We've said it over and over again: integrated amplifiers are the future of hi-fi. They're the central hub to the modern hi-fi system, acting as a power amplifier with a multitude of wired and wireless connectivity options, and they give people the freedom to listen to music however they want. And yes, they're booming in popularity.
But they're not without competition. The biggest "threat" to integrated amplifier dominance is active speakers, which are also booming in popularity.
Active speakers combine all of the traditional components of a stereo system into a pair of speakers. They have a built-in amplifier that's optimized for that specific speaker. They also offer a number of wired and wireless, so you can basically hook them up to whatever — a turntable, television, computer or smartphone — and listen to music however you want.
But integrated amplifiers and active speakers don't play well together. You can't have a hi-fi system that has both because active speakers are self-amplified and aren't compatible with the power amplifier that's built into the integrated amplifier. So when starting your hi-fi journey, you really need to decide early on whether you want to build your system around an integrated amplifier or a pair of active speakers.
Integrated amps are more flexible, and give you room to grow.
First, it's generally more affordable. It obviously various on the power, capabilities and overall build of the integrated amplifier, but you can buy one for a few hundred bucks, like the Cambridge Audio AXA35 ($350), and then pair it with some passive bookshelf speakers and the overall cost will likely best less than a nice pair of active speakers.
The second big advantage of an integrated amplifier is that it gives you to flexibility to build out your system the way you want and customize the sound signature. No matter what anybody tells you, the most important component in any hi-fi system is the speaker — it's what you actually hear. And speakers definitely have different sound signatures. With an integrated amplifier, you can pair it with a wide variety of passive speakers and get the exact sound that you want.
Active speakers are a one-purchase path to sound.
Active speakers are a different proposition that integrated amplifiers. The big advantage of buying a pair of active speakers, like the brand-new KEF LS50 Wireless II ($2,500), is that it's essentially a plug-and-play system and therefore there are fewer moving parts. You don't have to worry about matching speakers with amplifiers because it's already built into the active speakers.
The other advantage is that the power amplifier that's built into each active speaker is perfectly optimized for that speakers (according to the speaker manufacturer, at least) so that it sounds best. There's no option for you customize the sound signature, of course, as you can't remove the amplifier or shuffle out the speakers — it's a package deal.
The other downside is that active speakers are generally bigger and more complicated systems to build and therefore are generally more expensive. Q Acoustics just released its first pair of active speakers, Q Active Speakers, for example, which cost $2,000 — a British audio company traditionally makes pretty affordable speakers.
Amp if you want a hobby, speakers if you want a solution.
So which route should you go? The integrated amplifier route where you can tinker and build out your system the way you want. Or the route of the active speakers, which is easier with fewer moving parts, but less customizable and often more expensive.
Both are great. But it ultimately comes down to...you.