McIntosh Laboratory was founded in 1949, when vinyl was a growing source for music reproduction. But it wasn’t until nearly 60 years later that the venerable company, based in Binghamton, New York, introduced its first turntable model. The debut of the MT10 turntable ($11,500 USD) was polarizing: Those who first saw it loved it or hated it. I remember some of the comments: “A turntable with a meter? Why?!” or “I don’t care how it sounds, it just looks too odd.” But most of the people who panned it had yet to hear it.
The MT10 is McIntosh’s flagship turntable model; they also offer the MT5 ($6500) and MT2 ($4000), neither of which has a platter-speed meter. The MT10 is largely sourced from Clearaudio, a German builder of well-built, highly regarded analog audio gear. Based on one of Clearaudio’s magnetic-suspension, ceramic-bearing ’tables, the MT10 has a silicone-acrylic platter driven by a DC brushless motor, on a plinth of the same footprint as McIntosh’s electronic components. The MT10’s overall dimensions are 17.5”W x 8.8”H x 21”D, and it weighs 42 pounds. No dustcover is included.
According to McIntosh, the MT10’s “massive, 12 pound, 2½”-thick acrylic platter spins on a cushion of air, elevated by a magnetic bearing.” The tonearm has a 9” armtube of duralumin; the included cartridge, a version of Clearaudio’s Talismann V2 ($2000) optimized for the MT10, has an ebony body and produces an output of 0.5mV.
Like all McIntosh products, the MT10 has the company’s classic black faceplate, covered in glass. Also like much Mac gear, the faceplate bears classic McIntosh blue: the single meter indicating Platter Speed (33⅓, 45, or 78rpm). While some may consider the meter superfluous, even ridiculous, I and others find it attractive, if only marginally useful. But powered on, its meter glowing blue and its platter green, the MT10 is visually stunning. The chassis and plinth feel very solid, and the fit’n’finish never let you forget that it’s a McIntosh product.
McIntosh advertises the MT10 as “plug and play” -- its cartridge’s vertical tracking force (VTF), anti-skating, and position in the headshell are all preset at the factory. Having considerable experience in setting up turntables, tonearms, and cartridges -- many of which almost require a PhD in mechanical engineering from MIT -- I found McIntosh’s claim almost true. After unboxing the MT10 from its very protective packaging, I had only to unwrap the platter, lubricate the bearing with a couple drops of oil (supplied), lower the platter onto the bearing, and loop the single drive belt around the platter and the motor capstan -- the ’table was almost ready to go.
The excellent, concise manual clearly guided me through the entire process, particularly installing the cartridge and setting up the tonearm. The cartridge simply slides into the headshell until it meets a slight ridge at the headshell’s rear; as all aspects of cartridge position are preset at the factory, all I had to do was tighten the cartridge screws and, to set the correct VTF, slide the counterweight on the arm stub until it met a line already notched in the shaft. McIntosh even supplies a rudimentary Shure VTF scale, to verify that the VTF is set at the recommended 2.4gm -- but any serious audiophile will no doubt use a digital scale. The tonearm height is then set using a small aluminum jig inserted between the arm-pivot housing and the mounting plate. The arm height, too, is preset at the factory for the included cartridge, to ensure that, with cartridge installed in arm, the arm then floats perfectly parallel to the platter. The platter’s speed is monitored by a laser to regulate the speed of rotation. All that done, the MT10 was ready to go, right?
Not quite: the tonearm was not parallel to the platter. I had to lower the tonearm by about ⅛” -- easily done by turning the setscrews. Additionally, the platter’s speed was off a bit, as verified by my Clearaudio strobe disc. Adjusting the speed is easily done: Remove a small panel on the MT10’s rear panel, and use a flathead screwdriver to fine-tune the speed.
All of these adjustments were relatively easy to make. My point is that my sample of the MT10 was not, as advertised, plug’n’play. Also, it’s good to remember that these settings are only a good starting point. Serious tweakers will likely use sophisticated alignment jigs and/or azimuth-measuring devices to attain the nth degree of precision. And the MT10’s well-illustrated manual provides clear instructions on how to adjust the settings if you use a cartridge other than the one included.
The MT10 rests on McIntosh’s stock rubber feet. Depending on your system and the surface you set the MT10 on, it may be advisable to swap those feet for better isolators or even a separate platform. I used Pro-Ject’s Ground It Deluxe 2 turntable base ($350) to great effect -- it increased solidity, enhanced detail, and provided greater frequency extension at both ends of the audioband. The effect of isolation was less noticeable when I moved my entire system downstairs, from a wooden to a concrete floor. I strongly advise that anyone setting up an MT10 in a room with a wood floor use an additional isolation device.
One of my go-to discs is Jazz at the Pawnshop (LP, Proprius PRLP7778), a great live recording of clarinetist and alto saxophonist Arne Domnérus and four others playing jazz standards -- it reveals just how vivid good analog can be. When I spun “Limehouse Blues” on the McIntosh MT10, all of this album’s energy and excitement came through spectacularly. The ambience of the club was palpable, each drum thwack as crisp as it should be, the vibrations of the skins lingering, as you hear in a live performance. The cymbals had healthy doses of bite and shimmering decay, though I’ve heard a touch more air through more expensive rigs. The quality of the vibes was mesmerizing, each mallet stroke decaying warmly and roundly. Being a bass fanatic, I listen for a low-frequency character that’s neither too muddy nor too incisive -- live, unamplified bass is very difficult for most systems to properly reproduce. The MT10 conveyed an appropriate amount of resonance and texture, though in my opinion, on this album the bass is mixed a bit on the light side.
A recording that better let the MT10 strut its stuff in the lower registers was Duke Ellington’s Blues in Orbit (LP, Columbia MOVLP443). Jimmy Woode’s deft walking-bass lines had a great deal of body and reverberation as he plucked along in “Pie Eye’s Blues,” and the sound of Ray Nance’s trumpet had great air and breathiness. The entire ensemble was laid out before me on a beautifully layered soundstage, each instrument distinctly placed and properly sized. Ellington’s piano sounded like a full, resonant instrument, not the cardboard facsimile presented by some lesser analog rigs.
The MT10 also reproduced voices with aplomb, and a perfect example was Jacintha’s Autumn Leaves: The Songs of Johnny Mercer (LP, Groove Note 660318100641). In “Days of Wine & Roses,” every subtle nuance of her singing was reproduced with amazing detail, down to each breath and intonation. I could even hear her voice echoing inside the piano’s case. I’ve played this recording through several systems, including my own, with more expensive turntables and cartridges, but the MT10 came ridiculously close to those costlier rigs in extracting fine details from this and many other recordings.
Pushed hard with some very dynamic orchestral works, the MT10 held it together. A great test for an analog rig’s ability to track the groove is The Great Gate of Kiev, from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (LP, Columbia Odyssey Y32223). My Tannoy Westminster Royals can move air as few speakers can. The MT10 handled the sheer power and percussive attacks very well, never losing its grip amid all the fury.
The unforced quality of the MT10’s reproduction sounded natural -- it didn’t wow me with hyperdetail or acoustical theatrics, but laid out the notes in a truthful, organic way. This obsessive audiophile might crave a touch more sparkle in the highs or a bit more gusto in the bottom end, but for its price, the MT10 got most things right. The cartridge bundled with it was glorious in the all-important midrange, and left little wanting elsewhere.
I own Clearaudio’s Innovation Wood turntable ($16,000) -- arguably, the McIntosh MT10’s big brother -- and was able to compare them head to head. The Innovation includes Clearaudio’s superb Universal tonearm, which, although a 9” arm like the MT10’s, looks and feels more substantial, and has greater adjustability. The latter is both good and bad -- worrying that every adjustment parameter has been set precisely right can sometimes madden a tweaker such as I. The MT10’s arm has a comforting simplicity, and is also well built.
My Innovation is equipped with Clearaudio’s Stradivari cartridge, which at $4000 is considerably more expensive than the one that comes with the MT10. All of my listening to the Clearaudio rig has been with that cartridge. Is it better? Yes, but not by as wide a margin as one might expect. Playing “Limehouse Blues” from Jazz at the Pawnshop on the Clearaudio rig revealed a bit more texture to the drum skins, with the brushed snare slightly more discernible in the background. The solidity of the bass was approached but not quite equaled by the MT10, and the mouthpiece of Domnérus’s clarinet was surrounded by a touch more air. In “And the Angels Sing,” from Autumn Leaves, Jacintha’s breaths were noticeably more pronounced through the Clearaudio, but the MT10 wasn’t far behind. The sonorous decays of her sung notes also lingered in the air a bit longer. Again, the Stradivari cartridge is considerably more expensive than the Clearaudio Talismann V2 ($2000), on which the MT10’s cartridge is based. Mainly, the Clearaudio rig squeezed a bit more detail from the grooves at the frequency extremes -- but the MT10 was so close that most audio enthusiasts might find that the differences don’t justify the significant added expense.
Then I installed the Stradivari in the MT10, to properly compare apples with apples. The Stradivari-equipped MT10 reproduced aural images with greater body and depth than did the stock MT10 setup. The Great Gate of Kiev now had more oomph, the climaxes more weight and impact. Jacintha’s voice was slightly more palpable and nuanced. What became clear was that, properly installed, aligned, and tweaked, the Stradivari produced more resolution, and showed me just how capable the combination of MT10 turntable and tonearm was. Curiously, I noticed that the stock MT10 cartridge reproduced less surface noise than its more expensive sibling. The Talismann V2, on which the stock cartridge is based, retails for around $2000. McIntosh purportedly hand-selects the best Talismann assemblies and rebadges them as McIntosh products; McIntosh will replace the MT10’s cartridge for $900. This sounds to me like a screaming bargain. I advise any prospective purchaser of the MT10 to at least begin with the excellent supplied cartridge, as its synergy with the turntable and tonearm make it an overachiever. You can always get a better cartridge later -- the MT10 will surely pass along the resultant upgrade in the form of even better sound.
McIntosh Laboratory’s MT10 is a well-engineered record player from a legendary American company that has been making high-quality audio gear for 70 years. It’s easy to set up and use -- after unpacking it, you can be listening to vinyl within 30 minutes. Most important, it reproduced music with such transparency and naturalness that my usual audiophile nit-picking took a back seat to simply listening to truthful reproductions of musical events. It’s not inexpensive at $11,500, but in my opinion, its qualities of sound reproduction and construction make it worth every penny. And it turns heads -- I don’t care what anyone else says.
. . . Jeff Sirody
- Speakers -- Tannoy Westminster Royal GR
- Amplifiers -- McIntosh Laboratory MC2301 (monos)
- Preamplifier -- McIntosh Laboratory C1100
- Speaker cables -- Wireworld Eclipse Platinum 6
- Interconnects -- Wireworld Eclipse Platinum 6, 7
- Phono cable -- Purist Audio Design Venustas
- Turntable -- Clearaudio Innovation Wood with Universal tonearm and Stradivari cartridge
McIntosh Laboratory MT10 Turntable
Price: $11,500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
McIntosh Laboratory, Inc.
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 723-1545
Fax: (607) 724-0549