McIntosh C2500 preamplifier review


You have to work hard and for many years to become recognizable, regardless of the trade. But this is how it works, and no elaborate marketing tricks can change it. To have a characteristic product, identified with a specific manufacturer, you can go by two different ways – by means of humble evolution, following the most current trends and exposing the company logo in the most prominent place, or having the courage to uncompromisingly, or even orthodoxy, keep a design, different from anything else on the market. To become a self-made trendsetter – to be yourself and believe in your own infallibility imposing your enthusiasm on others.

This, quite complex, statement should introduce the reader into the world of a brand, which exists for over half a century, which almost obsessively attached to a traditional, and yet timeless, design, which makes is impossible to mistake its products for anything else – ladies and gentlemen – enter McIntosh.

Compared to its predecessors – the 1950 AE1 preamplifier, or the later, more advanced C8 – the tested C2500 has probably only the logo and the main function in common. To see products more like it, we needed to wait one more decade. But taking into account, that we deal here with a brand, that works uninterruptedly for 60 years the affection to tradition, the characteristic blue-green back lighting, and things like tone control, may and should arouse respect. The stoic calmness and doing what it can do best, following the paths worked out for years, bears the expected effects – among others in the form of the third generation of happy, and most of all, steadfast clients. And the characteristic color of the back lighting did not come from pure chance, neither was it designed by a bunch of marketing specialist after thorough market research – it was conceived by Art Burton, who not only worked for McIntosh, but was also a air pilot, and he suggested this characteristic color, as it reminded him of the lighting of a runway in an airport.

You may wonder, why I am mentioning these, seemingly completely unimportant pieces, and not come to the point, to announce if the tested device is sounding good or not. In this case, I have my own, painfully subjective opinion, that those little things, are exactly that what you need, to learn to know a manufacturer, much better than through any professional leaflet, regardless how well made, which is devoid of any emotion. Learning to know the people behind a given project we broaden our own knowledge, but we start also to look at a product not as on a de-humanized “thing”, but as a “thing” that tells us a story, that has a history, that is related to the people who made it.

In the catalog of the American manufacturer, the C2500 can be found under “tube preamplifiers”. At least theoretically this is true, but from the technical point of view this far going briefness makes a client, who looks only shortly at the catalog, miss three quarters of the truth. Because how could you describe a situation, when you have a device capable of filling the function of a line preamplifier, phonostage, digital-to-analog converter, equipped with an asynchronous USB 2.0 input, being presented by naming only one of its functions? On the other hand I prefer this approach to a situation, where a client is talked into a functionality or feature that a device does not have.

Although I could describe the C2500 shortly telling “it looks like a Mac”, but I must assume a very little probable scenario, that there will be a reader, who did not encounter this company till now, and sees it for the first time in his or hers life, and I will describe its looks a bit.
Of course the most eye catching element is the glass front, sealed by the sides by aluminum panels, bearing a central, green lit logo and model name, and symmetrical blue lit VU meters. The characteristic knobs for volume control, input selection and tone control as well as the buttons for setting the operating modes have some retro touch, while the display showing information about the input signal parameters, active source or volume is definitely modern. The display is also used for navigating the menu of the device. There we can configure parameters of the phonostage, name the inputs as well as set the gain and tone for the individual inputs. Behind the glass fascia there is a solid enclosure made from two modules. The lower, silver bottom part and black upper part with a window on top, hiding six 12AX7 tubes, engulfed in sapphire light.

The back plate can create fear in anybody, not used to this view, or at least make them think, they bought a home cinema receiver instead of a preamplifier. But this is for sure no AV receiver, everything is right, you just get a byzantine wealth on inputs and outputs. You have plenty of them in RCA and XLR variety, and also offers the potential for placing it into a multiroom system. After the first shock subsides, and we count everything, it turns out, that the C2500 is capable of handling fifteen inputs, five of them being digital.

Unpacking the preamplifier from the monstrously big carton, I had the concern, that the absorbing looks of the gear will distract me from assessing its sonic values. I mean, if the design will not become the only interesting thing about the Mac. But let us keep this for later, especially as I needed some time from placing the device on the shelf before sound could be played through it. This was not caused by my laziness, but by the need to get acquainted with the unit, and reset it to the factory settings. Previous reviewer adjusted the preamplifier to his needs, and it is better to start from scratch, when you are setting it up. It was also the case here. All sources I had were plugged into the C2500 and the ECI served as a stereo power amplifier. For the less technical people the manufacturer provided colorful quick start guides, which allow to connect everything easily. One more note – before you can use the USB section, you need to download and install special drivers, otherwise the USB port stays silent.

So let us get to the point. The C2500 sounds almost as it looks – noble, elegant and without nervousness. It knows the reason for its existence, and it does its job well, producing a big, saturated and musical to the bone sound. It is like a good Californian wine, which, although capable of stunning the consumer with the wealth of its bouquet, it calls a smile on his face, because it does not overwhelm the consumer with complexity and well placed taste notes, but tastes just like the divine ambrosia. Only after two more sips, after two more glasses, there is time to reflect and analyze the taste. A genetic, native asset of the Mac is the quite deceitful tendency to disappear from the sound path the more, the higher the quality/density of the source material. For example, when playing back reference recordings 24bit/192kHz (via USB) the C2500 dematerialized. The ears of the listener were reached by the clean, not ennobled in any way, well recorded music. But when you reached down a step or two from the recording or performance absolute, the C2500 started to do ‘magic’. Till now I never heard the soundtrack from “Sons of Anarchy” did not sound with such vividness, kick and drive. Maybe in absolute scale the lowest parts were slightly rounded, but for some reason this did not create any issues with keeping the right pace, it only added nobleness. Well, the effect was so intriguing, that I did not notice when I listened through my dozen discs of Metallica including compilations like “We All Love Ennio Morricone” with “The Ecstasy of Gold” and “Re-Machined – A Tribute To Deep Purple’s Machine Head” with “When a Blind Man Cries”. The culmination was the listening to the symphonic album “S&M” on concert volume levels. The localization of the heavy metal virtual sound sources versus the orchestra was almost perfect. Then came time for Megadeth, My Dying Bride and Dream Theater, so I think, that the moment, when I passed on the McIntosh to Jacek was the most expected moment for my neighbors. At least this year.

Fortunately this worked out part of the tests devoted to more brute and quite rowdy music did not shorten the time for listening to the more refined and airy music. The guitar accords, full with feminine delicacy and focus, played by Xuefei Yang soothed my nerves, stretched after the full day of work, providing vivid, mature and homogenously served sounds. Without exaltation, or analytic expansiveness, basing on a clearly readable melodic line, the McIntosh built a passionate and involving spectacle, offering a sweetness, shining in the setting sun, and on the other hand teasing with all the micro details, present just for touching, and with all the audiophile tastes.

The character of the device, its “company signature” as we may call it, is present on all inputs, but if you have a choice between the analog and digital transmission, I would personally recommend the second one. Less cables, higher ease of use and most importantly, the high quality of the sound from the computer, which surprised me very positively, made me listen mostly to the Mac in the DAC mode. Unfortunately I could not assess the phonostage section of the preamplifier, because it resided at my home in the moment I already returned the Linn Sondek LP12 Majik and did not yet receive the AVID Sequel SP (test will appear shortly). Fortunately Jacek has his turntable ready, so he will include this part in his review.

After having the McIntosh C2500 in my system for a longer time, I started to understand better the attachment of the clients to this legendary brand. The characteristic VU meters, the backlighting, become a part of every listening. Of course you can switch off this illumination, but why? Buying a Mac we go for a certain aesthetics, we do not only want to enjoy its sonic capabilities, but also the visuals. The above assumptions are covered by the C2500 completely – if you love music and want to ease down while listening – then it will be hard to find a better candidate.

Text and photographs: Marcin Olszewski

Distributor: Hi-Fi Club
Price: 27 500 PLN

Technical Details:
Frequency Response: (+/- 0.5 dB) 20Hz - 20kHz; (+/- 3 dB) 10Hz - 100kHz
THD: 0.08% Maximum (20Hz - 20kHz)
- 6 Unbalanced Inputs
- 2 Balanced Inputs
- 2 Phono Inputs: Phono Moving Coil, Phono Moving Magnet
- 5 Digital Inputs: 2 Coaxial, 2 Optical Toslink, 1 USB 2.0 Asynchronous (32 bit 192kHz)
- Home Theater Pass Through
Maximum Volts Out: RCA -  8 Vrms, XLR - 16 Vrms
Tone Controls (Bass and Treble): +/- 12dB.
Headphones Impedance: 20 - 600 Ω
Tone Bypass and Input Assign
Tube, 6 ea. 12AX7a
Dimensions (W x H x D): 44.45 x 19.37 x 45.72 cm
Weight: 13.8 kg, 20.9kg (Shipping Weight)

System used in this test:
- CD/DAC: Ayon 1sc
- Digital source selector: Audio Authority 1177
- Stream player: Olive O2M; laptop Dell Inspiron 1764 + JRiver Media Center
- Integrated Amplifier: Electrocompaniet ECI 5
- Speakers: Gauder Akustik Arcona 80 + spike extenders
- IC RCA: Antipodes Audio Katipo
- IC XLR: LessLoss Anchorwave; Organic Audio
- Digital IC: Fadel art DigiLitz; Harmonic Technology Cyberlink Copper; Apogee Wyde Eye; Monster Cable Interlink LightSpeed 200
- USB Cables: Wireworld Starlight; Goldenote Firenze Silver
- Speaker Cables: Organic Audio; Signal Projects Hydra
- Power Cables: Furutech FP-3TS762 / FI-28R / FI-E38R; Organic Audio Power
- Power distribution board: GigaWatt PF-2 + LC-2mk2 Power Cable
- Table: Rogoz Audio 4SM3
- Ethernet cables: Neyton CAT7+
- Accessories: Sevenrods Dust-caps; Furutech CF-080 Damping Ring; HighEndNovum PMR Premium; Albat Revolution Loudspeaker Chips; Acoustic Revive RAF-48H


After many months of testing gear from all over the world, time came for the American legend. You cannot mistake it for any other manufacturer, because the general looks did not change from the beginning of their production, what became a true visit card, especially in our quick running times. You may like it or not, but you cannot deny, that this form of enclosure is really consistent in terms of recognition. The target group is also clear, because either you like it or hate it, there are no intermediate states. Comparing with new constructions, you may think, that the form is a bit old-fashioned, on the other hand, the quick passing of designer novelties becomes the nail to the coffin for some companies. The company in question fares well on the world market, thus we have the opportunity to test now one of its products. You may think, that this introductory text is absolutely redundant, but as it often is with legends, it is absolutely justifiable. Please welcome the promoter of blue lit VU meters – the American McIntosh, with its multi-function device in the form of the Tube Preamplifier C2500.

The company McIntosh has solid state and tube products in its portfolio. We received a three-function product with tubes, which has: a line preamplifier, phonostage and a DAC. The review of the latter will only be done by Marcin, because I am not ready for files, in any way, so I cannot test this functionality at all. At the same time I want to stress, that I have nothing against this kind of listening to music. Every way of listening to music has its karma, and nobody should disavow it. Going back to the C2500, it is typical American, so it must be big (this is true also in the audio world), so the size of the unit comes close to a solid power amplifier. It is not as heavy, but not light either. Trying to describe it, I cannot refrain from thinking “there is no visual calmness”. The dominating, black colof of the glass front and rest of the enclosure, is broken by the silver sides of the knobs, edges of the front panel and lower sides. But this is only the beginning of the design virtuosity. The front panel, the visit card of the Mac, is decorated with VU meters, glowing in the blue color, known to all lovers and haters, green lit descriptions of all functions and a centrally placed, also green, display, topped with the company logo. Please do not get nervous, this is not the end. The clou of this construction, for which many people would kill themselves, is a window on the top, which shows a battery of electron tubes, backlit – you may have already guessed – green. If I would not have seen it before, I might have been overwhelmed, but I have to honor the designers, they have put some idea in it all, and after a week of having this extravagant American I would find a place for it on my shelf. It has some kind of magnetism in it, which can enchant a potential client, and if someone likes such a style, then the sound may even be put second. It is widely known, that we listen also with your eyes. To not bore you, our readers, just from the journalist duty, I will add, that the back plate is wealthy equipped, with digital inputs on the silver, lower part, as well as analog RCA and XLR inputs, a MM and MC input, as well as an IEC power socket. Although big, it is clean and clearly described. The inputs are displayed on the front display, where we can name them individually. The phonostage does not need any further actions, than plugging the cable to the right input, as all settings are accessible from a menu. This really simplifies the analog setup, and at the same time eliminates chances for an accidental error.

After carefully reading the manual, I plugged in the tested device into my system, and having in mind, that tubes are in play, I gave it some time to warm up. The American engineers included a delayed anode current startup circuit, which protects the tubes from premature death, so every time the unit is being awaken, you see a relevant message being displayed. Nowadays this is almost standard to have such a circuit in tube gear, but still, I think it is worth mentioning, that the company protects our pockets. The Mac C2500 is mainly a line preamplifier, so I started the session trying out this function. Only after I got acquainted with the sound signature of this preamplifier I listened to the phonostage. This was actually a good thing, because I like to finish every test with the analog setup, and this procedure did not allow to go the other way round. From experience I know, that no tube gear is equivalent to another one, I was curious, how the American product will fare against the unplugged Japanese. Both products are based on the same technology so in theory they should sound similar to each other. However you have to bear in mind, that the Reimyo is only a line preamplifier and costs three times more than the multi-functional Mac, so every comparison will be only for reference, and not to criticize.

During the burn-in period I wrote the introduction to this test, and when the moment came, to devote my attention to serious listening, I had the disc “The Look of Love” Diana Krall spinning in the CD drive. And from the first notes I could immediately understand, what the American constructors wanted to achieve. The sound stage was ideally readable, with beautifully layed out planes to the sides and in depth. The musicians had slightly softened edges, but were placed exactly in the right spots. Please do not use this against the tested preamplifier, this softening is a result from tube technology being employed, where the whole sound got some pastel and smoothness in the whole spectrum. This is exactly what I expected. The soft touch of the tube, which slightly softens the sound, while not veiling the sustained notes in the upper frequencies, which became golden as a result of that. The final result was really very nice. This has also influence on lower octaves, of course. The spectacle opens in the upper midrange (the tonal balance goes a little bit up) – what increases the openness and readability of the recordings, while bass becomes a little shortened at the same time. There is audibly less of that bass, but at the same time it is better controlled, and I think, that this is a far better solution, than allowing it to run uncontrollably all over the room. The engineers who design the sound of a device, who make the necessary compromises, have to keep a balance in how the sound will be perceived as a whole, and not beefing the vividness of the sound artificially, as this will become annoying over time. Here the sound is absolutely consistent from the start to the end, and looking at it from the perspective of the time spent listening to this device, I can only say, that I fully support this approach. I will add, that going away from my reference preamplifier was only a different way of being with the virtuoso artists. In addition the McIntosh landed in a random system, replacing an element, that was designed to fit with the rest of the system, and yet if fared exceptionally well. This tube sounding jazz and vocal music presented all the important elements of the sound like: smooth and physiological sound, very rich vocal of Diana, due to the opening of the midrange, a bit thinned, yet still very visible rhythmical section and gold shining percussion. You could only sit and listen.

Wanting to verify the losses in the lowest octaves I took electronic material with only one, live instrument, the project “Hamada” by Nils Petter Molvaer. I like this disc a lot, and if I would notice any deviation in the sound, that would minimize its greatness, I would change the disc immediately. And yet Nils Petter’s trumpet received and additional matte layer, given by the tubes, which allowed it to shine with homogeneity placed on the background of synthetic sounds. Even the artificial bass, not found in real nature, despite the slight thinning and softening did not degrade the musical spectacle at all. If the departure from neutrality would be too big, this would destroy the individual phrases and turn this music into an indigestible electronic mud pool. Test passed.

Now I knew how the line preamplifier sounds I started the second part of the exam – test of the gramophone preamplifier. Unfortunately due to it is integrated inside the Mac, all activities that will follow will have the sound signature of the line preamp stamped on them. But the McIntosh is a very solid company, that no user of this product should expect, that this element is not synergistic with the rest of this construction. So I had a lot of faith in what I am going to hear, when I connected my Dr. Feickert to this product and waited for the additional tubes in the phonostage to show their potential. Just like I expected, there was no revolution, that would shatter my previous notes. So I was absolutely assured placing subsequent discs on the platter. Starting with free jazz of David Murray and Jack DeJohnette, tracks that are not so neck-breaking for the genre, I could exploit the almost analog path to fullest extents. Why almost? Well, my power amplifier is solid state, but this does not interfere in enjoying the existence of tubes in the sound path, the charm of the tube sound. The smoothness and wealth of information in the midrange are the basic assets of this product. Of course the slight upping of the timbre, the result of the line preamplifier being active, was also audible, but remained at the same, fully acceptable level. The musicians played their instruments exploding with energy in the saxophone and drums solos. I have also to mention the bass player – Fred Hopkins – who had a lot to say, despite being the rhythmical section of the recording, and was never pushed to the second line. This vinyl disc showed fully the potential of the analog. A Japanese pressing from 1986, analog gear and a glass of Islay single malt. What can you want more? Maybe unlimited amounts of discs in your library and unlimited amounts of time to listen to them. This luxury is unfortunately not available for all, also not for me, this is the reason, that I took further discs I wanted to play quickly from the shelves. After such a load of “torturing instruments” – free jazz – I decided to invite Madeleine Peyroux for a short recital with material from the disc “Careless Love”. All who know this disc, are aware, that she sings a bit nasal, what asks for waking her up a bit, while the McIntosh was able to open up her airways a bit. Please do not expect a surgery of the nasal septum, it was rather cosmetic. I mentioned earlier the upper midrange become more vivid, and this is how I perceived this change. After Ms. Peyroux my turntable hosted a wealth of other vinyls, but my observations while listening to them only confirmed what I already wrote. And this is how my adventure with the king of tubes and VU meters came to an end. A pity it happened so quickly.

True legends are known, that regardless what comes out of the factory, each and every product will be at least good. In this case we could confirm the solidity of the brand, and taking into account the capabilities of the product, threefold applause is required – from my side only twofold, as I could not test the third part of the preamplifier. Everything that was incorporated inside the enclosure: the line preamplifier, the phonostage and the DAC are similar in terms of sound quality, so all were treated the same way, and not, as is lately many times the case, that some functionality is just added to fill the specs, while the quality is less than acceptable. In that second case a client is forced to replace this deficient functionality with a fully fledged device. But not with McIntosh. If you love tubes, and in addition to good sound also stunning visuals, then you do not have to search any longer. One call to the Warsaw Hi Fi Club and this combination of solid sound and extravagant, yet tasteful visuals can be yours.

Jacek Pazio

The system used in the test, a complete set of Combak Corporation.

 Electronics Reimyo:
- Separate DAC + CD player: CDT - 777 + DAP - 999 EX
- Tube preamp: CAT - 777 MK II
- Solid state power amp: KAP - 777
Speakers: Bravo Consequence +
Power cables: Harmonix X-DC-350M2R Improved Version
Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (Section woofer)
IC RCA Harmonix HS 101-GP
Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
Table: Rogoz Audio
Accessories: Antivibration stand for the power amp by Harmonix TU-505EX MK2, Harmonix Enacom improved for AC 100-240V; Harmonix Tuning Room Mini Disk RFA-80i

 Analog stage:
- Turntable:
drive: Dr. Feickert Analogue "Twin"
arm: SME V
cartridge: Dynavector XX-2 MK II
- Phonostage: RCM „THERIAA”

Original article:link

Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine 2006-2014.