The Best Amplifiers
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best amplifiers? What are you trying to do, start an insurrection? You’re not even going to separate the tubed ones from the solid-state? Let’s clear this up: these are the best amplifiers that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
McGary Audio SA-1 ($3,985 USD)
The new McGary SA1 push-pull vacuum tube amp is the first product offering from new designer Mike McGary, and we fell in love with the way this 30wpc design mated with the hard-to-drive ATC SCM100 speakers. McGary hit the ground running with this “best amplifiers” entry. The music was surprisingly tight, dynamic, and wonderfully full in tonal texture, and the build quality was exceptional as well, as evidenced by McGary’s lifetime warranty on the product (minus tubes, of course).
First Watt SIT-3 ($4,000 USD)
Perhaps our favorite effort yet from the bench of First Watt/Pass Labs legend Nelson Pass, the SIT-3 is most likely the last of the VFET amps to be produced by that outfit. Rated at 17 watts per channel into eight ohms, it actually drives challenging speaker loads with surprising aplomb. The sonics are all there: deep, heaving bass; a lithe, yet smooth midrange; and crystalline clear highs. Better get ‘em while they last, since only 250 are being made!
Audio Hungary Qualiton APX 200 ($4,700 USD)
“Vacuum tubes how I love thee, let me count the ways,” we exclaimed after using this Hungarian amp. We found that it was an “imaging Godzilla” but what we loved the most was its value–you get 100wpc from tubes, with the short signal paths, high parts quality and plenty of useful features.
Merrill Audio Thor monoblock amplifier ($4,800 USD)
These beautifully finished and compact monoblocks might be Class D, but that didn’t matter—the Thors were still offered reference quality sound “that can make you happy with a remarkable range of speakers, all the way from horns and electrostats to conventional cones.”
Odyssey Audio Kismet ($4,900 pair USD)
We loved using these affordable monoblocks as a “mid-tier solid-state reference,” since the only real concession is the casework—which is still pretty nice. Plus, you can build these amps with all sorts of options—yes, they’re made to order! Choose from a variety of power supplies, wiring, output boards and caps, and even with all the boxes checked they’re still a tremendous bargain.
Pass Labs XA25 ($4,900 USD)
“These are deeply impressive designs that create an emotional connection to the music” is how we described Nelson Pass’ little amp, which produces 25 gorgeous watts per channel. Yes, it’s all in Class A, which makes this power amplifier an intriguing choice for audiophiles who have systems that can really sing without a bunch of juice.
Linear Tube Audio ZOTL40 ($6,800 USD)
This ZOTL amplifier weighs next to nothing–it’s lighter than the matching and much smaller ZOTL preamplifier from LTA. But it’s more powerful (46wpc into 8 ohms) than past LTA designs, and it has a somewhat different sound that puts more meat on the bone. You still get those vivid LTA colors in the music, and that ultra-transparency that is utterly addicting.
McGary Audio SA-2 ($7,985 USD)
Mike McGary has created a timeless classic of a tube amp–warm, seductive and romantic in all the best ways. Fit and finish are impeccable, and befitting an exceptional beautiful device as this, and with its silky 30 watts per channel it can be used with a wider variety of loudspeakers. “Factoring in the extra power, bigger everything, and all that extra user versatility, the McGary Audio SA2 hits it out of the park. Oh, and don’t forget about that lifetime warranty.” An Editor’s Choice winner.
Manley Labs Snapper monoblocks ($8,400 pair USD)
The ability to switch between triode and ultralinear modes makes these monoblocks two amps in one, in more ways than one. The Snappers are smooth without being rolled off, with surprisingly little editorializing so that you can clearly hear what the other components in your system are doing. (Yes, a tube amplifier can do all that.) The Snappers are also a tube roller’s dream since they can be so revealing.
BorderPatrol P21 EXD (starting at $9,325 USD)
Matched with Living Voice speakers, which BorderPatrol sells here in the US, the P21 EXD “disarms with its truth-telling,” and reveals the true potential of the 300B vacuum tube. Neutral and honest, the BorderPatrol’s presentation is uncommonly open and immediately captivating. An Editors Choice winner.
Mactone MH-120 ($12,995 USD)
This Mactone tube amplifier hid in the shadows of its glorious, beautiful stablemate, the XX-7000 preamplifier, but it deserves its place in the spotlight for delivering a sound that was gorgeous and alive. Its 65wpc makes it easy to hear the Mactone magic with a number of loudspeakers, but its most memorable feature is a three-position “presence” knob that allows you to adjust the overall sound of the MH-120 from soft and classic to linear and modern. An Editor’s Choice winner.
Doshi Audio Stereo Amplifier ($14,000 USD)
While it’s not quite affordable, this tubed power amp has a knack for making relatively modest loudspeakers sound like cost-no-object flagships. Able to produce 50 watts per channel in pure Class A, this stereo amp excels at creating both precise imaging and an enormous soundstage—like a top-notch solid-state amp, but with all the inner beauty that comes with valves.
Vitus Audio RS101 ($14,640 USD)
This understated black-box power amplifier provides 300 watts per channel into 8 ohms, and doubles that power cleanly as you halve the impedance. A synergistic match with the Vitus Audio RL102 line stage, “Together, these components provide a clean, powerful, and eminently musical performance.”
McIntosh MC2152 ($15,000 USD)
This beefy (125 lbs.) KT-88 power amplifier provides 150 watts per channel and may mark a turning point for McIntosh with its lack of blue meters and new sleek side panels made from carbon fiber. Despite its formidable size, the MC2152 offers an extremely transparent and laid-back sound that might be considered by some to be very un-Mac-like. This is the McIntosh amp that many of us have been waiting for, one with sound quality that equals its amazing list of features.
Audio Research Reference 160M ($30,000 pair USD)
These are a massive monoblock amps that qualify as “eye candy,” but the sound they create with the world’s finest loudspeakers is positively addictive and will have you spending the rest of your life in your listening chair. “Astounding speed and explosiveness,” is what you get from this KT-150 beast, along with a new design that maximizes tube life. Also, one of the best amplifiers we’ve ever had the chance photograph.
Bricasti Design M28SE ($30,000 pair USD)
When we had these massive monoblocks in the house, we were tempted to say that they “created the highest level of reference-quality sound” we’ve hosted. Powerful and clean, these big amps sounded dead-neutral and gorgeously natural and can “drive the living snot” out of most loudspeakers.
Tidal Audio Impulse stereo amplifier ($33,000 USD)
The Impulse is fully stable down to just 1 ohm, which gives this hefty German dual-mono amplifier the ability to drive just about any loudspeaker. We loved the Impulse’s “deep, faultless bass response” as well as its extended and non-fatiguing treble. The sonic signature is BIG—so big it will “stop you in your tracks.” Assuredly one of the best amplifiers to come out of the EU.
Dan D’Agostino Momentum S250 Stereo ($35,000 USD)
After hearing this gorgeous beast, we declared Dan D’Agostino a “God of Thunder.” No amp conjures a description of “audio jewelry” more than the gleaming copper-accented chassis on the entire Momentum line, but this amp is also powerful and able to control all sorts of loudspeakers. Plus, you’ll be dreaming of that stunning steampunk look long after you’ve flicked off the power switch. When we asked our staffers to list “best amplifiers,” the D’Agostinos always made the list.
Merrill Audio Element 118 Monoblock ($36,000)
We felt that the 118 monoblocks “almost fully eliminated our long-standing bias against class-D amplifiers” by eliminating any hints of grain or an overly analytical sound. With over 400 watts per channel into 8 ohms, the Merrill proved to be the perfect amp to mate with speakers that are exceptionally hard to drive. Definitely one of the best amplifiers we’ve heard.
BorderPatrol P20 EXS Monoblock ($36,750/pair)
These are the reference amps at the boss’s house, and he’s not shy about saying how much he loves these gorgeous tube monoblocks. (He’s been quoted as saying “Oh. My. Lawd.”) The extra watts per channel over the P10 and the slightly different architecture “are more than enough to drive all but the most absurdly modern speakers to deafening levels.”
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.