An amp should be the center of your hi-fi world. It should be the focus point for all your efforts, the piece of equipment that can make or break your sound. Everything flows into it, and everything flows out of it. There’s a lot of mystique that has sprung up around amps, and a lot of related jargon that has been created over the years, but the good news is that you don’t need to know all the ins and outs of amplifiers to pick a great one - you just need to follow our handy guide at the bottom of this page. Below, we’ve highlighted this year’s top models, and no matter what budget you’re on, there’s a model here that’ll supercharge your sound system.
Couple of things before we start. Firstly, this list covers only integrated amplifiers – preamps and power amps are getting their own roundups, which we are working on now. Secondly, we’ve tried to keep prices sane. We are aware that you can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on amplifiers, and we think that for most people, that’s a significant overkill. As a consequence, value-for-money was high on the list of things we considered when choosing our amps, along with sound quality, usability, and whether they had any features that set them apart.
We’re confident that we’ve found the top picks, and although the highest spots are dominated by expensive models, there’s one for everyone, no matter the budget. And remember: if your favorite model isn’t on this list, make your case in the comments! (A heads up: one of the things we discovered is that not every manufacturer lists the Dynamic / Peak Power for each model; we’re not quite sure why this is, but it shouldn't factor too heavily into your buying decision - in many cases, knowing the RMS/Continuous Power is sufficient to match an amp with a pair of speakers.)
Weight: 17 lbs
Power: 300W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Huge sound, ease of use.
What We Don’t: Very little.
We have one word for the Peachtree Audio nova300: thunderous. It boasts roaring bass, crisp highs and an outstanding richness that most amps can only hint at. An ESS Sabre digital-to-analog converter and a clean digital circuit that creates some fantastic sound, particularly when it comes to shaving down the edges on harsh recordings. This is a true audiophile amp, and it’s spot-on for anyone wanting crisp fidelity at top volumes.
This is an updated version of an already popular amp that topped this list last year, the nova220. We’d be crazy not to put it in the top spot – even if it does lose the visible tube from the 220SE, which we were quite taken with. Don’t expect this one to be unseated for a long time to come, and hopefully, the folks at Peachtree Audio will stick it up on Amazon soon. One of its biggest advantages? It offers sound that is on par with many more expensive amplifiers. Audiophiles may disagree, but we think its audio quality is comparable to the McIntosh and Anthem models below, both of which are far more expensive. Read our in-depth review.
See the Peachtree Audio nova300
Power: 60W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Terrific amp from a legendary creator, with sound to match.
What We Don’t: Overpriced right now - and it’s no looker.
Bryston definitely have a ‘house look’, although whether you’ll be down with that look is up to you. Their B60R, like virtually all their amps, is a straightforward grey box with some knobs on it. While it gets the job done, it’s not exactly going to win an award for being the most beautiful amp of the year. That, plus the fact that it costs a huge amount, keeps it off the very top of this list. We think its sound is superb, although we do prefer the bass response of the nova300.
But make no mistake: this is a whopper. While it doesn’t offer huge power or significant low end, it makes up for it with crystal sound and precise dynamics that offer a relatively uncolored presentation of your music. While it lacks a built-in DAC, this frees up the electronics to exclusively handle the boosted signal, and you’ll find that this is an amp that can handle just about any genre of music thrown at it. Not the best...but Bryston are legendary, and they’re going to be on this list for a very long time.
See the Bryston B60R
Power: 50W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Improves on already excellent line.
What We Don’t: No digital inputs? What’s with that?
For sheer value, this easily beats out bigger amplifiers – and its ability to slot right into the setups of just about everyone makes it an easy top five pick for us. Besides, we’ve always loved Rega amps; we included the Elex-R on previous versions of this list, and after much consideration, we decided to replace it with the absolutely superb Brio, the newest version of which came out this year. As we said, the value is magnificent – far more than you’d get from something like the McIntosh, below. The Mac is magnificent, but we think it’s very overpriced.
Like a few other amps on this list, this one pulls double-duty with the inclusion of a headphone amp. It’s a compact little powerhouse that takes all of Rega’s combined knowledge about good sound, and distills it into an almost flawless output. You have to hear this amp to believe it. It’s not the most overpowered, but you won’t be able to believe the detail and articulation. If you want to hear just about everything in your music, and pay less than a grand to do so, then you should absolutely be checking this out. The only downside? No digital inputs, which means no optical connections. That’s kind of annoying, but it’s not enough to knock the amp off this list. Quite the opposite, in fact.
See the Rega Brio
Power: 50W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: A McIntosh amp (with all that entails) at a (mostly) reasonable price.
What We Don’t: Probably a bit much for most people.
The most distinctive amps in the world? That would be McIntosh, an East Coast audio powerhouse that made the brilliant decision, early on, to include blue lighting on their vU meters. They make some of the finest amps on the planet, as well as a wealth of other audio equipment, and although we knew we had to put one of the models on this list, picking one was quite a challenge. After all, we couldn’t really justify putting a $14,000 amp here, as that’s way beyond what most people will need.
We settled for the MA5200. At $4,500, it’s still hugely expensive, but it’s an absolutely wonderful amplifier – and in our opinion, it offers the best value for money if you want this particular brand. The included DAC works wonderfully with the amp circuitry, and delivers soaring, magnificent sound quality. There are some clever features too, like the one which prevents clipping and stops you from damaging your speakers if you driver too hard. If you’ve got more money to spend, you can swap out this Mac for a more expensive one, although this one should work fine for just about everybody.
See the McIntosh MA5200
Power: 120W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Thunderous, clear sound, hugely versatile.
What We Don’t: Doesn’t do anything extraordinary.
As we write, we’ve got one of these sitting next to our desk. We’ve been testing it for the past few hours, and although will need a few weeks to really get into its guts, we are absolutely convinced it belongs on this list. This update of a classic Rotel line does almost everything right, and although it lacks a killer feature to elevate it into the upper stratosphere of this list - like the Peachtree’s raw power - it’s a monster of an amplifier.
The sound is enormous, with powerful, roaring, thundering bass that needs to be heard to be believed, churning out at 120 watts per channel. And for all that, the rest of the sound spectrum has some breathtaking clarity. In addition, it offers a lot of versatility, would not only a full section of clear and intelligent outputs around the back, but also a USB port round the front for direct connection with an iPhone or iPad. That, and we really love the bright blue lights that accent the buttons. This one’s a winner, and we’ll have a full review soon.
See the Rotel RA-1572
Power: 200W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Room correction, stellar sound, super-clean display.
What We Don’t: Very expensive, compared to many on this list.
The Anthem STR is a wonder: a beautifully designed integrated amplifier, with very decent power (200 watts at eight ohms), a great on-board DAC (with the ability to handle DSD), digital signal processing as well as a huge range of inputs and outputs, easily comparable to amplifiers like the Peachtree Audio nova300.
And while we do love that amp over this one, it’s a very close thing. And the STR does have plenty going for it, including Anthem’s fast-becoming-legendary room correction system.. What that means is that it sounds not just thunderous, but pinpoint precise as well. Although it’s a sound can be a little rudimentary without the room correction turned on, once it’s activated, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Ultimately, we don’t think that it’s worth the extra $2,000 over the nova300, which offers great sound and usability half the cost, but this is still an absolutely brilliant amplifier. If you can afford it, then it will make one hell of a centerpiece in your hifi system.
See the Anthem STR
Power: 35W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Huge value-for-money, and punches way above its weight class.
What We Don’t: Lacks Bluetooth connectivity, not super-powerful.
This is one of our absolute favorites: a reasonably-priced, gorgeous little amplifier that does what amps three times the price do (we’re looking at your, Anthem), and offers absolutely staggering value for money. Amplifiers can often be boring – and gods know, Marantz has been guilty of this in the past – but this one looks fantastic, with the circular LED display and wood-effect sides. It sounds brilliant, too – far better than you’d expect for this price. The sound is crisp, clear and dynamic, with a good level of punch, able to handle just about any genre you throw at it.
The downsides: it’s not very powerful (a mere 35 watts at 8 ohms), and it doesn’t have advanced features like Bluetooth connectivity. However, we don’t think that low power is a reason enough to knock something down on the list. We’d much rather have an amplifier that does a fantastic job at a low power rating than one that does a middling job with higher power, and we think that’s definitely the case here. As far as we’re concerned, this is a top-five amp, and easily offers the most bang for your buck in this category.
See the Marantz HD-AMP1
Power: 80W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: A genuine classic, with great features - like the built-in headphone amp.
What We Don’t: Been out for a while, really needs a price drop.
If we were going to recommend one Naim amplifier for this list – and really, we’d be remiss not to – it would be this, the storied Supernait 2. It's crazy expensive for what you get, especially considering that it's been out for a while, and it can sometimes be a little bit difficult to track down. But holy moly: what an amp.
It’s not just the classic design, which, like all good designs, is recognisable from across the room. It’s not just the versatility: despite losing a DAC, it includes its own headphone amplifier, meaning it can pull double duty. It’s the absolutely stupendous sound. Naim have always been good at this particular aspect of integrated amplifiers, and they really nailed it here, with huge levels of quality, particularly in areas like the bass. If you want a little more power, you should look at the Rotel RA-1572 – while the Naim just about editing sound quality, it can’t beat the RA for raw energy, or value-for-money.You’d go for this if you want a reliable, tested amplifier that has enough power to satisfy just about everyone, and which will never quit on you. Here’s hoping they update it soon.
See the Naim Supernait 2
Power: 70W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Arguably the best tube amp on this list.
What We Don’t: Not for those who don't enjoy tube sounds.
If you prefer your music neutral, if all you want is clarity, then you can look away now. The DiaLogue Premium is the apotheosis of all tube amps – well, perhaps not, but with eight driver tubes and six power tubes, you've got a staggering amount of valve goodness here. Couple that with some genuinely clever features, and you've got a real winner. Our favorites? The little light that tells you that you've got a bad tube. The ability to switch between ultra-linear and triode mode (heads up: the latter drops your output power to 40 watts). PrimaLuna even adjust their circuitry to prolong tube life. What's not to love?
That being said, while we do love this amp, we can't objectively place it above models like the MA5400 or the nova300. It's a little too forceful: while it offers gorgeous sound, it's definitely not going to be for everyone. Still, we got a real soft spot for it. And if you're prepared to spend $1,000 more, you can have a headphone amp included. We put that model on our list of the best headphone amps of this year, so check that out too.
See the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium
Power: 100W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: High-power for the money.
What We Don’t: Not a lot!
Yamaha make some fantastic mid-range gear, and while its A-S500BL has done extremely well, it’s the AS801BL that has proved to be more popular. For the price, it’s a reasonably high-powered (100 watts per channel, RMS into 8Ω) unit with a fantastic digital-to-analog converter inside it that really helps maintain the quality at high volumes. This converter alone makes it more than worth the extra hundred bucks, up from the S500BL.
It comes with a decent remote, which is a good thing when even having a remote for a stereo amplifier isn’t always a guarantee. It’s also integrated, so there’s no need to buy separate components. And if you’re prepared to spring for the YBA-11, available direct through Yamaha themselves, you can add Bluetooth into the system, allowing you to stream your music. All in all, this is a very solid mid-range amplifier that will be perfectly acceptable for most people. It’s not quite the best on this list, but it’s very much a top ten pick.
See the Yamaha S801BL
Power: 60W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Terrific design and sound from a trusted brand.
What We Don’t: Not super-loud.
Cambridge Audio make some genuinely fantastic stuff, and this sixty-watt amplifier is no exception. What it lacks in loudness, it makes up for in sound quality and design, plus a wealth of features that set it apart from the crowd. We prefer amps like the Marantz, above, which offer more refined sound quality, but it’s still a doozy.
One of the things we really like about this amp is how it treats the individual channels, minimising the crosstalk so that the information on each one is clear and distinct - a feat it pulls off thanks to the use of Class AB amplification, which we explain in our buying advice section below. It’s also got a very high quality 24-bit Wolfson WM8740 digital-to-analogue converter, minimising the need to buy additional gear. The sound is fun and bouncy, and it all comes wrapped in an absolutely gleaming exterior. Alongside that, you get optional Bluetooth inputs. Really, outside of the fact that it’s not going to be suited to big setups, there’s very little to dislike here. Cambridge Audio scores again.
See the Cambridge Audio CXA60
Power: 32W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Wonderful looks, great circuitry.
What We Don’t: A little underpowered for the money you pay.
Marques like McIntosh and Rotel are the behemoths, but that doesn’t mean there aren't any worthy competitors. Take PS Audio, for example, an American company producing some beautiful amps. Its integrated Sprout model not only has a funky name, but also kicks most other amps to the curb in terms of look.
Its walnut finish and machined front end mean it’s not an amp you’ll want to hide. While it’s a little underpowered for what you pay for it (32 watts per channel into 8Ω), it packs Bluetooth streaming, a solid converter and a phono preamplifier designed specifically for vinyl. Its gain stages are high-speed, and the precision preamplification means this is an absolutely ideal amp to go for if you have a vinyl collection and a turntable. It’s also got a superb 24bit/192kHz DAC, making it an excellent in-the-box solution. We also love the stepped volume control, which actually feels like a human designed it. If you’re tired of the utilitarian looks that many amps have, and don’t mind the slight lack of power, consider the Sprout.
See the PS Audio Sprout
Power: 65W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Analogue design and circuits.
What We Don’t: Maybe overkill for some people.
We criminally left Teac off the list on our last update, so let’s rectify that, by talking about the AX-501-B. It’s not the most well-known of amps, but perhaps it should be – it’s certainly rare to see an amplifier with analog metres in the home space. Usually, they are found in pro studios, and the rackmount handles on each side of the amp give a clue to its origin. The somewhat more industrial look may not appeal, and if this is the case, you should consider something with a little bit more style, like the PS Sprout.
Still, it’s certainly suited for home use, and the analogue circuitry gives it some genuinely brilliant hi-fi sound. It’s got a fully balanced preamp to go with the power, making it an excellent integrated solution. They’ve also worked extremely hard to eliminate the noise that can come from analogue gear, and this amp works perfectly well as a headphone amplifier as well, although it’s far from the best on the market in that particular category. While its design and price might make it unsuitable for many basic hi-fi setups, it’s still a superb mid range option that offers some great features for the price. And if you still want a Teac amp, but this one doesn’t take your fancy, there are plenty of others available.
See the Teac AX-501-B
Power: 25W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Great sound.
What We Don’t: Slightly underpowered, Bluetooth is finicky.
This one surprised us. Slowly, Pro-Ject has proven that it can more than take on the big boys, and despite the fact that its low wattage per channel means it won't be able to take speakers over 12.5 watts (18.5 at 4Ω, although Pro-Ject does say it's 2Ω capable), it's still an excellent model. To our knowledge, it sells well, and although it’s far from our favorite, it matches up well against models like the Teac.
The sound is crisp and clear, with fantastic dynamics and great range. Partnering it with a good set of speakers will improve things even more, and it’s not as if you’re lacking options for connectivity. You can connect directly to your PC or Mac with a USB, and you even get two Toslink inputs, for optical use. Right now, we think it’s a little overpriced for what you get, particularly in the power department, but if the price drops, you can bet that this amp will be climbing up the list quickly. If you can get past that, along with the low power and the slightly fiddly Bluetooth setup, you got a real winner with this one.
See the Pro-Ject Audio MaiA
Power: 75W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Sound is excellent for the price.
What We Don’t: Boring looks.
Onkyo is known for producing workmanlike, unshowy audio kit. And while the A-9050 is no looker, much like the Teac, it’s quite a shock to get such a musical, wonderfully-balanced amp at such a reasonable price. For just under $350, you get an amp that does some truly magical things to your music. We prefer this over the Orb Audio model below, as we think it offers huge amounts for the money, but feel free to check out that latter model if you’d like something that will get the job done on a budget.
The key with the Onkyo, though, is in the mid-range, which has enough oomph and power to leave other amps struggling to keep up. If you can forgive those trademark can't-be-bothered Onkyo looks, you'll find an amp packed with a wealth of features (great remote, excellent tone controls) that is absolutely ideal for music, whatever the genre. It’s got a design that minimises negative feedback and enhances clarity, coupled with a seriously good DAC capable of processing up to 24bit/192kHz audio. While we don’t think Onkyo’s much-mooted WRAT (Wide Range Amplifier Technology) is all that groundbreaking, it can certainly have an effect on recordings that need a little bit of extra life. All in all, this is an amp that isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but which will give you great sound at a great price point.
See the Onkyo A-9050
Power: 20W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Tiny footprint.
What We Don’t: Hiss at high volumes.
If space is an issue, and you’re looking for an amp that is unobtrusive but still packs a punch, check out the Orb Audio Mini-T. Originally, it, along with the Topping TP-23, occupied the budget end of this list, but in retrospect, if we had to pick between the two, this is a clear winner. Although it lacks the Topping’s DAC, it offers more power in a more attractive package. Orb is a relatively new company in a crowded marketplace, but its little unit still packs a punch, and has won over plenty of fans.
Partly this is due to its tiny footprint (just over 4” wide) but it’s also because of its excellent engineering, which puts out enough power to happily handle a stereo speaker setup. There is a slight hiss at higher volumes, but it’s still an excellent alternative to other budget amps - and there’s nothing out there that can match it for size. It's also frequently on sale – we’ve seen it go as low as $59 on Amazon – so if you’re prepared to wait around for a bit, you could pick yourself up a serious bargain. The amp uses a Tripath 7092, and as a general rule, is more than powerful enough to handle most bookshelf speakers, save for the ones that demand excessive power.
See the Orb Audio Mini-T
And For When You've Sold The Rights To Your Life Story:
As mentioned before, we know amps can get stupidly expensive. Here are a couple of fun selections from what we'll call the kidney-sale range...
Power: 200W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Incredible sound.
What We Don’t: Incredible price.
Legendary engineer Dan D’Agostino outdid himself this time. The Momentum is an absolute monster, a steampunk behemoth with some serious circuitry. It's got an improved driver system, and individual transistors on the circuit path, and if that’s gobbledygook, then all you need to know is that this is one of the best amplifiers on the planet, and one to buy when you strike the lotto.
It’s a stand-alone power amplifier (as far as we can tell) with the distinctive, signature power meter front and center – a holdover from D’Agostino’s legendary monoblock amplifier. Despite it’s earthshaking output of 200W into 8Ω, it puts out a mere 1W when on standby, revealing an extremely efficient power core. The output stage has seen a redesign from the previous version, as well, although if you owned the previous version, then chances are you’re scoffing at this list already. For those of us who haven’t yet tasted the joys of a Momentum Stereo Amp, enlightenment is only a simple remortgaging away. By the way: one of the amps we decided to leave out of this list, mostly because it’s far too pricey for most people, was the $9,000 Pass Labs INT60. That’s also worth a look, if you want something slightly more affordable.
See the D’Agostino Momentum Integrated
Weight: 3,307lbs (That isn’t a typo)
Power: 120,000W/8Ω (RMS) (Again: not a typo)
DAC: We're genuinely not sure. Probably not, though!
What We Like: You’re kidding, right? It's a goddamn Transformer amp.
What We Don’t: We’re too poor.
Welcome to the last amplifier you’ll ever need. Also the last amplifier you’ll ever be able to afford. Also, the last amplifier you’ll have to remodel your house to install.
It is a little hard to read the specifications of this amplifier without your mouth falling open. It weighs nearly three and a half thousand pounds, and stands a six feet high until you turn it on, whereupon it starts to behave like a Transformer and unfolds, gaining another two feet in height. With over 120,000 watts of power, you’ll have to work pretty hard to find some speakers to pair it with. This utterly absurd amplifier – the product of Italian designer Andrea Pivetta’s fevered imagination, can currently be had for $2.2m, and counts as audio porn of the highest order.
See the Pivetta Opera Only. Good luck.
|Peachtree Audio nova300||$2,499||17lbs||300W/8Ω||Yes||400W/8Ω||14.8" x 13.25" x 4.4"|
|Bryston B60R||$3,385||38lbs||60W/8Ω||No||Unknown||22” x 17.5” x 6”|
|Rega Brio||$995||11.2lbs||50W/8Ω||No||Unknown||13.6” x 8.5” x 3”|
|McIntosh MA5200||$4,500||39lbs||50W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||19” x 17” x 8”|
|Rotel RA-1572||$1,699||29lbs||120W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17” x 14.1” x 5.7”|
|Anthem STR||$4,499||40lbs||200W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17.5" x 17" x 6.3"|
|Marantz HD-AMP1||$1,099||12.8lbs||35W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||13.9” x 12” x 4.2”|
|Naim Supernait 2||$3,580||28lbs||50W/8Ω||No||Unknown||17” x 12.4” x 3.4”|
|PrimaLuna DiaLogue||$3,399||66.3lbs||70W/8Ω||No||Unknown||15.5" x 15" x 8.3"|
|Yamaha S801BL||$900||26.7lbs||100W/8Ω||Yes||140W/8Ω||17.1" x 15.2" x 6"|
|Cambridge Audio CXA60||$750||18.3lbs||60W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||16.9” x 13.4" x 4.5”|
|PS Audio Sprout||$449||2.9lbs||32W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||8" x 6" x 1.8"|
|Teac AX-501-B||$900||8.8lbs||65W/8Ω||No||70W/8Ω||11.5" x 10.5” x 3.25”|
|Pro-Ject Audio MaiA||$449||4lbs||25W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||5.9" x 4.9" x 1.5"|
|Onkyo A-9050||$347||23.15lbs||75W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17.1” x 13” x 5”|
|Orb Audio Mini-T||$74||1lb||20W/8Ω||No||Unknown||4" x 4" x 1"|
|D’Agostino Momentum||$57,000||120lbs||200W/8Ω||No||Unknown||18” x 16” x 8”|
|Pivetta Opera Only||$2.2M||3,307lbs||120kW/8Ω||Unknown||Unknown||6.2’ x 4.1” x 4.1’|
*RMS = RMS/Continuous Power
**Peak = Peak/Dynamic Power
- What Is A Stereo Amp?
- Integrated vs. Pre/Power Amps
- RMS vs. Peak Wattage
- DACs Explained
- Stereo Amp Classes Explained
- Channels Explained
- THD vs. SNR vs. Crosstalk
- Adding Subwoofers To A Stereo Amp
- Stereo Amp Weight Explained
The center of your hifi setup.
When audio signals come from their source, they aren’t very strong at all. In fact, if you heard them straight… well, you’d barely be able to hear them at all. At its most basic level, the stereo amplifier takes this source sound and makes it louder, using the current from its power supply to increase the overall volume of the sound.
Furthermore, it uses its internal circuits to convert the sound into a format that your speakers can make sense of. This is without talking about the ways in which a stereo amplifier can control where sound is sent, as each amp will have many channels that you can push the sound to. It will also sharpen and improve the sound, which is why some amps are so expensive!
And as is our wont with these things, we like to point you in the direction of other bits you may need, such as bookshelf speakers.
We mentioned at the very start of this roundup that stereo amplifiers can run into five and six figures, and get there very quickly. So the question is: how much should you spend?
For most people, $5,000 should be a realistic cap. Audiophiles will probably disagree with us on this, but we think that at some point, you start to reach a level of diminishing returns. Where this point is is open to debate, but we think that north of about $5,000, quality differences start to level off.
Sure, you’ll get an amp that bucks the trend – very obviously, something like the Pivetta Opera Only is going to be better than the D’Agostino Momentum Integrated – but for the most part, what you're paying for as the price increases is more power.
Let’s be honest: most of us simply don’t need that much power. An amplifier that generates somewhere north of 100 watts per channel is almost certainly going to be sufficient for the vast majority of people. And as long as you pair an amp with a good set of speakers, there’s absolutely no reason for you to break the bank.
That being said: we do recommend that you put a little bit of money into your amplifier. It would be a waste to take a $3,000 amp and match it with a set of speakers that cost less than a sixth of that; your speakers just won’t be able to fully express the details that the amp once the show. So as a general, try to make the price of your amp match the price of your speakers – and if you have two choose, always pay more for your speakers. They are by far the most important part of your signal chain.
You may come across a puzzling little term as you peruse this particular product type: integrated amplifier. This is different from a power amplifier. Here's why.
Every amp needs two things to do its job properly: a preamp stage, and a power stage. Together, these work to amplify the signal to a level that we can actually hear. If they're together in one box, they are known as an integrated amplifier. If they're separate, they are known (obviously) as a preamplifier and an amplifier, and they will be discrete pieces of equipment - usually, if made by the same manufacturer, designed to be stacked on top of one another.
The advantages of separate pre and power amps are obvious. The foremost one is that you can swap out components as you see fit, allowing you to customise your sound. The disadvantages, of course, is that having two separate pieces of equipment is more expensive. For most people, it's much easier, and far more common, to buy an integrated amplifier, with both components contained in one housing. Very obviously, you can't swap things out further down the line, but the cost will be less, and the convenience is much greater.
All the amps on our list above are, as we mentioned, integrated amps.
Want to find out more about this topic? We have a full, in-depth explainer here!
Wattage, very simply, is the amount of power an amplifier puts out. It’s not strictly analogous to volume – you can, after all, turn that up and down regardless of power – but it gives you an idea of just how potentially loud and amplifier can be, and the kind of speakers that can power. When you’re building your hi-fi system, it’s a very useful thing to know.
You’ll notice that in the listings for our amplifier picks, we’ve included listings for RMS, or continuous, wattage. This refers to the overall volume of the amplifier over a long period of time – while this period varies, depending on the manufacturer, it’s generally considered to be a good indicator of how much power the amplifier will put out at average listening levels. Please, by the way, don’t ask us to explain what RMS (Root Mean Square) means. The maths defeats us.
Peak wattage, which we’ve included in our table where possible, is the absolute maximum the amplifier can put out: a single short burst of power. Really, that’s it. Average versus peak. And many manufacturers don’t even bother giving the peak, which makes things very easy indeed! Some do though, and it can be handy when choosing speakers.
You almost never need to pay attention to the peak power – chances are if you pump things that loudly, you’re going to damage your hearing. But knowing these two values gives you a good idea of just how powerful an amplifier can be, and it’s very useful when you’re working out which speakers you should match to your amp.
There’s a whole guide to doing it right here, which will answer every question you have. And please believe us when we say it’s not complicated. It just takes a little while to explain!
Digital to Analog Converters. Your audio exists as ones and zeros until it passes through one of these, whereupon it is converted into electrical signals that are used to power the speakers, which then give you sound. You need one of these.
The good news is, chances are your audio source has them already, especially if it’s a laptop, tablet, phone, or CD player. The bad news? These might not always be very good, and it can be worth investing in a separate DAC.
Not every amp on our list has a DAC built in, either. Make sure you check before you buy. If we had to pick the amplifier with the best DAC, we’d probably go for something like the McIntosh MA5200, which offers absolutely superb conversion. It’s not quite our favourite amplifier, but purely in terms of this, it takes the cake.
Don’t get hung up on the different types of amps. While it’s always handy to know the difference between Class T, Class AB, tube, monoblock and the like - and we’ve highlighted some of the differences in the models here - amp quality is high enough now that this is something you can comfortably leave out of your buying decisions if you want to. Your amp choice should be guided by the number of channels you need, your existing setup, your sources and the space you have available.
That being said, this sort of thing is always good to know. So, in short order, here is a sampling of some of the more common jargon.
A common type, where both output stages are always on. What this means in practice is that distortion is very low, although the amps aren’t very efficient.
A type where only one output stage can be on at once, which improves power efficiency at the expense of sometimes adding distortion at the crossover points between frequencies.
As you might have guessed, this is a hybrid of the above two types that maximises the advantages while eliminating the disadvantages. Amps that have this circuit are reasonably efficient, and have limited distortion. A good example of this type would be the Cambridge Audio CXA 60.
A type which uses active transistor switches. The electrical explanation is a bit complicated, what it comes down to is this: Class Ds are highly efficient, and are often smaller and lighter than other models. They also don’t run nearly as hot. Note that if you see Class T anywhere, it’s a variation of this type, made by Tripath.
Something you’ll often see in more expensive models. Usually, a single amp powers both channels, but in monoblock systems, each channel has a separate mono amplifier. More power, better sound. There aren’t any monoblocks on our list.
Sometimes known as valves, these tiny glass cylinders are responsible for the soft, squidgy warmth that some amps are known for. Not a typical feature of stereo amps (they are usually found more commonly in headphone amps) but they do appear sometimes - such as, for example, in the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium.
A channel is a single source of sound; your iPhone, for example, would be one channel (yes, we know an iPod can play stereo, but work with us here). The actual circuitry needed to handle a single channel sound isn’t that complex, and in cheap amps (which typically have fewer channels) you won’t be paying as much for high-end components.
This is a roundup of stereo amps, and stereo, by definition, means two. You can, however, pick up models with more than two channels, which allow you to add multiple speakers as well as things like subwoofers. Obviously, we recommend doing this, as it will broaden and deepen your sound. We go into subs in more detail below.
When you start adding channels – which you will be doing very quickly if your audio setup is even a little bit complex – things change. Suddenly you’re looking at things like high-end digital-to-analog converters, specialized tubes and valves, and even heatsinks in the case of very large amps. All of these components color the sound, giving it a pleasing character, and pretty soon you’ll find you’re paying as much for the sound quality as you are for the actual hardware. That’s without talking about the options are good amp will give you to control the sound; expect to find EQ sections and other filters to allow you to customize the sound to your particular environment.
One of the things that amplifier manufacturers like to do is deluge you with stats and specs, without actually telling you what they mean. That means that wading through the technical details of an amplifier can be a royal pain in the neck!
Here at TMS, we take issue with this sort of thing. So we’re going to break down some of the more obscure specs you’ll see in manufacturer webpages. The good news is that, for most people, these simply won’t need to be considered, which is why we haven’t mentioned them in our comparison table above. Audiophiles will certainly pay attention to them, but things like wattage are usually far more important in determining whether an amplifier can slot into your setup or not.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
Sometimes referred to as THD+N (the N stands for Noise), this measures what the amplifier does to the sound that comes through it – in other words, how much it is changed from when it enters the amplifier to when it exits. Obviously, unless you’re dealing with things like tube amps, where you want a little bit of distortion, you want this number to be as low as possible.
The good news: it is! In almost all cases with modern amps, the THD is so low as to be practically non-existent. Perfect example: the Anthem STR, which has a THD+N of…wait for it…0.02%. That is so low as to be practically non-existent, and whenever somebody tells you that THD is crucial to measuring how good an amplifier is, you have our permission to laugh at them. Unless the THD is over 1%, you can safely ignore it.
Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR)
In addition to the music being put through it, every amplifier will itself make a little bit of noise. It is made up of electrical components, after all, in these sometimes make a little bit of noise in the operation. A signal-to-noise ratio is a measure of just how loud this noise is – or rather, how many decibels, in comparison, that the amp can pump out.
Counterintuitively, the larger the number (which is measured in decibels), the better the SNR. Again, you can safely ignore this, because of an amp has a signal-to-noise ratio bad enough to need mentioning, it’s not going on our list.
We’ve already talked about amplifier channels, and crosstalk is simply a measure of how well an amplifier separates the sounds in the channels. If it does it badly, then you won’t be able to pick out stereo separation, and things will sound muddled!
Like SNR, this is measured in decibels, only with a minus sign (-) in front of it. The larger the number behind the minus sign, the better the stereo separation will be. This one is a little bit more important than SNR and THD+N, but only a little.
We touched on this in a previous section.
Not every amplifier on this list will be set up to handle subs. Those that are, like the Rotel RA-1572, have a discreet subwoofer output on the rear, and technically could be counted not as true stereo amplifiers, but rather, amps that offer 2.1 functionality.
You don’t technically need a subwoofer. Not every listening setup is going to have a requirement for it, or even the space to have one. But our take is that your system will always be better with the low end filled out by a dedicated system, and if you have the space, and the budget, pickup an amplifier that can handle it.
The good news is that you won’t need to worry about the amplifier devoting power to the subwoofer. In 99.9% of cases, the subwoofer will draw its own power from the mains, and all you need to do is route an audio signal to it, which can be done using a simple RCA cable. Win!
Normally, we don’t put a lot of emphasis on the weight of a piece of equipment. It’s nice to know, in terms of being aware of your chiropractor bill after you’ve pushed it into place, but it’s not essential. With amplifiers, that’s a little more complicated.
Put simply, good amplifiers rely on good power management, and the equipment to manage power well is often heavy. One of the easiest signs of a good amplifier is that it makes you grimace when you lift it. Compare something like the Peachtree Audio nova300, number one on our list, with the Pro-Ject Audio MaiA. The latter weighs 4lbs, while the former clocks in at 17lbs. Guess which one has better power management?
However: newer power supplies and lighter components mean this rule is a lot less hard and fast than it used to be. When it comes to things like power amplifiers, it’s still very much applies, but in the case of integrated amplifiers, you can see it as a guideline more than anything else.