McIntosh C2600 Tubed Preamplifier Review


We all have at least a couple in one form or another as we live our lives, be they verb or noun.

My father taught me that while struggle in life was inevitable, it was about how we dealt with it that mattered the most: We could let it shackle us with fatigue, doubt, dismay or worst of all – loss of hope. Or, we could rise to the challenge, utilize our intellect to formulate a plan for overcoming and move forward, hopefully wiser with experience and better prepared to meet the next challenge head on.

Regardless, there is struggle and it is real for many for us… and at many different budget levels.

What struggle am I referring to you ask?

The struggle for an end-game preamplifier of course.

One that is not only sonically transparent (or ideally equipped with the ability via tube rolling to subtly flavour to one’s taste), but that also has the prerequisite plethora of analog and digital inputs and outputs that is required in this modern era of vinyl or tape living side-by-side with DACs, streamers and CD players for the investment such a preamplifier would warrant.

Now, when it comes to preamplifiers some are purists, preferring to rely exclusively on line-level units and use it as an analog translation device allowing for linkages to dedicated amplifiers between CD players, phono stages, DACs, streamers/servers, headphone amplifiers, or reel-to-reel players (for those more esoteric audiophile souls).

I’ve travelled that road and found it to be a very satisfying one, (the excellent Pass Labs XP-12 and heady CH Precision L1 preamplifiers come to mind) but the idea of having a preamplifier that could also handle Moving-Magnet and Moving-Coil phono duties, that also came equipped with a built-in headphone amplifier and a high-resolution DXD/DSD-capable DAC along with balanced stereo throughput was one that was at the forefront of my mind. Enter the McIntosh C2600 two-channel Vacuum Tube Preamplifier ($6,999 USD).

The C2600 is a design which builds on decades of McIntosh high-fidelity engineering expertise and both expands on and supersedes the highly-lauded C2300 and C2500 preamplifiers. After several days research, it was the preamplifier of choice to go with the McIntosh MC611 mono blocks I wanted to use as my reference amps as I’ve found through experience and trial-and-error over the years that choosing core hi-fi components from the same company tends to make the most sense sonically because not only are they all derived from the same design and engineering ethos, but work together holistically in their presentation of sonic signature (or lack thereof).

The C2600 is nothing if not flexible in its capabilities. Let’s start with the chassis design and the 16 inputs its rear panel sports. Featuring classic McIntosh styling cues handed down and refined over the decades with brushed aluminum, chromed-steel, matt-black casework, a glass top window where the six tubes reside (five 12AX7a valves – two each for MM and MC duties, one for input and one 12AT7 for output), a glass-panel fascia populated with solid, chunky switches for power, output choice, tone control, muting and two ultra-silky, smooth-turning input selection and volume knobs and of course, (lest we forget) the iconic blue db-output meters which all make for a visually arresting piece of kit that exudes quality with a fit and finish second to none in my experience.

Delicate, signal-centric analog and digital sections are kept separate thanks to an internal, two layer dual-chassis design which according to the company was developed to prevent signal corruption, shielding intricate circuitry from RF and EMI interference. Analog inputs consist of three balanced (XLR), four unbalanced (RCA – gold plated, solid brass) and dedicated MM and MC phono stages (40dB/60dB voltage gain respectively). Digital inputs include one asynchronous USB Type-B, two coaxial, three optical and one proprietary McIntosh MCT (DIN) which offers a secure DSD connection for McIntosh SACD/CD transports. A headphone amplifier featuring McIntosh’s Headphone Crossfeed Director (HXD) is built-in as well “to allow high quality recordings to image like conventional speakers in your headphones” according to the company (A claim I can attest to after extensive listening sessions, the sensation is less ‘in the centre of your head’ if I had to briefly describe it). You can utilize or bypass Tone controls and all inputs can be individually named to custom tailor them to your specific gear or nomenclature and be input level-matched to +/-6dB, bass and treble settings can also be adjusted on a per-input basis. The unit also has a Home Theatre PassThru, Power Control Output (one main, four trigger), RS232 Control Input and a rear panel IR sensor input.

Three sets each of balanced XLR and RCA outputs allow for connection to the amplification of your choice with spacing updates implemented to allow easier facilitation of both bi and tri-amping.

Talking about the design and build of a components only goes so far from the perspective of a reviewer, as we are not privy to the research, development, tooling, circuit configurations, parts sourcing (or building in-house), voicing and final production process, so I reached out to McIntosh Labs to ask some questions of some of the engineers personally involved on the C2600. The following is my Q&A with John Henkel, Sr. Electronic Design Engineer, and Ron Cornelius, Product Manager, who both hand a hand in several aspects of the C2600 project at McIntosh.

McIntosh Laboratory Inc.
2 Chambers Street - Binghamton, NY 13903-2699

Everclear's picture

May be Rafe could also review Schiit Audio Freya pre-amp $699 .......... Yes, it has tubes :-) .........

Ortofan's picture

... consist solely of vacuum tubes, or are there some solid-state components, as well?
For comparison, the MC stage of the C2500 is comprised of a combination of discrete transistors and an integrated circuit op-amp, while the MM stage is a tube/transistor hybrid design.

Rafe Arnott's picture
I don't think they changed a lot with the phono stage from the 2500 to the 2600 (at least it wasn't mentioned when I spoke with the engineering team). But I can reach out to them again for clarification.
Ortofan's picture

... the response from McIntosh to your follow-up inquiry regarding the phono stage.

Rafe Arnott's picture
At the article and the McIntosh team's replies, in their response regarding the tube choices, they said: "Since all power supply and voltage regulation is handled by transistors, the job of the tube is simplified to only audio."

But Ive sent them an email just to confirm your question.

Ortofan's picture

... McIntosh?

Rafe Arnott's picture
According to McIntosh. Sorry for the delay – had a baby!
Ortofan's picture

You might find this list of recommended recordings appropriate:

Rafe Arnott's picture
I'll check out that playlist for sure :)
volvic's picture

McIntosh seems to have made a comeback in the last 18 years. I remember in the late 80's and 90's auditioning their gear and being left cold. I have to assume all the positive press these last few years means they have upped their game. Must go and audition.

Ortofan's picture

... what speakers were you using to audition the McIntosh amps?

Rafe Arnott's picture
I specifically list the loudspeakers I used at the time of writing about the 611s:

"After a couple weeks getting used to the 611s through my AN-Es (spec’d at 97.5 dB, 23kHz~18Hz @+/-6dB, six-Ohm nominal impedance) I added in a pair of ELAC Adante AS-61 stand mounts that Vancouver’s Hi-fi Centre loaned me, as I wanted to see how the big McIntosh’s would play with something more difficult to drive (Adantes spec’d at 85dB, 41kHz~35Hz, six-Ohm nominal impedance)."

Hope that helps.

volvic's picture

That was a long time ago so not sure which model but they were McIntosh speakers in one room, maybe XR-19's and maybe Elipson in the other room. I think the 80's were not their best years judging from my ears. I was also surprised to see those 70's era screws to secure the speaker wires from behind and I was a little surprised to see that for such an iconic brand and worse how close they were to each other. Must give them another chance one of these days.

Ortofan's picture

... McIntosh's forte.
Back then the local McIntosh dealers in my area were selling the amps along with speakers such as the ADS L2030, B&W 801 and JBL L300.
The barrier strip type screw terminals worked well with either bare wires or spade lugs. Audio Research and Conrad-Johnson were using them, too.