REVIEW: McCormack MAP-1 six-channel preamp
Back in the mid-nineties—-when I was working a conventional, dress-up job—-a friend of mine suggested I try on a pair of “flat-front khakis,” to see how they felt and (perhaps just as important) how they looked. They fit me better than any pair of pants I’d ever owned and I bought six pair, with the intention of rotating through them all week long, every week, including a spare pair for spilling chicken wings into my lap.
If that sounds like a strange way to open an audio review then do please bear with me because from my pants-buying adventure I learned one important lesson about the way the world works: Products that are cleverly different from everything else carry a big sting in their tails because nobody else knows how to deal with them.
The McCormack MAP-1, you see, is a multi-channel preamp. Not a conventional, two-channel stereo preamp, and not a surround processor either. For me, this was perfect: As the peculiar owner of only a single multichannel source, it seemed I’d be better-off letting my DVD player handle processing duties instead of searching in vain for a good-sounding AV controller. Well, in the case of flat-front khakis, everything works great until you try to have them dry-cleaned, and then they all come back with a ridiculous crease steamed into them where it doesn’t belong.
In the case of the MAP-1, the difficulty is that no one else in the industry will believe you when you tell them that your control device can be capable of gathering, attenuating, and sending six-channel signals, but at the same time doesn’t include such joined-at-the-hip features as “large/small” settings for your front channels, delay settings for the center and rears, or toggling between various surround-decoding algorithms.
I’ll admit that it was this lack of industry awareness that got the MAP-1 and me started off with a bit of a rocky first footing. On unpacking my companion Hsu Research VTF-1 subwoofer, it wasn’t even obvious that there would be an acceptable way to configure the various settings afforded at the Sub, at all, and that I wouldn’t instead have to send it back. The manual clearly called for defeating the subwoofer’s crossover if it was connected to a “subwoofer-out” socket on the back of one’s control unit, but in my case the subwoofer-out socket in question wasn’t a low-pass. In the end it took a call to Hsu Research (complete with repeated disbelief on the other end of the phone, over the span of several minutes) to verify that the “subwoofer-in” socket on the front of the subwoofer wouldn’t automatically defeat the crossover dial right next to it. Even so, the lack of a corresponding HIGH pass means that the main speakers still receive a full-bandwidth signal, all the time.
The gigantic LED display on the MAP’s front apron—as big or bigger than most clock radios—is apparently not big enough to afford space to show half-step increments, this despite the fact that the volume and balance are both graduated in half-step increments. Instead a comparatively tiny little “period” after the number is supposed to take the place of the expression “and a half.” In other words, “71” means “seventy-one,” while “71.” means “seventy-one-and-a-half.” Not so easy to tell the difference, now, is it.
The unit comes with a setup mode that allows you to attenuate each channel, but there’s no delay feature so even the attenuated signals will come from all points at the same time. Worse, the LED display that must be used to set up the attenuations designates the left-front speaker as some sort of undocumented reference signal, so that the numbers shown when raising or lowering its level are not of the same scale as those displayed when raising or lowering other channels. The end-result, at least the first time I tried it, was a signal that was fifty steps louder through the right-front channel than the left.
As noted above, the MAP-1’s “Ambiance Retrieval Mode” (ARM) permits listening to CD’s with some cleverly subtle sonic in-fill in the center, rear, and sub—but if a person wishes to hear ARM content through the rears but not the center, he must set the center channel to its lowest possible volume level (which is minus sixty-three and a half, for some unfathomable reason), instead of simply defeating it, after which the MAP-1 will not allow the main volume to be turned down below POSITIVE sixty-three and a half. I’d check this against the manual, except for the fact that the manual—-in its entirety—-is two and one-half pages.
Most distressing of all is the startling performance of the MAP-1 when disconnected from its power source. Interrupt the power to an MAP-1 for any reason and the unit produces a bang so loud and so targeted to the upper-midrange frequencies that, for weeks after my first audition (having casually connected the piece to a power conditioner and then casually toggled-off the conditioner), I was convinced that I’d fried a pair of speakers.
Now you might presume from all of this that I don’t like my MAP-1 and that would be wrong: It’s an exceedingly quick-tempo’ed, detail-oriented preamp (just what the Doctor ordered for yours truly) with no sonic vices of any kind, and a self-evident commitment to rugged build quality.
On Jazz, acoustic pop, and small-ensemble arrangements of serious (AKA “classical”) music, the MAP-1 / DNA-HT5 combination is very, very, *very* difficult to fault. The combination of quick tempo, unflinching commitment to inner detail resolution, great soundstage, and muscular agility mean that every note comes through with perfect placement and without the tiniest bit of congestion or suffusion. Patricia Barber’s version of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” for instance, has never sounded more smoky and liquid and come-hither, while the drum “solo” near the end of Cyrus Chestnut’s “Blues for Nina” is suddenly a series of individual symbol-hits and brushes, and not someone scrubbing the drums with steel wool while the rest of the performers are trying to cut a record.
Still, the detail commitment does come at a price, in the form of a concentration of effort (if not an actual emphasis) in the upper mid and low treble. This has the side-effect of rendering tizzy recordings, full symphonic arrangements, and most guitar-oriented electric pop digestible in much smaller doses than I’m accustomed to in a more forgiving system.
The other piece of this puzzle, the McCormack DNA-HT5, is essentially a five-channel version of the DNA-125—-a much-lauded power amp with a quick sound and tons of current, but which was designed to be used with a PASSIVE preamp. Since the MAP-1 isn’t passive (indeed, couldn’t be), the fit between the two pieces is considerably less synergistic than a gear-swapping veteran might have expected from contemporaries made by the same vendor, particularly with respect to gain and noise floor—-both of which are high compared with SOTA.
Let me reiterate that I am sold on this piece of equipment and its big brother amp. If you need convincing that my intention is to *praise* them, look no further than the fact that I’ve recently entered into negotiations for a replacement… for my SPEAKERS!
Still I must also point out one, final quibble with the MAP-1, *and* the DNA-HT5: They are of non-standard width, so that in my system it was suddenly no longer possible for me to have my CD player in close-enough proximity to its own inputs on the preamp, without buying all new interconnects. I also had to permanently disconnect several secondary sources because they wouldn't fit in the rack anymore. Granted, shame on me for not measuring first, but still: I hardly see the reasoning behind setting out, from the very first design on the very first drawing table, to build a piece of audio gear that won't fit in anyone's rack.
In conclusion, I warmly and enthusiastically recommend that you try to audition (or just buy and then re-sell, if you don’t like it) a McCormack MAP-1—-*provided* that your need for multichannel signal-handling is limited to one source, you’re not searching for laid-back, warm, or “tubey” sound, your room, speakers, cables, and choices of music don’t already tilt too far forward, and, most importantly, you can live with a few quirks.