Review: McCormack DNA-225 Platinum Edition Upgrades Amplifier

Category: Amplifiers

(Disclaimer: This review is l o n g. Allow plenty of time, multiple sessions, and/or a full pot of coffee.)

It’s no secret. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my McCormack DNA-225 since acquiring it three years ago. Just prior, I was in a home theatre-based funk, having departed the dedicated two-channel milieu during my younger “married with children” years. With over 2,500 LP’s and nothing to really “hear” them on, I bequeathed the HT system to my wife and start anew in a room she graciously bequeathed in return (beat THAT deal!). My plan was to start modestly (relatively to some) and seek “bang for the buck” used equipment, lest my wife immediately shut down the whole operation in the face of today’s rather ludicrous pricing. Later, I reasoned, the good vibes she heard (she loves music but hates ill-spent money) would allow me to upgrade one a piece at a time – and with mutual justification! So, it started. The DNA-225, a Kora Eclipse preamp with phono, an Oracle Delphi MkII, a pair of PSB Stratus Goldi speakers, and Cardas Cross cabling. A quick look at my system reveals that the DNA-225 is all that remains – and with good reason. Oh, many components have cycled through in each position until arriving at my present system, including amps, but I could never part with the DNA-225. Other amps have included Pass Labs Aleph 2 monos, a Sonic Frontiers Power 2, a Classe CA-300, and Conrad Johnson Premier 11A.

I read very good things about the McCormack upgrades to the older DNA amps, but previously nothing was available for the DNA-225. Subsequently, I read that Steve McCormack had made such upgrades available and read with interest his web site. When another ‘Gonner posted a review of the “Gold” DNA-225 upgrades, I decided to pull the trigger. Shortly thereafter, Steve also began offering “Platinum” upgrades, and so I contacted him. BTW, the referenced review by Bruce with respect to the “Gold” upgrades can be seen here:

Let me first say a bit about dealing with Steve McCormack. Here is a guy who, let’s face it, is a legend in his field. Anyone who knows audio also knows of Steve’s sterling reputation for producing quality gear. Enough said. But, how many guys like this can you even speak with? How many that you can speak with will call you personally on the phone and begin by apologizing if they are taking up YOUR time? How many guys that you can speak with pick up the phone when you call their business? How many guys who pick up the phone take the time, care, and patience to find out your needs, suggest but not push, and give an honest assessment of what to expect? Finally, how many guys after doing all this and AFTER you’ve bought and paid, give the same level of service, respect, and attention? Yes, the answer is very, very few. Hopefully, this subsequent review will answer questions regarding the quality of the upgrades themselves. If anyone has questions regarding who they’d be dealing with – put them to rest. Place your trust and confidence in Steve to do you right. I have dealt with literally thousands of folks in business over the years and Steve ranks with the very best of the best.

So, I send the amp off to Steve and I receive it back in a shade over three weeks. It sounds great right out of the box, paired with a Pass Labs X-1. Thunderous bass, sweet, airy midrange, and extended highs. However, I note that the top end is a wee bit splashy and the bass registry is really good, but maybe a hint diffused. I am wondering if my money was well spent, in total. Things improve over the next fifty hours but I am convinced that it is the X-1 that is not my cup of tea, as I did not care for it much with the CJ amp, either. Spoke with Steve about a passive. I had previously owned a Bent 102 passive and while it was excellent tonally I thought I gave up some dynamics. I mentioned the Bent NOH, and Steve opined that this would be a very good match. As luck would have it, I found a NOH at auction (John Chapman at Bent is currently on hiatus in building these). I decided to replace my Audience Power Chord and I ultimately chose a Shunyata Taipan Alpha (from Galen Carol Audio).

I was unprepared and downright devastated by the difference these changes made. You know the feeling, it is almost humbling. NO loss of dynamics with the Bent in the system and the Taipan solidified the bass immediately. I decided to let everything settle for 100 hours or so before making final judgments. There were plusses and minuses during this time which are, I think, common to most all equipment and I will not detail them. After allowing the mods and cable to break in, I thought I was ready to write this review. However, the DNA-225 kept sounding even better, and better as time passed such that I thought I’d best wait – but loving every minute of it! Finally, after about 250 hours, I figured things were what they’d be, and I could NOT be happier, unless I had live bands and combos taking stage in my music room every night.

To conduct what I considered a proper review, I decided to then select 25 LP’s from my collection that are fairly representative of the variety of music I listen to and works that I know well, with different genre in proportional relation in number. I picked LP’s with the highest sonic quality, some middle-of–the road, and some that have been left wanting in my experience. Sorry, no digital media in this review. I have only a pedestrian CDP and while CD’s sound very nice in this system they cannot approach my analog front end. One final note about the music and media. I listen to very little classical and the one LP I picked is among the few that I really know well. However, I am confident that fans of the digital media and classical genre would be just as thrilled with the performance of the Platinum DNA-225. The 25 LPs below formed my musical benchmarks and I listened to all of them critically, completely, and twice, over a period of about two weeks during morning, afternoon, and night sessions:

Eagles: “The Long Run” Asylum X5E-508
Clarke, Corea, Henderson, Hubbard, White: ‘The Griffith Park Collection” Elektra E1-60025
Rickie Lee Jones: “Rickie Lee Jones” Warner BSK 3296
Steely Dan: “Aja” ABC AA-1006
Temptations: “Sky’s the Limit” Gordy GS957
Karla Bonoff: “Karla Bonoff” Columbia BL 34672
Edgar Winter Group: “They Only Come Out at Night” Epic KE 31584
Miles Davis Quintet: “Relaxin’” Prestige 7129
Booker T. & the MG’s: “Soul Dressing” Stax ST-705
Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers: Blue Note 1518
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: “Symphonian Dreams” UA GXH-56 Japanese Pressing
Steely Dan: “Pretzel Logic” ABC ABCD808
Bill Monroe: “Bluegrass Instrumentals” Decca DL 4601
Jennifer Warnes; “Shot Through the Heart” Arista AB 4217
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers: Blue Note 4003
Ravel “Bolero” LSO/Monteux: Philips 6570 092
Ozark Mountain Daredevils: “Men From Earth” A&M SP-4601
Yes: “Fragile” UK Atlantic 2401 019
War: “The World Is a Ghetto” UA UAS-5652
Cannonball Adderley: “Somethin’ Else” Blue Note 1595
Stylistics: “Round 2” AVCO AV-11006-598
Stevie Wonder: “Music of My Mind” Tamla T314L
Beatles: “Beatles for Sale” Parlophone PMC 1240
Art Pepper: “Intensity” Contemporary S7607
Beatles: “Rubber Soul” Parlophone PCS 3075

OK, I have always vowed that I would pimp slap the next person I heard say, “It’s like I’m hearing all my records again for the first time”. Well, consider said slap happily self-applied!

The combination of authority and finesse of this amp is virtually unparalleled by anything I have heard personally. It is characterized by both superb slam and detail and an ultimately textured layering of the music with just the right amount of space and depth. It is as if a living presence replaced what was formerly just damn good sound. Above all, it is NATURAL – natural in the sense that it is the closest thing to a live performance one might imagine. Dynamics? In spades. Ability to handle a full range of frenzied and varied activity? Oh yeah. Try listening to “They Only Come Out at Night” on a lesser piece. There is so much electronic work, furious and frenetic riffs, and chord changes all over the board that it will probably sound a mass of confusion to most in places. This amp dissected it all and presented it coherently so that I could pick out stuff that I never knew existed. Just awesome to the point where I have changed my mind about this being poorly recorded LP to knowing that most amps just can’t handle it! The Pass Labs Aleph2’s had nowhere near this kind of control.

Absolutely rock-solid, visceral bass with nuance and texture. On “Long Distance Runaround” Chris Squire had me literally twisting in my seat as he bent those bass notes. The Temptation’s repetitive urban soul bass line in the long version of “Smiling Faces” had me so absorbed that I felt drained when the cut finished. The Sam Jones upright bass on “Autumn Leaves” was brought to the fore like never before, oh so resonant, but still behind and just to the side, complementing Miles and Julian. Perfectly executed.

Mid-bass is as rich and complex as the recording was meant to be and integrates perfectly with the lower bass and its transition into the mid-range. Stanley Clarke’s work on “Griffith Park” sounded like I had never experienced, the subtle nature of some of the notes finally coming through to shine with definition in and within the individual notes. The bassoons and trombones on “Bolero” were stunning both in the contrast between reed and brass but in the placement of these, and all the other instruments, in the soundstage. The soundstage of the Platinum DNA-225 is, by the way, stellar. Wide, yes, but only slightly wider than the already good performance of the original. The really significant improvement is in depth and height and an uncanny, almost spooky, ability to pin-point image notes from individual instruments or voices in their proper space, without losing subtly, texture, or flavor.

While the Platinum DNA-225 is tonally remarkable across the entire range, the mid-range is of particular note since any real question about the original was in this area. The sweetness without being syrupy (which I found the CJ amp) and the spaciousness without being dry (which I found the Classe amp) are just unbelievable. I hate to use the term “tube-like” because some tube amps fall very short in this regard, but it is the mid-range equal of the best tube amps I’ve heard. Much nicer than the SF Power 3 and better than some mega-buck Nagras, in fact. The upper mids and lower highs are equally impressive and seductive. The sax on “City, Country, City” by War is one I’ve always liked. On close listen, I can actually hear the tone of the note change in one spot as Charles Miller leans forward and then back, thus exposing more and then less of the bell to the microphone. Incredible, and though the passage is rather quiet, this startled me and I had to listen for it again in a subsequent session to make sure it wasn’t an illusion. You get that level of finesse from VERY FEW amps. If you do, will the bass lines ground your butt into your seat while your head soars above the speakers on extended highs? This one does.

I love female vocals and I have listened to many, in addition to those on the selected LP’s. The conveyance of phrasing on female vocals like Jennifer Warnes on “Don’t Make Me Over” had me near tears it was both so sweet and raw. Karla Bonoff on “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” going from powerful to high and extended really drove home what pretenders are Sheryl Crow and others. And Ricki Lee. Her soft, whispery passages throughout just floated on air and mixed so seamlessly with the music of her jazzy/funky crew. My wife commented that she was so-so on that LP previously but loves it now! There are three female backups on Steely Dan’s “Black Cow”. They rose just behind and directly over the head of Fagen, as it’s performed live. But, not only were they supremely clear, you could pick out the nuance of each of the three ladies’ voices. I punched the air with my fist, so pleased was I with this. Not to be outdone, male vocals are great, too. The Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins Jr. is so clear and sweet on “Break Up to Make Up” (I’ve heard that song hundreds of times on many systems and it NEVER sounded SO good) and HIS phrasing of Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” will change your mind if you’re not into Soul. Another level of appreciation for Stevie’s voice as an INSTRUMENT was also realized….and Al Green? Fugedaboudit!

An ex-drummer, I pay close attention to the sound of skins. From Art Blakey’s cool and collected sound with Miles and the Messengers to Don Henely’s natural and electric sticks on “Long Run” to Bruford’s machinations and finesse on “Fragile”, they are all such a joy to hear. Perfect separation between high-hat, snares, and toms. The ability to hear what part of the skin is being struck along with a knowledge of recognizing how tightly the skins are keyed to attain certain sounds are an added treat. Even with Ringo. One could tell the difference in the hammer hitting the kick bass, the ensuing reverberation, and the subsequent dissipation of sound into space. The delicacy and timing of Jeff Porcaro’s work with the Dan came through beautifully and impressed my younger son so much that he is looking into more of his work. And, yes, he’d heard the same tunes multiple times before. The point/counter-point of sax and drum on “Intensity” can lead to a slightly uncomfortable transition on some systems. Not here. Smooth and seamless – fluid intensity.

Stringed instruments and piano are also just right. As an aside, some of the credit has to go to the Ridge Street Audio cables which deliver strings and piano, among most everything else, better than any cables I’ve known. Bill Monroe was at his very best, what with his mandolin virtuosity and the DNA-225’s ability to capture even the quickest notes in all their glory. Banjos where you can hear the pick scraping the top before and after the strum, the pluck and the resonance between string and top, just like being stage side Acoustic guitars on “Dreams” and “Men From Earth” were, well, unearthly beautiful and full. Acoustic. Just like they should be. And, oh the block chords on piano, which I love. Red Garland on “If I Were a Bell” is magnificent and the DNA-225 puts him right in front of your seat. So good was it, that I had to pull out “Steamin” to hear him on “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”, my parent’s favorite song.

Therein lies the one problem with this amp. It is SO seductive that you are compelled to pull out one record after another. You know, if THAT LP sounded THAT good, what will this one sound like, and on, and on. Without a flexible or independent job, one could run the risk of being fired for lack of attendance. Oy!

Component matching should not be a particular problem with this amp. It has the power and finesse to drive most any speaker. While it matches perfectly with my Bent NOH linestage, a friend recently brought over his Air Tight ATC-2 preamp and it was truly breathtaking in combination, also. I would recommend a transformer-based passive or very neutral tube pre with this amp so that the full luster of the DNA-225 can be realized. In original configuration (100Kohms input impedance) the DNA-225 was a bit particular about volume control. While a high quality and finely stepped attenuator is still crucial, in my mind, it is not as much so given the new input impedance of 10Kohm. YMMV.

I know that these upgrades are substantial and WELL worth the cost. I do not know if this DNA-225 will perform equally in ALL systems or if I have gotten very lucky with respect to synergy. When I initially spoke with Steve, I indicated that I was looking for a home-rum amp that would be a lifetime keeper. I can tell you that he hit the ball out of the park. It is the first piece I’ve owned where resale value is of no issue. When I’m gone, one of my sons will get this one.

The only thing I plan to change on this amp is the faceplate and top plate. I am in final production of an acrylic top plate with standoff lugs and a faceplate crafted from Corian, damping materials, and wood veneers/inlays. Will post pictures in my system link when complete.

I hope that others will consider these upgrades for their DNA-225 or DNA-125 (though I have not personally heard those upgrades). It is worth buying one used and having them done, too. I will not attempt to list all of the upgraded parts used in these modifications. I have included some before and after pics, though. For those that know the difference, the parts and such are listed on Steve’s site:

Not surprisingly, these upgrades are in demand and there is a waiting list. Get your name in, enjoy your DNA now, and be worry-free in expecting the very best when it returns. Steve McCormack has suggested that the very ultimate performance is with a pair of these in monoblock configuration. Oh, I save as I write!

(Final Disclaimer: I am not in any way associated with SMcAudio, McCormack of Virginia, or any other audio manufacturer, distributor, or dealer.)

Associated gear
Click to view my Virtual System

Similar products
Other amps heard in my system:

Amps I've owned-
Pass Labs Aleph2 monos
Classe CA-300
Conrad Johnson Premier 11A
Sonic Frontiers Power 2

Amps loaned by friends-
Air Tight ATM2
Cool! You will still enjoy the amp for the two months before sending. This is a great opportunity to do some critical listening to a variety of recordings - maybe jot down a few notes of your impressions. Then, after you get the piece back and all for breakin, run the same recording again and compare to your notes! I'd be most interested in your results. Good luck!
BTW, please do me the favor of taking a quick look at the redesigned top and face plate that we did on this DNA-225 (in my "other" system link) and tell me what you think.
I think I had a birthday between the time I started and when I finished your review. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I have been curious about the DNA amps for a while. Your review addressed many of the important issues, or questions one might have. There's also a few good LPs on the list you wrote.
I don't think I'll be going that FAR! Right now, the sonics are all I'm concerned about. I will say though, the standard face plate could definitely use a redesign. It's a bit dull and the logo is boring as well. But as long as the amp works and sounds great I'll have to put up with it.
It would be great if someone began a custom face plate machining business? There's all sorts of wild things that can be done with anodising these days. The possibilities would be endless. I guess electronics designers don't usually think in these terms although that new RED amp from Switzerland is breaking some new ground. Even the innards are interesting.
Well 4yanx,
SMc was a bit backed up but Steve called and told me the Platinum up-grade will be completed this week. So, should have it back sometime next week. I'll try to post my impressions.