AudioQuest NightOwl

MCINTOSH

C49 Preamp Review

Classic warm McIntosh sound, 13 inputs and built to last forever.

PRICE


$5,000

THE HIGH NOTES


  • Classic Warm McIntosh Sound
  • Upgradeable Digital Board
  • Incredible Flexibility

Company & Product Overview

The year was 1946 when Frank McIntosh hired Gordon Gow to work on a special project for him. Frank McIntosh, at the time, was a consultant to the TV broadcast industry. Frank saw a demand for a high powered, low distortion amplifier. In 1949, the McIntosh brand was born out of this partnership. McIntosh Labs moved to Binghamton, NY in 1951 and have been at their current location in Binghamton since 1956.

We recently visited the McIntosh facility and it really is interesting to see how the building has grown over the past 60+ years. A quick Google Maps search of 2 Chambers St Binghamton, NY will show you all the additions. Another interesting fact about McIntosh is the average employee tenure is over 20 years!

McIntosh has become world-renowned for designing and manufacturing almost every single thing in-house. They also pride themselves on being able to repair just about any McIntosh product ever made. This philosophy coupled with their great sound has led to McIntosh products holding their value better than any other audio brand. When we toured the factory, we were amazed at the level of in house expertise they have. Not only do they make and assemble all of the audio portions of the gear at the factory, but they also bend and paint their own metal, cut and etch their own glass, and even wind and pot their own transformers. It is truly a remarkable tour if you are into audio at all!

With all of the expertise McIntosh puts into their products, they are not the type of brand who comes out with new models every year just to have a new number designation. They only make a change when enough technology has come out that warrants a new model, which in some cases can be 10 years or more. The subject of today’s review is such a revision to what is probably one of the most popular McIntosh products, their entry-level, solid-state, full-function preamplifier, the McIntosh C49. The new McIntosh C49 preamp is just starting to make its way out into the audio world and is loaded with far more features and technology than you might think from having a quick look at its beautiful front faceplate.

Design & Build Quality

When you spend time at the McIntosh factory and get to know the people there, a philosophy starts to emerge that becomes clearer and clearer with each person you meet. It actually has more than one facet, but they all come together to help you understand why McIntosh owners are so happy with their purchases.

  • McIntosh wants to create products that you can pass down to the next generation.

This has several aspects on its own. For an audio product to last this long, it needs to be built to extremely high standards. The company has to have a dedication to supporting it for decades, which is a rare find in today’s disposable marketplace. Finally, the product has to sound so good that even after 50 years it can still hold its own against the latest technology.

  • McIntosh wants their products to be extremely easy to use, yet offer up all kinds of ways to tune the product to your personal tastes should you desire.

This is not an easy feat to pull off, but we have to say, McIntosh has this perfected. More on this and how it relates to the McIntosh C49 in the next section.

  • McIntosh products inspire a great sense of pride of ownership through their beauty and connection to the music.

The beautiful glass faceplates, some of which have the classic McIntosh blue meters, are almost like a piece of art in your home. Everyone on the McIntosh team also has a passion for music. From the early days when they powered Woodstock to the Grateful Dead’s “Wall of Sound”, McIntosh gear has a history of connecting you to the music with a sense of raw power and emotion that has to be experienced.

The new McIntosh C49 solid-state preamp embodies all of these principals in a complete control center for today’s music lovers. McIntosh wanted to give music lovers a new preamp that enabled them to connect to just about any type of music source available today. Also, while you can just make a couple of connections and be making music with the C49 quickly, there are a ton of fun features under the hood that allows you to customize the Mcintosh C49 to your system. And it goes without saying, just like every McIntosh product, the C49 is built to last for decades!

Features & Technology

When we were touring the production lines we noticed some pieces that looked like they were only half of a product. It turns out, these were the two parts that make up the C49 preamp. The McIntosh C49 has an abundance of both analog and digital inputs. To keep the analog signal path as pure as possible, the preamp is two completely separate units tied together.

The top half houses the analog section which gives you two sets of outputs with both balanced and single-ended RCA output. There is also a third fixed RCA audio out. You’ll get two pairs of balanced audio inputs, 3 RCA audio inputs, and both a moving coil and moving magnet set of phono inputs. The other half of the preamp houses the power supply and the digital section.

The DA1 digital audio module is also modular so if there is a huge technology change, it can be updated over time. Although for right now, it is totally at what is state of the art with its 8-channel 32 Bit DAC used in a Quad Balanced mode. It supports DSD256 and DXD384kHz for high-resolution audio. The DA1 module gives you a USB digital input, two Toslink inputs, and two coax digital inputs. You also get a special MCT input designed to work with McIntosh SACD transports. This adds up to an input count of 13, pretty impressive leaving you plenty of room for all kinds of source components. The back panel of the digital/power half also houses 10 mini jacks which can be used for all kinds of cool control functions with other McIntosh gear.

One could take the McIntosh C49 out of the box, connect up a CD transport to the digital input and a turntable to the correct phono input and quickly be making great sound. That is part of the McIntosh philosophy, but if you want to dive deeper to tweak things to your liking, you’ll find a world of cool features. But first, let’s have a look at the beautiful glass front panel and its functions.

It only takes about 2 seconds for anyone to figure out how to operate the McIntosh C49, it is so well laid out. The left side has a round input selection knob. In the center is a visual display to show you what you have selected. On the far right is the volume knob. Underneath the input knob, you’ll find a full-sized headphone jack. McIntosh uses an internal dedicated high power headphone amp using what they call their HighDrive tech that can power just about any headphone on the market. Next to the headphone jack are two switches that turn on or off each of the two, independent preamp outputs. The right side has an easy-to-find power on/off switch, a switch to engage or disengage the tone controls, and a mute button. Every switch has a red light that indicates if the switch is in the on position. McIntosh is also very clever in the way the labeling for all of the controls is on the rear side of the glass. This means it will never wear off, preserving the great resale value McIntosh gear is known for.

By pressing inward on the input button, you’ll get into the setup menu where you will be able to fine-tune the McIntosh C49 to your system. There are several features we discovered that we really love:

First, is the extreme flexibility of the phono section. The moving magnet section lets you adjust from 50 to 800pF in 50 pF steps, while the moving coil stage allows you to load the cartridge at 25, 50, 100, 200, 400 or 1,000 ohms. Other phono preamps have this feature, but the neat part here is you can do these on the fly with the handheld remote, enabling you to quickly hear the change!

The Mcintosh C49 also has a home theater bypass mode. Many high performance 2 channel products have added this feature recently. It lets you connect all of your dedicated audio-only gear to your great McIntosh C49 preamp, then connect up your surround sound processor or receiver’s front channel outputs to the C49. This enables you to combine a dedicated two-channel system and a home theater setup with zero compromises to the sound of your two-channel gear.

McIntosh will let the adjuster or purist in you have your cake and eat it too, with their tone and balance control circuitry. You’ll be able to adjust bass, treble, and balance or if you wish, completely disable those circuits for a pure signal path. But let’s face it, some of those older classic recordings can sometimes use a little help, so we are happy to see the built-in tone controls.

For handling all of those 13 inputs, McIntosh gives you the ability to name each one to your personal tastes and also trim the input volume up or down on everyone. This means when you switch from source to source, they can all be at the same volume level.

If you dive deep into the headphone amp setup, you’ll find a great feature set. Most preamps will totally mute the audio output on the preamp out jacks when you plug in a set of headphones. The McIntosh C49 defaults to this setting as well but gives you two more options. You can have it just mute the main outputs, leaving output 2 and 3 active or mute no outputs.

McIntosh products all have a goal of minimal noise and distortion which is exemplified in the split chassis of the C49. Another way to reduce noise is to have as little internal wiring as possible. If you were to pull out the boards for the C49, you would notice very little wiring at all. The signal switching all takes place right at the connectors through a special control circuit that talks to the front panel. The C49 also uses McIntosh’s best volume control design. This uses optoelectronic circuitry that gives you the ability to fine-tune the volume in minute steps. No signal passes through the volume knob assuring years of noise-free service. But, unlike some preamps where you have to keep spinning the volume knob for several rotations to get things loud, the C49 senses when you are moving the knob faster, ramping the volume up quickly. Once you have it close to where you want it, slow turns fine-tune the volume in tiny steps, pretty cool!

One the digital side of tech, the McIntosh Quad Balanced DAC design cancels out any noise or distortion present in the digital conversion process. The result is a digital section that gives you an extremely smooth sound with never a trace of harshness.

The final part of the secret sauce inside the McIntosh C49 that makes it sound so sweet is simply the McIntosh heritage of component evaluation and testing. When you make products that last for decades, your engineers start to get a really good sense of what types and brands of all the tiny resistors, diodes, capacitors and more inside a preamp not only sound great now but hold their great sound and specs into the future. With the C49, you are getting 70 years of audio design experience assuring you of outstanding sound decades down the road.

Performance

McIntosh sent us a C49 before our full order of demo gear arrived, so we wound up testing it somewhat stand-alone outside of a full McIntosh stack. This is probably not the typical way it would be used as most McIntosh owners couple a McIntosh preamp with one or more of their power amps, but since the McIntosh C49 is brand new, we wanted to get a review out quickly.

We paired it up with a Mark Levinson 534 power amp and one of our favorite speakers, the Revel Salon 2 with everything wired up using Transparent Audio cables.

Several of our friends in the industry had told us to expect to be surprised by the sound of the new McIntosh components, in a good way! When we visited the factory, the sound we experienced was very impressive, but there is just something about putting a piece of gear into a system you are familiar with that tells the true tale.

The preamp we pulled out to test the McIntosh was a $20,000 digital only preamp so we wondered how the $5000 C49 would hold up. The answer came pretty quickly and got clearer after a few tracks.

Some people have loved the McIntosh sound for its super warm character, but it has been criticized as not being as open and effortless as other state of the art contenders. A few notes into the first track and we could tell there was absolutely zero lack of openness, as a matter of fact, the effortless sound was making us smile. The first cut we tried was from Shelby Lynne’s "Just a Little Lovin". There are some percussive sounds that are recorded with a lot of decay added and we could hear every bit of this as the sound slowly faded away in a super effortless fashion. The dynamics of the percussion and deep bass were also very impressive to our ears.

We moved on to "Man in the Long Black Coat" from Bob Dylan. At the beginning of the track, there are guitars in the left and right channels and a great system will place these guitars a little bit outside the main speakers. We heard this exact effect with the McIntosh C49, plus the acoustic energy coming off the guitars had zero sense of strain. A few more seconds into this track brings on some rich harmonica sounds. Here, the warmth and effortlessness this preamp lets through just drew you into the music.

Our last cut was "Billy Jean" from Between the Bars. A great system will let you really hear into the harmonics of the guitars. Checkmark again. The McIntosh C49 was doing a great job here as well and when the haunting vocals came in, we just sat and listened through the whole song.

We did switch back to our reference preamp and in many aspects, it was clearly better, but in the end, we were super impressed with the sound quality of the C49 for what it costs in today’s world of electronics that cost more than a nice car.

Overall Recommendation

A great audio preamp can be the heart of a music system for decades. Many people wind up replacing what they thought was a good choice due to it lacking a feature or type of input that comes out in the future. With the modular digital section and the plethora of analog with MC and MM phono, we see the McIntosh C49 being in your system for decades. When you look at all you get for $5000 compared to the competition out there, it seems like a great value to us. Plus it's just beautiful to look at and fun to operate!

HIGH NOTES UNPACKED

Classic Warm McIntosh Sound

The C49 has a sound that just pulls you into the music. It is warm, yet effortless making you want to play your favorite tunes over to hear them for what seems like the first time.

Upgradeable Digital Board

McIntosh gives up a state of the art digital section for the 6 digital inputs, but it is even upgradeable as technology changes over the years.

Incredible Flexibility

With 13 inputs including both MM and MC phono, 6 digital, balanced audio and all kinds of ways to adjust to your system, the C49 is unsurpassed in flexibility.

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