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Matrimony of Convenience: Getting Hitched to Integrated Amps

Marriage, or just shacking up, can produce some pretty sweet music when done correctly. The synergy of two complementary minds, two passions and two energies certainly has the potential to create something more powerful than the sum of the parts. And there’s the economic harmony that usually ensues, based at least, in part, on the old adage that two can live as cheaply as one, and oft times much better. We went through a period in the ’80s, for reasons better explained by sociologists, during which the trend was toward separate rather than conjugal living arrangements-independence was deemed more desirable and implied more power. Certainly some still carry those negative feelings regarding cohabitation, while many have come back to discover the typical benefits of joining two households, striving to achieve that sweet musical blending.

And this has what, exactly, to do with audio?

Consider the integrated amplifier, which combines the functions of a preamp and those of a stereo amplifier into one box: For the last 20 or 30 years, and until quite recently, no self-respecting audiophile would have even auditioned one, much less thought of actually purchasing one.

Though a simpler, integrated solution was widely accepted through the ’50s and ’60s, by the ’70s and ’80s, separates-a stand-alone preamplifier and a hulking, independent amplifier-became de rigueur in the audiophile world. There are many reasons for this devotion to separate components: flexibility in mating, more potential power, less interference between partners, more independence and so on-sounds like the me-me-me ’80s for sure. The downside is you have two housings, two consumers of electric power and other factors that contribute to a higher price tag.

But in the last few years, there has been a renewed acceptance of the integrated amp. A number of technical hurdles had to be overcome before the sound quality requisite in a high-end product could be packed into the relatively compact integrated package. “We had to figure out how to put the big power supply required by an amp into the same box as the low-level signals processed by a preamp without interfering with those small signals,” says Jeff Rowland of the Jeff Rowland Design Group, one of the highest of the high-end. “We had to tell transformer companies how to build transformers that wouldn’t radiate energy fields that might add unwanted noise.”

Of course there have always been integrated amps on the market, but recently designers from every point along the budgetary spectrum have returned to the genre, creating something to offer every dream and pocketbook.

Kevin Hayes, president and primary designer of Valve Amplification Company, which is devoted 100 percent to tube equipment, introduced his VAC Avatar integrated in 1998. He says his integrated amps have been very well received in the marketplace, “I do not have the figures in front of me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if our Avatar series of integrated amplifiers were our top sellers in 2003.”

Why the sudden growth?

Some of the advantages are obvious. Putting everything into one unit results in immediate cost savings such as the economy of eliminating a redundant chassis and various electrical parts, even the exclusion of certain unnecessary groups of parts, or stages, which can often result in cleaner sound in addition to the economic benefits.

Hayes says equipment matching in a given system can sometimes be a problem, but that snag is eliminated with an integrated. “As widely [noted], good-sounding components are not sufficient to make a truly musical sound system. It is possible to select stellar components and make a system from hell. The critical requirement is proper synergy among those components. In this regard, the integrated form allows the passionate designer to achieve excellent matching among the various stages to allow them to work together in a very complementary fashion. If done correctly, they can be more musical, detailed, liquid, and dynamic than using the same stages in separate chassis. Done indifferently, of course, they can be hideous.”

Similar comments come from John Stronczer, whose Bel Canto Design now employs cutting-edge digital technology but made its primary splash with modestly powered single-ended tube amps. Bel Canto unveiled its first integrated in 1996. “You can simplify the interface between the preamp and amp section since you don’t have to worry about grounding and long interconnects,” he says. “This can eliminate an entire output section, which is needed between a preamp and amp using separate boxes.”

As to the chilly reception integrated amps formerly received, Stronczer notes, “Many of the inherent drawbacks or limitations are really in the market’s perception. Using modern technologies I could design an integrated amp with pretty much unlimited performance. The cost would not be low, but the performance would be very high.”

Rowland posits another reason for this revival. “The mass market wants simpler, smaller and lighter equipment. They just don’t understand the idea of separate preamps and amps. The integrated is easier to figure out since it is basically a receiver without a tuner, great for people who don’t have time to fight with the minutia of separates.”

The integrated amplifier just makes the lives of aging boomers in audiophilia much less complicated, including my own: I’ve had my integrated for more than two years, a Bel Canto Design eVo 2i. This amp neatly combines Bel Canto’s basic 120-watt eVo 200.2 amp and its eVo PRe1 preamp into one box for only $2,990. It sports a slick cosmetic design that escapes that black-box sameness of so much of today’s equipment. And the unique eVo digital amplifier technology utilized by Bel Canto delivers a much more linear signal. The sonics are exquisite-accurate, precise, easy, with no solid-state hashiness. Bel Canto claims the eVo points the way toward a better audio future and they just may be correct.

Another of the early pioneers in true high-end integrated amps was Hayes’ tube-powered VAC Avatar in 1998, acclaimed by the audio press to be a gloriously musical amplifier. It was replaced last year by the Avatar Super ($6,000), which offers greater power, detail and flexibility. Drawing ideas from several of VAC’s more expensive offerings, the Avatar Super pumps out 80 watts per channel and its retro-styled exterior is quite cool, inspired largely by the great Marantz amps of the 1950s. For those with a raging fire burning in their pocket, VAC’s Phi Beta Beam Power Integrated Amplifier ($19,000) will tickle their ears and help keep that hole from burning any larger really fast. Yes, it’s expensive, but I’ve heard precious few amplifiers that sound this good. I’m a sucker for the manner in which tubes replicate music, and this amp has all those luxuriant qualities, yet it doesn’t really have a discernable sound of its own-it simply churns out, with great prowess, some of the sweetest music imaginable outside a live performance, full of life, nuance and vitality. It’s 110 watts of top-shelf intoxication.

Krell Industries, like Rowland, has made a name for itself producing high-powered, high quality electronics, earning a place in the upper echelon of audio. The new Krell KAV-400xi integrated amplifier ($2,500) now places Krell quality at a price point that most of us can afford. Compared to most other Krell amps, which tend to be monsters, the KAV-400xi comes in a slim, relatively light package-but remember, that’s light by Krell standards. In no way does this baby lack substance-it weighs in at more than 30 pounds, and the case work is extremely thick aluminum on all four sides. Oh, and it generates a generous 200 watts of power per channel and lots and lots of current, enabling it to drive the most difficult speaker loads without breaking a sweat.

And the sound?

Well, to start with, this sucker has plenty of muscle to spare. Even cranking it up to near ear-splitting volumes (professional driver, don’t try this at home), the amp evidenced not even the slightest bit of strain. Turned loose on Larry Goldings’ Big Stuff, there was plenty of tasty bite to Peter Bernstein’s guitar and oodles of well-defined bass from Goldings’ Hammond pedals, laying that distinctive sound perfectly; many amps tend to mush it up into an indistinct blur or rumble. Idris Muhammad drums on a couple of tracks, and it’s easy to ID the characteristic open thwacking of the ultraloose tuning of his bass drum, lots of long decay and plenty of overhang. This amp hits that unique quality spot-on.

On Kermit Ruffins’ “Treme Second Line (Blow Da Whistle)” from his Swing This CD, all those complex intertwined horn arrangements-trumpet, trombone, sax-come through perfectly clear so that you can follow each line as an individual voice, but also the integrated choir of all of them singing in that unmistakable New Orleans instrumental dialect. Throughout this brass-heavy disc, there was never any breakup, tizziness or distortion, even on Ruffins’ sometimes piercing trumpet-a real challenge for many lesser amps. On the other end, the drum intro to “Hide the Reefer” was ballsy, meaty and convincing, allowing each drum its proper place and tone. At $2,500, the Krell is a price/performance ratio steal.

Stretching back more than 50 years in audio, the name McIntosh has long connoted no-holds-barred, heavy-duty construction, state-of-the-art sonics, glowing blue face plates and an equipment investment that will last a lifetime. In 2004, not much has changed, although the crafty engineers at McIntosh Labs have always stayed ahead of the curve, incorporating intelligent innovations to ensure that their products continue to improve rather than simply resting on their much-deserved laurels.

This year has seen the reintroduction of a tube-powered integrated into the McIntosh lineup, the MA2275 ($6,000), and though it superficially harkens back to the days of the company’s classic products of the ’50s, it includes countless improvements in the circuit design calculated to improve the stability, the purity, the potency and the overall quality of the final sound. Rated at 75 watts, it’s powerful enough to drive most speakers and will do so with that indescribable magic that only tubes can supply. As expected, it is highly musical with lots of bloom, lots of acoustic space and lots of ambience, nicely recreating the performance location-which means a fully dimensional portrait side to side and front to back-a depth which can sometimes be astonishing.

On the Japanese version of Holly Cole’s likewise astonishing Tom Waits tribute, Temptation, David Piltch’s bass was silky when it needed to be and taut and punchy when that was called for. Long note values hung in the air like they should so that the vibrations of the string were clean enough to count-if you could count that fast. This helps explain why McIntosh has been revered for more than half a century, a claim no other high-end audio company can make. Cole’s voice was slitheringly seductive-all those microscopic details sent chills up and down my spine and connected me in a scary way with the singer. The resolution was so holographic and real: the way she held or released certain phrases, the way she controlled her breathing-I could almost see her facial expressions-all made obvious by the 2275. She had shape and substance, there was stone-cold silence in the extended rests, and her normally quasi-inaudible under-the-breath whispers came through perfectly.

The recent Randy Newman Songbook, Volume One CD is an intimate reading by Newman and his piano of some of his best material. The producers chose to reinforce the intimacy by adding little, if any, reverb on Newman’s voice or his piano. The McIntosh portrays the music three dimensionally in my living room, especially effective because of this dry nature of the recording. I’ve seen Newman live a few times and the 2275’s presentation is only lacking that often-whimsical Newman visage. This amp transmits all the Steinway’s rich overtones, all of Newman’s vocal mannerisms. The MA2275 is another winner to add to the ever-expanding McIntosh hall of fame.

Jeff Rowland’s company has been acclaimed by many critics to produce some of the finest audio equipment available. Perhaps the Tiffany of audioland, Rowland is also one of the “early adopters” in the now-growing arena of high-end integrated amplifiers, introducing a not-inexpensive product to the marketplace in 1996.

Over the past couple of years, Rowland has been developing some amazing new products that utilize digital switching technology-called ICE Power-developed in Denmark, and on roughly the same evolutionary path as Bel Canto’s digital amps. The results are very powerful, very efficient, very compact and much more affordable than previous Rowland amplifiers. Rowland sampled a number of different digital technologies and determined the ICE Power idea to be the best available. “It is reliable, cool-running, has great sonics and has no problems interfacing with any speaker system,” he says. “It is also 90 percent efficient, compared to about 5 percent on average for most other designs. That means it uses less electricity and doesn’t waste energy as heat. We are now featuring ICE Power in most of our amps.”

He has just begun shipping the Concerto integrated amplifier ($5,900), which offers a savings of $2,500 over the separates from which it was derived and incorporates Rowland’s signature undulating, brilliant alloy fascia. The machined solid-aluminum housing adds to the significant mass of the unit, making it incredibly rigid, and thus not prone to interference due to resonance and vibration.

Rowland’s amps have historically earned accolade after accolade for their clear, accurate reproduction of music and the Concerto is no exception. Case in point: the new Keith Jarrett Standards Trio disc, The Out-of-Towners, on which it works its wizardry by revealing all the excitement and tension extended by the greatest working trio in jazz. On Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” Jarrett’s piano is sculpted and solid, with each tumbling run down the keyboard accurate in timbre and tone, every note precise and rhythmically correct. Drummer Jack DeJohnette takes a solo that is primarily focused on his myriad cymbals, and the tone color of each is portrayed as if the listener were standing at the lip of the stage, the sound of struck, then ringing brass hanging in the air as in real life. Mesmerizing.

Patricia Barber discs are always optimally recorded and mixed, usually involving the participation of the golden ears of engineer Jim Anderson. Her new concert collection, Live: A Fortnight in France, is no exception and features an immediacy rarely encountered on any recording. The Rowland transmits every ounce of sweat, every bit of slam and punch-but does equal justice to the pianissimos too. Her voice comes alive, that deep, chesty quality impressively presented by the amp’s unfailing accuracy in the midrange where most of that vocal information resides. And I’ve never heard such authoritative, deep and pitch-perfect bass from my speakers, thanks to the Rowland’s ability to convey the results of the painstakingly miked and recorded upright bass and dynamic kick drum. The amp opens an ample window onto Barber’s several French concert venues, and it goes way beyond shouting out just the flashy stuff, it gets all the subtle details right too, presenting nothing less and nothing more than truly live Barber in the flesh.

With his Concerto integrated, Rowland has hit a home run right out of the ballpark-with the bases loaded.

These are all excellent amplifiers. Which one is right for you depends on your taste. To widen your flavor options, also check out the viable, quality choices from Marantz, Creek, Unison Research, Sim Audio-Moon, Audio Refinement, Rogue Audio, Rotel, NAD and Arcam, among others.

As always, consult a dealer, or several dealers, with whom you can relate and trust, and listen to a handful of discs you know well through as many amps as you can. The time invested in the quest will be rewarded in countless hours of enjoyment on the home front, just like that marriage made in heaven.

Originally Published