Pic of MXR System Preamp II with link to hi-res version

MXR’s System Preamp II (M-150)
-- Reverse Engineering a Schematic
and Uncovered MXR Schematics of  M-140

This is the preamp which I have used for about 30-years in my main stereo system. It has always been a flawless performer. Unfortunately, no schematic was provided with it. When I scoured the Web trying to find one, nothing turned-up. The rights to the MXR name and designs were carried-on by Dunlop Manufacturing, Inc., but they did not pick up MXR’s “Desktop” line. I guess that MXR wasn’t very big in the home stereo market.

Stereo Review MXR lowAdmittedly, the M-150 is a weird bird, but that’s why I like it so much. I found out about it by reading a Julian Hirsch review (at right) in Stereo Review, published March, 1981. He gave it very high marks, also men­tioning that it was about to be upgraded to the Model 150. (That added a second phono preamp but left the unit otherwise, almost identical–more about that below.) Highlights of the review include:

  • Phono RIAA accuracy ±0.25dB.
  • Phono response is affected less than 0.5dB by cartridge inductance.
  • Phono noise is below their measurement floor. (Specified 88dB below 10mV.)
  • Switchable three-pole phono filter is only -1.5dB at 20Hz but -31dB at 5Hz.
  • Distortion 0.001% at 1Vrms.
  • Frequency response 6Hz to 170kHz at -3dB.
  • Free of transient noises, due to FET muting circuits at key points.
  • (MXR specified the SNR at 90dB below 1Vrms, which is 107dB below max.)

The only criticism in the whole review was the lack of a switched AC outlet. That was something I remedied with a simple wiring change. The switch they provided has had no trouble lasting all these years switching my Hafler-200 amps.

What makes the unit so unique are its mixer functions and ability to insert external processors, which are very unusual for a stereo preamp. I had always wanted to be able to fade between sources and this preamp can do that. The options to insert external loops are handy for doing equalization, noise filtering and patching-in TV audio. The clincher for me was the fact that there are no tone controls on the preamp. This was before bypassing tone controls was cool. All those years, I had been carefully setting tone controls at center and worrying whether they were really flat at that exact point. Finally, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore. Join me now for a little tour of this unique component.

If you doubleclick the pic at the top of the page, you will see it in high resolution, which makes the functions clearer. (Widening the browser window may be needed.) Let’s start with the “MAIN” group of controls. The Volume of course sets the level going to the power amplifier. The Select switch there lets you listen to either the A-source, the B-source, the output of the Mixer control or either of two tape decks.

At the left, the two Source switches choose the A-source and B-source. Either can select one of six inputs, including two separate RIAA phono preamps. So, for example, you can have Phono-1 selected on A and Phono-2 selected on B. The Mixer control fades between them. The Main Select switch can choose the Mixer signal or A or B directly, as mentioned above.

What really makes the preamp handy for light DJ work though, is the fact that it has the separate monitor Select switch for the headphone output. It can choose A, B, Mix or either tape, just like the Select for the Main channel. The Main channel can be playing Phono-1 on A, while you are cueing-up Phono-2 on B, using the headphones. Pretty cool, eh?

This feature is absolutely necessary if you are going to create mixes in real time. Not that I have ever been able to do that! But if I could, it would be so much faster that way. Back in college, I worked for an educational radio network. There was a jazz program producer named Lee Nance, who had a weekly hour-long show there. He would arrive and in one night, produce a whole month of shows. It takes me all evening to produce a 45-minute mix! (Of course, I obsess over every detail :) The next morning, the studio would be a mess, though, with an overflowing ashtray and litter all over. I didn’t mind tidying-up though, because Lee produced such great shows and was a really nice and interesting guy.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the MXR: Other unique features of the preamp include the front-panel guitar/mic input and the two send/receive loops. The loops let you insert an external processor in the audio path. You can choose where in the path you want it. One can be in A or Main, while the other can be in B or Mix. Believe it or not, over the years, I have used almost every one of the M-150’s interesting features. The support for two tape decks was handy when I added a minidisc recorder to complement the Nakamichi cassette deck.

Anyway, nine years ago, I needed a schematic for the M-150. I forget now what the reason was. (I have made a couple mods to it.) Since I love the critter and couldn’t find one, I decided to trace out the circuits and create one from scratch. That turned out to be a major task. But I hung in there with it and am happy to be able to offer it to you now:

MXR System Preamp II (M-150) Schematic

Below is a scan of the 21-page Operation Manual for the M-150. On pages 13-17, they demonstrate some of the advanced things you can do with the preamp, using pictorial aids. The impressive specifications are on the last page:

MXR System Preamp II (M-150) Operation Manual (5MB)

I would be interested to hear from any other owners of this unit. Except for the ones reported below in Reader Comments, mine is the only one I have ever heard of.

Uncovered Original MXR Schematics of the M-140

Thanks to a kind contribution from Nate Mudge, we can present copies of the original MXR schematics and assembly drawing for the M-140 System Preamp. Since the M-140 is very similar to the M-150, we can now infer the original reference designators (R1, R2 etc.) for the parts on the M-150. It is unlikely that they would have changed much between units.

For the story behind this remarkable find, let’s let Nate tell it, in his own words:

    From 1975 to 1980, I was the MXR manufacturer’s rep for the state of Florida. At the end of my days as a rep, I had a rep sample of the M-140 System Preamp, which made its way into my home stereo system. It has been with me to this day. I am using it in my audio duplicating setup, where I am digitizing my entire LP collection. The only problem I have had with it was dirty contacts on the switches, which I cleaned with Caig Labs contact cleaner. It still performs perfectly. As I recall, when this unit was first introduced, the factory bragged about using military grade PC boards and components. I also have a poorly Xeroxed copy of the original schematic and pc board layout. This is a very special unit, unlike anything else.

We have restored the documents as much as possible and they are quite useable:

MXR System Preamp (M-140) Schematic Page-1

MXR System Preamp (M-140) Schematic Page-2

MXR System Preamp (M-140) PCB Assembly Drawing

Many thanks to Nate!

Curious about how closely the M-140 and M-150 match, I did an overlay (in Red) of the M-140 PCB Assembly Drawing and a B&W photo of the M-150 PCB:

Overlay of M-140 in red and M-150 PCB B&W photo

The scanner photo (from the old days) is a bit blurry but a casual perusal of the board shows a very close resemblance. My M-150 originally had an add-on board for a second phono preamp, soldered on top of the main board. That is the only dif­fer­ence found between the two models.

Below: Half-page ad for the MXR-140, which appeared in Stereo Review, September, 1980.

MXR preamp Stereo Review Ad low

 

Reader Comments


Posted by Steve L. June 17, 2014 - 02:18 pm
Hi DCinDC, It's good to hear a contrary point of view. I respect your opinion but I'm puzzled by the reaction you had to the MXR preamp. It's true that the jacks weren't gold plated but otherwise they have held up well for 30-plus years. The pots don't have the resin damping which the Japanese components did back then. But then, I didn't know of any American-made pots which did. While the resin gave pots a smooth feel, it was purely an aesthetic feature and didn't affect the electrical quality. Otherwise, the pots seem of good quality to me and have also held up well. As far as the cabinet is concerned, the thick, extruded aluminum front panel and oiled walnut sides gave me the impression of it being built like a tank. Moreover, it's built with a fiberglass PCB, which was unusual for consumer products. To me, its simple but attractive physical design eschews fancy frills and favors convenient functionality.

As far as performance is concerned, the specifications, backed-up by test reports and 30-years of happy listening, speak for themselves. The lack of a loudness switch (and tone controls) is by design. If the rest of your system is flat, such frequency response adjustments shouldn't be necessary. If the rest of your system isn't flat, those adjustments would probably not be sufficient for accurate sound. The issue should be addressed at the offending element. If I had to characterize the sound of the MXR preamp, the word that springs to mind is: transparent. It does nothing to alter the sound and I've never found fault with it in any way.

Having said all that, I would like to thank you for posting and sharing your thoughts.

Posted by DCinDC June 17, 2014 - 11:49 am
I bought one of these new from the AAFES catalog (service member BX) back when new for about $150.
I bought it for the features, like most people. I thought it was poorly constructed and performed poorly. The cheap rca jacks, pots and cabinet really put me off. I also really missed a loudness control. I returned it almost immediately. Still I always liked it's functionality. Thanks so much for your efforts at the schematics and collecting this info. Maybe I will try to recreate it with better components. I am trained electronics tech and have been inside many pieces of good stereo components. I consider the PL 4000 poorly made also. I had one of those around the same time and dumped it quick.

Posted by Steve L. June 15, 2014 - 12:37 pm
Hi Jim, Thank you for posting about your model 150. It's good to hear that all works well after all these years. Sorry that I don't have a clue about pricing for these, as they so rarely appear. I wish you well in finding a buyer. I'm sure that it will make someone happy.

Posted by Jim R June 15, 2014 - 12:12 pm
Bought my model 150 new in the early 80s, using all the features (equalizer, tape loops, etc.) for many years. Just recently hooked it back up and was happy to find everything works. This is all a prelude to selling the unit. Any ideas about pricing? Anyone out there interested ? If so, leave a comment with an email addr. and I'll get back.

Posted by Steve L. January 27, 2013 - 08:07 am
Hi Don, (Why did you have to wait for yours to be available? What did you use the mixing feature for?) I bought my Model 150 new, circa 1981. The mixing feature was important to me also, because I had a vision of having two turntables and recording realtime collections of tracks...

Posted by Don January 26, 2013 - 10:08 pm
Hello Steve et al
I bought the MXR System Preamp II to replace a dying Phase Linear 4000. The PL 4000 could fade from one input to another, so the MXR was the logic (and only) replacement I found. I had to wait for it to be available, and it was worth the wait. I use the MXR pretty much daily, works great even after all these years. It's the best piece of hi-fi I ever had.


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