The phrase “diminishing returns” is one often heard in high-end audio circles. The theory goes that, while it’s worth investing in decent hi-fi components up to a point, the more you spend the smaller improvements become and, once you reach a certain level, you might as well be throwing your money away.
You might expect this rule to apply to a simple music streamer like the McIntosh MB50. After all, it’s hugely expensive by most hi-fi kit standards yet this is a music streamer that, at least on the surface, does a similar job to a £30 Chromecast Audio.
Of course, there’s a world of difference between the McIntosh and Google’s simple plastic dongle in terms of sound quality, features and appearance, but this vast chasm in price (it’s 100 times more expensive) does serve to illustrate the point.
Is there still a place for such expensive audio gear when cheap devices do the job so well?
The answer to this question is yes, and it lies in the sort of customer the McIntosh MB50 is aimed at. Someone like me, then, but maybe with a bit more spare cash in the bank, and someone who has invested in good-quality hi-fi components in the past but wants to bring it up to date without sacrificing quality.
McIntosh MB50 review: How good is it really?
The appearance of McIntosh kit is divisive. Some love the garish backlit green lettering and minimalist controls of the New York manufacturer’s gear. It’s iconic and eye-catching – for me in all the right ways. It’s built beautifully, as well, which is exactly what you’d want from something this pricey and the stubby infrared remote control is nice to use. It’s all plastic, which is mildly annoying, but it’s more solidly made than most.
But for three grand, the sound quality is where your focus will rightly be and, on this front, the MB50 lives up to McIntosh’s much-vaunted reputation. It’s great.
No. Scratch that. It’s absolutely wonderful.
At this point in the review, I could very well now spend several paragraphs – nay, pages – on all the music I listened to, how I could hear things I couldn’t hear before in long-listened to tracks; how the MB50 gave new life to my music collection. I could wax lyrical for hundreds of words about the mellifluous, golden quality this streamer lends to music, how its grip and control over bass notes is almost supernatural in its perfection and precision and how its presentation is at the same time smooth and detailed, warm and accurate.
But I’m going to stop there. You get the idea. It’s good. It’s very, very good. In fact, the McIntosh MB50 is the best source unit I’ve ever had installed in my hi-fi system, bar none, in terms of pure sound quality. It’s better even than my trusty old valve-based Unico CD player, which I still have a soft spot for, despite its age.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though. As with any expensive, luxury audio component, the best way to judge whether something like the MB50 is for you will be to try it out at home or go to a reputable retailer like KJ West One for a cup of tea, some biscuits and a proper audition.
Remember, too, that many good shops will also loan you a unit for a short period of time so you can make up your mind in the comfort of your own living room.
I’ve been lucky enough to live with the MB50 for a couple of months now and I’ll be very sorry to see it go back.
McIntosh MB50 review: Connectivity and compatibility
With the question of sound quality out of the way (and believe me, there’s no question as to how good this is) I’m now going to move on to connectivity. Again, the MB50 is good, but on this front it isn’t as unequivocally perfect like the sound. First, let’s consider the rear of the device and the physical ports and sockets.
This is quite a compact box, by the way. It’s about the width of an Xbox One S or One X and is rack-mountable, too, but its rear panel is crammed with digital and analogue connections of all descriptions. You can pipe digital signals via optical and coaxial S/PDIF, use the streamer as a pre-amp for analogue source components like my old valve CD player and output audio via standard stereo RCA phono jacks, balanced XLR and digital (again, there’s a choice of optical and coaxial connections).
So far, so good. Wireless connectivity is a little less impressive, though, with only dual-band 802.11n and no Bluetooth connectivity. The latter is a small disappointment but since this is a box aimed at playback of principally high-bitrate and lossless material, it’s not a dealbreaker.
I am, however, irritated that there’s no Ethernet port built in by default – you can add it, but only via an optional USB adapter. In my opinion, for this sort of cash, the adapter ought to be bundled as standard. I’d also rather have thought 802.11ac should be supported, too, especially considering the bit rates of some of the audio files the MB50 is aimed at streaming. In the app’s “Critical Listening” mode, you can stream high-resolution files from shared storage at home at up to 24-bit/192kHz and some 802.11n connections might struggle to keep up.
It was also rather tricky to hook up to my home network initially and I found the rather brief manual not particularly helpful on this front. I’m not alone, either, as a quick glance at McIntosh’s help forums reveals. I got there in the end, however, and with the niggles overcome, the manual was never called into action again.
At least the software is plenty flexible. The MB50 works entirely via the DTS Play-Fi app, which is available on iOS, Android and Fire OS devices and this supports everything from online streaming services to DLNA local network streaming.
You can play tunes from the likes of Amazon Music, Deezer and iHeartRadio, and also lossless sources such as Qobuz and Tidal. Apple AirPlay is supported, as is Spotify Connect, but not Google Cast.
Again, though, there are some caveats. High-resolution streaming is supported, at up to 24-bit/192kHz, but support for high-resolution streaming services isn’t fully comprehensive. While you can stream Qobuz’s full range of hi-resolution streaming services and Tidal’s Masters range of high-resolution tracks is off-limits. You can still listen to Tidal in CD quality, just not 24-bit/192kHz and that’s because its MQA format isn’t supported at this time.
File format support is wide-ranging, though, and run the full gamut from MP3 to lossless FLAC, WAV and AIFF formats. The big miss is that you don’t get DSD support; for me, though, this wasn’t an issue at all. The MB50 sounds incredible with all types of source material including 16-bit/44.1kHz CD quality material, and once you’ve listened to it you’ll quickly forget such petty concerns.
McIntosh MB50 review: Verdict
So, the MB50 is clearly a long way from perfect, especially when it comes to initial setup and general compatibility. With odd omissions in its technical capabilities, it’s worth scouring the help forums on the McIntosh website if there’s something specific you want to do with it. It’s also silly that there’s no built-in Ethernet or 802.11ac wireless (802.11n is so old school).
And yes, it is expensive.
However, when the sound quality is this good, I’m willing to cut the McIntosh MB50 a good deal of slack. Whatever type of music you listen to on whatever type of system, you owe it to your ears to add this to your shortlist. To my poor old lugs the McIntosh MB50 is pure audiophile gold.