My journey with the McGary amp.

I first met Mike McGary at Gary Gill’s house when he was presenting to our local HiFi group, an EL34 power amp he was planning to bring to the market as the SA-1.  It was powering Gary’s horns, which are extremely revealing and the sound was glorious.  It was rich, warm and detailed. The group’s members all agreed that this was a fine amp and like what we heard.

Then came Capital Audiofest 2018. Mike hung out his shingle with sharing a room with Jim Salk, and again the sound was smooth and totally involving, no screaming meanies, just everything in perfect balance. I will go as far as to say I felt I was hearing Salk speakers for the first time.

I asked Jim how did he hooked up with McGary Audio and he told me Mike sent him an amp to listen to and it took Jim less than 30 seconds to realize this was a perfect match, there was a synergy that he had never heard before. I heartily agree with this master speaker builder.

Based on sales and feedback from interested parties Mike felt his next product should be a more powerful amp. People do like the numbers game and in the USA bigger must be better.  So now enter the SA-2, KT-88 bulbs with a punch in the gut 80 watts instead of 40.

I heard the SA-2 ($7985) at Axpona 2019 playing through Jim Salk’s SS 9.5 Loudspeakers ($9995/pair).  All the magic was there in the room with 80 watts of KT88 glowing glory and sweet, sweet music filling the room. Total seduction, total involvement. 

I visited Mike at his Virginia home this summer to see where the magic comes together. While there I asked a few questions:

PE> Where does the passion come from?

Mike> I’ve been interested in audio equipment about the time I was in 6th grade. I worked very hard at various jobs/chores to earn enough money to purchase my first audio receiver and speakers. After hearing the audio and trying to improve the sound with my setup (speaker placement and audio formats at the time), and seeing family and friends’ reactions (smiles) to the music playing on that system, I was hooked. I subscribed to about every audio publication you could buy and have delivered in the mail, read about all the manufacturers at the time regarding their equipment, and even memorized their specs in some instances. When I reviewed the specs and the layout of their equipment, I was even more fascinated …how all those parts could make something work to play music? Hence, the beginnings of my future career into electronics and electrical engineering. So, the passion comes truly from having a desire to make something with my intellect and hands, involving quality at a reasonable price, the finest in audio reproduction I can provide at the price point, and most importantly … makes the customer/people smile when they purchase my equipment.”

PE>Why is music important?

Mike> For me, music allows me to think better and also to relax. I’ve listened to music from childhood to adulthood and frankly, I do not watch much tv (more so as an adult). As you ‘listen’ to music, and now I’m putting on my ‘engineer and critique hat’, but truly ‘listen’ and not just ‘hear’ music reproduction…. you open your mind and imagination to the performer/performance and in some cases, you are truly there with them. The reproduction is accurate and placement of instruments and vocals is placed correctly. This is completely different than hearing this through radio and one song after another without truly ‘listening’. To me, this is very satisfying, and to be able to have this in your own home is even more amazing. This is something so many people are missing out today with their hectic and fast-paced lives, not even knowing this exists because they did not know, or nobody sat down to share this with them. I guess some would rather be wine, food or beer connoisseurs instead, but it is the same level of attention and detail that ‘we’ audiophiles have with audio equipment and audio reproduction.

PE> What makes McGary Audio different?

Mike> Let’s see… overkill on quality of parts that include part tolerances, thick gauge steel enclosure ( not aluminum) powder coated throughout ( not just externally), my circuit design and not one copied from books or magazines from past years in the tube and audio electronics and just ‘repackaged’, customer support to include lifetime warranty except the tubes… I prefer to warranty my equipment for a lifetime because I know it will last a lifetime if the customer takes care of the product, and attention to details… parts selection, nameplate, binding posts custom made and now with my logo, placement of parts and connections, all manufactured with my hands.

PE> What’s new? 

Mike> The SA2 (prototype) debut occurred at AXPONA 2019 in April and received much exposure and praise. I’ve been working some quality issues with some of the aluminum trim parts which have delayed production, but I demand consistent quality and will not put the amp into production until I am satisfied with the issues being resolved. The plan currently is late July… for the first production SA2 units to be available. 

PE> What’s next?

Mike> The SPA1 preamp will be the next product, and the timeline for production will occur next summer. This will be a modular design that will allow the customer to purchase and use only the preamp functions they require without having to pay for unnecessary features. After the release of this preamp, I will then have completed the ‘Classic Series’ of McGary Audio products, and then start the ‘Modern Series’ of products…. more modern in design/appearance with transistor output stages for amplification.  I do not want to discuss details at this time, but these will be DIFFERENT!

Recently I got to spend some quality time with the SA-2 in my system.  I decided to go all-digital in the music. I chose because my analog system is so individualized for me that it could flavor the sound too much.  I was using the TEAC NT-505. I felt that this was a pretty neutral DAC at a mid level price range. The files were served from a network NAS and a Windows 10 computer running J River controlled by JRemote on an IPAD. I spent time playing the chosen music with my amps (Cary SLA-100’s) with both speaker systems (Magnepan llla’s, hardwood frames, rebuilt crossover, and Quad (57) ESL’s from around 1962 but that I rebuilt a year ago.) before I moved in the McGary SA-2. Speaking of moving the SA-2.  This thing weighs in at 60 pounds. It’s a brute. Each amp comes in a Pelican case. For shipping which adds another 22 pounds and is included in the price of the amp. The amp comes with Gold Lion KT88’s and NOS GE 6SN7’s and 6BQ7A/6922 signal tubes.  You can run KT88’s, KT90’s, or KT120’s.  This amp’s self-biasing system will allow you to use unmatched tubes, and provide a very long life.

Reviewing this amp was fun but a bit tedious because of all the adjustments available to the user. You have either Triode or Pentode mode. Then there is adjustable feedback which you can vary the feedback between 1 and 9 dBs.

I found the SA-1 very neutral. It gets out of the way of the music. There is no overly warm woolly tube sound, but absolutely no hard edges either. The sound stage is very wide, with sidewalls disappearing but slightly forward with the sound stage right at the speakers. With my Cary’s the sound stage is from behind the speakers.

My Maggy’s are very inefficient speakers but I got a very clean 90db (with Rat-Shack sound pressure meter).  Above that, I heard some compression.  At low levels, the musical magic was still there. With the Quad’s, I heard all the speed, definition, and delicacy I would expect.  With the SA-2 I just got lost into the music, very involving, sucked me right in.

Everything sounded just right. Room decays went on forever. The SA-2 bested my Cary’s at low-level high-frequency signals. Bass slam was about the same. Neither of my speakers are noted for their bass slam.

I liked the pentode mode and less feedback with the Maggy’s and the Triode mode and more feedback with the Quad 57’s.  This is the great thing about this amp you can tailor it to your speakers. It was hard to give it up and pass it back to Mike at the end of the review period.

Mike is an engineer by trade and McGary Audio will be in full-time mode soon.

Right now, this is an effort of pure 150% passion.  From the pics, you can see this is a one-man operation with the only things that are outsourced are the transformers (California) and the casework.  It’s all point to point wiring with the best components that make sense.  The designs are all Mike McGary.  He does some interesting things, in the way he drives the output tubes but uses voltage-controlled self-bias to ensure a long life on the output tubes.

This is a desert island amp that one will not feel the need to ever replace.

words and photos by Paul Elliott