I just picked up a LFD Mistral, and per the reviews, the new one is just as good...no phono at $2895. How do I like it, well, I'll be selling my Leak Stereo 20 tube amp that's in mint condition for being 50 years old! But there are many good one's out there as well. Good luck...L'wood
While integrateds may always involve a sonic compromise compared to separates, I really feel the gap is diminishing as separates become better and better in quality.
I personally shelled out a little more than 3k for a used Simaudio i7, but have heard other integrateds in your price range that are all but equal to separates. In many cases, it came down almost to personal preference rather than objective superiority/inferiority.
And, as has been noted already, it just makes your entire setup less encumbered with power cords, interconnects, etc.
I think 3K integrated should always be better than 3K separates, and probably are. That is, at the same price points the integrated should have better parts with lower chassis costs, and cabling costs compared with similarly priced separates, especially at the lower end of the price spectrum. If you were considering a low cost passive attenuator for your pre with a more expensive amp to equal the price point, you might be better with the separates.
As with all things, it depends on what you want. The upside of separates, it seems to me, is that you can upgrade one and keep the other, at least for awhile. The upside of integrateds is that you'll get more functionality out of the same budget.
For three-k you can get some pre-owned stuff that would totally kick butt in either camp. One other thing to consider is whether you like your music warm or snappy. In my opinion, the quick-tempo'ed detail freaks out there (like me) are better off with separates, while the lush, rosy sonic palettes have a lot more choices for integrateds. Someone's going to pounce on that, but it is my experience.
>I'm thinking of using this system in a relatively small space with stand or shelf mounted monitors.
Definitely take a peek at the Red Wine Audio Signature 30.2: http://www.redwineaudio.com/Signature_30.2.html
It is definitely one the very best (if not "the" best) sounding in its price range. For a small space, you probably don't want a separate preamp and power amp taking up space, not to mention the extra interconnects and power cords. The RWA is all about simplicity and is only 12" wide x 9" deep. Just add a good source and speakers and you'll be all set!
I can't speak for the sound of the Red Wine as I have not heard it, but at the price point, using a passive attenuator for volume control on their integrated version(I think they use GoldPoint or DacT) seems like the best way to get the most bang for the buck and possibly the very best implementation of a passive pre as it does not require interconnects and should have minimal or no impedance matching issues. If the Red Wine sounds good and works well with your speakers, it should be very fine indeed and a good way to spend 2-3K
It maybe controversial, but I think up to about $10,000, it is better to consider integrated amps. Manufacturers seem to be taking integrated amps seriously now, with new companies such as Pass joining in. Unfortunately, one of the best VAC, have stopped making an integrated for the moment, hopefully not for ever