Most midrange amplifiers use Class AB amplification, which means that that first few watts (say, up to 10W) are amplified by Class A amplification, and then the rest is of the power comes from Class B. While most critical listening occurs in the 10-15W range, your midnight air-guitar sessions might need a few extra watts than that — which is where Class B takes over. Because it only amplifies one half of the signal wave, Class B produces much more output using a lot less power. Class AB integrateds from companies like Bryston, Yamaha, McIntosh, Naim, Arcam, and Marantz sport many analog inputs, maybe a USB or coax input for good measure, and are geared toward the general music aficionado who likes to drive the typical inefficient speaker loud enough to really enjoy Stairway to Heaven. Again, the vast majority of high-end integrated amplifiers are Class AB.
Then we have Class A, which is expensive heavy, and hot. And since we all paid attention in high school science class, we definitely remember that when electrical devices produce heat, it means resistance — and resistance means paying more money in utilities. Class A is the least efficient means of amplification, but also the best sounding. This is where we see exotic designs like single-ended triode (SET) amps, ultralinear, and crazy amounts of money for very little power. Most of your top-of-the-line integrated amplifiers are Class A and come from brands like Audio Research, Jolida, or Rogers High Fidelity, whose EHF200MK2 full Class A integrated amplifier costs $15,000 for 112W, which is about as powerful as you can get with a Class A integrated amplifier.
Now let’s talk about inputs. While I have an integrated-based system dedicated to vinyl-only listening, my secondary integrated needs to handle four sources: a TV, a CD player, computer audio, and a turntable. This means I need two line-level RCA inputs, one phono input, and a USB input. Unless I want to buy external components, I need to look for an integrated with a built-in DAC and phono preamp. This is one of the reasons why AV receivers became so popular — buy one thing and you’re done. The problem with AV receivers is that most of the time you are spending money on buttons and lights you don’t need, and therefore less of your hard-earned money is going toward sound quality. It’s like someone who lives in downtown Toronto buying a Ford F350 4×4 truck because they might move a friend’s couch one day. Buy the integrated amplifier that matches your current needs and spend your money on quality parts, not the gimmicks. I can’t tell you how many times I talk with people who think they need an integrated with an onboard DAC capable of DSD, and then it turns out that they have never actually used the DSD format; or maybe they have 97dB speakers and they buy a lower quality 100W Class D amp — when a really great 20W Class A amp would have been much better.
How Much Do You Have in Your Wallet?
Probably the most important aspect of buying an integrated (or anything in life) is your budget. Whether your budget is $500, $5000, or $10,000, determine a comfortable limit and then stick to it by buying the best product possible. Too many people set a budget at $500 and then walk out of a store with an $800 product because “it has XYZ enhancing device.” Or, even worse, they set their budget at $1000 and walk out with a product that costs $500 because it has double the inputs, double the “power,” and twice as many buttons — no, you don’t save money by buying something that doesn’t meet your needs. Not setting a budget can leave you dissatisfied with your decisions; buyer’s remorse is the last thing you want when you are trying to enhance your listening experience.
If you and your family spend most of your entertainment time watching movies, rather than listening to music, by all means look at AV receivers, surround speakers, and a big thumping subwoofer. Just like two-channel audio, high-end home theater systems come in many shapes and sizes. You can buy a simple soundbar, or even an AV receiver and some satellite speakers for well under $500, hook it up, and call it good. Or you can drop $15,000 on a surround processor, have dedicated amplifiers for each surround zone, and spend another $50,000 on your projector setup. The point is, determine your wants and your budget first, then purchase the right tool for the job; you don’t want to go to the dealer looking for a Porsche 911 and drive home in a Ford F350. Even though my main priority is music, I also like watching The Walking Dead or other shows on a Sunday night. I could have purchased an AV receiver and still listened to music, but then I would have paid for a lot of stuff I don’t really use, which would reduce the quality of my overall listening experience. Instead, I sacrificed a little on the surround aspect in order to have much better speakers, integrated amp, and sources — and yet The Walking Dead still sounds great without the 7.1 setup.
I guess the whole point of this article is to take a step back and look at the integrated amplifier as a tool to make your life more enjoyable. Much like a screwdriver, you won’t find an integrated that can do everything exactly the way you want; but, an integrated allows you to start enjoying music without debating the merits of differential XLR linestages and hybrid preamps. Determine how much power you need, how many and what types of inputs, and how much money you can spend. Then, go out and buy the highest rated integrated that matches those requirements. If you fret about the minute details, you might lose sight of the purpose of the integrated amplifier. The beauty of the integrated is its simplicity, its cost savings, and its ability to get out of the way and allow you to do more of what this hobby is all about — listening to great music.