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McIntosh C53 Preamplifier and MCT500 SACD/CD Transport

McIntosh C53

Most of the movies I’ve edited are comedies or dramas that are likewise essentially character driven. But Hollywood Homicide, written and directed by Ron Shelton, ends with an extended and spectacular car chase played for comedy as well as for thrills and spills (and also some gunplay), that goes from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills along Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, climaxing in an extended fight between Harrison Ford and Isiah Washington on the rooftop of a Los Angeles landmark surrounded by police and traffic helicopters. Ford told us it was his favorite action sequence of any he had done (a large statement when you look back over the arc of his career). I couldn’t resist watching this scene all the way through because the number of sound elements we had to contend with was numerous, to say the least. The sequence was shot completely in the actual locations, wholly without any rear-projection or other sorts of processing for the stunts, and thanks to first-class location sound recording, we actually managed to salvage so much of the production dialogue that very little looping (i.e., post-production replacement of lines) was required. I can testify that the sound I heard over my system with the C53 is the sound we mixed over those ten days at Sony Studios, with dialogue, music, and effects combined and balanced exactly as the mixers laid it down. (By the way, a tip: Both picture and sound streamed in high definition from Amazon Prime are incalculably superior to what you’ll see and hear on the DVD.)

  So that I don’t come out sounding like a complete spoilsport when it comes to my earlier broadside against superhero movies, my 14-year-old daughter has become quite the fan of Marvel Comics and the movies made from them. During the pandemic she watched them all, and I will confess to having a good time joining her for some of these, notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is filled with more action and CGI than any ten movies can handle. The sound work is genuinely sensational, which is exactly the way it sounded with the soundtrack routed through my two-channel setup: everything clear, clean, well separated and registered, with dynamic range wider than can be comfortably accommodated in a domestic setting—during some of the battle scenes the detonations were such as to make me happy our house is anchored to its foundation. And, yes, I confess, very dramatic, very exciting, very entertaining, and no, never once did we miss back channels.

Music and Blu-ray Audio

The new C53’s DA2 module also reaps all the considerable rewards when it comes to music listening as its predecessor, and then some. On all the standard digital sources, including Red Book and the higher resolutions of PCM, plus native DSD of 64, 128, and 256, it performs as well as the DA1, which is to say superlatively. If, owing to the later generation of ESS DAC chip, the DA2 has even a smidgeon of superiority over the former, I’d suggest it might tilt a tad closer to the absolute neutrality of my reference Benchmark DAC3 (still the most neutral digital component with which I have had long experience). The DA2 also allows for native DSD 512, for the few releases in that format. Otherwise, as between the DA1 and DA2, believe me when I say that we are parsing almost ridiculously fine distinctions here, the sorts that are obliterated by differences in source materials and such that I could never leave the room for a moment, return, and consistently identify which component was playing. As for MQA, the DA2, like its predecessor, lacks that capability, McIntosh remaining unpersuaded by the putative benefits of the format and skeptical it will gain widespread adoption. But should this change, the upgradability of the DA2 offers some hope for fans of McIntosh who are also fans of MQA.

One area in which the DA2’s audio HDMI input makes for truly superior audio reproduction is Blu-ray audio discs. I was astounded at how splendid several of these sounded played either through the DA2’s HDMI input or one of its Coax inputs. For a few months now I’ve had in heavy rotation the Price/Vickers/Solti Aida from the early sixties, remastered and reissued by Decca in a set that includes a Blu-ray audio disc in addition to CDs. I can’t think of another occasion where I’ve heard Solti conduct with greater intensity, conviction, and sheer animal passion as he did here, while the sound is thrilling, quite literally stupendous in the spectacular “Triumphal Scene” with Egyptian trumpets flanking the stage, a band on stage, an augmented chorus, and full Verdian orchestra. With a panoramic soundstage of David Lean width and depth and transparency, clarity, and dynamic range galore, this is one of most immersive audio-only recordings I’ve ever heard, and all, again, without side or back channels in sight or earshot. (The Universal Group, which now owns the Decca catalogue, has released a number of classic recordings in these remastered CD/Blu-ray sets, which come with hardback book, full librettos, and excellent background notes and essays. I’ve purchased some of these, including the near incomparable Solti Ring cycle, and I’ve not been disappointed yet. Interested readers are referred to my colleague Art Lingten’s excellent survey of several of these two years ago: https://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/universal-musics-blu-ray-audio-operas/). 

In October of 2019 the Los Angeles Philharmonic, my hometown orchestra, played a concert called LA Phil 100, a celebration of its 100th birthday to the day, October 24, of its first concert in 1919. Its three living present or former music directors—Gustavo Dudamel, Esa Pekka Salonen, and Zubin Mehta—all participated, conducting various works each is associated with. The finale was a newly commissioned piece by the Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason. Part three of a trilogy inspired by space travel and moon landings, it’s called From Space I Saw Earth, Bjarnason’s intent to suggest the sense of rapture felt by astronauts as they looked down on the earth from the outer space or the moon. It’s written for three orchestras positioned in a triangle, the main and largest one in front, two smaller ones behind it left to right, and requires three conductors. The orchestras play the same piece of music that runs, in the words of the composer, “on parallel timelines that are constantly diverting, coming together and diverting again.” Waves of slow moving, mostly string-dominated textures suggest something like tectonic plates moving against each other, combining in great harmonious chords, the whole thing tailor-made for home viewing via superb high-definition Blu-ray video and audio. This was the last thing I played before finishing the review, a fitting justification, if one be needed, for the new digital module in the C53.

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