Review: McCormack McCormack Upgrade Path Preamplifier

Category: Preamps

After working intimately with SMc Audio since the summer of 2008, I felt moved to write about my personal experience on the McCormack upgrade path in regards to McCormack audio components and the work of Steve McCormack and Kris Jeter. The following comments are based solely upon my personal impressions, and as always, may or may not be in alignment with others’ opinions. I have seen quite a few threads discussing McCormack audio gear as well as questions and/or comments regarding McCormack upgrades. In addition to being inspired to write, I thought a review might be helpful for anyone who is considering upgrading McCormack equipment.

Let me state right up front, this will be a positive review. I am not a professional reviewer, and I consider myself an audio enthusiast. I do not know if I am a true “audiophile” other than: 1) I love music; 2) I believe I have good equipment, and
3) I trust my ears and emotions when it comes to listening. I have no affiliation with SMc Audio, other than I have been a very satisfied customer that has become a tremendous fan of their work. I hope that I have also become a friend to the guys at SMc, as I have come to admire them as first-class individuals and have felt honored to work with them. By the way, this is the first time that I have ever attempted to pen an audio review.

I have owned McCormack equipment since 1997. My first purchases were the DNA 0.5 Deluxe Amplifier, the Micro Line Drive Preamplifier and the McCormack DAC-1. Yes, I have had other equipment in the last 15 years to include Conrad Johnson, Acurus, B&K, YBA Audio Refinement and Adcom, but I won’t be making comparisons or discussing them in this article. I am going to stick to my experience with McCormack upgrades, as these have emerged as my personal favorites.

I have two listening systems – one I consider my “big rig” and the other system is in a smaller listening room. I am currently using four pieces of McCormack equipment, and all are significantly upgraded: Full Rev. A, DNA 0.5 Power Amp with optional WBT Jacks; Ultra Platinum Micro Line Drive Preamp with separate Power Supply; Ultra Platinum Micro Phono Drive Preamp with separate Power Supply, and; Ultra Gold +++ DNA 0.5 Power Amp with additional Custom Options. I have just acquired a stock MLD to be used as back-up preamp if needed, or for a future upgrade. I’ll list the configuration of my audio systems at the end of the article.

Before even commenting on the sound performance of the upgraded McCormack equipment, one has to mention the stellar customer service and the public relations of Steve McCormack and Kris Jeter at SMc. Steve and Kris really do care about their customers. I experienced this caring attention with the very first inquiry to Steve regarding the best use of my McCormack gear. My initial contact with SMc Audio became a dialog that helped me to make decisions for my upgrades based on time, money, personal preferences, musical tastes, equipment synergy, room and use.

My experience is that Steve and Kris always listen. Because of this quality, it must be why they build such superior audio equipment. When they are ready and have gathered the appropriate information, Steve and Kris become powerful consultants to the “audiophile process.” They know how to emphatically express their opinion as well as when to back off. I know, as I have 4 upgraded pieces of McCormack equipment. I have also spent hours on the phone with SMc over the last 10 months. Never once, did SMc try to over sell me. They always offered me several options given multiple parameters of how I might explore new possibilities to improve my audio equipment, and in some cases such as “nuisance” fuse blowing, helped me to actually solve my problems. Steve and Kris have never been patronizing or talked down to me in spite of my ignorance. I have had a chance to attempt to explain at length my opinions and feelings regarding the sound I was looking for (albeit it is a very abstract subject), and SMc Audio literally attempted to build the equipment to my personal taste… with options to boot. This took a combination of expertise, patience and intuition on their part, for one might offer an analogy, “What does chocolate taste like?” How does one explain such a taste or preference to another, as it would require them to actually be able to taste for you.

In my opinion, the strength of SMc Audio also lies in their “custom shop” approach. Although they have a standard menu of upgrade possibilities posted on their website, it seems more like this is only a departure point for the real upgrade process to begin. I am sure that many customers might simply pick a pre-posted upgrade option, i.e., Rev A or Gold, etc. and be extremely happy with the results. This is not how I went about it. I have belabored the SMc team with questions, comments, concerns and fears. They have assuaged me on every count. Now, I am giving them accolades.

I have to confess that I do not believe there is such a thing as “neutral”, “completely transparent” or “colorless” when it comes to audio. Every component has some sort of signature. To my ears, everything from tubes to solid state and room treatment to wire affects the sound of music to a significant degree. This can be maddening, and the search for, or even worse the claim of finding, the best audio equipment, etc. has been the cause of huge conflicts and accusations. I was hesitant to even post my personal thoughts on McCormack gear for worry of the attack that I might receive after having seen others shot down for stating their personal preference. The situation here with McCormack gear and McCormack upgrades is very simple for me – I really like their sound and performance.

I was never at all unhappy with my off-the-shelf, Deluxe McCormack amp and preamp over the years. But now… I am extremely happy, more than happy and sometimes even ecstatic, to the chagrin of my critics, with the SMc upgrades. I like the McCormack “signature.” To me, it is immediate, compelling and emotional. My equipment sounds silky smooth and rich while offering the best of what solid state has to offer, which in my opinion, is speed and responsive power. Yes, I also have a tube preamp (see below).

The upgraded McCormack equipment is built with the highest quality standard and attention to detail. The equipment is functional and resilient. The sound quality offers finesse and balance that I believe that we all long for in audio sound. In my listening systems, no one set of frequencies seems to “stick out.” The soundstage and presentation is balanced and realistically compelling. The lushness of the sound draws me in, and I am continually startled when the equipment delivers at demanding times in the music. I mean startled in a good way. Like, “Wow! Will ya’ listen to that?” I have never experienced such relatively small pieces of equipment (DNA 0.5, MLD & MPD) that delivered such a punch and with such authority as these upgraded components do effortlessly.

The impact of the music is so impressive that recently during a listening session, a friend commented that the sound gave him the experience of “hallucinating” as if he could actually “see the music.” No, there were no drugs or alcohol involved, as I am not a user of either and have already out-grown the ‘60s. At any point in the music and at scale in the frequencies, one can listen, hear and appreciate whatever one would like to focus on in the musical passage. This is a remarkable quality to describe. I have never experienced listener’s fatigue with the McCormack upgrades; I usually want more.

Everyone in the audio hobby eventually gets a lesson in the Law of Diminishing Returns. That means the great expense and hard search for the “best gear” begins to diminish in the pay off of its satisfaction. Most people would like a great “bang for the buck.” A lot of money can be spent on audio, and often times, more is not better. The point I am trying to make is that for me, McCormack upgrades have proven to be an unbelievably efficient and satisfying way to approach my limitless longing for audio perfection. Rather than spending mega-bucks, I reinvested in my audio equipment that had been reliable and faithful for years. My old “friends” have now become superstars in my home.

I am sure that I could have spent a lot more money in the process of my hi-fi obsessions. Fortunately with SMc Audio, it was not necessary. As a matter of fact, Steve and Kris have always advised the balanced approach to the upgrade process. I have had the chance to customize my own system with SMc Audio, pick my budget based on my “pain threshold” and ability to afford, influence the direction of the sound qualities based on my personal preferences and have the honor of making friends with two of the really great, "good guys" in the audio world. I feel that I have the good fortune to have reached the limit of the “diminished return” and have not perished in the process or pissed off my family in the process.

Needless to say anymore other than I highly recommend McCormack gear and the upgrade process with SMc Audio. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to respond or write to me by email. Thank you Steve McCormack and Kris Jeter. You are both gentlemen.

Associated gear
Associated Audio Gear
Big Rig
1)VPI HW-19 MKIV Turntable with additionally upgraded Plinth, Super Armboard and TNT Superplatter. JMW 10.5i Tonearm, Nordost Valhalla wiring, Clearaudio Virtuoso Ebony Wood Cartridge, VPI SDS and Tenderfeet Isolation Cones.
2)Ayre CX7e Compact Disc Player
3)McCormack Micro Line Drive Preamp upgraded to Ultra Platinum
4)McCormack Micro Phono Drive Preamp upgraded to Ultra Platinum
5)McCormack DNA 0.5 Power Amp upgraded to Ultra Gold +++ custom options
6)Hi-Fi Tuning Fuses throughout all AC and rail circuits
7)Dunlavy Audio Labs SC-IIa Speakers
8)Janis W-1 Subwoofer Speaker
9)Janis 1-A Crossover Amplifier with Tg Audio Silver Power Cord
10)My Audio Cables (MAC) Interconnects and Power Cords on source and amps
11)Hubbel Cryo Treated Dedicated AC outlet
12)Zoethecus Maple Isolation Rack with Z-Slab shelves
13)Various Isolation Treatment throughout

Small Rig
1)McCormack UDP-1 Deluxe Disc Player
2)Conrad Johnson PV-12 Preamp tube rolled
3)McCormack DNA 0.5 Power Amp, Rev. A March 2001 with Optional WBT Jacks
4)Acoustic Zen Adagio Jr. Speakers and Stands
5)Martin Logan Dynamo Subwoofer with Tara Prism Reference Power Cord
6)My Audio Cables (MAC) Interconnects and Power Cords on source and amps
7)Hi-Fi Tuning Fuses throughout all AC and rail circuits
8)Hubbel Cryo-treated dedicated AC outlet
9)Antique Furniture Racks
10)Room Treatment and Various Isolation Treatment throughout

Similar products
Conrad Johnson, Acurus, B&K, YBA Audio Refinement and Adcom
As you might expect, it is a great pleasure to read commentary like this. Kris and I are delighted that you enjoyed your interaction with us so much, and I must add that it has been a pleasure working with you, as well. After all, the whole point of this exercise is to make listening to music a deeper, more meaningful experience, and the more our clients communicate with us, the better we can fit our work to their needs. You have been an unusually good communicator, and that has helped tremendously in giving us the insight we need to provide you with the best-possible equipment. Kris and I take great pride in our work, and it is very gratifying to hear that you are so pleased with the result of that effort. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

Best regards,

Steve McCormack & Kris Jeter
SMc Audio