Following some years in the shadow of other high-end brands, McIntosh is enjoying more proactive distribution in this country and a new found acceptance and status, just as it is doing in its native USA.

It is a brand which has a very distinctive cachet, based on unusually solid engineering, painstaking technical briefs and an instantly recognisable aesthetic scheme. Key to the latter is a bold, retro-style control system, the highlight of which is a very clear fibre optic backlit glass front panel.

McIntosh components could not be mistaken for any other brand even at the briefest exposure, and where in the past this has worked against them, it now appears to be working in the products' favour.

The MCD201 is the new 'mainstream' McIntosh disc spinner. It's an SACD/CD player which, like many such introductions we have followed in the last year or so, is designed exclusively for stereo playback. The player also has another very welcome trick up its sleeve in the form of a 214-step, fine-resolution volume control built into an output stage with enough headroom to be viable as a one-source preamplifier.

In fact, the MCD201 has two sets of outputs, at fixed and variable level, in both cases with phono (single-ended) and balanced (XLR) output options. As we quickly discovered, the output stage is well endowed for driving high-quality power amplifiers without intervention from a separate preamplifier, and for much of the test period, this is now it was used - with Nordost Valhalla cabling.

Internal hardware includes a multi-bit/DSD hybrid 24/192 PCM/DSD DAC - the CS4398 from Cirrus Logic. Unusually (but in the manner of Meridian's players), the digital servo-controlled mechanism reads CD data off disc at 4x, and SACD data at 2x nominal speed into a buffer memory, which means lost or corrupted data can be reread from disc if needed, giving a more robust read performance.

Some complaints

There have been complaints on some websites that the twin laser mechanism is mechanically noisy, but our sample turned out to be extremely quiet. We understand from the importer that units fresh from the box can be noisy, but that this settles down after the unit has been thoroughly run in.

The test player has had several hundred hours use under its belt, and the advice is to run a disc in auto-repeat mode for a week or two when the player is new. An important feature of all McIntosh components is the integrity of the power supplies, and sure enough this is a major feature of this player, too.

The instructions supplied with the McIntosh include a written warning against using the CD side of DualDiscs (dual-sided CD/DVD hybrid discs), which as the instructions wryly note, "do not meet the Compact Disc Digital Audio specifications found in the industry 'Red Book'". Sure enough, sample DualDiscs presented to the player failed to fulfil their mission.

The player comes with range of rear-panel sockets that allow linked operation in a multiroom or custom install McIntosh system, and a well-designed remote control. Highlights of the unusually tactile and well-signposted front panel include the rotary volume control, the spring-loaded track-skip control and a clear display that includes an SACD Text readout.

Sound quality

At HFC, we're now beginning to become accustomed to the 'McIntosh sound', which tends to be quite distinctive from other high-end brands. This was so with the MA2275 amplifier (reviewed a year ago in HFC 271), and some of the same qualities are also apparent here.

The MCD201 is a supremely 'together-sounding' player, one which has a certain boldness and dynamic quality, with large scale, well-placed stereo imagery across all disc types. The quid quo pro, if you can call it that, is that compared to other similar players, the McIntosh doesn't have quite the same exquisite refinement and fineness of detail when playing SACDs rather than CD.

Addressing the latter first, as a CD player, the MCD201 is first class, and to these ears completely convincing. It has a bold musculature, which reflects musically as a strength and conviction that underpins the performance and makes dynamics sing out. Orchestral music has a ripeness and retains its complexity, which helps to make the most of source material that is inherently complex.

Simpler acoustic material - chamber, or accompanied voice - is open and expressive, with a strong sense of soundstage presence but no excessive forwardness. The MCD201 also has the ability to civilise difficult material without reducing or diminishing it, and the sense of musical structure is one point that remains consistent across a wide range of music types.

Compared to some high-end CD players, the McIntosh gives an easier, more relaxed and more enveloping ride than many rivals.

With music imposing demands on the playback system as diverse as Sarah McLachlan's sentimental Angel and Christian McBride's 'low down, gritty, nasty and funky' Night Train, or the pungently brassy yet atmospheric Janácek's Sinfonietta from José Serebrier and the Czech State Philharmonic on the consistently excellent Reference Recordings label, the player's openness and dynamic ability shine through extraordinarily well.

Solidly notable

In all these cases and elsewhere, the McIntosh is notable for its solid, expressive bass and a characteristically slightly restrained treble (part of the McIntosh voicing), which frame a beautifully articulated and layered midband. The only mild surprise, perhaps, is that the last disc named is an HDCD recording, and the McIntosh MCVD201 doesn't support HDCD decoding, which means that there is clearly more to give.

As an SACD player, the McIntosh does well, but ultimately it doesn't push the cause as far forward of its baseline CD performance as some other competing players, such as the Ayre C-5xe (a universal that costs about £1,000 more) or the Denon DCD-SA1 (likewise).

It is not always easy to hear where SACD offers much more than CD, though there is always a hint of extra resolution and more refined musical transitions between notes, instruments and voices.

Think of the MCD201 as an excellent CD player that happens to also play SACDs, rather than being a great SACD player that happens to play CDs. But also, don't forget the MCD201 doubles up as a rather fine, but very simple preamplifier thanks to its built in volume control.

This sounds more like a preamplifier proper than some players with internal volume controls. There is plenty of drive available, both from the single-ended and the balanced outputs, and it is only a pity that there are no rear panel inputs that would have freed many potential purchasers from adding a dedicated preamplifier to their systems.

There was never any doubt that the balanced option was the better choice with the power amplifiers available for this test, which included a Classé CA-5200 used in stereo trim, and a Primare A32, and that bypassing the preamplifiers paid a useful if subtle musical dividend.

This is a superb player, not quite in the same league as the very best, but at a much more user-friendly price than most of them. Think of it as a great CD player with a more than routinely good SACD player riding piggyback, which will help you make productive use of the now quite impressive range of SACD material available to those who know here to look.

It is also an excellent entry point to the seductive world of McIntosh sound, and as a bonus it is likely to retain its long-term value better than almost any of the competition. Even through its leanest moments, McIntosh has always had almost unmatched cachet as a high-end hi-fi brand, and this model will only enhance that legendary reputation. Alvin Gold

Q&A:

We spoke to Andy Davison, director of 'A' Audiosolutions (McIntosh's UK importer) about the issues and the technology involved in the development of the MCD201

HFC What was the impetus behind bringing this player to market?

AD For quite some time there has been a five-disc CD player (MCD205), a universal player (MVP861) and a high-end two-box player (MCD1000/ MDA1000) but no single-disc CD player. McIntosh engineers found that noise issues with the SACD format meant that performance on most players was worse than Red Book CD. They did not wish to join the party with another 'also ran' product, and spent a lot of time getting the technology right.

Why did McIntosh include SACD?

McIntosh had gained much experience in addressing SACD's issues with the MVP861 universal disc player, so it would seem logical for the new player to be an SACD player.

What are the major technical highlights?

The MCD 201 has a special CD drive mechanism that has dual lasers (one for each format) and this also spins the disc at up to four times the normal speed, giving the laser a chance to re-access reading errors and making less than perfect discs playable. The player also incorporates a precision active preamplifier and volume control, which incorporates the 214-point stepped attenuator seen in McIntosh's preamplifiers. The unit is capable of driving a power amplifier, with the output available balanced and unbalanced. The all-important power supply has an R-core transformer and many separate stages of regulation.

How does McIntosh see the market developing for ambitious players of the MCD201's ilk?

It is generally accepted that SACD has not been taken up in the way that was expected. However, it is not like buying a Betamax video player when VHS was becoming the more popular format. Let's just say that CD was supposed to replace the vinyl LP and in the consumer mass market it pretty much did, but for many dedicated specialists it simply lacked sufficient appeal.

What of the future for component hi-fi?

This lies in our own hands - we all need to get better at making the unaware aware of what it can offer. If every car buyer's needs were just A-to-B transport then we would all drive a Reliant Robin.