The cool factor is way cool: Turn it on and the seven small tubes across the front light up, one after another, in a soft orange glow. Once they’re all lighted, a moment’s pause, then they turn green and you’re in business. I am referring to the latest iteration of what is widely and justly regarded as the one of the greatest tube amplifiers ever made and the greatest from McIntosh: the MC275, now in its sixth version. Not necessarily Mac’s “best,” whatever that may mean, but its greatest in the sense of an innovative product—Tim di Paravicini, a man not exactly generous when it comes to distributing compliments, called Mac’s “unity gain” circuit one of the few circuits he wished he had come up with himself—that came to be regarded as a classic even before its initial ten-year lifespan ended with the company’s turn toward solid-state. But diehard audiophiles continued to cling to the warmth, musicality, and sheer beauty of the best tube sound and the technology stubbornly refused to go away. (I think it not an overstatement here to say that attention of The Absolute Sound, Harry Pearson in particular, was for a time almost single-handedly responsible for keeping tube technology before the audiophile public.)
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Let us not be sentimental, however: There’s no tube amp in the world that for laboratory accuracy will not be eclipsed by any competently or better-designed solid-state amp. But those last few degrees of accuracy as such are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of music reproduction. A personal example: A close friend, an amateur musician and audiophile whose ears are as discriminating as those of any reviewer I know, dropped by not long after I had received this latest MC275 for review, accompanied by another Mac retro-classic, the C22 preamplifier. Now this man—who uses solid-state gear, I should point out—knows the sound of my system virtually as well as he does his own. After scarcely a minute’s worth of listening to my Quad 2805 ESL speakers, the source a CD of Dvořák’s “American” string quartet, he said, “This sound is just lovely, absolutely lovely, completely involving and beautiful. Everybody should hear it just to experience how beautiful music reproduction in the home can be.” He’s right. If it wasn’t the “best”—that pesky word again—sound I’ve ever had in my home, I’ve rarely had any I’d pronounce better.
McIntosh C22 Preamplifier
And let’s not fret the accuracy issue too much. McIntosh tube gear has a long and well-deserved reputation for being the most neutral-sounding of all tube electronics: no apologies necessary for plummy bass, bogus warmth, pushed-back presence, drooping highs, euphonic distortions, or excessive noise. Of course, it helps that both this latest MC275 and the companion C22 preamp, the last of Mac’s classic tube preamps, are most emphatically not exercises in mere nostalgia. The company’s engineers know that just because something is old or “original” doesn’t automatically guarantee it’s better, particularly when it comes to electronics, where it would be folly to ignore the considerable advances in the half century since these products were first introduced. Despite outward similarities, these are not your father or grandfather’s Macs (see sidebar). Tubes constitute the heart of the circuitry, but no vintage 275 or 22 sounded like or as good as these new ones. Let’s begin with tubes’ principal bête-noire—noise. None. No, of course, not literally—with no signal playing I can crank up the volume to maximum and hear some thermal rush if I stand close enough to the speakers. But, hey, who listens that way? Certainly not I. Yet even at very loud volume levels, from my listening location I hear nothing in the way of noise to suggest tubes in the circuit. Every pause yields quiet backgrounds or ambience if it happens to be decently captured on the recording. (And keep in mind there are many solid-state units that will not pass the volume flat-out, ears-up-against-the-tweeter test.)
Transients? Completely natural and realistic, just as these things sound outside of recordings, with force and impact but never with the kind of exaggerated “speed” that screams “high fidelity”! There is resolution galore but not of the sort that calls attention to itself, a wealth of detail to savor as you wish yet that is not in least coercive or excessive. At no time did I find myself wishing for more or worrying I wasn’t hearing what was there. Definition and clarity top to bottom are superb. Indeed, the circuit improvements in the 275 mark it out as clearly a better amplifier than the version IV I reviewed over ten years ago, splendid as that one was. Well-recorded rock music sounds fabulous. Admittedly, I don’t listen to a lot of it, but the things I do I like a lot, such as the Rolling Stones or Buddy Holly. Or take Paul Simon’s Graceland, which the pair send up with sensational power and drive, where such qualities are called for, or delicacy and subtlety, where they are called for. Every strand in the texture of “The Boy in the Bubble” emerges with a clarity so revealing that I doubt many solid-state amplifiers could materially better it, while the a capella singers in “Under African Skies” are projected with lifelike warmth and vitality.
These components were originally designed at a time when serious audio designers and audiophiles used classical, acoustic jazz, and mainstream pop and folk as references; that is, music for which there is a live, acoustical equivalent. These new Macs really thrive on such music. Take the Dvořák quartet I referred to at the outset: Get the playback level right with accommodating speakers and you really could almost be tricked into believing the players are arrayed before you, such is the solidity of the imaging, the tactility of the reproduction. Suffice it to say that whether it’s small music or big, this pair does soundstaging and imaging superlatively. The opening of Stokowski’s Romanian Rhapsody (on vinyl) has breathtaking power, definition, and real reach deep into the bass, with a quality to the lower octaves that I wish to emphasize: It is not that “tight” kind of bass which so many audiophiles (and reviewers) seem to delight in but which has no real counterpart in reality. Rather, bass instruments are subtly rounded and highly dimensional, with great bloom if the recording allows for it, yet never spongy, as tube bass can often be, even in several modern designs.
Voices. Gorgeous. In combination with Harbeth’s new Monitor 40.2, the best three-way speaker system I’ve ever heard (review forthcoming), these Macs made for some of the richest, most vibrant and beautiful vocal reproduction I’ve ever heard in home playback systems, whether it’s the Anonymous Four or Peter, Paul, and Mary, Sinatra or Fitzgerald, choral groups like Conspirare or Theatre of Voices. Anything and everything throughout the midrange has the warmth, roundedness, and body for which the best vacuum-tube reproduction has always been prized.
McIntosh MC275 VI Power Amplifier
When I reviewed version IV of this amplifier I noted that it was not quite as transparent as the best solid-state gear. If that is still true, the margin has so narrowed as to be of virtually no consequence. I have recently been the object of some sarcasm from another reviewer for insufficiently valuing small, not to say really tiny sonic differences among components. So as not to offend further in this regard, let me say that, as with other marginal differences, this reduction in transparency is there to be heard if you really want to concentrate upon it to the exclusion of everything else. That said, I personally judge it insignificant. I also noticed a slight darkness to the presentation with version IV, but not with this new one. All that attention Mac paid to extending the bandwidth with the new transformers has resulted in considerably more top-end extension, clarity, and definition. Yet there is no harshness, glare, or brightness that I can attribute to the amp or the preamp. By the way, there is no mystery about why the MC275 sounds so neutral, especially as compared to most other tube amplifiers known to me: Its output impedance is a mere 0.4 ohms. This is comparable to many solid-state units and in marked contrast to a lot of tube amplifiers, on which I’ve seen output impedances north of 2 ohms (no such amplifier is capable of sonic neutrality).
Power. It’s common knowledge that, owing to their greater output voltage swing, tube amps generally sound louder than their nominal ratings might indicate. This proves to be the case with the MC275. For one thing, the amp puts out an easy 90 watts a channel, as opposed to its rated 75. For another, the circuit is exceptionally stable, so it doesn’t frazzle when pushed too hard.
All that said, the Harbeth Monitor 40.2s are capable of playing very loud, and there were rare times when the 275 sounded fractionally undernourished on really big material (the Quads won’t play as loud as the Harbeths, so this was never an issue with that combination). The spectacularly recorded hammerblows on the Zander Mahler Sixth on Telarc—the best recording quality sonics of this piece I know—land with tremendous force and impact. I compared the 275 to the solid-state Pass Labs X150.8, which generates double the power. Though the Pass was slightly better in impact, the Mac was by no means left at the post. I must point out that I was playing the speakers much louder than I would normally do, and louder than the relative level would be if I were listening to a large orchestra live, even in the first few rows (I’ve heard this symphony from row two in Disney Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Dudamel, whose hammerblows are cataclysmic.). It is well to keep in mind, too, that the Pass is considerably more expensive than the 275’s $5500 and double the rated power. But the 275’s 75 watts per channel can be strapped for double the power when it is used in bridged mode as a mono amp. I didn’t have a second 275, but I suspect the already-small gap in dynamic freedom would have been narrowed even further by a pair of 275s.
I had no sooner unboxed the C22, placed it on my shelf, and turned it on than I was glad I asked to review it. At last a preamplifier that looks like the real deal. None of this bare-bones minimalist nonsense with vast acres of unused real estate on a fascia occupied with only a volume pot and a parsimonious row of pushbuttons for source selection. Many diehard McIntosh fans regard the C22 as the company’s best preamplifier before (or despite) the great solid-state designs of the late nineties. It would certainly be difficult to imagine one with a more useable range of options, features, and functions. There are volume, balance, bass and treble tone controls, and even a loudness circuit. There are seven high-level inputs plus a pair of tape inputs with full monitoring. There are two sets of phono inputs, one for moving-coil, the other moving-magnet, while the front panel offers a choice of loading for mc’s and capacitance for mm’s. There is a mode knob for stereo, mono, stereo reverse, left to both channels, right to both channels, and mono to both channels. My only criticism is that many of these functions are not duplicated on the large, weighty all-metal handset, in particular the balance and tone controls. Not to worry, however—volume, source selection, and mute are all remotely accessible. Typical of Mac, there’s a trigger circuit that allows the C22 to turn the MC275 on and off (it also works with similarly equipped other amplifiers). It is a real convenience to be able to power up and down both units in one operation, with all mutes in force until the tubes stabilize. (Such convenience may seem a small thing but you’d be surprised how used to it you get.) This is a company that seems to think of everything.
When I first heard the price of the C22, I blanched a bit: a cool—or it is hot?—six grand. Hardly outrageous for a preamplifier these days, but a fifty-year-old design, even one as beautifully engineered and appointed as this one? Hmm. Then I listened to the phonostage and thought, “How the hell did they do all this for six grand?” This phonostage—I availed myself only of the mc option—is easily competitive with stand-alone units north, far north, of two to three grand and more. It’s as quiet as any tube phonostage I’ve ever heard and a lot more so than most of them, tonally neutral, really dynamic, with loading capabilities adequate to or better than any mc out there. Offhand, it’s hard for me to think of another preamplifier more suited to the well-rounded audiophile dedicated equally to his or her digital and vinyl sources, unless it’s one of Mac’s other preamps, including some solid-state ones, flexibility and versatility always a priority from a company that knows how to design control units that cater to real music lovers.
Hookup is so simple and straightforward with flawless ergonomics that I didn’t even have to consult the manual to get it set up and running (though, typical of McIntosh, the manual is beyond criticism for clarity and thoroughness and puts to shame the amateurish printouts that many high-end manufacturers provide). But it’s not just control; it’s the feeling of power and confidence that gives you such a thrill. No push-buttons here—flip the rocker switch on, the soft blue lights illuminate, the tubes come up and, man, you feel like you’re at the controls of a 747. And then the music starts. Despite reports to the contrary from various sources on the Internet, my ears tell me the C22 is cut from the same sonic cloth as the MC275. That is, no bogus or excessive warmth or color. On the contrary, fundamental neutrality is at work here, with as much control, grip, and transient speed as any music I listen to might require. Yes, to be sure, a fine solid-state preamp, like one of the Pass Labs (which I happen to have in house at the moment), will still outshine it at the bottom when it comes to ultimate definition, clarity, punch, and slam, ditto at the top end when it comes to airiness, crystalline clarity, and extension. But saying this is by no means to suggest that the C22 is in any way deficient in these qualities or in the current (in some quarters) be-all end-all of audio reproduction: “resolution.”
The C22 has been so thoroughly updated that it sometimes seems to me that the only aspects that remain retro are the styling and the tubes. This was intentional. According to the company’s press release, the C22 retains the classic look while the circuits have been “updated to modern standards to deliver a performance on par with any other McIntosh preamp. Electromagnetic input switching provides reliable, noiseless, and distortion-free operation. Low distortion levels of all types are less than 0.08%.” Ten inputs are divided between two balanced and six unbalanced, plus the two phono inputs, while outputs consist of one pair balanced and three unbalanced. There’s a full complement of jacks that allow synchronous operation with other McIntosh components.
The latest MC275 features the widest bandwidth transformers McIntosh has ever made, which contribute to the amp’s deeper bass and more extended highs, and also to a lower operating temperature. A high-speed protection circuit shuts down the amp in case of tube malfunction or short circuits. Inputs now include balanced in addition to single-ended, and the terminal strip has been replaced with rugged, gold-plated binding posts that allow for banana plugs. A circuit (defeatable if desired) turns the amp off after thirty minutes of no signal. Like the C22, the MC275 is RoHS compliant. A protective cage is supplied for the tubes, but who would want to hide one of the sexiest features of the MC275 behind a cage?
Inasmuch as the MC275 in its several iterations has been widely covered, I’d like to close with a few more words about the C22 in this, its first reincarnation. Sonically, as I hope I’ve made clear, there is next to nothing to complain about, instead volumes to praise. But what is exceptional, perhaps unique, about the C22 is that it preserves the fabled McIntosh sound, styling, features, and functionality in a design that is otherwise modern in feel and use. My nine-year-old, while switching the input knob so she could play a CD for a musical she’s in, said, “Daddy, these are really fun to use.” They have a feel like none I’ve ever experienced, paradoxically soft yet secure, and of switching transients, swishes, turn on/off thumps, there are none, while the transformers are dead quiet even with your ear right on top of them. The only sound you hear is the source you’re playing. The back panel features both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs, with more than enough for the C22 to serve as the control center of a very sophisticated two-channel sound system. Routine system checks, such as channel balance, are a snap with the mode knob, which allows mono recordings to be enjoyed in mono, where they typically sound better.
The tone controls and the loudness circuit can of course be switched out for flat response, but why would you want to? They can make so many recordings sound so much more pleasurable in ways that are musically not only valid, but necessary if you want to enjoy natural-sounding reproduction. Take Herbert von Karajan’s celebrated recording of La Mer for DG from the sixties: The sound is quite beautiful but the strings are too brightly lit, something easily addressed with a modest cut from the treble control. My family and I watch movies with sound routed through the music system. Often movie soundtracks are too bright, especially older ones, those that have been digitally remastered, and even a lot of new ones. What a relief it is to have a treble control that allows these films to sound so much more listenable. Then there’s loudness-compensation, that all-purpose whipping boy of those who are against any sort of tonal control for the consumer. But the pioneering work Fletcher and Munson did in demonstrating how bass frequencies are disproportionately reduced in volume at low-listening levels is valid and its effects are real.
The loudness circuit in the C22 is as close to perfect as you can get, and I used it frequently for late-night listening, where it made the sound more natural, more satisfying, and more pleasurable because it was more realistic in the areas of tonal accuracy and balance. As I write this, it is very early in the morning, I’m the only one awake in the house, and Evgeny Sudbin’s sonically and interpretively marvelous new recording of Scarlatti sonatas is playing at a very low volume. I started with the settings at flat but after several moments I found the piano sound just a little thin, as it had not at normal levels—though the recording is quite outstanding. So I kicked in the loudness circuit and voila!—despite the low volume the piano was naturally balanced again, with weight, warmth, and richness in the lower registers. Indeed, with some recordings played at very low levels, I used loudness compensation together with the bass control—don’t mock it until you’ve tried it.
At the end of the daypleasure is the operative word when it comes to these wonderful new retro-made-new-again Macs. Pleasure in use, in function, in appearance, and paramountly pleasure in the listening. Most components I review come and go with few regrets. But I’m going to miss these big-time. In the highest senses of the words, they have real class and character. And something more: a connection to audio history in an unusually direct, intimate, and accessible way. Those pioneers of audio design had their priorities right when it comes to the reproduction of music in the home. If you have a local dealer who allows you to audition these in your house, be warned: They are highly addictive. And if you’re courageous enough to ignore the purists and take advantage of the full panoply of their features, especially tonal correction, well, I’ll warn you again: They’re addictive.
Specs & Pricing
C22 tube preamplifier
Frequency response: 20Hz to 20,000Hz +0, -0.5db @ 0.08% THD
Maximum output voltage: 16Vrms balanced, 8Vrms unbalanced.
Input impedance: 20k ohms, balanced and unbalanced.
Inputs: 6 unbalanced, 2 balanced, 1 mm phono, 1mc phono
Outputs: 3 pairs main unbalanced, one pair balanced
Headphone: ¼” jack
Tubes: 6 each, 12AX7
Dimensions: 17.5″ x 6″ x 18″
Weight: 27 lbs.
MC275 tube amplifier version VI
Power: 75Wpc into 4, 8, or 16 ohms; 20Hz–20kHz
Output impedance: 0.4 ohms
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz +0/-0.5dB; 10Hz–100kHz +0/-3.0dB
S/N: 105dB (below rated output)
Dynamic headroom: 1.2dB
Damping factor: >22
Dimensions: 21.5″ x 8.5″ x 12″
Weight: 67 lbs.
MCINTOSH LABORATORY, INC.
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903-2699
Originally post by the absolute sound | Paul Seydor | Oct 31st, 2016