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McIntosh C53 Preamplifier and MCT500 SACD/CD Transport

McIntosh C53

Corrections and Criticisms

In my review of the C52 I mistakenly said that the on-board equalizer could be set to retain settings for individual inputs. This is not true, but what you can do is set individual levels for each input so that when switching among them you don’t get sudden drops or, much worse, leaps in volume. One programming option I didn’t mention includes setting inputs to default to mono, particularly useful to vinyl enthusiasts with a dedicated mono-pickup in a separate arm. With two completely separate phono stages, the C53 can be programmed so that one switches to mono as soon as it’s selected.

Despite my almost immodest enthusiasm about the C52, I am not wholly uncritical of it or its successor. There are two omissions that should be rectified in future iterations. The first is the absence of a Fletcher-Munson loudness-compensation circuit. When I asked a company representative why it wasn’t included on the C52 and now the C53, he told me the powers that be were concerned it would detract from the echt audiophile “image” of the unit. Stuff and nonsense! In terms of sales, McIntosh is by far the industry leader in the high-end audio market. If any company can afford to thumb its nose at this sort of snotty stupidity, it’s surely this one. When it comes to listening at very soft levels, there is no substitute for well-designed loudness compensation, and as deployed in its C22 preamplifier McIntosh’s is the best I’ve experienced (see my review in TAS or at theabsolutesound.com). Another company representative told me the onboard equalizer could serve that function. Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that you could use the three lowest-controls to boost the bass and come up with something workable. But since there’s no way to retain the settings in a memory for easy recall, you’d have to reset them every time you listen at low levels or not use the equalizer for anything else. But another and far more important reason is that the Fletcher-Munson curves were arrived at after careful and meticulous experimentation and research; it is effectively impossible to replicate their precise contours with tone controls and equalizers. Also, as employed in the C22, the compensation is linked to listening level. This means that it increases inversely to volume, applying more compensation as level is reduced and less as it is raised. In other words, you need and want a dedicated circuit accessible or defeatable with a flip of a switch.

Another important omission is an external processing loop, i.e., an EPL, or a tape monitor loop. If, for example, you want to use some sort of signal processor—say, a 31-band equalizer—your only option is between the preamp and power amp, most emphatically not the preferred insertion place. Again, you want something you can flip in and out for immediate comparisons. The C53 does have a fixed output, but that’s mostly for home-theater bypass—it’s not a loop. The kicker as regards both of these omissions? A McIntosh spokesperson informed me that since the introduction of C52, the two features buyers and prospective buyers have overwhelmingly asked for are an EPL loop and the C22’s loudness compensation! 


After two years with the C52 performing flawlessly as the heart of my system, I like it more than ever, for which reason I applaud McIntosh for resisting the temptation to reinvent the wheel with the C53. The new DA2 digital audio module is a worthy improvement, easily justifying the thousand-dollar price increase, while preserving everything that made its predecessor so peerless a success with respect to ergonomic functionality and outstanding performance.

Here is how I concluded my review of the previous model, only with the new model number in place: “The C53 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—and it really is miniscule—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 C53, 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.” No need to add or subtract a word. A great design has been made greater still. 

Specs & Pricing

Inputs: Six unbalanced, two balanced, one mm phono, one mc phono, two coaxial, three optical, one USB, one MCT, and one HDMI ARC
Outputs: Three pairs main unbalanced, one pair balanced
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
Dimensions: 17-1/2″ x 7-5/8″ x 18″
Weight: 28 lbs.
Price: $8000

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

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