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McIntosh C53 Preamplifier and MCT500 SACD/CD Transport

McIntosh C53

McIntosh’s C53 preamplifier is the successor to the outstanding C52, which I reviewed two years ago in TAS 283 (I purchased the review sample). Like many preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers these days, the C52 is an analog/digital hybrid housing an on-board DAC. McIntosh called the C52 “the most advanced, single-chassis solid-state preamplifier we’ve ever made,” and despite a seven-grand retail, sales were extremely brisk. Little wonder: its matchless connectivity such that it handles virtually every audio format of two-channel analog and digital sources available for home consumption at performance levels that reach state of the art. Yet, here we have a replacement for which the manufacturer makes the same claim and which is so literally identical as regards circuitry, features, connectivity, performance, sound quality, size, and appearance—side by side the only differentiating clues the new model number under the McIntosh logo on the fascia and an HDMI port on the rear—that I’ll skip the usual descriptive tour around and through the unit, and also a detailed consideration of its sound, referring you instead to my review of the original (TAS 283 and at theabsolutesound.com). Mentally replace “C52” with C53” and you have the review. 

So why a new model and why a review? Two things: fears of obsolescence and television sound. Despite the C52’s strong sales, a number of potential buyers demurred, fearing that in an area as fast-moving as digital audio their purchase might soon become obsolete. So the engineers went back to the drawing board and designed a new digital audio module, designated the DA2. The DA2 is both removable and upgradable as new digital formats or components come along, all without having to replace the entire preamplifier. Already the DA2 benefits from a later generation of the popular ESS components that constitute the heart of the onboard DAC. It has the same connectivity (2 coaxial, 2 optical, 1 USB, and 1 proprietary MCT for use with the MCT series of SACD/CD transports), plus an additional feature that for me is something of a game-changer: a new audio-only HDMI Audio Return Channel (ARC) that, according to McIntosh’s literature, “allows it to be connected to TVs with a compatible HDMI (ARC) output to bring your TV sound to a new level of audio performance by listening to it through your home stereo system. Popular multichannel audio formats from Dolby and DTS are supported and will be expertly converted to 2-channel audio for proper playback through the C53. When CEC communication is enabled in both the C53 and your TV, your TV remote can control the power and volume of the C53.” 

But since McIntosh is primarily an audio company and TAS an audio magazine, who cares about TV sound, and isn’t it already available anyhow? Easier to answer the latter first. No, or at least not easily. Increasingly, all these fancy new “smart” TVs have dispensed with RCA jacks that provide a mixed-down audio signal for connection to two-channel sound systems, while some new smart TVs no longer have even a headphone jack that could be counted on (more or less) for the same thing. Without those, the only way to get two channels out of your television is the TosLink connection, but that requires an accommodating DAC, whether built-in or outboard. Even then, the sound you’ll get, while usually an improvement over the RCA and headphone-jack alternatives, is not nearly as good as what you would get from a properly mixed down two-channel signal because, as McIntosh’s literature suggests, such popular multichannel formats as Dolby and DTS are not consistently supported by or correctly converted via the TosLink output. In other words, it’s still something of a dumbed-down way of getting quality two-channel audio out of a television.

McIntosh MCT500

There is a third alternative. A number of third-party vendors sell devices that claim to split off a stereo signal from an HDMI output. These devices are quite inexpensive ($15–$50 or so) and readily available on Amazon or other sites. I’ve tried some with at worst no success at all (no sound comes out) or middling results that are no better than the headphone and RCA jacks on earlier TVs and usually not as good. The reality is that some pretty sophisticated conversion protocols and circuitry are required to do a correct two-channel down-conversion. I’m not sure if you can find that on processors, receivers, preamplifiers, and integrated amplifiers that are home-theater products, but so far as I am aware, McIntosh’s DA2 module is unique in being able to do this the right way on a preamplifier otherwise designed strictly for the reproduction of high-end two-channel. While I cannot provide details on how the company accomplishes this, the circuit being proprietary, I can report that the results are genuinely revelatory. 

But first, let’s return to the question of who cares about two-channel TV sound. Well, I do, for one, and so do many people I know whose listening rooms must do double-duty as TV rooms, yet who don’t want to invest in multichannel setups or augment (purists might say “corrupt”) their two-channel systems with home-theater components. According to McIntosh, quite a number of their customers feel the same way—another reason, in addition to upgradability, for the DA2. As many of my readers know, I am a film editor (features mostly, some non-commercial TV), and I oversee the sound mixing and dubbing of all the films I edit. Yet I don’t have a home-theater setup, nor do many of my colleagues who work in movies. (Indeed, I personally know far fewer movie professionals with surround-sound home-theater than I do without.) Speaking for myself, I don’t much enjoy “hardware” movies such as all those big tentpole productions. My idea of a really long night at the movies, whether at home or in theaters, consists in superhero movies, action “epics,” space-opera, and other kinds of mass-market sci-fi, with soundtracks proliferated with bullets, explosions, high-speed chases, rockets, laser ordnance, and other sorts of futuristic weaponry, not to mention grunts, groans, growls, roars, screams, screeches, and other effusions of monsters from the Mesozoic Era to galaxies far off and away—all this without mentioning near non-stop music loud enough to cause hearing damage.  

Nor do I much care for sound effects coming from all around me whether at home or in theaters. My reasons for this require a much longer discussion than there is space for in an audio review, so I’ll reduce it to a single sentence: I find it both weird and distracting to have sounds coming from behind, above, or beside me when the image remains stubbornly in front of me. I’ll let you in on a little secret. A remarkably large number of filmmakers feel the same way, including quite a few directors. Most of us got into this business because we wanted to tell stories that mean something to us and that we hope will mean something to others as well. When it comes to all those CGI visual and sound effects, most of us feel that less definitely equates to more. And while I’ve heard some impressive music-only surround-sound demonstrations (notably courtesy of Peter McGrath and his own outstanding recordings), I have neither space nor inclination to set up something similar at home. These admissions may suggest that as regards both my vocation and my avocation I’m in the wrong line of work, but there appears to be enough of us to constitute a market worth accommodating. (According to McIntosh, this includes a considerable number of their customers.)

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