Just switched from McIntosh C2500/2600 to ARC Ref 6, initial thoughts

I was wrestling with this decision for a while, and didn't see any comparisons, so I thought a quick write up would be helpful for anyone else.

In the category of single box preamps, I think it's fair to say that everyone has at least heard of McIntosh's C2500 or C2600 preamps and the ARC Reference 6.  The Reference 6 is priced nearly double to that of the McIntosh offerings, but the question I think most people wonder is...well, is that price premium worth it?

I loved my C2500.  The DAC was fully featured, integrated well, and the system inputs were selectable - meaning you could immediately select "CD" if you wanted to, rather than cycle through all the various inputs.  I had an opportunity to try a C2600, so I picked one up.  The C2600 actually doesn't offer direct source selection...the remote it comes with just has "input" so if you were listening to CDs before you turned off your system, then your kids want to watch TV, then you have to wait for the system to warm up and then cycle through inputs to get to your TV input.  Yes...definitely a first world problem.  But for a ~$5000 system, it's still a problem.  Both systems had a very nice and easy to use Home Theater bypass setup, which could be triggered by your surround processor's 12V line, and needed no additional remote control input.

The other issue I had was with both the C2500 and C2600 was that the bass from the McIntosh units was just weak.  Listening to Dvorak through my Emotiva XMC-1 vs. the McIntoshes showed me that while I don't need room shattering bass, I do want some "oomph" in the lower frequencies.  Even with the bass gain turned all the way up, you couldn't really get a nice low frequency response.

Finally, with my Emotiva acting basically as a DAC, I didn't need the DAC in the McIntosh.  So, I decided I wanted to go with a "less is more" view and get a tube preamp without a DAC, and made by someone with a large enough service network that emergency fixes would be easy.  In the end, while VAC's statement line was intriguing, the option came between a McIntosh C1100 or a ARC Ref 6.  In the end, reviewers kept noting the Ref 6's base response for a tube system and that's what I wanted, so I went with that.

I'm not going to do the "sounds spicier, blah blah blah" type of thing...as a physicist, I'm a big believer in, you know, quantifying things.  I'll just instead go over setup and some initial thoughts, since I've only been able to play with the system for a couple days.  1) the Ref 6 mutes every time it turns on.  This makes things difficult from a programmable remote control point of view.  I wanted to add the "mute" command at the end of a power on sequence to automatically unmute the system, but if it were already on - and I just wanted to change from listening to a CD to listening to a network server, or watching TV - then adding the command would mute the system again.  As it is, I programmed my harmony remote long press mute to activate mute on the Ref 6.  It works for me, but for my wife, who has zero patience for these kinds of things, the mute thing really bugs her.  The only thing I can say to that is...I'll figure something out. 2) The home theater bypass on the McIntosh is more elegant.  With the C2500, when my Emotiva turned on (which was for movies or TV) the C2500 would get turned on, and when the Emotiva turned off, the C2500 turned off.  The Ref 6 can't ever do anything as nice because it has no 12V in, but the Ref 6 still beats the C2600 because inputs are directly selectable.  3) Hooked up to my Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 5's, the sound is perfect.  No issues whatsoever, silent is silent, and yes, all the reviews about bass response were correct.  The Ref 6's bass is more powerful than the McIntosh C2500's...Dvorak's 9th really comes through with the power I wanted.  I ended up using the analog outs on my CD player and Network Server and plugged them directly into the Ref 6 (previously, I had their digital outputs plugged into the C2500), otherwise I would have to be in bypass mode, and then what's the point of the Ref 6?  I might at some point even consider getting a second stereo DAC for my CD Player's SPDIF and the Server's USB outputs...but for now, I think the DACs in the player and server are sufficient.

For now, I can't/won't say if the higher price of the Ref 6 is justified, but I will say that I'm happy.  I wanted stronger bass response in a tube system, and I got it.  Audio is clear and if there is anything I can measure, I will try.  The funny thing is, now that I'm getting the sound I want out of my stereo system, I'm actually thinking of getting rid of the surround system.  This ridiculous hobby never ends.
This is what i have been saying for a long time....Not all McIntosh products are created equal. First off, as far as I'm concerned McIntosh labs builds amplifiers first, everything else is secondary except for a couple of tuners and a a few pre amps over the last few decades (mac people know which ones) I would steer clear. Full blown HT setups excluded of course. (helicopters and explosions are easy...music is not). Does it take a Uber expensive ARC to realize this? The answer is an "absolutely not". This is the real magic of this hobby (stereo Hi-Fi). If you can buy a ARC REF and achieve your sonic goals, that is a great thing as well. 

Matt M 
Yes, I have the MR88 tuner, which I really like, and the preamps were nice but I can see now, not quite what I wanted.  I will admit that my speaker choice cut down my preamp choices, since they aren’t rated for more than 4V RMS (class D amps built in).  The VAC Renaissance looked really good, but supposedly puts out 30VRMS from their SE connectors!
I am a little curious as to why you are using Emotiva amps with either the McIntosh or ARC?  It seems the Emotiva is way out of their price range.  I had an Emotiva dac at one time and while it was ok, it wasn't in the league of McIntosh or ARC.  Has Emotiva advanced that much?
The xmc-1 is their surround processor/preamp. I use it for 4 channel audio (no center or sub, I don’t need those).  I wanted to also use it as a DAC, since you would have a tough time matching it in the price/performance range, but that would mean giving up surround sound. 

I might do that anyways, since surround speakers and toddlers don’t mix. Then I would feed my Ref 6 balanced input from the XMC-1. For now, I’ll keep my configuration as is. 
Sorry, to be clear, my speakers have built in amps.  I have the Beolab 5's from Bang and Olufsen, and I plug my Ref 6 directly into them.  I don't use any Emotiva amps.
After almost two weeks of listening, I've got a little bit of a followup:

1) I don't know why the bass in my music is better.  Is it due to the ref 6 or the use of the DAC on the XMC-1?  With the C2600, I was using the built in DAC, and maybe its equalizer isn't as capable as the XMC-1?  I wish I had tested A-B.  That being said, I really, really like how everything currently sounds.  The music that needs a punch (Tchaikovsky, Dvorak) gets what it needs.  The stuff that doesn't (Mozart, Chopin) is crystal clear.  Super happy.

2) I ended up setting up my home theater bypass/processor through the SE connections on the XMC-1 and Ref 6 for TV/movies.  For everything else (stereo music), I send it through the balanced connections (which on the XMC-1 are actually fully balanced).  Now I can use the XMC-1 as my DAC for all devices, including my new M50.2 server/streamer.

3) Audio research never got back to me on the mute thing, but I figured it out anyways.  On the Logitech harmony application, make sure you tell the system to keep the Ref 6 on while switching between activities, and then on the power on commands, add mute.

4) I rarely need to turn the volume past 25 on the ref6.  The only source which needs higher volume is my M50.2, but it's also the only source going to my DAC via Toslink.  I'm going to switch it to a different input that might have a higher dB.  In any case, this allowed me to set the speaker amps to a lower setting and get really quiet backgrounds on all of my music.

So, I can definitely say that while the McIntosh preamps are more convenient, the Ref 6 sound quality was worth the upgrade for me.  If you do as I did and get a system used, you can save yourself a nice chunk of change.

I can relate to your experience with Ref6. I switched from C2500 / MC601’s to ARC LS28 / VT-80 and couldn’t be any happier. 

Did you consider Accuphase?

Aren’t they all solid state?
How about C1100 versus Ref6 (same basic price point), who has made this comparison?
If anyone has a C1100 in the DC area, and wants to do an A-B comparison, let me know.  I'll make my setup available.
And the C52. I know it’s solid state, but sound is sound. Who cares how you get there?