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?
In as much 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 day pleasure 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