Using a receiver as a pre-amp...many questions


I have totem sttaf (8ohm, 88db sensitivity) l+r, a totem tribe II (6ohm,88db sensitivity) as center, and the totem storm sub. I use the system for both movies/tv and l+r and sub for music...music being the most important to me soundwise. My receiver is an integra 40.3. Ok so here come the questions...

In order to have the system sound good for anything (movies/tv or music) I feel like I have to turn the receiver up too high (around 68-75 out of 100)...otherwise the sound is flat/boring. Do people agree that this is a problem, or I should just turn it up and be happy? Keep in mind that once I do turn it up I am very happy with the sound it produces...overall I like what I have.

What I am thinking about doing is buying three red dragon audio m500 monoblock amps and connecting from the receiver to the amps. Should I expect this to improve the sound at lower levels, or the high volume need is just a function of the way my speakers work and nothing different will happen?

Another option I am thinking about is buying a two channel amp (I am thinking of tube hybrid) to connect to receiver, and using it to power just the l+r speakers to get possible improvement there.

Ultimately I would like to get away from the receiver altogether as everything I read says that a real pre-amp and amp improves sound dramatically...however all of my connections are HDMI (computer music, movies, and cable) and until someone starts making an HDMI dac then I think I am stuck with the receiver.

Sorry for so many questions but as you can likely tell I am a rather new audio person and need advise. Any comments on the questions above would be great...also setup suggestions that I may not have thought of would also help.
jpg1975
for a variety of reasons--shared power supplies, space and cost limitations, etc.--most avrs have seriously compromised amp sections and would benefit from adding an external power amp. also consider that many mfrs. claimed power ratings for avrs are notoriously overstated, altho some like hk or pioneer elite are better than others. if you give a budget for a power amp, you'll get a lot of good recs here
It would be helpful to list the rest of your system,(source equip , cables ,etc).
@Loomisjohnson, my budget would be around $2K for the amp

@Tsugury, I play most music from my computer (home built htpc) using MOG connected via HDMI to the receiver) I also have an apple TV and cable box for TV watching (both hdmi). Then for movies I have a samsung blue ray player. HDMI cable are nothing special...I am not a huge proponent of spending a bunch of money on cabling. All the speaker wire is entry level from Tributaries brand (bi-wire to speaker). I am thinking of changing speaker wire to Signal Cable ultra, but this would be in addition to amp upgrade.

Thanks to you both.
@Loomisjohnson, one last thing about the amp suggestions. Based on placement limitations and WAF the amp cannot be enormous nor produce a lot of heat...probably 17ish wide and 17ish deep would be good.
maybe class D amp from wyred4sound or bel canto?
In order to have the system sound good for anything (movies/tv or music) I feel like I have to turn the receiver up too high (around 68-75 out of 100)...otherwise the sound is flat/boring. Do people agree that this is a problem, or I should just turn it up and be happy? Keep in mind that once I do turn it up I am very happy with the sound it produces...overall I like what I have.
I'm not sure I would count on a new amp solving your volume setting issue. This is likely in the processor section - most pre/pro's have less gain/sensitivity than analog preamps in my experience. It's possible that external amps will give improvement, but you still may have your volume set at 70 before you're happy. I would also add that I find Receivers have preamp sections that are equally suspect as the power amp sections. Though this is a generalization made with no experience with your receiver. YMMV
@Bdgregory do you think a stand alone hometheater pre-amp (for example emotiva umc-200) would be any better with regard to the issue I am experiencing?

Also I see that you have the mani-2's with the beaks on top. Those are nice speakers. Do the beaks do anything for the sound in your opinion? What did you notice?
I absolutely agree with Bdgregory. Just to be clear about the question, if you just forget about the number on the receiver's display, how does the system sound when you listen at different loudness levels, low, moderate, or the loudest you would ever play it?
If playing music is important to you, build a system for playing music. I went the same route that you're looking at taking and it was a waste of time.

Just get yourself a nice integrated or separates and be done with it. There's lots of nice used equipment for sale here. What made the biggest difference for me was getting a preamp. I found an older NAD C162 here for something around $300. Not hi fi, but sounds good nonetheless.
Oh, I also meant to ask whether you've had any experience with any other gear? I've always found Integra gear to be a bit thin in the sound.
@Tls49 I am quite bad at describing how something sounds as I do not have all the proper lingo down. What I will say is that at low to moderate levels the sound seems hollow/lifeless. As I increase the volume into the range I mentioned the system not only gets louder but takes on a more "real" character where people sound like people, pianos like pianos, etc. Then if I continue increasing the volume it just becomes too damn loud to handle and hurts my ears.
@Bdgregory do you think a stand alone hometheater pre-amp (for example emotiva umc-200) would be any better with regard to the issue I am experiencing?
the short answer is maybe. I've tried multiple HT Receivers, and multiple Stand alone Pre/Pro's. The receivers I tried were all modest budget units and some were good, most bad. The stand alone units (Lexicon, Meridian, Proceed, B&K) were all good to excellent, but none of them compare to a quality analog stereo preamp when it comes to music play, so I have a separate Stereo preamp I use for music only. I like the Lexicon best for HT/Video.

As for the beaks - I really don't notice any sonic benefits, but like the way they look ;-)
@Tonyangel...Thanks for the advise. I am considering doing that, the problem is I have only one place to put everything. So if I dedicate everything to music then I will probably just end up with some crappy soundbar for TV/movies...and while they are not the most important they are still at least a little important.

To your other question I have not tried any other equipment. This is my first real stereo/home theater. Up to this point it has been Bose or soundbars.
Hopefully we agree that adding an amp to your receiver is not a great idea, although it may improve sound, it will still be dependent on the receiver's preamp. I know you said all your sources were HDMI, but could you give more detail about them, especially the computer music, and movies. I assume cable is just a cable box with HDMI. Also, when listening to music, is that just from the computer?
I understand that watching movies is important to you, but I noticed that you are only running l+r, a center channel and a sub. Due to limited space and not being able to place surround speakers, I was doing the same thing that you are. Just running a 3.1 system. Although not real surround, it still beats the heck out of the TV speakers.

In the end, I just decided that stereo music quality was the most important thing to me, so I'm now running the C162 preamp, with an Aragon 2004 amp and an REL sub. My speakers are Paradigm Studio 10s. The size of my mains should give you an idea of my space constraints. My wife just insists on having an entertainment center.

Now that all is said and done, I just watch movies using the 2.1 system and to tell you the truth, I don't miss the center channel at all.

Both my TV and Bluray player have digital outs, so I have those hooked up to a DAC which is plugged into the Aux in on my preamp.
Jpg1975 - I took another look at your original post, and if you were thinking of buying those red dragon audio m500's - that's $2400 - far more budget than you will need to get a pretty nice 2 channel music rig to run in parallel with you HT rig. Here's what I suggest - find a really nice *USED* integrated amp. There are probably bunches available that can bought for ~$1000-$1500 (Musical Fidelity makes some nice ones). Set the integrated up to power your Sttaf's in stereo mode. Then connect your integra to the integrated in "passthru" mode, such that when you are listening to HT, your integrated amp powers your mains (Sttafs), and your integra powers your center channel. BTW - I would add some rear speakers if I were you - they can also be powered by your integra. I have a pair of Sttafs and with a good quality 120+/- watt amp they are fantastic for a music only system.

If you look at my system page you will see how my Home theater is set up this way.
Jpg1975 - I took another look at your original post, and if you were thinking of buying those red dragon audio m500's - that's $2400 - far more budget than you will need to get a pretty nice 2 channel music rig to run in parallel with you HT rig. Here's what I suggest - find a really nice *USED* integrated amp. There are probably bunches available that can bought for $1000 (Musical Fidelity makes some nice ones). Set the integrated up to power your Sttaf's in stereo mode. Then connect your integra to the integrated in "passthru" mode, such that when you are listening to HT, your integrated amp powers your mains (Sttafs), and your integra powers your center channel. BTW - I would add some rear speakers if I were you - they can also be powered by your integra. I have a pair of Sttafs and with a good quality 120+/- watt amp they are fantastic for a music only system.

If you look at my system page you will see how my Home theater is set up this way.
Bdgregory, that’s exactly what I have been thinking, to use a nice integrated amp with HT bypass, and the reason I asked for more detail about the source components. For 2 channel music, he will need analog inputs to the integrated amp, unless it happen to be a model with built in DAC.
@Bdgregory and Tls49. Thanks a lot for this suggestion. I was starting to feel like everyone was just telling what would not work. I need to look at the connections tonight to see what alternatives I have for connecting the computer and apple tv (these are my two music sources) directly to the integrated amp and still be able to get the video from each to the TV (whether through the receiver or not). I will do a little research this evening once I a have them in front of me. I know I will have questions, so I hope you can hang in for a while longer and respond again tomorrow.
one possibility for your music sources is to use your Integra as a DAC (ie leave them connected to the integra via HDMI), and take an analog connection from a "tape out" (assuming you have one) to the analog input of your integrated. Otherwise get an outboard DAC as Tls49 said. I would also imagine that your computer has an analog out, and also your Apple tv, but those are likely to be inferior to a good DAC.
@Bdgregory

one possibility for your music sources is to use your Integra as a DAC (ie leave them connected to the integra via HDMI),

Wouldn't this option have the receiver still acting as the pre-amp...so would likely not help the issue I am having? Is there some particular way of connecting the computer and apple TV to the receiver to have it only serve the DAC function?
one possibility for your music sources is to use your Integra as a DAC (ie leave them connected to the integra via HDMI), and take an analog connection from a "tape out" (assuming you have one) to the analog input of your integrated.
Bdgregory, again you and I are having the same thoughts, however after looking at the Integra owner’s manual, I found that the “tape out” only outputs from analog inputs and not digital, so this is not an option. Looks like the solution would be to use the optical digital from the Apple TV, and USB from the computer. These could be input to an outboard DAC, with its output to the integrated amp, or the optical and USB straight to an integrated amp with built in DAC.
Is there some particular way of connecting the computer and apple TV to the receiver to have it only serve the DAC function?
Jpg1975, that is exactly what Bdgregory was trying to do with his suggestion using the "tape out", however it will not work. See my previous post.
@Tls49...I do understand now what you and Bdgregory were saying. However, this opens up a new question for me. If I connect the computer to integrated amp, should the computer be treated as a purely music source afterward? What I am getting at is this...So I connect the computer via usb to a dac and from dac to integrated and I want to watch a streamed show on my computer. Is it possible to also have the computer connected via HDMI to the receiver and toggle back and forth between usb/hdmi based on if I am listening to music or watching something...or is going back and forth a more complex process. This is not necessarily a deal breaker...I just want to understand.
Jpg1975, I think having both HDMI and USB cables connected from the computer to their respective components at the same time would be OK. If both outputs are active at the same time, then it would just be a matter of using the Integra or the integrated amp. If they are not active at the same time, then it would be necessary to make a selection in the computer for the one you wanted to use.
@Tls49...I like that answer, it should make my life easier

I think I know what I need to do now...thanks all for your responses!

I will start searching for a dac and integrated...
Jpg1975, and you are welcome. Make sure the integrated has the HT bypass option, as some do not. Also, with your sub connected to the Integra, as it is now, it will not work when using the integrated only, however there is a way it can work for both.
Jp . . . Tls has given good advice above. It did not occur to me that the Integra would not output digital sources to the tape outs. I think the direction you're going now can yield very good music results. The only thing I would add is this - Clearly finding an integrated with HT passthru is the best/most ideal solution, however it's not essential. You can achieve the same results by using any integrated and taking the "main outs" from the Integra into any line level input on the integrated. If set up this way it's necessary to set up your HT outputs with the volume level on the integrated set at a level you can repeat. For example, set the volume on the integrated at 12:00 when caligrating your HT settings. Then every time you use your HT, you set the integrated at 12:00, then your Integra volume level controls loudness adjustments as you desire.

One other option for you that can yield even better music performance and flexibility is to get separate preamp and power amp rather than an integrated. Many preamps have HT passthru. The downside of this option is it's likely to cost more, and it takes up more space.
Do you know of any integrated that is tube/ss hybrid and has home theater pass through, but not crazy expensive? I was interested in the one from Vincent brand but as far as I can tell there is no ht pass through. Also not there on the Jolida. For some reason I am very drawn to tube/ss hybrid. Bdgregory...I know you said that it is not a must to have ht pass through but the volume matching thing sounds like a bit of a pain I would like to avoid if possible.
It's true that ht passthru is a significant advantage. While I wouldn't describe the volume matching as a pain, it's a serious inconvenience, or semi risky. When I used my Musical Fidelity preamp for HT PT, I set the volume knob at 12:00 which is the only location that was stupid simple to replicate. It worked great, and took no time at all to set up; However, when I switched back to Music - that setting was too loud, so I always needed to remember to change before cueing up music - something I always worried about forgetting to do.

As for Hybrid amps - I'm not familiar with any. One way to get a hybrid is to go separates like I do. I have a tube preamp and SS power amps. The thing I like about my setup is my music preamp isn't even powered on when I'm in HT mode. Some preamps accommodate this, and some need to be powered on (which isn't a big deal as preamps consume very little power when not processing.

You may want to post another thread with a title something like "seeking Hybrid Integrated Amp recommendations". You'll need to specify what your budget is since "crazy expensive" means different things to different people.
@Bdgregory...thanks...will do.