Integrated Amplifiers vs. Separates: Trade-offs and benefits.

I recently watched a thread on an audiophile discussion site decend into silliness when a member dared ask about “why would anyone want an integrated amp?”, and offered some reasons pro and con, all factual. We can always debate assertions, but these represented his opinion of the trade offs. Actually they were not bad.

From what i could see, few people had any idea of the trade-offs, and simply recounted good or bad experiences, as if “my Honda was a great car” justified the superiority of front wheel drive. A more justified conclusion would be that Honda makes a fine product, which happens to be FWD, and that FWD certainly can be good for everyday sedans. Nothing more.

“Why anyone would want separates in the first place?”

There are pluses and minuses.  On the minus side, separates are far less convenient – bigger, more wires, etc. And, as we will get to, they cost more for the same quality. At the same time, separates provide some advantages, as we reach for better and better sound, and provide more modularity, especially if the owner might change other components – such a s speakers; either as part of the hobby, or as finances and space permit. Separates allow one to tailor the amp to the speakers; powerful amps for inefficient speakers for example, solid state for low impedance speakers, or myriad other reasons. Without going down a rat-hole, I’ll note that the amp-speaker interface is a difficult one, and many amps sound good with some speakers but not with others. I’ve worked hard to design products that are relatively speaker-agnostic, but its not totally possible. For example, if i could be absolutely certain you would never need more than 25 watts, i could deliver a sonically wonderful, pure class-A amp with all the other advantages that i believe make Sonogy unique. But that 25 watt limit would rule out many speakers and speaker-room-music combinations.

Separates can be better, and all things equal, often are; but at a much higher price. Some of the clear advantages of separates are:

  • isolation of low level and high level circuitry and power supplies
  • ability to place circuitry and wiring more flexibly to reduce noise
  • space to build multiple, specialized power suppliers
  • room to optimize the location of heat sinks, etc.
  • modularity

Now, all of these can be overcome in a cost-no object, impossible-to lift and live-with, integrated amp. But no one wants that product (do you?). So, compromises will exist.

The two big benefits of an integrated amp are cost and simplicity. For any given level of quality, an integrated amp will be simpler and cost less to make and ship. The high end community likes to sweep this truth under the table, but everything is a compromise of what we want to do, against what we can afford to do – in design, mechanical, parts quality and quantity, etc. Brochures are full of words like “ultimate” and “without compromise” but this is flatly untrue. The very existence of $35,000 mono blocks proves the point – everything (else?) is a trade off and every designer wishes he or she could spend a little more money on componentry and build.

“An integrated amp reduces spend on several very costly parts that don’t contribute directly (although they may indirectly) to sound quality”

The biggest savings and simplification comes from building and wiring one chassis, not two.  The big ticket items in almost anything are the chassis, heat sinks, transformer, and trim. Electronics are sometimes less expensive than one imagines . The cardboard shipping box, in fact, can cost a huge amount.  So these things add up when you need two, not one (or three if you have a separate phono stage too…).  So i can make a $3000 integrated amp that sounds as good as a $4-5-6000 (or more) preamp and amp pair; that’s great value.   However, an integrated amp has one drawback: it must fit your power and speaker load needs.

90% of the time it will. As you can guess, my everyday amp is an old prototype of a commercial Sonogy product. Its not terribly powerful (about 70 wpm/8 ohms), but it is unconditionally stable and can drive difficult loads (each channel has 8 x 15 Amp transistors and can just dump current momentarily). I have never had a pair of speakers that it could not drive loudly in a large room. This says, to me, that a really good 40W amp would do well for the vast majority of audiophiles. It might fail in pro applications or for a college dorm dance night, but that’s not today’s discussion, really. My point is that we over-value huge power, forgetting that doubling perceived volume requires TEN TIMES the power (perceived volume — decibels — are logarithmic) – so unless you plan to jump from 40W to 400W, why bother?  On the other hand a truly well designed amp that is unconditionally stable, and drives high current, can punch well above its weight.

Too often, integrated amps *as a category* are judged by the typical examples produced, most of which are either budget designs, “hgih feature” AV designs, or simply uninspired.   Even the recent crop of popular, integrated units from big names are mostly built around re-badged Asian kit platforms.  Yep, many are.  But if we set out with high ideals, there is no reason we cannot solve some of the problems one by one, make a truly GREAT product, and still have savings in simplicity, packaging and cost. Chief among these opportunities is the power supply compromise. I’ve done a couple of integrated designs, one as a contract, and I simply did not make that compromise – easy as that. Spend the money, build multiple idealized supplies. QED. In fact, i have a project underway that may (or may not) become a future integrated amp product, and it will only be compromised by a modest power rating (and, of course, in the fact that i can’t put that pesky transformer in its own small box…. or can I?).

So the integrated amp recipe is valid – reduce cost, hopefully with a less-than-proportional reduction in sound quality

What will be lost in a truly high end integrated design?:

  1. flexibility to have different power output choices
    –> so it only works for 9 out of 10 people 🙂
  2. chassis isolation of the low level from high level circuitry (a big deal IMNSHO)
    –>This can be solved, but takes lots of effort

At the end of the day most people would be well served by a truly great 30-50W integrated amp. More money could be then spent on DACs/speakers/vinyl reproducers where the differences are larger and the laws of physics sometimes conspire to make bigger, better. And yes, an amp manufacturer just told you to put more money into speakers. I’m an idiot.


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