McIntosh MS500 Music Server Review

I value musicality above else from any piece of high-fidelity gear.

I don’t care a lot about specifications. Sure, they’re a starting point when shopping for a DAC if you need DSD, or MQA playback, but when it comes to digital I’m pretty much format agnostic; certain recordings sound better to me in certain formats than others, (much like vinyl pressings), but that’s a preference thing, not a must do this or that thing for me. To be honest, high-res, DSD, MQA and the like can all sound mouth-watering, but if a DAC can’t wrest every drop out of bog standard Redbook (16-bit/44.1kHz) then I feel like it’s not going to make me smile foolishly at 32-bit Studio Masters or DSD512. And let’s be honest, how many of us have huge amounts in our digital music libraries above 24-bit/192kHz or DSD128 other than albums we paid for and downloaded because we wanted to see if could justify the difference between CD-quality and high-res? (There is a difference to my ears and at times it is anything but subtle, but to each their own and preference is everything in this hobby).

I’d wager the bulk of people with large, locally-stored digital-music libraries have their music consisting almost exclusively of 16-bit/44.1kHz rips they made from their amassed silver disc collections.

So, when I put a new DAC or DAC/streamer into my system for review, one of the first things I listen for is how musical it is with Redbook files, not DSD or MQA. Does it have flow, cohesiveness to the disparate structures within the framework of a 16-bit/44.1kHz song? I mean, does it really bring it all together and make a lasting impression?

I’ll be up front here: The $6,000 USD McIntosh MS500 Music Streamer had me up and listening with intent from the first track drop. It’s incredibly smooth, linear, dynamic, colorful and transparent in the way it presents the recorded event for playback. To put it simply and without pretense, it was fun to listen to and left very little desire for anything more from 16-bit/44.1kHz audio, or for that matter anything up to 24-bit/192kHz.

The goods

The MS500 is not designed to do everything under the audiophile sun, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cast a shadow over others with its performance capabilities. Built to reproduce digital files with a somewhat McIntosh-centric formula (without fuss, keeping things simple) it does this in a refreshing way, and I say this from a slightly jaded digitalazzi perspective: The Media Bridge application (Apple or Android) that the unit comes ready out of the box with is very simple and un-distracting. At first I thought it might be too simple for someone like me who is used to Roon, or Aurender’s Conductor app, but after loading up my TIDAL account (and logging into the unit itself over my web browser to copy files over to the MS500’s internal 500-Gigabyte solid-stated drive) I started to notice I was focusing on the music longer than usual. Why? Because the Media Bridge app keeps choosing what I’ll play next so simple in its interface that I wasn’t doing that thing where I sit browsing album artwork, reviews, and band member linkages half the time I’m listening. To quote McIntosh on streaming connectivity "...the MS500 also interfaces to leading streaming services including Pandora, Rhapsody, SiriusXM, Spotify and Tunein." I listened briefly to Internet radio, but pretty much stuck to TIDAL and local files.

Did I miss that functionality? At times, yes, but for the most part not really because I must admit, I did find it a bit freeing in a way and the MS500 was such a compelling listen that the stripped-down experience seemed to go hand-in-hand. It also ships with a very comfortable and ergonomic remote control.

Getting under the skin of the 500 reveals a lot of thought going into the design and execution of the circuit topology the Binghamton engineers used inside. It sports an ESS ES9016S DAC that is internally isolated from the motherboard and handles files up to 24-bit/192kHz. But it is user-adjustable; the player application resamples the incoming stream based on the user’s desired sample rate selected in the server configuration screen. If 24-bit/192kHz (default, what I used) is selected, all music playback will be up-sampled. The DAC will also up-sample asynchronously to 200k while rendering to analog. The operating system is Linux-based and is supported by a fanless processor with a heavily-vented chassis, that allows the MS500 to operate cool and absolutely quiet.

Inputs include one Coaxial, one 10/100/1000 Network (which is what I used for this review), three USB-A ports which can be used for thumb drives or multi-Terabyte HDs and that also pull double-duty for connecting external DACs for additional audio zones, but be forewarned that only one port can be used at a time. Outputs consist of one optical, one HDMI and VGA (for GUI), one Coaxial and both balanced and unbalanced connections.

If you’re feeling network savvy, the MS500 can be directed to automatically synchronize content on any connected drives, laptops, or PCs computers for browsing and playback and you can perfom backups to Amazon Cloud Drive, Apple iCloud or Google Drive. Handy for those souls fortunate enough to own multiple 500s in multiple homes. Any music purchases from said cloud services can also be automatically acquired by your main library. The MS500 comes with an external switching power supply.

The set-up

For this review the MS500 was feeding into a McIntosh C2600 tubed preamplifier via its balanced output. This in turn was driving a pair of McIntosh MC611 mono blocs connected to Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers. All analog and speaker cabling was a mix of TelluriumQ Black and Ultra Black. AC cabling was PS Audio. Clean power was supplied by a Power Plant 20. Digital cabling (Ethernet) for this review was Final Touch Audio.

McIntosh Laboratory Inc.
2 Chambers Street - Binghamton, NY 13903-2699

Doak's picture

Can find no info on this DAc chip.

Rafe Arnott's picture
ESS ES9016S DAC is the chip being used. I confirmed this with McIntosh this morning. Thank you.
Doak's picture

Thanks Rafe, for the clarification.
I have not seen anything much about 9016. Seems everyone is using the 9028 or 90380 ESS Sabre PRO series. This appears to be an odd choice for McIntosh, particularly for a unit that costs $6K.

William R's picture

I suspect the engineers at Mcintosh know how to make that particular chip sound good and in the end that's all that matters.

markbrauer's picture

I thought this was the most telling content of the review...

"The Media Bridge application is very simple and un-distracting. At first I thought it might be too simple for someone like me who is used to Roon but... I started to notice I was focusing on the music longer than usual. Why? Because the Media Bridge app keeps choosing what I’ll play next so simple in its interface that I wasn’t doing that thing where I sit browsing album artwork, reviews, and band member linkages half the time I’m listening... This is an experience that’s much more music focused than GUI-centric and that should go down very well with those people looking to keep what comes between them and listening to their music to a minimum."

Well said.

Finally, someone else notices that Roon is, by design, very good at keeping one from their music. Oh, it's great for all the stuff that's peripheral to music, but it's a huge distraction when it comes to fully experiencing the emotional impact of the music. My streamer has a simple, easy to use app/interface, that allows me to quickly get to the music I want to hear. But it also came with a 3 month Roon trial. So I gave Roon an honest shot, using all its functionality to "help me discover" my music. The thing is, I consistently found I was enjoying my music less when using Roon.

I should mention that way back in the 1990's I discovered that I enjoyed music more when I left the album cover, liner notes, or CD case out of reach, across the room and sitting by the playback equipment. And when at classical concerts, as soon as the music starts I drop the program to the floor by my feet.

It's not that I am disinterested in the stuff peripheral to music. I spend time most every day perusing this site and others for recommendations on new music that I might be interested in trying. I have no trouble finding more than I can ever listen to (thank you Tidal!) While doing this "research" I keep my music app open and search for and "bookmark" the things I find so they are easily accessible when I sit down for some un-distracted music listening.

So Rafe, I think you're definitely on to something here.

Rafe Arnott's picture
but, yes, it is by design meant to supply an enormous wealth of collated information that without doubt adds to the experience of digital audio and can be overwhelmingly engrossing at times. Personally, I think Roon has added more to the gestalt of computer-based playback than anything else in the industry. Can it take you away from the music just like an album cover or liner notes? Oh my , yes :)
miro's picture

I am waiting review of MatrixAudio Element X, which is an excellent streamer for solid money ... regards Miro.