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Integrated Amplifiers Are the Future of Hi-Fi. Here's Why

They’re the best option for most people building a home stereo system.

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Schiit

When you’re building your first home stereo system, an integrated amplifier is your best friend. By combining a power amplifier with a preamplifier, 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 amp, 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.

Note: The term "integrated amplifier" combines two components, a power amplifier and a preamplifier, but the latter of which might not accept all your music sources (like a CD player, a computer or a turntable). For the sake of this article, we are only including integrated amplifiers that have a built-in phono preamplifier, meaning you can connect a turntable (without a built-in preamp) directly to it. There are a wide variety of integrated amplifiers that do not have built-in phono preamps, meaning you'll need an external phono preamp (or a turntable with a built-in preamp) and you'll need an integrated amplifier with RCA inputs to connect it. We did not include those integrated amps in this article.

What to Look For

Power: If you're in the market for an integrated amplifier, chances are you already have a set of passive speakers that you're looking to drive. (After-all, the speakers are the most important component in any hi-fi system as they actually play the sound.) The good thing is that most integrated can properly drive an entry-level set of passive bookshelf speakers, and it's really only when you get in the realms of real hi-fi that you probably need to worry about it. Nevertheless, before buying an amp, check your speaker's power and sensitivity and make sure that the amp can more than match it. (Generally, you want an amp that can deliver with roughly 1.5x the continuous power of your speakers.)

Connectivity: Different amps come with different analog and digital connectivity options, so you want to make sure you get the component that fits your hi-fi system's needs. All our included integrated amps have a built-in phono preamp, making it easily to connect a turntable; however, some support both MM and MC cartridges, while some support one or the other, so you need to make sure it matches up with turntable you have (or plan to buy). There are various analog connections you should look at for depending on your source, including optical, coaxial, USB, RCA and headphone jacks. And different amps have variously Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivities.

Streaming: 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.

Price: 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.

Why Trust Us

We've been writing about and reviewing audio products — including speakers, headphones, earbuds and other audio components that run the gamut from consumer to hi-fi — for near-on a decade. We also work with major brands and talk to experts within the audio industry. The below selections of integrated amplifiers are a combination of products that we've had hands-on experience with as well as products that are made by brands that trusted within the audio space.

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Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2
Gear Patrol

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 60-watts per channel into 8 ohms and 100-watts per channel 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.

McIntosh MA5300
Gear Patrol

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
Gear Patrol

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.

Rega io
Rega

Rega is well known in the hi-fi community for its high-end turntables and integrated amps — the io is that company's newest and most affordable integrated amp. At 30-watts per channel, the io is basically a less powerful version of the company's well-revered Brio integrated amp ($1,100); in fact, it has the same exact custom-designed phono preamp. It also has built-in headphone amp. The only major drawback for the Rega is, like the Brio, it lacks any kind of wireless connectivity and thus you can't use it as a streamer. But it's still an excellent option for those with a nice turntable and a set of bookshelf speakers.

Marantz PM6007
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The Marantz PM6007 is one of the most budget-friendly integrated amps that the company makes. It's a two-channel amp that delivers 45-watts per channel. It has a built-in phono stage (that only supports Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges), a headphone jack and an integrated DAC that supports 24-bit/192kHz). There's no Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB connectivity, which is its only real downside. It's a solid option for those who want to connect an entry-level turntable, passive bookshelf speakers and a CD player or wireless streamer.

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