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McIntosh C52 Solid-State Preamplifier

Prefatory Rant
I shall begin by asking you to indulge me some venting: I hate the direction that many high-end preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers have taken the last quarter-century and longer—detest is a more precise word. Minimalism, along with its synonym, “purity,” has conditioned the thinking behind so many control units with pretentions to state-of-the-art status that the use of the word “control” must surely be ironic, if not downright cynical. At its most extreme this minimalism eliminates everything except a volume pot and a thimbleful of inputs, not to mention any active circuitry except preamplification in its most basic sense, a development that has had two unwelcome consequences. Routine system checks and troubleshooting become effectively impossible or at best very cumbersome, while the absence of balance and tone controls eliminates any means of addressing the tonal and channel-to-channel imbalances that exist in many recordings and listening environments, even some very good ones. How many audiophiles, I wonder, have rooms in which the loudspeaker of one channel “sees” the same frontal space or is reinforced by the identical side and rear boundaries as its mate (L-shaped rooms, anyone)? This is just one instance of speaker/room interface that undermines channel balance, even when the signal arrives at the speakers in perfect balance, which is by no means always the case.

It might come as a surprise to many audiophiles to discover their speakers are not sonically identical. Go to some of the publications and Internet sites that reliably measure these things and you might be shocked by the number of models, including even extremely expensive, highly reviewed ones, that differ as much as 3dB from unit to unit, a difference audible during critical listening and easily audible when the music isn’t complex (e.g., solo instruments or voices). And surely it isn’t necessary to point out that correct stereo imaging and soundstaging are crucially dependent upon accurate reproduction of the relative levels of one channel vis-à-vis the other. As for source material, remember that level differences are additive. Except on pure tones, nobody can hear an imbalance of, say, 0.5dB, but if this imbalance comes up against one in another component that is off by the same amount, then you have an imbalance of 1dB, which in turn will be added to any others along the recording, mixing, and mastering chain all the way down into your own system and room, which will contribute their own. Fortunately, these small imbalances often have a way of cancelling themselves out, but not always, and the problem is more prevalent in analog, specifically vinyl.

Concomitant with this bare-bones functionalism have been increases in pricing that are risible when not ludicrous in view of what is actually being offered. Back in the day—the day I’m referring to being more or less from the introduction of the long-playing record through the early Eighties, the period when vinyl was the undisputed king of serious music playback in the home—the quality of a preamplifier rested overwhelmingly on the quality of its phonostage, this owing to all the problems associated with very low-level signals, notably hum and hiss, not to mention conformity to the RIAA curve and the vagaries of impedance and capacitance of phono pickups. The line-level stage was hardly an afterthought, but any manufacturer who couldn’t make a low-noise, low-distortion line-level circuit would have had his competence seriously questioned (not without justification). And is there any real evidence to indicate that eliminating common, in my view essential, functions of preamplifiers, including some convenience features, and putting every last electronic circuit into its own box actually results in superior sound? I haven’t found this to be the case—not consistently anyhow, and certainly not among those manufacturers who apply the same care, know-how, and expertise to their integrateds as to their separates. (Isolating power supplies in their own box can result in lower noise, except that, to cite only one example I’m personally familiar with, Benchmark Media’s AHB2 power amplifier [see my review, Issue 262] boasts, I believe, the highest signal-to-noise ratio of any component currently on the market and it’s not only a single box but an unusually compact one!)

Not all designers have gone along with this trend. Dan D’Agostino, whose high-end bona fides are surely beyond any doubt, struck a welcome blow both for sanity and for the primacy of musical values by putting bass and treble tone controls (in addition to balance) on his state-of-the-art Momentum preamplifier and integrated amplifier. “I wanted them for myself and all the other real music lovers,” he recently told me (it’s an indication of how ingrained this shibboleth of audio purity has become in our time that at least one reviewer did not so much as mention this feature in his review of the preamp—absent the accompanying photographs, his readers wouldn’t know the unit had them). Both Luxman and Anthem market models with a full complement of functions, including either built-in phonostages or the option for them. And the late James Bongiorno, who believed that tone controls were necessary to address the response anomalies of virtually all domestic listening spaces, put them on his statement preamp, the Ambrosia, and also on his budget-conscious Thoebe II, with absolutely no penalty in transparency that I could discern (see my review, Issue 263). But above and beyond, not to mention long before any of these, stands one of the founding pioneers of consumer audio, a company which, throughout its nearly seventy years distinguished by some of the finest high-end equipment ever made, has always mediated innovation and tradition, embracing new technologies while steadfastly retaining traditional functions and features necessary for the playback of music in the home: McIntosh.

Introduction
McIntosh’s C52 preamplifier, which the company calls “the most advanced, single-chassis solid-state preamplifier we’ve ever made,” could serve as a textbook of what a high-end control unit should be. In addition to the usual volume, muting, balance, and stereo/mono functions, it has an eight-band equalizer; three balanced and four unbalanced analog inputs; and two separate phonostages with dedicated inputs for moving-coils and moving-magnets. The versatile DAC section, with seven inputs (one USB, two coaxial, three optical, and a proprietary port for McIntosh transports and players), accommodates almost every digital format and piece of hardware the consumer is likely to use. A built-in headphone amplifier features McIntosh’s “Headphone Crossfeed Director” (HXD), a proprietary circuit (defeatable if desired) said to improve the headphone experience by restoring “the directionality component of the spatial soundstage normally experienced with loudspeaker listening.” Rounding out the connections are three balanced and three unbalanced outputs, plus trigger and data ports that allow it to operate associated McIntosh gear (it will also operate the on/off trigger ports of other manufacturers’ amps).

Yet for all its multi-faceted functionality, versatility, and connectivity, the C52 is so ergonomically impeccable and user-friendly, the layout of its knobs and buttons so clean, logical, intelligent, and attractive that I had it unpacked, connected, and playing music without even cracking the manual. But crack it you must if you’re to take full advantage of all it does (like all manuals from this manufacturer, its clarity and thoroughness are exemplary and it’s copiously illustrated). A few examples: equalizer on/off settings can be saved independently for each input; a trim function sets different output levels for each input to eliminate sudden volume jumps when switching from one source to another; custom names can be assigned to the inputs; unused inputs can be deleted from the menu, obviating the need to cycle through so many to get to those you use (of course they are restorable as needed); a wide range of capacitance for moving-magnets and impedances for the moving-coils is available (though somebody missed a trick by not having the selected values appear on the display when the inputs are engaged). All this and more are accessible or doable via the remote handset. And as ever with this manufacturer, everything works flawlessly, all switching and push-buttons completely silent, knob action smooth and swish-free, channel-to-channel volume tracking exact, and output levels helpfully displayed as a percentage from 0 to 100 (thus when doing comparisons you can easily return to a previous level, provided you took note of its numerical readout).

There is obviously way too much on offer here to cover everything in a single review, even a long one. Though LPs, CDs, and SACDs constitute my primary listening media, the C52’s ready ability to accommodate so many digital formats finally pushed me to plunge into the brave new waters of online streaming services, player applications, and libraries. Before proceeding, gratitude is due three gentlemen who exhibited the patience of Job in guiding me through the far from intuitive (at least to me) setup, navigation, operation, and troubleshooting of these applications (why do none of them provide any clear instructions?): Philip O’Hanlon (of On a Higher Note), Steven Stone (my colleague here at TAS), and Ron Cornelius (McIntosh’s project manager). David Chesky generously supplied downloads in different formats from HDtracks.

 

The Sound
This is the fourth preamplifier from McIntosh that I’ve reviewed for TAS over the last dozen or so years and the second solid-state one. The sound was thus hardly new to me, though the amount of source and source-related integration in the C52 makes it impossible to distinguish the characteristics of the onboard DAC and phonostages from the linestage as such. That said, regardless which phonostage or built-in digital processing was under evaluation, no tonal anomalies jumped out or otherwise made themselves heard during the several months I auditioned the unit—and I’m so familiar with the sources I use day to day as to be confident of the accuracy of what I’m about to describe. I use the word “describe” advisedly because a recurring experience with all McIntosh components I’ve reviewed is that I find myself taking far fewer notes than when reviewing almost anyone else’s gear. Day after day over several months I began listening sessions with pad and pen dutifully in hand only to discover that by the time the stylus reached the inner groove, the CD player stopped spinning, or the cursor indicated file’s end, I’ve scribbled few notes, most of them pretty general: “beautiful,” “neutral,” “really neutral,” “very natural,” etc. In this specific sense, it’s hard to remember when a preamplifier has given me more satisfaction day in, day out than the C52.

One major reason for this is that unlike many high-end designers who consider themselves auteurs, those at McIntosh resolutely refuse to “voice” or otherwise tailor their products to specific tastes, instead designing them to be transparent to the source. The familiar adjectives we use to evoke sonic characteristics, flavors, and colorations simply don’t apply. Of course every component has a sound of its own, even if, as here, it’s miniscule, but the C52’s personality, such as it is, is elusive because it’s chameleon-like. What commanded my attention was almost always the music, not the usual audio talking points of “liquid” or “resolution” or “detail” or “dynamics” or “timing” or “rhythm.” Every time I jotted down a tonal characteristic such as “bright,” “rolled-off,” “warm,” “edgy,” etc., as possible descriptors of its sonic character, the next source or another sometime later clearly revealed I was describing the program rather than the component.

There is also to my ears a nearly complete absence of what I think of as “positive” attributes of audio reproduction. By this I don’t mean “positive” as a synonym for “desirable,” rather the characteristics we audiophiles and reviewers typically find attractive. Even with my favorite tube components—and McIntosh’s are certainly high among that group—I often find that while I’m enjoying the music I am also consciously enjoying the lovely tubey-ness of the reproduction. Similarly, with analytical solid-state components, I am often aware of how impressed I am by the detail being excavated or how dazzling the transients are. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it’s hardly a sin to enjoy the sound as such of components upon which one has spent both a lot of time searching for specific characteristics, and a lot of money to acquire them. When a friend of mine put his Marantz Model 8B amp up for sale and was asked why he was selling it, he replied, “It isn’t accurate.” “I know,” said the buyer, “but I just want to wallow in all that romanticized sound.” Fair enough. But since a high order of fidelity to source and signal always has and always will be one of the touchstones of a true high-end audio system, tonal neutrality must be a necessary condition. The C52 possesses it to a rare degree.

This means among other things that it won’t varnish over bad recordings, but neither will it exacerbate what makes them bad. A primary reason for this, in addition to its neutrality, is the C52’s outstanding solidity and stability of its presentation, regardless how big or small, complex or simple, thick or thin the source material is, instead wholly unperturbed, unruffled, and unrattled, with that paradoxical but always desirable combination of absolute control and complete relaxation. I once wrote that the engineers at McIntosh would probably rather eat worms than let anything distort. This seems to be truer than ever in this new preamplifier: vanishingly low distortion and noise, which translates into deep, black backgrounds, spectacular dynamic range, and amazing clarity (phonostages included), its presentation so free, effortless, and natural sounding as to eliminate listening fatigue as a concern. If you suffer from such fatigue when this preamplifier is in charge, it’s coming from the source or somewhere else in the system.


I offer this last with some trepidation because I know there are audiophiles who will automatically infer from what I’ve written that the C52 is laid-back, even dull, can’t “carry the tune,” doesn’t get you “tapping your toes,” suffers from compromised “timing,” and lacks detail, resolution, excitement, involvement, and “insight” (a very odd word, it seems to me, to apply to a piece of equipment, but one our British brethren have become inordinately fond of these last many years, though even more curious is how many of the Brits find tonal neutrality dull). I’ve heard it opined that McIntosh components favor the midrange and slight the extremes. It would be tedious to rebut any of this at length, not to mention rather late in the day, given the company’s longevity and proven track record. But inasmuch as this sort of thing from time to time litters the Internet, where anyone with a computer and time on his hands can act the guru, allow me to cite a few examples that should be sufficient to reveal this stuff for what it is: less considered criticism than frivolous opinion.

In the “Moon River” cut on Jacintha’s Autumn Leaves album [Groove Note], an acid-test if ever there was for extreme low-level resolution and detail retrieval, the singer, who was in an isolation booth, elected to do the first verse a cappella; in order to help her stay in tune, the pianist played chords that were sent through her headphones. Despite heroic efforts at isolation, and levels kept as low as possible consistent with her being able to hear the chords, a tiny amount of piano sound nevertheless managed to leak through her headphones and get picked up by her microphone, albeit so faintly that on some systems several chords disappear entirely. Whether on CD/SACD player (to high-level input), player used as transport to an outboard DAC (to another high-level input), player used as transport to onboard DAC (via coaxial input), streaming or downloads from computer (to USB input), or vinyl (to mc phonostage)—I own this album in all these formats—the C52 allowed me to hear every one of the chords. Please note that I wrote, “allowed,” and not “nailed.” The C52, however faint in level, makes the chords available but in no way hyped or highlighted, which means that you can listen to the whole cut without noticing them (when I listen to the album for pleasure, as opposed to equipment evaluation, I often don’t even register them). For me, this is a crucial distinction that goes to the very heart of what constitutes valid reproduction of detail versus the merely “hi-fi” or “audiophile” type of playback, which is always too much, too present, too “there” (the typical cause is a high-end rise that can always be counted upon to bring up detail). (I should add that I attended the “Moon River” sessions and heard the direct mike-feed compared to the analog and DSD masters.)

As for the extremes of the frequency range, any playing of Bernstein’s pile-driving recording of Roussel’s Third Symphony [Sony], which has slam galore; Benjamin Zander’s Mahler Sixth [Telarc], with its fourth-movement hammerblows that land with cataclysmic force and impact; or Zubin Mehta’s Also Sprach Zarathustra [Decca], with its solid 32-foot opening pedal-point, will put paid to any worries about bass reticence or softness in the C52. This thing’s got all the bottom-end crunch, foundation, and power you could ask for. As for the top end, I suggest the bells in the first cut on The Name Is Makowicz [Sheffield, vinyl], the rain sticks in Kristy Baron’s cover of “Mercy Street” from Steppin’ [Chesky, SACD], and any choral, opera, or orchestral recordings that truly capture the ambience of a large venue, such as Kings College’s A Procession with Carols for Advent Sunday [Argo, vinyl], Tilson Thomas’ Mahler on the San Francisco Symphony’s own label on SACD, or Paul McCreesh’s A Venetian Coronation [Virgin, CD]. This last is something quite special. McCreesh and his engineers stage a sonic recreation of the election of a doge in sixteenth-century Venice. In cuts 5 and 6, drums herald the trumpets as they march forward from the distant background, gradually spreading across the soundstage until they reach the foreground, whereupon the drums resume as antiphonal brass fanfares commence. This event, which unfolds seamlessly, is quite thrilling, the spacious, reverberant acoustics splendidly captured and reproduced.

And if timing, rhythm, drive, and toe-tapping are your be-all and end-all, see my upcoming review of the Bryston BP-1 turntable, where I call attention to its “exceptionally precise timing and articulation of rhythm,” citing the Makowicz/Phil Woods “stunning riff” on “You Do Something to Me.” I also used Ed Graham’s sensational Hot Stix, which certainly vindicates M&K’s claim that it’s “the cleanest, tightest, most dynamic drum recording ever made.” Then there was the “Dance of the Earth” from Bernstein’s volcanic 1958 recording of The Rite of Spring [Sony, vinyl and CD] for “an object lesson in how a conductor knows how to push his players to the absolute brink of speed and rhythmic intensity but no farther.” All these impressions were taken down with the Bryston setup playing through the C52’s mc phonostage.

 

The Phonostages
I don’t know that I need to add much to what I’ve just written about the sound of the phonostages, except that while I did most of my listening with my longstanding Ortofon Windfeld/Basis 2800 turntable/Vector IV tonearm setup, I evaluated the moving-magnet stage with my retro Acoustic Research AR XA/Shure V15 MR combination, a setup way too smooth, warm, and mellow to be accurate, but a lovely old-fashioned vintage sound to wallow in all the same. The mm stage, with an input impedance of 47k ohms, allows for capacitance loading from 50pF to 800pF in 50pF increments. This means that if the manufacturer of your tonearm will supply you with the capacitance of its wiring and the value your pickup likes to see, you will hear the flattest overall frequency response of which it is capable. The same goes for the moving-coil stage, which offers options of 25, 50, 100, 200, 400, and 1000 ohms. While this number is far fewer than what I have on Musical Surroundings’ Nova II (my reference), it’s more than adequate to handle a large number of moving-coils. Again, this means the C52 will allow your cartridge to perform more optimally in frequency response and in suppressing the extreme high-frequency resonance than any other phonostage, regardless of cost, that does not provide a similar range of loading choices.

The last LP I played before wrapping things up was Robert Silverman’s Chopin’s Last Waltz, his magisterial new Chopin recital on the IsoMike label. The LP is so clean and quiet that I set the level rather louder than usual, the result the sense of a grand piano, wide in dynamic range, palpably in the room, with breathtakingly realistic presence and body. I can’t think I’ve ever heard a better recording of a piano, and very, very few as good. I’ve never heard a McIntosh phonostage that isn’t superb, the C52 is exceptionally so. Little wonder one reviewer judged them to be of such excellence as to obviate the need for an external phono preamp. I concur.

The DAC
The C52’s DAC will accept PCM sample rates of 16, 24, and 32 bits, 32kHz–384kHz; DSD64, DSD128, and DSD256; and DXD 352.8kHz and DXD 384kHz. About the only standard digital format the C52 doesn’t support is Master Quality Authenticated (MQA, about which McIntosh’s engineers prefer to take a wait-and-see position, finding the format too lossy, with distortion that doesn’t meet the company’s high standards). These last several years my benchmark DAC has been in fact a Benchmark with a capital B—Benchmark Media’s DAC1, which I like for its bit-perfect reproduction and its dead-flat neutrality. If Benchmark’s products are criticized for anything, it is that in their zeal for absolute neutrality they wind up erring on the side of being slightly cool, thus sacrificing a bit of timbral color, texture, and density. I personally don’t hear them that way. But to get right to the matter of coolness, I find no evidence for it in the C52. Rather to the contrary, source permitting, timbral color, texture, richness, and saturation all abound, being specialties chez McIntosh, and gloriously so—just listen to the diverse collection of voices and olde instruments on the Venetian Coronation album for proof. But the sonic differences between the two DACs were really tiny and disappeared entirely on most sources, particularly when I managed to match their levels as closely as possible.

One of the secrets of the Benchmark’s stellar performance is that it re-clocks the signal to eliminate jitter and timing errors. McIntosh addresses this issue with its own set of proprietary protocols. The C52’s digital engine deploys premium ESS chips configured in a fully balanced mode of eight DACs (four per channel) with fanatical attention to regulating power-supply voltage so precisely that it doesn’t deviate from the exact value the DACs require for optimal performance. I have no means of measuring this, but I did try to confound the C52 by replacing my audiophile-grade coaxial cable (of superb construction and shielding) with a cheap, no-name RCA interconnect. The result? Absolutely no discernable effect upon the reproduced sound. Still not satisfied, I went for the jugular, unbending a coat hanger and using it for the coaxial connection. Same difference: no effect upon the sound quality whatsoever. Suffice it to say that you can safely banish all worries about the C52’s ability to deliver a bit-perfect signal. (The coat-hanger stunt was to simulate a worst-case scenario of timing errors and jitter, but you should never use anything except a shielded cable for all digital connections owing to the sheer amount of RFI digital radiates—enough, say, to interfere with an FM tuner or other equipment used within ten to twenty feet of an unshielded connection.)


For most of my USB listening I used my MacBook Pro Retina laptop and the Apple-friendly Audirvana server (supplemented by Roon) in combination with Tidal, downloads from other online sources (like HDtracks and NativeDSD Music, which offers free files of 64, 128, and 256 for comparison), and files ripped from CDs and vinyl. No matter the format or medium, the C52 locked onto it, displayed it on the front panel, and played it perfectly, differences in competing formats readily apparent and easy to describe. For example, the Pappano Aida, which I have on Red Book compact disc, is beautifully recorded, clean, open, dynamic, but conservatively miked for an overall opera-house perspective that lets you hear everything clearly yet without the aggressive spot-lighting that often results from close miking. While these impressions remain evident in the 24/96 version I streamed from Tidal, I was quite unprepared for the increase in dynamic range, inner clarity, transparency, and brilliance, to say nothing of a more easeful listening experience and a more well ventilated (airier, if you will) soundscape. The same is true for David Chesky’s New York Rags, only more pronouncedly, the CD sounding fine on its own, but decidedly pale next to the dynamism of the 24/96 download.

Several DSD titles I streamed proved even more revelatory, like Don McLean’s American Pie, more lifelike and involving than in any format before this (though the differences between the DSD64 and 24/192 files are so small that I’m sure I couldn’t leave the room, return, and consistently identify which I was hearing). I also downloaded some DSD256 files, including the Silverman Chopin’s Last Waltz, only to discover that my MacBook Pro won’t support the format beyond 128, converting it instead to what I assume is DXD384 (at least that’s what registered on the C52’s display). Regardless, it’s still sonically fabulous, with all the virtues I ascribed to the vinyl, albeit maybe a tad brighter, with a bit more grip and apparent precision, yet perhaps also a small reduction in the LP’s warmth, atmosphere, and, for want of a better word, sheer prettiness. If these observations sound tentative, it’s because I don’t want anybody to draw from them any conclusions of a general nature as to which medium or format might be better. This is just one comparison, there were way too many variables, and I’m still a neophyte when it comes to hi-res music streaming (I’ve not explored anywhere near enough servers—would, say, JRiver produce the same results?). Suffice it to say that I’d easily be happy with either ’twere the other dear charmer away. And speaking of charmers, Jacintha’s “Moon River” blew me away in DSD64, so rounded, dimensional, and lifelike is her voice, with spooky transparency, that I can scarcely imagine the 128 version could be better (but I do intend to find out).

Conclusion
By now it should be pretty obvious that I’m completely besotted with everything about the C52, not least its integration, which replaces a whole shelf-full of components by rolling linestage, phonostages, DAC, equalizer, and headphone amp into a single elegant box that, while not small, is hardly large in view of everything it does. I can’t think of another component that manages to do so much so superlatively well, with no compromises in any ways that matter to me as an audio critic and music lover. It’s a standing rebuke to the folly of minimalism and the snobbishness of those who insist that only separates can scale the peaks of audio artistry. Indeed, I’d lay crisp new bills it would hold its own against the most expensive preamps out there, even bettering some, yielding a little to others. If that little is important to you, and you have the one- to two-hundred grand required to buy them plus the associated separates that are built into the C52, then have a party. But know that none of them will get you its combination of state-of-the-art performance, integration, convenience, functions, and features, to say nothing of its great lineage, battleship construction, and looks that just radiate class, taste, and timeless style. Moreover, let me tell you what else….

Oh the hell with it! I bought the damn review sample. ’Nuff said?

Specs & Pricing

Frequency response:  20Hz–20kHz, +0, -0.5dB, @ 0.003% THD
Rated output: 2.5V unbalanced, 5V balanced (main output), 450mV (fixed output)
Signal-to-noise ratio (A-weighted): High level: -100dB below rated output; mm phono: -82dB below 5mV input; mc phono: -80dB below 0.5mV input
Maximum output voltage:  8V RMS unbalanced, 16V RMS balanced
Input  impedance:  20k ohms, balanced and unbalanced
Output impedance: 100 ohms unbalanced, 200 ohms balanced
Inputs:  Six unbalanced, two balanced, one mm phono, one mc phono, two coaxial, three optical, one USB, and one MCT
Outputs:  Three pairs main unbalanced, one pair balanced
Dimensions:  17-1/2″ x 7-5/8″ x 18″
Weight:  27.5 lbs.
Price:  $7000

MCINTOSH LABS
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903
(607) 723-3512
(800) 538-6576
mcintoshlabs.com

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