Memo to audiophiles: Most people don’t appreciate your hobby. They think you’re weird for using a stack of large, ugly, and (to them) insanely expensive equipment to listen to music. They are happier than (fill in your own favorite phrase) listening to music streamed over the Internet, or stored on their smartphones and played through the earbuds that came with those phones. Perhaps, if they feel a need for better sound, they’ll buy some better earbuds, or if they want to make an even larger improvement, some headphones or earphones to replace those earbuds. One thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is that regardless of how they listen they are passionate about music—just as passionate as we audiophiles are.
Occasionally, however, even these non-audiophile music lovers want better sound. Perhaps they’d like to use other sources, or switch from earbuds to loudspeakers. What should their first purchase of audio equipment be? My take: It must be small and attractive, packaged in a single box, have features that will actually be used, and should not cost a lot. It should allow music lovers to use their existing sources with minimal effort. It should require the fewest possible ugly cables. And (drumroll, please): It should be easy to use.
Let’s see how Denon’s new PMA-50 integrated amplifier fulfills the requirements I just laid out. It has a completely modern DAC, which will play most PCM formats up to 384kHz/24-bit, as well as DSD64 and DSD128. That should accommodate most any computer audio file a user would likely encounter. It has an amplifier section rated at 50Wpc into 4 ohms, 25Wpc into 8 ohms, which should drive many speakers satisfactorily, especially in a small room in an apartment. It has five digital inputs: an asynchronous USB Type B jack, two TosLink jacks, a coaxial input on an RCA jack, and Bluetooth. There’s also an analog input, which allows you to connect an analog source such as a turntable, although you’ll need an external phono preamp, as well. Rear outputs are limited to a pair of speaker terminals and one line-level subwoofer output so you can set up a 2.1 speaker system (left and right channels, plus a subwoofer). The front panel has a ¼" headphone jack, a large central volume-control knob, an on/off switch, and a small status screen. It also has a button for selecting the source and one for turning on Bluetooth. The PMA-50 measures 7" x 3 25/64" x 10 5/32" and weighs in at 5½ pounds. It can be positioned horizontally or vertically. And at $599, it’s not crazy expensive. The PMA-50 is attractively styled, with “U”-shaped, brushed-aluminum top, back, and bottom plates. The front and side panels are also “U”-shaped, painted black, and nested into the top and bottom pieces. The recessed rear panel contains all the connections except the headphone jack. As with any recessed panel, labels are a little hard to read and connectors hard to get to, but setup is pretty much a one-time deal. The only wires you’ll need are speaker cables and if you use a hard-wired digital source, a cable to attach it. So how well does the PMA-50 meet the specified requirements? I’d say it’s right on target.
The PMA-50’s small display screen to the right of the volume knob shows the type of input you’re listening to, the sampling rate of digital recordings, and the input being used (e. g., USB-DAC). A graphic display shows you the volume setting when you turn the volume knob. (The display cleverly rotates if you orient the PMA-50 vertically.)
The PMA-50’s remote not only duplicates all the front-panel controls, but it also accesses a set-up menu which includes bass, treble, balance, and headphone-amplifier gain settings (low, medium, and high). There’s also a three-position dimmer for the PMA-50 display, although, for once, I thought the brightest setting was just fine.
Setting Up and Using the PMA-50
The PMA-50 ships with a Quick Start Guide printed in three languages, a CD which contains the full manual as a PDF file, a remote control, a USB cable, and a basic power cord which has only two conductors—no ground connection. The Quick Start Guide had clear, straightforward instructions, which were easy to follow. The full manual was also well laid out, and information was easy to find and understand—just what an audio-system novice needs. The CD manual is actually easier to navigate than the paper manual.
If you want to plug your Windows computer into the PMA-50, you’ll need to install a driver, which is available as a download from the Denon website. Installing the driver requires minimal computer skills. Linux or Macintosh computer users won’t need to bother with drivers. But regardless of which operating system you use, you’ll need to adjust the settings of your music-playback software so it works with the PMA-50. For the J. River Media Center software I use on my Windows laptop that meant I had to click Tools/Options and set the Audio Device to Digital Audio Interface (Denon USB Audio) so J. River would be able to use the installed driver.