McIntosh’s MHA200 headphone amplifier is a cute little thing. Its footprint is broadly that of a decently sized paperback, yet it still manages to pack in all the charm and presence we’ve come to expect from a McIntosh product.
Note that this is a mains-powered analogue headphone amplifier. You won’t find any fancy DAC technology or, heaven forbid, anything that resembles wireless streaming. And that’s fine with us, because the MHA200 remains a carefully considered product for those who want to make the most of their domestic wired headphones.
There are valves at the heart of this unit – four in total – made up of a pair of 12AT7s in the driver stage and 12BH7As in the power stage. These run warm and are usually protected from prying fingers by a removable cage. Next to the valves is a trio of transformers: one for the mains and two that couple the amplifier’s output valves to the connected headphones. As with most valve products, a certain amount of care has to be taken over matching. Here, that takes the form of a front panel control that switches between four load options: 32, 100, 250 and 600 ohms. Simply switch to the one that’s closest to the nominal impedance of your chosen headphones for the best results. There’s no harm in trying an alternative setting, and it can be fun to try, but we would be surprised if doing so leads to a better sound.
The MHA200 has two inputs – balanced XLR and single-ended RCA – but the amplifier isn’t designed for both to be used at the same time, as there’s no provision for input switching. The source doesn’t have to come with a built-in volume control either, as this McIntosh already has one. There’s a crisp indent to the volume control’s movement at the 12 o’clock position – the recommended place to leave it if you’re running a source that does have volume control.
There are three ways to connect your headphones: a standard 6.3mm option, a single four-pin balanced XLR, and two three-pin XLRs for a balanced connection with separate left and right signal paths. It’s not optimal to connect two headphones at once. That noted, we use a range of headphones from the Focal Stellias and Beyerdynamic T1 Generation 2 to a pair of classic Grado RS1 without issue.
Type Valve-powered headphone amplifier
Valves 2x 12AT7 (driver stage), 2x 12BH7A (power stage)
Power output 500mW (into 32, 100, 250 and 600ohm loads)
Inputs Single-ended RCA, balanced XLR
Outputs 6.3mm, 4-pin balanced XLR, individual 3-pin XLR for left and right channel
Size (hwd) 146 x 156 x 232mm
Of course, any amplifier at this level needs a high quality source to shine. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts, otherwise we’re not sure you’ll find out just how talented the McIntosh MHA200 is. We use a combination of our MacBook feeding the Chord Hugo TT2 for some of our testing and then swap to Naim’s range-topping ND555/555 PS DR music streamer for the rest. The MHA200 feels solid and built to last. There’s a degree of valve management here to ensure that they aren’t unnecessarily stressed during use, so the sound is muted on initial start-up for a few seconds (while the valves glow green) until things have stabilised.
Connectivity is straightforward, leaving only the lack of linearity in the volume control’s behaviour to criticise. Nothing much happens until we get close to the 12 o’clock position of the indent and then levels increase disproportionately, making it hard to make subtle changes in level after that. Surely it can’t be beyond McIntosh to make a volume control that works more intuitively?
Get past that minor annoyance and there’s so much to like here. The broad strokes are that this headphone amplifier shares obvious sonic DNA with McIntosh’s best full-size efforts. Regardless of the headphones we use, this little box turns in a lovely, lush sounding performance that’s hard to dislike. It sounds smooth but far from lifeless, delivering high levels of detail in a cohesive and musical manner.
We listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and the MHA200 renders the piano with an impressive degree of solidity and authority. The instrument’s harmonically rich sound comes through with textures and dynamic expression intact. We love the way this amplifier communicates the quiet space between notes and the way it ties those notes together with such musical conviction.
Tonally, it’s on the full-bodied and slightly rich side of neutral, but this isn’t taken so far as to distract. On the contrary, the MHA200 comes across as sounding determinedly three-dimensional and solid compared to most alternatives we’ve heard. We switch to music that requires more kick in the form of Drake’s Underground Kings, and this McIntosh takes it in its stride, producing a punchy and powerful sound that gets straight to the heart of the music. There’s an impressive degree of resolution here that allows us to track low-level instrumental strands with ease and the composure to keep things under control even when the music gets demanding. Drake’s distinctive drawl comes through with clarity and natural warmth.
It has to be said that this amplifier underplays rhythmic drive a little, but the performance still hangs together well enough to remain enjoyable. There’s a good dose of drama and punch on offer to keep things interesting.
This is a product that invites long listening sessions. Its insight coupled to class-leading refinement, not to mention a total lack of unwanted hardness, make for something that can be enjoyed for years to come. If you’re looking for a top-class headphone amplifier, there are few we’ve heard at this price that are as capable or as charming as this one.
- Sound 5
- Build 5
- Features 5
Also consider the Chord Hugo 2