McIntosh has been around for so long that it must be viewed in the home market in much the same way that the British view Quad. Both have been around seemingly forever and have a reputation for no-nonsense, solidly built equipment that stands the test of time. McIntosh, however, does seem to have weathered the changing market conditions of the recent past with more of its ethos intact than its British counterpart. In no small part, this comes down to McIntosh’s unique and classic livery setting the brand’s products apart from all other audio equipment. The C52 preamp and MC301 mono power amps are part of a timeless design brief that remains unchanging for good reason – it’s still extremely popular the world over.
The C52 is a battleship of a preamplifier; it’s big, heavy, and festooned with knobs and switches. Despite a personal tendency toward aesthetic minimalism, you can’t help but fall under the spell of the wonderful excess of this component’s front panel, complete with VU meters and eight tone controls for the ‘analog equalizer’. It may have a classic design, but the C52 is no museum piece. Instead, this is a modern preamplifier that comes with all the latest bells and whistles, including an onboard digital to analogue converter and an MM/MC phono stage, plus all the connectivity you could want... and then some. The back panel almost resembles an AV amplifier, except that there are none of the video inputs you’d expect. Instead there are balanced and single ended in- and outputs, a phalanx of 12v triggers, and a herd of control connections for full integration into multiroom systems. McIntosh has taken the term ‘comprehensively equipped’ and run with it, for maximum flexibility and future proofing.
The built-in DAC, for example, is DSD capable up to DSD256 (and DXD 384kHz). It has five S/PDIF inputs plus USB, and McIntosh supplies a driver and USB control panel software for Windows machines, acknowledging that Macintosh (no relation) computers do not require this. McIntosh also makes an SACD/CD transport that can output DSD (MCT 450) to the C52’s MCT multipin input, which puts it in a very select group of audio companies.
Inputs are displayed on a dot matrix panel, alongside volume level expressed as a percentage – an unusual but more user-friendly approach than the commonly used ‘minus’ dB figures where zero is maximum. Every input can be named with up to 10 characters and there are various trim settings that can be applied to each; these include whether or not the VU meters are illuminated, gain, balance, mono and/or stereo, equalizer on or off, etc. In the case of the MC phono input, you use the trim control to choose a preferred impedance setting. ‘Comprehensive’ barely scratches the surface.