The Buyer’s Guide to Amplifiers
Long Live Vinyl’s guide to creating the ideal hi-fi setup continues with a look at amplifiers. They’re the powerhouse of your system, but which one to buy? Paul Rigby offers a few guidelines…
Amplifiers are odd beasts, because they’re stuck right in the middle of your hi-fi chain. They’re also the boxes which hold all the bells, whistles, buttons, knobs and flashy bits, so they’re often the most visual and the most interactive of components.
In terms of sound quality, of course, the amplifier is absolutely critical for your hi-fi. Your amp can receive a quite superb source-based sonic signal but, if it cocks it up at that point, your speakers will spew garbage, no matter how good they are.
How do you prevent this from happening? Well, there are a few basics you need to decide upon first, before you go any further. These decisions will affect the health of your ears, as well as your wallet.
INTEGRATED v SEPARATES
An integrated amplifier is a design where all of the amplifier bits and pieces – and everything that you need to run your hi-fi – are stuffed into a single, boxed chassis.
Separates, on the other hand, take each function that the amplifier performs and put the innards into a separate chassis. That means putting all of the controlling bits, including buttons and the like, into a so-called preamplifier box; the power-transformer bits into a power-amplifier section (or, in more extreme cases, each left and right channel of the power amplifier into their own individual ‘monoblock’ chassis); the phono amplifier that boosts the cartridge signal into a phono-amplifier box (or that phono box into its own preamp and power amplifier section) and so on. More esoteric amplifiers break down the amplifier into even more boxes.
Integrated amps save you time and hassle in terms of grabbing all of the essential items that you need in and around your amplifier. Also, the price for integrated amplifiers, in general terms, tends to be relatively low and you can be sure that every bit of the integrated amplifier is compatible with the next bit.
“The reason to go for separates is so you can ensure each and every bit of your system can be sourced from the people who make the best version of that part.” – Paul Rigby, Long Live Vinyl
Hence, the company you buy your preamp from might be different from the company who supply your power amp and phono amp, for that matter.
Also, separating and creating distance between components by inserting them into their own boxes reduces cross-electrical contamination and other distortive noise. Hence, sound quality for ‘separates’ is generally superior to integrated alternatives. There are exceptions, though.
SOLID STATE v VALVES
The foundation for all amplifiers is either solid state (which means transistors and associated chips of different flavours), or valves (those very attractive and nicely glowing glass tubes with filaments inside, which form talking points at parties and do their best to act as central heating for your listening room, because they get hot to the touch).
Apart from the aesthetic flavours (valves are very pretty, so they are often on show to the eye, while solid-state innards are as ugly as sin and thus hidden inside steel boxes), both exhibit unique sonic characters. Broadly (very broadly), valves offer a ‘warm’ sound, while solid state is ‘cool’ and a mite mechanical. Valves promote organic detail, delicate upper midrange and treble, but little bass, while solid state sounds a little hard-edged in the mids and treble, but provides bass slam and punch.
The above summary is extreme in its description, because there are many shades of grey in terms of sonic personality (way more than 50, actually). Solid state also generates more power, and does so simply. For valves, power can be tough to produce and ramps up the cost, big time.
SIMPLE V BUSY
In general terms – and, again, there are plenty of exceptions – the cheaper the amp, the busier it tends to be in terms of additional bits and pieces. Hence, low-cost amplifiers tend to provide ‘value’ in terms of extra facilities such as a built-in DAC, Wi-Fi (with a screw-in aerial), Bluetooth, lots of digital connections, possibly PC-type interface sockets for push-in pods to add more facilities, 70s-style tone controls and more. There is a trade-off, though.
The more ‘stuff’ you cram into an amplifier, the worse it may sound, because of noise cross-contamination and other distortive effects. This is why most expensive amplifiers do one thing and one thing only: they amplify. A lot of expensive amplifiers have next-to-no controls, either. Again, less is more in terms of sound quality.
FOOTPRINT AND WEIGHT
You normally buy an amplifier for reasons of sound quality but, sometimes, life gets in the way. For example, my main reference amplifier consists of a large preamp which takes a lot of shelf space, plus two monoblock power amplifiers that are so large and so high that they need special floor-standing shelves of their own and, quite possibly, their own planning permission. Also, if I was to pick one up on my own, I wouldn’t be scanning Amazon for a new book, but a new back, such is their individual weight. Keep the issues of size and weight in mind when you look for a new amplifier.
When you’re looking to buy an amplifier, you should also be making sure there are enough inputs on the rear to plug everything you need into it. Some amplifiers offer more than others in this regard. It would be a bit silly to purchase an amplifier that has only a few input sockets and then find, once everything has been plugged in, that there’s no room for your CD player,
Also, consider whether a remote control is essential to you. Not all amplifiers have one as standard, but some users regard them as a must-have. Remember, too, that some integrated amplifiers might not feature the expected facilities you require. So, just because you are presented with an integrated amplifier, don’t assume that it also features a phono amplifier or headphone amplifier built-in. Take a close look first.
AMPLIFIER BUYER’S RECOMMENDATIONS
So, finally, then, to the burning question of what amplifier you should buy. Here’s a broad selection, from three different price points. This is just a suggested list, no more. There are lots of others that I haven’t been able to include, due to space reasons. Why not write in and tell us about your favourites, so that other readers can be made aware of those, too?
BUDGET up TO £600
This is a popular category with plenty of quality designs. Here’s just a small selection…
CAMBRIDGE TOPAZ AM10
More powerful than its AM5 sister model, the AM10 also includes a built-in phono amplifier that handles moving-magnet cartridges. Cambridge is in the happy position of being able to produce low-cost amplifiers that actually sound excellent.
NAD D 3020
Not many analogue inputs here, but the built-in DAC does offer digital connections for this rather lifestyle-oriented amplifier. It also features Bluetooth, so streaming is available, too. The vertical position is attractive, and the headphone amplifier is useful.
The Brio offers a host of features and options in a chassis with a relatively small footprint. It’s ideal for those with limited space. Over and above that, the Brio is fast becoming a classic amplifier; this latest iteration includes a headphone amp.
MID-RANGE £600 TO £2,000
With more budget, you’ll get more features, and elements of finesse…
Based on a major redesign of the brand’s products, the ONE offers a small footprint and a sound that provides focus, midrange precision and bass control. Includes a built-in phono amplifier, plus Bluetooth.
ICON Audio STEREO 20 PP
Just because an amplifier sports a valve, doesn’t mean it’s any good. In fact, most cheap valve amplifiers are pretty poorly built and designed, and their sound often leaves something to be desired. This is the best ‘low cost’ amplifier on the market, a modern version of the classic 50s amp, the Leak Stereo 20. Low in power it might be, but it offers beautiful detail and clarity.
ROKSAN CASPIAN M2
Sporting a nicely built remote control, a well-built chassis and a rather eccentric look, this amplifier provides a dynamic sound with plenty of finesse. For those who enjoy a big, bold and powerful performance.
Amplifier designs utilising higher-quality components and fittings…
One of those amplifiers that sounds good, but also packs in features galore. There’s a phono amplifier, headphone amplifier, a DAC outputting high-res sound, including DSD, plus balanced connections and even a few AV facilities and plenty of inputs for your hi-fi gear.
NAIM SUPERNAIT 2
Offering a well-built chassis with lots of interior isolation to keep the harmful electrical noise down, this latest version of a venerable amplifier model increases the size of the transformer, which gives the beast a meaty bass output with midrange authority. This amplifier is in charge.
PATHOS LÒGOS MK II
Designed in Italy and based on ECC83 valves, the Lògos Mk II also features a Class A/B MOSFET design with 110 watts of power. Its aesthetics, with the large heatsinks fitted either side, plus the visible valves and the wooden fascia, demonstrate that this company gets the hybrid valve/solid-state design right. Hence, you get both upper-frequency fragility and a solid and powerful set of lower frequencies.