Affordable Integrateds (with phono!)

The Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 has a phono stage.

Today I’m working on the Integrated Amplifiers section of the Stereophile Buyer’s Guide. Have I ever told you that I love integrated amplifiers? I do. I love integrated amplifiers because they make my life easier—they add convenience, that is—without necessarily sacrificing quality.

I remember the day I walked into Jonathan Scull’s office—Jonathan was our senior editor at the time, and I was Ariel Bitran’s age, just starting out as editorial assistant—and I asked Jonathan what an integrated amplifier was.

He explained that stereos require a preamplifier and a power amplifier, and that integrated amplifiers house both in one chassis. This is great because it saves space and gets rid of the need for interconnects between the amp and preamp. I like space, and I like being freed from additional cables. Integrated amplifiers are cool.

Too often, however, integrated amplifiers lack a phono stage. A phono stage is required to play vinyl, and I like vinyl. So, my favorite integrated amplifiers are those that include phono sections: Integrated amps with phono sections are cooler. I’m always on the lookout for them.

Today, while working on the Integrated Amplifiers section of the Stereophile Buyer’s Guide, I noticed that Cambridge Audio has a new integrated amplifier called the Topaz AM10. At just $399, it’s $100 less expensive than Cambridge’s popular Azur 350A (owned by my popular Uncle Omar), and it includes a phono stage, which the Azur 350A lacks. (I can’t wait to tell Omar about this. He will surely cry.) The Topaz AM10 is rated to deliver 35Wpc into 8 ohms, which is more than enough power for a small space and a pair of fairly efficient loudspeakers.


The Music Hall A15.2 has a phono stage.

I also see that Music Hall has a new (to me, at least) integrated amplifier with phono stage, the A15.2. It’s rated to deliver a generous 75Wpc into 8 ohms and costs just $499. Music Hall’s more powerful and more expensive A35.2 does not include a phono stage. What’s up with this? Maybe, with these low-priced options, companies are targeting the growing market of younger people who are enjoying vinyl.


Onkyo's A5VL is pretty thin and has a phono stage.

Onkyo also has a nice new integrated, the sleek A5VL. It pumps out 40Wpc and includes a switchable MM/MC phono stage. While the A5VL retails for $699, my sources (the interwebs) tell me it can be found for as little as $449.

Back in the day, Jonathan Scull also explained the difference between an integrated amplifier and a receiver. Receivers are just like integrated amplifiers, but also include a tuner section. (That’s the radio.) I almost never listen to the radio, except when I want to torture myself with Mets games. I listen to Mets games in the kitchen, through my old Philips portable boombox. Every now and then, though, I think of how much fun it might be to listen to a Mets broadcast through my hi-fi. It’s outta here! And the crowd goes wild.

But, for whatever reason, receivers have lost their place in two-channel audio and have become more a part of home theater. (The audio/video receiver is all the rage.) With that move, they’ve gained about a gazillion other connections for a gazillion other things. They’re also big and ugly. Denon, however, has introduced the DRA-397, an 80Wpc stereo receiver with a phono stage! It costs $399. It’s not especially big or ugly, and it doesn’t have too many useless inputs or outputs! You can use it to play your records or listen to the Mets lose.


Denon's DRA-397: Ain't too big, ain't too ugly, has phono stage.

There aren’t enough truly affordable integrated amps that come equipped with a phono stage (the Marantz PM5004 is one other), so I’m pretty psyched about this. I’ve heard stories about a time when all amplifiers included phono stages. Maybe, with the reemergence of vinyl as a serious (and fun) music format, more affordable options will be on the way.

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COMMENTS
Nick's picture

Stephen do you think some of the older integrateds; Luxman, Tandberg and Yamaha had superior phono stages to these modern ones?

Stephen Mejias's picture

I have no idea, but I bet it would be fun to find out!

Nick's picture

Let's get JA or Mikey on it. They can borrow my old L-450 if they want. :)

RankStranger's picture

The Rotel RA04SE is an awesome integrated amplifier with phono stage. Not sure what it costs in the US but in Australia it's a piddling $599.

gallardo's picture

I use to listen to my NAD 306 50 w/ch whit MM and MC phono stages connections, and I can tell you It's sound terrific driven my 89 dB english Castle Howard 3 way floor-standing Loudspeakers.I know that's not a high end system but it's on my budget.I love integrated to, and I saving for an up gradeing to an M6i Musical Fidelity whit an M1 DAC driven my Apple PowerBook Pro in the digital department.Integrated are cool for some of us whit small pocket.

gallardo's picture

I use to listen to my NAD 306 50 w/ch whit MM and MC phono stages connections, and I can tell you It's sound terrific driven my 89 dB english Castle Howard 3 way floor-standing Loudspeakers.I know that's not a high end system but it's on my budget.I love integrated to, and I saving for an up gradeing to an M6i Musical Fidelity whit an M1 DAC driven my Apple PowerBook Pro in the digital department.Integrated are cool for some of us whit small pocket.

Uncle Omar's picture

I'm crying now...and the Mets are probobly losing..

Alex's picture

I love listening to baseball on my stereo! I have a separate NAD tuner hooked up to my integrated (which has an on-board phono). In SF we're lucky enough to have recent Hall of Famer John Miller doing most of our broadcasts. It sounds like he's calling the game from the living the room. Go Giants!

Rich, Chicago's picture

One more great thing about inexpensive 2 channel integrated amps: They are perfect in a bedroom with a smaller TV and a dvd player. Multi-channel systems are fine in a dedicated TV room, but a small stereo set up is perfect for late nite movies in bed!

Tomaz Sanona's picture

My first integrated was an Audiolab 8000A, also features MM/MC phono section and still is my reference until say... $750

chrissy's picture

or an uber integrated...? Bryston B60R with a phonostage. thin, sleek, killer transparency.

David's picture

Nick, I heard a new Yamaha integrated recently (A-S2000, not really Stephen's affordable integrated at Australian$3000) and noted that it has both MM and MC phono stage but I understand the lower Yamaha integrateds also still have phono stages so perhaps it would be interesting to compare new Yamaha to old Yamaha. Or new Rotel to old Rotel.

Cihangir Güzey's picture

chrissy, I aggree with you regarding B60R (Except for phonostage options however). Below statement is taken from the review of Stereophile:"The BP-1 phono stage—rumored to be excellent—runs $750. Add $550 for an outboard TF-1 transformer for low-output moving-coils." So, a new B60R becomes budget unfriendly option (total of around 3100-USD) compared to above amplifiers. When I added an old Technics GT350 tuner(bought second hand to use my old technics remote controller) to my beloved B60R last weekend, I was shocked about the tube like natural sound. I guess it would complement with a turntable perfectly. I am pretty sure there are many phono stage added second hand B60R's over there. Not very budget friendly option but a full stop integrated amplifier concerning reliability and portability. It is so thin and built like a piece of granite.

Nick's picture

David, I remember years back those old wood panel Yamaha receivers were sold at garage sales for cheap and now at ebay people pay big bucks. I would imagine the phono stages wouldn't be all that bad...probably noisier but not bad. I have seen the new Yamaha gear and it is lovely especially their CD players which actually have a nice drawer mechanism not the cheap plastic DVD trays we see in expensive players and that is the issue here. Those old Yamaha/Luxman/Tandberg receivers ooze quality and represent an era that is long gone with today's modern manufacturing techniques but I would still think that modern phono stages have to be quieter and more transparent. But it would ne an interesting comparison.

David's picture

Would love to be able to compare any of these with my NAD 3020.

Justin's picture

I agree that integrated amps are cool, but let's not totally knock a well-made receiver around here. They can save even more space, if space is a premium consideration in your living room, which it is for me. I listen to vinyl (and Blu-ray and everything else) through a Denon AVR-2808CI and have been well-pleased with the ability to handle all my sources with a single box. Its high-current, 110 watts is also such that I never worry about whether a particular LP is going to tax its reserves, which is surely a consideration for many people with speakers that may not be the world's most efficient.

peter krapp's picture

the outlaw rr2150 is still a great piece

Jorge's picture

Not only affordable with a phono stage but amazing sound... Rega Brio 3. This is MUST in that section. Its warmth character and detail is incredible for the price. No headphone, no remote...it is only about the music and let me say, very "green"... only 11 watts on StandBy.

Jackfrack's picture

Just picked up the Exposure 2010S2 with phono. Not quite a budget amp, but has to be considered one of the best bargains in audio given the performance level. I'm sure Stephen would agree.

Nick's picture

Well I am putting my money where my mouth is, just purchased a used Tandberg 2060 receiver and will put it up against my Linn seperates. Something tells me the Tandberg will hold its own against the Linn gear, which will finally give me an excuse to finally dump my last piece of Linn gear and forever be done with the Linn sound and annoying Linn service network. Stay tuned for results.

Cole's picture

I recently purchased a late '70s Luxman L-80V integrated, which drives my early '90s ADS L8Es. It even has two phono inputs, though I only listen to CDs through Sony Blu-ray player at this point (tight on cash and space). Not only does the does the whole setup sound really terrific, it looks great in my tiny Manhattan studio. I think the sound is far superior than anything else I could have gotten in its price range ($325 shipped off ebay).

David's picture

Would love to be able to compare any of these with my NAD 3020.

Larry's picture

I recently upgraded from a Yamaha RX 777 receiver to an Arcam Alpha 10 integrated. Both are about 10 years old and rated at 100 WPC, but there's no comparison; the Arcam drives my Maggie SMGas with SO much more depth and richness that I have been entranced with music I've listened to for years. The Yamaha was good, but the Arcam is a whole new level of listening.

Nick's picture

Early listening comparisons show the Linn phono section besting the Tandberg. Guess I have to keep both now. :)

Nick's picture

Longer listening revealed the Tandberg was better than the Linn gear, go figure. It was a little bit brighter from the phono section but I could hear more detail, wider soundstage, voices, instruments snapped more out of the background and stayed in place whereas with the Linn you almost felt you were listening to mono; smaller soundstage between the speakers, unclear stereo image, loss of detail. The same holds true for the AUX/CD section. The Linn gear is on ebay for sale.

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