McIntosh C2600 Tubed Preamplifier Review

Struggle.

We all have at least a couple in one form or another as we live our lives, be they verb or noun.

My father taught me that while struggle in life was inevitable, it was about how we dealt with it that mattered the most: We could let it shackle us with fatigue, doubt, dismay or worst of all – loss of hope. Or, we could rise to the challenge, utilize our intellect to formulate a plan for overcoming and move forward, hopefully wiser with experience and better prepared to meet the next challenge head on.

Regardless, there is struggle and it is real for many for us… and at many different budget levels.

What struggle am I referring to you ask?

The struggle for an end-game preamplifier of course.

One that is not only sonically transparent (or ideally equipped with the ability via tube rolling to subtly flavour to one’s taste), but that also has the prerequisite plethora of analog and digital inputs and outputs that is required in this modern era of vinyl or tape living side-by-side with DACs, streamers and CD players for the investment such a preamplifier would warrant.

Now, when it comes to preamplifiers some are purists, preferring to rely exclusively on line-level units and use it as an analog translation device allowing for linkages to dedicated amplifiers between CD players, phono stages, DACs, streamers/servers, headphone amplifiers, or reel-to-reel players (for those more esoteric audiophile souls).

I’ve travelled that road and found it to be a very satisfying one, (the excellent Pass Labs XP-12 and heady CH Precision L1 preamplifiers come to mind) but the idea of having a preamplifier that could also handle Moving-Magnet and Moving-Coil phono duties, that also came equipped with a built-in headphone amplifier and a high-resolution DXD/DSD-capable DAC along with balanced stereo throughput was one that was at the forefront of my mind. Enter the McIntosh C2600 two-channel Vacuum Tube Preamplifier ($6,999 USD).

The C2600 is a design which builds on decades of McIntosh high-fidelity engineering expertise and both expands on and supersedes the highly-lauded C2300 and C2500 preamplifiers. After several days research, it was the preamplifier of choice to go with the McIntosh MC611 mono blocks I wanted to use as my reference amps as I’ve found through experience and trial-and-error over the years that choosing core hi-fi components from the same company tends to make the most sense sonically because not only are they all derived from the same design and engineering ethos, but work together holistically in their presentation of sonic signature (or lack thereof).

The C2600 is nothing if not flexible in its capabilities. Let’s start with the chassis design and the 16 inputs its rear panel sports. Featuring classic McIntosh styling cues handed down and refined over the decades with brushed aluminum, chromed-steel, matt-black casework, a glass top window where the six tubes reside (five 12AX7a valves – two each for MM and MC duties, one for input and one 12AT7 for output), a glass-panel fascia populated with solid, chunky switches for power, output choice, tone control, muting and two ultra-silky, smooth-turning input selection and volume knobs and of course, (lest we forget) the iconic blue db-output meters which all make for a visually arresting piece of kit that exudes quality with a fit and finish second to none in my experience.

Delicate, signal-centric analog and digital sections are kept separate thanks to an internal, two layer dual-chassis design which according to the company was developed to prevent signal corruption, shielding intricate circuitry from RF and EMI interference. Analog inputs consist of three balanced (XLR), four unbalanced (RCA – gold plated, solid brass) and dedicated MM and MC phono stages (40dB/60dB voltage gain respectively). Digital inputs include one asynchronous USB Type-B, two coaxial, three optical and one proprietary McIntosh MCT (DIN) which offers a secure DSD connection for McIntosh SACD/CD transports. A headphone amplifier featuring McIntosh’s Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD) is built-in as well “to allow high quality recordings to image like conventional speakers in your headphones” according to the company (A claim I can attest to after extensive listening sessions, the sensation is less ‘in the centre of your head’ if I had to briefly describe it). You can utilize or bypass Tone controls and all inputs can be individually named to custom tailor them to your specific gear or nomenclature and be input level-matched to +/-6dB, bass and treble settings can also be adjusted on a per-input basis. The unit also has a Home Theatre PassThru, Power Control Output (one main, four trigger), RS232 Control Input and a rear panel IR sensor input.

Three sets each of balanced XLR and RCA outputs allow for connection to the amplification of your choice with spacing updates implemented to allow easier facilitation of both bi and tri-amping.

Talking about the design and build of a components only goes so far from the perspective of a reviewer, as we are not privy to the research, development, tooling, circuit configurations, parts sourcing (or building in-house), voicing and final production process, so I reached out to McIntosh Labs to ask some questions of some of the engineers personally involved on the C2600. The following is my Q&A with John Henkel, Sr. Electronic Design Engineer, and Ron Cornelius, Product Manager, who both hand a hand in several aspects of the C2600 project at McIntosh.

COMPANY INFO
McIntosh Laboratory Inc.
2 Chambers Street - Binghamton, NY 13903-2699
1-800-538-6576
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COMMENTS
Everclear's picture

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

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