Recommended Components: 2018 Edition Integrated Amps & Receivers

Integrated Amplifiers & Receivers

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Ayre Acoustics AX-5 Twenty: $14,950
In 2013, AD described the original Ayre AX-5—a $9950 integrated amplifier built around a recently rediscovered configuration of bipolar transistors known as the "diamond" circuit—as "one of the three best, most musical, most human-sounding solid-state amps I've ever heard." Then, in 2015, Ayre debuted a new version, the AX-5 Twenty—a nod to the company's 20th anniversary—promising even better sound. The AX-5 Twenty is built into the same foursquare aluminum case as the AX-5, and is controlled by the same performance-optimizing Variable Gain Transconductance (VGT) volume-control system—but the Twenty incorporates Ayre's new Double Diamond output, claimed to run cooler (which AD verified) and to offer slightly more power (though the 125Wpc rating remains). This time out, AD got a little pissy about Ayre's user manual and the amp's "pointlessly complex" setup procedure, but was otherwise smitten: He delighted in a sound that was "slightly sweeter" than the original AX-5's. Stringed instruments, he said, were "reproduced with color, body, scale, melodic and rhythmic drive, and believable spatial presence." AD concluded that "the AX-5 Twenty is inarguably . . . more compelling than its predecessor." Although he raised an eyebrow at the 30% ($3000) price increase over the original, AD commended Ayre for allowing AX-5 owners to have their amps upgraded to Twenty status for the same price. (Vol.38 No.8 WWW)

Bel Canto Design Black amplification system: $55,000
Tempting though such a classification may be, the Bel Canto Black is more than just an integrated amplifier. This three-box system comprises a sort-of preamplifier (the ASC1) and a pair of sort-of monoblock amplifiers (the MPS1), the latter operating in class-D, for 300Wpc into 8 ohms or 1200Wpc into 2 ohms. The Ethernet-ready ASC1 can be controlled with an iPhone app; it provides a brace of digital inputs, and via ST-optical connections feeds the MPS1s digital signals at their native resolutions, up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD64. The ASC1's single pair of analog inputs (RCA) address an internal 24/192 DAC: Everything that goes through the ASC1 does so as a digital stream, eligible for tailoring by a variety of user-selectable digital filters. (The MPS1s also offer analog inputs.) In his listening tests, MF found the Bel Canto Black to offer "the most compelling digital sound yet," and to embody the best-yet implementation of class-D technology: "[H]ere, finally, is a class-D product that, though sounding definitely different from the older technologies, makes a strong case for equality." JA declared that he was "very impressed by the Bel Canto Black, especially with its behavior as a D/A converter that is effectively capable of driving loudspeakers." From his own listening tests, described in a Follow-Up, JA noted the Black's ability to present spatial and sonic detail. Comparing the Bel Canto to the recently reviewed Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty preamp and MX-R Twenty mono amplifiers, JA wrote: "If the Ayre system was more simpatico with the heart, the Bel Canto Black appealed more to the head." (Vol.38 Nos. 7 & 10 WWW)

Bel Canto Black ACI 600: $25,000
See JVS's review in this issue.

Classé Sigma 2200i: $5500
Specified at 200Wpc into 8 ohms or 400Wpc into 4 ohms, the Classé Sigma 2200i mates a proprietary class-D output section with a front end that converts all incoming analog signals to 24-bit/96kHz digital, after which they're converted to PWM (sampled at 384kHz) before being shed of their carrier frequency and restored to analog for driving the user's loudspeakers. The Classé handles PCM digital inputs up to 24/192, but not native DSD. Preamp-out/power-amp-in jacks are not provided, though the 2200i does offer the somewhat rare luxuries of tone controls and equalization filters. Used with his Monitor Audio Silver 10 speakers, the Classé treated TJN to sound that was dynamically exciting and tonally a bit warm, the latter quality "more inviting than off-putting." While measuring the Sigma 2200i, JA noted some ergonomic wrinkles, including a power-saving feature that persisted in putting the amp into standby even when a signal was present. That sorted, JA observed digital performance of at least 20 bits and "very low distortion and high power below clipping," though he felt that the Classé would not be ideal for very low-impedance loads. (Vol.40 No.4 WWW)

Leben CS600: $6495 ★
Taking its look from 1960s American hi-fi, the beautiful, 32Wpc CS600 has a gold faceplate with green trim and wooden side panels made from solid, fine-grain, Canadian white ash. The amp employs a push-pull topology and can use EL34 or 6L6GC tubes. There is a ¼" headphone jack but no remote control. JM: "The Leben CS600 had a certain, almost indefinable sweetness about it, and a beguiling presentation of inner detail that made me overlook its limitations in dynamics and bass." Partnered with the Harbeth P3ESR loudspeakers, the Leben sounded "simply glorious." (Vol.33 No.6; see JCA's PS Audio review in Vol.No.8 WWW)

Line Magnetic LM-518IA: $4450
An original design from a Chinese company that also re-creates classic Western Electric audio gear, the all-tube Line Magnetic LM-518IA is the rare modern integrated amplifier that combines a single-ended output stage with thoriated-tungsten (ie, bright-emitter) output tubes and a tube-rectified voltage rail. The LM-518IA provides three line-level inputs (all RCA) and produces up to 22Wpc into 8 ohms. Tube bias is user-adjustable—but, to HR's disappointment, there is no balance control or mono switch. That said, the amp's "vital energy," among other qualities, has earned it an especially hallowed place in his system: "It is musically alive and vigorous. It plays music with rare charm and sensitivity." Even the SET-skeptical JA was charmed: "For such a design, it offers high power." (Vol.38 No.10, Vol.39 No.10 WWW)

Mark Levinson No.585: $12,000
With twice the output power, twice the number of digital inputs for its built-in DAC, and a price tag that's twice as high, the Mark Levinson No.585 integrated amplifier handily exceeds its predecessor, the No.383. (Perhaps they should have called it the No.766?) The class-AB No.585 is advertised as delivering 200Wpc into 8 ohms, and its DAC, which offers resolution up to DSD256, includes an asynchronous USB input alongside two (S/PDIF) RCA inputs, two TosLink inputs, and a balanced XLR jack for AES/EBU. Of its four line-level inputs, one is balanced (XLR). Driving LG's Quad ESL-989 electrostatic loudspeakers—and, via its line-level output, a Tannoy TS2.12 subwoofer—the No.585 impressed him with its "sonic purity and ergonomics." LG declared that, while listening to a recent recording of Beethoven's Symphony 7, "I was reminded of being surrounded by the music, the clearly defined sounds of the instruments, and the ambience of Avery Fisher Hall." Noting, among other things, that the No.585 exceeded its manufacturer's power specs, managing 250Wpc into 8 ohms and 390Wpc into 4 ohms, JA stated that it "offers impressive measured performance." (Vol.38 No.12 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 340i D3PX: $5800
The 100Wpc Moon 340i is among the growing number of integrated amplifiers that can be upgraded with a plug-in DSD-ready DAC ($900), a plug-in phono stage with MM and MC inputs ($400), and true-balanced XLR inputs ($350). You can get all those options at the start by buying the version Simaudio calls the 340i X ($4700). HR reviewed the latter and especially enjoyed the amp's performance with his Magnepan .7 speakers: "The Simaudio's apparent speed and transparency tamed the Magnepans' inherent sweetness to the point where the .7s began to sound like the high-resolution transducers they are." HR also singled-out for praise the "ridiculously good" performance of the Moon 340i's MC phono inputs, loading characteristics of which are user-adjustable by means of internal jumper blocks, although he noted that his Zu Denon DL-103 cartridge "plays more naturally and in a more relaxed manner into 470 or 1000 ohms than into either of the 340i's choices of 100 ohms or 47k ohms." Reporting from his test bench, JA discovered lowish unbalanced line-level input impedance (7200 ohms at 20Hz and 1kHz), and heatsinking that "isn't adequate for sustained use at high powers"—but otherwise gave this Moon a clean bill of health. (Vol.39 No.3 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 700i: $14,000 ★
Robustly built of thick, ultrarigid aluminum, the 700i is a fully differential dual-mono design rated to deliver 175Wpc (190Wpc at actual clipping), running in class-A up to 5W and in class-AB thereafter. Its output stages are powered by six bipolar transistors per channel for a wide bandwidth and low noise floor, while its "zero global feedback" design works to boost the speed of the signal response and eliminate intermodulation distortion. Though it couldn't match the Krell FBI's transient speed or deep-bass extension, the 700i had a full-blooded, dynamic, seamless sound marked by vivid tonal colors, harmonic integrity, and a strong sense of rhythm. With the 700i, "I found myself drawn deeper into the music," said FK. (Vol.34 No.3 WWW; see also FK's 860A review in Vol.38 No.8 WWW)

Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 800: $11,999
The latest in a line of Musical Fidelity products distinguished by their use of nuvistors—miniature small-signal vacuum tubes of such extreme durability that they're often hardwired into circuits—the Nu-Vista 800 is a solid-state integrated amp in which thermionic devices influence both sound and vibe. (The Nu-Vista 800's four nuvistors are illuminated from below and visible from above.) This 330Wpc powerhouse has five pairs of bipolar transistors per channel and provides five line-level inputs, one of them balanced. In addition to describing it as Musical Fidelity's "best-looking product, ever," MF praised the Nu-Vista 800 for its "wholeness and consistency of sound" and for being "relaxed and suave, but not at all soggy or gauzy." And while noting that the amp didn't extract from his recordings the last drop of crispness or detail, MF praised its consistently beautiful sound: "The Nu-Vista 800 drew me in." In measuring the Nu-Vista 800, JA discovered a signal/noise ratio that was "a little disappointing," and very slightly less power output (310Wpc into 8 ohms) than is specified, but was otherwise impressed. (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Octave Audio V 80 SE: $10,500
Shoppers, take heed: the Octave V 80 SE integrated amp is a veritable poster child for the concept of burning-in audio amplifiers before appraising their sound. When first installed in KM's system, the Octave struck him as "the most unlistenable amplifier I've ever tried: bright, forward, and generally eardrum-splitting." One month and nearly 100 records later, the amp had found its "happy-friendly footing," delivering "grain-free highs, very powerful and dynamic bass extension, and neutral, clear-headed sound." Designed and made in Germany, the V 80 SE accomplished all that with two modern Tung-Sol KT150 tetrode tubes per channel, operated in class-AB for specified outputs of 80Wpc into 8 ohms or 120Wpc into 4 ohms. These are supported by two 12AU7 dual-triodes and one 6072/12AT7 dual-triode. An MM/MC phono board is a $770 option, and owners can upgrade their V 80 SE any time with Octave's accessory Black Box power supply ($1200)—not a power supply per se, but an auxiliary reservoir-capacitor bank for the V 80 SE's actual supply. Though the Octave "lacked the tonal color, warmth, and shapeliness of textures" KM enjoys from his Shindo separates, it proved itself "perhaps the single most transparent and neutral machine" ever to grace his system. JA was "impressed by the V 80 SE's measured performance." (Vol.40 No.9 WWW)

Parasound Halo Integrated: $2495 $$$
Parasound's Halo offers 160Wpc from its bipolar output section—JFETs and MOSFETs are pressed into service elsewhere in the amp—plus a list of convenience features that includes: a dedicated subwoofer output with its own variable high- and low-pass crossover filters and front-panel level control; a 32-bit DAC with USB, coaxial, and optical inputs; a discrete headphone amplifier; an MM/MC phono stage; and six line inputs (one balanced, five unbalanced). HR particularly praised the "easy, intimate realism" of the Halo's phono stage, as well as the "great boogie" factor of its DAC and the amp's overall "easy flowing, mostly smooth, and decidedly mellow" personality. This was not to take away from the Parasound's musical incisiveness: "The Halo played tunes and sang songs as if they mattered," wrote Herb. JA wrapped up his measurements by observing that the Halo Integrated "is a well-engineered, well-performing product." (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

Pass Labs INT-60: $9000
The solid-state INT-60 integrated amplifier provides 60Wpc in class-AB, about 30W of which is in pure class-A. (To help confirm that, the needle-and-scale meter that dominates the amp's front panel indicates when the INT-60 slips from one mode into the other.) The Pass has four line-level inputs, two of which offer a choice of single-ended (RCAs) or balanced (LR) jacks, the remaining two offering single-ended only. As shipped from Pass Labs, the INT-60 has 29dB of gain, which can be bumped up to 35dB by removing a pair of internal jumpers. The INT-60 especially impressed HR when he tried it with Zu Audio's Soul Supreme speakers, seeming to mitigate their "extra energy" and rendering their typically lean bass performance "less lean, more muscular, and BIG." And HR found that "the Pass Labs INT-60 drove the [Magnepan] .7s with more subtle magic, slam, and lush joy than I'd previously heard from these speakers." Writing from his test bench, JA noted the Pass's higher-than-specified power output and observed that it offered "respectable measured performance," though the tendency of the INT-60's distortion signature to shift from predominantly second to predominantly third harmonic as the signal frequency rises gave him pause. (Vol.39 No.12 WWW)

Vinnie Rossi LIO: $7750 as tested
Vinnie Rossi, of Red Wine Audio, designed the LIO integrated amplifier around his unconventional PURE DC-4-EVR power-supply technology, which powers the electronics using two rows of series-wired ultracapacitors: one provides pure DC while the other is being charged, those roles alternating every few minutes. The LIO is modular: The buyer adds to the combination of case and power supply—a $1995 product that, by itself, cannot pass a music signal—his or her choice of volume-control module, input-selection module, line stage, phono stage, D/A converter, headphone amp, and power amp, prices and options for which are too numerous to list here. HR was charmed: "Right out of the box, the Vinnie Rossi LIO played music that flowed smoothly and silkily." He noted in particular the amp's "detail, drive, and forward momentum." HR's verdict: "If there is a more innovative and musically satisfying integrated amplifier than the Vinnie Rossi LIO, I have yet to experience it." JA's measurements revealed "good to excellent" performance from the LIO's volume-control, phono-preamp, and digital-audio modules, but uncovered problems such as low-level spuriae at 60Hz, unexpected bumps in the noise floor, power output into 8 ohms that failed to reach the 25Wpc spec by 8W, and too high a level of second-harmonic distortion for his comfort. (Vol.38 No.9 WWW)

Woo Audio WA5: $5899
See "Headphones & Headphone Accessories.

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Allnic T-1800: $7490
From Korean manufacturer Allnic, known in audiophile circles for their single-ended-triode (SET) power amplifiers, comes this push-pull pentode integrated amp. The T-1800 has two EL34 output tubes per side, operated in Ultralinear mode to produce 40Wpc. The T-1800's line stage is passive—still, AD described the amp's overall gain as "abundant"—and offers as inputs four pairs of RCA jacks and one pair of XLR sockets. Source selection is by means of electronic switching, the volume control is a 41-step silver-contact attenuator switch, and the output section is autobias. AD thought that the T-1800 delivered tight, well-controlled bass—if with less "power and gravitas" than his Shindo EL34 monoblocks—and generous treble extension without sounding "bright or even bright-ish." He was dismayed by the sound's relative smallness of scale, which he attributed to the amp's use of global feedback, but said that "the T-1800's flaws are more than merely outweighed by its strengths: They are overwhelmed." Those strengths are good drive, color, texture, and openness of sound. (Vol.38 No.11 WWW)

April Music Aura Note v.2: $2500
The Aura Note V2 is a compact and sleekly styled integrated amplifier (125Wpc) with built-in CD player, USB DAC, FM tuner, Bluetooth receiver, and headphone amp. Its USB DAC, addressed by a USB Type A socket on one side of its casework, is good to 192kHz—it uses a 24-bit Cirrus Logic D/A chip—and its class-D amplifier output section uses ICEpower modules supplemented by a switch-mode power supply. The Aura Note V2's playback of CDs had "color and clarity, spatial presence, and a good sense of momentum and flow," according to AD, though its amplifier lacked a bit of texture and richness when compared to the best. He also noted some harshness on extreme peaks when using an outboard phono section into the Aura's line-level input. All in all, AD concluded, "the V2 offers a generally very good musical and sonic experience." Writing from his test bench, JA noted that the Aura Note V2's CD player exhibited one of the highest levels of tolerance of defective discs he's ever observed, but also found that its Aux inputs could be overdriven with input signals greater than 3.3V, thus underscoring the need for caution when matching a phono preamp and cartridge to this otherwise recommendable all-in-one box. (Vol.39 No.4 WWW)

Cambridge Audio Azur 851A: $1699
First cousin to the Cambridge Azur 851D DAC, the Azur 851A integrated amplifier provides 120Wpc into 8 ohms, two balanced inputs (XLR), eight unbalanced line-level inputs (RCA), and the rare luxury of bass and treble tone controls. HR wrote that he could best describe the sound of the Azur 851A as "relaxed and enjoyably colorful, in a class-A triode sort of way. It sounded more naturally toned and weighty than my Creek 3330 or my Line Magnetic LM-518IA, and showed none of that off-putting grayness or brittleness often heard in low-priced, high-powered amps." In his measurements, JA discovered that the amp's right-channel performance was not in keeping with that of the left channel—although he suggested that the right channel's relative shortcomings were inaudible. His conclusion: "Assuming that the less-good performance of its right channel was a sample-specific fault, Cambridge Audio's Azur 851A is a well-built amplifier that offers a lot of power with very low distortion at an affordable price." HR's last word: "a versatile and extraordinarily musical cornerstone on which to build a truly enjoyable high-end system that can play all types of music with righteous aplomb for little cost." (Vol.38 No.2 WWW)

Cary SI-300.2d: $5995
In years past, when the number 300 appeared in a Cary Audio product name, you could bet it referred to a certain low-power output tube; today, in the context of Cary's SI-300.2d integrated amp, it stands for output power—as in 300Wpc (into 8 ohms). The solid-state SI-300.2d also incorporates a DAC that offers PCM to 384kHz and DSD up to DSD256. (DSD is handled natively, except where the signal is streamed from a Mac—in which case DSD is handled as DoP.) The option of upsampling PCM to various higher sampling rates or to DSD is provided, although it does not apply to the Cary's USB digital input. In his listening tests, KM remarked on the SI-300.2d's "extreme resolution, and never at the cost of tonal richness or spatial substance." KM described the Cary's sound, with Elac B6 loudspeakers, as being "as transparent as a fall sky, and as tonally even-keeled as I've heard in my nearfield setup," and concluded, "this was not the sound of your father's Cary tube amp." JA's test-bench findings were a decidedly mixed bag: "The amplifier itself is a straightforward, competently engineered" design, he wrote, but he found some irregularities in the performance of Cary's DAC, describing its upsampling behavior, in particular, as "perverse." (Vol.39 No.12 WWW)

Creek Audio Evolution 100A: $2195
The top-of-the-line amp from UK-based Creek, the new Evolution 100A integrated operates in class-G: A pair of Sanken Darlington transistors, biased for class-AB, do the honors up to 25Wpc, beyond which an additional pair of transistors kicks in, for 110Wpc total into 8 ohms. Of its five line-level inputs (RCA), one can also be addressed as balanced (XLR), while any of the remaining four can be upgraded with plug-in DAC, AM/FM tuner, and phono-stage modules. HR enjoyed using the Creek's Ambit tuner ($250), and praised the "clean, open, extended highs" of the amp's optional Ruby DAC module ($599), which handles 24-bit/192kHz inputs via its coax and TosLink S/PDIF inputs, and 24/96 via USB—though he felt the merely "good" Sequel Mk.2 moving-magnet phono-stage module ($200) wasn't up to the DAC's level of quality. Considering the 100A's amplification talents, HR praised it for playing a great variety of music in a "straightforward, exciting, satisfying way." Apart from some front-panel control glitches that might have been specific to "this well-traveled review sample," JA found that the Evolution 100A "measured quite well." (Vol.38 No.7 WWW)

GamuT Di150 LE: $12,990
Like all of the amplifiers in GamuT's line, the Di150 LE integrated boasts a unique (in perfectionist audio) output architecture: rather than using multiple output devices per phase, the solid-state, push-pull Di150 LE has only one transistor per phase, and thus two per channel. According to company founder Ole Lund Christensen, this is done to banish the timing and phase distortions that plague other designs—and by using massive transistors (think: arc welder) and robust driver stages, GamuT achieves in the Di150 LE a none-too-shabby 180Wpc into 8 ohms or 360Wpc into 4 ohms. Listening to the GamuT with his DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers, KM heard multiple traits: "a hard-charging, forceful delivery of the music, strong micro- and macrodynamics, stupendous bass reproduction, a wide and layered soundstage, and . . . 'black' backgrounds . . . notes flew from the Di150 LE with purpose and punch." Reporting from his test bench, JA noted a low output impedance and higher-than-specified output power, and praised the GamuT as "a well-engineered solid-state amplifier." (Vol.40 No.4 WWW)

Heed Audio Elixir: $1395 $$$
Heed, pronounced hid, is a Hungarian manufacturer whose generally affordable solid-state amplifiers feature deliberately non–direct-coupled output stages; indeed, Heed suggests that an amp with output capacitors—which they call translator capacitors—is better suited for "the stress-free generation of air-pressure changes [into] the sound we hear." Whether for that reason or not, KM was mightily impressed with this 50Wpc, MM phono–equipped integrated amp, being "immediately struck by the Elixir's superb sense of flow. The Elixir portrayed dynamic swings with a natural and effortless musicality." Ken's conclusion: "That so much amplifier is available for $1195 should have music lovers dancing, unclothed and unhinged, across fields and meadows, melodies on their lips, as creatures great and small join them in song." JA's measurements uncovered a bit of RIAA error in the phono section—associated with "a slightly rich balance"—and notably low power into a low-impedance (2 ohm) load, but noted that the Elixir's distortion signature "will also render it easy on the ear." (Vol.39 No.11 WWW)

Jadis Orchestra Reference Mk.II: $4795
The latest version of an integrated amp that has been a Jadis mainstay since the late 1990s, the Orchestra Reference Mk.II uses two Russian-made EL34 pentode tubes per channel to produce its specified 40Wpc; phase inversion and buffering come courtesy of one 12AX7 dual-triode tube per channel, while input gain is provided by bipolar transistors. The line-only, nonbalanced amp has five inputs, and is available with a remote handset for an extra $350. AD described the "beautifully built" Jadis as having "a full but reasonably explicit bottom, a richly colorful midrange, and a sense of grand spatial scale." More to the point, he praised the amp's talent for melodic, dynamic, and temporal nuance, and declared that the Jadis is "extremely unlikely to disappoint the music-loving, tone-loving audiophile" who owns efficient speakers. JA joined AD in grousing that bias adjustments on the semi-impenetrable Jadis are difficult to effect, and raised an eyebrow at the amp's not-unexpected higher distortion into loads of relatively low impedance—but noted, "the Jadis Orchestra performed well . . . given its circuit topology." (Vol.38 No.12 WWW)

Naim Audio Uniti Nova: $6995
The star of Naim's rebooted Uniti line, the Nova combines an 80Wpc integrated amplifier with a media player and streamer, the latter supporting Tidal and Spotify. The Nova offers Bluetooth aptX HD and WiFi connectivity, and provides vTuner Internet radio as well as support for most music-file types, up to 384k PCM and DSD128. All user controls are accessible via an included remote control, Naim's downloadable app, and a full-color front-panel LCD display that KM described as "lovely," supplemented with a top-panel rotary control. Ken was enchanted with the Uniti Nova's radio function, and found its file-playing capabilities ergonomically comforting—"I was surprised by the Nova's ease of setup and practically instantaneous response"—and sonically rewarding: "file after file drove my jaw floorward as my ears reveled in the Nova's beautiful sound." KM's verdict: "the Uniti Nova is practically a bargain. Definitely, effusively, highly recommended." Apart from noting some anomalous behavior with 96 and 192kHz data—their responses were down by 9dB at the ultrasonic frequency of 29kHz—JA wrote from his test bench that "the Naim Uniti Nova's measured performance "reveals it to be well sorted, as they say in the UK." (Vol.41 No.3 WWW)

Naim Nait 2/AVO Ultimate Upgrade: $2190 plus cost of Nait 2 $$$
In 1988, the quasi-complementary, class-AB Nait 2—a revised version of Naim's budget-priced, entry-level Nait—distinguished itself as an exceedingly fine-sounding integrated amplifier and one of the stars of Naim's product line. Fast-forward to 2016, when vintage examples of the Nait 2, no longer in production, continue to win raves from budget-conscious audiophiles—although by now most Nait 2s require servicing. Enter AV Options, which employs ex-Naim staffers and offers various levels of service and rebuilds. Their Ultimate Upgrade for the Nait 2 ($2190) involves replacing and recalibrating 14 transistors (including the output devices) and scores of passive parts (including jacks and sockets), plus deep-cryo treatment of the original transformer and other components. AD loved listening to the AVO-upgraded Nait 2, praising its "profoundly excellent sense of momentum and timing" and offering special praise for its great-sounding MM phono section. Bonus points for being able not only to drive Quad ESLs but to make them sing. (Vol.39 No.5 WWW)

Outlaw Audio RR2160: $799 $$$
The RR2160—or, as Outlaw Audio calls it, their "Retro Receiver"—marries a 110Wpc class-AB integrated amplifier to an FM/AM tuner of the traditional sort, along with an MM/MC phono stage. Its tone controls—yes, tone controls!—and bass-emphasis switch hark back to an era of mustaches, flared trousers, and loudspeakers with sculpted-foam grilles, yet the RR2160 doesn't skimp on modern conveniences, including Ethernet connectivity, HD radio, an MP3 input, a headphone amp with independent volume controls, and a 24/192 DAC with USB, coaxial, and optical inputs. After being broken in and warmed up, the Outlaw rewarded HR with "a generously big, warm, articulate sound." Used with a CD transport, the RR2160's Burr-Brown–based DAC didn't reach the same performance heights as more expensive outboard processors, yet nonetheless surprised Herb with its "unfettered verity." The Outlaw's MM phono inputs performed well when addressed with a good-quality step-up transformer, though HR was disappointed by the lack of adjustability in its MC inputs. And its headphone section "far exceeded" HR's expectations. Writing from his test bench, JA noted the Outlaw's "significantly" higher-than-specified output power, the admirably low output impedance of its headphone amp, and its "superb" phono stage, though he was "somewhat disappointed by the measured performance of its digital inputs." HR's conclusion: "a conspicuously good-sounding audiophile product at a ridiculously low price." (Vol.40 No.12 WWW)

Rogue Audio Sphinx: $1395 $$$
The Sphinx is that rarity in contemporary audio: a US-made integrated amplifier with a tubed (12AU7) line stage, a MM-appropriate phono stage, and a headphone jack, all for less than the price of a round-trip ticket to Paris—and Rogue Audio doesn't even make you buy their remote handset ($100). Using Bruno Putzeys's Hypex class-D power modules in tandem with a nonswitching power supply, this hybrid integrated delivers 100Wpc into 8 ohms or 200Wpc into 4 ohms. HR enjoyed his time with the Sphinx, noting its "greater scale and bass force" than his Creek 4330 integrated, and praising its line stage as perhaps "the best of [its] many good features: Everything I played was enjoyably detailed, transparent, and spacious." HR's verdict: "Judging by my experiences with the Sphinx, Rogue's owner and designer, Mark O'Brien, has taken this stigmatized, lower-class mode of operation to a new, more refined level." According to JA, apart from a bit of ultrasonic noise in its output, the Sphinx's amplifier section avoided most of the usual class-D pitfalls, and he particularly praised the MM phono section. 2017 version has upgraded components. (Vol.37 No.8 WWW)

Schiit Ragnarok: $1699
Referred to by its manufacturer as "an intelligent amplifier for headphones and loudspeakers," the Ragnarok—Old Norse for "fate of the gods"—is a solid-state integrated that offers 60Wpc into 8 ohms, 100Wpc into 4 ohms, and no LED display, menu, or remote control. For those omissions, HR thanked the gods. He also praised the "uniquely rich and boldly forceful" sound of the Ragnarok when used to drive the Technics SB-C700 speakers, and declared the "cheerful, articulate" pairing of Ragnarok and KEF LS50s "the most enjoyable stereo system I've used in the 21st century." (HR's second-most-enjoyable pairing: the Schiit Ragnarok with Magnepan .7 speakers, which like power the way Shane MacGowan likes beer.) While measuring the Ragnarok, JA discovered that, when amplifying continuous test signals at high levels, the amp's THD+N rose to as high as 34%. Schiit explained that this "expected" behavior was due to the amp's microprocessor-based bias-management system, which mistook the un-music-like tones for runaway bias. JA altered his testing regimen to account for this departure from the norm and came up with better-looking numbers, but his eyebrows remained somewhat elevated. (Vol.39 No.5 WWW)

Unison Research Unico Primo: $2400
The entry-level integrated from Italian manufacturer Unison Research, well known for their more radically styled power amps, the Unico Primo mates a tubed front end (one ECC83/12AX7) with an 80Wpc solid-state output section running in what Unison calls "Dynamic class-A." An optional plug-in board, also solid-state, provides MM/MC phono capabilities. (The Unico Primo is available without phono for $2400.) In addition to boasting what KM described as a volume control with "the creamiest action I've ever laid fingers on," the Unico Primo "charged hard 24/7, with enough dynamic gusto to compel music mightily." KM added that the slightly warmish Unison Research amp "struck an unusual balance between superior resolution in the treble to midrange and weighty low-end fundamentals that were less than accurate." Reporting from the test bench, JA noted a bit more distortion and noise than desired, but very good phono-stage performance. Optional black faceplate adds $150. (Vol.39 No.7 WWW)

C

Arcam FMJ SR250: $3600
Arcam's FMJ SR250 is the rare two-channel amplification product that contains room-correction software (Dirac Live), a feature that helped it overcome our usual reluctance to review A/V receivers. The FMJ SR250 has seven analog inputs and 15 digital inputs, the latter including USB, Ethernet, S/PDIF (RCA, TosLink) and no fewer than seven HDMI sockets. (The USB and Ethernet inputs are limited to 48kHz; the other inputs max out at 192kHz.) The class-G amplifier stage—the power transistors are fed by two separate sets of power-supply rails, microprocessor-selected depending on the demands posed by the input signal—is specified as outputting 90Wpc into 8 ohms. Before calling into play its room-correction software, KR felt the Arcam's bass performance was "good, solid, and balanced," its soundstaging "convincing." With Dirac Live enabled and dialed in, the Arcam impressed Kal as "even more satisfying and communicative." Less impressed was Measurer-in-Chief JA, who, though noting the Arcam's "powerful" and "low distortion" amplifier section, was dismayed by the way its USB input handled digital signals, and by a phase discrepancy between the channels on both its USB and S/PDIF inputs. He declared the SR250's digital inputs "inadequate for serious listening." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

NAD D 3020 V2: $399 $$$ ★
Launched to celebrate NAD's 40th anniversary, the 30Wpc D 3020 takes only its name from the company's iconic 3020 integrated amplifier; every other aspect of the design has been thoroughly modernized. It uses a switch-mode power supply, lacks a phono stage, and has only a single analog input, but includes a front-panel headphone minijack; an optional 6dB bass boost; a subwoofer output; coaxial, optical, and 24-bit/96kHz-capable asynchronous USB inputs; and uses an audio-optimized aptX codec for Bluetooth streaming. Weighing just 3 lbs and measuring an unusual 7.4" H by 2.7" W by 8.7" D, the D 3020 can be placed horizontally, like a traditional component, or stood upright, like a modem or hard drive. Uncommonly sensual for a hi-fi product, it has a large, textured volume knob; soft, smooth side panels; and a touchscreen that occupies its entire front panel and extends through one entire side panel. The sound from every input was warm, present, and naturally detailed; even low-quality MP3s streamed wirelessly via Bluetooth were engaging, said SM. "Right now, NAD's D 3020 is the best bargain in all of hi-fi," added ST. Borderline Class B. (Vol.36 Nos. 11 & 12, Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Peachtree Audio nova300: $2199–$2299
With their nova300 integrated amplifier-DAC, Peachtree Audio made a number of transitions: from iPod docks to Lightning connectors and WiFi; from tubed preamp buffers to all solid-state; from line-only preamps to an onboard MM phono preamp; and, most notably, from Chinese to Canadian manufacture. Other characteristics endure, including the attractive wood wrap—made even more attractive by an Ebony Mocha finish option—and a class-D output stage, this one based on ICEpower modules, for a power rating of 300Wpc into 8 ohms. The nova300 also boasts double-DSD capability alongside 32/384 PCM, and Peachtree's Dynamic Noise Elimination (DyNEC), which is claimed to eliminate, among other noises, those associated with the display screens of smartphones and tablets. In a review that proved controversial, AD praised Peachtree Audio for the nova300's excellent phono section and for its overall good momentum and drive, but criticized the graininess of its treble range. In their Manufacturer's Comment in the same issue, Peachtree took issue with Art's pairing of the nova300 with his extremely efficient Altec Flamenco speakers, calling it a "mismatch," though they held out the possibility of a flaw in the review sample, which they said was "on its way to our engineers for a testing, just in case." We were disappointed never to have heard back about the first sample, which, in his measurements, JA described as having "a high level of switching noise on its output." However, for the December 2017 Stereophile AD wrote a Follow-Up based on a second sample of the nova300, which he tried with the very contemporary Wharfedale Diamond 225 speakers. Art thought this pairing sounded "slightly less edgy" than his earlier experience, although the sound remained "dry and crisp overall." (Vol.40 Nos. 6 & 12 WWW)

PS Audio Sprout: $499 $$$
Designed in Colorado, and built in China, the PS Audio Sprout is a compact (6" W by 1.75" H by 8" D) integrated amplifier with built-in MM phono preamp, 24-bit/192kHz USB D/A converter, and Bluetooth receiver. The Sprout's class-D power amp can deliver up to 33Wpc across an 8-ohm load, and its front panel incorporates a ¼" headphone jack, use of which automatically mutes the loudspeaker output. In his review, HR observed that the Sprout occasionally lent the sound "a trace of darkness—not grayness or lack of color," but he found that the little Sprout consistently "demonstrated an ability to engage my attention and keep it locked on the space, character, and artistry of the music being played." HR also felt that the Sprout's Bluetooth wireless performance was "richer, more detailed, less hollow and vapid than any Bluetooth sound I've tried so far," though he found the Sprout's sound through headphones less rich than through speakers. Apart from a response-curve bump centered at 67Hz, JA's measurements uncovered nothing untoward. HR's conclusion: "The Sprout specialized in the beguiling reproduction of every kind of music I sent through its four inputs." The price dropped from $799 to $499 in September 2015. (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Rega Research Brio: $995
This latest incarnation of the Rega Brio integrated amp—the company's "best-selling electronic product ever," according to company head Roy Gandy—retains the original version's design brief: class-AB architecture that emulates class-A performance without class-A heat. Refinements in the new amp include metal-film resistors in its feedback circuit and some power-supply refinements lifted straight from the Brio's original inspiration, a 1970s design from the pages of Wireless World. Features include a moving-magnet phono input, four line-level inputs, and all-new casework. After trying the Brio with his DeVore Orangutan O/93 loudspeakers, KM declared, "The Brio controlled bass notes fairly well[, but] its crowning glory was its extended and natural top end." Although it didn't reward Ken with "the last word in transparency or absolute detail," the Rega Brio impressed with its more musical characteristics: "big tone, big beat, big ambitions." After measuring the Brio, JA praised in particular the "superb" overload margins of its phono section, and declared the amp "well-sorted" overall, although he did note that it runs hot. (Vol.40 No.10 WWW)

Editor's Note: There are no Class D integrated amplifiers listed.

K

Anthem STR, NAD M32, Luxman L509X.

Deletions

Hegel Music Systems H160 no longer available; Croft Phono Integrated, Music Hall a15.3, Naim NAIT 5si, Octave Audio V 40 SE, PrimaLuna DiaLogue Premium HP, Rogers High Fidelity EHF-100 Mk.2, all not auditioned in too long a time.

 Complete Audio Systems

A

Devialet Gold Phantom: $2990 each
In a setting as idyllic as it was ideal, at least in a commercial sense—the samples were auditioned in an apartment on the rue des Ursulines in Paris, the city of their manufacture—Devialet's top-of-the-line Phantom powered speaker whetted JCA's appetite, and on returning home to his superior-sounding NYC apartment he requested review loaners. There, auditioned with Devialet's Tree stands ($375 each), Dialog dedicated router ($329), and Remote remote volume control ($149), a stereo pair of Gold Phantoms "'disappeared' nicely, as befits a phantom." (The Phantoms are sold singly and, per Devialet, are commonly used as mono playback systems.) JCA praised the system's "stark, disciplined" bass, which he described as surprisingly "deep, without bloat," though he wouldn't have minded more generous low-frequency response. He also praised its abundant soundstage depth, though he felt that the speakers' class-D amps didn't "resolve the unique timbres of instruments as well as other systems I've heard." Phonophiles will find the Devialet system fails on another front: it has no analog inputs. But for others, according to JCA, the Gold Phantom system is "a serious value" and "could be just the thing." (Vol.40 No.11 WWW)

Eclipse TD-M1: $999
The TD-M1 system comprises a pair of desktop loudspeakers, each of which has a single 3" full-range driver in a reflex-loaded and vaguely egg-shaped enclosure, the latter made with an alloy frame and a molded exoskeleton. Of each TD-M1 pair, one enclosure also contains a 20Wpc digital amplifier and a 24-bit/192kHz USB D/A converter, the latter equipped for wireless streaming via Apple AirPlay. Aside from grousing about high-tech user controls that were slightly too obscure, AD had fun with the easy-to-install TD-M1 system, enjoying in particular its very accessible WiFi function. All in all, AD's time with the Eclipse system left him giddy: "I had a great time with this system whenever I used it—and it was always easy." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

B Bluesound Vault 2, Powernode 2, Node 2, Pulse 2, Duo 2: $299–$1299 ★
Bluesound is a new line of whole-house sound products from the Lenbroo1k Group, owners of NAD and PSB. The Bluesound Vault ($999), which requires an Ethernet connection to the Internet, is an 11.5" W by 9.3" H by 8.1" D box containing an optical drive, a 24-bit/192kHz Cirrus-Logic sigma-delta DAC, and 1TB of storage. Inputs are Ethernet, WiFi, USB Type A, and, by means of an optional dongle, Bluetooth. Outputs include an analog RCA pair and digital TosLink capable of passing up to 24/192 data to an external DAC. The Bluesound Powernode ($699), which looks identical to the Vault but is slightly smaller, is a network player with a 24/192 DAC. The Powernode has the same complement of inputs as the Vault, while its outputs are a subwoofer-out jack (RCA) and two pairs of binding posts for speakers. The Powernode can operate with or without the Vault; in the latter case, the Powernode will access music files from the user's NAS. The Bluesound Node ($449) is—get ready for it—rather like the Powernode, but without (output) power. The Bluestone Duo ($899) is, in the words of ML, "a straightforward satellite-and-(self-powered)-subwoofer loudspeaker system designed by Paul Barton of PSB Speakers [and] meant to be powered by the Powernode." And the Bluesound Pulse ($699) is a 13.4-lb "network-ready boom box" that runs on AC wall current. With Bluesound products scattered throughout his home and with the system as a whole accessing files on his QNAP NAS, ML found the sound of the Bluesound "ecology" to be pleasantly rich and full, if, in some instances, a bit dark; with regard to the latter quality, inclusion of the Auralic Vega DAC restored the missing sparkle. "I enjoyed my time with the Bluesound components," ML stated, noting that the Pulse was perhaps the pleasantest surprise of the lot. Current v2 versions are cosmetically different from those reviewed but otherwise identical. (Vol.37 No.7 WWW)

COMMENTS
supamark's picture

You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

link to Ref 5 review measurements page:
https://www.stereophile.com/content/kef-reference-5-loudspeaker-measurem...

John Atkinson's picture
supamark wrote:
You have the KEF Blade II listed class A full range, and the KEF Reference 5 in class A (restricted LF) yet their frequency respnse in JA's room is essentially the same at 20 Hz (both have a -10dB point below 20 Hz in JA's room)... what's up with that?

Judgment call on my part.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

waynel's picture

Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

John Atkinson's picture
waynel wrote:
Was surprised to see this amp on the list considering you said you could not recommend it.

This amplifier didn't measure well but I defer to my reviewers' judgments on sound quality when deciding on the ratings.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

supamark's picture

fair enough.

Joe8423's picture

but I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste. I have no criticisms of how he does his job as editor of stereophile. I just can't get my head around his opinions of specific components/speakers.

John Atkinson's picture
Joe8423 wrote:
I've been reading JA's opinions for quite a while and I've concluded that his personal opinions on audio components are the product of terrible hearing and/or terrible taste.

I do have my hearing checked regularly, so it must be my taste :-)

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

mrkaic's picture

...this is a lovely artful reply. Congrats, dude!

Indydan's picture

This is off topic. But, Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

John Atkinson's picture
Indydan wrote:
Will Art Dudley or someone else be visiting and reporting on the Montreal audio fest?

Art Dudley and Robert Schryer will be attending the Montreal show for Stereophile.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Indydan's picture

Thanks for the information.

FredisDead's picture

I have learned over the years not to take the rankings seriously, but these are essentially the same speakers, one designed for larger rooms and one designed for smaller rooms. I can't help but believe that the magazine is unduly influenced by John Devore's description of the O/93 as being built down to a lower price point. I don't think JD was fair to his own babies. Since it was Art Dudley whom was the major proponent of the O/96 and since he now has a smaller listening room, it would be great if he were to audition the O/93's in his new room and let us know if he hears a qualitative difference.

ken mac's picture

John [DeVore] has no influence on how we write or review his speakers.
I owned and reviewed many of Johns' speakers (owned 8, Super 8, Nines; reviewed Super 8s, 3s, Nines, O/93) long before I joined Stereophile.
The 2 speakers are not really alike, and not designed for different sized rooms, I believe. I've heard both many times and prefer my O/93s. John makes extremely natural sounding loudspeakers that work well in many systems, hence their popularity.

tonykaz's picture

I'm not much of a Fan of Vinyl nowadays but still... shouldn't there be a phono cartridge in the Same Class as that A+ Turntable for $30,000 or the one for $104,000 ? and.. are there only two "A+" Turntables ?

I can understand, of course. I was a Big Time Phono Cartridge Shop, once upon a time. I know fully well the difficulties involved in proper set up of Phono Cartridges and their Arm and all things tracking, etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc,etc..... phew.

Committing to review Phono Cartridges is an elaborate set of burdens to put upon any competent reviewer lacking an Assistant ( like ole HP at TAS had ).

We at Esoteric Audio reviewed ( and had "Active" ) every phono Cartridge we sold, it was an exhausting commitment. Koetsu was A+.

Proper playback of RedBook via one of the many A+ Rated Players is a God Send compared to the Mechanical Complexity of revolving mechanisms and those mechanical transducers having astonishingly low output.

My two great Audiophile Philosophers ( HR & Steve G ) still have vinyl "lives" and rather vast vinyl collection commitments that I'm happily well past, their commentaries have substantial merit because they both have that vast history of experiences giving them the heft of "Earned Confidence" so.....

Stereophile should give them both the A+ Recommended placement : HR for Writing and Steve G for Vlog.

Tony in Michigan

z24069's picture

The list once again contains (many of the same) names of some great offerings from many manufacturers.

It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components. The K-01X (now K-01Xs), Grandioso K1, etc...are among some of the finest digital playback gear (same to be said for the 2-box and 4-box options) in the world. Clearly they belong on this list and the lack of focus on evaluating and listing these products with their peers definitely needs to be cured once and for all.

Great issue over all; you are however missing several key entries from Esoteric and others.

Thank you,

John Atkinson's picture
z24069 wrote:
It is still beyond explanation however (IMHO) how Esoteric offerings are totally missing from yet another issues of recommended components.

I have explained this before. If we haven't reviewed a company's products in the past 3 years, they are not included in "Recommended Components." With the changes in Esoteric's US distribution, we have been waiting for things to settle down. However, we do have a review of the Esoteric N-01 scheduled for our August issue.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Ola Harstrom's picture

Was interested to see how this would be rated.

Is HR's coverage (Gramophone Dreams #11 -->so it should perhaps have been in the Fall of 2017 edition...?) not considered a formal review?

Tx!

DavidNC's picture

We read these 'best of' or 'recommended component' reviews with an interest as to where our own products stand against the opposition.
So I looked for Vitus.....nowhere !! Not on any list !!
So I searched Vitus (on this site) and found no mention since 2011 !!
Surely Vitus deserve a 'review' even if it's not liked ??

jazzman1040's picture

This list is chock full of traditional designs, but has few representatives of fully active speakers. Even for the LS50 you selected the passive version when all reviews I've read suggest the active version is far superior. I count only the KIi's as fully active? In a world where technology is advancing incredibly fast, where ease of use is of primary importance for all except for a select few (maybe only readers of Stereophile?), shouldn't this list include more than a few active speaker selections? Or maybe they don't measure up? For value it would seem they win hands down. On performance, most critics I've read agree that actives are the way to go. So what gives?

sara023's picture
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