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.