The Best Integrated 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 integrated amplifiers? No such thing! Separates, man, it’s all about the separates! Let’s clear this up: these are the best integrated amplifiers that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
PS Audio Sprout 100 ($699 USD)
We thoroughly loved and appreciated the original PS Audio Sprout for what it was: a small class-D amplifier with a built-in Bluetooth receiver, DAC, and even a phono stage, and all for less than $500. That Sprout’s successor, the Sprout 100, is even better! It costs a little bit more but delivers a lot more in return–more power, an improved high-resolution DAC circuit and a nice remote control.
Sparkler Audio S502 Ether ($1,100 USD)
From the mind of the former designer for 47 Laboratories, this minimalist amp is borne from the same principles—simplicity, short signal paths and an impressively small list of internal parts. A mere seven watts per channel may limit your choice of loudspeakers, but the Ether provided a “fast, up-front and very clear sound.”
Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 ($1,199 USD)
“True high-end sound does not have to be a luxury,” we deduced after spending time with this “hand-built, point-to-point wired, Single-Ended-Transistor voltage amplifier which offers 60 Watts per channel stereo into 8-Ohm loads.” The lack of active preamplification, the reason why it’s a “control amp” and not a typical integrated, can be argued: does it belong in a list of best integrated amplifiers? But the design makes the SET 120 a natural choice in its price class over “trendy” Class-D integrated amps. An Editors’ Choice Award winner.
Heed Audio Elixir ($1,200 USD)
This small yet sonically exquisite little integrated amplifier features a Heed phono stage that would normally cost you $500 as a standalone, a headphone amplifier that would cost you another $500. That means for a mere $200 more you’re getting a full-function 45wpc integrated that on its own sounds like something much more expensive. We’ve used this little Hungarian amp in many expensive systems and not once did we feel it was the weak link in the chain.
Rotel A14 ($1,500 USD)
Rotel is creating a new presence in the US with a new, energized line, epitomized by this small but feature-packed 80wpc integrated which also has employed a very modern DAC within its diminutive frame. Not the last word in inner detail or midrange purity, but at this price you’re getting a lot for your money. An ideal product for new audiophiles, or for simplifying your existing hi-fi spread.
Parasound Halo Hint6 ($3,000 USD)
You get a lot for your three grand with the Hint6—a DAC, a headphone amp, a phono stage and 160 watts per channel into 8 ohms. Plus you get excellent sound quality, which may not be available with most A/V receivers with comparable features and price. Despite our proclivity for minimalist integrated amps designed for purists, the Parasound makes a compelling argument for having it all.
Naim Uniti Atom ($3,295 USD)
A highly sophisticated and great sounding do-it-all wonder, the Uniti Atom comes to the party dressed to impress. With its jewel-like build quality, cool front-panel visual interface, and that sick big-wheel volume control on top, what’s not to love? OK, so it doesn’t have a phono stage, but it does pretty much everything else. With the Uniti Atom, you get a highly refined class AB integrated amplifier, a great DAC, and an easy-to-use interface that lets the box also serve as a music streamer.
Linear Tube Audio Z10 Integrated ($4,900 USD)
LTA was started just a few years ago with one main purpose—to implement David Berning’s ZOTL topologies into a range of relatively affordable products. The Z10 integrated might be the most intriguing in the line since it offers rare performance at a relatively low price, and in a relatively modest-looking box. You only get 13 watts per channel at 8 ohms, but my what lovely watts they are, with brilliant clarity and realism. An Editor’s Choice winner.
Luxman L550 AX II ($5,495 USD)
This integrated amplifier has a ton of features, and a killer phono stage and a very competent headphone amplifier. The L550 only has 20 watts per channel of solid-state power, but with the right speakers it will provide plenty of scale, even with orchestral recordings. This Luxman also delivered “room-energizing, deep, tuneful bass response.”
Ayon Audio Spirit V ($5,995 USD)
Based on our initial impressions, this pure Class A vacuum tube integrated has it all: “a fully balanced design, vacuum tube KT150 stereo integrated power amplifier, 70+70 Watts RMS, Pentode, Triode operation.” A unique minimalist true balanced circuit topology, combined with superb fit, finish and reliability, result in an amplifier that exudes a high level of panache without those kind of luxury prices. Stay tuned.
Luxman LX-380 ($7,500 USD)
Old-school in appearance, but decidedly modern in performance, this tubed Luxman only offers 14-20 wpc depending on impedance and yet it was a superb all-arounder that was brilliant with many different types of speakers. The sound is easy, laid-back and transparent, and ultimately so addictive that we didn’t want to send it back. We still miss it.
Bakoon Amp-41 ($9,000 USD)
Unassuming to look at, this amp drew us in with its siren song: exceptional clarity coupled with unheard-of speed and pace. These attributes were accompanied by an ever-so-slight sweetness that never left us wanting for more from a tonal perspective. Look past its slightly oddball, pedestrian looks and its cheap-o remote, and you will be rewarded musically many times over. A real swan in an ugly duckling’s exterior.
Pass Labs INT-60 ($9,000 USD)
As you might expect, this beautifully built integrated is rated at 60 wpc, but the fun part is that the first 30 are in pure Class A. This isn’t one of those wimpy little integrated amps from the past—it weighs almost 100 pounds, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to buy separates instead of this. You won’t find compromises here—this is an impressive integrated amplifier in every conceivable way.
PureAudio ONE ($9,500 USD)
Minimalist design (hence pure), short signal paths and the highest part quality make this the perfect choice for the audiophile who prizes sound quality over bells and whistles. Plus, it looks like no other integrated amplifier out there—architecture is the word that comes to mind.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 (starting at $10,499)
Compact, heavy, full of features and offering an astonishing 400 watts per channel, the beautiful Continuum S2 never failed to deliver a sound that balanced a wealth of inner detail with a smoothness that was exhilarating. The Continuum S2 now offers an HP phono card option that is “as close as you can get to the flagship Conductor phono pre without being the Conductor phono pre.” Built-in DAC option adds $500. With the Standard phono the price rises to $10,849 and with the HP phono card the version we had retails for $11,599. An Editor’s Choice winner, and another candidate for one of the best integrated amplifiers on the market.
Pass Labs INT-250 ($12,000 USD)
A “heavy-hitter” when it comes to making the best integrated amplifiers, the beefy INT-250 owes a lot of its 105 lb. weight to a massive transformer and a high-quality chassis. Ideal for big rooms or demanding loudspeakers, the Pass is “powerful, easy to set up and use and overbuilt like the proverbial tank.”
Vinnie Rossi L2i (starts at $12,995 USD)
This isn’t the L2i-SE that’s becoming legendary for its extraordinary sound at hi-fi shows when mated with Qln loudspeakers, but the only real difference in the more affordable L2i is in the line stage–everything else, including the exquisite optional phono and DAC modules ($3450 each) and the use of the amazing Belleson regulators, are the same. Listen to the hype–the entire Vinnie Rossi L2 amplification line is superb at three-dimensionality and imaging, and its shadow looms large in the world of the best integrated amplifiers. An Editors Choice award winner.
Ayon Audio Triton EVO ($12,995)
This powerful tube integrated is a “monumental bump up” over its predecessor, the Ayon Triton III. The EVO produces a fast deep tight bass, wall-to-wall three dimensional performance, superb decay, and transparent and holographic soundstaging–plus it has extraordinary build quality and reliability. Pure Class A Pentode/Triode, with 130wpc? Yes, please.
VAC Sigma 170i ($14,000 USD)
We found this 85wpc tubed integrated amplifier to offer a lot for the money including an MM/MC phono stage, speaker taps for 4, 8 and 16 ohms, and a lovely tube sound that didn’t skimp on detail. “The bass is rich and can be a little loose, but that’s the price you pay for that liquid midrange.” A great integrated amp, fairly priced, that will give tube-lovers everything they desire.
VAC Statement 450i iQ ($150,000 USD)
Should there be such a creature as a six-figure integrated amplifier? Kevin Hayes of VAC makes a compelling argument with this huge, waist-high tube integrated that looks like it’s been tipped on its side. Let’s face it, this is a cost-no-object amp and it looks like it; and while it’s one unit, everything is completely separated. We heard this amp at RMAF 2018 and several other shows since then, and we flipped over its superb performance. Could there be a more compelling piece to demand inclusion in the list of best integrated amplifiers?
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.