Emotiva’s TA-100 aims to dominate the entry-level integrated category by offering a little more of everything
Emotiva (website here) has been a thorn in the side of many domestic and imported electronics companies for some time now. Positioning themselves downmarket in price, but upmarket in sound quality, power, and features, Emotiva has found themselves dominating their similarly priced competition by a wide margin. For a while, I have been sure that Emotiva had no real competition when comparing apples-to-apples. As far as price was concerned, it seemed that Emotiva offered more power, finesse, and value than other electronics companies were willing to part with. For some, this level of bargain incited doubt as to the refinement of the Emotiva brand. As time went by the reviews poured in, and so did many industry awards and accolades.Little has changed at Emotiva, and since then the recent Emotiva TA-100 — $399 at the time of this review — labeled a “Stereo Preamp / DAC / Tuner with Integrated Amplifier” offers a gagging mouthful of features. At the outset of researching the TA-100 I was compelled to just label it another stereo receiver, but after living with it, I realized to do so would take it out of the market segment it was designed to dominate. The TA-100 is truly everything its wordy description claims.
The Emotiva TA-100 has more than a few siblings in the Emotiva universe as it is part of the Emotiva BasX line of electronics, which covers everything from stereo separates, home theater pre/processors, speakers of all shapes and sizes, digital sources, and most famously power amplifiers.
Quirks and Features
It would be hard to make installation mistakes with the Emotiva TA-100, as it’s clearly labeled around the back as to where and how many of its inputs and outputs are to be used. One of the unique features at this price point is the auto-sensing power voltage lights on the rear of the component. The TA-100 senses either 115V or 230V power, and switches itself independently. Good for those who travel globally. Where things might get a little opaque is with TA-100’s spartan front facia or remote. When in standby mode, a simple gold LED illuminates the center-mounted power button, when powered-on all back-lighting becomes blue, along with a large and proudly lit volume control placed ideally for right-handed users. It’s all you need, right?
Further investigation yields the input switchers. Two small buttons about an inch apart with a screen-printed “input” label placed between them. Depressing each has exactly the same function as the other but with one exception — menu direction. Depending on how your brain visually interprets time and space, you could say that pushing the right input button scrolls you to the right or up in the dot matrix list of input labels, or that the left input button scrolls you to the left or down. It’s entirely up to you which way you navigate the inputs. For myself, I only used the right one, as it didn’t matter to me that I might cycle the long way around through a looping list of inputs. I just didn’t feel the need to learn the list forwards and backwards when one way will do.
When it comes to interfacing the more advanced controls, such as TRIMS (Balance, Bass and Treble) or SETUP (Dim, Version, Reset), doing so through menus via volume knob pushes and a combination of dual-input button dancing might cause frustration.
One might seek relief in the Emotiva TA-100’s remote, but the easiness doesn’t come. The remote interface is just as intuitively vague in regard to anything other than power, input, volume and menu initiation. The learning curve for both might be a little steep at first for traditional audiophiles, but over time, it will become intuitive. This adapted menu system has two benefits. It will largely appeal to younger generations who frequently navigate devices or apps with this type of user interface. Secondly, it will do well to hide away unnecessary controls from users who only want to power it on and change the volume. No more wondering who has been adjusting the bass when the children (or know-it-all friends) can’t even find it.
Inputs include; CD, AUX, PHONO, OPT, COAX, USB, BT, Tuner, and then back around again to CD. I used every input independently and together when looking for crosstalk between competing sources. I found no crosstalk of discernible consequence. Overall I preferred the DAC inputs — as the Analog Devices AD1955 24/192 DAC chip used in the TA-100 has been famously used with great reward in single purpose CD/SACD players, along with stand-alone DSD capable DAC components, some costing up to five times the price of the TA-100. The USB input ranges from 24/96K, but the Coax and Optical decode up to 24/192.
The built-in phono stage and tuner were solid performers with this amplifier and considering the price of the Emotiva TA-100, it is quite remarkable they are even here. The Emotiva’s phono input supports both moving magnet and moving coil. During my testing, it was only used with moving magnet cartridges. When I compared the Emotiva’s phono stage to the one offered built-in on the VPI Player (also in for review), I found very little difference in the sound aside from noise. The VPI Player phono stage did have a darker a noise floor when compared to the one found inside the Emotiva. I may attribute that to grounding issues, but who knows. I’m not going to waste much time nitpicking what feels like an unexpected birthday present. I’m pleased it’s here, and am pleased with its thoughtfulness.
The tuner section is FM only, favors no particular part of the bandwidth, and has 50 station presets. I compared it to my Tivoli Audio Model One, which tends to find everything available in my area. The Emotiva didn’t find as many stations through it’s auto-tune feature or manual station searching, but where it did excel is in its implementation of a mono-mode (easiest to find on the remote), which made some of the harder to reach stations much more listenable than just having a stereo-only option.
The Bluetooth receiver requires an option AptX Bluetooth dongle which in the long run makes upgrading an easier step for those who which to stay current. I didn’t have that dongle in with my review sample, so I can’t speak to its function.
Outputs on the Emotiva TA-100 are vast. They include stereo speaker, ⅛” headphone jack, RCA stereo pre-amp, and RCA stereo-summed. The last of which is a nice addition for those who employ the use of subwoofers. The signal coming from this summed pair of subwoofer outs is monaural and full range. It does not include any type of bass management or filtering. What could be better is the option to use these sub-outs in true stereo. The speaker outputs are a stereo pair of five-way speaker binding posts which feel substantial enough. I used banana, spade, and bare wire throughout all of my testing. Each felt confidently connected when used.
The headphone output was a charm to use, especially when switching back and forth from headphones to speakers. Emotiva employs an intelligent volume control that remembers the volume settings independently set through either the speaker or headphone output. Creating a feeling that you are using two components placed in one chassis with real-world listening habits taken into consideration. During my use of the Emotiva TA-100 out in the wild, I was switching back and forth between speaker and headphones during demos, the headphone volume was always brought down so that there were no surprises for cautious listeners. Meanwhile, the speaker output always remained fixed at where I thought the in-room demonstration worked best. An absolutely fantastic feature that I wish more electronics designers would take note of.
The TA-100’s amplifier is a robust A/B design, with excellent signal to noise ratio for the dollar. Sounding like more than enough power on various speakers, its rated at 50 watts per channel at 8 ohms (90 watts per channel at 4 ohms) seemed to be a conservative estimate.
Sound and Comparison
Stepping on the gas without too much fear. I made my way through some of my favorite songs and movies to best gather an overall character for this integrated amplifier as it handles various speakers and headphones.
The Phono Preamp
Phono stages in budget components can be scary. Unlike digital off-the-shelf inner-components, phono stages require a little more care and artistry in getting analog sound right. Luckily the Emotiva TA-100 does not disappoint. It offers both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil cartridge capability. For this review, however, I only used it with moving magnet cartridges. I found the TA-100’s phono stage to be on par with the likes of the U-Turn Pluto phono stage I borrowed just for this review. Both do a fine job of handling entry level cartridges and turntables, so I imagine it would be some time before most buyers of this unit outgrow the built-in phono stage. As a comparison to the NAD 316BEE V2’s new phono stage included in their revised integrated, I found the TA-100’s included unit only to be bested by the NAD in two regards — background darkness and ultimate finesse. Is the phono stage in the TA-100 a liability? Not in the least. Only when things get serious in the budget for turntables would I consider looking to upgrade and bypass the one included.
The FM Tuner
Just by including an FM tuner, Emotiva should earn some type of award from the FM Tuner Lovers Association of America — if such a body exists. But the use of the tuner in the Emotiva TA-100 has a rather steep learning curve. The tuner menu can only be accessed by selecting the “setup menu” when the TA-100 is in tuner mode. This is more or less is asking the user to preface each maneuver in using the tuner with a permission like gesture. Otherwise, volume and input are the only standby controls while in tuner mode. So to stay in tuner mode, one must and always select the “setup menu” before adjusting stations or tuning modes. However tiresome that sounds, the TA-100’s FM tuner does well to make installing preset stations easy. It’s “auto-tune” feature does well to highlight and save weak stations, allowing a total of fifty stored and numbered presets. Manual storage of stations is still possible but do so after you’ve attempted auto-tuning, as the auto-tune feature erases all manually stored presets during it’s sleuthing process. As for making weaker stations listenable, the TA-100 comes with a Mono/Stereo toggle that does the job well.
In The Digital Domain
The built-in DAC of the Emotiva TA-100 is of the delta-sigma type and uses an Analog Devices (AD1955 24/192) chip. It is more than robust in what it offers sound-wise for the overall price of the component against the competition. But it does fall short of what could be had in modest stand-alone offerings from the likes of Schiit’s Modi 2 Uber which was used as a comparison device, and ultimately as an upgrade. Noise performance on the Emotiva digital section was excellent, and integration with all devices through its USB input handled without issue. I really can’t argue any case against the DAC included in the TA-100 as it melds well with the sonic character of the preamplifier and amplifier it’s mated with. Would I urge people to upgrade to a stand-alone DAC upon purchase of this multi-tool like integrated? Heavens no! I would think about adding a power amplifier to the unit as to squeeze out every last drop of the TA-100’s greater characteristics as a preamplifier and control and decoding centerpiece of a more powerful system. Emotiva knew what they were doing when they decided to include pre-amp outputs on the TA-100, as that move alone, allows the most sensible upgrade in power. The DAC — and did show promise
The Headphone Amplifier
Most budget integrated amplifiers employ the main power amplifier through a series of filters as their headphone output. The TA-100 is different in this regard as, the former method often cuts cost, it can be a less than specialized headphone experience where compromises in component design are made with most sacrifices going to the headphone output. The Emotiva TA-100 uses an independent, high-current, direct coupled headphone amplifier stage. It’s nothing to write home about soundwise but what does make the headphone output of the TA-100 special, is its aforementioned “Intelligent Level Control” which independently remembers the volume level you set for your headphones and main speaker outputs. That one feature alone makes this integrated one of my favorites for headphone listeners, because after living with it, there is no going back for me. Seamlessly switching between headphones and speakers without having to near-zero the dial each time I change is a blessing, and necessity I didn’t know was missing from my life. Kudos to Emotiva!
The Stand-Alone Preamplifier
Enter the Peachtree Nova300 as a power amplifier. Using the Nova300’s home-theater bypass RCA inputs I was ready to expose the Emotiva’s preamplifier for its shortcomings. However, short on comings it was not. Over it’s built-in amplifier, the Emotiva TA-100’s complement of source inputs and decoders benefited greatly from the Peachtree’s isolated and more powerful amplification. It was almost like the TA-100 had a new and different side to itself. More control and speed, along with everything I liked about the TA-100 being given out in healthier doses. The noise floor was dramatically lower, but I am not sure that I shouldn’t give that credit to the Nova300 more than the Emotiva. Either way, the case is made for holding on to the TA-100 as an amplifier, DAC and analog phono stage when considering the upgrade path. Emotiva holds a large stable of power-amplifier options, so mating upgrade paths should be almost intuitive.
Powering Speakers with the Emotiva TA-100
Played through the Vandersteen 2CE Sig Mkii
I never felt like using the Emotiva TA-100 with the large Vandersteens was a misstep. It handled dynamics surprisingly well, and where needed the Emotiva’s tone controls didn’t highlight any of the amplifiers weaknesses, but instead its strengths. Usually, when employing tone controls and asking for power, smaller amplifiers answer back with boomy mid-bass and cowbell mid-range — but not the case for the Emotiva. The Emotiva didn’t quite have the grunt that it’s nearest competitor (the NAD 316BEE V2) had with the Vandersteens but it was able to remedy that issue well with a gentle boost in the tone controls.
Played through the Studio Electric M4
Ultimately the detail retrieval and honesty in the Studio Electric M4’s outclassed the Emotiva TA-100. Where the NAD 316BEE V2 did better to hold it’s own with the M4’s and show it’s better sides, the Emotiva offering was overwhelmed by the power demands and refinement necessary to do justice with the M4’s. No amount of tone controls could fully remedy what was anemic mid-range and muddy treble in this pairing. Even with the larger Nova300 brought in to add power to the mix as a stand-alone amplifier to the Emotiva TA-100’s preamplifier, not enough changed for the better to merit the pairing.
Played through the KEF Q100
Things fall back into order and even though the KEF’s are known for their precise detail, all is right with the pairing. Bass is rich,, mid-range and treble are balanced, and there is no need for tone adjustments. Employing them does provide great results with certain media being bass shy or too hot in the treble. So I was especially pleased with how well the TA-100 did with speakers more in it’s intended price range.
Played through the Acoustic Research AR-H1
I hate to drone on and on about the TA-100’s tone controls, but with the headphones is where they showed themselves most useful. The AR-H1’s have a bit if a wild streak in the 10K area, which was easily tamed with the TA-100. Power wise, the Emotiva had no issue pushing the AR’s to screaming levels, and doing so with control.
Played through the Grado SR60
The story here mirrors the previous in that the Grado SR60s lack the bass of other headphone designs in and out of the Grado brand, with that said, handling that issue with the tone controls of the Emotiva proved fruitful. What was highlighted by the Grado’s was the downright enjoyable nature of the Emotiva’s headphone stage. None of that lacking refinement I found in the Studio Electric M4’s was present in the headphone stage when paired with the Grados. Overall, it was a good showing.
On The Road
The TA-100 did everything right in making a great first impression. As the demonstrations centered around listening and having access to the volume knob. Great for entertaining, but as far as full control, that wasn’t an issue. The Emotiva lack of confusing buttons and switches was perfect for the uninitiated to quickly find and deploy volume leveling.
With the AR-H1 headphones attached there were many reaching for the volume knob to take it up, with explanations like, “I just really had never heard anything like this before and I want to hear it louder.”
When demoing a Studio M4’s and Peachtree Nova300 combination, switching in the TA-100 for the much pricier, powerful, and poised Peachtree Nova300 — of which the technical power differences had been described to my audience — a lot of the reactions towards the TA-100 were positive. A few “Wow” and “Still amazing. It’s like the Two Buck Chuck of amplifiers” were remarks that stuck with me. Though in my home under more controlled circumstances, I wouldn’t say my findings were as positive.
Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor — this is how I would characterize the Emotiva TA-100. It’s not a departure from the Emotiva’s long history of being a sound and value conscious manufacturer. Where the TA-100 stands apart from its brand character is that the TA-100 specifically seems hell-bent on redistributing the entire wealth of Emotiva’s product history and wisdom to the masses at a price that can’t be rivaled. Packed with features, there are few true competitors in the arena when it comes to connectivity options and quality at the price or anywhere near it. Scoot over NAD 316BEE V2, you have a true competitor now, and let the entry-level integrated battle begin. (More to come on that battle soon.)
- VPI Player Turntable with the built-in phono preamp
- Kenwood Vintage Turntable
- Emotiva TA-100 (FM Tuner)
- Nakamichi CR-1A Cassette Player
- Emotiva TA-100 (onboard phono preamp)
- Peachtree Audio Nova300 (onboard phono preamp)
- NAD 316BEE V2 (onboard phono preamp)
- Schiit Audio Modi 2 Uber
- Apple iPod, iPhone
- Emotiva TA-100 (onboard DAC)
- Pioneer PD-F1007 (onboard DAC)
- Cambridge Audio 540a Azur v2 Integrated
- Music Hall Maven Stereo Receiver
- NAD 316BEE V2 Integrated
- Peachtree Audio Nova300 Integrated
- Vandersteen 2CE Signature Mk II
- Legacy Audio Studio Monitors
- KEF Q100 Bookshelf Monitors
- Studio Electric M4 Monitors
- Acoustic Research AR-H1
- Grado SR60
- Koss Porta Pro
- Transparent Interconnects and Speaker Cables
- BDC Speaker Cables
- Audioquest Bulk Speaker Cables
- Kimber Interconnects
- Blue Jeans Cable Digital Coax Interconnect
- Monoprice Speaker Stands
- Pangea Speaker Stands