The journey of the hi-fi enthusiast never ends. Passion for great sound is what drives the modern day enthusiast to continuously search for that ‘Holy Grail’ that would complete their hi-fi setup. Thanks to modern day advancements, the gears available in the market today have the capacity to integrate itself with any vintage audio equipment of the past era, enabling the modern audiophile to enjoy various music collections in any form. But within an audio enthusiast’s arsenal, the amplifier holds one of the integral parts that ultimately dictate their setup’s sound equilibrium. This is why expert audiophiles place great importance in choosing which amplifier to add to their hi-fi setup.
But what are the key points in choosing which amplifier would suit your musical taste?
Source: What sound sources are you planning on using your amplifier with? Would you need an analog RCA input for your dad’s vintage turntable or a USB compatible amplifier for direct connection to your MacBook? Are you planning on having only a single input, or multiple sources that need to be amplified at the same time?
Amplification power: Are you planning to install your setup in a room with a quiet ambiance like the bedroom or family living room, or are you planning to use your setup o provide the background music in a coffee shop? The amplification power required is greatly based on the venue where you would use your setup.
Size: Where are you planning to put your amplifier? Are you planning to use it beside your PC in which case you’d be looking for a smaller sized desktop type amplifier, or as a part of your hi-fi rack?
Of course, the final decision would rely entirely on the ears of the beholder. To help you in your quest for audio nirvana, here are our recommendations for the best-integrated amplifiers under $500 in the market today.
Onkyo A-9150 Integrated Amplifier
• High-grade phono input design makes this one of the best choices for those who listen to vinyl
• Offers an impressive 60 watts of output per channel at 4Ω
• Onboard DAC system gives users the ability to decode digital audio without needing to attach any other gadgets to the amp
• Very sensitive to impedance mismatches
• Lacks some gain compared to other similar models in the same 20 lbs. weight class
• Costs a good deal more than most other budget amps
Onkyo’s A-series of integrated amplifiers have long been praised for producing deeper tones that match the original fidelity of favored recordings. When the A-9150 got released last year, the company’s marketing literature heavily promoted the dedicated phono board and SpectraModule circuits, which give listeners a slew rate of around 500 V/μs. Some users may find that they have to crank the volume when listening to quieter recordings, but the sound quality is otherwise excellent as a result. Just be sure to lower back down before switching records.
Few other amps in this price range come with a 32-bit digital-to-analog converter board that operates at a full 768 kHz. Since it comes with two optical digital inputs, a pair of coaxial inputs and two speaker posts in addition to the phono jacks, it’s fully geared toward those who want to play live streaming audio or MP3 files. While this circuitry can’t make them sound quite as good as actual vinyl might, it does produce a quality of sound that’s close enough for most people not to notice. DIDRC filtration technology ensures you won’t have to deal with noise regardless of what you’re listening to.
Yamaha A-S301BL Stereo Amplifier
• Dual-channel 60 watt output
• Automatic standby feature switches the unit off after a certain amount of time
• Natural sound technology provides superior 20 Hz-20 kHz sound curve
• Missing features found on other slightly newer amps and receivers
• Sound reproduction leans somewhat toward the treble end of the spectrum
• USB jacks are somewhat loose
Though the Yamaha S301 has been around for several years in various forms, the BL edition is the latest version of this popular integrated amp. Even though it’s been out for a few years, Yamaha continues to market it as their premier budget unit. What the amp lacks in the way of VU gauges and other niceties included with the company’s more expensive devices, it makes up for with TOSLINK optical and USB I/O ports. In fact, onboard integrated circuits give users the freedom of also using digital coax if they prefer. The USB port works quite well and should read most media, but make sure that anything loaded into it gets in there tightly.
Coaxial and optical inputs are tied to a convenient source dial discretely installed on the front panel of the unit. This makes it easy to switch between them in spite of the rather minimalistic design ethos. On the other hand, this somewhat unusual design means that it weighs under 20 pounds and cost on average quite a bit less than heftier competitors.
ELAC EA101EQ-G Integrated Stereo Amplifier
• Blends perfectly with a subwoofer after near-field response measurements are taken with the bundled iOS and Android apps
• Comes with Bluetooth and aptX support for wireless digital audio applications
• Proprietary BASH technology feeds 80 watts per channel at 4Ω
• Costs quite a bit more than most other budget amplifiers
• At less than seven pounds, some users might find it too fragile
• Buttons may be difficult to push
ELAC made headlines when they licensed official Dolby Digital Decoding technology and installed it on the internal DAC in the EA101EQ-G. This offered stereo quality sound out of a box that easily fits anywhere. Most audiophiles will recognize ELAC as one of the premier manufacturers of higher-end loudspeaker systems. As one might expect from such a company, they put a lot of thought into balancing the audio channels.
The designers even developed a mobile app designed to take near-field audio measurements so you can configure your existing speakers to work with the EA101EQ-G. They also thought a great deal about which inputs to include. A pair of analog inputs are joined by another pair of optical digital ones coupled with a single USB jack that accepts 192 kHz audio sent as a 24-bit asynchronous stream. Since the unit is rather small, the back of it looks cramped because of all the I/O ports. Most users should find they have plenty of room to plug in anything they might need, however.
NAD D 3020 v2 Integrated Hybrid Digital Amplifier
• >98 dB signal to noise ratio at 4Ω almost eliminates crackling and popping from vintage vinyl
• aptX Bluetooth streaming technology works well in a majority of applications
• Full 20 Hz – 20 kHz sound reproduction spectrum in spite of small size
• Relatively small dimensions translate into cramped I/O ports
• Extremely light at three pounds, which might make it move around too much on some surfaces
• Continuous power output is only around 40 watts
While the unusual futuristic looks might turn off some audiophiles and purists, the D 3020 v2 from NAD Electronics is a very interesting option. Since it was released earlier this year, the price tends to fluctuate though it usually tends to stay somewhere in the middle of the pack. Those who don’t mind a rather different-looking stereo amp should find plenty to like here. Dual left and right speaker plugs coupled with a pair of phono jacks offer plenty of connectivity options for something of this size. Unfortunately, the back panel feels a bit cramped, though this is largely due to the number of additional I/O options built into the unit.
Coaxial and optical ports are joined by a preamplifier and subwoofer output. While consumer-grade technical amps like the D 3020 don’t usually provide a proper grounding post, the technicians who designed it included a large screw terminal. This should certainly help improve audio quality in any situation where you might have to put up with stray RF. Combine this with a solid set of audio chokes and you should find it works great even in a home theater that has electrically noisy entertainment options.
Teac AI-301DA-BK Integrated Amp
• Allows you to stream music over Bluetooth and play it with the apt codec
• Features 2.8Mhz/5.6MHz DSD native playback numbers when music is fed via the USB I/O port
• Converts digital audio to the highest possible analog fidelity
• Source selection is controlled with a front panel button
• Lacks traditional phono I/O, though it does come with a pair of line-level analog inputs
• Only drives two loudspeakers simultaneously
The AI-301DA-BK is the newest piece of so-called reference series equipment in Teac’s 301 line, which means it builds on a long history of stereo amps that came before it. Though it doesn’t come with the needle readouts that Teac’s more expensive premium designs do, it still offers 60 watts of power to a pair of 4Ω loudspeaker channels. Some users have even gotten it to work with high-end 8Ω bookshelf speakers and said they didn’t experience too much of a drop in sound quality.
In spite of an onboard Burr-Brown PCM1795 DAC and an integrated headphone amplifier, the amp itself still weighs less than five pounds. This might be a challenge for audiophiles who are looking for a more traditional experience, but it holds together well. Since it’s software-controlled, those who use it frequently might, unfortunately, have to cycle the power but it’s an otherwise quite durable amp.
While many of the units on this list certainly have their share of the market, audiophiles and record collectors should definitely look into the Onkyo A-9150. It’s quickly coming down in price and has plenty to offer those who prefer to listen to vinyl without sacrificing access to digital media. Few other amps in this price range offer anywhere near as good instrument separation, which is equally important for those listening to more modern recordings as well. Onkyo’s engineers insisted on gold-plated analog input jacks, so those who often switch around their stereo equipment won’t have to worry about anything wearing out from overuse. While those looking for a smaller option might want to consider the EA101EQ-G, the A-9150 is sure to be a hit with those who demand the best audio reproduction they can get without having to spend several grand to get it.