McIntosh C220 Stereo Preamplifier 
Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps
Written by Brian Kahn   
Friday, 01 June 2007

Ask someone who was into audio in the early days of high end for the names of their favorite high-end audio brands and McIntosh is bound to be mentioned in their first breath. McIntosh has been an icon in the high-end audio world for over 50 years. McIntosh components have long been recognizable by their elegant black glass faceplates, silver trimmed knobs and blue back-lighting. McIntosh’s newest and least expensive preamplifier, the C220, combines the Old World luxury McIntosh is so well known for with modern performance features, all without breaking the bank.

The C220 is a full-featured, tube-based stereo preamplifier that retails for a reasonable $3,300. Some may categorize the C220 as a purist design, as it makes no accommodations for multi-channel or home theater integration as most $3,000 preamps do. However, to consider the C220 a simple stereo preamplifier would be to severely underestimate it. As you will see below, the C220 is full of high-tech features to help it obtain its straightforward and lofty goal.

Upon receiving and unpacking the C220, I immediately noticed that it was a substantial component, weighing 21 pounds, measuring 17-and-a-half inches wide, six inches high and 18 inches deep. The C220 chassis felt solid, and it was obvious that the bottom plate was extremely solid, with good vibration-dampening qualities above the four substantial rubber feet. The sides and top of the preamplifier are made out of perforated steel. The back panel is surprisingly full, with seven pairs of line level and single-ended inputs, one moving magnet phono input, two pairs of balanced inputs, four pairs of single-ended outputs, including one tape output, and a pair of balanced outputs. In addition to all of the signal connections, the rear panel features numerous data and control connections, including 12-volt triggers and an IR receiver. Build quality is extremely good, befitting a luxury item.

I saved the best for last. The C220’s front panel is black glass in the tradition of classic McIntosh products. The backlit glass has all of the writing etched on the backside to prevent any visible wear. The glass front panel is flanked by brushed silver vertical corner trim, with the center of the panel dominated by a large window with blue LCD readout. The LCD window is flanked by four silver trimmed knobs, with treble and bass on the left and input and volume to the right, with a row of black rocker switches below. In line with the switches, to the left is a headphone jack and to the right a red power switch. The front panel has a simple, classic look, yet provides easy access to the C220’s many features.

The C220 is a tube-based preamplifier with four 12 AX7A tubes, two each for the line and phono stages. Despite the balanced connectors found on the back panel of the C220, the circuitry inside is not balanced. McIntosh claims that the majority of the benefit of a balanced system in the intended price range of the C220 is obtained by the use of balanced connections and notes that the C220 has 40 dB of noise rejection.

A variety of performance and convenience features provide the welcome combination of ease of use and exceptional sound quality. Variable Rate Volume minimizes wear, keeps the channels matched within 1/10 of a dB and makes both large and small volume adjustments simple with dual speeds. The volume control interfaces with the audio circuit at two points, the tube output and at the source input. This arrangement keeps the tubes operating in their sweet spot through a much wider volume range than is possible with a traditional volume control. Each of the inputs are customizable and can be named. In addition to the naming of each input, one can set trim, tone and trigger choices as well. The power supplies are fully regulated and the transformer utilizes McIntosh’s special R-Core technology, which is said to reduce both mechanical and signal noise; the latter is assisted by the R-Core transformer’s low heat design, which minimizes thermal noise. All switching is performed within sealed, glass-filled cylinders, which are located adjacent to the rear panel jacks, thus both minimizing the signal path length and the need to clean contacts.

The C220 was placed on the top shelf of my rack and connected to Classe’s CDP-202 CD player and Krell’s Theater Amplifier Standard by Cardas’ Golden Presence balanced interconnects. Monster Cable’s 5100 MKII power conditioner provided all the necessary power filtration. I used both Krell LAT-2000s and Martin Logan Summits, connected by Monster Cable’s Sigma speaker cables and Cardas’ Golden Presence speaker cables, respectively. Shortly after I began my critical listening of the C220, the Krell speakers went back to Krell to be replaced by newer models, so the majority of my critical listening was done with the Martin Logan Summits.

I appreciated the flexibility of the customizable inputs. Being able to change the input names made it easier for my wife to select the proper input. The tone and trigger controls were set the same for each input, but there was a significant variation in trim levels. I changed the title of the phono input to “off,” which activates the McIntosh’s tube-saver circuit. This prevents wear of the phono tubes when the phono stage is not being utilized. Whenever one wants to use the phono stage, simply retitle the input, activating the circuit, and your fresh tubes will be ready to go.

The C220 was placed on the top shelf of my equipment stand to ensure proper ventilation. The perforated steel chassis of the C220 never got hot to the touch – warm, but never hot. I would be careful not to place the C220 in a tight, unventilated spot, but it should be fine in most reasonably ventilated cabinets.

I listened to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album (Warner Brothers) after the C220 had been playing in my system for a few weeks. When listening to the song “Your Latest Trick,” I noted that there was good spatial imaging in all three dimensions, especially in terms of width. Knopfler’s voice was solid and accurate. The vocals were palpable and well-balanced. The C220’s tubes did a great job on vocals, but their strength was not limited to vocals alone. The guitar notes were clear and detailed, with a smooth decay. The triangle maintained a solid presence in the upper left side of the soundstage. The triangle’s notes were clear and detailed without glare. The saxophone was also well-reproduced, with the right balance of body and energy; the saxophone notes were energetic and detailed, without any unnatural harshness. The song “The Man’s Too Strong” demonstrated the C220’s ability to reproduce deep and detailed natural bass notes. This very dynamic track features realistic guitars, the character of which remained consistent at a variety of volume levels (demonstrating the wide sweet spot afforded by McIntosh’s volume control system). The vocals on both tracks were reproduced with a palpable sense of presence, with detail that was smooth and full-bodied.

Knowing that tubes can have some difficulty controlling bass notes, I listened to Shaggy’s Hotshot album (MCA). The well-worn track “It Wasn’t Me” features repetitive deep synthesizer notes. I was pleased by the C220’s ability to reproduce the synthesizer notes with speed, precision and solid weight. The notes hit hard and fast without any smearing, reproducing the various low notes with aplomb. The C220 had no problems controlling the lower octaves.

I then moved on to something edgy, Guns and Roses’ album Appetite for Destruction (Geffen). The opening track “Welcome to the Jungle” starts with a complex guitar riff. The C220 easily made out the details between the instruments and even some of the edits were audible. I had not previously noticed the vocals “oh my god” in the opening riff. The electric guitars were sharp and energetic, putting to rest any concerns of whether a tube preamplifier and the C220 specifically could be quick and detailed enough to reproduce that edgy sound.

I switched back to something a bit mellower: Harry Belafonte’s highly-regarded Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA) album. While listening to the track “When the Saints Come Marching In,” during the beginning, which asks, “What if this were done in the British Madrigal format,” there was a good large staging of orchestra, with back-up singers well-placed and distinct in location from Belafonte, who is solidly placed front and center. The track “Day O” is one of Belafonte’s calling cards, with good reason. This track is mostly vocals and percussion, as midrange vocals benefit from tube design. This track greatly benefited from the C220. Belafonte’s voice was strong and full without sacrificing any detail.

The vocals were lush and accurate, with the accompanying instruments also being accurately reproduced, each with their own distinct spatial identity. Music was reproduced with a good balance of accuracy and detail, without becoming overly analytical. The silent passages were indeed silent and, when silence was not appropriate, the sonics were full and smooth, yet detailed enough not to lose the character and details of the source recording. The C220 appears to have a greater signal to noise ratio than the published 90dB. I did not notice any distortion throughout my listening sessions.

Lastly, I wanted to see how the C220 would do on female vocals. Would there be any sibilance? Would female vocals be reproduced as accurately as their male counterparts? Peter Gabriel’s album So (Geffen) is well-recorded for the most part. The track “Don’t Give Up” features an amazing duet between Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. Bush’s vocals were ethereal and the opening strings were portrayed strongly, with a good mix of detail, weight and body. With the C220, all was in balance and it was not hard to close my eyes and imagine the duet before me in my house.

The Downside
Sonically, I have no complaints. I am a big fan of tube preamplifiers and I have not heard one that I liked more anywhere near this price range. In comparison to the better solid-state pre amplifiers in the C220’s price range, it does not have the most extended highs (although the C220’s high end is very sweet and smooth) and one always has to wait for the tubes to warm up to hear the best sound reproduction possible.

Feature-wise, I would like to see more balanced inputs, a pass-through for a home theater processor and dB meters. After all, McIntosh means big blue meters on the front panel. I must note that these features can be had for an additional $1,800 on McIntosh’s C2200 amplifier. This gives the consumer the choice of paying a very reasonable price for a reduced feature set that still has high performance, or spending a bit more to get it all. I agree with McIntosh’s decision not to compromise the C220’s sonic performance to hit a price point.

If the C220’s feature set meets your needs and you enjoy the lush midrange magic of a tube, the C220 deserves a close listen and serious consideration. Pairing the C220 up with a quality, powerful, solid state amplifier, such as the MC602 (previously reviewed), will result in the best of both worlds. The $3,300 price tag is not insignificant, but it is most definitely a bargain in the world of high-end audio, as the sound quality of this unit is equivalent to that of other units I have heard that cost quite a bit more.
Manufacturer McIntosh
Model C220 Stereo Preamplifier
Reviewer Brian Kahn

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