Canadian context: I applied for four Master degrees in three different universities (Concordia, UdeM, UQAM) in Montreal.
I've contacted beforehand teachers or head of departments. I was welcomed by everybody I talked to.
Three out of four applications were succesful. I even found two people offering to be my thesis co-director months before the start of the first term. In this latter case I met three different professors before my official application was processed. The head of department encouraged me to do so.
The only university I did not contact beforehand –I was an undergraduate at this one– refused my application. (I did not bother talking about my application, because the people processing it knew me already, apparently they felt neglected that I did not try to suck up to them during the last term.)
So, from my experience I would advise to do so, but, and it's a big big but, I had very good reasons to contact them. I had a three page proposal for the subject of an eventual thesis.
I was asking them for advice, I wanted to know if my proposal was something I could do at their university or not. I wasn't wasting their time or trying to look good, I was talking only about what we could do together,about their expertise, asking to use their brain for something they were familiar with. Basically, asking to do the job they are paid for.
On the other hand, I advised my wife to do the same two year ago, when she wasn't sure of her academic orientation. She did it with 3 different programs at two universities, contacting professors or department officials.
She was constantly brushed off or refered back to their website.
They felt she was wasting their time, because she had only hard "technical" questions (fees, hours, amenities, agenda...)that could be answered perusing through documentation or questions so "soft" (what's the atmosphere like" "I wonder if that program is for me") that they could not be answered.