Today, selecting the right universal player isn’t always as simple as driving down to your local Best Buy and opting for the disc spinner with the highest number of codec badges or the hottest video engine under its hood. For many, particularly those of us who have a single system comprising components for both high-end music listening and watching movies, this decision is often one of the most multifaceted, complicated decisions we are forced to contend with. Consider the requirements: universal players must not only perform such basic chores as playing the DVDs -V and -A, BDs, CDs, and SACDs -- they must also be able to process, or at least pass along, 3D and 4K signals; decode the latest object-based 3D audio formats such as Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and Auro-3D; offer myriad connectivity options enabling both computer- and network-based streaming; and possess circuitry sophisticated enough to minimize the inherent problems associated with each of these demands. Additionally, universal players are also expected to provide satisfying levels of sound, video, and build quality, while offering efficient ergonomics.
Considering all these demands, one could argue that universal players have more in common with home-theater processors than they do with other disc spinners, particularly when considering the licensing fees, R&D, and testing involved. No matter how you slice it, a universal player is a tricky thing to shop for, and an even trickier thing to design and build. So when McIntosh Laboratory offered me the opportunity to evaluate and learn about their latest universal player, the MVP901, my response was a wholehearted Yes.
Breaking new ground
The MVP901 is an all-new product from McIntosh, and is a significant departure from its predecessor, the MVP891. While it carries forward a retail price of $5500 USD, the MVP901 offers a new video engine, completely revised audio circuitry, considerably more connectivity, and a smaller, redesigned remote control. The case remains a three-piece affair comprising a full glass front panel, a polished stainless-steel bottom section, and a single piece of painted steel folded to form the top and side panels. Measuring a modest 17.5”W x 6”H x 13.5”D but weighing a hefty 19.5 pounds, the MVP901 can be placed in even the shallowest cabinet -- but one could be forgiven for wanting to proudly display such a luxurious-looking component out in the open.
The MVP901’s front panel, illuminated by a combination of solid-state fiber-optic lighting and LEDs, is unmistakably McIntosh. Below the central disc drawer is a VFD screen that displays all sorts of useful information. For example, McIntosh has cleverly made use of logos rather than text for such source information as media type, playback format, audio codec, network connection, and mute. These logos efficiently occupy the display’s periphery, while track and playback mode information is cleanly presented toward the center, in a larger font. But despite the efficient use of space, the display is a bit small -- some may struggle to read it from more than 8’ away. Moreover, the display can only be dimmed, not turned off, and McIntosh’s famous, bright-green logo and similarly glowing button labels can’t be dimmed at all -- in a darkened room, they cast quite a bit of light.
And considering that a darkened room is most likely the MVP901’s intended environment, I was disappointed by the lack of lighting on the newly designed remote-control handset. For as long as I can remember, McIntosh remotes have been backlit -- yet for some reason, the MVP901’s smaller, sleeker code slinger leaves you in the dark. Bothered by this, I searched the manual, then asked my McIntosh contact if a control app is available. Despite the fact that control of audio/video gear via apps for smartphones and tablets is a rapidly growing trend, I was told that no app is available for the MVP901, and that McIntosh has no plan to make one available.
The rest of the MVP901’s ergonomics are exemplary. To the left and right of the display are rows of five plastic buttons: on the left Mute, Audio, Resolution, Back, and Next; on the right, Stop, Pause, Play, Open/Close, and Standby/On. Directly above the Play button is a USB port.
The MVP901’s horizontally bisected rear panel is equally well laid out. At the center of the upper portion, made of stamped steel and painted matte black, is a pair of 3mm trigger input and output terminals. To the right of these are a 3mm Data input, to permit remote operation of the player’s basic functions when it’s connected to a McIntosh A/V controller, and an IR input for use with an external sensor. At the far right of the upper section are pairs of unbalanced and balanced audio outputs.
The rear panel’s lower half, finished in polished stainless steel, provides a number of digital connections. Starting from left: an Ethernet port for LAN access off to the far left, followed by two USB Type-A jacks, labeled USB1 and USB2, for connecting memory drives; an HDMI output; coaxial RCA jacks for diagnosis and S/PDIF output; an optical output; and an RS-232C connector for integrated system remote control. At the far right is an IEC power receptacle.
On connecting the MVP901 to my Anthem AVM 60 preamplifier-processor via an Analysis Plus 1.4 HDMI cable, the McIntosh’s display greeted me with a menu that looked strikingly similar to that of my Oppo BDP-103D universal BD player. In fact, with the exceptions of some key omissions (see later) and the Oppo logo, the menu was identical. Before jumping to any conclusions, I contacted people at McIntosh and let fly a barrage of questions about the video engine and audio circuitry. Their responses were forthcoming with respect to information about the audio components, design, and implementation, but I got little out of them concerning the MVP901’s video componentry, other than a confirmation that the player uses the same video processor, a Lattice SiI9612, that’s used in my Oppo. This explained the nearly identical menus -- the menu is inherent to this processor -- but left me with a lot of questions.
So off came the MVP901’s cover. After poking around for a few minutes, I was able to identify some key pieces of information, and in the process was reminded of one of the best universal players I’ve ever used: Ayre Acoustics’ formidable DX-5 ($10,000, discontinued). When the DX-5 was launched, Charles Hansen, owner and founder of Ayre, was asked why the DX-5 so resembled Oppo’s flagship universal player at the time, the BDP-83, and to clarify just how much of the DX-5 was Ayre and how much was Oppo. His response: “To make the DX-5 an Ayre, we dismantle the Oppo BDP-83 completely and recycle everything except the main PCB which includes the video decoder, ABT scaler chip, and HDMI transmitter. We also kept the transport mechanism, the VFD display, and the remote control handset, everything else is all new from the ground up.”
With the exception of the remote control, McIntosh appears to have done more or less the same thing, and to great success. The MVP901 shares the same unique, black-on-white PCB board containing all of the video circuitry. At the heart of this board is the Lattice SiI9612 video processor, featuring the latest VRS technologies as well as 4K Adaptive Scaling, Video Smoothing, enhanced Mosquito Noise Reduction, and Detail and Edge Enhancement. The SiI9612 also includes a full 300MHz HDMI receiver and HDMI transmitter, though the MVP901 lacks the HDMI input found on the front panel of the Oppo BDP-103D. The transport, capable of playing BD, 3D BD, DVD, DVD-A, SACD, and CD, is nearly identical to those found in all Oppo BDP-series players, right down to the mounting points and barcode stickers. From there on, however, everything is pure McIntosh.
According to McIntosh, the MVP901 was designed to offer audio performance very close to that of McIntosh’s MCD550 SACD/CD player. To accomplish this, McIntosh borrowed some key parts from the MCD550 to use in the MVP901. Like the MCD550, the MVP901 is a fully balanced design from DAC to output. Both players use an ESS Technology ES9016 DAC chip capable of 32-bit/192kHz PCM and DSD conversion of digital to analog, implemented in a Quad Balanced configuration. In other words, the MVP901 has four DACs per audio channel capable of decoding PCM signals from both the digital inputs and from CDs -- and, of course, DSD signals from SACDs. The MVP901 also decodes MP3, WMA, AAC, FLAC, and LPCM signals from any of its three asynchronous USB ports, at resolutions up to 24/192 and DSD128. The player’s power requirements are met by two power supplies: a switching supply for the digital circuitry, and an R-core transformer for the analog circuitry, both proprietary McIntosh designs. Like the MCD550, the MVP901 produces very low levels of noise and distortion -- its signal/noise ratio is 115dB, its total harmonic distortion 0.002% -- and both are capable of 110dB of dynamic range.
About those key omissions alluded to earlier: I mention them here not because I found them lacking only in comparison with my Oppo BDP-103D, but because these features are commonly found in universal players costing only a fraction of the MVP901’s price. While the MVP901 can connect to a network, to take advantage of BD-Live and play media files through its well-illustrated tree folder GUI, it offers no Internet streaming options; e.g., YouTube, Netflix, Pandora, Rhapsody, Tidal, etc. Also absent were analog multichannel outputs, a volume controller, and Audio Return Channel (ARC) capability. I was further surprised to find no secondary HDMI output, for those who might want or need to run different HDMI cables for 3D audio (i.e., more than eight channels), and 3D or 4K video. Last but not least, the MVP901 can’t play native 4K UHD (Ultra HD) BDs.
Those omissions aside, in use the MVP901 left me little to complain about. Using the McIntosh as my sole source for movie content, be it from BD, DVD, or USB, it performed at benchmark levels across the board. No BD player on the market can make a DVD image look identical to that from a BD, but the DVD images that the MVP901 sent to my Anthem AVM 60 pre-pro and JVC RS50u projector came as close to BD quality as from any BD player I’ve seen, including my Oppo BDP-103D. Beginning with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, I appreciated how clearly images were reproduced from this rather aged DVD (2000). Of particular note was the ease with which I could see individual strands of Penny’s (brilliantly played by Kate Hudson) characteristically frizzy hair. Through lesser players, even an older Oppo BDP-93 I still have on hand, Penny’s hair can at times look a bit hazy, almost blended into itself, without details of individual strands. But through the MVP901, edge detail, color, focus, and smoothness of image movement were all a cut above -- and by a cut above, I mean the best I’ve seen from DVD. Also notable were the definition, color depth, and texture of the grass by Anita’s (Zooey Deschanel) feet as she says goodbye to William (Patrick Fugit) before leaving home for the first time. Here I could make out individual blades of green and brown grass, instead of the obscure blurs of green and gold I usually see. There was also an obvious reduction in image shift or blocking as the camera panned slightly left, and video noise in high-contrast areas, such as the sky, were greatly diminished. Finally, throughout the entire film, I reveled in the higher levels of color saturation and greater depth of field. Overall, the MVP901 presented this and other films on DVD as cleanly, clearly, and vividly as I’ve ever seen.
I can say the same of video media I played using the MVP901’s front USB input. I watched almost two seasons’ worth of Game of Thrones upscaled to full 1080p resolution without a glitch. The MVP901’s overall video quality was untouchable, and more important, a notable improvement from the 720p native resolution of the original source.
To say that the images produced from BDs looked astounding should by this point come as no surprise, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I left it at that. During the bridge chase in chapter 3 of Tim Miller’s Deadpool, the level of detail communicated by the MVP901 made me question if I really need to move up to a 4K projector. Not only was the jaggy, antagonizing texture of Deadpool’s (Ryan Reynolds) suit projected onto my 92” Stewart screen with precision and fluidity, I could clearly see the natural grain in the black leather shoulder and eye portions of his suit, even when he was moving. The redness of Deadpool’s suit was perfectly balanced against the slightly grayish overtone of the backdrop -- not so much that it was too punchy and all I could focus on, but enough that Deadpool remained the focus of what was happening onscreen. As with DVD, panning shots, particularly of the city, were also as good as I’ve seen, with no sign of processor lag, jaggies, or loss of resolution -- truly impressive. Images were consistently presented with excellent definition, color depth, grayscale control, and an enjoyable lack of noise.
Evaluating the MVP901’s audio performance with films is a moot point -- I simply sent a bitstream via HDMI to my Anthem AVM 60, and let it do all the decoding and D/A conversion. The MVP901’s audio prowess with music was what was important here, as McIntosh claims that it’s one of the reasons for the MVP901’s rather high price. I evaluated this Mac of all trades by using it first as a disc player, then compared it with the same media fed from my Dell Latitude E7440 Ultrabook running JRiver Media Center 20 into my Wadia di322 DAC.
First up was “Tin Pan Alley,” from The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Epic/Legacy). I used this track for two reasons: I’m very familiar with it, and I anticipated that it would be difficult to hear differences between the McIntosh and Wadia, as both use the same ESS DAC chip in the same configuration. Taking full advantage of the über-resolving nature of my system -- Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8 preamp and W-7M monoblocks feeding signals to Rockport Technologies Atria speakers via Kimber Kable KS 6063 cables -- I was able to hear some very subtle differences. It’s worth mentioning that, had I not had this level of equipment on hand, I probably would not have heard any differences at all. When I played “Tin Pan Alley,” the sound through the MVP901 was alluring, with vast, wide soundstages, excellent image specificity, and rich tonal colors. The dynamic thwacks of Chris Layton’s drums lit up my room against Vaughan’s electric guitar, but what really grabbed me, and particularly in comparison to the Wadia, was how deep, full, and forceful Tommy Shannon’s bass sounded. Both units presented convincing portrayals of all instruments, but through the McIntosh, Shannon’s bass filled center stage just a hint more, was imaged in space just a spec closer to me, and, as a result, sounded marginally larger. By comparison, the Wadia’s sound was slightly reserved and more sophisticated -- instruments, particularly Shannon’s bass, were slightly farther back on the stage, yet had a wisp more texture, resolution, and refinement. Many might assume that, because of the company’s reputation for warm, smooth, velvety sound, a McIntosh product would exhibit the more refined character, but that wasn’t the case. The MVP901’s sound might be better described as silky than velvety, and it was no shrinking violet.
These observations were confirmed when I played Diana Krall’s When I Look in Your Eyes (DSD128, Verve). I began by playing “Popsicle Toes” from a flash drive plugged into the MVP901’s front-panel USB port. Krall’s voice was locked in precisely at center stage, replete with breath and texture, and in three dimensions. Her piano was equally well presented, with rich, dense notes that floated in air, yet never strayed past their appropriate place at left center stage. John Clayton’s double bass, presented with anchor-like solidity and body, solidly shadowed Krall about 2’ behind her. While perhaps a bit on the fulsome side, Clayton’s notes remained controlled, with enough inner detail for me to hear the actual strings rather than just thrums of various pitch. Drummer Jeff Hamilton’s cymbal taps were light and delicate, yet maintained a convincing level of shimmer complemented by decays of decent duration.
I heard much the same when listening to the SACD (Verve 065 374-20) -- other than the faintest increase in overall volume, the differences were negligible. More appreciable were the differences I heard when I compared the DSD128 file through the Wadia’s USB port. While the McIntosh did a very convincing job of painting aural pictures, the Wadia took those seemingly 1080i images and amended them to 1080p levels. Clayton’s bass, while again just a bit farther back and less weighty on stage through the Wadia, possessed a hint more audible string detail and texture. If I could hear the strings before, I could now also hear the wood they were tensioned against. Like everything else, Krall’s voice and piano were also slightly recessed, yet her piano notes seemed to have a bit more solidity, as opposed to their wonderful suppleness through the McIntosh. The Wadia also presented images set against a slightly quieter background; this allowed me to hear, just a bit more easily, Hamilton’s brushstrokes on the brass of his cymbals, and a few more inches of space or air around all three instruments.
For most, spending $5500 on a universal Blu-ray player is a daunting prospect requiring an equally daunting process of assessment of value. But consider what McIntosh offers in the MVP901: Not only does it provide reference-quality video performance, 3D audio and video playback, upscaling to 4K, flawless operational performance (aside from some lighting idiosyncrasies), and seductive sound quality -- it does all of that for a cool grand less than the device it aspires to be: McIntosh’s own MCD550 SACD/CD player. Moreover, the attention to detail and exemplary build quality lavished on the MVP901 are second to none, and make it the most luxurious universal player I’ve ever laid hand or eye on. For those who base their buying decisions strictly on technical attributes, this may well be enough to take the plunge -- but for those of us who need a product to be special, unique, and to unfailingly satisfy every time we power it up, I’m here to tell you that McIntosh Laboratory’s MVP901 is such a product. For these reasons, I give the MVP901 my full recommendation.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- Monitor Audio PL300ii, Rockport Technologies Atria
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Power amplifiers -- Rotel RMB-1585, Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M (monoblocks)
- Preamplifiers -- Anthem AVM 60, Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8
- Projector -- JVC RS50u
- Sources -- Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player, Dell E7440 Ultrabook laptop computer running Windows 10, JRiver Media Center 20
- Digital-to-analog converter -- Wadia di322
- Cables -- Clarus Crimson S/PDIF, USB, and interconnects; Kimber Kable Select KS-6063 speaker cables; Cardas Clear Blue Beyond power cords
- Power conditioner -- Torus Power AVR2 20A
McIntosh Laboratory MVP901 Universal Blu-ray Player
Price: $5500 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
McIntosh Laboratory, Inc.
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 723-1545
Fax: (607) 724-0549