Newfound respect for McIntosh

Until very recently, I never gave much thought to McIntosh equipment. I always thought that it looked beautiful but I believed it was overpriced and not a great value (a high-end version of Bose) - the kind of equipment that rich doctors and lawyers that don’t know, and don’t want to know, much about audio would buy. A few weeks ago, however, I happened to be in an audio store and heard a C46 pre-amp combined with an MC352 power-amp driving a pair of B&W 801s (I am not sure about the model but it listed for $12K). It was playing a CD I was very familiar with and it stopped me in my tracks. Having been in this hobby for a number of years I’ve heard a lot of nice systems but never one that sounded “sweeter” or more seductive. It had the right amount of warmth and detail. On that day I decided to learn more about McIntosh. Over the next few weeks I used the Internet to learn more about this brand. The more I read, the more I realized that McIntosh is a very polarizing brand. It has rabid fans but equally rabid detractors. I experimented with some vintage (70s and 80s) Mc gear and it sounded good - very good - but it was not the sound I heard at the store. I wanted the sound of the new McIntosh.

I visited a couple of different stores that sold McIntosh to do some more listening and to make sure that my first experience was not a fluke. I brought my familiar CDs (unfortunately no stores had a turntable set-up for auditions) and listened … and listened. I listened through speakers and headphones. I listened loud and soft. I listened to classical, jazz, and rock. Unlike many of the other brands the McIntosh equipment sounded delicious on everything. I know delicious is a strange term for an audio review, but sweet, silky, and delicious are the adjectives that kept coming to mind. It was not the most detailed sound I’ve ever heard, not the fastest, or widest. It did not excel, or stand out, in any particular area - except in the one thing that I’ve now come to learn and appreciate the most – musicality.

My mind was made up. I wanted a McIntosh more than I ever wanted any other piece of audio equipment. Based on my past experience, I have come to appreciate the sound of tubes and decided to go for a tube pre and a solid-state power-amp. Taking cost and my power requirements into consideration, I bought their entry-level tube pre, the C220, and their entry-level power amplifier, the MC252. Fortunately this particular combo was discounted $1,200 from the list price, but this was the single most expensive audio purchase I ever made (almost $7,000 including taxes and a balanced cable).

It took me over one hour to unpack and install the two components. The MC252 weighs almost 100lbs. Fortunately I am in pretty good shape and I was able to handle it without breaking anything (either in my own body or in the equipment) or having to wait for a friend to come and help me. I knew those push-ups would come in handy for something.

I installed them in my system that consists of a Rega Apollo CD player, a wonderful Thorens TD125mkII with SME 3009 II tonearm and Audio Technical 440mla cartridge as sources, and a pair of Quad 22L as speakers. I used relatively inexpensive AudioQuest interconnects and my speakers are bi-wired with heavy-gage (10 – I believe) homemade cables. Just to be safe I burned them in for a week playing them 6-8 hours a day.

Below is my review after the burn-in period. I am going to focus mainly on the sound since you can read about the various features and specs on the McIntosh website.

Even though the C220 is McIntosh entry-level amplifier, it has the same great looks, fit-and-finish, and smooth operations of its more expensive brethren. The sound is not the only think that’s silky smooth about this pre. The volume control, for example, is a pleasure to use; it turns frictionlessly and is tuned to provide exquisitely fine control over the volume. The input selector switch is programmable (i.e. you can skip inputs that are not connected and rename inputs) and equally pleasant to operate. The pre is dead silent; no nasty pops or clicks as I switch between inputs.

Rather unique these days, and definitely one of the deciding factors in choosing the C220 is that it has a built in tube phono stage for a moving-magnet or high-output moving coil cartridge. I could not audition it at the store and I was prepared to use an outboard phono stage, but I was very pleasantly surprised by how great the built-in sounded.

I was also very impressed by the built-in headphone amplifier (although I would have preferred a ¼” jack instead of the mini jack). I listen a lot in the early morning and late night (while the family is sleeping) and having a good headphone amp is a must for me. As with the phono stage, I don’t feel the need to have an outboard unit.

The MC252 power-amp is a gorgeous looking piece of equipment too. Those lovely baby blue eyes (the VU meters that have become a McIntosh trademark) make you want to put the power-amp on display instead of hiding it somewhere.

The speakers connectors in the back are top quality and the most flexible and easiest to use I have experienced so far. I used a balanced cable to connect the pre to the power-amp, but you can also use unbalanced RCA cable. The pre can turn the power-amp on/off by connecting them with a small mini-jack cable.

Sometimes, equipment that sounds great in the store does not sound as good once you bring it home. No worries here. The sound that captivated me was all there in my living room.

Sound is very subjective and difficult to describe, so I leave a more detailed description to professional reviewers, so I will summarize it as follows: Warm, but not too warm, with the right amount of detail and dynamics. The lows are tight and controlled, and the highs have a lot air. The overall impression is one of naturalness, nothing is strained, and everything feels effortless. I don’t know for a fact what the McIntosh engineers are aiming for when designing and tuning their creations, but I would not be surprised if their primary objective is to find the right balance of attributes that results in the kind of sound that you can listen to for hours. A sound that can take advantage of great source material but is also very forgiving of less than perfect recordings. Thanks to McIntosh I rediscovered 80% of my CD and record collection.

Ultimately, audio equipment is for listening to and enjoying music. So my most important criteria for judging components is whether I am enjoying the way they sound, which I can measure somewhat objectively by how much time I spend listening to music and whether after a while I feel like giving my ears a break or listen some more. Since adding the C220 and MC252 to my system, my listening has gone into overtime. Turning them off to go to work, or to dinner, or to bed, takes effort and will power.

Since I listen to a lot of music these days, I need to protect my hearing and listen at reasonably low volume most of the time. Despite its 250WPC rating, the MC252 works great even when putting out a fraction of a watt. More importantly, I weaned myself off the need for using loudness or other forms of equalization to make up for low-level listening. I get more enjoyment at 60db with these components than with anything else I have used. In the past, I used to listen to one or two tracks, then get up to find another record. With the McIntosh I find myself listening to records from beginning to end more than I ever have before.

After a few weeks of living with my new system, I feel I have found the sound that I’ve been looking for in all these years of swapping and upgrading components. I would have never guessed that it would have taken this form, or that would have come from McIntosh. I have said this before, and I have proved myself wrong, but this time I really believe I have found a system I can live with for many years to come. I have learned how much I value musicality, the ability to listen at length, and to be able to include less-than-perfect recordings in my listening sessions.

If you have the same pre-conceived notions about McIntosh equipment that I had, I strongly encourage you to go and listen to their new components. Some of you may still prefer a more “audiophile”, faster, more etcher or detailed, sound, but I have to believe that many of you will experience the same epiphany I had.

Hope you enjoyed this non-professional review.


P.S. I realize that with my speakers (Quad 22Ls) I am now violating one of the cardinal rules of spending most of your audio budget on speakers. I also realize that my sources (Rega Apollo and Thorens TD125) might no longer be up to par with my amplification. Eventually I will upgrade some the other components, but since - even my current speakers and sources - I am able to capture the essence and sweetness of the sound I heard at the store, I am in no hurry.
Nice review. I wouldn't be two quick to upgrade your sources or speakers. They all offer outstanding musicality regardless of their relatively modest prices.
Well said. Your experience is a familiar one. Enjoy!
I visited two McIntosh dealers on five or six different occations. They where "always" sold out of the C220 Preamp including their store demo. Both dealers said that customers would come into the store and demand to buy their demo (if the store didn't have a boxed one in stock).
Outstanding review! I concur with your idea that equipment quality directly relates to amount of time listening. When components degrade the sound, sometimes the only indication is a lack of interest in listening.
Enjoyed reading your post. I'll check out the newer Mac equipment! Glad you're enjoying the music. Bill
McIntosh retains the same look & build quality as when it was first conceived. Because of this, some may think that the technology inside is old school which is definately not the case! Considering the number of years this company has been in business and the natural progression of improvements, who would know better than McIntosh how to build quality sounding gear. I personally have had some of their pricy new products and they are astonishingly good. Albertoderoma, thankyou for your indepth & interesting thread!
Your comments and review mirror my experience with McIntosh. Glad you're enjoying the music so much!
Congratualtions on your fine purchase! I always knew McIntosh would make a come-back and I think in the last year, many people have discovered how wonderful they are. Enjoy!

Congrats Alberto! I recently listened to a Mac at a local audio shop and the experience was amazing. I too listened to different equipment but the same thing happened over and over: with the other brands I heard the equipment, with the Mac, I heard the MUSIC.

I told the salesperson he needed to warn people before demoing the Mac, because they won't be satisfied with anything else. I can't plop down $5,000 for a new integrated at the moment so I have a nice vintage MAC 1900 on the way. I refuse to turn on my current system now because it "hurts" to listen to it. McIntosh = audio heroin(e).
I couldn't agree more, especially about the low volume listening.
i just heard a mac 2101, 100 watt stereo amp driving martin logans. it may be the next amp i buy.

A well done, thoughtful review; thanks for taking the time to share your experience. I am considering exactly the same pre-amp/power amp system you purchased (for the same reasons!), although I would use the C220 with my VTL ST-150 or CJ MF2250A amp first, and if happy, stop there and sell the 2nd place amp. McIntosh is an American treasure; they certainly know what they are doing. Check out the new McIntosh book, it is a large, color biography of the company and will be a collector's item. I looked at a copy at the local dealer last week, it is very intersting. Cost I think is $150. pricey, but you will want one. Enjoy the music!
Mac gear is a staitement!

I have a separate home threater set-up with Mac for electronics.

My separate serious 2 channel system I have the 501's, currently I'm using a Audio Research Ref 3 pre but I'm on the hunt for the Mac 1000 pre.

Upstairs system I'm currently using the Mac 300 server.

I am very happy with Mac product, the only area I believe they are really weak in is their cd players.

Enjoy I do!
Loved reading your experience with Mac gear. It has always been for myself a dream to own such great American gear that could best anything in the world. Built to sound good and keep for a life time.
Great review! I've had my eye on those two components for some time myself. I must agree with Narrod - don't be too quick to change the rest of the system. If you have something that is working well - and you obviously do - you can sometimes mess it up quickly with further "upgrades". In my experience this is especially true of speakers. One of the better pro reviewers recently said, wisely, that the trouble with our hobby is knowing when to stop. You may be there!
Coming up on a year anniversary of owning my first McIntosh unit. It is the MA 6600 integrated amp. Dreams do come true. It is awesome! It has made every source component sound better than ever. Old and new music has a new air and bloom. Between all the features and build quality, what once seemed high priced is really a wonderful value. I only wish I made the move sooner. Not cheap, but oh so worth it. McIntosh lets the music play.
Like I've said before - there's McIntosh and then there's everything else.
I concur,,,, Besides being made in the USA and still in Binghamton NY since the 1950's Its also an American Icon! I have 1 MC2300 tube preamp, 2 Anniverary MC2000 Tube amps running in Mono and a MC352. MC2000's drive a pair of Modded Khorns, 352 handles the duties of driving Monster JBL 4345's!
I, too, owned a pair of 501 monoblocks driving a pair of 801Nautilus. While the midrange is really sweet and warm, the bottom end left a lot of room for improvement IMHO. They were replaced by a pair of Krell 650m and i couldn't be happier. My music taste ranges from Josh Groban, Diana Krall to Hans Zimmer.

one thing is certain: anyone who says the mac amps sound the best is wrong---they don't. but they make up for it in a number of ways...the 501s reflect a combo of qualities that are unique:
sound: warm, dynamic ease (can drive anything) without the last word in bass depth, impact or detail---but gets to a satisfying level for 90% of audiophiles. and they never sound aggressive, harsh, or give me a headache (the way class AB SS amps do)
resale: (if you ever sell)
reliability: neve hear about mac gear breaking
heat: this is the least talked about thing in audio (or maybe i'm sensitive as i have a small dedicated room in texas): they put out no heat, whereas any class A amp can function as a space heater, and even some class ABs put out an unacceptable amount....after all, you're not going to listen in a sweatbox. no worries with the mac's.
and finally:
aesthetics: those blue meters are like a boob job on your stereo.

i can understand any audiophile who sells them, and i can understand any audiophile who thinks of them as a last purchase.
On the other hand, I now own Sacman's 501s and they sound anything but bass-shy with my Montana EPS2 speakers and Mac C2300 pre-amp. In fact, the bass is one of the things I like most about them, that and the natural midrange. So it's all a matter of system matching. I did think they sounded a little hard and thin in his system when I auditioned them but I'd call them just the opposite in mine.
Great review welcome to the club.I own a C22 and a 275.