2017 Buyer's Guide: Integrated Amplifiers Under $5000

Equipment report
Categories:
Integrated amplifiers
|
Products:
Arcam FMJ A19,
Ayon Audio Orion II,
Cambridge Audio CXA80,
Creek Evolution 100A,
Exposure 3010S2D,
Hegel Music Systems H160,
Hegel Music Systems H80,
Lyngdorf Audio TDAI-2170,
NAD C 390DD Direct Digital Integrated Amplifier,
NAD D 3020,
NuPrime Audio IDA-16,
NuPrime Audio IDA-8,
Parasound Halo,
PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium,
PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium,
PS Audio Sprout,
Rogue Audio Sphinx V2,
Yamaha A-S801
2017 Buyer's Guide: Integrated Amplifiers Under $5000

NAD D 3020
$499
Truly a design for our times, the D 3020 is improbably small and portable and loaded. The 30Wpc D 3020 offers 24-bit/96kHz-resolution USB computer audio and aptX Bluetooth music streaming. For all its humble size and appearance it’s pure NAD. Firmly midrange-centered, it never over-reaches in the sense of growing shrill in one direction or tubby in another. Yes its lighter overall balance is due to some bottom-octave attenuation, but the D 3020 retains an essential presence, a midrange integrity, that sculpts the body of a performance and makes it live in the listening space. Although there’s a little bit of a shaded ceiling over the top end, the D 3020 need make no apologies. The other argument is, hello, $499—making it by most standards a small miracle of packaging and portability, and with a few exceptions a delight to use and listen to. nadelectronics.com

PS Audio Sprout
$499
Call it love at first sight. Simply put, JM adored this petite integrated amp/DAC from PS Audio straight out of the box. Whether you’re into digital or analog, you’ll discover big-buck sonics and incredible versatility in a neat little package. In addition to a 50Wpc Class D amplifier, the Sprout comes equipped with a 192/24 DAC and an analog input-selector for all inputs (including Bluetooth, asynchronous USB, analog, and coaxial). The Sprout also serves as an analog preamp with a built-in, passively eq’d moving-magnet phonostage, and as a low-output-impedance headphone amplifier. JM was astonished by the detail and fullness of the sound, even when playing music back via her iPhone using Bluetooth. Hats off to this Boulder, Colorado, firm for producing a receiver anyone can enjoy—and that is small and light enough to tote in a handbag. psaudio.com

Cambridge CXA80
$899
Cambridge really stepped up its game with its suavely restyled and affordable CX Series. A rung above its lower-cost sibling the CXA60, the dual-mono, Class AB, 80Wpc CXA80 is ready for the digital world. With the CXA80’s built-in Wolfson 24-bit/192kHz WM8740 DAC, computer audio is as close at hand as the USB input—or use the front-panel jack for portable players. Although it mysteriously lacks a display, which makes volume changes and input switching more a matter of faith than precision, you’ll get over it, given the CXA80’s smooth, relaxed sonic performance, and abundant headroom for more demanding loudspeakers. Includes a full-function remote control and headphone jack. audioplusservices.com


Yamaha A-S801
$899
Is there any other audio component with as many features as the A-S801 amplifier? And it’s not like the features were just thrown in to impress; the A-S801 surprised reviewer Vade Forrester by how good it sounded driving the inefficient KEF LS50 speakers in his largish room. No, it didn’t equal his far more expensive reference gear, but during a listening session several of his audio buddies said they derived genuine musical enjoyment from the system anchored by the Yamaha A-S801 amplifier, and could happily live with it. Coming from a group of lifelong audiophiles, that’s high praise indeed. The Yamaha A-S801 looks good, sounds splendid, and has a long list of useful features at a price that makes it a bargain! usa.yamaha.com


NuPrime IDA-8
$995
Sonically and functionally, JM found plenty to love about the IDA-8. Essentially, it’s a sleek-looking, small-footprint hybrid Class A/Class D integrated amplifier/DAC—that combines Class A warmth and resolution with Class D speed, power, and efficiency. Its DAC supports USB 384kHz/32-bit and DSD256, and is also capable of decoding DoP (DSD over PCM) via coaxial and optical inputs. The well-conceived IDA-8 delivers substance with plenty of gusto—and does so from an astonishingly quiet background. Since NuPrime’s founding, Jason Lim has continually sought to improve sonics through innovative technologies—in addition to offering high performance and value with respect to pricing. This amp exemplifies that approach. A great-sounding stone-cold good deal. nuprimeaudio.com


Arcam A19
$1000
Need an affordable integrated amp that offers enough inputs for the whole family? Look no further than the Arcam A19, which is built like a tank, outputs a healthy 50Wpc, and employs parts from Arcam’s much more expensive integrated amps. With seven analog inputs—including a high-quality phonostage—and preamp outs, the A19 has plenty of room for all of your sources and won’t break the bank. Quality sound, superior build, and affordability are cornerstones of Arcam’s design philosophy, and the A19 exemplifies all of them. soundorg.com


Rogue Audio Sphinx V2
$1295 ($1395 with remote control)
Rogue products have, like their moniker, usually gone their own way in design, price, and value. The Sphinx integrated amplifier may be the most roguish of the lot. Tubes? One hundred watts-per-channel (200W into 4 ohms)? U.S. design and manufacture? For $1300? If that’s not enough, this is the first Class D amplifier (actually a hybrid with a pair of 12AU7 tubes in the preamp section) that RD feels offers true world-class sonics. Includes a very fine discrete headphone amp and a phono section that is worth the asking-price all by itself. A volume remote is an option. The only snag RD encountered was a complete incompatibility with his Kimber PBJ interconnects, although this did not keep him from purchasing the review sample. rogueaudio.com


Hegel H80
$1995
Those who are (sometimes justifiably) frustrated with escalating prices, take heart; Hegel’s 75Wpc, solid-state H80 integrated amplifier with onboard 24/192 DAC answers the call for high-performing audio kit at a very reasonable price. No, it does not have the seamless liquidity, high resolution, and fundamental solidity of the more expensive stuff, but it gets you enough of the high-end essence to be more than a great place to start. The H80 delivers a nice measure of musical verve, accompanied by a lack of listener fatigue that one rarely encounters in $3000 integrateds—let alone in one priced at $2000. Conversely, many integrated amps near its price with a low listener-fatigue factor too often also sound overly polite or reserved, where the H80 is musically involving, well balanced, and surprisingly powerful for its rating. This is the real deal...and a sweet deal, too. hegel.com


Creek Audio Evolution 100A
$2195
This quintessential stealth amp packs more configuration options than should be possible in such a minimalist chassis. Class G topology significantly bumps up the power over its 50A sibling, but it’s the addition of the superb 24/96 Ruby DAC module with multiple digital inputs and FM tuner that makes the 100A pop for today’s listeners. Other options include phono and tuner-only modules. Lastly, there’s a true dedicated headphone amp, with front-panel jack, capable of handling top-quality cans. Sonics are smooth, vibrant, and unhyped. Frequency extremes are slightly attenuated—there is a little dryness on top and a bit of soundstage constriction—but that doesn’t detract from the 100A’s lively musicality. Includes a nice remote and very readable OLED display. In a world of à la carte audio, the Evo 100A is an entrée with all the fixings. musichallaudio.com


PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium
$2399
For PrimaLuna, the Premium Series is the tweener line, geared to bridge the gap between the performance/feature set of the entry-level ProLogue Series and that of the more advanced and costlier DiaLogue Series. Sonically, the 35Wpc ProLogue Premium does not have the rosy, euphonic colorations of traditional triode or SET tube varietals. True, there is a glimmer of romance in its palette, but tonally it’s a thoroughly contemporary tube amp that walks a mostly neutral line, yet still reproduces the lowest-level details of music with an almost tender delicacy and resolution that combine the best of the valve and solid-state worlds. There’s an inner light to images, plus a huge soundstage and cavernous dimensionality. The ProLogue Premium places the emphasis on ingredients that often elude more commonplace electronics—the liveliness and fluidity of the musical event. primaluna-usa.com


Parasound Halo
$2495
The Parasound Halo integrated amplifier looks very much like other components in the Halo line with its distinctive faceplate sporting a horizontal half-circle cutout running parallel with the base. Like other Halo products, the circuits inside are John Curl’s design. For $2500 it includes a powerful basic amplifier coupled to an excellent preamplifier with a built-in analog crossover as well as a DAC that supports all modern formats. Combine the Halo integrated with a comparable set of speakers such as the wonderful Audience 1+1 and a good subwoofer like the Velodyne DD10+, and you have the building blocks of a glorious-sounding small-room or nearfield system for around $7k. And while SS wouldn’t call this an “entry-level” hi-fi, he would hazard to guess that for many audiophiles such mid-priced components will deliver a high enough level of sonic excellence to make for joyous listening for many years to come. parasound.com


NAD C 390DD
$2599
NAD’s C 390DD might perform the same functions as an integrated amplifier with an integral DAC, but looks can be deceiving. Rather than convert digital signals to analog and then amplify those analog signals with multiple conventional gain stages, the C 390 DD takes in digital data at any resolution up to 192kHz/24-bit and converts the PCM data directly to the pulse code signal that turns the output transistors on and off. This “Direct Digital Amplifier” technology debuted in the $6000 M2 and now trickles down to the C 390DD. This new unit benefits from three years of additional R&D and more features, including a modular design in which most of the digital inputs are on replaceable cards to accommodate changing technology. And being software-based, the C 390DD’s programming can be upgraded as well. Throw in an automated program that removes the worst bass peaks and dips and you have an extremely capable and compelling product. Sonic strengths include extremely wide dynamics with a sense of ease on even the most demanding peaks, tight and powerful bass, and a treble that errs on the side of smoothness rather than resolution (a good thing when partnered with many mid-priced loudspeakers). nadelectronics.com


NuPrime IDA-16
$2600
A do-everything DAC coupled with a 200Wpc Class D integrated amplifier in a sleek package that would look good in any system, the IDA-16 plays music files ranging up to 384kHz PCM and DSD256—which includes all currently available albums. The amplifier has five digital inputs and one analog input, and an analog output to drive subwoofers. Although listenable right out of the box, with 150–200 hours of break-in, the IDA-16 becomes even more dynamic. Delicate, detailed highs are smooth, continuous, and very extended, though not at all peaky. Bass is also extended, with tons of impact. The midrange lacks just a smidgen of the detail present in other, more expensive amplifiers. The soundstage is quite wide, with instruments realistically distributed between the speakers. Voices are unstrained and pure-sounding, bespeaking low distortion. At $2600, the IDA-16 provides a ton of value for the price. nuprime.com


Exposure 3010S2D
$2795 (DAC option, $595)
Don’t let the simple façade of the Exposure 3010S2D integrated amp fool you. It may not have exterior glitz but sonically it’s a real standout. Featuring a superb combination of poise, densely textured midband timbre, and dynamically authoritative energy, the 3010S2D offers a compelling musical foundation; plus, its low noise floor reveals the ambient riches that live between musical passages. With an overall character that conveys warmer, darker shadings, reminiscent of a burnished walnut grain, it doesn’t hype treble frequencies, etch transients, or evince any pernicious tonal peaks or bumps. Vocals, female and male, have realistic body in a distinct sense of place—with both feet on the ground so to speak. Don’t forget the DAC option—it’s more than worth the modest upcharge. exposurehifi.com


PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium
$3399
The Premium version of the DiaLogue incorporates select parts such as an ALPS volume control, Takman resistors, and SCR tin-foil coupling capacitors in critical signal-path locations. The front end is now all 12AU7-based. The amp ships with EL34 pentodes, but KT88 and even KT120 beam power tubes may be substituted, which nudges power output to 42Wpc. DO opines that the KT120 produces the best sonics in either ultra-linear or triode modes. Operation of the KT120 in triode mode is a potent option that can work miracles with some speaker loads, though output power is halved. You can hardly do any better when it comes to user-friendliness and operational flexibility. It is a tube roller’s delight as it dispenses with the bother of having to deal with biasing issues. primaluna-usa.com


Hegel H160
$3500
The Hegel H160 is an integrated amplifier that sneaks up on you rather than grabbing you by the lapels. A quietly elegant, self-effacing component, it offers performance far exceeding its price. It’s powerful enough to drive a big speaker like the Wilson XLF. At the same time, not even a smidgen of harsh distortion is allowed to intrude upon the sound. No, it doesn’t compete in the category of the kilowatt (and kilobuck) amplifiers put out by the likes of Boulder Audio. But a battery of inputs on its back and the ability to stream via an Ethernet port mean that it truly constitutes a jack-of-all-trades in integrateds. Anyone looking to assemble a reasonably priced system would do well to start here. hegel.com


Ayon Orion II
$3910
Tubes done right! RD knows tube amplifiers can sound great but fears their downsides. Enter Ayon, self-appointed ambassador of tube amplification, which runs a five-point test on every tube it ships, including plate current, transconductance, heater-to-cathode leakage, gas ion current effects, and microphony. The Orion II takes over from there, incorporating Ayon’s auto-fixed-bias (AFB) system, which at the push of a button adjusts bias and checks for tube failure, noting which tube has failed via an LED. The system will also automatically “break-in” new tubes. Oh, and the Orion II sounds lovely, readily serving all kinds of music. Ratings in pentode (60 watts) or triode (40 watts) seem optimistic, and RD encourages care in the choice of loudspeakers, recommending a nominal load of 8 ohms or above. ayonaudiousa.com


Lyngdorf TDAI-2170
$4000
The Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 is much more than an integrated amplifier. Although it performs the functions of an integrated (85Wpc), it can accept just about any digital or analog sources, and also offers RoomPerfect DSP room correction. The RoomPerfect system does a remarkable job of smoothing out and neutralizing what the room is doing to degrade the sound of your speakers, and once you have heard how RoomPerfect fixes this up, you won’t want to go back to the uncorrected sound. Sonically, the TDAI 2170 is impeccable. The amplification, in particular, has an extraordinarily silent background, a sense of being “non-electronic,” and an ability to provide direct access to the source material. Operating the TDAI 2170, including the room-correction setup, which needs to be done once only, couldn’t be simpler. Moderate price, compact size, ease of use, flexibility, and truly remarkable sound are all right there at the touch of a few buttons. lyngdorf.com


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