McIntosh C500 Preamplifier Reviewed

Published On: April 18, 2011
Last Updated on: October 31, 2020
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McIntosh C500 Preamplifier Reviewed

McIntosh continues to offer beautiful, albeit expensive components, with the McIntosh C500 stereo preamplifier. But is it worth its price tag? Reviewer Brian Kahn put the C500 to the test to find out

McIntosh C500 Preamplifier Reviewed

  • Brian Kahn is the longest tenured writer on staff at His specialties include everything from speakers to whole-home audio systems to high-end audiophile and home theater gear, as well as room acoustics. By day, Brian is a partner at a West Los Angeles law firm.

McIntosh_c500_preamp_review_separate_components.gifI have long been a fan of using tube preamplifiers in my stereo systems. The combination of liquidity and presence that a good tube product can add to the mix can make for an intoxicating listening experience. Others prefer solid state gear and its traditional accompanying characteristics of detail and control. The C500 preamplifier from McIntosh Laboratories lets the listener make their tube or solid state choice. This preamplifier consists of two chassis: a 'Controller Chassis' and a 'Preamplifier Chassis'. The 'Preamplifier Chassis' can be ordered in either solid state or tube configurations. (The top of the line C1000 can be configured as three chassis preamplifiers with both solid state and tube chassis so the listener can switch between them at will.)

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo preamplifier reviews by the staff at
• Explore receivers to connect up to in our AV Receiver Review section.
• See amplifier options in our Stereo Amplifier Review section.


I opted for the tube setup; either configuration will set you back $12,000. Either configuration has McIntosh's instantly recognizable, retro-cool black glass face plates framed by aluminum sides. The Controller Chassis also has McIntosh's signature push buttons and silver knobs which surround an easy to read alphanumeric fluorescent display. The Preamplifier chassis has the signature blue meters on both versions and the tube version also has a window to backlit tubes. The attractive, well-built chassis houses a full featured, state of the art preamplifier with a dual mono, fully balanced design complete with a Moving Coil and Moving Magnet phono stage.

The technology incorporated within the C500 is fairly extensive, including a variable rate volume control, silent audio switching, and dual, fully regulated R-Core transformer based power supplies. The McIntosh website has much more information on these technologies and the descriptions thereof make for interesting reading.

I have been listening to the C500 preamplifier for several months and utilize it as my reference preamplifier in my two-channel audio reviews. The sound quality is superb and truly reference grade. Music was reproduced in a natural, unforced manner with superb presence and solidity. The noise floor was the lowest of any tube preamplifier I have ever had in my system; detail and dynamics were akin to what one would find in a top notch solid state unit. This combination of qualities led to a detailed, well formed soundstage with each source well identified without congestion or crowding even with busy orchestral pieces. My only sonic criticism is a slight bloom in the mid bass region. This was most noticeable on acoustic bass pieces but even then this bloom resulted in only a slight looseness that never detracted from my listening enjoyment. Other than replacing a tube that went bad, the preamplifier has been a low maintenance, easy to use unit without any weird operation quirks that plague so many of the high end audio products on the market.

Read about the high points and the low points of the McIntosh C500 on Page 2.

High Points
• The industrial design and build quality of the C500 is excellent and
is as one would expect with a current flagship piece in a mature
premium product line.
• The C500's sound quality is intoxicating and will please audiophiles and music lovers alike.
• The C500's tube or solid-state option along with its quality MM/MC
phono stage, single ended and balanced inputs and numerous setup
options provide the buyer with options that should accommodate any


Low Points
• My only sound-quality related criticism of the C500 is that its mid-bass is slightly loose as noted above.
• Even though McIntosh has one unit above the C500 in its preamplifier
lineup, this is a flagship product and it deserves a remote of
commensurate quality. The remote included with the C500 does not
measure up.

Competition and Comparisons
When it comes to reference grade preamplifiers the sky truly is the
limit, though at $12,500, or the C500's asking price, the list gets a
little more focused. For instance there's Audio Research's REF 5
, which at $12,000 is an obvious competitor. Next on the list would be
Cary Audio's SLP-05 at $8,000 retail.

In terms of solid state designs both the Mark Levinson No 326S

and Krell Evolution 202 ($15,000) preamplifiers are comparable to the C500 in terms of overall

For more on two channel preamps please check out Home Theater
Review's Stereo Preamplifier page


I could easily live with the McIntosh C500 in my stereo system for a
very long time. The C500 combines several desirable sonic
characteristics providing an accurate and detailed picture that is
musical and non-fatiguing to listen to. At $12,000 it is an expensive
component but if the rest of your system is revealing enough, it may be
a worthy investment. If your system is not quite up to this level of
refinement I would suggest looking at some of McIntosh's less expensive
options. All of the McIntosh preamplifiers I have used have been
musical and free from the quirks and problems that rear their ugly
heads all to often in the world of high-end audio. All in all, the
McIntosh C500 is a reliable, reference grade preamplifier that is a
pleasure to both listen to and operate.

Additional Resources
• Read more stereo preamplifier reviews by the staff at
• Explore receivers to connect up to in our AV Receiver Review section.
• See amplifier options in our Stereo Amplifier Review section.

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