McIntosh C2500 preamplifier review


You have to work hard and for many years to become recognizable, regardless of the trade. But this is how it works, and no elaborate marketing tricks can change it. To have a characteristic product, identified with a specific manufacturer, you can go by two different ways – by means of humble evolution, following the most current trends and exposing the company logo in the most prominent place, or having the courage to uncompromisingly, or even orthodoxy, keep a design, different from anything else on the market. To become a self-made trendsetter – to be yourself and believe in your own infallibility imposing your enthusiasm on others.

This, quite complex, statement should introduce the reader into the world of a brand, which exists for over half a century, which almost obsessively attached to a traditional, and yet timeless, design, which makes is impossible to mistake its products for anything else – ladies and gentlemen – enter McIntosh.

Compared to its predecessors – the 1950 AE1 preamplifier, or the later, more advanced C8 – the tested C2500 has probably only the logo and the main function in common. To see products more like it, we needed to wait one more decade. But taking into account, that we deal here with a brand, that works uninterruptedly for 60 years the affection to tradition, the characteristic blue-green back lighting, and things like tone control, may and should arouse respect. The stoic calmness and doing what it can do best, following the paths worked out for years, bears the expected effects – among others in the form of the third generation of happy, and most of all, steadfast clients. And the characteristic color of the back lighting did not come from pure chance, neither was it designed by a bunch of marketing specialist after thorough market research – it was conceived by Art Burton, who not only worked for McIntosh, but was also a air pilot, and he suggested this characteristic color, as it reminded him of the lighting of a runway in an airport.

You may wonder, why I am mentioning these, seemingly completely unimportant pieces, and not come to the point, to announce if the tested device is sounding good or not. In this case, I have my own, painfully subjective opinion, that those little things, are exactly that what you need, to learn to know a manufacturer, much better than through any professional leaflet, regardless how well made, which is devoid of any emotion. Learning to know the people behind a given project we broaden our own knowledge, but we start also to look at a product not as on a de-humanized “thing”, but as a “thing” that tells us a story, that has a history, that is related to the people who made it.

In the catalog of the American manufacturer, the C2500 can be found under “tube preamplifiers”. At least theoretically this is true, but from the technical point of view this far going briefness makes a client, who looks only shortly at the catalog, miss three quarters of the truth. Because how could you describe a situation, when you have a device capable of filling the function of a line preamplifier, phonostage, digital-to-analog converter, equipped with an asynchronous USB 2.0 input, being presented by naming only one of its functions? On the other hand I prefer this approach to a situation, where a client is talked into a functionality or feature that a device does not have.

Although I could describe the C2500 shortly telling “it looks like a Mac”, but I must assume a very little probable scenario, that there will be a reader, who did not encounter this company till now, and sees it for the first time in his or hers life, and I will describe its looks a bit.
Of course the most eye catching element is the glass front, sealed by the sides by aluminum panels, bearing a central, green lit logo and model name, and symmetrical blue lit VU meters. The characteristic knobs for volume control, input selection and tone control as well as the buttons for setting the operating modes have some retro touch, while the display showing information about the input signal parameters, active source or volume is definitely modern. The display is also used for navigating the menu of the device. There we can configure parameters of the phonostage, name the inputs as well as set the gain and tone for the individual inputs. Behind the glass fascia there is a solid enclosure made from two modules. The lower, silver bottom part and black upper part with a window on top, hiding six 12AX7 tubes, engulfed in sapphire light.

The back plate can create fear in anybody, not used to this view, or at least make them think, they bought a home cinema receiver instead of a preamplifier. But this is for sure no AV receiver, everything is right, you just get a byzantine wealth on inputs and outputs. You have plenty of them in RCA and XLR variety, and also offers the potential for placing it into a multiroom system. After the first shock subsides, and we count everything, it turns out, that the C2500 is capable of handling fifteen inputs, five of them being digital.

Unpacking the preamplifier from the monstrously big carton, I had the concern, that the absorbing looks of the gear will distract me from assessing its sonic values. I mean, if the design will not become the only interesting thing about the Mac. But let us keep this for later, especially as I needed some time from placing the device on the shelf before sound could be played through it. This was not caused by my laziness, but by the need to get acquainted with the unit, and reset it to the factory settings. Previous reviewer adjusted the preamplifier to his needs, and it is better to start from scratch, when you are setting it up. It was also the case here. All sources I had were plugged into the C2500 and the ECI served as a stereo power amplifier. For the less technical people the manufacturer provided colorful quick start guides, which allow to connect everything easily. One more note – before you can use the USB section, you need to download and install special drivers, otherwise the USB port stays silent.

So let us get to the point. The C2500 sounds almost as it looks – noble, elegant and without nervousness. It knows the reason for its existence, and it does its job well, producing a big, saturated and musical to the bone sound. It is like a good Californian wine, which, although capable of stunning the consumer with the wealth of its bouquet, it calls a smile on his face, because it does not overwhelm the consumer with complexity and well placed taste notes, but tastes just like the divine ambrosia. Only after two more sips, after two more glasses, there is time to reflect and analyze the taste. A genetic, native asset of the Mac is the quite deceitful tendency to disappear from the sound path the more, the higher the quality/density of the source material. For example, when playing back reference recordings 24bit/192kHz (via USB) the C2500 dematerialized. The ears of the listener were reached by the clean, not ennobled in any way, well recorded music. But when you reached down a step or two from the recording or performance absolute, the C2500 started to do ‘magic’. Till now I never heard the soundtrack from “Sons of Anarchy” did not sound with such vividness, kick and drive. Maybe in absolute scale the lowest parts were slightly rounded, but for some reason this did not create any issues with keeping the right pace, it only added nobleness. Well, the effect was so intriguing, that I did not notice when I listened through my dozen discs of Metallica including compilations like “We All Love Ennio Morricone” with “The Ecstasy of Gold” and “Re-Machined – A Tribute To Deep Purple’s Machine Head” with “When a Blind Man Cries”. The culmination was the listening to the symphonic album “S&M” on concert volume levels. The localization of the heavy metal virtual sound sources versus the orchestra was almost perfect. Then came time for Megadeth, My Dying Bride and Dream Theater, so I think, that the moment, when I passed on the McIntosh to Jacek was the most expected moment for my neighbors. At least this year.

Fortunately this worked out part of the tests devoted to more brute and quite rowdy music did not shorten the time for listening to the more refined and airy music. The guitar accords, full with feminine delicacy and focus, played by Xuefei Yang soothed my nerves, stretched after the full day of work, providing vivid, mature and homogenously served sounds. Without exaltation, or analytic expansiveness, basing on a clearly readable melodic line, the McIntosh built a passionate and involving spectacle, offering a sweetness, shining in the setting sun, and on the other hand teasing with all the micro details, present just for touching, and with all the audiophile tastes.

The character of the device, its “company signature” as we may call it, is present on all inputs, but if you have a choice between the analog and digital transmission, I would personally recommend the second one. Less cables, higher ease of use and most importantly, the high quality of the sound from the computer, which surprised me very positively, made me listen mostly to the Mac in the DAC mode. Unfortunately I could not assess the phonostage section of the preamplifier, because it resided at my home in the moment I already returned the Linn Sondek LP12 Majik and did not yet receive the AVID Sequel SP (test will appear shortly). Fortunately Jacek has his turntable ready, so he will include this part in his review.

After having the McIntosh C2500 in my system for a longer time, I started to understand better the attachment of the clients to this legendary brand. The characteristic VU meters, the backlighting, become a part of every listening. Of course you can switch off this illumination, but why? Buying a Mac we go for a certain aesthetics, we do not only want to enjoy its sonic capabilities, but also the visuals. The above assumptions are covered by the C2500 completely – if you love music and want to ease down while listening – then it will be hard to find a better candidate.

Text and photographs: Marcin Olszewski