Is My McIntosh C52 Pre-amp The Weak Link?

I currently stream music, from Qobuz, via an Aurender N10 streamer into a McIntosh C52 pre-amp for D/A conversion, analogue output, into a McIntosh MC312 power amp, driving Magico A5 speakers. SQ IMHO is outstanding/perfect, but, I am an audiophile, so there is no such thing as perfect! Time to upgrade something. It is my opinion the C52 built in DAC is the weak link in the system? Thinking of upgrading the Aurender N10 to an Aurender A20 (streamer with built in DAC) and feed the analogue output into the C52. Your thoughts please, have I correctly identified the weak link in the system?


Is it the DA1 in the C52?  If so I believe many have identified this as subpar.

I found the C52 dull in my system, but many love the MC sound.  I would think keep the N10 and try a separate DAC.  With the warmth of your pre and amps, something like the Tambaqui would light up your world!

If you have the DA1 - I agree with @fastfreight the you have found the weaklink.

I have owned the C2600 and when I add Moon 280D as a streaming DAC it was a nice step up.

Time to step up to a separate DAC and stop with the onboard DACs in preamps and streamers.  If you detail what specific improvements you’d like to achieve you’ll get some good recommendations here. 

I agree, if it’s the DA1 you can do much better.  I have the DA1 in my MA8900.  I now use a Pontus II that is much better.  With the quality of your other components I would look at spending $5k or more on an external DAC that matches the level of the rest of your system.  See if you can find a local retailer that will let you demo different DACs in your setup then you’ll know for sure what, if anything, you are missing.


@soix  is correct.

@jastralfu makes a very good point

I would suggest having a stand-alone DAC also. You're just swaping out your issue (The C52 having a built in DAC) with a new issue (having the DAC built into the Streamer). 

I am not a big fan of seperates either (I own an integrated amp), but have found disappointment everytime I had a DAC built into another component. I own a N20 by the way, with a PS audio DAC (version 1).

I would also suggest listening to several DAC's, I have found they all sound different.

Another vote for getting an external DAC. If you like the Mac keep it. I personally am not a fan of McIntosh preamps but that is just me as I know many people love them.

I have paired an MSB dac with McIntosh gear and to my ears it sounds good.

Get a proper DAC, but maybe one with a good digital volume control you could get rid of your pre as well.

Once I got my first DAC with a built-in volume control (exasound) I sold my Mcintosh c-38, as the DAC was more neutral. It took a while to get used to it, but once I decided I didn't like the colouring of what the pre did in my system there was no going back. I believe the volume control in my Weiss DAC is better than the exasound was. It has a decent streamer as well. 


I believe the C52 is pre swappable DAC module technology from McIntosh, so the C52’s internal DAC is built in and not able to be changed/upgraded.

I also vote for keeping the C52 (I have a C53 with the internal DA2 and love it) and trying a different DAC if you feel a change is needed.

Many thanks for all your responses, very helpful. The overwhelming consensus is; the C52 DA1 is the weak link. However, I don’t want to replace the C52, because, I also have a TT and R2R tape deck (15ips master tape copies are the ultimate in SQ for me. See this forum thread for more information: ) The reason I am contemplating the Aurender A20 is, I initially used a Bluesound Node for streaming, upgrading to the Aurender N10 was a night and day upgrade in SQ, everyone in my family immediately noticed the improvement. So, what do I do now, separate DAC or the Aurender A20? If anyone has experienced upgrading to the Aurender A20 from a stand alone DAC, I would love to hear your thoughts on the experience,

I was revisiting this today and thought that you could always purchase used from somewhere like The Music Room or Upscale Audio.  They have a great return policy so if you get something that doesn’t work well in your setup you can return it.  There’s no shortage of top level DACs you can choose from.  I’ve only had the DA1 and the Pontus II with a Hermes DDC so I can’t tell you what anything else sounds like.  If you let folks know what characteristics you’re looking for you’ll get plenty of recommendations.  Some of the names I see around here are Denafrips, Chord, PS Audio, Weiss, Mola-Mola, Lampizator.  There are many others I’m forgetting.  There are also R2R and DeltaSigma DACs and one may suit you more than the other.

I just upgraded my MA8900 to the DA2 module and there is a marked difference.  Firmware update plus new and better chipset on the DA2 are superior to the DA1 module.  IMHO, larger soundstage, more detail and resolution and tighter, more defined low end.  Sure, separate DAC will give you more flexibility and maybe more resolution, but the DAC upgrade is around $1000.00 plus install fees so not a bad deal for a lot of improvement.

Thanks chcumo63. sound like a good low cost upgrade, will explore. Certainly less expensive than going from a C52 to a C53.

I can vouch for the DA2 as well.  I am targeting a separate DAC down the road, but the DA2 is really very nice in the meantime.  Make sure it implements the latest firmware and you will see a definite difference compared to the DA1.  That said, I am frustrated with McIntosh in that we have had the DA2 for what, 3 or 4 years at least and there is no DA3 that would be comparable or based on their latest products (MCD12000).  A DA3 that kept up with the latest in high-performing delta-sigma dacs (see T+A DAC200) would be super-desirable for me as a C2700 user, since I do enjoy keeping remote control confusion to a minimum and also keeping things useable for my wife.