With so many good integrated amps out there (Cary, Conrad Johnson, Musical Fidelity, etc.), what are the real advantages of going to separates? It seems to me that there many folks who simply assume a first-rate system includes a separate preamp/amp set up. MY ACTUAL QUESTION: What has been the experience of those who switched from an integrated amp to a separate preamp/power amp set up? Assuming that the extra money was spent, was it worth it? Thanks!
This is one post that I'm just going to watch explode with threads galore. All I can say is that for me to move from my YBA Passion integrated to separates, (sound wise) would take some very serious money. I probably would go with the Tenor, rather than go with separates. Still, we're talking serious money, new or used.
In the past, integrated amps were always “entry level” into audio, in the last few years integrated amps have been taken to higher levels of performance. In some countries, an integrated is more desirable due to the lack of living space.
One of the biggest advantages to separates is the “upgrade path”; with separates, when wanting to upgrade, you can simply upgrade the preamp or amp, with an integrated, it’s both.
Up to a certain price point, integrated amps may hold their own with separates, but the higher up the chain you go, the focus is on separates. Also, with the separate “boxes”, manufacturers are not limited by space in development.
One reason to go with separates is to be able to use a tube pre amp with a solid state power amp which is popular with some people. I think BAT has a new integrated that has a tube pre with solid state power amp sections but otherwise you need the separates if you want to do this.
This is a good raised question since I was also analyzing +s and -s for separates v.s. integrated. Designing an integrated amp there is only a minimalistic need for the preamp section that must not even have a positive gain or even have it passive. No need for extra- pair of interconnects. Tube pre- and solid state amp integrated designes are plenty as well so I don't think that the statement of Philjolet is the reason. Just by banal view have anyone of you seen a high quality integrated 300W/ch/8Ohms? I didn't... In case with SS design for both parts there will be a huge deal of space needed for heat dissipation along with heat influence on elements of both amp and preamp section. Power supply issues are also bring a conflict between two parts in one amplifier. In case with tube-pre and SS amp in one integrated there will be no heat influence on tubes since tubes are not affected by the temperature changes but they're even more affected by the power supply conflicts. Nowdays, there are quite a-bit integrated amps that realy do make sence but if you have sufficient enough power for your speakers.
BTW, here are some positives FOR the integrated, taken from stereophile:
Why is the integrated more economical? It's less expensive to build, having just one chassis and shipping carton compared with (multiple). Each chassis and its carton add greatly to the cost. Current integrated designs get rid of internal phono stages and achieve further savings with a closed design that doesn't interface with other amplifiers or preamplifiers. This eliminates the circuits for a preamplifier output buffer and power-amp input buffer.
There are other savings. Packing a stereo preamplifier and two amplifier channels into one chassis saves space. Hum is reduced because amplifier and preamplifier now share exactly the same ground voltage, so less shielding is required. And an integrated weighs less—when did you last own a basic amplifier that fit on a shelf, or, for that matter, could even be lifted by one person? No more tripping over massive, sharp-finned amplifiers in the dark. Equipment clutter goes down, and the spouse acceptance factor goes up. This "sweet spot" of compact size and affordability keeps the integrated alive.
It's the power handling stupid (in my best Bill Clinton voice!). I agree with Marakanetz above, I've never seen a 300W/ch integrated amp. Most integrated don't seems to be aimed at those who need lotsa power.
For me, I initially switched from a receiver (aka intergrated with tuner) to separates just so I could get more power (150w into 8, 250 into 4), which my speakers sorely needed.
Nowadays I like having my tube monoblocks, which let me run short speaker wires, and long interconnects. I can now place my audio rack in a bass minima - away from my speakers. Sort of nice.
Maybe both Clueless. Again, in the past, integrated amps were "entry level", the targeted market not needing that much power. From engineering, the integrated being one box, I would think it to be harder to engineer the big power in a small space.
As the integrated is growing more popular, higher output integrateds are being made, such as the Mac 6900 (200w).
There may be exeptions, but I would suspect if a manufacturer produces an integrated, it will not be sonically supior to their best separates.
I think 300W integrateds are not made simply due to the fact they are tailored for smaller spaces where 300W is overkill. I read once that it is a thermal issue too but I don't really think so.
I personally auditioned a McIntosh MA6450 integrated and was able to compare it to my McIntosh MC712/7100 from which the circuits came and feel that they were too close to tell apart in a blindfold test. There were several of us there and we all agreed that the differences were not audible by human ears - only noticible with test equipment (the noise specs are better in the separates).
Therefore the main advantage of separates IMO is that they are more flexible to upgrading. However, you can run into impedance mismatches if you mix brands up so you are limited there. I love my ss system and will keep it but I would like a tube integrated so there are no mismatch problems and still have tube sound - the best solution for this case. A nice thing too is if the integrated has a preout, then you get the added benefit of flexible upgrades in the future. Arthur
Separate components will always offer the potential of superior sound, but as a practical matter the better integrated amps give up little if any to comparably priced separates.
The main disadvantage of separates is the interconnects required to link them up. Interconnects can only degrade the music signal and even the most expensive and presumably best performaning interconnects can only corrupt the signal least. The elimination of these signal degraders is a big advantage for integrated components. Their elimination also represents a large financial savings too.
Another advantage of integrated is that they cut down on the number of variables in a system. The importance of system synergy is well known and integrated components have a high degree of synergy built in.
In the past few years Audio Research, YBA, JRDG, Conrad-Johnson, BAT, EAR, Pathos, Mark Levinson, Red Rose, Musical Fidelity, Krell, Manley, VAC, Cary, Mesa-Boogie, Chord, McIntosh, Accuphase, Ayre and Tenor have all released integrated amplifiers. While they may not be appropriate for everybody, they certainly are having an positive impact on high end audio.
Except for the cost, I don't understand the 'no interconnect' as a plus for integrated amps. Is there nothing connecting the sections within a one-chassis? And there are those who rewire the inside of thier components with wire from ICs. Its an inconsequential debate, but I think the no-ic-plus is a farce.
I think that the power amp with integrated passive volume controls, ala Berning and Tenor, is starting to take hold. For those who don't need input switching, this is a real money saver. However, personally I would rather go the other way than this thread suggests, and go with monoblock amps and monoblock preamps, all with separate individual power supplies for total segregation of the signal and power supplies. In the phono, I'l like to keep that format, with 2 mono phono sections with individual power supplies like the Aesthetix IO. I feel that 2 completely separate mono systems, that join only at the cartridge, or the CD player is the ideal way to go, given good design criteria and execution of the products. With integrateds, there is the inevitable sharing of circuitry that will degrade the potential maximum sound quality produced.
"Separate components will always offer the potential of superior sound". Why ? Give me an engineering principle why this is so. The marketers may decide that the integrated will not be their top-of-the-line, but I see no reason why it can't be. Power supplies can be separated for pre and power stages, and dual-mono construction can be used. To me there is no reason that separates should be better than an integrated or vice-versa ... you should choose the amp appropriately for your system.
My 2 cents. I would recommed you get a very nice power amp, and a passive pre. Money spent -> 80% for power amp, and 20% for passive.
Unless you have more than a few components to play and you value the convenience of not pulling cables whenever you switch the input sources, power amp + passive pre (such as FT Audio which I still own) or power amp which has volume control (such as Berning which I own and love) is the way to go, IMO. If you have only CDP which has relaiable enough volume control, then you don't even need a passive pre amp. Just feed directly to the power amp like I do. I still don't understand why people expect a pre-amp to do what power amp is supposed to do other than volume control and input selection (and maybe phono section).
Of course, your taste may vary. You have to decide yourself. Listen for yourself. But if you like the sound with pre amp, you should wonder why that power amp cannot sound like this without pre amp. Something must be missing (synergy? chemical reaction? or inherent lack of xxx?) there. There may be some power amps which are designed to be purchased together with the same mfg's pre amp (meaning that power amp is not manufactured to sound great without the better half). That may be a marketing strategy or customer service. Some people may prefer complex "machine" sitting in the living room. There also may be many manufacturers like that, and some people may choose to combine one power amp with another mfg's pre amp. Like I said, some people may prefer different brands sitting on the same rack. Again, it's the question of your taste. There is no good or bad. Whatever sounds best is what you have been looking for.
I am a minimalist and a simple-mind guy, and I may be wrong as usual.
SDT99, it's more of a practical issue than anything else. There's no physical or engineering reason why someone couldn't build a 500 watt per channel tube integrated amp with phono preamps and enough power supplies to put a smile on Twl's face, but it would end up being the size of a Sub Zero. Is it marketing or is it common sense?
My past experience includes mono amps from Ralph Karsten, Nelson Pass, Jeff Rowland, BEL, and stereo amps from those above plus Goldmund, Audio Research, Levinson, Ayre, Boulder,Spectral and others. Preamps have included Encore, CAT,Reference Line, Krell, Threshold and some of the makers mentioned above. Eventually I downscaled to a Classe Six and a Seventy amp. So I've had a good taste of separates over the past 20 years but I have never owned anything superior to the JRDG Concentra 1 I now use. Jeff's web site offers some of the innovations and design decisions that make him so proud of this piece. I agree that most of the integrateds available in this country in the past were basically just a receiver without a tuner but I think a lot of the reason for that was the perception that (still prevalent) only separate components can deliver true high end sound. Jeff, among others, has most certainly put the lie to that belief. Now that you can buy a Concentra used for $3K or less, there are strong arguments against the need for separates. That really isn't much to lay out for a preamp and amplifier of such high performance and pedigree. And considering that there is almost no wire inside my amp, I think there is a definite advantage in eliminating an interconnect.
SDT99, in separates there is less noise interference from neighboring circuits but it does not mean a human can hear it (as I stated in my response above). Just check out noise specs for the separates and integrateds that share the same circuits and you will find objective proof. So yes, separates are quieter and thus (for some) better.
Didn't Nudell and McGowan once make a monster integrated? There are good arguments for both approaches. Keeping amps away from low level signals is always a good idea, especially with tubes and phono stages. What better way to reduce the chance of microphonics and cross-talk. I like the post above that suggests separating all channels all the way. IMHO using cross-overs before the amp stage makes the most sense. I suppose that could be "integrated " as well. Some big amps really need space to disipate heat and as they require little in the way of hands on control, why not separate them?
I agree with Khokugo. Having said that most newer integrated amps are just a power amp with a passive pre.
I think the decision as to whether to get separates or an integrated largely comes down to power requirements. If it's 60w per channel or less then an integrated is probably OK, if 100s of watts then separates are probably required.
Interesting that noone mentioned the relative importance of long interconnects versus long speaker cables. One of the advantages touted for monoblocks is that the monoblocks can be placed by the speakers, with the preamp driving a long interconnect. This is apparently better than having long speaker cables, because the long cable is carrying very little current, almost just a pure voltage signal.
I'd definetely would rather have long interconnects and short speaker cables, preferably speaker cables hardwired to the speakers for best sound.
Regarding the initial question asking what are the possible reasons against monster integrateds. There are some engineering problems as others have mentioned (e.g., heat). But I think it's largely a marketing problem. If you could address the engineering issues, heat, channel spearation, isloation, power supplies, etc. How big would it be and how much would it cost, especially if done right? Who would buy it?
Another thing worth mentioning, as noted above is, how do you as a marketer deal with the stigma against integrateds and intergrateds with tuners (receivers). Some (most?) seems to perceive integrateds as being "compromised" and not truly "balls to the walls high end." outside of some engineering limitation previously noted, it *is* possible for a company's _flagship_ model to be an integrated or even a receiver (every audiophile should own a tuner, right?).
I like to draw a parallel with digital sources. There are still stigmas in some circles that separates (transport, D/D processor, DAC) are the "best." And for a while in digital-land (late 1990s, especially) this was true for the most part. Now we are seeing a resurgance (sp?) of one-box digital players being the best-of-the-best. I see posts all the time where some audiophile asks for advise on a DAC, and someone suggests that he instead look at one box players. Maybe it's not an exact parallel, but I find that reversal from separates in the digital realm interesting.
That stigma has been hard for me to shake, since 1996 I've always looked to digital separates. But it's taken some great one-box units to shake that long held belief of mine. I suppose the same could happen for integrateds, but perhaps the chicken-and-the-egg syndrone is too great. you have to build some great integrateds to change the perception, but who's willing to do that in a marketing climate perhaps hostile to top end integrateds? If you build it, will they come? I don't know.
I was about to "upgrade" from SFC-1(the first integrated that SF made, what is in fact amp with volume control) to SFL-1 and SFP-1, but after two weeks of home audition i realized, while it was somewhat different (despite claim that it would be " totaly different beast" than my SFC-1) it wasn't any better. Also, it is outrages to claim that one is better than another. Different yes, but closer to the "real thing"? Not! Neither do i believe that any price tag will convice me in believing that the sound delivered will be "inches" closer to live performance. On the another hand we can discuss abstract issues of "good or better", "life-like sounds", "cables, conditioners", "dedicated lines" (oh my...!) "digital vs. analog" etc...! Well, just like with any hobby that sometimes falls short from obsession, and sometimes not, we are alowed to fool ourselves and deprive ourselves of extra ca$h that we might have to pursue un-pursuable. Whatta hey...that's why we have Audiogon! Btw, Twl i like your approach! Cheers!