Music in the Round #4 Page 2

The preamps keep on coming...
Over the past few months I've auditioned two more all-analog multichannel preamps, a fact that some might find remarkable. Just this past week I chatted with Jonathan Scull, who wondered about the market for a high-end, all-analog multichannel preamp. I don't know if such a market exists, and I, too, wonder about their future. But I do have a closet full of them, and during this period of transition from two to many channels, they're essential. Some of us still have traditional analog sources and we are also forced, for the most part, to use the analog outputs of our SACD players and most DVD-Audio players. On the other end, most of us are using analog-input amplifiers to run our speakers.

But in the future, analog intercomponent communication will become less and less common as high-resolution multichannel digital links will increasingly permit signals to remain in the digital domain until, of necessity, they're converted to analog in the power amp or at the loudspeaker. The longer we postpone that D/A conversion, the more convenience and processing power we retain. Sony's i.Link system is the thin end of this wedge.

But until such digital distribution becomes the standard, I'll continue my survey of analog preamplifiers to be used as control centers for both stereo and multichannel music. Here is the next candidate.

McIntosh C45 multichannel preamplifier
The C45 ($3600) is the first McIntosh component I've ever had in any of my systems. I was a beginner audiophile in the 1950s and '60s, McIntosh's heyday, and the C45 seems so sexy, elegant, and nostalgic to me. The black-glass front panel with its gold trim and illuminated blue display make it impossible to identify the C45 as anything but a Mac from anywhere within eyeshot. Even the control layout is traditional: volume and input control knobs (real knobs!) on the right, with bass and treble controls on the left. One input is Phono and, glory be, it's a real moving-magnet phono input, not just a line input for an external phono stage. Selection of the tuner input connects a line input, or, if you add in the option, an integrated AM/FM tuner. Anyone who has used a component amplifier or preamplifier in the last 50 years will be comfortable with the C45's basic operation.

Below the C45's main control knobs is an array of what look like rocker switches but are actually touch switches with, in many cases, more than two positions. From right to left, they are: Power, Standby (with power-indicator LED), Mute, Setup, Trim (for selecting channels), Up and Down Trim Level (for matching input levels), Mode (for selecting between two- and six-channel operation or for entering station presets for the optional tuner module), and Tone Bypass (which also selects options during setup). The tone controls affect only the front L/R channels. Farther to the left are an IR sensor for the remote control and a stereo headphone jack.

The stupendously large and bright front-panel display could be easily read from anywhere in my listening room. The substantial remote control has all the controls needed to operate and trim the C45, as well as some useful for setup. The remote is illuminated by pressing any of its buttons, or by pushing the button on its side, normally activated as soon as one grasps the unit. Together, display and remote made it a pleasure to operate the C45 from my listening chair during the rare times when I could actually resist playing with those silky front-panel knobs.

The rear panel is more revealing of the C45's capabilities. Across the top are six-channel XLR outputs, with duplicate jacks for the front channels, and two sets of six-channel RCA inputs. The middle tier has six-channel RCA outputs (again with duplicate jacks for the front channels), one stereo XLR input, and eight stereo RCA inputs, including one that can be either a line-level or an RIAA phono input. The bottom tier sports an EIA power receptacle, a jack for an accessory keypad, three power control/trigger outputs for integration with other McIntosh system components, and nine data ports for remote control of compatible source components connected to the associated inputs. Finally, the extreme right side bears a ground terminal for turntables and panel space for the optional AM/FM tuner.

The TM1 tuner module arrived a few weeks after the C45. Its simple installation gave me the chance to look inside the chassis, where everything was cleanly arranged, much like a computer motherboard, with plug-in cards and ribbon connectors. My only disappointment was that the top cover of the chassis, while entirely adequate when in place, seemed a bit flimsy when detached, and not in keeping with my overall impressions of the C45.

One can assign any one of the C45's physical inputs to any logical and displayed input, including the multichannel ones. In addition, any unused input can be turned off so that the input selector switches only among the usable ones. Also, each input can be trimmed to match the level of the others, and there's memory to store tone control settings, including bypass for each input. Finally, and as acknowledgment that this is a multichannel preamp, a summed but full-range mono output on a subwoofer output can be derived from stereo sources. Because this output is full-range, it can also be used to power a "center-fill" speaker (see above) or a remote mono speaker.

While sound quality is our greatest concern, operational comfort is also important. The C45 was the most intuitive and pleasant-to-use preamplifier I have yet encountered. Push a button on the remote and the unit switches silently. Operate the volume control from the remote or the front panel and the preamp and display respond briskly. Want to change or trim any of your settings while that unit is in operation? No sweat. There are no surprising mutes or reboots, just results. The phono stage is quiet and clean but, of necessity, only two-channel; all I'll say here is that it worked well with an old Grado moving-magnet and a high-output Dynavector moving-coil.

The C45's TM1 tuner module, also a two-channel device, was more than okay. FM reception in the Litchfield Hills is chancy; the Mac module was no worse but no better than my Pioneer Elite F-93 in catching the meager pickings. With AM, however, the Mac was a miracle, hauling in more channels more clearly than I would have believed possible. News, weather, and talk from all over Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts were available all the time. The TM1 is the functional equivalent of McIntosh's MR85 tuner, including the remarkable RAA 1 remote and Faraday shielded AM antenna.

I used the C45 with the Magnepan Home Theater System speakers and my resident Paradigm Reference setup (Studio CC, '60s, and '20s, with a Servo-15 sub); power amps were the Adcom GFA-7805 and Bel Canto eVo6. Sources were the Sony SCD-XA777ES SACD player and Marantz DV8400 universal player.

The C45 gave the immediate impression of a clean and open sound. Bass was more than adequate and fully extended, but the revelation of upper strings and brass was, with the right source material, quite attention-getting. A good example of the latter was a wonderful DVD-A of Wagner overtures and preludes performed by the Robert Schumann Philharmonie, Chemnitz, under the direction of Oleg Caetani (ARTS 45004-6). The orchestra has been around since 1833, and Caetani, their music director since 1996, studied with Nadia Boulanger, Igor Markevitch, and Kiril Kondrashin. They play the leather out of these familiar pieces.

ARTS' recording, from 24-bit/96kHz originals, is super-transparent and, despite a closer, more intensely immediate perspective than is usual for multichannel recordings, there's sufficient rear-channel ambience to transport the listener. Listen to the delicacy and detail of the violins in the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, or the spikes of brass in the overture to Der Fliegende Holländer or The Ride of the Valkyries. The lower strings and percussion have sufficient weight and power that, along with the transparency and treble dynamics of the Mac C45, I felt as if I were in the front row of a highly exciting concert.

While its calling card is in the upper half of the frequency spectrum, the C45 is no slouch when it comes to the bottom end; it's just that it's a bit less remarkable. I popped in the powerful and dynamic Un Segundo Una Vida, by Romero (SACD, 333entertainment 333ESA001), a studio mix of flamenco-derived world music that relies heavily on close-miked acoustic guitars and percussion. Immediately, I was struck by the force of the guitars' resonance, which on most tracks sits right in the plane of the main speakers. Add to that the varied drums and Romero's warm voice, and I heard a powerful presence via the C45. This disc ranges from solos to ensembles with added instruments and voices, and makes pointed if subtle use of the rear channels for palmas (clapping) and other details. True, this is a more immersive mix than I generally prefer, but the use of the surrounds for details as well as ambience is less gimmicky than musically engrossing and satisfying.

At $3600 including phono stage, the C45 sits between the Bel Canto Pre6 and the McCormack MAP-1 in price and in sound. It seemed a bit brighter than the Pre6 at the upper end, but was equally formidable at the bottom. The transparency of the C45 and the Pre6 seemed equal, although the difference in balance may cloud that issue in the absence of A/B comparisons. Pending critical auditions in my main stereo system, my feeling is that the Bel Canto is more neutral than the C45 or the MAP-1. The C45 and MAP-1 sounded even more alike. Their balances are similar, but the MAP-1 is a bit tighter at the bottom and, depending on the amp and speakers, could be just right or lack requisite bloom.

The C45, however, is more a two-channel preamp that can accommodate and switch two multichannel inputs but that lacks interchannel balancing for multichannel sources, or even L/R balancing for stereo. The Bel Canto and McCormack preamps, on the other hand, are true multichannel devices with facilities that permit interchannel trimming. The McCormack can even synthesize a surround mode from stereo inputs. Nonetheless, for overall ease of use and convenience, the McIntosh C45 is a clear winner.