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 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 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).

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

2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903
(607) 723-3512
(800) 538-6576