McIntosh C2600 Tubed Preamplifier Review Page 3

The Set Up

For this review I had the C2600 connected via XLR to a pair of McIntosh MC611 mono blocks which were in turn feeding a pair of Audio Note AN-E/SPe HE and Harbeth M40.1 loudspeakers. Sources varied from the totaldac d-1 direct DAC, LampizatOr Pacific DAC, Naim DAC-V1, Audio Note DAC 5 Special and dCS Rossini to a Chord Qutest DAC. On the analog side I had a Thales TTT-Slim II with EMT JSD VM MC cartridge and Rega P3 turntable fitted with an Exact MM cartridge. Cabling for all digital connections, interconnects and speakers was TelluriumQ, except for the DAC 5, which used an Audio Note Pallas coax cable, Sootto interconnects and ISIS AC mains cable. All other AC cables were Clarus Crimson. The PS Audio DirectStream P20 Regenerator was used for all components.

Listening Sessions

As mentioned, my time with the C2600 saw several DAC/Streamers in-house for review, so I was fortunate to be able to compare the C2600’s built-in 32-bit ESS9016 SABRE Ultra DAC to others of varying price points and to also put the unit’s line stage through its paces to see how well it handled the differing sonic presentations of each DAC’s hardware architecture. Software used for the review was a mix of Aurender’s Conductor App and dCS’s Rossini dedicated App (everything was fed the ones and zeros via an Aurender N10 Music Server except the Rossini as it is being reviewed with it’s own proprietary App).

Digital capabilities

I started with the C2600’s built-in DAC to get my baseline of what the stock unit was capable of translating to the analog domain and after a couple weeks of breaking the unit in (valves and the like take time, I like to put at least 200 hours on anything I’m reviewing before critical listening) the sound really opened up and took on a powerful, well-balanced and dynamic thrust to all types of music without ever becoming fatiguing or flung forward in the 3D sound stage. The ESS9016 presentation in its implementation within the McIntosh circuit architecture was smooth and drew me in to every track with an accomplished, organic-sounding performance highlighted with a real transparency to source. Neutral with a subtle warmth added, but one that never seemed to subtract from ultimate resolution, the SABRE Ultra took whatever file format or genre I threw at it – DSD, PCM, MP3, TIDAL MQA files (TIDAL software unfolding only) – and never showed a whisper of disdain, grain or attenuation at frequency extremes, especially notable on tracks like “Conversation,” Joni Mitchell, (96kHz TIDAL MQA) where I’ve heard Mitchell’s upper-register quavers turn etched through some DACs. Stringed instruments had lifelike wood-bodied naturalness to their sound, with fret work and plucking clearly presented. Indeed, the same could be said for horns with believable blaat and nasal honking to trumpets and saxophones. Piano, keyboards and organs – Jimmy Smith’s “Midnight Special,” (TIDAL FLAC 16/44) comes instantly to mind – pushed me back with real pressured weight on the those notes swimming among the lowest octaves. Electronic baselines and acoustic percussion plumbed the lower depths while not giving anything up in details like delicate brush work on drum skins from numerous jazz greats and ECM lesser knowns (but that should be known better IMHO). Was it as resolving or accomplished as the Chord Qutest? No, but it gave it a good run for its money and I had no expectation of it ultimately surpassing a stand-alone DAC that retails for $1,895 USD either.

The Line Stage

The line stage of the C2600 is incredibly robust and showed off a firm grip and translational understanding of the individual voices of every DAC I connected to it. The varying timbral/tonal shadings, delicate harmonic subtleties, bass resolution and detail of spatial cues of music played through each DAC stood out in clear juxtaposition to one another through the 2600. Albums such as (Then Comes The Night, Mats Eilertsen, ECM, 16/44 WAV file (release date of February 1, 2019) through the totaldac d-1 direct bewitched me with the staggering level of depth and resolve to the double-bass nuances reflected in Eilerstsen’s performance. The separation apparent in the hundreds of individual brush fibres on every stroke of the drum skins by Thomas Strønen and the weighty, beautifully-focused notes of pianist Harmen Fraanje hanging in the air between the speakers, while easily discernible from each other, were all pieced together in a cohesive interplay which allowed the listener to ‘see’ the bigger picture of the compositions.

Differences between sources were laid bare and thanks to the numerous inputs allowed for almost instantaneous A/B comparisons between sources. To jump from the Audio Note’s DAC 5 Special to the LampizatOr Pacific within seconds on the same track is an experience that caused a sharp intake of breath every time I experienced it and to have such a capable, transparent line stage in a $7,000 USD preamplifier that never sounded as if it was limiting a $20,000+ USD DAC is no small accomplishment.

Phono Capabilities

The built-in valve MM and MC phono stages – a pair of 12AX7 tubes for each stereo channel in each stage (ECC83s for our European friends) – both allow for adjustment of capacitance and loading respectively giving the user the ability to critically fine-tune the analog listening experience. I tried both stages with turntables varying from $1,500 to $15,000 USD and neither time did I ever feel I was missing anything truly substantive from playback in comparison to higher-priced phono stages I’m familiar with, or with either the Audio Note M1 RIAA valve phono preamp I used to own or another classic I had that came to mind while listening, the superbly-linear sounding, battery-powered Sutherland PH3D. The C2600’s phono stage was rich and organic in tonal colour, made easy work of timbral complexity and was in possession of superb timing where the recording demanded it, such as on Tourist, St. Germaine, Blue Note 5251141, original 2x12-inch French pressing and presented everything with startling clarity and depth over a deep-black background. Bass in the lowest registers was clean and well-defined with muscle. Without a doubt, one of the quietest and most capable built-in phono stages I’ve come across, it sounds far better than it has any right to as an addition to a preamplifier. McIntosh has obviously laboured hard to achieve these flesh and blood-embodied sonic results but still manage to keep the C2600 well under the $10k USD mark.

Headphone playback

McIntosh’s proprietary HXD Circuitry for the built-in headphone amplifier put me in mind of SPL’s Phonitor X and its Matrix system, which is similar to McIntosh’s in that it is about experiencing headphone playback more as though listening – in the 3D-presentation sense – to a pair of stereo loudspeakers. Imbued with a wide and high sound stage that, like well-placed loudspeakers in a room, created a sense of extreme breadth in playback that like the Phonitor X, reminded me that headphone amplifiers not utilizing this type of circuitry can sound spatially smaller in comparison. The C2600’s headphone output can have HXD turned either on or off, so if this isn’t your cup of tea, you can get a more familiar headphone listening experience without it enabled. Utilizing a number of headphones of various impedance loads (from the Sennheiser 820 HD @300 Ohms, to the LCD-4z @15 Ohms) there was never any intimation of lack of drive or dynamics from the C2600. Resolution was outstanding without ever straying into etched, or sharp and pointy territory. Rather, every minute detail came through with a liquidity and effortless cadence that instantly put me at ease instead of on guard for spikes in the treble region. Ditto for the midrange which was ripe with timbral and tonal color without presenting itself as overly saturated regardless of music programme. Bass response was heady on those tracks (“Electrologe,” Troublemakers – QOBUZ 16/44 FLAC and “Hey Now,” London Grammar – TIDAL 16/44 FLAC) which called for real slam and resolving low-level detail. Massed strings on classical numbers (“Symphonie Concertante Pour Violin, E-Flat Major,” Mozart Festival Orchestra, TIDAL 16/44) were clearly delineated and possessed structural texture allowing for individual instruments to stand in clear relief from their surrounding compatriots. This head-amp, like the preamp’s line stage, DAC and phono stages, is a bit impetuous in its nature and consistently surprised me with its ability to translate those terrestrial cues which signal to my brain that human beings are playing the music, not merely approximations of sentience.


Capable of holding the listener’s emotional and intellectual attention regardless of what musical genre is playing back, be it through the built-in DAC, phono stages or whichever source or input is chosen for sonic translation, the McIntosh C2600 sounds more like living, breathing humans are behind the music than it has any right to at this price point. Yes, I’ve heard better DACs, better phono stages, and better line stages as separate entities unto themselves, but I’ve yet to hear a component deliver so much on all fronts with all those sources combined into one package. Its ability to preternaturally express musical momentum in a most uncoloured fashion with dramatic effect towards scale, pitch, timber and tone, coupled with an innate ability to portray human performances in playback without sacrificing that most mortal warmth I associate with live music makes it a standout preamplifier in both its connective abilities (digital and analog) and in its ability to connect one to the music. Because of all this, I awarded the C2600 an AudioStream Editor's Choice Award for 2018 and it's why this C2600 is staying put.

McIntosh Laboratory Inc.
2 Chambers Street - Binghamton, NY 13903-2699

Everclear's picture

May be Rafe could also review Schiit Audio Freya pre-amp $699 .......... Yes, it has tubes :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... consist solely of vacuum tubes, or are there some solid-state components, as well?
For comparison, the MC stage of the C2500 is comprised of a combination of discrete transistors and an integrated circuit op-amp, while the MM stage is a tube/transistor hybrid design.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I don't think they changed a lot with the phono stage from the 2500 to the 2600 (at least it wasn't mentioned when I spoke with the engineering team). But I can reach out to them again for clarification.
Ortofan's picture

... the response from McIntosh to your follow-up inquiry regarding the phono stage.

Rafe Arnott's picture
At the article and the McIntosh team's replies, in their response regarding the tube choices, they said: "Since all power supply and voltage regulation is handled by transistors, the job of the tube is simplified to only audio."

But Ive sent them an email just to confirm your question.

Ortofan's picture

... McIntosh?

Rafe Arnott's picture
According to McIntosh. Sorry for the delay – had a baby!
Ortofan's picture

You might find this list of recommended recordings appropriate:

Rafe Arnott's picture
I'll check out that playlist for sure :)
volvic's picture

McIntosh seems to have made a comeback in the last 18 years. I remember in the late 80's and 90's auditioning their gear and being left cold. I have to assume all the positive press these last few years means they have upped their game. Must go and audition.

Ortofan's picture

... what speakers were you using to audition the McIntosh amps?

Rafe Arnott's picture
I specifically list the loudspeakers I used at the time of writing about the 611s:

"After a couple weeks getting used to the 611s through my AN-Es (spec’d at 97.5 dB, 23kHz~18Hz @+/-6dB, six-Ohm nominal impedance) I added in a pair of ELAC Adante AS-61 stand mounts that Vancouver’s Hi-fi Centre loaned me, as I wanted to see how the big McIntosh’s would play with something more difficult to drive (Adantes spec’d at 85dB, 41kHz~35Hz, six-Ohm nominal impedance)."

Hope that helps.

volvic's picture

That was a long time ago so not sure which model but they were McIntosh speakers in one room, maybe XR-19's and maybe Elipson in the other room. I think the 80's were not their best years judging from my ears. I was also surprised to see those 70's era screws to secure the speaker wires from behind and I was a little surprised to see that for such an iconic brand and worse how close they were to each other. Must give them another chance one of these days.

Ortofan's picture

... McIntosh's forte.
Back then the local McIntosh dealers in my area were selling the amps along with speakers such as the ADS L2030, B&W 801 and JBL L300.
The barrier strip type screw terminals worked well with either bare wires or spade lugs. Audio Research and Conrad-Johnson were using them, too.