When I took the reins of SoundStage! Access in late 2020, I wasn’t really given a mandate, other than being told that the entire point of the publication was to cover affordable audio gear. Here’s the thing about affordability, though: everyone knows exactly what it means until you ask them to define it precisely. (I guess it’s sort of like smut in that regard.)
I’ve seen six-figure loudspeakers described unironically as “a bargain at twice the price.” I’ve seen $20,000 tonearms championed as “reasonably priced.” Pick nearly any review of any audiophile component, no matter the number on the sticker, and chances are good that it’ll end with a discussion of why said product is such a steal that you’d be foolhardy not to spend a bazillion dollars on it. And with that sort of insanity commonplace in our hobby, it can be difficult to legitimately calibrate a barometer for value that has any bearing whatsoever for potential customers who live in the real world.
The story of how, exactly, I’m attempting to do just that was hinted at in my unboxing blog post for Marantz’s PM-KI Ruby integrated amplifier from way back when, and I think I’ve mentioned it once or twice since. The idea is simple: Over the past couple of years, I’ve spent most of my time reviewing integrated amplifiers, one after another, at a variety of price points. The goal was to help me figure out where the point of diminishing returns should be drawn, if there is one, and to get a better sense of what you can expect—in terms of performance and features—when you spend, say, $700 versus $1500 versus $3000 or more on an integrated amp.
Why integrated amps? Because I think they often represent the best value in high-fidelity audio reproduction, combining multiple components into one chassis, often at a considerably lower price than you’d pay for each of those components individually and with no meaningful impact to performance.
I didn’t expect anyone to notice I was doing this, and I certainly didn’t expect anyone to remember. But someone did. A manufacturer recently asked me how my “little integrated amp project” was going and what conclusions I’ve drawn so far. In a sense, you could consider this my preliminary public response.
It’s not the final word on anything, of course, but right now when I crack the packaging on a new integrated amplifier and dig in with an eye toward affordability and performance, these are the sorts of things I’m keeping in mind. These are my North Star. This is how, for now, I’m figuring out whether or not I think an integrated amplifier actually legitimately counts as a good value. And there’s no need to be coy here; let’s answer the biggest question first.
Is there a price point of diminishing returns for integrated amps?
In my experience over the past few years, yep. There is.
It’s $2500 USD.
It may seem weird to narrow it down to that precise a number, but find me a better-built piece of audio kit than the Marantz Model 40n, for example, at anywhere near its price—which just so happens to be $2499. Find me an integrated amp that sounds meaningfully better when driving practically any loudspeaker than the Rotel RA-1572 MKII at $2099. Find me a wireless-oriented streaming integrated amp that sings more sweetly than the $2499 Cambridge Audio Evo 75. Hell, as long as you’re willing to add a sub, find me an integrated amp that performs or measures meaningfully better than the Emotiva BasX TA1 stereo receiver at $549. Mind you, with each of these offerings, you’re giving up something—be it power, connectivity of some form or another, or aesthetics—but that’s true if you spend $25,000 or $250,000.
And let me be perfectly clear about something before we go any further: Am I saying there’s no reason to spend more than $2500 on an integrated amp? Heavens no. I’m not even remotely hinting at that. I’m merely saying that once it crosses that $2499 threshold, an integrated amp has to work a lot harder to prove its worth to me.
And some do. I’m presently shopping around for a new reference integrated amp, since my current reference recently belched acrid smoke when I powered it up, and half the inputs stopped working. The new shiny thing that I find myself gravitating toward more and more is NAD’s C 399 with BluOS-D, which at $2599 is about $100 past my proposed point of diminishing returns. (Although, to be fair, it was only $50 over the line when I reviewed it last year.)
And it’s true: the C 399 is more integrated amp than I need. By a long shot. But better too much amp than not enough. The other NAD that’s calling my name is the recently reviewed C 3050 LE, which, to be frank, is perfect for my purposes and a good bit cheaper. I have my doubts about whether the 3050 would drive a speaker like the Sonus Faber Lumina V to “I need KMFDM to exorcise my demons” listening levels, though, and I need to be able to review speakers like that from time to time. So I really sort of need more amp than I actually need, if that makes sense.
Another integrated amp on my shortlist is the Technics SU-G700M2, which, at $2899.95 ($200 more than when I reviewed it in December 2022), yet again blows right past my hypothetical budget. What does that $400 premium get you? For my purposes, mostly aesthetics. But in my opinion, looks matter, as do ergonomics, efficiency, brand integrity, history, and build quality.
My point is, sure, you can find plenty of examples selling for north of $2500 that make a compelling argument for their higher price tags. But I could just as easily fill up the rest of this page with offerings under $2500 (and some under $1000) that are all the integrated amp you’ll likely ever need if performance is your primary concern.
On the other hand, I’ve seen $1500 models that seemed overpriced to me. But generally speaking, there are enough $2500 integrated amps that simply knock it out of the park—in terms of performance, functionality, build quality, usability, and features—that it will, for the time being at least, be my new soft budget cap.
Speaking of features . . .
What features should you look for in an integrated amp?
When you get right down to it, the only essential elements of an integrated amplifier are source selection, volume control, and amplification. And yet, when readers email me asking for general buying advice (instead of merely asking for feedback about a specific product), the most common question is: “Should I get an integrated amp with a built-in DAC, or an all-analog integrated and a standalone digital-to-analog converter?” SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider has, from time to time, also prodded me to write an article answering that question.
The truth is, my response isn’t long enough or definitive enough to serve as the backbone of an entire article. It basically boils down to this: who cares? DACs are a commodity these days. They are a solved problem. The only things you’re looking for in a DAC are clean power, low noise, reasonably low distortion, and a good reconstruction filter, and really good standalone ones can be had for a few hundred bucks. So if you have your heart set on an all- (or mostly) analog integrated like Rotel’s A11 Tribute (an absolute banger), sure. Buy that thing and add a standalone DAC.
Or buy an integrated with a DAC built in. You’ll save some dough, and its performance will very likely be exceptional. Although to be fair, it might not support every esoteric digital audio format known to man and Wookiee.
This question sort of loses applicability if you’re considering an integrated amp with streaming capabilities built right in, since such an offering must, by definition, have its own internal DAC. The good news is, the only thing you really need to consider here is whether or not a substantial percentage of your listening time is dedicated to streaming.
The better news is that the streaming functionality built into integrated amps that have such capabilities tends to be better than that of standalone streamers I’ve tried. Marantz and Denon’s HEOS, Lenbrook’s BluOS, and Focal Naim’s creatively named Focal & Naim platform are all frankly a big step up from a lot of the standalone streamers I’ve tinkered around with in terms of organization, navigability, ergonomics, service support, and ease-of-use—and at least two of the three absolutely kick the snot out of the Sonos app in almost every regard. Plus, they all support Roon to one degree or another if that’s your preferred streaming ecosystem or if you think you might want to tinker with it down the road.
So, yes, although it gives us headaches here at SoundStage! trying to figure out what to call an integrated amp with built-in digital-to-analog conversion and streaming capabilities (are they smart integrated amps? streaming integrated amps? connected integrated amps? do you really care?), if you consume most of your music via Spotify or Tidal or Qobuz or what have you, you should probably go ahead and shop for options with all of the above built in. Again, there are oodles of great ones under $2500.
Any other features you should consider?
Well, yes. And this one is controversial, I know. Plus, it makes me look biased, which is always a concern. But in the aforementioned review of the NAD C 3050 LE, I said—and I quote—“I’m not quite yet to the point where I’ll knock a piece of stereo gear for lacking room correction, but I can see a day in the not-too-distant future where I feel that way.”
Time works weirdly in the world of publishing, as I’m not sure much space will have passed between the publishing of those words and these. But in the real world, two weeks have passed since I wrote them. So I guess this counts as the not-too-distant future.
The simple fact of the matter is that the more I think about it, the more I realize there’s no excuse for larger, more mainstream manufacturers to build stereo gear without good room correction like Dirac Live or, for companies that have a relationship with Audyssey, at least MultEQ XT or preferably MultEQ XT32.
The reason I say this is controversial is because a lot of two-channel enthusiasts still avoid DSP in any form, and room correction is mostly associated with multichannel home theater, to which a lot of stereophiles have a tribal aversion. And to be fair, most automated room-correction systems suck right out loud, especially when dealing with anything above the room’s transition frequency—aka its Schroeder frequency. But no matter how well-treated your room is in terms of acoustics, I think most stereo systems would benefit from some judicious and thoughtful application of good room correction for the bass frequencies to ameliorate those room resonances that are difficult and expensive to treat physically.
Do I expect smaller boutique brands to strike up expensive licensing deals with companies like Dirac and Audyssey? Of course not. Those will continue to get a free pass in this department. But as for the Rotels and Denons and Marantzes of the world, I’m putting you on notice. You’re already doing room correction in your home-theater products. Add it to your stereo gear. At least your higher-end stuff. Arcam’s doing it. NAD’s doing it. At admittedly much higher price points, Anthem and Trinnov are doing it. What’s your excuse at this point?
As for you, dear reader: I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy a stereo integrated amp without room correction. I’m simply saying that when I’m calculating my pluses and minuses and trying to figure out if a piece of gear lives up to SoundStage! Access metrics for value, a model with Dirac Live is going to be a lot easier to recommend than a similarly priced model without it, all other things being roughly equal. Room correction is going to weigh more in my calculus going forward than, say, a built-in phono stage with moving-coil support or RS-232 serial ports or, for heaven’s sake, MQA decoding, because the need or desire for those features is user- and system-specific, whereas the benefits of better-controlled bass are universal.
Times are changing, younger potential hi-fi enthusiasts aren’t wedded to outdated notions of audiophile puritanism, and as such, it’s time we adapt our notions of what contributes to the value of a product and what doesn’t.
. . . Dennis Burger