Too many variables to give you a definitive answer. Most $3k integrateds will have excellent pre and power sections, how they will synergize with other components is hard to tell.
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For that money you can go straight to separates. A Yaqin MS-12B preamp with NOS RCA blackplates or Telefunkens will set you back around $600. They honestly sound amazing. Then spend $1500-$2000 on a quality used power amp like a First Watt. Later on you can upgrade the preamp if you feel the need.
If you want to get listening asap and your source has a volume control (and you aren't listening on vinyl) just buy the power amp and plug your source straight in. I'm not one of them, but some people actually prefer running their system without a preamp. Just make sure the source volume is off when you turn everything on otherwise you could blow up your speakers and damage your hearing.
I agree with Robr45, too many unknowns regarding your quest. I few that come to mind:
Your budget range for the integrated is quite wide. A 3K integrated would fit nicely into a 10K system.
What other components do you currently own or are considering?
Are you going to build a system to accommodate the future purchase of separates and using the integrated as a short term bridge?
What is the perceived budget for the system with separates installed?
Thanks for the responses guys! I realize I didn't give enough practical details. Ideally I would want to spend a total of ~$2k rather than a full $3k on amplifier/DAC needs. The less I spend here, the more I can spend on speakers.
Source material: almost entirely high-res files (HD Tracks, etc.). Therefore, the idea of buying only a DAC and feeding it straight into a power amplifier has crossed my mind. Not sure if anyone has experience doing this? Good DAC for $500-$1000 with a volume control + Power amp for $1000-$1500.
By some accounts, I should just go with a Peachtree, Wyred4Sound, or Hegel (with built-in DACs) and be done with it
But Rogue Sphinx + Schiit Bifrost or Arcam rDAC has been my plan to beat so far. I figure having at least the DAC separate is the best way to make sure the equipment I purchase now can still be used down the line if/when I decide to upgrade other parts of my system.
I am generally* looking at standmounters by the likes of KEF/ATC/Nola, which is why I have generally omitted most of the tube integrates with less than, say, 70 watts from my search. High efficiency speakers by the likes of Zu/Tekton also seem like a good way to get into HiFi, but I've never had the chance to hear them in person. Dynamics are important to me. Looking for a big soundstage, good imaging, and good (but not perfect) detail (not all my music files are HQ). Not looking for a speaker that anyone would ever call "bright sounding"... overall more about the emotional involvement than chasing absolutely perfect reproduction of my source material.
Rogue Audio's Cronus Magnum has been on my list of integrates to hear for some time now, but I'm not sure how it'll work with the 85-88 dB standmounters.
Only other concern with full tube amps is whether they're the ideal match for my music tastes:
Jazz, 60s/70s Rock, Soul, Funk, Hip Hop, and a bit of House/Techno
In terms of requirements asked for: don't need remote, don't need balance control, definitely don't need a good headphone amp, and don't even really need the phono section. Built-in DAC optional but not required. Seems like you don't find bass/treble controls in integrates, though that does seem like a nice-to-have (but definitely not need-to-have) feature.
and if I am listening almost exclusively to digital music files, does anyone think that a DAC + power amplifier might be a better option than an integrated?
if I'm going to buy a separate DAC anyway, it seems like it might be a logical method... as plenty of DAC's have volume controls...
or is an integrated + DAC still the best option?
Speakers first, amp second, if possible an integrated and DAC in any combination. Then sources which may be the DAC alone or DAC/Pre. If you find an integrated that works magic with your speakers but has no DAC , obviously buy it and then add the DAC .
DACs are no longer a luxury of the technically advanced. I wanted to buy a demonstration "disc" today, only to learn that it was only available as a HD tracks album.
The reason I ask about the DAC+Power Combo Option rather than integrated+DAC (Rogue Sphinx + Schiit Bifrost) is also because I see things like this on Music Direct:
MUSICAL FIDELITY M1PWR PAIR MONOBLOCKS + MUSICAL FIDELITY M1 S DAC for $1200 down from $4100.
The other variable here is how loud you typically listen to music and the size of your room.
I also agree, pick the speakers that you like best and build around them because there are so many variables in speakers that picking the amp first leaves too many choices.
You also mentioned the possibility of high efficiency speakers. They go best with very low powered tube amps, IMHO, mostly SETs. Personally, I think that is the best sounding combination of all, and will completely blow you away (hence my username). You would be extremely surprised at how loud 2-3 wpc can be with the right speakers. If it were me, I'd go for a 45 or 2A3 amp, some high efficiency speakers and separate DAC.
Given that you are developing your 1st system, have a budget of ~$2000 for an integrated amp and DAC, may move into separates in the future, it my opinion (what I would do, have done) would be to:
1st identify the speakers that meet your priorities regarding sonic characteristic preferences and will attain the loudness levels you require in the room within to be used. This requires listening to many which will help you know (learn ) what sonic characteristics you most desire.. I would think that given your budget for amp/DAC you should listen to those that fall into the $1500-$2500 range. You need not buy them prior to purchasing the amp but knowing what speakers you will be driving helps greatly in selection of the best amplifier. A speaker with 87-90 dB sensitivity, 4ohm+ across the frequency range, with a benign phase angle character would work well with most integrateds having 50wpc into 8 and 100wpc into 4 ohm loads.
Look for a used integrated amplifier (~ 5 years old or so) that mates well with your speaker selection. Help could be sought here. Budget ~$1000-$1500.
Buy a DAC that meets your need for source files. The Bitfrost with Uber upgrade and Gen2 USB comes highly recommended by many AudioGoners. There are many others in the ~$500 range. Differences between DAC will have less impact on the sonic signature of a system than that of speakers or amp.
Buy all cables used.
Again, good luck in your quest.