Response Audio Reference modified Ming Da MC-7R
This is a handsome unit which, in stock form, can be had new or lightly used for as little as $500. The build quality is very good, the wiring is point-to-point and the volume pot is from Alps.
I bought a lightly used MC-7R for my bedroom system, but first gave it a listen through my main system with an Audio Note DAC 4.1x Signature upstream and both Blue Circle BC-8 and AtmaSphere M60 monoblocks downstream to actively biamped custom loudspeakers. In such a highly resolving system the stock Ming Da showed both its strengths and limitations. The midrange was glorious. The soundstage was wide and reasonably deep, with that "air" enveloping instruments and performers that I've only experienced with quality tubed systems. Alas, the bass was mushy, the highs rolled off and microdetail retrieval was poor compared to a $3000+ Musical Design SP-3 SS preamp (outboard 1.2 Farad psu, all Black Gate caps and tantalum resistors, yada yada) it replaced.
I visited the Response Audio website after reading a 'Gon classified ad for Ming Da mods and found that Bill Baker offered a "Signature Mod" package for my preamp model and its near twin, the MC-3R. Being a cautious sort, I phoned him for more info and found him to be down to earth, paitient and knowledgeable. Off my MC-7R went!
The Signature modded preamp barely resembled the stock unit (musically, that is). The midrange magic remained, but the bass was now quite articulate, allowing the powerhouse BC-8 monoblocks to really strut their stuff. Treble extension was much improved, complementing the OTL amps' transparency.
Microdetail retrieval was much better, though not quite up to my SS pre. Overall, though, I actually preferred the modded Ming Da in my main system. There's nothing like the realism of tubes done right. And this for less than $300 over the cost of the stock unit!
Shortly thereafter, Bill announced his "Reference Mods" featuring the new VH Labs "V-Caps". I called him and learned that the new mods raised the preamps sonically to a level competitive with the world's best. A pretty bold assertion, but I'd come to trust Bill's ear and work - so off again the MC-7R went!
I've now had the opportunity to hear the "Reference Moddded" MC-7R in my home for about 75 hours. In short, it doesn't just merit the designation of "extraordinary value for its price" (for me, under $2000 total including cost of the stock unit). Rather, it truly lives up to the advance claim of "as good as it gets"! It is quiet, with microdetail retrieval capable of realistically extracting the ambience of every venue on live CD recordings (I love live music...)I own - be it jazz, rock, chorale. The "air" around singers and instruments is uncanny. The holography of great tube gear is there in a big way. Highs soar gracefully. On well-recorded CDs the attack and decay of cymbal crashes and the like are nothing short of lifelike.
I've also put the "Reference Modded" MC-7R into my bedroom system (Tube Technology Fulcrum CDT > NorthStar DAC192 > Ming Da MC-7R > Ming Da MC805-A monoblocks > Zalytron Phenomenal 3 loudspeakers) with the same result. This system cannot produce the dynamics and scale of the actively biamped floorstanders (Raven R3.1 ribbons/dual 12 inch PHL 4530s) in my main rig, but has that "SET thing" going in a big way with those 805 output tubes. Yet the midrange realism, "air" and holographic soundstage of SETs came through even more beautifully with the "Reference Modded" MC-7R in the signal path. So much so that I snapped up a demo MC-7R from Bill for future "Reference Mods" and use in this system as well.
My SS preamp (great as it is)? Well, make me an offer...
I really can't find the words to describe the deliciously "you are there" experience that the "Reference Modded" Ming Da MC-7R has brought to both of my systems in a far from subtle way. It is such a blessing AND relief to have found a preamp to keep for life.
Please note that I use NOS 12AU7 and 12AX7 tubes in the MC-7R, of the $15-$50 per variety - nothing terribly exotic in my stash. The stock Chinese rectifier needs no substitution, with rugged and inexpensive NOS military replacements available from "DIY Hi Fi" on the web.
Music used during review:
A Love Supreme - John Coltrane
O Christmas Tree (A Bluegrass Collection) - various
A Childe is Born - The Bell' Arte Singers
Inside - Dave Van Ronk
Shaking the Tree - Peter Gabriel
Lotus - Santana
My Goals Beyond - Mahavishnu Orchestra
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (self-titled on Impulse)
Bad Brains (self-titled on Rohr)
I, Eye, Aye - Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Have Moicy - Michael Hurley, Unholy Modal Rounder, Jeffrey Frederick and the Clamtones
Blackheart Man - Bunny Wailer
Original Rockers - Augustus Pablo
Absent Lovers- King Crimson
Squeezing Out Sparks/Live Sparks - Graham Parker and the Rumour
Win This Record - El Rayo X
More Guitar and Faithless - Richard Thompson Band