Which One Should You Buy?

Why Integrated Amplifiers Are the Future of Hi-Fi


May 22, 2019 Tech By Photo by Cambridge Audio

When you’re building your first home stereo system, an integrated amplifier is your best friend. By combining a power amplifier with a preamplifier, buying an integrated amp is not only simpler than hunting for separate components, but it also gives you a good mix of performance and features for less money than you’d spend otherwise. Integrated amps come in all shapes and sizes, run the gamut from $500-5,000, and work best with bookshelf loudspeakers.

Integrated amplifiers have made huge strides in performance as manufacturers have gotten better at integrating the various sections; power, source selection, volume control and connectivity, while minimizing the amount of electrical noise that negatively impacts sound quality. The cherry on top? The signal path between the various sections is shorter in an integrated app, which not only improves sound quality but also means you don’t need as many cables for your system.

Why are integrated amplifiers the future of hi-fi?

Wireless active loudspeakers and one-box integrated amplifiers, which include both wired and wireless digital streaming connectivity, have made a system of various expensive boxes mostly obsolete for the average listener. The resurgence of vinyl has forced manufacturers to include a phono pre-amplifier in most integrated amplifiers and the myriad of streaming services such as Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify are supported along with playback platforms such as Roon.

What should you look for in an integrated amplifier?

Wireless support is increasingly a standard feature on many integrated amplifiers; including Bluetooth aptX and aptX HD. Both formats are lossy but the sound quality you can achieve while streaming from your phone to an integrated amp has improved so much in recent years that you shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about it.

If you can’t help yourself though, many integrated amplifiers now include USB and Ethernet connectivity for external streamers or if you use your desktop computer or laptop as your digital source. Internal DACs (Digital-Analog-Converter) offer support for most digital formats (MP3, AAC, WAV, FLAC, DSD), and bit/sample rates (up to 32-bit/384kHz) guaranteeing that you can listen to your digital music collection (CDs, downloads, or streaming) in the best quality possible.

Depending on your choice of loudspeakers and the size of your listening room, 20-30 watts per channel could be more than sufficient. Make sure you check the sensitivity (dB) and impedance (8 or 4 ohms) of your speakers before taking the plunge. An integrated amplifier that doubles its output (30 watts into 8 ohms/60 watts into 4 ohms) is a safer bet for most bookshelf speakers.

Buying Guide

Best Budget: NAD Electronics D 3045

NAD is no stranger to the integrated category having sold more than one million units of the original model 3020. The D 3045 digital hybrid amplifier can output more than 60 watts per channel, which is more than enough grunt to power a lot of bookshelf loudspeakers with great poise; it can sound a tad reticent with a laid-back sounding pair of speakers. The D 3045 is very easy to install and doesn’t look out of place inside a media console, but it does require some ventilation for optimum performance. It supports Bluetooth aptX HD, DSD, 24-bit/384kHz digital playback, and includes a rather impressive sounding moving magnet phono stage. The rear panel offers a wide variety of digital inputs including optical, USB, and coaxial. NAD has wisely included an HDMI input for connection to your HDTV.

Works with Alexa: Bluesound PowerNode2i

If your listening habits do not include records, and you require something with support for almost every streaming service, the PowerNode 2i is a solid option. It can output more than 60 watts per channel and offers outstanding resolution and low-end control. The tonal balance is on the warm side and its internal 32-bit/192kHz DAC improves the sound of any streaming service that you may use. The PowerNode 2i also offers support for AirPlay 2 and is one of the first integrated amplifiers to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice control.

Best All-Around: Naim Uniti Atom

Minus the absence of a phono pre-amplifier, there is almost nothing about the Uniti Atom to dislike. From an industrial design perspective, the cake-box sized integrated/DAC/streamer is very easy to place and use; there is something quite pleasing about using its top-mounted volume dial and front-panel LCD screen. The Uniti Atom isn’t the most powerful amplifier offering only 40 watts per channel, but it demonstrates more than enough grunt, resolution, and openness with bookshelf loudspeakers to make it one of the best in the category. The Naim box breathes life into recordings and offers one of the best integrations of streaming platforms at any price level. The Uniti Atom can also serve as the heart for a Naim multi-room system and is Roon-ready.

Best High-End: Cambridge Audio Edge A

If you need both power and resolution, there are few one-box solutions as capable as the Edge A integrated amplifier. It outputs more than 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms (200 watts per channel into 4 ohms) which is more than enough to power most loudspeakers. The absence of a phono pre-amplifier is a negative, but the recent release of their Alva turntable which features both a phono stage and the ability to stream Bluetooth aptX HD provides a potential solution. It supports playback of 32-bit/384kHz PCM and DSD256 and 24-bit/48kHz wireless digital streaming. The Edge A offers a level of refinement, pace, and detail that you would expect from far more expensive systems and does so with a relatively small footprint.

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