The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Integrated Amps (TAS 207)

Equipment report
Categories:
Integrated amplifiers
The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Integrated Amps (TAS 207)

The annual Buyer's Guide Issue is packed with our top recommendations in every product category and at every price. We’ve carefully selected the crème de la crème from the vast array of products on the market and then written mini-reviews of each component. The number at the end of each entry indicates the issue of The Absolute Sound in which the full review appeared.

Integrated Amps

NAD C326BEE

$499
A 3020 for the new millennium, the C326BEE has banished its predecessor’s warm, veiled presentation in favor of a neutral tonal balance with just a hint of darkness (though this actually sounds extremely natural) and far greater control and transparency. Though the C326 has only 50 watts/channel, dynamic range is excellent; the amp is able to handle Wagner’s Ring at its most spectacular (at any sane level) or Mary Travers at her loveliest, and no slouch when it comes to resolution. For PS this is the budget integrated amplifier of the decade—if he had to, he would use it without apology to drive even his super revealing QUAD 2805s.

Cambridge Azur 550A

$599
Though it has been revitalized on the outside with thicker brushed-aluminum front panels and a contoured wrap-around top plate, the real news about Cambridge’s integrated resides on the inside, where it has been equipped with an oversized toroidal transformer, high-current output transistors capable of 60Wpc, and a hot-rod grab-bag of other goodies. The 550A has a sweet and stable sonic character with natural midrange timbre and lower midrange heft and transparency. Most of all the amp has the uncanny ability to grab onto a recording, lock in images, and mount a soundstage with unerring tonal balance and harmonic energy. There’s a sense of grand scale and a sophistication that are the hallmarks of much larger uptown efforts. audioplusservices.com (200)

Naim Nait 5i

$1450
One of the great bargains in high-end audio, this new version of the Nait 5i brings more than a taste of expensive separates to a mid-priced integrated amplifier. The Nait is sweet without sounding rolled-off, presents a huge sense of space and tremendous separation of images, and, most importantly, sounds like music. What really distinguishes the Nait from similarly priced integrated amps is its soundstage dimensionality and highly refined rendering of detail. In production in various forms for more than 26 years, the Nait is the classic British integrated amp—no frills, just great sound. The Nait has won more Editors’ Choice, Golden Ear, and Product of the Year Awards than any other component in TAS’s history. Its power rating of 50Wpc might not be sufficient for low-sensitivity speakers or large rooms. It’s also not the last word in bottom-end impact and authority. naimusa.com (183)

Simaudio Moon i-1

$1699
The perfect mate for Simaudio’s i-1 CD player, the entry-level Moon i-1 is a fine example of why integrated amplifiers offer such superb value. While it’s rated at a moderate 50Wpc, the i-1 nevertheless delivers impressive large-scale dynamics, a musically involving rhythmic liveliness, whiplash transient speed, and a fine top-to-bottom balance. Robust build-quality and a hefty power supply allow this model to double its output to 100Wpc into 4 ohms. One of the purest and most transparent integrated amps in its class, says WG. simaudio.com (185)

Vincent SV-236 MKII/Vincent V-60

$1995/$4995
Looking for a hybrid/solid-state power option as well as some savings? The well-built Vincent SV-236 integrated amplifier combines the best of two worlds by providing a vacuum-tube preamp driving a 150Wpc solid-state power amplifier. WG snapped to attention when he heard the Vincent’s combination of deep, powerful solid-state bass and tube-fueled delicacy, shimmering detail, and almost surround-like imaging. The new MKII version offers more power (up from 100Wpc) and improved parts selection for the same terrific price.

The V-60 is Vincent’s new flagship and it’s as beautiful to listen to as it is impressive to behold. From its heavy aluminum-clad chassis and massive power supply to its silken midrange transparency and airy top end, this conservatively rated sixty-watter is pure high end. It’s also a thoroughly modern affair sporting a hands-free bias control that’s fully automated to compensate for the life of each tube. The remarkably neutral midrange, from the tiniest interior detail to the most extroverted dynamic, is authoritative, substantial, and almost Technicolor in saturation. NG wasn’t kidding when he concluded that “the V-60 is the tube amp that even a solid-state fan could love.” wsdistributing.com (195)

Rega Elicit

$2995, add $145 for mm and $175 for mc phono boards
One of England’s venerable manufacturers, Rega builds all of its gear—turntables, arms, speakers, and electronics—in the U.K. The 80Wpc Elicit sounds fleet and responsive, with excellent small-scale dynamic and good, if not Howitzer-explosive dynamic peaks. Tonally quite natural, with a very unprocessed-sounding delivery, the Elicit brings the best out of vocals and acoustic instruments, while also conveying the grinding crunch of electric guitars and the gut-punching wallop of drums. Though the Elicit has a few operational quirks, and a touch of lightness to its profile, it draws out the musical essence of each recording. soundorg.com (198)

PrimaLuna DiaLogue Two

$2999
This modern tube integrated is one of the best values JH has found in high-end audio. With its massive wide-bandwidth output transformers, the DiaLogue Two can drive almost any load, and its dynamic explosiveness and extension at the frequency extremes may make you forget you’re listening to a tube unit. It reproduces all instruments and voices so naturally you won’t mind its slight lack of transparency. Those needing lots more power should consider the DiaLogue Seven monoblocks. If you want to wade into the tube end of the pool without getting soaked, this honey is a great way to go. primaluna-usa.com (175)

Hegel H100

$3000
A company new to the North American market, Hegel (made in Norway) uses unique engineering solutions to offer high performance at relatively modest prices. The H100's elegant looks are in keeping with its sophisticated, musically rewarding sound. It does not take a hi-fi, “notice me” approach; it draws you in through its non-fatiguing portrayal of musical performances that includes the hall rather than emphasizing laser-cut images. The soundstage is a tad narrower and images are somewhat smaller than some amplifiers can produce. On the whole, the H100 offers fantastic value particularly when you consider that it includes an integral USB DAC. hegel.com (206)

Simaudio 3.3

$3300–$4000
Simaudio looks to the future with this elegant 100Wpc cross-generational design. A classic integrated it offers familiar Simaudio sonics—a sensation of pomp and pace to the reproduced signal. The Moon i3.3 launches rhythmic volleys, percussive accents, and transient cues with the speed and smoothness of Usain Bolt bursting from the starting blocks. You can add optional features at any point with the digital input DAC package, or go Old School with an internal phono preamplifier, or add a balanced set of inputs. Truly an amp with an eye on the future and a nod to tradition. simaudio.com (198)

NAD M2

$5999
NAD’s revolutionary M2 is a “digital” amplifier in the true sense of that word. It takes PCM data at any sampling frequency and resolution (up to 192kHz/24-bit) and converts that data to a pulse-width modulated signal that turns the output transistors on and off. The signal path has no digital filter, no DAC, no analog gain stages, no analog volume control, no preamplifier, and no interconnects. The Class D output stage, unique to the M2, is unlike any other in that the actual switched output signal is compared to a reference PWM signal, with a feedback loop correcting errors that occur in the output stage. In practice, the M2 functions as an integrated amplifier, with digital and analog inputs (analog input signals are digitized), source switching, and a volume control. It replaces in your system a DAC, preamplifier, and power amplifier. The sonic result of this extraordinarily short signal path is a powerful and richly textured bottom end, tremendous dynamics, vanishingly low noise, and three-dimensional soundstaging. The M2 has no sonic fingerprint that identifies it as a switching amplifier. Also to its credit, the M2’s departures from neutrality were subtractive rather than additive. NAD’s M2 is a triumph on many levels, not the least of which is that it points toward a new direction in amplifier design and system architecture. nadelectronics.com (198)

Pass INT-150

$7150
Pass Labs’ first foray into the ultra-competitive integrated amplifier arena has brought to market sixty pounds of 150Wpc, solid-state, aluminum-machined majesty. This powerhouse, which doubles its output into 4 ohms, brims with a neutrality that is tempered with a pleasing warmth quotient. There’s an ease and fluidity that are not euphonically tube-like but emblematic of solid-state with a strong Class A bias—a prime feature of this amp. The midrange has a sweetness and romance that are disarming. The INT-150 fleshes out vocalists and reveals the full physicality of power-singers, from deepest bass-baritone to lilting coloratura. Bass response is well-defined and highly controlled. NG, expecting a bit more bloom, wondered whether the amp might be too tightly controlled, but it’s got the precision “thing” down perfectly. It bear-hugs images and exhibits a deep-space resolving power that Stephen Hawking would admire. Dynamically it reproduces micro- and macro-level dynamics with an ease that carries the rest of your system a rung higher. Audiophiles who maintain LP and SACD collections will be especially rewarded by the INT-150’s wealth of micro-dynamics, fluidity, and a spatiality that really play to the strengths of these enriched formats. It’s a musical force of nature and arguably about as good as it gets in the here and now. A powerhouse design with a heart that should make anyone rethink the “separates” option. passlabs.com (184)

Plinius Hiato

$9100 ($10,585 w/phono)
When you need to take on the large caliber job of bringing an unwieldy or demanding speaker into line, the 300Wpc Hiato is your weapon. Proudly solid-state the Hiato virtually redefines the nature of low frequency control and extension in this segment. Orchestral image scale is spectacular and it tosses around dynamic information like lightening bolts. In terms of low-level resolution it excavates the deepest layers of a recording with the fine brush of an archaeologist brushing away millennia of dust and debris. Tonally neutral the Hiato is all about excavating the truth and will elicit inner detail and resolution that only a handful of today’s integrated amps can touch. eliteavdist.com (201)

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