Welcome to the Integrated Amplifiers section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2023.
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” — this is it.
Technics SA-C600 ($999.99)
This compact, lightweight “compact CD network receiver,” designed to go with Technics’ SB-C600 monitors, is an amazingly complete all-in-one for its humble price. You get a fully digital integrated, top-loading CD transport, digital streaming, MM phono stage, Space Tune environmental adjustments, radio and unlimited connectivity with TVs and subwoofers. With the SB-C600s, this redefines the level of performance you can get from a $2,000 audio system.
Audio by Van Alstine SET 120 ($1,399 USD)
“True high-end sound does not have to be a luxury,” we deduced after spending time with an Audio by Van Alstine “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 against: does it belong in a list of best integrated amplifiers? The simple design of the SET 120 and it’s operation in Class-A (for the first 10 watts) makes it a natural choice in its price class over the many “trendy” Class-D integrated amps of current day. An Editor’s Choice Award winner and a Best Value winner for 2020.
LSA VT-70 ($1,399 USD)
Once you get past its screaming deal of a price (its “introductory price” is just $1,199), this EL-34 based integrated amplifier proves that you can build a completely satisfying high-end audio system for around $5K. Nicely built, appropriately heavy and yes, it has that beautiful and slightly modern tube amp sound that is quite common these days–for two to three times the cost. The Living Sounds Audio crew are experts at scouring the world for the best audiophile values, and their expansive involvement throughout the supply chain is what keeps the VT-70 so affordable–not cutting corners on the design. A Reviewers Choice winner.
Lab12 Integre4 ($5,290 USD)
Compact, modestly powered and affordable, this Greek-built KT-150 powered integrated has a luxurious, warm and welcoming sound that is as seductive and natural as many five-figure competitors. Lab12 has been relatively unknown in the US, although both Panagiotis Karavitas and Marc Phillips are both huge fans of Stratos Vichos’ designs, but that should change with new representation from the always astute Fidelis Distribution. This is the ultimate amp for asking the very serious and existential question: “Do I really need anything more than this, sound-wise?” A Reviewers Choice winner, and 2022’s Best Value of the Year.
Linear Tube Audio Z10 Integrated ($4,900 USD)
LTA was started just a few years ago with one main purpose—to implement David Berning 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.
Audio Hungary Qualiton A20i ($4,995 USD)
A shiny chrome gem of an integrated amp that uses a quad set of 5881s to achieve 28 watts per channel, the A20i is a no-frills (no built-in phono or DAC and minimal controls on the front panel) basic integrated. Its sound was sweet and engaging, and we concluded that the A20i “looks great, has a wonderful power supply, and is a solid performer sonically.”
Audio Note UK Cobra ($5,458 USD)
If you’ve been raised to think all Audio Note UK integrated amps are as exotic and expensive as the legendary Ongaku, the Cobra will turn your world upside down. This is the most affordable AN integrated, but it offers the most power–28wpc thanks to the EL34s. The sound is exquisite, especially within the context of an all-Audio Note system, with an open, airy and powerful sonic signature. And yes, you even get an inboard DAC! Review forthcoming.
Naim SuperNAIT 3 ($5,699 USD)
Naim takes the classic NAIT design to the nth degree here, with a feature-laden yet compact integrated that sounds far more contemporary than its legendary predecessors thanks to a “redesigning of the voltage gain stage which results in a more straightforward circuitry with less parts.” All that, plus you get an MM phono stage and a great-sounding headphone amp.
Naim Uniti Nova ($5,990 USD)
We were thoroughly impressed with this all-in-one player and were surprised by the number of features that we found useful. “Eschewing the sacred cow standard of separates, it instead aims to do everything: stream, convert, control volume and amplify.” The Nova is a complete and mature Swiss Army knife product, allowing us “to play whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, using whichever method was closest at hand.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Margules I-240 ($6,000 USD)
This 25wpc tubed integrated is a bit old-fashioned in concept–just three RCA inputs are available–but the sound quality is warm and open and natural. Made in Mexico City, the I-240 uses an active servo circuit, and the design and circuitry have been influenced by research into neuro-acoustic alignment. “Keep this little gem as it is and bask in its natural and utterly realistic glow,” we decided, giving it a Reviewer’s Choice.
Enleum AMP-23R (starts at $6,250)
From Soo In, who previously gave us the superb Bakoon amplification, the Enleum can be used as either a headphone amp or a 25wpc integrated. The AMP-23R has a “slightly warm tone, a very lively and dynamic style which means the amp does not come off as overly warm or syrupy.” Despite the modest power rating, the Enleum can drive a wide variety of loudspeakers with ease. “For those who have purchased this for the headphone output, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you haven’t tried it with speakers.” A Reviewers Choice award winner.
Audio Hungary Qualiton X-200 ($6,499 USD)
Powered by KT-120s or KT-150s, this integrated has many interesting features that move beyond the usual minimalist designs from Audio Hungary–a built-in phono stage, tone controls and a nice-sounding headphone amp. “Colossal soundstage, glorious midrange, clean highs, and pounding bass,” we decided before handing the X-200 a Reviewer’s Choice award.
LFD NCSE Mk. III ($7,350 USD)
A classic British integrated in every sense of the word–no remote control or other modern features–the LFD wins you over with its superior sound quality. This is the original and simple amplifier design from Malcolm Omar Hawksford and David Bews, in production for decades but now taken to the nth degree with superior parts selection and improved noise suppression. A Reviewer’s Choice, and a darned good reason for getting off the amplifier merry-go-round.
AVM Ovation A 6.2 Master Edition ($8,295 USD)
The Ovation appears to be yet another powerful, solid and feature-filled integrated for a reasonable amount of money. Spend some time with this German machine and you’ll start to appreciate its beautiful build, intuitive functions and an ability to supply detail that other integrated amps in its class often leave behind. In addition, the AVM includes a dedicated pure Class A headphone amplifier that stands out amongst the competitors. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
ModWright KWH 225i ($8,500 USD)
The KWH 225i was born from years of solid-state and tube component design, and its predecessor the KWI 200 Solid-State Integrated. The 225i takes the high-biased solid-state output stage from the Reference KWA 150 SE power amplifier, combines it with the controls and integration from the KWI 200, adds a tube preamplifier stage and then bumps up the power. Features include a handful of RCA inputs, a balanced set of inputs, HT bypass, preamp outputs, and zero global negative feedback.
Bel Canto Design e1X ($8,500 USD)
More of an all-in-one than an integrated, the e1X includes a superb DAC, network streamer, headphone and a surprisingly adept MM/MC phono stage despite a slim and light chassis. That’s thanks to its 200 watts of class D power, which belongs in the new gerneration of switching amplifiers that offer superb–if a tad smooth–sound quality. Additional EQ controls and settings act a “57-blade Swiss Army knife” to optimize the way your e1X interacts with your listening room.
Circle Labs A-200 ($9,000 USD)
Another powerful and feature-laden hybrid integrated amplifier from Europe, the A-200 excels due to its exquisite tonal balance and its intuitive controls. Most of all, this Polish company has achieved something rare in the world of “black box, two big knobs” integrated amplifiers–the A-200 is simply gorgeous in a brilliant yet understated way.
Ampsandsound Nautilus ($9,200 USD)
This “personal audio tube integrated” is another superb design that can be used either with headphones or with speakers. This Justin Weber design is a “dual-mono affair in a single chassis–totally separate power supplies, hand-wired, point-to-point construction, all in a simple but gorgeous chassis.” It’s a flea-watt output amp (~5 watts per channel), which does not make it ideal for almost any speaker, but if you’re working in the near field … it’s magic. Oh, and the five separate headphone taps are just overkill in the best possible way. “I was greeted with possibly the most enjoyably euphonic sounds I’ve yet to experience,” our reviewer declared, giving it the Reviewers Choice award.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2 (starting at $10,499 USD)
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 JRDG 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 Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Balanced Audio Technology VK-3500 ($12,000 USD)
This remarkable integrated from BAT is unusual because it’s a hybrid, so you won’t be able to warm yourself with all those protruding tube complements this winter. It’s also unusual due to its old-fashioned inboard phono stage, which offers minimal features and yet sounds far better than a card in an integrated should. The VK-3500 does offer a tube sound at its core, “with extraordinary poise and just a shade of velvet.”
Sure, this entry-level Burmester integrated is shiny–that’s the stainless steel that will keep your 101 looking new for years, even decades. But the sound quality here is the real surprise, with a focused warmth that stretches beyond the concept of “German engineering.” An added bonus is a superb headphone amplifier that might be one of the very finest inboard units we’ve heard. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
Allnic Audio T-2000 30th Anniversary ($13,900 USD)
The T-2000 wasn’t just one of the best integrated amplifiers we’ve heard, it made us realize that our ultimate dream systems, the ones we take with us when we ride off into the sunset, no longer require separates. 120 watts in pentode, 60 gorgeous watts in triode, the Allnic is still more linear and neutral than most tube amplifiers. “If some highly fictitious benefactor gave us roughly $14K to spend on high-end audio to continue our pursuit of musical nirvana, this is what we’d do. In a heartbeat.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
AVM Ovation CS 6.3 ($14,000 USD)
This German-made “all-in-one” includes a DAC, an exceptional headphone amp and a built-in CD player that’s so good that we’re reconsidering how we’re going to listen to our CD collections from now on. The Ovation has another trick up its sleeve in the form of 500 watts per channel class D amplification that might change your mind permanently about these circuits. If you want an example of a single-box solution that does everything well, this Reviewers Choice winner will more than suffice.
VAC Sigma 170i ($14,000 USD)
We found this 85 wpc tube 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 serious tube-lovers everything they desire.
Aavik U-280 ($18,000 USD)
The U-280, which combines a DAC with a 300 wpc class D integrated, was reviewed with more than $100k of ancillaries from Audio Group Denmark and it sounded as vibrant and alive as any integrated amplifier on the market, tube or solid-state. On its own (the U-280 is available without the DAC as the $12K I-280), the U-280 is still a powerful performer and possesses a perfect balance between massive amounts of detail and sheer musicality. A Reviewers Choice winner.
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.