You can absolutely use an old power amp with a new pre-amp. However, the good news is you don't have to look for something "from the '80s". At Audiogon you can find "old" power amps less than five years old at your price point.
Don't get too hung up on watts. There's a lot to amp choice other than published watt specs. There are many excellent amps in the 50 watt range.
There is no reason why an integrated cannot be as good as seaprates. It depends on how it's designed and built. For $500, I think you should be looking at a good integrated rather than try to stretch the dollars out over separates (and an interconnect). I very much doubt that you can find separates totalling $500 that would best a good integrated at that price.
Rotel, NAD, Cambridge Audio are all very good value for the money. I would prefer the Rotel from those three but it's your preference that matters. You could also look at Arcam. However, my personal favourite for small integrated amps is Creek. You can find them at your price point but they sell fast.
thanks for your response and I'll snoop around for an integrated amp aas a good alternative. Here's another quick question then, what about buying a pre digital surround receiver? My Denon right now is an old surround receiver and I found a NAD locally that is very inexpensive. ($75) I'll only ever use it for 2 channel stereo. do they lack sound quality over an integrated amp?
Buy the NAD for $75. No matter what you have there is always something better, or at least different, to pursue. If you can be happy with that receiver, you are dollars ahead. I imagine most of us wish we had quit there.
If once you fall into the trap of dissatisfaction, you are in for a long and expensive journey. Besides, what can you lose on the NAD? You're only in it for small bucks and can probably turn a little profit the next time you make a change.
My best piece of advice is, don't go over the top on cables and accessories. Keep it simple, inexpensive, and thoughtful and you will live longer and be happier. Audio Nervosa can be deadly.
Going from the Denon to the NAD is a sideways step at best. I wouldn't bother. Save your money.
Going from a receiver to a good integrated, or separates, is not a sideways move, at least if you choose a good product. Your own ears told you that when you listened to the Rotel/B&W set up as compared with your current system.
The reason is pretty logical. Mass market receivers are sold to a price point in a very competitive, low-margin market. The manufacturers cut costs by using the cheapest design, parts and build that they can. And they put as much in the box as they can in order to convince consumers that they are getting "more" for the money. However, the "more" is not quality sound. It's lots of flashing lights and buttons and knobs, and "sound enhancing effects". You also get cheaper parts, different components sharing the same power supply jammed together in the same box causing electrical interference with each other.
Now you certainly can do a good job building a receiver or integrated, but it will be way more expensive than the receivers you find at Best Buy or Circuit City. They are sold to a different market segment.
Separates allow the manufacturer to do one thing well. It also makes it easier for audiophiles to upgrade as they can do it one component at a time. The high-end market was always separates.
Now as it turns out, recent years have seen the production of audiophile integrateds and receivers so there are a lot of good products in these categories. But they're going to be more expensive. And you don't find them at the mass market stores.
As Macrojack says in his post, there is always the danger that you can get carried away in the very expensive and never ending search for audio nirvana. However, that's your own decision as to how much you want to spend for what level of improvement you perceive.
You are at the point where a relatively small amount of money will move you from the mass market to at least the lower levels of really good equipment and sound. It's at that point that you have to take a deep breath and decide if the incremental improvements are worth the cost. Diminishing returns will set in but you're not there yet.
Try going back to your dealer and listen to what good integrateds he may have.
If you start out with a huge compromise, you will need to start upgrading right away (or at least feel that way). If the budget is $500, use that as an upper constraint. I'd throw Music Hall into the mix. Even older B&K pre and power combo.
Finally, the 80's had some very low points, be careful! 80's NAD vs new NAD is a huge difference. They have come a long way. Same with Adcom.
thanks for your help and specific responses. I've decided to look at audiogon and other places for a used integrated amp, at least 75 watts per channel and preferably 10 years old or younger. I'm currently pretty sold on the B&W 686 speakers. (which oddly enough, sound much better to my ears than the more expensive 685s.) It seems that B&W likes plenty of power, hence my wattage requirement.
anyway, I appreciate all the guidance and I look forward to building a great system on a budget
I just wanna share my experience with you.
I use a brand new tube pre-amp Ming Da MC 7R (replaced all the stock tubes with old NOS)with my 30 yrs old McIntosh MAC 4100(just the power amp). My speakers are JBL L300.
The system sounds like a million bucks.
I would highly recommend Aragon amps. 2004 or 8002 are within your budget, and they are one notch above NAD / Adcom / Rotel. I own 8002 and I am very impressed with its performance. It's comparable to higher end amps I used to own that cost between $2000 and $3000.
I agree the 686 sounded better to me then the 685's!!!
I thought I'd offer a quick update on my progress. I spent some time locally listening to new and used integrated and separates. In some ways I'm very encouraged and in other ways, I'm more confused.
For used equipment, I liked the Rotel RX-1050 over the NAD 7240PE. I preferred the new Rotel separates and Musical Fidelity integrated over either of the used units.
I listened to the B&W line of speakers again and this time I found the 685s to be superior to the 686s. (I went to the same dealer, but different location from last time.) Then I really got into trouble when I listened to the new CM series of B&Ws. Through the Musical Fidelity, they were really amazing.
CM series: $900
Musical Fidelity amp, power and cd player demo on blowout: $1875
My budget doesn't come close to that, so back to reality. I currently run music through a Sony DVD carousel unit, into a Pro Logic Denon DVR3000 into Boston CR77 bookshelf speakers. I suspect that any of the above is a marked step up.
So I'm going to try to find a used: creek, rotel separates, musical fidelity or arcam.
might go used speakers as well. There are many CDM series B&W on ebay and their prices seem quite nice, as do the 805 matrix line.
anyway, thanks for listening in on my journey. its been fun so far.
P.S. For a reference CD, I can't seem to beat Nickel Creek's self titled album. A great folks sound to test systems with.
I'm way outside my budget now and
I think it would not be a bad idea to go for a older Rotel pre/power. I admit that I am biased since I have Rotel gear. But the RC980/RB980 should maybe be available for your budget and that is a real nice combo.
Or a Rotel RA1062 intergrated would be nice. I once compared it to the Arcam diva 75, Rega something and creek something. All were new then and all were about the some price and I think the Rotel was the clear winner and the Rega amp was bad.
I thought I should offer an update. I bought a dented (but completely functional) Rotel RB 980BX power amp off audiogon and paired it with a Rotel RSP 960ax processor. I also built my own DIY speakers from a GR Research kit. $150 total in the rotel gear and $375 in the GR Kit.
The rotel separates are much better sounding that the denon receiver I had. My wife in the other room immediately noticed with Mark Knopfler sounded like he showed up to do a personal gig!
The rsp960ax has a poor bass response, so I'll likely trade up from it one day.
the GR research speakers haven't broken in yet, but already have creamed my Boston bookshelves (which are actually excellent speakers for the $$$.)
anyway, thanks for everyone's help so far. Its been a fun journey
Grats on a nice buy. I own a rotel pre and power combo. RC980bx and Rb1070, and I agree that the Rotel pre can be a bit bass shy. I had mine modded. Someone added an current amp that adds 0.25A also the opamps and some other minor thing changed, that helpen a lot. But still I think it is the weak link in my system.
I traded the old RSP960ax for an old RSP980 (I can't believe how inexpensive these old pro logic processors are.) The RSP980 offers much better detail, better bass, better dynamics. Clearly a superior unit.
the GR Research kit speakers are really opening up and I'm loving the overall sound I'm getting. The bass is coming in nicely (probably thanks to the 980.)
I can see now that the 980 is very transparent, but a bit too bright. I'll keep it for quite a while, but my next move might possibly be a tube preamp.
I'm researching interconnects and speaker wire and hearing massively different opinion. Currently my speaker wire is home depot and interconnects are one step up from wal mart.
There is nothing wrong with using an older power amp with a new preamp. Take for example the highly acclaimed Hafler D200 & DH220 amps from the eighties. In a second system I'm using a new tube preamp (Audio Experience V2R) with the Hafler DH220. This combination lacks nothing, in fact this older Hafler throws a large soundstage with a warmish but full sounding midrange, extended & detailed highs, & good bass response. I prefer this older amp to some of the newer amps I have tried with the V2R because I don't get listener fatigue and enjoy the sound anyway.