An amp should be the center of your hi-fi world. 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 the standard is really high now - even for budget amps. 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. For more background information on stereo amps, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Couple of things before we start. Firstly, this list covers only integrated amplifiers – preamps and power amps are getting their own list, 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've broken our picks down into categories, so there are several winners here. 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, recently dropped in price.
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
A Close Second (And $1,200 Less)
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 almost every setup, makes it an easy top winner 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. It won't beat the Peachtree for sound, but in terms of combining solid audio quality with outstanding value, this kills it.
It's a compact 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 it possesses stunning 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.
See the Rega Brio
Best Budget Stereo Amp
Weight: 3 lbs
Power: 30W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: A landmark amp that is still one of the best NAD make.
What We Don’t: Issues with touch controls, and the back end is hella crowded.
NAD represent a little bit of a quandary. On the one hand, they are a much loved audio company with a great history of equipment. On the other, some of their latest models have been, in our opinion…well, a bit meh. The sound quality of newer models like the $800 C338 just haven’t been up to scratch. However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on this list, especially when models like the D3020 are so good. Even if they are a little bit old.
Here’s what you get: a beautifully designed integrated amplifier with terrific usability and splendid sound that has won legions of fans. Amazingly, NAD have made the new version $100 cheaper than the original, and even added in a phono stage (although you lose the USB input). You get Bluetooth, an optical in, excellent audio quality, and unbelievable value. It's not without its problems - the touch controls are finicky, and the back end feels crowded - but it's great. It’s definitely not going to power bigger speakers – at 30 watts of power, it’s more suited for bookshelf models than floorstanding – but if you have a small space, or simply want to power a pair of smaller speakers, this could be an absolutely ideal amp to try...Read our in-depth review
See the NAD Electronics D3020
Best High-End Stereo Amp
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. It's beautifully designed integrated amplifier, with very decent power (200 watts at eight ohms), and a great on-board DAC with the ability to handle DSD. It also has a huge range of inputs and outputs, easily comparable to amplifiers like the Peachtree Audio nova300. It's true that we could pick five or six-figure amps for this spot, but the STR delivers all that they do, at a significantly lower cost - even if the price tag does slot it firmly into the high-end bracket!
The STR has plenty going for it, including Anthem's fast-becoming-legendary room correction system. It sounds both thunderous and pinpoint-precise. Although it's a sound that 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 hi-fi system.
See the Anthem STR
Best Stereo Amp for Small Rooms
Weight: 2.9 lbs
Power: 50W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: An amazing update to an already amazing amp, compact and powerful sound.
What We Don't: Not ideal for high-end speakers - even in smaller rooms.
PS Audio's original Sprout was a little beauty of an amp, and with the new version, they've made it even better. It's more powerful, for one thing - 100 watts into four ohms - although we've given the rating for eight ohm speakers above, which are far more common. The internals have been given a full makeover, too, with a refined DAC and even a phono stage - if you're a vinyl fan.
This amp truly excels in smaller setups. If you have a small room, with a couple of simple bookshelf speakers, this is the ideal amp to drive them. It offers tight, compact sound that really fills up the room, and which does so in a remarkably clear way. We think the Rega Brio offers better sound, and the NAD D3020 V2 more functionality - but none complement a small setup like the little Sprout. Be warned: while it can power high-end speakers, it will not sound nearly as good, and the few shortcomings in the sound will be heightened. If you own a pair of really good speakers, get the Peachtree.
See the PS Audio Sprout100
Best of the Rest
Power: 60W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Terrific amp from a legendary creator, with sound to match.
What We Don’t: It’s no looker.
Bryston definitely have a 'house look' - 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...Read our in-depth review
See the Bryston B60R
Weight: 28 lbs
Power: 100W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Glorious looks, stellar tube sound.
What We Don’t: Not for those who dislike tubes, needs a really good DAC.
You know what goes really well with McIntosh's signature blue glow? The green glow from four vacuum tubes. Easily the most eye-catching feature on this new McIntosh model, the tubes also guarantee some fat, punchy, glorious sound. And overall, the design and build quality just scream high-end, and all but begged to have some gnarly blues or soul pumped through it. This is a big improvement on the already excellent MA5200, previously on this list, and although it's not going to be for everyone - and some will call it a statement piece - we think it's a winner.
However, it isn't perfect. While it handily competes with other tube models like the PrimaLuna Dialogue, it's large price and those four tubes mean that you've really got to be comfortable with a certain sound signature to enjoy this. If you like your music neutral or balanced, you can steer well clear. And really, for this much money, would it have killed Mac to include a DAC? Yes, we know that separation of components is important and blah blah blah, but surely a little inbuilt conversion wouldn't have killed them? Regardless: this is a winner.
See the McIntosh MA252
Weight: 37 lbs
Power: 200W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Builds on an already amazing amp.
What We Don't: Quite a lot of money to spend on a simple upgrade!
We loved this model's predecessor, the Rotel RA-1572, which we reviewed last year. The RA-1592 adds 80 watts more power, Bluetooth functionality, and slightly tweaked DAC, as well as drawing amp circuitry from the amazing 1590 preamp that Rotel make. But we're skeptical to think that's worth an extra $800. This is where you picture us pulling a funny face. Because when the cheaper, more excellent, Peachtree Audio nova300 exists, the Rotel is just never going to offer quite as much.
However, it deserves to be on this list. It offers monstrous sound, comparable to the thundering Anthem STR, and its functionality and simplicity mean it's an excellent option for starter high-end systems. A little bit more advancement would have been nice, but you can always opt for the 1572 - which is around $1,700 - if you don't need the extra power, or new features.
See the Rotel RA-1592
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. It's reasonably-priced, gorgeous little amplifier that does what amps three times the price do (we're looking at you, Anthem). It also 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 eight ohms), and doesn't have advanced features, like Bluetooth connectivity. However, we don't think low power is reason enough to knock something down on the list. It's better for an amp to have low power and do a great job with the sound, than to have a ton of power and be a little bit sloppy. The Marantz is excellent, and deserves its top ten place.
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-1592 – while the Naim just about edges it on sound quality, it can't beat the Rotel 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.
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, and 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 the amp proves itself 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 dig this amp, we can't objectively place it above models like the RA-1592, 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 have a real soft spot for it. 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
Weight: 33 lbs
Power: 160W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Stunning sound.
What We Don’t: No looker, and it can be very hard to find.
Parasound are a cult favorite among audio lovers, and with good reason. Their amps are absolutely spectacular. Throughout the range, the sound quality is universally excellent, and we think that the Halo is the best of the lot. While it has looks that are comparable to the equally-clunky Rotel RA-1592, there's no question that the sound is absolutely immense. You get what you pay for; a sentiment which has never been more true than in the case of the Halo Integrated.
However, a big black mark against this one is that it's very difficult to find online, outside of a few specialist retailers. This is even more frustrating given that Parasound themselves have several models available on Amazon, for very reasonable prices, making the lack of the Halo inexcusable. However, it's definitely worth tracking down. It might not be the best model on this list, thanks to its scarcity and unimaginative looks, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun to listen to - especially if you pair it with a good set of speakers. Plus, it has an included DAC, which is always nice to see.
See the Parasound Halo Integrated
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 60-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. It pulls this 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. Outside of the fact that it's not going to be suited for big setups, there's very little to dislike here. Cambridge Audio scores again.
See the Cambridge Audio CXA60
Weight: 8 lbs
Power: 102W/8Ω (RMS)
What We Like: Terrific sound for the price, compact build.
What We Don't: Intimidating looks, terrible name.
We see a lot of terrible names at The Master Switch. Current office winner - or loser, perhaps - is the Riva WAND, a wireless speaker with a name that made us snort with glee. But the Wyred 4 Sound mINT? That's a contender. That's a name you have to mumble, in case people laugh at you.
It's a beauty of an amp, once you get past the awful name. It's small - less than ten inches across - and punches out 102 watts of power, which is quite remarkable. The included ESS DAC is excellent, and the mINT provides a ton of detail and precision. Its harmonics, range, and tonality have won it several awards, as well they should. It's one of the better-sounding amps on this list, no question. It's easy-to-use, too, even if it looks...interesting. We prefer the Marantz HD-AMP1, which does a better job overall. But this remains one of the better smaller amps available, and an excellent alternative to other models.
See the Wyred 4 Sound mINT
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. 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 four ohms, although Pro-Ject does say it's two-ohm 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 NAD.
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 the price, 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 gear. And while the A-9050 is no looker, it's quite a shock to get such a musical, wonderfully-balanced amp at such a reasonable price. For just under $500, 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. There's a great remote, and excellent tone controls that are 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 amp might not win any beauty contests, but it will give you great sound at a stellar 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. Along with the old Topping TP-23, it 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. It has a tiny footprint (just over 4” wide) but has 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 200 watts into eight ohms, it puts out a mere one watt 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
|Peachtree Audio nova300||$2,199||17lbs||300W/8Ω||Yes||400W/8Ω||14.8" x 13.25" x 4.4"|
|Rega Brio||$995||11.2lbs||50W/8Ω||No||Unknown||13.6” x 8.5” x 3”|
|NAD Electronics D3020 V2||$399||3lbs||30W/8Ω||Yes||65W/8Ω||17” x 16” x 6”|
|Anthem STR||$4,499||40lbs||200W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17.5" x 17" x 6.3"|
|PS Audio Sprout100||$599||2.9lbs||50W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||8.2” x 6.2” x 1.9”|
|Bryston B60R||$3,385||38lbs||60W/8Ω||No||Unknown||22” x 17.5” x 6”|
|McIntosh MA252||$3,500||28lbs||100W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||18” x 12” x 8”|
|Rotel RA-1592||$2,499||37lbs||200W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17” x 16” x 6”|
|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"|
|Parasound Halo Integrated||$2,495||33lbs||160W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17” x 16” x 6”|
|Cambridge Audio CXA60||$750||18.3lbs||60W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||16.9” x 13.4" x 4.5”|
|Wyred 4 Sound mINT||$1,299||8lbs||102W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||8” x 8” x 3.5”|
|Pro-Ject Audio MaiA||$575||4lbs||25W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||5.9" x 4.9" x 1.5"|
|Onkyo A-9050||$499||23.15lbs||75W/8Ω||Yes||Unknown||17.1” x 13” x 5”|
|Orb Audio Mini-T||$129||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”|
*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
A stereo amp is 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. Stereo amps also control where the sound is sent - each amp will have at least two 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 article 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. This point 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 $57,000 D'Agostino Momentum Integrated is going to be better than the $599 PS Audio Sprout100 – 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 wants to show. So as a general rule, 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, and 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 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 numerous. 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 how potentially loud and amplifier can be, and the kind of speakers it 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. The $2,195 Peachtree Audio nova300 is a good example - 300 watt RMS, a monstrous 450 peak.
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 time to explain!
DACs are 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 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 Wyred 4 Sound mINT, which offers absolutely superb conversion. It's not quite our favorite amplifier, but purely in terms of this, it takes the cake. And it's well-priced, too, at $1,299.
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, and 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. The $129 Orb Audio Mini-T is a good example.
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. For example, see the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium.
A channel is a single source of sound; your iPhone, for example, would be one channel (yes, we know an iPhone 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 a 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's 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 coloration, 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%. 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 make a little bit of noise on its own. It's made up of electrical components, after all, and these sometimes make 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 if 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 more important than SNR and THD+N, but only a little.
We touched on this in a previous section, so let's go into more detail. Not every amplifier on this list will be set up to handle subs. Those that are, like the Rotel RA-1592, 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, pick up 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.