Welcome to the Best Amplifiers section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2022.
The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank].” This collection represents our enthusiasm. Every product listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — the best loudspeakers, CD players, amplifiers, turntables, cartridges, preamplifiers, DACs and more — this is it.
The Best Amplifiers
These entries represent the best amplifiers we’ve heard. They are organized by price in ascending order. Enjoy!
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.
LSA Discovery Warp One ($1,499 USD)
Another class-D amplifier that made us reconsider how we felt about Class D amplifiers, the Warp One delivers 150 wpc into 8 ohms and 250 into 4 ohms, sounds like a “compact powerhouse” and still weighs next to nothing. The LSA’s deepest bass performance was impressive and unique–it sounded tight and controlled and always honest. A Reviewers Choice Award winner.
Audio by Van Alstine DVA M225 Monoblocks ($1,699 ea USD)
We’ve had many spirited discussions in the PTA War Room about these small, unassuming monoblock power amplifiers from the mind of Frank Van Alstine. Some believe the DVA M225 are the ultimate giant killers while others sound skeptical–the former group, however, has actually spent time listening to these little masterpieces. “Hook a pair up to your system, and soon you’ll stop laughing,” we declared, giving the DVA M225 a Reviewer’s Choice Award and the Best Value Award for 2021.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Model 125 ($3,300 USD)
A 125wpc power amplifier that weighs less than ten pounds and can easily picked up with one hand–must be Class D, right? But Jeff Rowland has always done more with these circuits than just dropping a module into a chassis. “Clever power supply and input transformers, to further isolate line noise, and combined with a RF defeating chassis, combine to make an exemplary presentation.” Endlessly bridgeable–many use a small army of Model 125s in larger systems–this amp offers a smooth yet detailed sound that’s surprisingly rich. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
First Watt F8 ($4,000 USD)
The latest amplifier straight from Nelson Pass’s kitchen table is far more friendly to a wider range of speakers than past models–its 25wpc were a superb match with ATC SCM 100 passive speakers as well as high-efficiency single drivers models from Charney. “To this end, the First Watt F8 squarely carves out a niche for itself in the pantheon of First Watt goodness.” A Reviewers Choice winner.
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.
ToolShed Amps Transcendence 300B (starting at $5,500 USD)
These unusual DHT amps come from the mind and hands of Matt Formanek, a designer who counts Gordon Rankin among his admirers. “From the hand-mitered finger-joined wooden bases to the intricately etched aluminum metalwork,” we were smitten with the craftsmanship and artistry of this power amplifier. Plenty of options are available, from Hitachi FineMet amorphous core output transformers to Gold Point stepped attenuators and much more–our review sample topped out at $8,250. “Good sound, superb build quality, attention to detail, out-of-this-world appearance, and great value for the dollar, it’s a no-brainer.” A Reviewers Choice winner.
Parasound Halo JC 5 ($5,995 USD)
Just one step down from the 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.
McGary Audio SA-1E ($6,600 USD)
Mike McGary’s latest tube power amplifier runs in Ultralinear class A/B mode and “uses a capacitor multiplier circuit for input and driver stages to minimize noise and hum. It also runs differentially once the signal passes the input tubes.” But what makes this 30wpc amplifier sing is the “secret sauce” that launches this design into the pantheon of the greats. “A massively vivid portrayal of anything you feel like playing,” we concluded. A Reviewer’s Choice award 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.
Rotel Michi S5 ($6,999.99 USD)
The numbers are daunting–this amplifier from the luxury division of Rotel offers 400 wpc with 8 ohms, and 800wpc in 4 ohms, and it weighs 134 pounds. It was easy to live with however, operating perfectly during its stay and providing us with some of the deepest bass we’ve experienced. “A vibrant and enjoyable experience that bass heads will love,” we decided.
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 80 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 pr USD)
The ability to switch between triode and ultra-linear 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.
Allnic Audio A-2000 25th Anniversary ($9,900 USD)
The 25th Anniversary version of this Korean-made tube power amplifier features KT-150s instead of the usual KT-88s, and delivers 100 wpc in pentode and 50 wpc in triode. Fit and finish are impeccable, but the A-2000 impressed us with its “invisible tonality” and its ability to sound both incredibly linear and still deeply textured. “It’s quick, linear and punchy while gripping the speakers in a way that makes the official spec sheet look criminally modest,” we declared, bestowing a Reviewer’s Choice award.
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.
BorderPatrol SE300B EXD (starting at $13,500 USD)
A variation of Gary Dews’ original 300B power amplifier design, the EXD puts out eight beautiful watts per channel and goes to considerable length to show how modern single-ended designs can drive a greater variety of loudspeakers than before. “You get a copper and wood clad amplifier, overbuilt power supply, artisanal build quality, and great application of modern technology,” we summarized, and we gave it our Reviewer’s Choice Award.
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.
Ampsandsound Zion Monoblocks ($16,000 pr USD)
Fit and finish is extraordinary (and decidedly old-school) on these hand-built monoblock power amps, and they wowed us with an “unbelievably tactile and palpable sense of the auditory image.” Not for tube newbies–the Zions are short of features and conveniences and require length start-up and cool-down procedures–but the sound is worth it. “The densest, most pristine and most elaborately textured auditory image I’ve heard in my setup,” our reviewer proclaimed them the best amplifiers he’s heard this year, pulling out the Reviewer’s Choice award.
Parasound JC 1+ Monoblocks ($17,000 pr USD)
The first update from Parasound on the 20-year-old JC 1s, the Plus is Richard Schram and John Curl’s effort to make a worthy successor that will stand the test of time. Powerful, clear and quite a lot of value when you compare it to more esoteric monsters, the JC 1+ is very neutral. “There was no major sense of lack of color or excitement, they simply tell a speaker to move like the music moves,” we observed.
TIDAL Audio Intra ($28,000 USD)
The TIDAL Audio Intra is a four-channel amplifier that results from an uncompromising implementation of their most basic requirement: pure amplification of the musical signal, without adding sonic color or concealing even the smallest of details. Big sound in a relatively small package. Dave’s review of the TIDAL Audio Intra tells the whole story in more detail, but know this–the TIDAL Audio Intra is good enough for a Grammy winning studio to deem it one of the best amplifiers ever to grace its doors. A Reviewers Choice winner.
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 ask our staffers to list “the best amplifiers,” the D’Agostinos always make the list.
Merrill Audio Element 118 Monoblocks ($38,000 pr USD)
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 that employ this design.
Pass Labs XA-200.8 Monoblocks ($42,000 pr USD)
One of Dave McNair’s reference amplifiers for his mastering work, the XA-200.8s are massive beasts that offer and incredible 200 wpc in Class A, and they don’t even run that hot! Clear, clean neutrality, the power to drive almost any speaker, these monoblocks also have “subterranean low-frequency extension and detail, and a holistic flow and silkiness with lots of dynamic subtlety.” A Reviewers Choice Winner.
True Life Audio SSA-300 Monoblocks ($75,000 pr USD)
“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.