McCormack SMC Audio upgrades: how good are they?

Does anyone know, or can tell me, how good the McCormack stuff sounds when upgraded by SMC audio? I was trying to determine whether to keep my DNA-125 Gold revision, or to go to a higher-end SS or tube amp. Budget would be $3k for an amp, or $4k for an integrated, both used. Has anyone had or heard a DNA-125 or 225 Gold and compared it to other amps? The stock amps sound a lot worse than the Gold revision (it costs $1700 for the upgrades), and I have never seen one used on here, which probably tells me something right there. Still.....

I can't listen to any high-end pieces around here, and have the upgrade bug again, but it may be unjustified at this point. Are there better units available at that price? Preamp TBD as well, but looking to spend $2k. Currently using a Dehavilland in my system. The problem with audio is that it seems that there is always something a little better lurking around the corner....
You state your budget is $3K-$4K for the amp, is that after you sell the DNA? If not find a used amp here on Agon, if you are not happy with the way it compares to the DNA 125 Gold you can sell it and try another. The point is you won't loose your McCormack and you could still have it upgraded to Platinum at SMc Audio.
As another option find an inexpensive DNA-125 and have it upgraded to Gold and the two monoblocked. Not sure if this thought had crossed your mind. Of course you would need to search for a balanced preamp after that.
As for the Preamp I would suggest a used McCormack and have it upgraded as well. I have my TLC-1 scheduled for the Ultra Version at the end of this month.
Have you talked to Steve to see if his upgrades will make the improvement you are looking for?
The point is I would hate to see you sell your DNA-125 Gold and wind up wishing you had it back and looking for another for sale. Like you said they don't come up here often.
By the way did I mention that I'm a fan of the McCormack gear.
do a search on the forum: there was a guy saying that a pair of Herron Monoblocks ($7000 new), sound overall better than a DNA125 rev. gold.

Also, in my view upgrading to platinum will create you a problem, in that you'll need a SS preamp to drive it.

I own a DNA 0.5 silver rev., and I'm rather happy with it.
Hello Chiho -

With respect, I would suggest that you are barking up the wrong tree with your question. No matter what opinions are offered in response, the only opinion that matters is yours. It is ultimately up to you to decide the value or quality of your system, and it takes time and experience to develop an informed opinion.

Your DNA-125 Gold-upgrade is an excellent amplifier, has made quite a few audiophiles very happy, and certainly competes strongly in the price range you mention. Is it the “best” amplifier in your price range? Well, reasonable (and unreasonable) people will disagree. This is a question without an answer, or one that only you can answer in the end. I can tell you this: your DNA-125 Gold is an essentially honest, very transparent amp. It will drive most speakers well, and will accurately reflect what you feed it. Feed it well, and it will treat you well.

It bears mentioning that the great majority of any system’s personality is largely determined by your room, your choice of speakers, and the location and setup of your speakers within that room. I urge you to give this due consideration before you change equipment. A bit of effort (and perhaps a few dollars) invested in room acoustic treatment will usually pay-off handsomely. Experimenting with speaker position is crucial, and there are a variety of helpful guides available online if you will search. One simple example: say you have your speakers setup along the short wall of your room and you are unhappy with your bass performance and soundstage size. In this instance, your listening position may lie on top of your room’s major bass cancellation nodes, and your speakers may be close enough to the side walls to cause soundstage constriction. Shifting the speakers to the long wall can go a long way toward correcting these problems. That may be simplistic (and easier said than done), but I hope you get the idea - be sure you have done what you possibly can to get the most from the equipment you have before assuming that changing any piece of gear will suddenly deliver you to sonic nirvana.

Whatever choice you make, I hope you will find your way to a system you can sit down with happily and enjoy beautiful music.

Best regards,

Steve McCormack
SMc Audio
Thanks for the responses. Having not been able to hear other amps, I do have to say that my system sounds very good right now, but without anything to compare to, who knows how good it can sound? I don't get to listen to a ton of high-end gear, and even more rarely in my system.

Steve, thanks for the note regarding acoustical treatments. I am also planning on spending money there, probably before changing electronics. I recently heard a heavily ASC-treated room, and the soundstage and low-end was something to behold. Sure, nice gears, but the acoustical treatments made the system, no doubt about it. I probably only have around $500 worth of acoustical treatments in my room, but that was probably the second-best $500 I have spent in my system (best $500 was initially getting gear to listen to!) I am sure spending more $ for corner panels and tube traps would get me even closer to what I am looking for. You are right about the amp: very transparent, easy to listen to, but boy do the details come out in spades.

Regarding the poster w/the Herrron/McCormack comparison: a difference in current may have made a difference there. From what I remember, the Herron amps pull a lot more current than the DNA-125. They are more in line with a 225.
Given where you're at with your amp, I'd personally have Steve take it to Platinum status. But that's just me.

What would be the sonic difference between Gold and Platinum? Better dynamics, I assume? My speakers are nominal 4-ohm, so I could probably use the current increase with the better transformer. Do they also replace the wiring? Some of the stock wiring to the stock transformer looks pretty cheap.
Slightly different amp (DNA-1); but sent to Steve for Gold + revision. Quite pleased with results: I cannot tell you without looking further exactly what was changed out, but deeper, fuller bass, better soundstage, more holographic presentation. It just sound like a more heavy weight amplifier, wihout fatigue or tinniness that I've heard in some SS of the same ilk. I'm sure there are better amps to your and my ear out there; but I would have to reccomend this upgrade. I use an Art Audio (Gill) tube preamp with good synergy; good cables help significantly. farmdoc
I think Steve's answer speaks volumes as to his long term commitment to the hobby and his customers. The Gold+ and Platinum upgrades are very good indeed and you have among the best support in the industry, but as far as whether you will like the Platinum upgrade, who knows. If you post more system details, that would help. BTW, with transparent amp and resolving speakers, IMO, pre-amp has a dramatic impact on overall system sound.
The details of the upgrade are out on Steve's website. I have no idea if the changes will be beneficial (or even noticable) to you. However, if you like you DNA-125 Gold, and want to build on those strengths, an additional $1000-ish (I'm guessing it would only be around $1k to go from Gold to Platinum) for the Platinum upgrade seems like a decent approach.

The only downside that I see is that mod'ed hardware does not hold it's value in the used market (no matter how good the mods are).
Chiho, the upgrades offered by Smc Audio are superb. I think your in a position that alot of audiophiles envy owning a DNA 125 Gold revision.

You might find an ss amp that has a fancier more bullet proof chassis but it will be near impossible to beat the sound quality offered by your DNA 125 with revision. With the upgraded 125 you have already laid a solid foundation to your system, why not like Swampwalker mentioned experiment with different preamps. They can definately make or break a system and will make a dramatic difference.

Also rather than look to replace the 125 & make a regretful decision, why not buy an extra tube amp to insert on occasions for just a different perspective. There is nothing wrong with having two different amps on hand to keep the upgrade bug at bay. Most of all enjoy the music!
Thanks for the responses. I had considered a nice tube amp to "change up" the sound. Something like a set of Manley snappers or Music Reference RM-200's: nice yet affordable.

Speakers are Tyler Linbrook full-range. My preamp is a C-J PV5, although I currently have borrowed an Ultraverve, which was a step in the right direction.

Any preamp ideas? I posted on this a month ago, assuming I needed a SS preamp to mate with the McCormack, but perhaps a tube pre will work. The Dehavilland and C-J are quiet, others I have tried had audible tube hiss. I also have thought about an SMC upgraded RLD-1, but was a little hesitant without first having heard one. SS preamps I have tried in the past have either sounded overly smooth (Classe) or a bit thin (Coda).
Just a couple of additional comments if I may... A previous post alluded to the need for a solid-state preamp if you went with the further Platinum upgrade, and this is not strictly accurate. Your current DNA-125 Gold has a high input impedance (100KOhms) which makes it suitable for use with any type of preamp. The Platinum upgrade normally includes the addition of balanced inputs, and the method I use for this reduces the input impedance to 10KOhms (also true for the monoblock versions). This means that whatever preamp you choose should have an output (source) impedance of 1000 Ohms or less, and this leaves out a few tube and resistor-based passive designs. Most preamps can drive a 10K load with no problem, but you do have to pay attention to impedance matching when making a choice.

On the other hand, all of our work is effectively custom, and you are not required to add the balanced-input option if you don't want it. For your DNA-125, the real step-up is to the Plitron power transformer which more than doubles the amp's current capability. Then there are a variety of capacitor, resistor, and wire upgrades that lift performance considerably further.

Food for thought...

Steve McCormack
SMc Audio
on a side issue, how would you characterize the improvement in sound due to the input transformer in the case of the DNA125/0.5/etc. (other things being equal)?
Hi Luigi -

I now use Lundahl amorphous-core transformers in my amp upgrades (and in my VRE-1 preamp). I started with Jensen transformers, but switched a few years ago when I found the Lundahls offered better transparency. I originally used input transformers to provide a balanced option, but I then found that I preferred the sound of my amps with them, regardless of which input (balanced or unbalanced) I was using. First of all they provide complete immunity from DC and RFI, and well-designed units have outstanding common-mode noise rejection (CMRR). This allowed me to simplify my amp's input stage, and the net result was sound that I hear as cleaner, clearer, smoother, and more "pure" if you will excuse the expression. And keep in mind that my design handles both balanced and unbalanced signals via the same path (the only difference being the input jacks) so you get the benefit of the transformer either way. Of course this only works well with great transformers, but that is the only kind I use ;-)

In short, I feel the input transformers are a sonic benefit even if you use only the unbalanced inputs. The only downside is the relatively low 10KOhm input impedance, but this is an issue with only a small number of preamps.

Best regards,

Steve McCormack
SMc Audio
I had my DNA-1 Deluxe upgraded to the gold edition by SMC Audio. I love the sound stage improvement and the low level detail that is unmistakably there. There is less listener fatigue or "veils" lifted between the speakers and myself. I can tell as I've had this amp for many yrs. I have one issue with the upgrade which I emailed Steve's sales group and called the primary person in sales complaining about. When I turn the amp on there is a significant "POP" as they have removed the timed relay we are used to that lets the amp startup surge happen before the speakers see any current. I was told this was done to improve the sound which I countered with "Why wasn't I told this before purchase" - they forgot. Is there anyone else dealing with this?
Do you have the option of leaving the amp on continuously?
Of course it can be left on. Not sure that's the route I want to go and that was suggested by SMC.
FWIW I have run my McCormack amp continuously for a couple years, no problems; I prefer to think I'm extending its useful lifespan.

I could live with the thump if it meant my amp sounded better -- that's the point of it all, right?

I'm not sure why you mentioned it? Do you seek reassurance the amp will be fine? Are you concerned about speaker damage? No disrespect, just wondering.
Concerned about tweeter damage more than anything. Also would like to hear the theory behind Steve's removal of the relay
11-12-15: Tlcshop
Concerned about tweeter damage more than anything. Also would like to hear the theory behind Steve's removal of the relay
That would be my concern too. There's a reason systems should be turn on and off in the proper sequence.

What;s Steve answer to your concern?
Hello Audiogoners,

I would prefer that my amps turn on-and-off silently but the nature of the design allows for a bit of a turn-on thump, and the amount varies somewhat from one amp to another. I find a small thump acceptable and I would never ship an amp that I thought was doing anything that could cause damage. But I am listening with speakers in the 90dB sensitivity range, and anything higher will make the noise louder. Even so, this should not ever be any problem - your speaker crossover will eliminate any low-frequency energy from getting to the tweeter, and there usually isn't much high-frequency energy in the thump. I realize that a turn-on thump can be annoying, but I have never heard of any damage of any kind being caused.

The new circuit board I use in the DNA amp upgrades no longer requires the mute relay of the original, so it was eliminated. This will not have any consequence at turn-on unless your preamp has some DC offset, and this is unlikely.

Tlcshop, I'm sorry that your turn-on thump is causing concern. If you would like to call me to discuss this, we can see if there is something that might be done to reduce or eliminate the problem.

Best regards,

Steve McCormack
SMc Audio
I had this same thump with a pair of DNA-1 Golds that were connected in a vertical bi-amp configuration to my Vandersteen 3A Sig's. I called Steve to discuss this and he said there shouldn't be any problems. Four years later I had a pair of 0.5's upgraded to Platinum mono-blocks and the Gold's went on their marry way. Still have the Vandy's and yet to have any issue's. I have to admit I was a little concerned every time I turned them on but that subsided with time.
Hope this helps with you situation.
Steve was able to reduce the level of the thump when he performed the upgrades to my signature edition DNA-2 LAE but there is still a little, and it is no problem whatsoever. Fortunately the DNA-2 has a standby circuit so it remains on all the time. My understanding is that many owners of SMc upgraded McCormack amps leave them powered up all the time without consequence.