-to-D Converter: Sonore microRendu, Sonore Sonicorbiter SE, dCS Network Bridge, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha USB
- Amplifiers: Constellation Audio Mono 1.0 / Monoblock Power Amplifiers
- Preamplifier: Constellation Audio PreAmp 1.0
- Loudspeakers: TAD Labs CR1 Compact Reference
- Remote Control Software: Roon Remote
- Remote Control Hardware: iPad Air 2
- Playback Software: Roon, JRiver
- Network Attached Storage (NAS): Synology DS1812+, CAPS v4 Cortes Server
- Audio Cables: Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Interconnects (XLR & RCA), Wire World Platinum Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables, Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 Digital Cables,
- USB Cables: Wire World Platinum Starlight 7 USB 2.0, AudioQuest Diamond USB 2.0, Nordost Purple Flare USB 2.0
- Power Cables: ALO Audio AC6 Power Cables
- Ethernet Cables: AudioQuest Vodka, Wire World Starlight and Chroma
- Network: Cisco SG200-26 Switch, Baaske MI-1005 Ethernet Isolator, ASUS RT-AC3200, Calix 716GE-I Optical Network Terminal, ZyXEL C1100Z modem / router, CenturyLink 1 Gbps download / upload