McIntosh C200 preamplifier Page 2
The C200's treble was a precise echo of the MC501's: nothing ever seemed to be missing, even though a whit more ultimate resolution can be had from the VTL TL-7.5 and the Halcro dm10. The multitudinous percussion instruments on the Hovhaness Symphony 50 were especially deftly handled, showing a winning blend of extension and distinctness.
Orchestral dynamics are still a most demanding test, and the Hovhaness' Eruption movement has them to burn. The explosion of percussion there was genuinely startling, the C200 never seeming to compress or blur this intensely forceful music. And with pop and rock material, the Mac gave everything a CD had to give, all across the spectrum.
The C200 contains both MM and MC phono stages. The MC stage, capable of handling low-output cartridges, uses two step-up transformers whose coils are wound with silver wire and double mu-metal shielding. No details are provided regarding the MM stage, which uses standard 47k ohm loading and offers 65pF of capacitance. But somewhere along the line, McIntosh made a strange choice in implementing the C200's MC stage: the input is hardwired with a 10 ohm load.
I definitely prefer loading my Dynavector XV-1S cartridge down—usually to somewhere between 100 and 250 ohms, depending on the phono section in question—but the 10 ohm load offered by the Mac was simply too much of a muchness. The sound of the MC section was dark and diffuse, with imprecise imaging, all of which I immediately suspected was due to the cartridge being loaded down too far. I cross-checked the Mac's phono stage against my reference Manley Steelhead, with its easily adjustable loading, and got generally similar results with the Steelhead dialed down to 25 ohms (footnote 1).
I should point out that the Mac's MC stage was exceptionally quiet and had more than enough gain for the 320µV Dynavector, which is quite impressive. So I'm afraid the grade is "Incomplete" for the MC stage. If it's possible to get the review sample set up with loading appropriate for my reference cartridge, I would love to audition the Mac again. Presumably, Mac dealers can provide and install suitable resistors for C200 owners, as all MC cartridges (and their owners) are certainly not created equal in terms of loading preference, and 10 ohms will be too low for most.
What might be lurking in the C200's MC stage is highly intriguing, based on what I heard from the MM stage as driven by a Dynavector PHA-100 step-up amplifier I borrowed from WallyTools' Wally Malewicz, the Analog Guru. The PHA-100 got the gain up to where it could drive the Mac's MM input, and it also matched the impedance to the input's impedance. The first paragraph of my listening notes began "Now here is the kind of sound I'd have expected from the Mac through the MC input." (The following comments on the phono stage all pertain to the head-amp-into-MM input configuration.)
"Genesis Hall," from Fairport Convention's Unhalfbricking (UK LP, Island ILPS 9102), had a lovely sparkle on the acoustic guitars and a gentle shimmer to Martin Lamble's cymbals. Sandy Denny's voice was beautifully focused on "Autopsy," her clear alto soaring and touchably real. Massenet's Meditation from Tha;dis and Elgar's Dream Children, from Raymond Agoult and the London Proms Clair de Lune (LP, RCA Victor/Classic LSC-2326), had great hall detail, the strings opulent and diaphanous. Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's warhorse recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade (LP, RCA Victor/Classic LSC-2446) had elbow room for all the players on that enormously wide Chicago stage. The record's famously sweeping dynamics and brass power were dispatched easily and most satisfyingly.
Neither did the Mac turn its nose up at rowdy rock'n'roll. Jack Bruce's roaringly aggressive, perpetually hyperactive bass playing and his celestial clouds of backing vocals on "Pollution Woman," from West, Bruce & Laing's Why Dontcha (LP, Windfall/Columbia KC 31929), were marvelous. The criminally underappreciated Leslie West's singing, wailing, Les-Paul-Junior-plus-Marshall lead guitar was a mixture of silk and broken glass. While no sonic triumph, this track is all about pure power. The C200 effortlessly lifted the weight. Talking Heads' "The Great Curve," from Remain In Light (LP, Sire SRK 6095), presents complexity and power, with its dense rhythm bed, layers of polyrhythmic percussion, and multiple vocals doing a singularly funky counterpoint. The C200's presentation was superbly organized and timbrally spot-on.
Soundstaging was excellent, although not the equal of the Steelhead or the Halcro's MC input, especially in terms of front-to-back depth—but I'm talking here about the MM input, not the far more elaborately engineered MC input. While it may be just a bit darkish at times, the MM input offered very gratifying performance driven by the Dynavector PHA-100.
Against the competition
It was instructional, and a lot of fun, to compare the pairing of the VTL TL-7.5 Reference and McIntosh MC501s with the combo of Mac C200 and Halcro dm58s. They offered surprisingly similar overall performance with subtly different shadings—like two differently lit photos of the same beautiful woman striking the same pose. The VTL-Mac duo offered just a little more ultimate speed and transient snap, a smidgen more low-bass extension, and image boundaries that were a bit sharper, though never unnaturally so. Surprisingly, the Mac-Halcro twosome was a little rounder and mellower in overall presentation, but the dm58s' peerless speed and resolution were not compromised. Ultimately, the C200 had a more forgiving sonic character than either the TL-7.5 or the MC501s, and the Halcros revealed that unflinchingly. Not that there was anything significantly wrong with the C200's sound; it was simply a bit more forgiving than the VTL's.
This Just In: Mac is Back
I have to give the C200's phono stage that "Incomplete," but I trust that this issue can be quickly resolved; it should be correctable with the substitution of one or two resistors. The MM input was far more than an add-on, as was revealed by the Dynavector head amp, and provided excellent performance. If the C200's MC stage, properly loaded, lives up to its MM stage, the Mac would establish itself as a worthy competitor to the Halcro dm10 as a full-function preamp, albeit one with a considerably different overall flavor.
Taken as a line stage, the McIntosh C200 offered utterly sterling overall performance that makes it worthy of being considered along with the line stages I reviewed in my April 2004 shoot-out. Among those models, I would place the C200 in a flat-footed overall tie with the BAT VK-51SE, slightly behind the VTL TL-7.5 Reference and Halcro dm10.
In terms of overall character, the McIntosh most closely resembled the VTL, though it was slightly warmer in tonal balance than the ultra-neutral TL-7.5. In fact, the Mac was almost exactly as much warmer than the VTL as the Halcro is cooler. As was the case with the MC501, the only question is whether the C200 provides quite the last few squillionths of resolution as the VTL and Halcro.
In terms of musicality and sheer enjoyment, the McIntosh C200 stands proudly in the foremost ranks, which should satisfy all but the hardest-core hi-fi nerds. Like its mighty sibling, the MC501, the C200 invites you to pour yourself a glass of good wine, put your feet up, and enjoy music you love, preferably in the company of someone you love. The C200 easily accommodates any demands that might be put on it, and never seems to exert any detectable effort in doing so. It never gilded the lily, nor did it leave unsaid anything necessary for my complete musical involvement. The C200 is fully the equal of the MC501. Had MGM not long ago preempted the use of "Ars Gratia Artis"—"Art for Art's sake"—no motto would better sum up the McIntosh C200.
Footnote 1: Like the Mac's MC stage, the Steelhead's uses a transformer as a step-up device. After working through the comparison myself, I asked WallyTools' Wally Malewicz whether the dark, somewhat murky sound could be the result of too much loading, and his answer was an unqualified "yes." Per Wally, who has extensive experience with the Dynavector XV-1 and XV-1S, "You should never load this cartridge down below 100 ohms. It will sound terrible."—Paul Bolin