McIntosh C1000 preamplifier system Page 2

Among the Setup features are input-level trim, so that the volume doesn't "jump" between inputs; a Pass Thru mode for use in a multichannel sound or home theater system; adjustments for the fluorescent display and meter brightness; input title reassignment (for instance, if you have a DVD player plugged into the Aux input, you can change that input's label to read "DVD"). And, of course, in Setup mode you can change MM capacitance and MC resistive loading. You can even set the C1000 for mono operation, via the Setup menu or the remote control. Actually, there are two remote controls: a plastic, full-function, A/V receiver type that can control other McIntosh products, and a hefty model of extruded, anodized aluminum that controls basic functionality. The latter is the one you'll use most of the time, especially when you show off your C1000 to friends.

Using the C1000
When you have both the C1000P solid-state and C1000T tube preamps connected, the C1000C will recognize the fact and double your input-selection options. Scrolling through these options can be tedious, especially when you're not using all of them: CD1, D/A, PH/MM1, PH/MC1, DVD2, Aux2, Tuner2, Srvr2, CDR2, CD2, PH/MM2, PH/MC2, CD3, Srvr3, CDR3, Srvr1, CDR1. Early on I reassigned one input but can't remember now what I did. I kept forgetting what was where, and often did a lot of hunting to find the input I wanted, but it was hardly painful. Otherwise, once everything's up and running and programmed to your liking (a big otherwise), using the C1000 is easy.

The C1000C switched between the tubed and solid-state preamps seamlessly, the meters on each are activated only when that preamp is selected. As for which you'll end up using for each source, that will take some experimenting—one preamp or the other will surely be more complementary to each source. That said, the tubed and solid-state preamps sounded more alike than not, which is how it should be.

A sonic delicacy
While the C1000 outputs single-ended signals, I felt it important also to listen in balanced mode, so I borrowed a pair of mbl 9007 balanced monoblock power amplifiers (review in the works). I also auditioned the C1000 using my reference Musical Fidelity kW single-ended monoblocks.

The C1000's sound remained consistent run either balanced or single-ended. The C1000P solid-state preamp delivered a bloom usually associated with tubed gear, while the tubed C1000T produced the even-handed tonal balance and neutrality one usually associates with solid-state. While there were sonic differences to be heard running the Musical Fidelity kW SACD player through each preamp, the differences were minor: a bit more bloom, and slightly softer, riper bass in the case of the C1000T. But the kW has its own solid-state and tubed outputs. By switching those around, I could achieve the same sound using either McIntosh preamp. The kW's solid-state output into the tubed C1000T sounded very similar to the kW's tubed output into the solid-state C1000P. Running the tubed kW into the tubed McIntosh produced more warmth and bloom than I like, but your taste may differ.

Run through either pair of monoblocks, both the solid-state and tubed preamps sounded intoxicatingly liquid, with astonishing purity, delicacy, and transparency. While few good preamps in my experience present electronic "noise" as audible noise, the difference between the quietness of most preamps of my experience and the quietness of the C1000 was easy to hear—or, rather, not hear. I could sense the C1000's definition of quietness in the elegance of decays, the roundness and three-dimensionality of images, and, especially, in the utter ease of the overall sound.

The C1000's overall freedom from mechanical artifacts, particularly on sibilants and transients, helped produce an entirely effortless sonic picture, yet with either preamp, the sound was never too soft or warm. While the C1000's ultralow noise floor produced mesmerizing, delicate microdynamic details, occasionally I felt that large-scale dynamic swings were not quite as thunderous and powerful as they can be—but once I'd gotten acclimated to the C1000's unusual ease and transparency, that proved to be an illusion.

While in Texas recently to hear Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony perform Mahler's Symphony 2, I picked up a superb-sounding Delos CD of Litton and the DSO in the same work, recorded by John Eargle in the same hall in which the concert took place: the gorgeous-sounding Eugene McDermott Concert Hall of the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. This warm, intimate, coherent-sounding hall has ideal reverberant decay and among the best propagations of string and bass sound I've ever heard live. The construction of the stage included a carefully designed hollow under the cello section to allow their sound to "breathe" with full expression. My hosts had told me that some listeners are skeptical of the hollow's success, but as the lower string players drew their bows across the strings, I found the overall richness, warmth, and textural expression almost overwhelming. Ironic, I thought, that this tubey-sounding space was funded by one of the three founders of semiconductor maker Texas Instruments, while the cold, sterile, analytical Avery Fisher Hall was endowed by a man who made his fortune producing tubed electronics.

The tubed CD-player output into the C1000P solid-state preamp or the solid-state CD-player output into the C1000T tubed preamp came closest to duplicating the sound I heard at either of the seats I occupied in McDermott Hall (10th row center for the first half, dead center in the loge box for the second half). When I ran the Musical Fidelity kW's solid-state output into the solid-state C1000P, the sound was still impressive, but some of the richness I'd heard live was lost.

McIntosh claims 130dB of channel separation for this dual-mono, mirror-image design. Judging by the spaciousness of the sound, I'm sure John Atkinson's measurements will back up that claim.

Phono preamps: tube vs solid-state
With premium phono preamps costing as much as the C1000C controller plus one of the preamps, you might think that the C1000T's and C1000P's built-in phono stages are mere afterthoughts. That didn't prove to be the case. Both the solid-state and tubed phono preamps sounded exceptionally fine, and maintained the line sections' exceptional quiet, coherence, harmonic completeness, delicacy, and dimensionality.

However, only higher-output low-output MCs should be used. Fortunately, top-of-the-line cartridges with outputs of 0.45mV, such as the Lyra Titan i, are currently in vogue, as more and more manufacturers finding ways to increase output without lowering resolution. The low noise floor of even the C1000T's tubed phono section permitted the use of lower-output cartridges without making the dynamics suffer. At least, that's what I found using the luscious-sounding Miyabi/47 Labs cartridge with either phono preamp. But I wouldn't go lower than the Miyabi's output of 0.3mV.

Joni Mitchell's Blue (LP, Reprise MS 2038)—which I've been playing a lot lately—proved the perfect foil for either preamp's phono section, with my nod going to the 12AX7-based C1000T for its extra touches of delicacy and suppleness. With a fine sense of studio acoustic, a real sense of hearing Mitchell before the microphone takes her voice, and a guitar utterly believable in both image and harmonics, I can't say I've heard this record sound more satisfying.

Each phono preamp delivered an inviting, delicate rendering of acoustic music without wimping out on amplified material. The tubed C1000T's phono preamp managed warmth without enveloping the lower midrange in a blanket, and the solid-state C1000P delivered detail without astringency.

I also compared the C1000T and C1000P using the superb-sounding Ataulfo Argenta Edition, a boxed set of LPs collecting the recordings of the Spanish conductor, who died in 1958 at the age of 44 (Alhambra/Alto Analogue AA006, out of print). Don't listen to the carpers who say that only the original—and impossible to find—Spanish edition will do. If you find the Alto Analogue, don't pass it up. I compared this set's edition of Argenta and guitarist Narciso Yepes' recording of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with a London "Blueback" ffss edition (CS 6046), and while they were different, I could make a case for either one. The Alto offered greater transparency and a more forward perspective; the London had me sitting farther back in the hall.

In any case, the tubed C1000T gave Yepes' guitar a rich, delicate, and vibrant "golden" tonality, the solid-state C1000P a bit more transient fire—but this was only a change of seasoning, not a different entrée. That one seasoning was produced by eight 12AX7s and the other by transistors, and that they both sounded so remarkably similar, especially in terms of harmonic structure, is a testament to McIntosh Laboratory's honest attempt in the C1000 to not "flavor" the sound to suit preconceived notions of what either technology should deliver.

The McIntosh C1000 is a complex machine. Its flexibility is almost unlimited, and while some audiophiles believe that simplicity equals sonic purity, in the case of the C1000 you can have both. Chances are you'd never use all of its features, but that doesn't mean you'd be wasting your money. Combine the C1000C controller with either preamplifier and you have a full-function preamp of the highest order. You could always add the other preamp later; then, in addition to having sufficient inputs for your and your neighbor's stereos, you'd be able to season your system's components to perfection.

Configuring the C1000 was complicated and occasionally frustrating, but if you like puzzles, you'll enjoy playing with it. If you don't, make sure your dealer sets it up to your liking and is willing to visit as needed to reconfigure it. Given these prices, it's the least he should be willing to do.

The McIntosh C1000 combines ultralow noise and ultralow distortion with transparency, harmonic completeness, and, thanks to its ultralow noise floor, resolution of low-level microdynamics that is unprecedented in my experience. It delivered unrivaled image specificity without unnatural edge, layer on layer of detail, transient speed and purity without sounding hyper, and delicacy and suppleness without sounding soft and soupy. While the tubed C1000T's bass was slightly less well controlled than the C1000P's, it compensated with textural suppleness. While the solid-state C1000P's bass was not quite as supple as the C1000T's, it compensated with muscular control. Yet it wasn't the case that one was mushy and the other mechanical. The C1000 was like a great dish whose individual ingredients you can't taste—you just enjoy the final blend of flavors without wanting more or less of anything.

Aside from its exquisite sound, the C1000 is impeccably designed, engineered, and built. In terms of its day-to-day operation—turn-on, warmup, switching—the C1000 performed like the premium-priced luxury product it is (something that can't be said of all expensive audio gear). That it's made in the USA by a company founded more than 50 years ago, is a reassuring thought even for those who can't afford it. For you who can, it demands your attention.

McIntosh Laboratory
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903-2699
(800) 538-6576