Upgrade Path - Integrated or Power Amp????

I have a dilemma I have been struggling with for a while. Hope to get some clues here - any suggestions welcome and thank you for sharing your know-how.

I have had a home theatre system for some time, which I also use for 2 channel music, altho I don't like it's performance. Main complaints are:

- when music gets complicated, it sounds confused, as if everything is collapsed in, cannot identify each instrument clearly as being distinct
- does not place instruments very well
- narrow sonic image

I've saved up some money and want to get a 2 channel audio system. This needs to mesh with my HT system i.e. same speakers, due to lack of space. I am not one for upgrades every year or two, want to build a system I will keep for years to come.

My problem is I am not an audiophile, I just like music and willing to pay for it, and I don't understand where the problem lies.

Which part of the AV receiver is causing the problems? Pre part? Power part? Both?

I only want to buy one component (budget around $5k) - do I get a power amp and connect to AV receiver, or do I get an integrated?

My system:

Marantz 9200 av receiver
JMLab Mini Utopia fronts
NHTs center sub
Mirage backs
Musical Fidelity A3 CD
If you only want to buy one component, your best off getting a power amp. An integrated would be better, but then what do you do about your surround processor, and the three channels of amplification needed to run center and surrounds? It's possible to use both, but then you'll have to mess with two volume controls whenever you use multi-channel playback. This is what sucks about wanting to eliminate the number of parts to do 2 and multi-channel. With your budget you could easily get, a really good 5 channel amp,a really good pre/pro, and sell your receiver. That would take care of everything, and make the whole system sing.
Many very good integrated amps today provide a pass-through feature (or throughput) which allows the integrated to act as a simple slave to the home theater receiver when watching movies (thus one remote). Then when listening to two channel it would provide a significant upgrade to your receiver and get the most out of your Utopias - IMHO.
I think a general rule of thumb is that preamps are more critical to the things you mentioned than amps. For $5,000 you could do VERY well in the integrated amp scene. I would actually spend under that amount and perhaps upgrade your interconnects, power cords, and speaker wire (this may be some of your problem). The best way to be sure is to experiment.
Thanks guys for the advice.

I am totaly happy with home theatre at the moment so getting 5 channels of amplification might be overkill. i am very interested in this pass-through feature, so had a look for myself, seems the more expensive integrateds all have this feature.

however, so do lots of high end 2 channel pre-amps it seems.

so now the new question is, do i get a pre amp now and then power amps later, or just an integrated and be done with it?

i'm going to go to the shops to audition this weekend, but i don't get the chance very often due to work so want to be able to test as much as i can when i am there and don't want to waste time. your advice would help alot in that respect.

715018, I had the same dilema as you are having now about a year ago. I ended up getting an inegrated amp to use with the ht system.

If you do decide to get an integrated amp, just make sure it has a pre-out on it, cause you will need it interconnect to your receiver cd input for your sub. The above message to mess around with two volume controls is really not that bad, once you know what to put them at. You will have to get some extra interconnects to do this.

Good luck with your search, if you have any questions, post or e-mail me.
If you decide to get seperates, I would avise getting a power amp first. The speakers you have can handle a big amp no problem. It will also upgrade both 2 channel and HT because you will always use it. Im not sure how much of a benefit a pre-amp will have on your HT. It sounds like you want to go with an integrated. That's a good choice to.
Just went through the exact decision making process in the last few months.
I really wanted to improve my 2 channel sound and was quite satisfied with my HT performance of my Denon 5.1 receiver.
I did add a better power amp for the fronts only (Parasound 125 x2) and the overall sound was very good for two channel.
I was using the Denon receiver analog bypass setting for two channel to take the processing of the signal out.

I finally decided to get an integrated (Musical Fidelity A300) and the improvement in the sound has been enormous.
Clearly the preamp section on my Denon receiver was a limiting factor in many of the ways you described (congestion at high volumes, soundstage, etc).

If you have 5K$ to spend your choices are almost unlimited.
I don't think you need to spend that much on an integrated or a pre/power setup unless you really want to.

I went with an integrated as it seems like finding a preamp and them matching with a power amp is some kind of black art or like finding a religion.
With an integrated you know the pre and power sections are well matched.
With your budget I would look at Plinius on the low end or you can go higher to a Levinson if you want. Not sure when the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

In short, Bwyoung is right- the preamp section is very important. My uneducated guess is that the Marantz reciever two channel analog section is only just pretty good. A dedicated preamp and power setup, or a nice integrated would be a big step up.

Oh, and definitely get an integrated with preouts if you go that route. My MF A300 has them and it makes setting up the sub easy.

Have fun!
Thank you for all your help guys. Looks like this problem is not unique to me!

Decided to borrow a pre-amp from friend to test out, see how much of an improvement that brings. If it gives me what I want then may go pre-pow combo and buy the pre first.

Lkdog - re budget, I guess I don't need to spend it all and in fact would be a bonus not to. You are right re diminishing returns. I'm not ruling out cheaper products but I just don't want to get into a regular upgrade every few years etc cos that would cost even more. Hopefully I will get something I am satisfied with and that will be my "audiophile" life over.
This is an incredibly interesting and strange hobby.
I guess each person needs to make a decison about what level of craziness they are happy with. I am very happy right now and really could only see a source upgrade at sometime in the future.
I think for me the key has been gradually getting components that are at a similar level of quality (entry level audiophile). It seems like if you get speakers that are much better than the rest of the system, then you will not know or hear their true potential and be left wondering. If you get a great pre/power setup or a great integrated, but you have average speakers...well you get the idea.
You have nice components. For two channel my guess is an upgrade in pre or power or both will make a big difference and get your system matched better across the board. It took me awhile to be convinced, but receivers generally are not designed for two channel listening.
Have fun!
Lkdog - you are absolutely right re product upgrade and imbalances in quality. I fully expected it when i bought my Mini Utopias (they don't sound as amazing as they did in the shop by a long way). hopefully i will realise some of that quality when i get the integrated or pre/pow!
71508 -

I actually think that you will not recognize the JM Labs after you upgrade the preamp/power.
My speakers and overall sound went from very good, to great with the change.
Have fun!