“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
McIntosh Laboratory is no stranger to that adage. Ever since its founding, in 1949, by Frank McIntosh and Gordon Gow, the company has designed and made audio components oriented more toward those who prefer to buy such a product once or, at most, twice in a lifetime. For that, I applaud them. In this industry, sustainable and profitable rarely go together -- you’re far more likely to see an only slightly revised version of the same product offered every two or three years instead of every five to ten, or even only once every decade or two. This may be forgivable for products in the rapidly evolving digital categories of streamers, DACs, even AVRs -- but for analog gear, and especially amplifiers and preamplifiers, it’s seldom necessary.
McIntosh gets this. Take, for example, their flagship preamplifier, the C1100, first launched in September 2015.
Description: A familiar face
The impression of high quality was made the moment I began unpacking the C1100. The box-within-box packaging is outstanding, and the density of each of the C1100’s two modules tells you you’ve bought one serious piece of hardware.
The two-box C1100 comprises the C1100C control module ($7000, all prices USD) and the C1100T tubed amplification module ($7000). Unlike with the C1100’s predecessors, the C1000 and C500, there is no option for choosing between tubed and solid-state amplification modules. This, McIntosh told me, is because the C1100T is the quietest tubed preamp McIntosh has ever made, thus obviating the need for a solid-state alternative. Again, I applaud McIntosh for taking this simpler if less profitable route; the base cost of the discontinued C1000C was $9000, and customers could pair it with a C1000P (solid-state, $8000) or a C1000T (tubed, $8000) -- or buy both, for a pocket-dusting total of $25,000. Before that, the C500C (discontinued) could be paired with and control only one amp module at a time -- but the option remained to buy, at $6500 a pop, a C500C, C500T, and C500P, and manually swap out amps.
While the C1100’s amp options are limited to one, the purposes of the two remaining modules remain the same. The C1100C houses all power controls, data ports, and external control connections; the C1100T contains and isolates all audio circuitry. Each enclosure measures 17.5”W x 6”H x 18”D and is finished in a combination of cold-rolled stainless steel, polished and hairline-brushed. The C1100C and C1100T respectively weigh 27 and 25 pounds.
On power-up, the theater of the C1100T was spellbinding. First to catch my eye was the McIntosh logo, glowing green from deep behind the high-resolution, UV-cured, 1/8”-thick glass of each module’s faceplate. The 12 tubes are proudly visible through the C1100T’s top and front panels -- as they warm up, the tube illumination first glows a warm orange; then, after about 30 seconds, it switches to green, indicating that the tubes have reached optimal operating temperature. Above this glowing front window are the McIntosh logo and the model’s nameplate, and flanking it are two of McIntosh’s famous blue output (dB) meters. In the lower-left corner is a headphone jack whose output can be adjusted for load impedance, and is equipped with their Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD) technology.
The upper two-thirds of the C1100T’s rear panel is chock-full of 12 pairs of analog inputs: six balanced (XLR), four unbalanced (RCA), moving-magnet and moving-coil phono inputs with adjustable loading, and two pairs each of balanced and unbalanced output connections -- all arranged in mirror symmetry. On the lower third of the rear panel -- actually the exposed chassis of polished stainless steel -- is a pair of grounding posts flanked by the Right Output and Left Output ports for the specially designed, high-performance, shielded umbilical cords that connect the C1100T to the C1100C Controller.
The C1100C’s symmetrically designed faceplate sports two knobs per side, one large, one small: respectively, these are labeled Input and Trim (left), and Volume and Adjust (right). Between these pairs of knobs is a dimmable central VFD screen displaying the selected input, volume level, and menu, and below that are four small pushbuttons: from left to right, Setup, HXD, Mute, and Standby/On.
On the C1100C’s rear panel, at upper left, in a section headed Power Control, are the 12V trigger controls for up to eight devices, including a passthrough for home-theater use. At center, under the heading External Control, are inputs for IR and RS232. To the right of these are eight Data Ports, for connecting and controlling other McIntosh components. Farther right is a proprietary data port, To Digital Preamplifier, which enables tandem operation of the C1100C’s digital counterpart, the D1100, and, finally, a USB port for software updates. From here down, as in the C1100T, the C1100C’s stainless-steel chassis is exposed -- punctuating it at the rear are, from left to right, an IEC inlet and the Right Output and Left Output ports for the umbilical cords connecting it to the C1100T.
Centered on each case’s top panel of stamped and brushed steel are detailed diagrams illustrating the signal path of the C1100’s fully balanced, dual-mono circuitry. And, as in all McIntosh components, the front corner edges of each case are finished with attractively beefy and unmistakably McIntosh trim strips of brushed aluminum.
Under the hood
While the exterior of the C1100 is almost indistinguishable from the old C500, I’m told that, with the exception of some electromagnetic switching carried over from the C500T, the C1100’s guts are all new. For starters, the C1100 increases the tube count of both the C500 and C1000 preamplifiers from 8 to 12: one 12AX7A and two 12AT7 tubes per channel for line-level -- these are the six tubes visible through the front panel -- and one 12AX7A plus half of a 12AT7 pair per channel for each phono stage, MM and MC. The addition of four tubes is claimed to lower the C1100’s dependency on solid-state support, and the C1100’s amplifier circuit was designed to provide much higher common-mode rejection of noise than those in the C500 or C1000 -- any noise introduced or induced by interconnects is significantly reduced. In the C1100T, the two channels have been electrically and mechanically isolated from each other, and the C1100C contains a new dual microprocessor for better control response. There’s also a new, digitally controlled, variable-rate analog volume control offering 256 steps of attenuation of 0.5dB each. McIntosh claims that the C1100’s dynamic range is wider than its predecessors’, which requires that less gain be provided by the tubes.
The C1100 is fully balanced from input to output. I was told by Mark Christensen, McIntosh’s marketing coordinator, that it’s by far the quietest preamp McIntosh has ever made. Its distortion is specified as just 0.005%, which is commendably low for a solid-state preamp, let alone one that runs on tubes.
The signal/noise ratios for the MM, MC, and line-level inputs are respectively specified as 77, 79, and 107dB, and the C1100 is capable of providing a respectable 15dB of gain. The dual-mono C1100 uses two R-core transformers, one per channel, to provide power to each of its power supplies. McIntosh says that the C1100 also benefits from all-new fiberglass circuit boards replete with 2-ounce traces of solid copper.
While these are all great advancements, I have some ergonomic nits to pick. First, the remote-control handset: While functional, this long wand is the same plastic job that comes with my $200 set-top box. I find this unacceptable for a preamp of this caliber, especially considering the quality of the remote Mac provided with the C1000. Second, if a preamp comes with a home-theater bypass, particularly one that works this well, all panel lights should be able to be turned off; however, the Macs’ VFD displays can be only dimmed -- only the C1000T’s Vu meters can be turned off. The room of anyone who stows their electronics in an open rack below their display will be filled with the green glow of 12 tubes and two McIntosh logos for the duration of whatever they watch.
Those little gripes aside, I loved using the C1100. Its controls are intuitively laid out, its menus are easy to navigate, the action of its volume knob was smooth as melted butter, and the subtle knurling on the input knob never let me forget I was operating a luxury product of superlative quality.
For this review, the McIntosh C1100 replaced my reference Audio Research Reference 6 preamplifier. I hooked up the Mac to two different pairs of monoblocks: my reference Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7Ms, and McIntosh’s own MC1.25KWs (recently reviewed). Upstream of the C1100 were a PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II network soundcard and an EMM Labs D2V digital controller-DAC (in for review); both of these were connected, via Analysis Plus USB links, to an Intel NUC computer running Windows 10 and Roon. All analog connections were made with Kimber Kable KS 1116 interconnects, and to my Paradigm Persona 7F speakers with Kimber Select KS 6063 speaker cables. A Torus AVR 20 power conditioner supplied power to all electronics via Clarus Crimson power cords.
The McIntosh MC1.25KWs and C1100 arrived together. I reviewed the monoblocks first because Merrill Audio’s Element 118 monoblocks were also in for review, and had to be returned soon after the Macs’ arrival. Both the Element 118s ($36,000/pair) and the MC1.25KWs ($25,000/pair) sounded fantastic, yet the characters of their sound couldn’t have been more different. The Element 118s had the sound of a precision instrument: highly detailed, hyper accurate, and neutral almost to a fault. Conversely, the MC1.25KWs’ sound was unwaveringly powerful, velvety smooth, and, while not as neutral, was equally compelling. It was like the difference between a new Corvette ZR1 and a Ferrari 488 -- each will give you one hell of a ride, but in very different ways.
I had a similar experience when comparing the McIntosh C1100 with my reference preamp, an Audio Research Reference 6 ($15,000). Listening to the cover of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” on Patricia Barber’s A Distortion of Love (24-bit/48kHz FLAC, Antilles/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab), I instantly noticed the utter silence of the background through the C1100. Barber’s voice emerged from a “black” abyss with seductive fluidity, and Marc Johnson’s double bass, plucked just off to her right, was conveyed with convincing weight and tangibility. Finger snaps were crystalline in their clarity, convincingly etched just to the left of the right-channel speaker -- and electric guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel’s solo filled the entire width of my room, replete with arresting dynamics and wickedly fast transients.
I then listened to this track through the Ref 6, and the differences were anything but subtle: The ARC immediately sounded more accurate, neutral, detailed, and balanced than the Mac, which had sounded quieter, smoother, and undeniably sweeter. Right off the bat, I could hear more air around Barber’s voice -- she now seemed to stand about 3’ farther back on the soundstage. Decays of the sounds of snapped fingers lasted much longer, and dissipated into a far deeper soundstage. I heard no obvious differences in Muthspiel’s guitar solo, but there were some subtle ones: string plucks and their resonances were a wisp more dynamic through the C1100, but through the Ref 6 the pitch of each pluck was markedly crisper.
Torn between these sounds, I pressed on. In Musica Nuda’s evocative cover of Sting’s “Roxanne,” from the duo’s eponymous debut album (16/44.1 FLAC, Bonsaï Music), the opening seconds of Ferruccio Spinetti plucking his bass were, through the C1100, arresting, to say the least. The McIntosh did nothing to mask the full dynamic ferocity of Spinetti’s playing, nor did it temper the dynamic vigor of Petra Magoni’s voice. I listened to the track a few times, taking note of microdetails, spatial cues, etc., then switched over to the ARC Reference 6 and did the same thing. Again, the differences weren’t subtle. The Ref 6 hid nothing and emphasized nothing, but the C1100 definitely had its own way of communicating music. Spatial cues and microdetails, such as the audience clapping, abounded through the Ref 6, less so through the C1100. On the other hand, the C1100 was consistently much quieter than the Ref 6, which perforce meant that its dynamic range was wider. The C1100 also imbued voices with a subtle fluidity, density, and focus, striking a nice balance between warmth and transparency. This helped round the edges of Magoni’s voice -- it was still strikingly dynamic and more tangible, yet less aggressive and, thus, more approachable.
With this in mind, and with the C1100 still in the system, I began wading through my sea of pop albums and stubbed my toe on Depeche Mode’s Violator (16/44.1 FLAC, Reprise). I got sucked into the music and completely forgot I was supposed to be searching for a decent reference track. Eventually, I settled on “Clean” for its robust vocals and intricate layering of instruments and synth effects. It occurred to me just how non-analytical the C1100’s sound was, and thus how easy it was to get lost in any music I listened to through it. For the most part, this was a good thing. There were times, however -- e.g., when Dave Gahan’s voice enters in the opening seconds of “Clean” -- when I wanted to hear a bit more into the music. The Macs’ trademark ink-“black” background that I consistently heard -- or didn’t hear -- through the C1100 was a great (no)thing, but microdetails so easily heard through the ARC Ref 6 -- such as the air around Gahan’s voice, the hint of echo to the plucked electric bass, the beads in the maracas shaken at far right stage -- were less audible through the C1100.
I moved on to other genres, listened to a few more tracks, and was better able to nail down what the C1100 was and wasn’t bringing to the table. I concluded that it was much the same as what I’d heard when reviewing McIntosh’s MC1.25KW monoblocks, but just a bit more obvious. First, the C1100’s tonality: lower frequencies were articulate yet powerfully communicated, perfectly weighted, and convincing in tonal color. I could say much the same for the mid- and upper midbass -- until they transitioned to the midrange proper, at which point there seemed to be a slight uptilt in this region and, thus, perceived volume. The result was a highly resolved midrange of almost crystalline clarity, neutrality, and transparency. As the frequencies of notes rose, they sounded dialed back a notch or even two notches, having a very inviting, involving, and refined sound. The result was a bass response that was fluid, ballsy, yet well articulated, and a top end best described as polite, the latter especially good when I listened to brighter-sounding recordings. Swapping out my reference Simaudio W-7M monoblocks for McIntosh’s MC1.25KWs lifted the sound of the C1100 to the next level. There was a continuity to the sound I hadn’t heard before, and I could now hear even a wisp more inner detail against an even more neutral midrange. If there has ever been an example of the advantages of using electronics made by the same company, this was it.
McIntosh Laboratory’s C1100 is a captivating-sounding preamplifier, and a worthy successor to the C500 and C1000. Designed to be the center of any high-quality audio rig, the C1100 offers myriad analog and control connections, MC and MM phono stages, exemplary build quality, luxurious yet intuitive ergonomics, and a rich, inviting sound. Moreover, the C1100 is very competitively priced; at $14,000, it costs $3000 less than the C1000, and to get the same level of functionality from other preamplifiers of this ilk, you’d likely have to pay more. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the C1100; it spoiled me every time I touched it, and captivated me every time I listened to it. Highly recommended.
. . . Aron Garrecht
- Speakers -- Paradigm Persona 7F
- Subwoofers -- JL Audio Fathom f112 (2)
- Amplifiers (monoblocks) -- McIntosh Laboratory MC1.25KW, Simaudio Moon Evolution W-7M
- Preamplifiers -- Anthem AVM 60, Audio Research Reference 6
- Digital-to-analog converters -- EMM Labs DV2, PS Audio DirectStream
- Sources -- Oppo Digital BDP-103 universal BD player; Intel NUC computer running Windows 10, Roon
- Interconnects -- Analysis Plus (USB), Clarus Crimson (S/PDIF), Kimber Kable Select KS 1116 (balanced)
- Speaker cables -- Kimber Kable Select KS 6063
- Power cords -- Clarus Crimson
- Power conditioner -- Torus AVR 20
McIntosh Laboratory C1100 Preamplifier
Price: $14,000 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
McIntosh Laboratory, Inc.
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, NY 13903
Phone: (607) 723-1545
Fax: (607) 724-0549