McIntosh C52 Solid-State Preamplifier

Integration, Convenience, and State-Of-The-Art Performance

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers
McIntosh Labs C52
McIntosh C52 Solid-State Preamplifier

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.