The Best Amplifiers
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2021! These are the best amplifiers that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
Decware Zen Triode SE84UFO2 ($1,395 USD)
There’s a six-month waiting list for this 2.3wpc power amplifier, but it’s worth the wait if you’re an audiophile who wants to investigate single-ended triode amps at their finest. This is the same $995 amp that put Steve Deckert (and Decware) on the map, but with various upgrades and option such as a wooden base, meters and XLR inputs. “You get some pretty refined, high quality power, and more than you might think when it comes down to actually driving (and enjoying) a pair of quality speakers of reasonable sensitivity.” Who said the best amplifiers had to be expensive? A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
McGary Audio SA-1 ($3,985 USD)
The new McGary Audio SA-1 push-pull vacuum tube amp was the first product offering from 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.
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 the Audio Hungary 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.
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, a category Pass Labs is known for serving well.
Parasound Halo JC 5 ($5,995 USD)
Just one step down from their highly regarded Halo monoblocks, the Parasound JC 5 is a dual mono design “from the transformer windings on.” We found this stereo power amplifier to sound good, first and foremost, with a midrange quality that’s rare among solid state amps at this price point. “Inherently neutral, accurate without being dry, no solid state etching or harshness whatsoever, and imaging and soundstage that could compete with similarly priced tube amps.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Bryston Audio 4B³ ($6,795 USD)
This classic 300 wpc Bryston amplifier is back in its “Cubed” edition–but if you think you already know what a 4B sounds like you need to revisit this beloved Canadian brand. The Cubed line uses the vaunted Salomie circuit in every model, which features “a low-noise input buffer that’s super-linear…this patented circuitry reduces RF and audio interference.” Astonishing build quality. “Yes, the 4B is still a major force in amplification in 2021.”
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 Manley Labs Snappers are also a tube roller’s dream since they can be so revealing.
McIntosh MC1502 ($11,000 USD)
Virtually the same amplifier as the $15K Anniversary Edition MC2152, which we reviewed just a couple of years ago, the MC1502 has entirely different cosmetics but is still a beefy (125 lbs.) KT-88 power amplifier that provides 150 watts per channel. “The McIntosh Labs MC1502 didn’t scream TUBE SOUND,” we surmised, “yet there was something more than an invisible exercise in total linearity.” LOTS of power and some fun features all in a beautiful package built to last a lifetime and beyond, and a Reviewer’s Choice winner.
BorderPatrol P21 EXD (starting at $13,150 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 ($13,995 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 like with all the best amplifiers, Doshi Audio delivers the inner beauty that often 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.”
Audio Research Reference 160M ($30,000 USD per pair)
These monoblock amps from ARC 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 to photograph.
Tidal Audio Impulse ($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 Tidal Audio, and 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 ($38,000 USD per pair)
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 Audio 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.
True Life Audio SSA-300 Monoblock ($75,000 USD per pair)
“All materials are carefully chosen, all transformers and chokes are again in-house wound, all capacitors are selected for their sonic virtues and the whole sits inside a solid, well finished aluminum CNC’ed chassis” is how we described this ultra-high-end product. The price, we observed, “would be a major cause of embarrassment if it wasn’t for the sound.” What a pair of beasts these TLA amps are–and they’ll play louder and go deeper than just about any other high-end audio amplifier.
The Buyers Guides of Summer 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges