I feel like I’m the designated Part-Time Audiophile power lifter lately. I received another freight shipment containing the McIntosh C49 preamplifier and MC312 power amplifier, weighing in at back squat workout weight of 234 lbs. and arriving on a pallet. I proceeded to break down the packaging to find out what goodies had been delivered.
McIntosh is one of the paragons of the hi-fi industry and I have heard various McIntosh products over the years. I even home auditioned a Mac amp back in the early ’90s, but decided to go a different direction. McIntosh’s brand recognition and reputation are pervasive, so I was excited to hear what the newer McIntosh gear offered up for my home listening experience.
The McIntosh C49 preamplifier is fairly large for a preamp. Its dimensions were slightly smaller than the Rotel Michi P5 preamplifier I reviewed recently.
The McIntosh C49 includes a built-in DAC (the DA1) and a phono stage. The C49 is a versatile and classic-looking preamp with two knobs with vintage McIntosh styling on either side of the unit. It has four toggles across the bottom of the face to select various output options, mute, and power/standby. The gloss black glass face hides a digital display that lights up with power. The classic cyan digital display has an old school digital face readout to display the various settings.
The McIntosh C49 includes balanced and unbalanced input and output options as well as just about any digital input you would need to use. The left knob selects inputs and when pressed allows for various input settings to be modified. The left knob is volume except when used in conjunction with the input setting controls.
The unit appears robust and solidly built following the classic McIntosh solid state design of decades. The McIntosh C49 retails at $4999.99 with the DA1. There is an upgrade option for a DA2 DAC, which costs $1000 and includes an ARC HDMI connection, DSD512 capability, and some other USB and home theater focused upgrades. The C49 is only sold with the DA1 installed.
The McIntosh MC312 power amplifier is another classic looking solid state McIntosh amplifier. Weighing in at a bench press weight of 130 lbs., the MC312 is a solid two-channel amplifier, again with two classic knobs on either side of the unit and the iconic McIntosh blue power meters. The MC312 offers up 300W/channel into 2, 4 or 8Ω.
The top panel has a printed circuit board layout and amp specifications, which is cool in a nerdy gearhead kinda way. The left knob controls the power meter from lights off, to continuous monitoring, to peak hold, while the right knob turns the unit on in either REMOTE stage via a 12V trigger or normal ON. The rear of the unit accepts both balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs, selectable via a switch, a 12V trigger, and unique speaker binding posts. The binding posts accept banana plugs if you remove the plastic caps on the top, spade lugs, or bare wire and comes with a plastic wrench to tighten down for spades or bare wire. My AudioQuest Rocket 88 cables were banana terminated so I never used the plastic wrench. [I have, and it’s quite nifty. I almost stole it the last time I reviewed a Mac–Ed.]
The McIntosh C49 and MC312 Sound
Right off the bat the gear sounded like all the classic McIntosh gear I remember. Despite being solid state, McIntosh has this unique sound that is more reminiscent of tubes than transistors. Don’t get me wrong–the McIntosh C49 and MC312 do not sound like tubes. They have all the frequency extension you would expect from solid state and ruler flat frequency response. But they have colorations that most solid state electronics do not have, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The C49 and MC312 are not ruthlessly accurate; like I said they have a subtle warmth they add to the music. It’s really quite pleasing. I’m not sure if it’s the autoformers they use, the circuit design, or something else.
Queue Up the Vinyl
I used the phono stage, USB digital, and the unbalanced inputs on the McIntosh C49 preamplifier. I recently added a Rogue Audio Ares phono stage to my rig and the C49 phono stage sounded distinctly different from the Ares. The Ares had a very different presentation than what I’ve heard with other phono stages lately.
Listening to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the cymbals on the drum kit were more forward and sharper than the C49’s phono stage, where the same cymbal was more of a background sound.
The McIntosh C49 presentation was more similar to other phono stages I’ve been listening to from Parasound, Rotel and Schiit, so maybe I need to tweak the Ares a bit. The C49 phono stage was a good performer providing a quality soundstage, decent imaging, and a restrained air and ambiance to the music. Both moving coil and moving magnet inputs are built in. The sonics on the phono stage were good, being a compromise of what a standalone separate can do versus plug-and-play convenience.
The DA1, the built-in DAC of the McIntosh C49 preamplifier, was good. It approached what my reference Schiit Yggdrasil could do. I have to give a slight nod to the Yggdrasil for air and presence around instruments, but the DA1 of the C49 is probably the best built in DAC I’ve heard over the past year.
Digital was clean, but not harsh, imaging and soundstage were good, and after a download of McIntosh USB drivers the DA1 ran with no issues. You would have to buy a pretty stellar stand alone DAC to outperform the DA1, in my opinion. Maybe you’d even pay prices that would rival the cost of the entire C49 before getting something well above what it can do.
Wall of Sound?
The McIntosh MC312 power amplifier is nicely built and nice-sounding. The bass is solid, treble is not shrill but certainly not soft or rolled off, and there’s this smoothness and warmth in the midrange that adds a hint of coloration to the music. It’s pleasing on most recordings in that there weren’t any listening sessions that I remember where I didn’t like how the MC312 sounded.
The MC312 didn’t have the crazy bass output of the Rotel Michi S5 I reviewed earlier this year, but it matched the speaker disappearing act of the Parasound JC5. The MC312 had good soundstage and imaging placement that filled in nicely between both my Vandersteen Model 3s and the Living Voice OBX speakers. It had no problems driving either speaker to “as loud as I care to listen” levels and never hinted at anything untoward. Pace and rhythm on the Vandersteens was excellent. There’s something about a time- and phase- correct speaker that I keep coming back to. The MC312 was happy to provide a bit of that groove I experienced with the Rotel S5.
I’ve been digging deeper into the Dead Can Dance catalogue and the recordings are stunningly good with amazing ambiance and presence. The steel drums on Lisa Gerrard and David Kuckherman’s Hiraeth were simply amazing. Boris Blank’s Electrified was another album that really got the grooves thumping, the toes tapping, and the chicken-head bobbing. The McIntosh can jam and dig into the emotional spectrum, with that warmth I mentioned earlier adding a touch of magic.
The McIntosh C49 DA1 DAC did an applaudable job presenting the soundstage and filling in between the speakers. I did use a LampizatOr DAC on these recordings as well, which will be a future review. Hands down, this was the best sound I’ve ever had in my listening room. The LampizatOr, through the McIntosh C49 and MC312, produced a goosebump-inducing and tear-shedding representation of this beautiful music. The soundstage was holographic with both width and depth which rivaled some of the best systems I’ve heard at shows or dealers. It goes to show that the McIntosh combination can produce some amazing sonics given the right source material.
I suppose if I had a fault with the MC312 it was that it might be too polite. I decided to acid test them listening to some hard rock and metal, pulling out Joe Satriani’s Surfing with the Alien, Cage the Elephant, and Rage Against the Machine to see if the McIntosh could really kick. On the right systems Surfing with the Alien really kicks and jams, and there’s an “in your face” anger with the first Cage the Elephant and Rage Against the Machine albums. The McIntosh MC312 was nice, it had a great soundstage and imaging cues and the guitar work and vocals were great but the music, in emotional terms, was more “Slightly Annoyed Against the Machine.” The anger and vehemence weren’t there. It’s odd to hear the lead singer screaming f-bombs on “Killing in the Name” and having it just blend in with the rest of the musical backdrop. I guess I’ll avoid the angry music with the McIntosh C49 and MC312 because everything else sounds great on them.
Flying Solo with the McIntosh C49 and MC312
Sonically, I suspected the McIntosh C49 preamplifier was pretty neutral. I think most of the McIntosh warmth comes more from the amplifier. I connected the unbalanced outputs to the Audio Space Reference 3.1 amplifier to see what the preamp did to the sound. Uh, wow, this pairing was more amazing than I expected. Rage Against the Machine had rage, like “drill sergeant in your face telling you what he thinks of you” rage. On the track “Killing in the Name” there’s the final f-bomb and on some systems it literally strikes right to the heart leaving a genuine twang of fear, and the McIntosh C49 did that with the Audio Space.
Cage the Elephant was also suitably angry. So I decided to delve back into the Boris Blank Electrified, awesome; Surfing with the Alien, awesome; and Hiraeth, ditto. Usually tube preamplifiers are successfully paired with solid state, but in this reversal of roles the McIntosh C49 Preamplifier actually brought out a frequency extension the integrated usually lacked.
Cymbals and high hats, which were typically somewhat rolled off with the full tube integrated, were clear with great attack and decay. Bass was plentiful and solid, I can’t say the C49 made the Audio Space better in the bass, but it certainly lost nothing. Sound stage and imaging had that tube richness but with added solidarity, possibly from the treble clarity. I liked it. I liked it A LOT. This pairing elevated my respect for what the C49 brings to the sonic palate, and this was all through the DA1. I wonder what the LampizatOr will do…
Wanting to fly solo with the MC312 as well I connected up the preamp outputs from the Schiit Ragnarok 2 and the Yggdrasil DAC to see what the MC312 added to the sonic mix. The Rag 2 preamp is sonically a bit sterile and I wondered if some McIntosh warmth would take front stage. Rage Against the Machine was better, now it was upgraded to frustrated from slightly annoyed, but there was a sense of everything being veiled. I attributed most of this to the Rag 2, the system played all the notes and imaging and soundstage were good, but that sheen took the crispness off the attack from the instruments. The MC312 added a groove and toe tap that the Rag 2 never had but it also lost a bit of the warmth that the MC312 had with the McIntosh C49. I wish I had another preamp on hand for testing, but alas.
After flying each unit solo I decided to put them back together to test the balanced versus unbalanced connection wondering what that would do sonically. I had been doing the majority of my listening using an AudioQuest Yukon XLR and switched to Cardas Clear RCAs. On other systems I’ve heard mixed results. Some systems really sing with balanced connections and others do better with RCAs. I think it depends on the cable, the implementation of the balanced circuitry, and the amount of RMF in the listening environment. I decided to stick with the Yggdrasil for this evaluation. Switching between unbalanced and balanced cables the subtle differences I did hear after peak level matching with a SPL meter (to 90db, so it was loud!), I think are more cable differences than anything internal to the circuitry.
If you have a very noisy RFM environment or crazy long cable runs you might get better results with balanced, but I honestly couldn’t hear enough differences to notice. With the Yggdrasil and the Cardas Clear there was just a hint of rage in “Killing in the Name” that I didn’t get with the Yukon XLR.
McIntosh C49 and MC312, Hooked Up
I’ve reviewed several preamplifier/amplifier combinations this year and I initially thought this pairing of the McIntosh C49 and the MC312 is probably the best matched of what I’ve heard so far. I felt the sonic qualities of each of these units had parity with the other.
However, after further review flying each unit solo I think the McIntosh C49 preamp gets the nod as the better product as I think it is cleaner when matched with other components. I still think McIntosh did a great job sending these components together. It is a great pairing as both units are similarly priced and sonically provide that McIntosh sound in a compelling way. I think many audiophiles would be very happy with the performance of this combination.
A few warnings, if you want your Rage Against the Machine with the volume cranked and in your face instead of reaching for the Metamucil, then the McIntosh MC312 power amplifier may not be your jam. But for 95% of recorded music from ’70s rock to pop to electronica to dance to jazz to classical to world music, the McIntosh C49 Preamplifier and MC312 combination is a mesmerizing solution at the $12,000 USD price point. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the McIntosh gear and am happy to rekindle familiarity with a forgotten compadre.
McIntosh has preserved its signature sound while implementing modern technology and features. Definitely recommended.