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McIntosh C53 Preamplifier and MCT500 SACD/CD Transport

McIntosh C53

Before getting to the sound, a few words about connectivity. First, the C53’s DA2 HDMI input is not for composite audio/video HDMI nor can it be connected to your laptop, desktop computer, and DVD or Blu-ray player. It will work only from an HDMI ARC jack on your TV. (If you don’t know what ARC means, i.e., Audio Return Channel, Google it or start here: www.cnet.com/news/hdmi-audio-return-channel-and-earc-for-beginners/.) The last couple generations of smart TVs usually have at least one such port. Also, be sure you use an HDMI cable that supports ARC. I didn’t realize that not all HDMI cables do. When the first cable I tried yielded nothing, a quick check of the manual for my Sony TV warned of the same thing. Once I swapped out the cable, everything worked perfectly. And did it ever.

TV Sound for Obstinate Two-Channel Audiophiles

If you’ve been listening to your TV the old way, via the TV’s analog outputs, its TosLink connection, or its internal speakers, you have no idea how poor, compromised, or simply inadequate is the sound you’ve been hearing. First, and most immediate, the music part of the soundtrack of every film and TV show I watched emerged in much greater relief, with true audiophile-grade clarity, definition, power, and dynamic range yet without being distracting or overwhelming (unless of course that was the desired effect—sometimes we want the music to carry the scene). Second, and far more important, the dialogue was consistently clearer, cleaner, more articulate, easier to understand and comprehend, therefore far more involving, moving, emotional, witty, amusing, hilarious, as the case may be. When we filmmakers, at least those of us with pretensions to seriousness, are mixing a movie, whether comedy or drama, love story or action piece, political picture or sports film, we work harder on making the dialogue intelligible than on anything else because performance matters paramountly. Third, sound effects were far more dramatic, yet, again, not necessarily in such a way as to call attention to themselves as such, especially in films where their purpose is to reinforce the drama, not dominate it. Fourth, the entire soundscape as regards dialogue, sound effects, panning effects, and placement with respect to both width and depth was hugely improved of what for want of a better descriptor I’d call holographic spatiality within a two-channel presentation. 

I realize that in enumerating these four categories—and there are others—I run the risk of making it appear as if the presentation is so analytical as to fall apart into its constituent elements. But nothing could be further from the truth. As paradoxical as this may sound, playing a program with a really good mix—and most movie soundtracks have good mixes—allowed me to enjoy a more fully balanced and integrated complement to the images on the screen. For my tastes anyhow, the overall integration of picture and sound, the gestalt of image and soundscape, was far more aesthetically valid, satisfying, involving, and convincing because everything was in the front, where it logically belongs.

The first thing I played was the Blu-ray of Flags of Our Fathers, a World War drama about the men who participated in the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. (I surely trust most readers will realize that my earlier recitation of the kinds of movies I don’t like is most emphatically not meant to include serious action, war, epic, and similar kinds of films, nor good and better comedies, farces, romances, mysteries, police, crime, film noir, Westerns, and other genre films, not to mention animated features.) While it is not a combat film as such, it does reenact the amphibious landing and initial assault by the Marines in graphic and realistic detail. To do this, the director Clint Eastwood and his crew made full use of the current state-of-the-art visual- and sound-effects technology available in modern filmmaking, and the results are—well, I was going to write “astonishing,” but “terrifying,” “sobering,” “shocking” would be far more appropriate adjectives. The gunshots, the shell explosions, the agonized cries of soldiers wounded and killed, the dialogue, the fates of the individual soldiers, the atmosphere all made for a chillingly, scarily immersive experience, despite or, again, perhaps because of the lack of surround effects: our attention remains riveted to the only place where the story is actually being enacted—on the screen before us.

It’s not just new or recent films that benefit. One night my wife and I watched a favorite film we hadn’t seen in years: All That Jazz, made in 1979. If Bob Fosse can claim a movie masterpiece, this is his, and it was thrilling to experience the many dance sequences in a domestic setting with music reproduction to match the expressive lighting and production design, the razor-sharp editing, and the innovative choreography that integrates all the elements into a seamless whole. As for films that predate even stereophonic sound like Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, Stagecoach, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Rules of the Game, Some Like It Hot, Cape Fear, Jules and Jim—well, there is no question that the sort of fidelity to the soundtrack that the C53 affords is ruthlessly revealing of the colorations in the microphones (particularly nasal ones), the occasional unsteadiness of the tape recorders, the deterioration of some of the sound elements, and the limitations of how many elements could be squeezed into a mono soundtrack. But for me these dwindle into inconsequentiality next to how much more clearly you can hear what was recorded and mixed. Citizen Kane is particularly impressive in this regard, the C53 allowing you to appreciate anew how truly groundbreaking its sound design was in an era that had never heard that term before, notably in the care Welles and his sound crew took to characterizing the many settings in the story: the vast empty spaces of Xanadu, the smoked-filled screening room with the silhouetted producers and reporters, the newspaper offices, and so on. And as for the dialogue—well, all of the films I’ve cited are essentially dialogue, which is to say performance, which is to say character driven, and they are reproduced such that we can enjoy them that way.

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