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.
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.
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.
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+++!
Product: C53 Preamplifier
Product Page - LINK
Brochure - LINK
Owner's Manual - LINK
Connection Diagram - LINK
Input Assignment Chart - LINK
USB Audio Driver - LINK
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