Review: McCormack DNA-125 Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

Review: McCormack DNA-125 revision Gold

System setup:
Speakers: Tyler Linbrook Signature System
Source: Sony ES-9000 DVP, upgraded to Level 6 VSE status
Amps: McCormack DNA-125, Herron M1 Monos, AES Sixpacs
Preamps: Dehavilland Ultraverve 2, (Hytron 6SN7, rest are Sylvania NOS) and Herron VTSP-1a/166 (stock Sovtek 6922 tubes)
Cables: All from Signal: Ultra 2 biwire speaker, Silver Resolution IC’s, Magic Power PC, Silver PC from wall into Ulimate Outlet 20a
Room size: 15x24, 10-foot ceilings, L-shaped that opens toward stage right, but room treatments keep it balanced-sounding
Music I enjoy: jazz, classical, vocals, indie rock, bluegrass: everything except crappy “classic” rock that all sounds the same. I also don’t like commercial country/pop.
What I like about my system: nothing in particular, just that it sounds real and enjoyable. I am a guy who likes to listen to music, and has no musical training whatsoever.

Review: The McCormack has been in my system for 2 years. I have enjoyed it since getting the Gold revision on it just under 2 years ago. A huge improvement over the stock amp, and also the AES Sixpacs I had at the time. I have been very happy amplification-wise.
My speakers are 4 ohm with the Seas drivers, so a nice powerful amp can be relatively handy. The McCormack is basically rebuilt internally during the Gold revision, and is nothing like the stock amp. It puts out 125 watts into 8 ohms. I was considering doing the Platinum revision at some point in the future, which gives it better power reserves. Retail on the McCormack with Gold revision is $3900 or so. Of course, buying a used amp would bring it in even cheaper.

First off, the McCormack is very tubey for a solid-state amp, while retaining great control over the speakers. Quite dynamic, great low-end, a hint of mid-range bloom, excellent soundstage. I don’t think there is much that can touch it at the price. It is very musical and enjoyable, and can power most speakers. When I upgraded the amp, the things that really stood out for me was an increase in vocal presence, the tone and reverberation of the strings, and how I could really hear violin, instead of just a hint of a violin playing. Background darkness and low-level are much improved, and the amp seems much more dynamic. I definitely see that a low-level haze is gone from the music: I am much closer to the stage. Just a very musical, detailed, clean yet easy to listen to amplifier. The difference of before/after in the upgrade was huge, and when I was fooling around and plugged an Arcam A85 into the system, I was blown away at how much detail and soundstage just disappeared, and how 1-dimensional the music sounded.

Comparison: 1st off, the AES Sixpacs. I had these for around a year in my system along with the DNA-125 and they were definitely different. Not as dynamic, but they seemed to have good control over the low end. I would say the DNA-125 stock and Sixpac were equivalent in performance, but differed in presentation. The Sixpac’s soundstage was on par with the Gold DNA-125. A bit more midrange bloom, and a palpable smoky-room feel to them. Not quite as detailed, but a fun amp. Not really my cup of tea: a little too cloudy and bloomy, definitely missing some of the detail of the McCormack. The DNA-125 is anything but cool: it does a lot of the things that tubes do well, but with better resolution. The upgraded Gold was much more detailed and dynamic, and a better amp all around.

2nd comparison is with the Herron M1 monoblock (which I will review later). The DNA-125 is a little warmer, a little more euphonic, just as musical. The soundstage tends to suffer a bit when compared to the Herron. The Herron is also a tad more dynamic, and significantly “blacker” in the background. It is tonally cooler, but is extremely musical, just not without the slight midrange bloom of the DNA. I did notice a bit of solid-state grain in the DNA-125, but only when compared to the M1’s. The M1’s are $7000 retail (and a good value at full price) so I would expect them to be better than the McCormack, which they are. But, the differences aren’t huge: it took me a few listening sessions to really get to the point where I immediately could tell the Herrons were cleaner and clearer. With that said, there are no “deal breaker” tendencies with the DNA-125: it is just as enjoyable and musical, just not as black or detailed. The difference was most noticeable on complex orchestral passages and vocals (especially with respect to soundstage) and not as noticeable when it came to more subdued jazz recordings.

Having lived with the McCormack DNA-125 Gold, I am extremely happy with it. I would think that a set of monoblock DNA-125 Revision Gold or platinum would be pretty darn special. Even at the going rate for a single DNA-125 Gold, it is a superb amplifier, especially if you enjoy a bit of a tubey-ness in your sound but need lots of power. At the used + upgrade price, it is definitely hard to beat. The Herron probably represents the next step up (and pretty close to the best) of the solid state amplfication pyramid, but the DNA-125 Gold is pretty darn good and around 97% of the performance.

I should note that I did most of the auditioning with the Dehavilland Ultraverve 2. The Herron preamp sounded much better on the M1 amps (no surprise there) and I wanted to give the amps a chance with a well-regarded preamp that wasn’t build with system synergy in mind. The Dehavilland may have added to the euphonic sound of the DNA-125, so it may or may not be the best choice. The Herron had some tube hiss that was amplified on the low 1v sensitivity of the McCormack, but it sounds better than the Dehavilland when paired with the Herron amps.

Associated gear
Speakers: Tyler Linbrook Signature System
Source: Sony ES-9000 DVP, upgraded to Level 6 VSE status
Preamps: Dehavilland Ultraverve 2, Superverve (Hytron 6SN7, rest are Sylvania NOS) and Herron VTSP-1a/166
Cables: All from Signal: Ultra 2 biwire speaker, Silver Resolution IC’s, Magic Power PC, Silver PC from wall into Ulimate Outlet 20a
Room size: 15x24, 9-foot ceilings, L-shaped that opens toward stage right, but room treatments keep it balanced-sounding

Similar products
DNA-125 stock
PS Audio PCA-2
AES Sixpac
Herron M1 Monaural
Update: I tried running the McCormack into the wall through a Signal Cable silver resolution PC, instead of the prior configuration through a 20a Ultimate Outlet. Big improvement! Bigger soundstage, more open, better instrument decay. Much closer to the Herron's. Of course, I was running them through the UO as well, so I need to try the in-wall approach.
interesting review! A couple of questions.. Do you mean that the stock DNA 125 has a little SS glare, or that even the gold version has some glare?
Also, where you able to compare the 125 to the old 0.5? I'm asking because I own a DNA 0.5 rev. B...

Sorry, I have never heard the stock DNA .5. There are several people who have that: I think it is a little warmer, the 125 a little more detailed. Most people would say that the 125 rev. Gold is more dynamic than the older DNA Rev.A stuff. The Gold has a little more background noise than the Herron, but is superb when compared to every other SS amp I have heard in my system. I bet the Platinum upgrade would reduce the noise floor to near zero. One thing I noticed since I have written this review and compared it head to head against the Herron for 2 weeks: the Herron sounds great after being on for an hour. The DNA-125 sounds its best when left on for at least 12 hours. The amp becomes more dynamic, more clear. I think when left on all of the time, it is probably the Herron's equal, just different it terms of presentation. When fully warmed up, the Herron struck me as very neutral, perhaps a bit more reserved (seated back a few rows) whereas the McCormack is more dynamic, in your face and upfront: it all depends on what you are pairing it with. A preamp with these characteristics can perhaps be too much of a good thing, but when the McCormack was paired with the ARC LS26 (neutral and detailed, but not thin), it was a superb match.

Perhaps "glare" isn't the right term: it just doesn't seem as if the background is as black on the McCormack as the Herron. I think I prefer the presentation of the McCormack though, at least with the right preamp. I bet the Platnium upgrade is more dynamic, as the current carrying capabilities are excellent on that model
Another update: I had the chance to hear the DNA-125 Gold on a less demanding speaker, and I think the difference between the Herron and DNA-125 is less in terms of sound quality and more in terms of current capability. The Herron delivers double the current of the 125, and on my 4-ohm speakers, it makes a difference. The details on both amps were palpable and easy to hear, but the Herron has better control of the woofers. Same thing, only even more extreme, on the Karan KA i-180 that I had in my system: that thing has an incredible amount of current and just seems to grab hold of the woofers with an iron fist. Of course, getting the Platinum upgrade by SMC Audio would take care of that (much higher current toroidal transformer gets installed, among other things). If you have even moderately demanding speakers, the level of control that can be accomplished by a high-current amp is superior to the stock DNA-125 transformer. But, the musical presentation is detailed, yet full and musical. Highly recommended!
Figured I would follow up a bit more. I finally found a great preamp for this amp, and boy, did it make a huge difference. Went with the Modwright Signature 9.0 with Tung-Sol tubes and a Sylvania rectifier. Prior, I had in the system an Eastern Electric Minimax, Herron VTSP-1a/166, Dehavilland Ultraverve, and Audio Research LS26. The Modwright is a better match, for whatever reason. It is quieter, more dynamic, has a better soundstage, very good bass, and is all-around a great preamp. Any complaints I had about this unit earlier are now gone: I really can't imagine it getting much better, provided you have the right preamp, and speakers that don't need much current.

For whatever reason, the other amp/preamp combos sounded flat. The LS26 was the best of those, but was a little thin and just not as good as the current combo. I saw in another thread that Steve at SMC also recommends the Modwright 9.0, so there must be something to it!

Best PC I have used so far is a Oyaide Tunami GPX. This is a big step up over the PS Audio Statement that it replaced.
Hi Dawgcatching -

Thanks very much for taking the time to write-up your experience with your DNA-125 Gold Edition amp. I apologize for not posting sooner, but I had not been over to the review section in a while. It sounds like everything came together when you found the Modwright preamp, which is nice to hear. I hope your amp continues to serve you well, and let me know if you have further questions.

Best regards,

Steve McCormack
SMc Audio
Thanks Steve for the follow up. I managed to get my hands on an ALD-1 revision Gold, and it stepped up the system's performance yet again. The sound is even more full, with a wider soundstage and more clarity. With this amp/preamp combo, the usual "solid state sounding thin and unmusical" just doesn't apply: this sounds as full as any all-tube amp preamp combo I have yet tried, yet has all the advantages of clarity and current that a SS system is known for. This amp needs to be paired with the SMC modded preamp to get the most of out of it, at least in my experience. The Simaudio I-7 integrated I am borrowing right now can't quite keep pace in terms of soundstage and richness, say on female vocals and piano, but is still a very nice piece.

I have little different question. I am the proud owner of a ste of Maggies 20.1 I am up in the air between the new McCormack 750 and a set up with Roger Sanders new Magnetec Stereo biamped into the Maggies. Do you know of anyone who has used MaCormacks with Maggies?
Hi Travni -

I think your question will get a lot more response if you post it over on the amp/preamp discussion forum. Please keep in mind that both of the amps you are interested in are very new, and you may have some difficulty finding people with any direct experience. I can tell you that many people use McCormack amplifiers very happily with their Magnepans, and the DNA-225 and 500 (and from inference, the new DNA-250 and 750 monoblocks) are excellent choices. I hope you will have the opportunity to audition these amps with your speakers soon.

Best regards,

Steve McCormack
SMc Audio