Jump to content
  • Danny Kaey
    Danny Kaey

    McIntosh Labs C53 Preamplifier Review

    Amazing. Pretty much the first word that came to mind when I first saw McIntosh Labs latest preamplifier, the freshly updated C53 two channel solid state design. A whopping 16 inputs (9 analog and 7 digital), a built in MC/MM dual input phono stage, a dedicated HXD crossfeed headphone amplifier, an 8 band analog equalizer, support for DSD 512 files via the latest Roon tested and fully supported DA2 digital audio module, I was quite literally amazed at just how full featured this preamplifier is. Did I forget to mention that each input can be individually named? Built in mono/stereo switch for each input? Indeed, all this and more is what the C53 is all about. No stranger to McIntosh Labs, I reviewed and subsequently purchased the MC611 mono block amplifiers last year, the C53 quite literally had my name on it. A casual inquiry to McIntosh Labs affable, and generously responsive Mark Christensen as to the opportunity to pen a formal review netted a quick and nearly immediate “yes, please!”. To boot, I’d be the very first to receive the C53, since it was launched not a few weeks prior to my inquiry.

     

    Fun. Indeed, when the C53 arrived, in McIntosh Labs usual, superbly packaged and double boxed (other “high-end” manufacturer should and ought to take note of just how well they package products) packaging, my first reaction was just that: this ought to be a fun review, I said to myself. Hefty, large, though not quite as weighty as my reference EINSTEIN The Preamp, this certainly has to be the most full featured and well equipped preamplifier I have ever laid eyes and ears on. Whereas at times I have to fiddle some of the line inputs to switch to the many sources I have, I had no such problems with the mighty C53. In fact, not only did the 9 analog inputs provide for all my sources, I was left with one empty unbalanced input once the C53 took place in my rack.

     

     

    C53-Back.jpg

     

    Full of tech. Not only is the C53 the most fully featured preamp I have seen or had in my system, it is also the most versatile, by more than just a long shot. For example, consider that the C53 has a built in, all analog 8 band equalizer. Now, in general, audiophiles tend to have (perfectly valid) issues with built in equalizers, but for me, the inclusion of this feature enabled me to tweak certain records and recordings (be they analog or digital in source) to fix or enhance certain issues or parameters. Tastefully tweaked, a db here, a db or two there, provided just enough enhancement to take certain program material to new heights and believe be, there are more than a few that benefit from this soft equalization. Was there a trade-off in sound quality between the equalizer being in the signal path? Possibly. Then again, to these ears, I really didn’t hear much if any difference at all with the equalizer switched on - in the signal path - or off - out of the signal path. Here, the benefits far outweigh whatever minuscule impact this may have on the overall fidelity of the signal.

     

    Another great example of the C53s versatility and feature set was the inclusion of McIntosh’s classic blue output level meters. Not only did this give a clear indication of how close to full output you are, it also served as a sad reminder of just how dynamically squashed modern music tends to be. Sadly, even as many have written about this subject in greater detail elsewhere, we are still well within the loudness wars, a battle we - music lovers, audiophiles, etc. seem to have no ability to influence, try as we might. A perfect example of this is Thom Yorke’s latest album, Anima. Even on the limited edition double orange vinyl, the sound quality is so utterly atrocious and barbarically dynamically squashed that no matter what volume level you play the album at, the album simply blares at you full tilt, the C53s meters barely moving to the disgusting provocation and frontal assault on your auditory nerves. Immediately tweeting this atrocity to Thom Yorke and his record label, produced, well, nothing. No surprise there I should have wagered with a Las Vegas bookie. Contrast Anima’s forceful aural dreck to the delightful, prodigious dynamics the meters correctly indicate on Mark Hollis’ one and only (sadly!) self titled solo album, and you can’t help feel just how much more enjoyable dynamically alive recordings sound and feel. 

     

    A pet peeve of mine, particularly with EINSTEIN’s The Preamp, is that from a distance, there really is no easy way of identifying the input or volume level. Each of the EINSTEIN’s two large knobs, one each for input and volume, merely show a tiny white dot to indicate said knob’s rotational location. The C53 has no such issues: a full featured display beneath the equalizer’s tone controls clearly displays the C53s state: input, volume level and when using the MC/MM input, loading, while the digital section displays useful information like sample rate, bit depth and DSD sampling rate. Useful and given the C53s fully featured specs, a practical must have. Overall, controlling the C53 is a delight too: two sets of infinity knobs, one each for input and volume, allow full control of the preamp, though each control and adjustment is also available from the supplied, though a bit plastic-y remote control. Note to McIntosh: for those of us who generally perform all setup and adjustments on the unit itself, a machined aluminum remote, matching the timeless and classic style of McIntosh gear, would be a nice value add, even if I would have to pay extra for it. 

     

     

    C53-Front.jpg

     

     

     

    Not really high on my radar - I have a dedicated Auris Audio tube headphone amplifier, review forthcoming - is the C53s built in HXD crossfeed powered, dedicated headphone amplifier. While admittedly I didn’t spend a great deal of time evaluating this input, it did prove to be an excellent sounding headphone amplifier. No matter the cans I connected, Audeze LCD-3 and 2, Mysphere 3.2 (amazing!) or even my travel headphones, Sony’s superb WH1000XM3, the sound quality was superb, allowing for each of the headphone’s house sound to shine through clearly and succinctly. The defeatable HXD crossfeed circuit, designed to simulate an out of the head listening experience, provides for interesting comparisons with and without: much like the aforementioned 8 band equalizer, some recordings definitely benefited from the circuit while others not as much. Most of the time, I simply left it in the signal path as I felt that this was the best sounding way to experience headphone listening. Compared to the tube powered Auris Audio, $1699 Euterpe, which has been my reference for the limited headphone listening that I do, I could easily discern the McIntosh C53s ubiquitous overall sound: wide open, dynamic, straight wire with gain sort of feeling. Here, the Euterpe, tends to add a tiny bit of schmalz and sweetness to the sound, which for headphones seems to be the preference for me. While I could influence some of these sonic characteristics with the 8 band equalizer, the C53 simply sounded the way it inherently did.

     

    Leashing the C53 to the mighty fine MC611 mono block amplifiers via either Wilson Audio’s incredible Alexx, or YGs delightful Sonja 2.3 on hand, naturally seemed like the preferred listening mode: in combination with McIntosh’s powerful amplifiers in toe, the C53/MC611 combo proved quite the delight, punching really quite far north of their relative pricing in the high-end market place. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if this duo gave other, much, much pricier high-end combinations a generous run for their money, sweat, perspiration and nail biting all included. Case in point, a friend’s recent visit with his D’Agostino Momentum S250 Stereo and Momentum HD preamplifier, didn’t leave much overall room for either of these gorgeous looking and generally great sounding, though far pricier units to advance vis-a-vis the C53/MC611 combo. I know, right? The C53s sound quality falls squarely in line with what I had come to love about the MC611: big, bold, dynamic with excellent frequency extension on either sides of the spectrum; dare I say natural sound, that is pretty much as close to straight gain with wire as I have heard.

     

    The C53 excelled at delivering my goto diet of electronica with punch, explosiveness and yet no fatigue, which undoubtedly speaks to the aforementioned natural sound this preamplifier produces in spades. On Trentemøller’s latest album, Obverse for example, you can easily hear his classic, deliberate use of ProTools effects and samples, the C53 neither editorializes nor detracts from the experience. As with some of my commentary during the MC611 review, I hear a slight bit of warmth and greater openness to the sound that’s missing when directly compared to my EINSTEIN The Preamp and Silver Bullet Mk II OTL combination, but nothing that would be detracting from the overall experience or that you would consider missing if not for the direct comparison. Switching to classical, last summer’s Electric Recording Company release of Klemperer’s practically impossible to find Beethoven cycle, the last movement of his 9th symphony is truly hypnotizing and utterly magical. How great is Klemperer’s reading of Beethoven? So great that it has become my own personal favorite reference, far beyond Karajan’s famed 63’ cycle, Bernstein’s 1980 or even Sir Simon Rattle’s fabulously well recorded cycle from 2015. Klemperer (Werner Klemperer of Colonel Klink, Hogan’s Heroes fame, is his son!) manages to exude a confidence and serenity that other readings seem to lack; other than Karajan’s typical and teutonic version, which in some ways resembles Klemperer’s own reading, the last movement’s choral piece is truly special, epic. Given the C53s neutrality and uncanny ability to deliver a largely unaltered signal to the amplifier, this is one of those elementary, goose bump inducing pieces to hear on either WA’s Alexx or YG’s Sonja 2.3, with each of the speaker’s strengths being highlighted equally. 

     

    While my digital sources in form of AURALiC’s Vega G2 or Playback Design’s MPS-8 generally held court during the review period of the C53, I did spend quite some time with the built in, rather high quality, DA2 digital board input. Here, my MacBook Pro delivered the C53s data in both Redbook, high-res PCM and DSD variants. Did the DA2 board hold its own against the pricier DAC alternatives I have on hand? Yes, but unlike the genuinely far higher than the suggested price class performing preamplifier, the differences to my two references were a bit more pronounced. On a recent discovery, Earthtones - Bahamas, the last cut, Any Place, is a perfect example of how a modern release can in fact be recorded well and mastered in such a way as to bring out the full excitement of the track, without the need for you to hit your head against a brick wall. Streamed via Tidal within Roon, the C53’s digital input was correctly identified and all settings automatically applied, giving you the experience of genuine plug-and-play. Here, the all new DA2 model was able to flex its muscle, offering up prodigious, if a bit less articulate bass than what my two reference DACs are capable of. Clearly audible is the overall Gestalt of the preamp section, which is extended, dynamic and clear of hash. Cueing up Steely Dan’s SACD rip of Gaucho, the DSD64 file yet again performed at levels above the all-inclusive asking price of $8000 McIntosh charges for the C53. A little less definition here, a little more warmth there, the DA2 module will undoubtedly delight you. If you are coming from an older DAC or even CD/SACD player, I would venture to guess that the DA2 module will in fact outperform even a top of the line DAC from just a decade ago. 

     

     

    C53-DA2.jpg

     

     

    Lastly, the phono input section of the C53, perhaps my favorite built in feature, and for good reason. First, it’s full featured, meaning you get selectable loading and with the Mono/Stereo switch for each input, you can delight in (almost) genuine mono sound, even if all you have is a stereo cartridge. For me and my still growing record collection, especially my mono section, that is in fact a big deal. Comparing the built in phono section to my standalone EINSTEIN references isn’t necessarily the fairest of comparisons, since generally speaking, I have found that no matter the cost, or expense paid in designing a built-in phono stage, you simply won’t get the best possible sound quality. In fact, I would even say that taking whatever built in phono stage a unit has out of the box, placing it inside a well shielded - Faraday caged - box with its own power supply, will in fact yield far superior performance than whatever you would get with an all in one unit. To keep things as close to fair, I compared the C53’s phono section to EINSTEIN’s latest The Perfect Match, which is a dual mono, two box, separate power supply entry level phono stage, that retails for around $3500. Similar to my experience with the built in DA2 DAC section, the McIntosh phono delights and surprises. On a recently acquired test pressing of Acoustic Sounds forthcoming Tennessee Ernie Ford smash, Country Hits… Feelin’ Blue, Ford’s voluminously baritone voice, sparsely decluttered instrumentation, comes through with just the right amount of warmth, extension and three dimensionality. Top end is extended but not harsh; dynamic swings are somewhat constricted but overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Think sounds of omission, not commission. The fact that you are able to select either input as mono will give your true mono records a fresh perspective to boot. 

     

    Brass tax. Peeps, let’s not forget one, er, three things here: price, build quality and service. Considering each category, the C53 simply checks all boxes and then some. Strictly used as a line level preamplifier, it punches far ahead of its asking price and is in many ways a testament to the design quality McIntosh Labs provides. The fact that it also includes a fully featured digital, phono and headphone section, is remarkable, considering that it retails for a relatively affordable (all things in high-end audio jewelry considered) $8,000. As I discovered through my time with the C53, it not only proves to be a formidable head unit when matched to McIntosh Labs own amplifiers, but also when used with other brands. If you are looking to declutter your HiFi rack, you can rest assured that each of the C53’s add-on sections perform quite well relative to their built-in price tag. My curiosity factor is definitely at 11. McIntosh Labs continues to surprise and delight me with products that are fundamentally well designed, well behaved and offer fantastic sound quality. The only question I have left is just how the C53 compares to its cousin, the all tube powered C2700. More on that late this year. Highly recommended, A+++!

     

     

    McIntosh-C53-HERO-V2.jpg

     

     

     

     

    Product Info:

    Product: C53 Preamplifier

    Price: $8,000

    Product Page - LINK

    Brochure - LINK

    Owner's Manual - LINK

    Connection Diagram - LINK

    Input Assignment Chart - LINK

    USB Audio Driver - LINK

     

     

     

    Equipment Used:
        Wilson Audio Alexx
        EINSTEIN The Loudspeaker
        EINSTEN The Preamp
        EINSTEIN The Last Record Player, CD source
        EINSTEIN The Silver Bullet Mk II, OTL mono block amplifiers 
        McIntosh MC611, mono block amplifiers
        Kubala-Sosna Elation!, speaker cables, interconnect and power cables
        LessLoss C-MARC, power cables and S/PDIF
        15” MacBook Pro 2018, source
        Roon system consisting of Roon Nucleus and Roon software
        HRS M3X equipment base
        Tabula-Rasa, solid wood equipment rack
        QNAP 32TB 8-bay NAS
        eero in home mesh network / WiFi

     

     

     

     

     



    User Feedback

    Recommended Comments

    1 hour ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    Thanks for the write-up Danny. I need to get to your place to hear this!

    Anytime! Always welcome... 😊

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    I have been listening to the DA1 module in my MAC7200 for a while now, and have a DA2 on the way. I am curious to hear what, if any, the differences may be between the two.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    14 minutes ago, AudioDoctor said:

    I have been listening to the DA1 module in my MAC7200 for a while now, and have a DA2 on the way. I am curious to hear what, if any, the differences may be between the two.

    That would be interesting to hear... 

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    Excellent write-up. Love the McIntosh house sound. Will be very interested in the upcoming C7200 review. 

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    I thought that audiophiles didn't like equalizers. I had been wondering recently why the equalizer, which was part of the standard audiophile setup some decades ago, had disappeared.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    3 hours ago, kirkmc said:

    I thought that audiophiles didn't like equalizers. I had been wondering recently why the equalizer, which was part of the standard audiophile setup some decades ago, had disappeared.

    Equalizers introduce phase shifting which leads to a loss of clarity.  We also have this with the low pass filter used in A/D conversion for 44.1k and 48k digital.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    Thanks for the great review, I look forward to the C2700 comparison.

     

    I'm disappointed that McIntosh seems to be insisting on the purchase of their DAC module with just about any of their preamps--as you point out, it's not quite as good as current separates.  A few years ago it was easy to choose--the C22 was essentially a C2600 without a DAC for about $2,000 less.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    6 hours ago, kirkmc said:

    I thought that audiophiles didn't like equalizers. I had been wondering recently why the equalizer, which was part of the standard audiophile setup some decades ago, had disappeared.

    Kirk, agreed and for the most part that is in fact true. That said, in more than three decades of futzing with this hobby, I learned that there is generally a massive difference between reality and theory, or theorems that supposedly prove one thing or another. Take for example the hoopla that exists in the analog domain with vinyl playback: "you must adjust VTA for each and every record!" Sure, in theory that's true: each record has different thickness, etc. That said, in practice, I have found this to be irrelevant to the extent that whatever minute differences there may be in going from a 140 to 150 or 180 gram record (and the resulting difference in thickness, thus different VTA), it simply makes little to no difference in the actual playback. There are so many other factors involved that even if you took properly setting exact VTA for each and every record, you'd also have to check the specs for 5 or 9 other parameters, not least of which those influenced by the raising and lowering of your VTA. To boot, you then haven't even taken into account the cartridge manufacturers own - usually horrendous - specs, since all of these cartridges - well, most if not all of those retailing for say more than $1000, are all hand built and there are variations within even the same model, etc. Or take any other alternative ideological must be true for its online and opined by expert XYZ or some such demagoguery and you'll find the same reality check. Another great example are air bearing linear tracking arms and which sort of disposition you take regarding the arm's nature of the air bearing. Do you use a high pressure sleeve air bearing or do you use the rail air bearing approach where the entire rail consists of multiple tiny holes which through a low pressure air pump push the arm up. Each have their pros and cons; each are supposed to definitely produce some result or another until they don't. Virtually every review of the Bergman Galder / Odin table and arm combo has been absolutely bonkers positive despite the fact that Bergman chose the low pressure rail bearing approach instead of the sleeved high pressure approach. Go figure. What's it all mean Basil? 

     

    There's reality and there's theory... the two don't always necessarily intersect, no matter what the data says.

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    3 hours ago, PeterG said:

    Thanks for the great review, I look forward to the C2700 comparison.

     

    I'm disappointed that McIntosh seems to be insisting on the purchase of their DAC module with just about any of their preamps--as you point out, it's not quite as good as current separates.  A few years ago it was easy to choose--the C22 was essentially a C2600 without a DAC for about $2,000 less.

    Agreed Peter!

     

    My ideal McIntosh preamp would I fact be the C2700 with phono input, equalizer and no digital section... go figure! 😊👻🤣

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    We auditioned a Mac (MA 352) this morning (we are looking for a new amp). The tone controles were quite useful in a few cases (to my own surprise, we haven't owned an amp with tone controles for decades).

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites

    Thanks for the fine work and write-up!  I've been sorely tempted to check out some new McIntosh, and you may have pushed me over the line.

     

    I'm old enough to remember when the audiophile world and press shunned McIntosh. This was a critical part of my formative years, as I loved everything about Macs from their sound to their looks to their build quality and couldn't understand the flames from non-Mac dealers and the press.  Thanks to McIntosh, I learned to trust my ears and judgment far more than reviews and opinions that differed too strongly from mine to be objective.  I've owned at least a dozen of their products since buying a new MX110 and a pair of used MC40s in 1969, and I only sold my last pieces (a pair of MC75s) when we downsized from a house to an apartment four years ago.

     

    1 hour ago, Danny Kaey said:

    There's reality and there's theory... the two don't always necessarily intersect, no matter what the data says.

    That applies in spades to the original audiophile objections to early Mac tube amps because they operated in class B.  Everybody knows that class B sounds dull and lifeless 😁

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites
    On 2/18/2020 at 5:13 AM, Funkadelico said:

    Hi Danny,

     

    I have a Macintosh C52, basically I agree with everything in your review regarding C53, I think the only difference between models 52 and 53 is the DAC section. It was for me a big delusion to understand that the DAC of 52 do not works properly with Ronn, although is "Roon Tested". All the songs are reproduced with short a silence in the beginning, a problem for all users of the C52 (please check in Roon Community) and it is impossible to fix it. The sound is very good but this problem is so frustrating, especially for the price of this premplifier (in Italy 11.500 Euros).

    I am considering to sell my C52 and buy the new C53... but the new DAC works rightly in your experience with Roon or Audirvana? Are you sure that is free of c52 DAC problem's? 

    I thank you in advance for your kind attention.

    Marco

    (PS: Sorry for wrinting mistakes)

    Hi Marco, sorry, I didn't see this reply until just now... Sorry to hear you are having issues with your 52... I can verify that I had no issues whatsoever with the 53 and Roon, it works without any issues! 

    Share this comment


    Link to comment
    Share on other sites


    Create an account or sign in to comment

    You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

    Create an account

    Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

    Register a new account

    Sign in

    Already have an account? Sign in here.

    Sign In Now

×
×
  • Create New...