McGary Audio MA1 Monoblocks and SPA1 Preamplifier | REVIEW

mcgary audio ma1

Regular readers of these pages will most certainly be well aware of the creations of Mike McGary, founder of McGary Audio. In case you’ve been residing in a cave (or at least an audio-free zone), McGary Audio is a small operation based in northern Virginia that specializes in top-tier vacuum tube amplification designed for the enjoyment of audio perfectionists everywhere… yeah, folks like me!

Words and Photos by John Richardson

Each piece is hand-built and tested by Mike McGary himself. I’ve had a tour of his workspace, and I can assure you that the guy is a perfectionist. I could have eaten off the floors in the place. Anyone who has had the pleasure of viewing, hearing, owning, or otherwise experiencing McGary gear can attest to the physical beauty of the pieces, as well as to their craftsmanship. Mike offers a lifetime warranty on all of his products, though I doubt he has had to spend much time dealing with service calls. Given that Mike and I are around the same age, I think I’d feel pretty safe investing in one (or two…) of his wares.

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I’m danged excited to let you in on my take on McGary’s two latest creations: the SPA1 preamplifier and the MA1 mono block amplifiers. Here at PTA, we’ve done extensive reviews on Mike’s previous products, namely the SA1 and SA2 stereo amps. We’ve also covered these products in multiple show reports. I’d say we have collectively got the skinny on this guy and what he’s up to.

That said, and having spent a lot of time with both of the prior McGary amplifier creations, I can
unequivocally say that these two new additions are the best yet, and by a pretty big margin. I
say both–Mike insisted that I hear (and review) both the preamp and the amps together, and I’m
more than glad I took him up on that offer.

Before I get into my take on the sound, let’s get the housekeeping out of the way…

McGary Audio MA1 Amplifiers ($25,000 per pair)

That’s some serious cash there, but keep in mind that you get two amplifiers: one per stereo channel. Weighing in at 28 lbs, each amplifier is powered by custom Lundahl transformers coupled to an output tube of the KT family (think KT88 or KT120).

Input and driver tubes are 6N1P and 6SN7 varieties, respectively. All wiring is point-to-point, and Cardas silver solder is used at all connections. All of the aforementioned, as well as top-line resistors and capacitors, are housed in a custom-made (and very attractive) steel chassis. Each front panel sports the distinctive backlit McGary Audio logo.

Personally, I really like the look of these amps. They exude class and build quality, as well as
showcasing those pretty glowing tubes.

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McGary Audio SPA1 Stereo Preamplifier ($12,000)

This preamp is one lovely looking piece of audio gear! Utilizing the same chassis design and backlit logo, the thing simply whispers elegance. Just inside of a trap door on the top panel are the two output tubes: one can roll among a dizzying array of options, chiefly the 6N1P, 6N5P, 6CG7, 6FQ7, 6BQ7A types. Overall build quality and attention to interior detail matches that of the McGary MA1 amplifiers.

On the front panel are three knobs whose perimeters are backlit in tandem with the McGary logo; it’s a very sweet touch indeed. Moving from left to right, we have a knob that allows the user to select input voltage based on the output voltage of the source component to best match the input voltage to the gain stage of the preamp. Next we have the input selector, which gives the user choice among four different single-ended RCA inputs. Finally, we get to the volume attenuator on the far right of the panel; the attenuator itself is stepped 47-position ELMA unit. A close look at the rear panel of the SPA1 shows high quality gold-plated RCA jacks for both the inputs and the two sets of stereo outputs.

john richardson system

The McGary Sound

Ah, the sound!

First up, let’s get the system sorted. All music was digital, sourced through a custom music server (via Qobuz) to a Bricasti M1 SE DAC. From there, signal was fed to the McGary components, and finally out to my ATC SCM100 passive studio monitors.

I have used the ATC monitors now for a few years as my main listening transducers. Many speakers favored by audiophiles and music lovers alike are made to sound really good, regardless of what it fed to them. Not so my ATCs. These are professional studio monitors, and they are designed as such. Do they sound good? Heck yeah, but they are decidedly neutral and ruthlessly revealing to whatever comes before them in the equipment chain. So, while they inherently sound quite accurate, they aren’t always pleasant and engaging. Therefore, I find the SCM100s to function very nicely as evaluation tools when sizing up audio components, but they aren’t always my go-to speakers for sitting back for a relaxing or fun listening session.

Well, the McGary SPA1 preamp and MA1 amplifiers have changed how I now view (and use) my ATC speakers…

In short, what the McGary duo did was to breathe life and emotion into the reliable truth-teller ATCs, as if those speakers had got themselves hauled out to an old-time gospel revival and came away with a good dose of the spirit! I never felt as if there was a loss of detail or resolution, again something the ATCs do really well. What I heard was additive, as opposed to loss of anything. So, what was added, you ask? Well, lots of things… the all-important things that add substance, air, gravitas, and emotion to the harmonic tapestry.

Take bass for instance. The ATC SCM100 monitors go deep, really deep, with the kind of bass that
you can feel as well as hear. However, I’ve always had the notion that their bass can be a bit
overdamped, as in not really allowing itself fully dissipate into the void of the recording venue. I have felt this to be mostly the case when using powerful solid state amplifiers of both the class
AB and class D varieties. I get it; recording and mastering engineers don’t want the bass making
itself too at home, if you get what I mean. Hey, but when I’m listening for pure enjoyment, I want
my low end filling that space, and then reflecting back and filling it again.

Upon first placing the McGary SPA1 and MA1 duo into the rig and letting some music rip, the
first thing I noted immediately was that finally, the ATC bass was just right; I mean as in Goldilocks terms. Controlled and extended, yet fulsome and organic, just the way it ought to be!

real panel connections

The Cello Never Lies…

My son, a luthier and cellist, happened to be visiting over the recent holidays. When around, he enjoys checking out whatever gear I happen to be reviewing at the time. He also has the advantage of great ears and a discerning taste in music. Accordingly, I like to give him control of the tune selection during our listening sessions, as I am always exposed to something new and interesting.

One of his interests is exploring modern recordings made using some of the more famous instruments produced during the classical era of Stradivarius and Guarneri. One such example is cellist Bion Tsang’s performance of Bach’s well-known Cello Suites (16/44 mHz file, streamed via Qobuz). Here, Mr. Tsang expertly plays the famous “Bass of Spain,” crafted by Stradivarius in 1713.

This recording effectively showcases all of the ways in which I find the McGary Audio/ATC
combination to excel. For example, I’ve never heard the midrange blossom and swell both dynamically and harmonically to such an extent with these speakers. I almost feel as if I could reach out and cut the sonority of the lower cello registers with a knife; it’s that tactile. My kid has spent a lot of time over the years listening to my various systems; in fact, he grew up exposed to my music (either voluntarily or involuntarily) as part of his upbringing. He mentioned to me during this session that this specific system probably did the best job that he could remember of conveying what the called the “intent” of the performer. When queried about this, he explained to me that cellists are very intentional about how they apply bow to strings to convey specific effects or emotions. He knows the Bach Suites intimately, and he could easily tell me exactly what Mr. Tsang was trying to do along the way.

I find it difficult to sit still long enough to get through Bach’s entire set of suites, but in this case, we were both so enraptured and attentive that the full set seemed over in mere minutes. But back to my evaluation…

Our recording of interest was obviously close mic’d in a naturally reverberant venue. Thus, one
naturally homes in on fine details captured by the recording. At realistic volumes I can easily discern the deep breathing of the cellist, as well as occasional striking of the bow against a hard surface. Most interestingly, I noted both an irregular clicking sound as well as an occasional soft, but deep “thud,” as if someone were dropping a heavy bean bag onto a highly reverberant wooden floor. I asked my son if he could identify what this sound was, as I had never before heard such a thing in a solo cello recording. He knew exactly what it was: the slapping of the lowest bass string against the wooden fret board of the instrument. I heard it plainly, but would have never identified it as such!

I mention all of this because it speaks quite plainly to the level of transparency and resolution that the McGary SPA1 and MA1 amplification brought to the table when coupled with the equally resolving ATC speakers.

mcgary audio spa1

Jazzin’ It Up

Have you checked out the work of upcoming Brit jazz saxophonist Emma Rawicz? If not, you most definitely should!

I came upon Rawicz recently when casting around in Qobuz, as her new album Chroma with German jazz label ACT had just been released. Not only does she play some mean woodwinds (she excels in tenor sax, but also expertly plays bass clarinet and flute), but she also writes her own stuff. I did a little digging and found out that she has one other self-produced album (also available on Qobuz) that’s just as good.

Ms. Rawicz is a versatile jazz composer. Her albums are chock full of different styles, ranging from lilting late night stuff to straight-ahead to funky. I haven’t heard anything she’s done (yet) that I don’t like. And both of her albums are very well produced and recorded.

Going with Chroma (24/96 flac file, streamed via Qobuz), the McGary SPA1 preamp and MA1 amps really light up the ATC speakers and make them come alive in a most enjoyable way. The recording sounds huge through the speakers, both dynamically and spatially. I’m not usually drawn toward imaging and sound staging antics when listening to the ATC monitors, as they just don’t draw attention to such things. However, I really noticed the soundstage open up compared to what I’m accustomed to with the speakers. By opening up, I mean both back-to-front and laterally. The music now had a real sense of tactile dimension that added a new layer of enjoyment.

For example, on the cut “Middle Ground” from Chroma, the music flowed as effortlessly and transparently out of the ATC monitors as I’ve ever experienced. Notes languidly flowed from Rawicz’s horn like honey, backed up by a wonderfully fat and extended bass groove. For my own personal listening pleasure, it just doesn’t get much better than this.

Comparisons and Closing Thoughts

I have always thought Mike McGary’s amp creations have paired well with my ATC speakers, as I’ve expressed in my earlier reviews of his SA1 and SA2 stereo amplifiers. However, the SPA1/MA1 combo brings pretty much everything to a different level of enjoyment. Not only do I get a better overall sense of control and channel separation, I just plain hear more of what’s on the recording. The overall level of transparency is nothing short of astounding. I’m also hearing a greater sense of dynamic impact and punch, as well as even more fleshing out of the harmonic tonal structure of the music than I recall with Mike’s previous amps.

All of this makes sense when I think about it: there is definitely synergy between a McGary preamp and a pair of McGary amps that one may not get otherwise. I’m also sure Mike is improving his design chops with each ensuing project. And I would be remiss in reminding myself that a pair of MA1 amps costs well over twice the price of the stereo SA2 when it was last available. With the MA1 pair, you are paying for more amp, and you are getting more amp.

My one caveat is that not all speakers may respond as well to the McGary amplification. I experienced this myself when I tried driving my newly acquired and re-built Shahinian Arcs with them. I was expecting sonic bliss, but the MA1 amps just couldn’t get the Arcs to open up, especially in the bass. That’s when I remembered that Shahinian speakers generally respond better to high-current amps, as opposed to good tube amps which swing big voltages. Long story short, the Arcs do a lot better when powered by my Pass Labs arc welder. Lesson learned.

Summing up, I can’t think of a better option than the McGary SPA1/MA1 amplification combo for
someone who can afford that level of gear and who has the type of speakers that respond well to them. I remember thinking when I first heard the prototype version of the MA1 at Capital Audiofest back in 2022 that these amps would really rock my ATCs. Turns out I was more than right!

It almost goes without saying, based on my prose above, that the McGary SPA1/MA1 preamp/mono block power amp combo is an obvious choice for a Reviewer’s Choice Award. Good going, Mike McGary!

pta reviewers choice

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tube monoblock amplifiers

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