Posted on Fri, 16 Feb, 2024
Posted by Geoffrey Whittaker

Integrated amplifier or separate components, which is preferable? The range of amplifiers and separate audio components available is vast. Each has a confusing array of features and connectivity. The first choice is whether to purchase an integrated all-in-one system or separate units. There is also a finer distinction between all-in-one units and integrated amplifiers. Next, do you go down the separates route? This will provide improved performance but at a greater cost. The main factors are the available budget, convenience, and the size of the room.

All-in-one units

All-in-one units, such as the Audiolab Omnia All-In-One HiFi System have everything you need except speakers. The advantage is convenience and cost. Here you have a whole system in a box for less than £1200. This unit is unusual in that it has a built in CD player. However, nowadays most music is streamed and the Omnia all-in-one HIFI system has a qaulity built in DAC.  Access to streaming services such as Spotify as well as online radio stations and podcasts is easy. There is also a built in 50 Watts per channel amplifier. However, a step up would be to use an integrated amplifier with external audio sources.

Integrated amplifiers

Integrated amplifiers offer more versatility as well as potentially better sound qaulity.  A good choice would be the Denon PMA-600NE Integrated Amplifier. This has a wide range of inputs as well as a MM phono stage. The amplifier is a Class A/B design with a similar power output to the Omnia above. There is also a built in DAC for streaming. However,  the best possible results will come from separate units.

Pre amp and power amp combinations

With amplification, the next choice is whether to upgrade to a pre and power amplifier combination. This offers greater versatility. Pre-amps nowadays usually come with streamers. However top-of-the-line systems can be built with a dedicated pre-amp, such as the
Townshend Audio Enigma Pre Amplifier. This comes as two separte units with a separate power supply. The aim is to make a very quiet unit that optimizes the sound over all other considerations.

Separate power amplifiers

Power amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes and power outputs. The size of the room dictates the power output. There is no point in putting two 400 Watt mono block amplifiers in a small room. Moreover, to avoid confusion a separate power amplifier refers to a unit that does not have a preamp stage, unlike an integrated amplifier.

A good example of one of these units is the Tangent Power Ampster II Power Amplifier This is a qaulity 100 Watt per channel unit that has two balanced inputs and is intended for use with a pre-amp. This unit can also be bridged or paired with other similar units to boost the output power.

Loudspeakers

There are two main choices with loudspeakers. Active or passive? Active speakers have built in amplifiers. Passive speakers need an external amplifier and come in many shapes and sizes.

Active speakers

Active speakers are great space savers and are  just as good as an amplifier/ passive speaker combination. The
Klipsch R-40PM Active Speakers  Look striking and have plenty of power for small rooms.

Integrated amplifier or separate components, which is preferable? 

Separate source components

Separate components  will provide the best results. Each part of the system is designed to perform just one function. Moreover, each unit can be placed apart from the others. The result is less mutual interference and a cleaner sound. Separates can be split into sources, amplification or processing.

Source components

The most common source nowadays is a streamer and DAC combo. These connect to your home network and the internet to play music from online services such as Spotify or TIDAL. They can also access hundreds of online radio stations and podcasts. Various codecs and compression methods are used to encode the music and the streamer will be able to play most of what is available. A DAC is then used to convert the digital stream back into audio. Some units are streamers only while others have the DAC built in as well.

Streamers and DACs

A good example of the separation of functionality is the Musical Fidelity MX-Stream. This unit is just the front end streamer and uses an external DAC. as a result, this is a purist device that costs less than £1000. Notably, the main focus is on sound qaulity.

There are many DACS to choose from. For example an external DAC will improve the sound of a Smartphone. However hi-end DACs will be able to decode hi-res music at higher data rates. They will also have features such as MQA playback. MQA stands for  Master Quality Authenticated.

CD transports

Separate CD transports are available for connecting to high end DACs or streamers. You can use CD transports for playback or ripping CDs. Notably the Musical Fidelity MX-Stream has ripping capability.

The Audiolab 6000CDT CD Transport is a high end device intended for connecting directly to a DAC. CD transports differ from CD players in having no audio stage. they just provide a direct digital feed. The mechanism on CD transports is of a much better quailty. For example the jitter rate is lower and they have a larger buffer. this enables the ripping of damaged or scratched CDs. Legacy components such as turntables and Tape decks are also still in use.

Turntables

Turntables have a wide range of prices and perfomance. They can also have different cartridge types that requite different preamp performance characteristics. Another separation of components occurs with top-of-the-line turntables. For example separte arm assemblies and external power supplies.

A good budget turntable is the Audio Technica AT-LPW30BK Turntable. This comes comes fitted with a AT-VM95C cartridge and has a built in phono preamp, useful if your amplifier does not have a phono stage. This turntable is a two speed unit that is belt driven and offers a good introduction to vinyl. On the other hand for the best perfomance the Technics SL-1000R Turntable takes separating components to the next level.


At  £19,000 the Technics SL-1000R Turntable is a high end device. It has a separte power supply and speed control as well as up to three tonearms. This is another example of how separating the components is used to boost performance.

To sum up, the main factors for whether to use separates are budget, convenience and the size of the room.

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