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.
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.
Integrated amplifiers are available with a wide range of features and power ratings. You can easily spend anywhere from $350 to $6,500 and have the nucleus of an excellent sounding system for many years to come. The one thing to remember is that better sound quality and a more extensive features list comes with a much higher price tag. The smarter solution is to find a combination of amplifier and streamer that fits into your budget if you are concerned about price/performance.
Support for wireless streaming has become a standard feature on some integrated amplifiers, including Bluetooth aptX and aptX HD. Both formats are lossy but sound quality has taken a huge jump recently when streaming from your smart device to an integrated amplifier. Many integrated amplifiers now include Optical, USB, and Ethernet connectivity for external streamers or if you use your desktop computer or laptop as your digital source.
Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2
Domestically produced integrated amplifiers that are affordable, built well, modular and overachieving sonic performers are somewhat difficult to find these days. Schiit Audio builds everything in California and has succeeded at keeping their prices affordable by implementing smart industrial design and not over-engineering their products. The Ragnarok 2 is available in two versions: the fully loaded version for $1,799 which includes a MM phono stage, 24-bit/192kHz Multibit DAC, and a very powerful headphone amplifier, and a more basic version of the integrated amplifier without the phono/DAC modules for $1,499.
The Ragnarok 2 is rated at 60Wpc into 8 ohms and 100Wpc into 4 ohms. It is more than capable of driving difficult loads like the Magnepan LRS planar loudspeakers or large full-range bookshelf loudspeakers like the Q Acoustics Concept 300 with very little effort and reproduces music with real presence and a level of resolution that you expect from far more expensive audio components. If you listen to headphones on a regular basis, the Ragnarok 2 delivers more power than you would ever need for even the most demanding planar magnetic headphones like the Meze Audio Empyrean.
McIntosh Labs MA352
Best Audiophile Upgrade
Hybrid tube integrated amplifiers like the MA352 are aspirational products designed for demanding high-end loudspeakers that require a bottomless reserve of power, and reference level resolution, detail and low-end control. The hybrid design features a tube preamplifier, and 200Wpc solid-state amplifier that almost doubles its power into more demanding 4-ohm loads. The attention to detail and tank-like build quality are what you should expect for $6,500 and McIntosh gear never fails to deliver or retain its value long-term. While some may bristle at the absence of streaming capabilities or an internal DAC, the reality is that MA352 requires source components of equal quality to really demonstrate what it can do. Paired with a high-end turntable or streamer, the MA352 puts considerable distance between itself and the rest of the competition – the Cambridge Audio Edge A comes remarkably close with its power, transparency, and high-end internal DAC but loses out somewhat with its cooler tonal balance.
Cambridge Audio AXA35
Cambridge Audio celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018 with the launch of the award-winning Edge A integrated amplifier. It’s a reference level piece of hi-fi that shines with every loudspeaker you can throw it. At the opposite end of the price spectrum sits the entry-level AXA35 that delivers more than enough power to drive pricier bookshelf loudspeakers in a very satisfying manner. It does not include an internal DAC or streaming capabilities, but serves as a very confident and robust sounding amplifier that works well with the AudioQuest Dragonfly Cobalt DAC and your smartphone or laptop. Build quality is first-rate and we were quite surprised by the quality of the MM phono stage that shines with cartridges from Grado Labs, Ortofon, and Audio-Technica.
Bluesound PowerNode 2i
It has been almost a year since we first recommended the PowerNode 2i and after a number of firmware updates and the addition of support for MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), it remains the best component of its kind. 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/384kHz DAC improves the sound of any streaming service that you may use. The PowerNode 2i also offers support for Apple AirPlay2 and is one of the first integrated amplifiers to work with Amazon’s Alexa voice control and Google Assistant. The PowerNode 2i now supports HDMI eARC and ARC connectivity and will stream to wireless headphones.