Just a few weeks before the original Woodstock festival in August 1969, the concert organizers faced a dilemma: The event, they realized, would draw hundreds of thousands of people, not the tens of thousands they initially had expected. In those days, few audio systems were designed to deliver clear, high-quality sound over an area large enough to accommodate such a crowd. But with the help of a sound engineer named Bill Hanley, the organizers rigged a system that included amplifiers Hanley had used for Lyndon Johnson’s presidential inauguration in 1965. The amplifiers were made by McIntosh Laboratory, an outfit in Binghamton, N.Y.
After proving its mettle at Woodstock, McIntosh produced amplifiers for the Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, Neil Young, and other performers, and it also began building extremely powerful yet clear-sounding home audio systems. Later, McIntosh expanded its offerings to include speakers, video projectors, and other home-theater components. Most recently, the company unveiled its Ultimate Screening Room, an entertainment system priced at $500,000 before installation.
The room’s standard design features two 7-foot-tall speakers and a horizontal center speaker with associated components at the front of the room, six surround speakers at the sides and rear, and six subwoofers beneath the seats. A 6-by-7-foot array of components, including a music server, stands at the back of the room, and an overhead projector displays video on a 12-by-6-foot screen. The amps deliver a combined, continuous power rating of 15,600 watts, about 10 times the power delivered by typical high-end home theaters.
At its Binghamton headquarters, McIntosh demonstrated the system’s audio capabilities by screening a segment of the 2002 Chinese film Hero and by playing a song from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? As the two armies in Hero attacked each other, and dozens of arrows struck students in a nearby schoolroom, the sound was so concussive that the audience members winced as if they too had been impaled. The song track was hushed and ethereal but equally pure. “The idea,” said McIntosh president Charlie Randall, “is to make the audio sound real, not reproduced. If it’s a movie, you’re part of it; if it’s a concert, you’re there.”
The Ultimate Screening Room features noise cancellation technology called quad balancing and systems that virtually eliminate distortion and ensure that the amplifiers will not overload. The system also allows seamless switching between two-channel and multichannel audio and includes a sophisticated digital-to-analog converter that coaxes powerful sound out of ordinary CDs and DVDs.
The company principals at the unveiling included Victor Pacor, COO of Japan’s D&M Holdings, which acquired McIntosh in 2003. D&M owns several other audio firms, including Boston Acoustics, Denon, and Marantz, and makes video technology that is used in the Ultimate Screening Room. “Our approach,” Pacor said, “is to create an environment in which cost is not a factor, allowing the engineers to focus exclusively on building great systems.”
According to Randall, the Ultimate Screening Room’s half-million-dollar price is a natural consequence of this development philosophy. But it is an apt figure, it would seem, for technology that, in an earlier incarnation, proved capable of delivering music to a crowd that was half a million strong.