McIntosh C2200 Amp Reviewed


Thrice before, McIntosh has tormented us with limited edition all-valve goodies. The production runs of the MC275 power amp, C22 pre-amp and the high-priced 50th anniversary power amp, the MC2000, were limited enough not to allow time for us (of restricted income) to save up for them. Such agony! All three were truly fabulous: the reissues equalled the originals closely enough to serve as surrogates, while the MC2000 just may be one of the finest high-end power amps EVER.

McIntosh, fortunately, is not a cruel company.

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As if to make up for the paucity of their late 20th Century valve amps (and being fully aware of the eye-watering prices that their earliest tube products now command), McIntosh has decided to re-enter valve amplifier manufacturer on a ‘non-limited edition’ basis. So successful and so critically adored were the reissues and the MC2000 that it took little to convince the bean-counters that McIntosh, like modern-day Quad, could sustain a series of all-tube electronics with high nostalgia content, while treating them as regular catalogue items. They’ve even dubbed the series, ‘Heritage Products’ in their literature. Thus, the all-new MC2102 power amplifier and the C2200 pre-amplifier are ‘normal’ production items which will remain available until they either stop selling in worthwhile quantities, or the company decides to supersede them.

What’s crucial for understanding these products is being aware of how McIntosh – a company steeped in tradition – managed to balance the products’ intrinsic retro elements with modern-day requirements. Quite blatantly, the look and feel hark back to classic McIntosh hardware, all black glass and gilt knobs and blue-lit meters. Then again, McIntosh never abandoned the look, so it’s as much ‘current’ as it is ‘historical’. As a result, neither unit could be mistaken for anything other McIntosh products, and only the amp’s modern speaker terminals and the digital display on the C2200 let you know through visual clues that these are 21st Century toys.

Retro elements – styling aside – include all-tube circuitry, the inclusion of a superb phono stage and (though I hope he doesn’t think I’m calling him a relic) the design skills of McIntosh’s co-founder and former President, the legendary Sidney Corderman. Coaxed out of retirement, Corderman has rejoined the company with a series of designs which should shock the sheisse out of every snotty, wet-behind-the-ears, cocky little pisher in the industry. Quite clearly, there’s no substitute for experience, and ‘ageists’ had better watch out.

If, as with the Lexicon MC12, dense owner’s manuals impress you, note that the C2200 pre-amp needs a 30-page tome to tell you of its capabilities. It may be an-all tube design appealing mainly to hard-core analogue fetishists, but it addresses the modern era with the sort of user-adjustable fine-tuning which smacks of arch. And yet the signal path is all analogue, all-tube. Flagrantly and shamelessly, McIntosh is using the benefits of digital technology in an analogue product, without compromising analogue purity one bit. Psycho-purists who would condemn the C2200 on the grounds of it being a joy to use thanks to digital addenda need their heads examined. Or another hair shirt.

As far removed from the on-off/source select/volume pot school of minimalism as you can get, the C2200 is spec’d up to the gunwales with goodies galore. The most important knob of all is a variable-rate volume control on the right of the front panel, with high-precision tracking accuracy of 0.1dB over its 214 0.5dB steps. At the far left is a rotary source control with electromagnetic switching, the two knobs flanking a pair of meters which indicate the relative output of the left and right channels. Below these are, left to right, bass and treble controls, a bright digital read-out indicating source, volume and balance levels, and mode data for operation function during set-up, followed by a rotary to switch the meters’ lighting on or off, and a rotary balance control. Lastly, the bottom row includes the IR sensor for the remote, buttons for tone control bypass, mono selector, record monitor select and set-up mode, a centrally-positioned headphone socket, a push button for muting, a pair of buttons to choose between the two sets of outputs (for controlling two separate stereo amplifiers), a standby on/off button and finally an on/off button which completely switches off the amp from the mains.

Although the C2200 is ‘just’ a stereo pre-amp, its back panel is as crowded as a multi-channel AV controller. A run-through will tell you just how flexible the unit is, and how McIntosh in no way would allow it to be precluded from incorporation into multi-channel A/V or multi-zone custom install set-ups. In the upper left hand corner (seen from the back) are six XLR sockets for three pairs of balanced outputs – one main, and two ‘subsidiaries’ which can be switched on and off from the front panel. These are duplicated directly below with unbalanced phono outputs, plus a pair for tape record out. Underneath these are an IEC mains input and fuse holder; to the right of these are control triggers for powering up other components.

Inputs fill the right hand side, with the unit accommodating four balanced sources via XLRs, and eight unbalanced sources (including m-m phono) through RCA phono sockets. Arrayed below these are data ports which send control signals to compatible components, e.g. other McIntosh hardware. Also fitted is an earthing post for a tonearm cable, and a connection for an external sensor for remote operation; think ‘multi-room’ and ‘custom install’.

Remove the lid, and you will probably drool. McIntosh doesn’t understand the concept of NOT finishing even the parts invisible to the casual owner. Componentry is no-compromise, including low-noise 1% metal film resistors, a hefty, shielded power transformer, superbly-made PCBs, ultra-short wiring runs, nifty X-shaped valve ‘clamps’ to keep each quartet of tubes locked in place and non-vibrating, user-accessible fuses, lots of heat-sinkage – I can’t imagine a higher standard of construction. Naturally, this requires a large-ish housing: the C2200 occupies a space of 7.125×17.5x20in (HWD) including clearances, and weighs 27lbs. And that’s just the pre…

Derived from – and looking a whole helluvalot like – the MC2000, the MC2102 produces less power at 100W/ch versus 130W/ch but it will seem almost a bargain in comparison. Although 4in shorter at 7in tall, it has a bigger footprint at 17.5x20in (WD), compared to the MC2000’s 11×17.75×18.75 (HWD), and weighs a still butch 88 lbs versus the ‘2000’s 135lb. Moreover, the valve complement is the same, at eight tubes per channel: one 12AX7 tube is used for the balanced input, a second is assigned as a voltage amplifier and phase inverter, one 12AT7 is a push-pull bootstrapped voltage amplifier, and the other is a cathode follower driver feeding four 6550/KT88 outputs tubes in push-pull parallel configuration. In stereo, the MC2102 is designed to drive 2, 4, or 8-ohm loads, while parallel mono configuration allows use with 1,2,or 4-ohm loads; acting in bridged mono form it copes with 4, 8, or 16-ohm loads.

Also like the MC2000, the newbie has a stainless steel chassis and a black glass front panel in classic Mac configuration: two gilded-edged knobs for power on/off and setting the watt-reading meters for peak or hold, with or without illumination, flanking two meters showing power output and tube biasing points. Above the meters is a window through which you can view the valves; the review sample came with superb, Russian-made KT88s. The valves fill the front half of the unit; as with the predecessor, they fit into ceramic valve bases with gold-plated contacts. As the unit arrives with the valves packed separately, you will be removing the cage to fit the tubes.

Behind the valves are three potted transformers, then a row of vertically-facing socketry mounted on a back ‘shelf’. These include gold-plated 5-way WBT speaker terminals, with separate terminals for 2, 4, and 8 ohm speakers, a pair of sockets for remote on/off operation, two switches selecting mono or stereo operation and balanced or unbalanced inputs. Lastly, the shelf contains a pair of phono sockets and a pair of XLRs for single-ended or balanced input.

Read more about the C2200 on Page 2.

As I’d been waiting for over a year for this combination to arrive, you
could say I was not a little excited. Manhandling the amp on one’s own
is not advisable, but I managed the job without scratching it. I fed to
the C2200 balanced signals from the Vimak and Marantz CD12/DA12 CD
players, with the Garrard 401/Decca International/Decca Gold analogue
front-end. Speaker choice, though, proved ear-opening because, as with
the Audio Research SP16/VS55 pairing I reviewed recently, the McIntosh
system fell head-over-heels in love Italian-style. ‘That’s Amore’, and
all that. Yes, it drove a Sonus Faber, but no, not the Cremona. Even
though it’s a speaker is hungry enough to keep the McIntosh’s meters
pointing to the right, the Sonus Faber Guarneri Homage matched the
McIntosh combo like, like…prosciutto and melon.

Although I also used the system with WATT Puppy 6, LS3/5As, Quads
and others, it was clear that I had stumbled quite accidentally on a
system which needed no tweaking, no accessories, a close-to-perfect
synergy which works straight out of the box. So I stuck with the
Guarneris throughout the sessions, even eliciting from a cable
manufacturer that the package delivered the most realistic violin
sounds he’d ever heard. And he wasn’t pandering to the Sonus Fabers’
soubriquet. Upper frequencies possess both a warmth and a clarity which
provide strings with a natural shimmer, even when sourced from older
CDs mastered in the days before ‘jitter’ meant something other than
shakes from DTs. Although a sweet top is a Guarneri trait, it can be
compromised by the amplification, especially solid state. Both McIntosh
pieces share the Guarneri’s sound, so it was one warm, lush happy

Even though the Guarneri is a demanding speaker, the MC2102 never
exhibited signs of strain. I do recall the MC2000 having an easier time
with the Guarneris, but I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment in
recommending the lower-powered MC2102. True, my room is a small 12x18ft
and I do not bang head, but even when asked to deal with Wheatus in
full-tilt mode, or the massive orchestral majesty of the Glory
soundtrack at ‘serious’ levels, there were no traces of clipping. Here,
too, the C2200 demonstrated its ability to handle abuse, its vast
headroom coping with every source’s demands, including the sometimes
hyper activity of a Decca – sorry, London – cartridge.

Down below, the McIntosh set-up was so good that I quickly realised
it was showing a new side to the Guarneri. If you recall that that
speaker, when it first appeared, was tarred by its size as being a
mini-monitor, you will be shocked to hear that the MC2102 makes it
sound as if a subwoofer had suddenly been added to the mix. The bass is
extended further, it’s cleaner, and – above all – more controlled, all
attributable to the Macs, and a behavioural trait which identifies this
pairing an easy introduction to valves for those who fear giving up the
hammer-like grip of solid state.

But, as ever, the real action took place in the midband, and the
sweetness and warmth of the treble extended all the way down into the
vocals. Aside from presenting them as sibilance-free, the amplifiers
graced the vocals with a convincing richness, even the slightly
recessed (in the recording, that is) vocals of Alison Krauss on ‘I
Will’. I’m at a loss to explain it, but the C2200/MC102 pairing somehow
showcases vocals, providing an extra presence, almost placing them
forward of the instruments. And it even carried over to mono, placing
Buddy Holly in front of the Crickets, with the backing vocals clearly
occupying a space behind him.

Mono, however, is not the way to appreciate the McIntosh pair
because the soundstage they reproduce is truly of David Lean
proportion. I’d forgotten just how truly amazing the Guarneris are when
it comes to recreating a genuine 3D effect. The McIntoshes simply open
up the sound and let the Guarneris expand to fill the room. They make a
small two-way sound like a massive floorstander. And I won’t even
invite your venom by telling you what they do for LS3/5As. Let’s just
say that they’ve improved on every piece of equipment to which they’ve
been connected. Yes, I even heard more from familiar pieces such as the
Marantz CD12 and the SME10. If ever a pre/power combination actively
and dynamically improved the lot of both the sources and speakers
between which it resides, this is it. And, no, I can’t think of ANY
downside, other than the occasional, greedy musing that it would be
nice to have two MC2102s in mono form…

All of this glory will set you back 5490 for the C2200 and 6498
for the MC2102. Think of the MC2102 as a half-price MC2000 and you can
understand why my heart’s doing a pitta-pat. Better still, if you buy
the C2200 and MC2102 at the same time, the system price is 11,000 – a
savings of nearly a grand. Maybe the word ‘bargain’ should never be
uttered when discussing hardware above four figures, let alone five,
but I defy anyone who hears this combination to argue convincingly that
it’s not a blinding achievement regardless of price.

I didn’t think I’d hear another pre/power combo as delicious as the
Audio Research SP16/VS55 so soon, but here’s some pudding providing the
proof. This Mac Pack is simply irresistible, the real deal, richtige
vaar, with performance that’s just about as good as it gets, and at a
price wa-a-ay below the current ceiling for high-end lunatics. Think of
the build quality and convenience and the peerless heritage and the
inevitable reliability as bonuses. And if any of you still think that
McIntosh makes nothing but over-engineered hardware for lawyers and
dentists, I’d suggest that you revise your judgment to include ‘and
music lovers’.

Absolute Sounds, 58 Durham Road, London SW20 0DE. Tel 0181 971 3909, FAX 0181 879 7962

SIDEBAR: Man The Controls
By this point, you’ve realised that the C2200 has a remote control, and
it’s an illuminated, 52-button affair that’s both assignable,
intelligent and able to control other products in an all-McIntosh
installation. Learning your way around it is advisable if you are the
sort who likes to play with settings, because it’s best to do this from
the hot seat, via the remote. This inventory should give you some idea
of the sheer flexibility of the C2200:

Alphanumeric Display Brightness: ranges from 1 (Dim) to 31 (Bright), in conjunction with the meters’ illumination, on or off

Input Trim Level: alters the sources’ output levels by +/-6dB for matching source to source

Input Titling: you can organise the display to read whatever you like for every input

Power Control Triggers: allows assigning of the power-on triggers to
the components of your choice, e.g. switching on the CD player only
when CD input is chosen

Auto Tone: sets specific tone settings per component, so the unit
‘remembers’ the settings from source to source, including tone bypass

Pass Thru Mode: for incorporating the C2200 into a multi-channel system

Power On Option: permits the use of the main power on button to activate the unit instead of the standby on/off button

For those of you who still love vinyl, simply renaming the PH/AUX
input to PHONO will turn the line level input into a phono input, with
its own quartet of valves – two 12AX7 and two 12AT7, the same line-up
as the high-level gain section. And when you use it as an
auxiliary-only input, the valves stay off, thus prolonging tube life.
Clever. KK

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• Read more amplifier reviews from
• Find a receiver to pair with this amp.
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