McCormack DNA-HT5

      McCormack products have always offered outstanding sound for the money, and in recent years McCormack has also extended its reach, offering some of the world's best sounding high end solid state products, still at a reasonable price. The present McCormack lineup proudly continues this tradition. Their stereo power amp lineup is headed by the flagship DNA-500 (500 watts per channel), which is one of the very best sounding solid state amps on the planet, and the best overall solid state choice for music lovers, yet it costs only $6795 (even though it uses costly premium parts throughout). Their mid-line stereo DNA-225 (225 watts per channel) uses premium parts at critical circuit locations (including premium wiring, jacks, resistors, and rectifiers), yet it costs only $2795. Their entry level stereo DNA-125 (125 watts per channel) at just $1795 sounds better than any entry level power amp has a right to, and indeed sounds better (within its power capabilities) than most mid-line, mid-priced solid state amps from other manufacturers. The entry level DNA-125 eschews premium parts, but its circuit topology is similar to its larger siblings (executed on a smaller scale of course), so its musically natural sonic prowess is very much a chip off the old block.
      The DNA-HT5 home theater amp is a multichannel version of the entry level DNA-125, bringing together on one convenient chassis five 125 watt channels, each channel being identical to each of the two channels on board the DNA-125 chassis. And, just like the DNA-125, the HT5, priced at $3695, sounds better than any home theater amp at its price has a right to, and sounds better (within its power capabilities) than most mid-line, mid-priced home theater amps from other manufacturers. Indeed, to get comparable quality musical sound from a competing solid state home theater amp on one chassis, with any greater capabilities than the HT5, you'd probably have to spend about 3 times as much, for a huge high end amp like the $10,995 Plinius Odeon reviewed previously.
      Like the DNA-125, the HT5's outstanding sonic strength resides in its musically natural qualities. This makes for a very enjoyable listening experience. It makes the HT-5 eminently suitable for a dual purpose home theater system, where music listening (perhaps in surround sound) is important. And it helps your relaxed enjoyment of film soundtracks, which sound natural through the HT5, instead of stridently artificial as they do through most other solid state amps.
      The HT5's sound is rich and warm, with upper frequencies that are sweet and delicate, and with midranges that have a nice touch of musically natural liquidity instead of the typical solid state hard glare. The HT5 simply refuses to exhibit the sonic vices that typically plague solid state amps, and make these other amps sound artificial, annoying, and fatiguing to listen to. The HT5 does not have the typical solid state hard glare, nor the typical overly etched trebles, nor the typical clinical excessive brightness, nor the typical sterile leanness in the warmth region. We'd characterize the McCormack power amp sound as being at an ideal midpoint between solid state sound and tube sound, bringing you the sonic strengths of both formats without the sonic weaknesses of either - truly the best of both worlds.
      The HT5 also does well in imaging, portraying a rich sound field beyond the speaker locations. This is a vital requirement for suspension of disbelief, so your surround system can aurally transport you out of the confines of your small room and convincingly put you in the alternative venue where the surround recording or film took place.
      The HT5 has only unbalanced (RCA) inputs, with no provision for balanced (XLR) connections. It has only 5 channels (not 6), so it is intended to power only the 5 main surround speakers (perhaps full range). If you do have or add a subwoofer, it should be self powered with its own power amp. The HT5 is a convenient multichannel package of moderately large size (footprint is 19" wide by 16" deep), but sufficiently shallow to allow shelf mounting, and weighs a reasonable 59 pounds.
      As an entry level amp, the DNA-125 (and therefore also the HT5) naturally has some sonic limitations. For example, the premium parts, higher power, and higher current of the larger McCormack amps bring sonic benefits like better bass impact and control, more dynamic muscle, more transparent resolution of musical details (including imaging information), and more apparent extension at both extremes of the spectrum. But the sonic profiles of the DNA-125 and HT5 are so intelligently engineered that you're not aware of any limitations while you're listening to them. You can simply enjoy them to the full, for everything they do give you. Their sound is engaging and musically natural, and does not do anything wrong (as the sound of most other budget products does do), and provides pretty much everything you want in a great sounding amp, but just at say the 80% level. When listening to the DNA-125 and HT5 on their own terms, you never miss the missing 20%, because the 80% you do hear sounds so good.
      There's an art to designing budget audio products, which taxes the best engineers (Henry Kloss was famous for this). The important and difficult things to achieve are first to make sure the budget product does not make mistakes that sound amusical, ugly, or cheap (sins of commission) - and second to shape the sonic profile so that the sins of omission are not obvious, so that the budget product sounds as if it is giving you everything you want, and everything you would get in a more expensive product, but at say the 80% level. That's why it's more difficult to design a truly good sounding product to a budget than it is to design a great sounding perfectionist product given an unlimited budget.
      The DNA-125 and HT5 succeed admirably in achieving these difficult goals, with a sonic profile that rewards you with great sound at a budget price, and that makes their performance limitations seem unimportant. They are eminently satisfying heard on their own, and even when directly compared to competing brands they sound much more expensive than they really are. For example, their rich tonal warmth gives music and voices a satisfying heft and weight, so you don't really notice that there are some limitations in bass impact (the best sounding compact loudspeakers similarly have rich warmth, which sonically offsets the fact that small speakers can't and don't have powerful low bass). Likewise, the silvery sweet trebles of the DNA-125 and HT5 are so musically engaging that you don't really notice that you're not hearing the ultimate in treble detail from these amps.
      Even though the DNA-125 and HT5, being built to a budget, don't have the premium parts that McCormack can lavish on their more upscale amps, the circuit and parts allocated to the budget units have still been carefully chosen, to give you the most musical and natural sound possible for the money. We found evidence of McCormack's thoughtful attention to parts sonic quality, even in a humble item like the power cord. Like all high quality audio components, the HT5 is sensitive to the quality of the power cord, changing its sound when you try different cords. The HT5 is supplied with an inexpensive power cord set, seemingly one of the generic ones made in Taiwan or China. So we tried the HT5 with more exotic audiophile power cords. Sure enough, the HT5's sound was different (proving thereby that the HT5 is a revealing amp, in spite of its budget price, since it even reveals the qualities of its power source cable). But, much to our surprise, the HT5's sound was actually worse with expensive exotic power cords. With the inexpensive stock cord, the sound was as described above, warm, liquid, and sweet, halfway between solid state and tube sound. But with the exotic power cords we tried, the sound became less musically natural and more like other solid state amps, with more midrange glare. We infer that McCormack, in their conscientious zeal to make this budget amp sound as good as possible, even with the inexpensive parts to which its budget price constrains it, researched and found an inexpensive power cord that perfectly complements the sonic capabilities of the circuit, so that all these inexpensive parts work together in synergistic harmony to produce a total sonic result far greater than you would expect from an amp at this price. That's the kind of thoughtful, dedicated engineering that gives you better sound while still leaving some extra dollars in your wallet.
      The DNA-HT5 is an outstanding power amp choice for your first home theater system. It's also ideal if you want to step up to better solid state sound after having endured the artificiality of a typical competing solid state amp, perhaps even a more expensive one (now there's an interesting concept, trading up from a more expensive amp, and it works precisely because McCormack gives you so much sonic quality for your money). The HT5 will be a smart investment that will continue to satisfy you for years, thanks to its natural musicality. Even some of its sonic limitations can be worked around, as your tastes become more sophisticated and as your budget allows. For example, the HT5's limit of 125 watts per channel can be stretched to provide louder sound if you route low bass to a separate subwoofer, thereby lessening the power demands upon the main channels for a given loudness level. Likewise, the HT5's limitations in low bass muscle become irrelevant if you employ a self powered subwoofer, which you surely will, since most of the best subwoofers nowadays are self powered, and since the HT5 has only 5 channels, not 6 (thus forcing you to turn elsewhere for a subwoofer amp when you do elect to use a subwoofer).
      If someday you do want to take a leap beyond what the HT5 can give you, with similar sonic virtues but more of them (and thus fewer limitations), there are two higher levels of McCormack power amps that can answer your needs superbly, giving you even better musical transparency and resolution, even greater power and dynamics and bass impact, and even better handling of the spectral extremes. For the ultimate dream solid state amplification for home theater and surround sound, you should get a trio of McCormack's flagship DNA-500's, which would give you 6 incredible channels, for less than the cost of some high end 2 channel amps (and would also give you the option of balanced inputs, which we find to be noticeably superior for surround imaging). If that's beyond your budget, an excellent future choice might be the 2 channel DNA-225 (McCormack's mid level stereo amp), plus a future McCormack amp we hope to see that would contain 3 of the DNA-225 channels on one chassis (incidentally, McCormack does have a 3 channel amp today, the HT3, but it contains older circuitry that predates the more musically revealing circuitry in all of the other current McCormack amps).
      Most multichannel home theater amps are sonically compromised, relative to their stereo siblings from which they originated, in order that they can give you the convenience of having multiple power channels in one convenient chassis. That compromise is usually necessitated because the heat generated by 5 to 6 channels is 2.5 to 3 times that generated by a 2 channel stereo chassis, and some engineering compromises usually have to be made to reduce this heat. But sonic compromise is not the McCormack way. The HT5 gives you exactly the same power per channel and sonic quality, without compromise, that the stereo DNA-125 offers, since each of the HT5's 5 channels is identical to a channel of the stereo DNA-125, without compromise. Under the McCormack no-compromise philosophy, the higher end McCormack alternatives for home theater (mentioned just above) involve two or three chassis.
      Thus, the HT5, even though a value oriented product, is the best no-compromise exemplar of the McCormack sound you can get in a single convenient home theater package, the best no-compromise multichannel amp that McCormack can give you in a single chassis. If McCormack were to try to put 5 channels of their midline DNA-225 on one convenient chassis, the heat generated by 5 channels rated at 225 watts each would necessitate a huge, heavy, and expensive package (if only for all the heat fin area required) - which would defeat the whole point of having a single chassis, conveniently manageable home theater amp. McCormack could perhaps cram 5 of these 225 watt channels onto a single manageable chassis by lessening the heat produced from each, which could be accomplished by reducing their bias level (as some other manufacturers do when making a home theater amp), but that would compromise the sound. To avoid sonic compromise, McCormack could not put any more than 3 channels of DNA-225 power on a single manageable chassis, so this higher power level would call for 2 separate chassis (a stereo DNA-225, plus a possible future 3 channel version of the DNA-225 on a second chassis). Likewise, if you want the ultimate sonic dream of the DNA-500's ravishing sound and mighty muscle for your home theater and surround sound system, then you're going to have to install 3 separate chassis (it would be tragically counterproductive to compromise the DNA-500's sound or muscle by stuffing more than 2 channels into one chassis). In sum, if you want the musical naturalness of the McCormack sound, that wonderful midpoint between tube and solid state sound, in one convenient home theater chassis, you can't do better than the DNA-HT5.

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