19 August, 2008

BEST BUY: Integrated Amplifier and Receivers

BEST BUY: Integrated Amplifier and Receivers

Last revised August 20, 2012

This is the first in a series of "Buying Guides", which shall cover all components in replay. Of course, these do not aim at total coverage as they largely reflect my own experience of gears that I have used myself.

BEST BUY Integrated amplifi
No matter my ultimate preference, the budget integrated is an area I have always retained an interest in. These days in HK and NYC I listen to my second systems more than my main systems! While an integrated amplifier, especially a budget one, is ostensibly a compromise, it takes real judgment and art to achieve a good design, something surprisingly few manufacturers (especially non-UK ones) have managed to do. Provided your speakers are not too difficult for the limited power on hand, a good design can even outperform the same companies' separates in coherence and musicality, if not in power.

I have observed that a lot of audiophiles, including many who think of themselves as old-hands, really cannot handle the variables in matching, and do not even know when the system veers alarmingly from the norm. I'd say even if you don't "need" one, it is essential to have one on hand for testing of musical balance, a sort of reality test for audiophiles who love to delude themselves. This article covers mostly old models. As mentioned, few makers achieve a good design, not to say one that is a bargain (an abused term these days). Many manufacturers today, especially non-UK European ones, make rather expensive integrated and promote the notion that the short signal path brings benefits. While that is not false, with few exceptions, their implementation is usually quite bland, compared to their UK counterparts.

The older integrate
d's all have surprisingly strong phono sections that surpass many outboard phono amps that you can buy these days. That's good news for the TT user!
The best integrateds are overwhelmingly British, and mostly older ones. One really miss the stereotype of the old UK/European audiophile: stingy, cheap, calculating every penny AND very demanding! UK gears are not quite the same now. I miss the old days, don't you?
The mod
ern and updated versions of these classics may have a "little" more power but they are largely the same (or inferior). They all claim continual refinement but looking at the circuit board makes you realize many are largely the same; sometimes the good is even refined out with the bad! So even evaluation of an old model can serve to illuminate newer ones.

Musical Fidelity A1 and A100-X and variantsFrom a pure sonic viewpoint, personally I think the A1 (and its closely related siblings A1-x, A1-S, A2 etc) as well as the higher powered A-100-X are the best integrated amps ever. Their unique look is entrancing. But they run alarmingly hot. One must have adequate ventilation. They are musically so wholesome that one wonders why a tube amp is needed. They even have better bass! Power is limited but if your space is not too big it's enough. In this respect the A-100-X is superior, with enough power to drive a good speaker even in a larger LR (info here). If the A1 were not so good, they would not be introducing a new version so many years later (though its power rating is closer to the A-100-X)! I haven't heard the new one. I am using an A1-S in my bedroom, which is air-conditioned in the summer, but it's in winter that the amp is comforting!!! It's a great match with my Audio Physic Step. Here is a must-read site. MF is NOT a brand that I like too much but, hey, the A1 was designed by none other than the great Tim Paravicini, now founder of EAR. If you know the excellence of EAR gears, you'd like this one. The MC/MM phonostage is excellent.

Linn Majik
(2010) Finally I got hold of one and this jumps now to head of the queue.
It is superbly bold sounding, with outstanding PRAT. It merits a separate review!

Cyrus I, II (III)
The II adds the option of adding a separate power supply (which now commands a higher price than the amp itself). Even at the current inflated second-hand price, thes
e are bargains. It sounds without grain, quite neutral (even a little hifi-ish) and has surprisingly enough power to drive the best of the cheap to moderately priced speakers (people have even used it to drive Magneplans, not that I advise that!). The organic whole, the integrity of the sound simply is first-class, and it outperforms in coherence many gears a hundred time its price. It drives the B&W M805 and LS3/5A very very well, and that's no mean achievement. Its MC/MM stage is even better than most "class A or B" components, and it works via the TAPE OUT with just the power cord plugged in (and the power switch NOT turned on; that is, in the long British tradiiton of "standby" mode). Even used just as a phono stage it is a sure bargain, and some say it comes close to a ML phonostage. Click for further Info.

Nait Nait I, II, III
The III is completely different cosmetically. These are excellent but not as neutral as the Cyrus. The sound is bolder and Naim's famed "Rhythm and Pace" is very much in evidence (more than its modern counterparts),
but there are things to watch out for: (1) the vital vocal midrange is a little recessed; (2) Lower midrange to upper bass is a little emphasized; (3) Treble is just that little bit reticent. Its primary strength is in its portrayal of the leading edge, an area I have not heard its equal. It is best partnered with its own CD players, which shall yield a sound that is uniquely rhythmic and pacey, not neutral but a paradigm in what it excels in. In a complete set, it can lay claim to a unique sound not heard with other brands, and here I tip my hat. An example is my Nait I and CD2 (TDA1541A) combo. With it, the ATTACK of a single plugged string (like guitar), or drumming, are phenomenally live. Even more surprisingly, the "rhythm and pace" benefits tremendously a slow instrument like the organ. With Bach's organ work, you can literally feel the different degree of attack that the organists applied on the keyboard, and it's a revelation. Click for a good read. Note that the phostage are either MM or MC, and they are excellent.

NAD (revised Aug 20, 2012)I originally wrote: "...For once I agree with Ken Kessler that the "venerable" 3020 is flaccid-sounding and hopelessly over-rated. I got a 3020i as a close-out from Ming Fat and till I sold it some years later I never realized what the hell was it all about!. I much prefer the current remote-equipped 315BEE, which garnered rave reviews everywhere. After reading the detailed review by Ken Kessler in Hi-Fi News I bought one, and that's a first for me with this reviewer! Now it's the 316BEE. I also have a 325BEE in NYC. Buy any of their BEE series with confidence..." Now, while the BEE's are great buys, I have to make a revision here: (revised Aug 20, 2012) I finally got to hear the original NAD 3020, which was a revelation (review here). It deserves the term "legendary", and was certainly much better than the underwhelming 3020i I had before. Its all-rounded nature and musicality puts it into the top eschelon of integrated amplifiers.

LFD My experience with the Zero Mk III was enlightening. The phono section is superb, and driving power is awesome. The internals look very much like the much earlier Mistral, which if available is probably even more of a bargain. 

Quad 77 was the first and only integrated
amp Quad made. It is a much under-rated amp with sound distinct from the old Quads of 303, 405, 306, edging very very close to the sound of the current 99 series, which curiously has no integrated amp (as it has volume built into its CDP). This is a crisper sound than Cyrus/Naim and it can drive even ATC very well. A classic. The only problem is that most of the remotes have broken down, so use the front buttons. At its current price (likely less than a Nait), grab one if you see one. No phonostage. I am keeping mine.
Arcam, Meridian, Exposure, Audiolab, AVI, Rega, Creek, Rotel 
Unless otherwise noted, phono is an option with these, which means the units in HK are largely without. The Arcam 290 (excellent optional phono) was the only Arcam integrated that I liked very much. A little dim, grainy and earthy, but powerful and able to drive the LS3/5A. The Meridian 501 looked great and sounded fine but was seriously underpowered, and that stupid remote! If you can find it, the old 100 series is a lot more fun. Yawn, the famed Exposure XX is very powerful but tonally shut-in and not attractive. Audiolab 8000B (line only) is better than the dull 8000A (MM/MC) and the lean 8000S (line only), but with this brand you have to go to the 8000C(MC,MM)/8000P to get better sound. AVI is an even performer but rare in HK. The old Rega Brio (MM phono) is too light sounding; I reckon you have to go to higher models to get more. But the old look is fabulous, much better than the new ones. I have never owned a Creek but have always liked the sound of the old black boxes with green letters (which have phono); the new aluminum fascia of the Destiny and Evo series look hideous. Rotels are always good value for money, and the old models (MM/MC phono) can be had for very little money, though one may wish to investigate their separates instead (like the 870BX amp I have).

Linn Classik (old version)This is a very good complete system. The integrated is fine, the tuner is outrageously excellent and the CD player is competent (but a far cry from their excellent CDPs. I am not familiar with the newer version. The integrated amp part is good but not as good as the older Majik.

SOLID STATE (non-UK):The problem with many non-UK integrateds is that they are just too bulky or expensive for me. Why not go separates for the size! So my experience is limited, but there are some gems.

Revox/StuderImpeccably built and neutral sounding, a good one will shame most modern "high-end" solid state gears! I was very surprised by the performance of BOTH the preamp and the amp sections of my B-750 MkII. The former is as good as a solid state preamp can get, and the latter has enough real world power to drive my ATC20 to very satisfying level! If you can handle the bulk, try one!

Ever since I saw and heard the CSA-14 driving LS3/5A at Golden String I wanted o
ne. This is a bulky but very well built 120 wpc integrated amp with 2x 6DJ8 in the input stage, and therefore it has a warm sound and fluidity. In contrast to the next incarnation CSA-28, which is almost exactly the same inside and out, this model even has an ss MM phonostage!!! That makes it a ridiculous bargain at current second-hand price, which is not much more than a Nait! Copland also makes good tube amplifiers (superior output transformers).

I have never owned any Pathos, but my good friends did. It was many years ago that I encountered the fascinating, mammoth and now classic Twin Towers, which established
Pathos' name. However, although the sound was excellent, its driving power left something to be desired with speakers like Sonus Faber Electa Amator or even LS3/5A. It was not until another friend used the smaller but more powerful Classic One (pictured) with his B&W Nautilus 804 that I took note of the very fine all rounded performance. Yes, the preamp tubes helped greatly in delivering the mellifluous sound!

The Beat B-100 is a fabulous chunk of aluminum. I think it really is just an amp with a volume pot, but it is highly resolving, surprisingly dynamic and rhythmically enticing. This brand never caught on in HK. I sold it because it's just too chunky but sometimes I regret it. If this were available in a UK shoebox I'd get one...

Big but excellent products. Mine was an E-204 I think. It ran pretty hot but gave excellent sound with hard-to-drive speakers like ATC
20. The MC/MM phono is also exceptional. Mine was black, and I was told that meant hong goods for the old models. I miss mine.

More than an integrated amp, this is a receiver. Now, this is a curiosity. The integrated amp portion is solid state, and an excellent one at that, more powerful than the UK stuff, and it looks fabulous too. What makes it unique is the tuner, a fully tubed section!!! IMHO, the tuner section rivals that of the finest McIntosh tuners! And so it is a great bargain. My review has more details. If interested in its siblings and other priceless gears from this company, click here for a great site.

Early USA Marantz are excellent, and surprisingly powerful too. In an era where horrid sounding ss amps were being made, it was a comfort to many. I picked up the 1040 for US$10 by the sidewalk, though I spent $70 fixing it up later! It's worth it, as it can even drive my Magnepan MMG to excellent level. I am using this in my bedroom in the USA. Visit this excellent Marantz site.

There is too much to cover, but so much for now. Note that I do not really include true tube integrated amps (not amp with volume knob) for the reason that they are cumbersome and the vintage ones are difficult to service.

Perhaps I shall add to this article in the future
---to be continued.


  1. Dear Doctor John

    Have you got the chance to listen to any bulky integrated amp like those Sansui made in 70 to 80s? How would you compare those Sansui amps to the SS amps you mentioned above?


    1. Hi, they are good amps, but the small brit stuff are a bit more musical to bit. e.g., except for power, it is hard to beat an amp like the NAD 3020.

  2. Doctor John

    As a vinyl lover myself, I would follow your path to look for Musical Fidelity A1 and A100-X, NAD 3020A or B, Cyrus I, II (III). These are small and easy to use, simply hook up turntable with MC cartridge and sing, this is good for our tiny small apartment here in Hong Kong.

    What else good SS amps would you recommend too?


  3. Doctor John

    What do you think of NAD-3080, NAD-3225PE & NAD-C326BEE in comparison to NAD 3020?


  4. Thank you Doctor John. I just bought a NAD-3020B from UK and hope it will sound good with my turntable.

  5. Doctor John, I bought a Cyrus 2 with PSX, it played well on CD but no sound if playing turntable. Any faulty inside? Thanks

  6. Maybe. Sometimes the selector has poor contact, just do some rapid switching. If using MC, make sure MC is selected.

  7. Have an vintage NAD 3020 along with a MARANTZ 2220B and was wondering if you have any cartridge recommendations for these two vintage pieces?Have a AT 100E that sounds better to my ears with the MARANTZ using a TECHNICS SL-1700 and 1400.$100 or less price range for cartridge.Thanks for any info.

    1. Hi, although the 2220B is not bad as a whole, its phono section is likely the best of it. But the real gem is the 3020. It will do justice to almost any cartridge, even those outside your budget. I don't know what you listen to, so I can't really answer, but I'd say the Shure 97, Sumiko Pearl, Denon DL-110 likely falls into your category. If you like jump factor, also consider the DJ cartridge Shure M44-7, which I shall write about soon.

  8. I asked about the Lavardin amplifier in an earlier reply and decided to take your advice and instead seek out a vintage UK integrated such as an NAD 3020, Cyrus III or Nait 3 on the used market for my bedroom system...long story short, I stumbled upon a Densen (not the Beat with the knobs as you reviewed in this post) but a later model (B-120) and it sounds fantastic with my Neat speakers. Have you heard any of the newer Densen models and how would rate them compared to the older lineup?

    1. Hi, indeed the old Densen models are very good. They all have similar sound. There is only so much a certain brand/designer can do to "improve". The "improvements" to certain parameters may be audible, but the sacrifice is equally apparent in the long run. Take the case of Naim, most of us would regard their older products to be AT LEAST the equal of their offerings now. The list goes on.

      Enjoy your Densen, but forget about anyone's rant (including the official ones) about the newer the better. Meanwhile, be patient, and explore new territories.