pl | en
C500 (C500C+C500T+C500P)

Price: 46 000 (tranzystor lub lampa) zł

Distribution: Hi-Fi Club

ul. Kopernika 34, Warszawa
tel.: (22) 826 47 67
Fax: (22) 826 24 58



Text: Wojciech Pacuła
Translation: Krzysztof Kalinkowski

A preamplifier is the heart of an audio system. And although many audiophiles can live without a heart, thinking, that it is an obstacle in reaching nirvana, I have a different opinion. But it is always worthwhile to ask about eventual assets of other ways of thinking, different to ours. Because we cannot deny that such exist. One of the most popular ways of shortening the audio path – and that is the thing, everything is about – is the usage of a passive preamplifier. A splendid execution of this idea, and in addition really inexpensive, I did present during the test of the Polish products Audiomatus PP03 + AM500R. It is really nicely done, and in many setups, with many interconnects, this preamplifier, or actually a “damper”, showed the assets of the passive preamps, clarity, dynamics and resolution. However its usage is limited, as the sound was influenced significantly by the used cables as well as the rest of the gear. A second method exists, integrating the preamplifier with the source – usually a CD player. I use such a player myself, since three years (Ancient Audio Lektor Prime), and its older brother, Lektor Grand SE, is in my opinion among the absolute top range of digital players worldwide. Even more – the system of one of my friends, Janusz, which we regularly use for our Krakow Sonic Society meetings, uses that player connected directly to the power amplifiers. However at home, after a while of having the Prime hooked up directly to the power amplifier Luxman M-800A, and also other power amplifiers, I decided that there must be a preamplifier and there is no way around that.

One of the assets of such a “switchboard” are the many inputs and outputs. But another one was more important for me – the sound gains much with a good preamplifier. So why do preamps harm Janusz’s system? Well, because this one of the very rare situations, where the CD player and power amplifiers were designed to work well together, and their parameters were chosen in such a way, which allows them to perform best without any interim stages. But in 99% of other cases that kind of connection does – in my opinion – give less emotion from the music played, less satisfaction from listening, than with a good preamplifiers. This is why I unpacked the McIntosh preamplifier with great curiosity. This is actually a very interesting situation, because all sources proposed by this manufacturer (including the top system ‘1000’) have a well prepared, completely separate, output stage with a built-in preamp. And yet the company encourages the usage of stand-alone preamplifiers. And this one is available in two versions, with the same price tag: with solid state and with tube amplification. Now, things will happen, and the test results will be a surprise also for me.

Discs used for testing: Compact Disc

  • Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio, What a Wonderful Trio!, First Impression Music, FIM DXD 079, silver-CD.
  • Thom Yorke, The Eraser, XL Records/Warner Music Japan, WPCB-10001, CD; review HERE.
  • Led Zeppelin, III, Atlantic/Warner Music Japan, WPCR-11613, CD.
  • HiQualityCD. Jazz Selection, Capitol+Blue Note/EMI Music Japan, TOCJ-90010, HQCD+CD; review HERE.
  • Kenny Burrell, Soul Call, Prestige/JVC, JVCXR-0210-2, XRCD2.
  • Jazz At The Pawnshop, Proprius/LIM, LIM K2HD 028, K2HD.
  • Wynton Kelly, Kelly Blue, Riverside/JVC, JVCXR-0050-2, XRCD.
  • Kenny Dorham, Quiet Kenny, New Jazz/JVC, JVCXR-0049-2, XRCD.

Super Audio CD
  • Groove Note. True Audiophile. The Best of Groove Note, Groove Note, GRV1036-3, SACD/CD; review HERE.
  • Milt Jackson Sextet, Invitation, Riverside/Mobile Fidelity, UDSACD 2031, No. 01828, SACD/CD.
  • Manuel de Falla, The Three Cornered Hat, Ansermet, Decca/Esoteric, ESSD-90016, SACD/CD.
  • Dead Can Dance, Toward The Within, 4AD/Warner Music Japan, WPCB-10077, SACD/CD; review HERE.

Long Play
  • Depeche Mode, Sounds Of The Universe, Mute, STUMM300, 2 x 180 g LP; review HERE.
  • Clifford Brown and Max Roach, Study In Brown, EmArcy/Universal Music Japan, UCJU-9072, 180 g LP.
  • Duran Duran, Rio, EMI Electrola, 064-64 782, LP.
  • Miles Davis, Miles Davis And The Modern Jazz Giants, Prestige/Analogue Productions, 7150, 2 x 45 rpm 180 g LP.
  • Paul Desmond, Take Ten, RCA Victor/Speakers Corner, LSP-2569, 180 g LP.
  • Pearl Jam, Ten, Epic/Legacy, 97413021, 2 x 180 g LP.
  • Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd, Jazz Samba, Verve/Speakers Corner, V6-8432, 180 g LP.


Some things come with age. Others with a thicker wallet (and those two things are not always paralleled). Some other come with experience. And probably due to that last thing, after a few years break, while fascinated by subsequent “inventions”, now having a really nice and costly system (the wallet again…) I return to recordings re-mastered with the JVC patented K2 system, especially in its Japanese-American version XRCD. Those are really incredible recordings and mastering, especially taking into account, that those are mostly recordings vital for the evolution of Jazz, from the 50-ties and 60-ties. Like I mentioned, I departed a little from those versions, going in the direction of SBM, HQCD, SHM-CD, SACD and others, mostly Japanese work, although I heard their limitations, and knowing, that those were not always a step forward. But with age (we will probably not escape from this third element, similar to the two earlier discussed ones) I come to the conclusion, that only music counts in music. Maybe this sounds a bit naïve and stupid, but it’s true. Important is the fact, that I came to it from the side of equipment and recordings, and not from disdain for everything “strange” and “exaggerated”, what discourages music lovers from becoming an audiophile. Because they are guilty of omission, loosing much of the artist’s vision, or plain music, not allowing the recordings to sound like the sound engineer, producer and artist did hear it. But getting back on track – XRCD recording (and K2 in general) are closest to what you can hear from vinyl. You need good audio gear in addition to that, because if somewhere in it is a problem with resolution, for example, then often regular pressings might be preferred, because those are brighter and sharper. But if a system is well balanced and well adjusted then the case is clear for me: only K2.

I call upon this because the preamplifier C500 McIntosh, using the tube module, takes the burden of such dilemmas from us, to a certain extent. It gives a full, saturated, “golden” sound, often attributed to tubes. Interesting, but the solid state preamplifier C-1000f Luxman and the tube Polaris II Ayon go in the same direction, but each one of them stopped in a different position. The tube McIntosh is closer to the first one. All recordings sound nice and warm, without any brightness and sharpness. The top range is rounded and warmed, but despite that the cymbals, and the vibraphone, like from Jazz At The Pawnshop, or Invitation Milt Jackson Sextet had a nice timbre, were not withdrawn, etc. With this version of the preamplifier everything reaches us with a slight delay, minimal, this is just a fraction of a second, but due to his – that is my impression – our brain can prepare for everything and relax. The stage is not especially deep, but when we deal with elements in counter-phase then we are tightly surrounded with sound, which is around us, gets away from the speakers, and similar. But I say: this is rather homogenizing than separating, and the differentiation of recordings is not as well as in other good preamplifiers from this price segment. I might be ruthless – and please believe me, I do not want to be like that – but I listened to this version with many accompanying devices, and I heard the same thing again and again. I will repeat: this is incredibly pleasing sound, which will not harm anybody, or anything. But for me the solid state version of this preamplifier was more interesting.

At this occasion, and with preamplifiers in particular, I underline the fact, that the technology, which is used in a particular device, has only marginal importance for me, and is only important to show, what a given company can do within the limits of each technology. And this is most audible in case of this preamplifier. The possibility to choose between the tube and solid state version is a fantastic idea, and we should applaud it! Everybody can choose the version he or she likes best, and which is better for the system owned. For me, besides my own impressions, some general, universal, aspects are also important, or even most important, aspects not depending on me or my system. This is why, in this case I am tempted to admit to McIntosh engineers, who claim, that their solid state products are better, even when the tube (T) version of the C500 will for sure find its admirers. The transistor C500 (P) is incredibly resolving and splendidly open – things I missed with the tube C500. Due to that the audiophile flavors of the newest version of Jazz At… (K2HD) were finally audible. Also tonal balance was splendidly presented. Like I say, the sound was open and strong. The instruments gained depth, and the structures allowed to draw them in a more natural, more real way. This was brilliantly showed by the disc Soul Call Kenny Burrell, where the guitar of the leader had a deep, a little matted sound. The aura around it was also drawn splendidly, with quite long reverb at a harder stroke.

Already listening to the first mentioned disc drums and percussion came to voice – this version of the C500 splendidly shows the changes in dynamics, also in the micro range. The percussive set from the Burrell disc was strong and explosive, much closer to a live event than what I heard with the tube version, but also better in that aspect than my Leben RS-28CX. And this Japanese tube device is unique in that aspect. So it is nothing strange, that the disc What A Wonderful Trio! Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio also sounded great, where the distances between instruments were clearly differentiated and the dynamic shading of the leader’s piano was really outstanding.

Like mentioned before, this even, splendid sound, is granted to the McIntosh preamplifier due to the outstanding resolution it offers, even better than the, otherwise also brilliant, Accuphase C-2810. The latter has a warmer, slightly more creamy sound, but also a bit worse dynamics and – yes – resolution. The brass from the C500 are not that three-dimensional, not that vivid like from Ayon Polaris II, but it is a solid state unit. But the differentiation of recordings, timbres, etc, is on the same level with the Mac, what is a brilliant achievement for a transistor.

And it is not about just “showing-off”, because this in turn this is associated with the “bad” analytic behavior, described as brightness and dryness. This not the case. Here the resolution and ability to show differences on every level translates directly into the perception of music, how they influence our emotion, how deep we go into this, well, artificially created, world. I heard this fully with the HQCD sampler HiQualityCD. Jazz Selection. Like I said in the beginning, this recording is not something extraordinary, although some of those recordings do sound very pleasing, closer to the natural softness and velvetiness. But the McIntosh showed, that those are just splendid recordings, and although I do prefer the XRCD (wherever possible), still the division was not so sharp. I tell it straight: C500P entered into their structure deeper than my Leben. And although those two seem very similar, sonically speaking, the Mac gets more sounds out of those recordings, and in consequence, more emotions. And now a thing, that happened to me maybe for the third time in my life – this American device leads the pace and rhythm phenomenally. Without hardening the attack, without underlining the upper midrange, like it happens to Naim products, glorified for those aspects, but just not blurring the sound. Yes – this is the most important asset of this preamplifier. It is nothing, that I come to this conclusion at the end of the test, but praise McIntosh engineers for that! Because this element is not imposing on us, but we learn to appreciate it by how it influences anything else. The focus of the attack and reverb is phenomenal, it does not resemble any of the solid state preamplifiers I ever heard.

Are there any elements which could be done better? As always – yes. But I want to note, that those elements exist only in reality and if other preamplifiers have them, then they do one or two of those, never all of them. If I’d point to something, it would be the bass, it could have been a bit more fleshy. It is not thin, or dry, but there could be more of it sometimes. The tonal balance is splendid, this is not about shifting it upwards, but… Also the depth of the stage could be a bit better, as I heard that with the Ayon Polaris II. But the handling, capabilities and durability of the McIntosh are beyond any competition, with the exception of the mentioned C-2180 Accuphase (Leben and Ayon are crippled in this aspect, unfortunately). Yes, this is a splendid device. And that’s it.


The preamplifier C500 by McIntosh Laboratory is a big unit, composed of two elements: the controller and the amplifying section. Unlike almost all other competitors in the American preamplifier the circuitry was split between two enclosures, based on thinking about the signal amplification and interference it is prone to. A classic method of dividing the section between enclosures places power supply in one, and all the amplifying, control and – if applicable – displaying sections in the other. McIntosh made a simple move, now when we know it, it is simple, but which required the change of perspective and getting loose from the corset of audiophile habits and myths. In one enclosure all the amplifying circuits were placed (with VU meters), but all the others: power supply, digital control circuitry, display, volume control, switch control (control circuits, and not the relays themselves) in the second one. So we have to get used to the fact, that all audio cables are connected to one box, while we control everything from another one, where the power cable is plugged. Mac’s engineers, or rather their management, took another decision: this preamplifier is available in two versions – with a solid state amplifying section (C500P) and a tube based one (C500T). In both cases the control module (C500C) remains same, and adaptation to the appropriate amplification module happens automatically thanks to the microprocessor control.

The control module is a big device, with a glass front, which is not backlit directly, but via glass fibers and a LED. This solution allows the green paint of the logo to remain green forever… In the middle there is a big, green, well readable display used for every kind of information. Next to it there are knobs for balance and source selection for recording, on the other side of it volume and listening source selector. Below the display there are only four buttons – setup, recording mode selector, mute and standby. On the back there are also some elements. Most important are two long, computer type sockets, for connecting the power and control cables supplied, which connect the C500C with the amplifying section – one for each channel. The Mac preamplifier is a full dual-mono unit, in fact it is made from two separate, balanced preamplifiers in one enclosure. There is also an IEC power socket and a set of mini-jack sockets for connecting all McIntosh devices into one “organism”. Inside we will find two, very big, expensive R-core transformers, most commonly found in Japanese devices, because this idea comes from Japan, and the best transformers of that kind are made by Kitamura Kiden. Those transformers have a lot of secondary windings – eg. for the heater and anode voltage for the tubes, separately for the transistors and for the switching circuitry. Every voltage is many times stabilized, also the control circuits are very well powered.

The amplifying section is enclosed in a second cabinet. On its glass front plate there are of course blue VU meters, and the tube module has also a window, in which we can see the tubes – four double triodes 12AX7A (two per channel), looking Chinese. However the tubes are selected at McIntosh, where they put also the company logo on them. It is important, that the tubes are lit green, making the preamplifier look like a Christmas tree. Yes, Mac fans will be rapturous, because this is a step in “that” direction, but those, who have something against “neon lights” in the front panel, will have another argument against McIntosh. On the back – lots of connectors. The balanced and unbalanced sections were located separately. The latter has three inputs and four outputs – three variable, for power amplifiers (for example usable for tri-amping) and a rec-out. And although the first three are really balanced, the recording output is made balanced just before the socket. There are four unbalanced RCA inputs, based on splendid, bolted sockets, then a processor loop, two gramophone inputs – for MM and MC cartridges. Between them we have big, gold plated, ground bolts. And the RCA outputs – four: three variable for power amplifiers, and one fixed, for recording. And amongst all those there are two sockets for the cables coming from the control unit – one for each channel.

Because inside we can see, that this is real dual-mono, and both channels are separated with a very thick aluminum plate, similar to the one used for the cabinet. On the input there is the selector section, made using fantastic elements – reed relays, much better than the standard relays. Behind this we have the amplifying circuit – the mentioned tubes. The volume control is handled by a Burr-Brown PGA2311P chip. This is a very good, stereo circuit, employing laser corrected resistors, switched by a digital controller. Why a stereo chip? Probably due to the innovative circuit used by Mac. A volume controller can be placed before the amplifying element or behind it. Each of those versions has its own assets and shortcomings – high noise at low signal levels, low dynamics, etc – this is why McIntosh used “total” control – one damper is on the input and one on the output side. Their interaction is set by the controller, this allowed to minimize noise and maximize dynamics. Like I mentioned, the circuit is based on two tubes per channel. But most space is occupied by circuitry using the NE5534AN chips. I think, that most of them work in the voltage stabilization circuits. The same chips were also used for the headphones amplifier (two per channel). A separate circuit was dedicated to the gramophone input – in fact this section is bigger than the line one… On the MC input there is a correction transformer. It is worth mentioning, that the input impedance can be set using the C500C setup module. Then the signal goes to a separate PCB, placed on elastic elements above the main PCB. There we find two double triodes per channel – 12AX7A of Chinese origin. They scream to be exchanged for some Telefunken, Valvo, Tesla, Philips SQ or Siemens counterparts. The separate stages, both in the line and in the phono section, are coupled by polypropylene Wima capacitors. We should mention, that although the separate elements are nice – for example metalized resistors – then there is nothing special about them, those are basic, although of higher quality than “standard”, elements. But this is McIntosh tradition (similar to Accuphase). I just add, that the signal coming from RCA’s is immediately balanced and then amplified in that way.

The solid state module looks almost identical – on the inside and outside, with the difference, that on the front panel we have only the VU meters and the headphone socket, and inside the tube module was exchanged to the solid state version. It seems, that the unit uses only discreet amplification, except for the headphones amplifier and gramophone preamplifiers. Both use popular NE5532 chips. The RIAA section is thus much better in the tube version (C500T). And one more thing – the microprocessor allows for many settings to be made. I mentioned the variable input impedance for the MC input, so I’ll add the output sensitivity regulation, and the ability to disable one of the three variable outputs.

g a l l e r y


* DIY – custom cables – silver and copper