Amplifier knowledge part 2: hifi separates and some products to consider
In part one of our blog on amplifiers, we covered some knowledge basics, as well as some vital considerations to make before taking the plunge on your purchase.
In part two, we cover off a bit more knowledge, then give you some options to consider.
Integrated or pre/power?
Without intending to burden you with too much information, there’s one other aspect to hifi amplifiers that bears explaining. You’ve probably seen the term ‘integrated’ used a bit in regards to an amplifier's designation. You may also have seen mention of a pre amp or power amp. Put simply, an integrated amplifier is a pre/power combo all built in to the one box.
Isolation is something that’s highly valued in the world of hifi. The less noise and energy one component is absorbing from other sources, the better your setup is going to sound.
And so it is in a pre/power setup, the pre amp handles all of the delicate signal processing duties, while the power amp takes that signal and whips it in to your speakers with as much grunt as required.
Aside from the obvious increase in cost, the key reason for choosing separate boxes over everything going in the one box is sound. By isolating the audio signal path from the power amplification section, you’re effectively ensuring that none of the integrity of that audio signal is lost.
Of course, you’ll need some serious speakers and sources to hear the difference. Keep in mind that your system will only ever be as good as the weakest component. So whilst you may not be at the stage where you’re ready to drop a few thousand dollars on separates at this stage, being wise to the differences and reasoning for doing so is shrewd.
A vintage Marantz pre/power combo. Handsome, isn’t it? In this example we’ve got pre up top and power underneath. This would’ve been a fully featured unit at the time, and even includes different settings for various turntable cartridges.
Yep, that's great, please just tell me what to buy!
All that information and we haven’t actually recommended anything. Let’s take a look at a few models and some of the advantages and disadvantages they possess.
Rotel A10 - $719
Rotel is a brand we’ve chosen to hang our hats on here at Instant Classic. The company is family-owned after just shy of 60 years of operation and they manufacture everything on-site at their factory in Zhuhai, China. The A10 is a purely analog amplifier, there’s no digital circuitry anywhere.
The convenience of digital options can be terrific but introducing digital circuitry to your unit also introduces unwanted noise into the circuit path, much like introducing your friend’s poorly behaved three-year-old to an otherwise serene afternoon drinking G&Ts in the backyard.
Vinyl your bag? With onboard phono, 40 watts per channel, plenty of analog inputs and two sets of speaker terminals for bi-wiring or bi-amping (check out our speaker blog for info on what that is) the A10 gets a strong endorsement from us.
Cambridge Audio AXA25 - $499
Cambridge Audio are one of the other staple brands that manufacture amplifiers towards the more affordable end of the scale. The AXA25 is considerably cheaper than the A10, but it also sacrifices some of the features and power. You’ll get 25 watts per channel for your money, and a handful of analog inputs.
If you’re playing records though, you’ll need to plan for the absence of a phono stage, but that’s easily done with a turntable like the Pro-Ject Primary E Phono. If headphone listening is a priority then you’ll be relying on another device like your smartphone, but the price is extremely competitive and it’s an aesthetically pleasing unit too.
Pro-Ject Stereo Box S2 BT - $539
Pro-Ject are a brand that initially forged their reputation on building reliable, great-sounding turntables, but they also produce an extensive suite of hifi components, all of which are handmade in Europe.
The Stereo Box S2 BT is an outstanding choice if you’re spare on space. It makes a lot of sense for someone wanting an analog setup in a one or two bedroom apartment, for example.
It’s a similar price to the Cambridge AXA25, the major difference here is you’re sacrificing a couple of analog inputs but gaining the ability to stream from your phone or computer via Bluetooth, so it’s a matter of what’s more important to you.
Audiolab 600A - $1,599
Audiolab are another company that offer good-quality amplification at relatively affordable prices. The 600A introduces some handy digital input options and a modest power upgrade on the A10 at 50 watts per channel.
As is often the case there’s only one set of speaker terminals (Rotel’s inclusion of two at all price points is a rare feature) and there’s no options to connect your computer via USB if that’s how you like to listen. That being said, it’s a competitive offering with sleek looks and snappy sound.
Rotel A12 - $1,399
We’re getting into pricier territory here but as we all know, with great power comes a modest increase in expenditure. The A12 truly is a Swiss Army Knife of an amplifier. You’re getting a bit more power than the AudioLab with 60 watts per channel on offer, so the range of speakers you’ll be able to drive opens up a bit more.
The A12 also features every input we think you’ll ever need, including a port with which to charge your smartphone, that vital phono stage for your turntable, and a swathe of other analog and digital inputs. The A12 obviously makes an excellent amp to begin your hifi adventure, but it’s also an exceptional upgrade choice if your current unit isn’t cutting the mustard anymore.
Irrespective of the current quality of your system and where you plan to take it, all of the topics in this guide should give you a solid foundation of knowledge with which to select your next amplifier. Don’t forget, we’ve got other blogs across the site on turntables, speakers and more. Have a good read before you make your purchase.