What sounds best integrated or separates?

I have always owned integrated amp, especially tube type. Since I am still learning about audiophile systems what REALLY sound best and gives you the best in regards to musical involvement musicality tonal balance etc?

Thanks in advance!
On a theoretical level -- neither need to sound better "in regards to musical involvement musicality tonal balance etc" as you note.

But... we are speaking about commercial products. So: it's easier to compromise in an integrated -- common PS, one box... (OTOH an integrated doesn't require IC wire...)

In practise, and speaking about mid category UPWARD the best results are usually obtained with separates... both from a practical (more choices) and financial point of view...

Exceptionally, you find integrateds which perform as well as -- or better than -- separates. But the prices here are unexceptionally and invariably high.

At the lower end (i.e. reasonably priced) products, integrateds rule IMO for a number of reasons. Not least is, if you're on a budget you don't want to spend money on extra chassis (very high cost), extra ICs, etc...

So stick to yr tube integrated. Cheers
Integrated amps are generally more limited in power (to keep down costs). Separates are of course more expenive but perform far better.
As Greg says, it is very price dependent. A high-end integrated will better budget seperates.
I would take a Creek Destiny integrated over a NAD 162 preamp 272 amp any day.
Not knocking NAD, they make fine products, but are for the more budget minded.
It totally depends on the amp(s), stereo, room, listener, etc.

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To manufacture large power separates is less costly than same with large power integrated due to the power supply complications for preamp and output section of the amplifier.
A smart buyer can find high quality separates on Audiogon that when mated together, can outperform any integrated at the same price point. For example, find a Forte 4A amplifier for $600-$700 and a Modulus preamp at $800. There is not a $1,500 integrated on the market that can match this sound. One recommendation: don't cheap out on the interconnect, but keep it as short as your set-up allows, and consider putting a line filter on the cable to kill RFI.
Uraniumcommittee; I know what you mean about integrateds being low in power (so, cheaper) and thus not as good as separates. Do you mean something like these?


Audio Note

Or, even my system.
This is a very tricky question. It is all system dependant. What sounds better, a two box preamp and amp, or the four box ASR 'integrated' amp? Many preamps themselves are integrated, having built in phono stages and/or power supplies. How far seperate do you wish to go? The 6 box Aesthetix Callisto/Io with dual supplies? Basically a 6 box full function preamp.
Monoblock amps? Monoblocks with seperate outboard power supplies/batteries? You could have 10 boxes just for a preamp and amp for crying out loud.

It's all relative. 99.99% of us here have integrated to some extent.

People that think that you can buy separates for the same price as an integrated are confused. That's the point of an integrated. Mcpody, there are plenty of 1500 dollar integrateds that are fantastic, and I'll bet atleast one in this world can best the combo you speak of.

The other thing that irritates me is when peopple say integrateds don't have enough power. Krell 400XI 200 wpc. Musical Fidelity KW550 630 wpc. Seems like plenty of power to me. They are out there. You are NOT limited by power going with an integrated.
If you go SS - then the PS Audio integrated GCC series sound incredible - once broken in. Eventually get it modded by Underwood (or just buy it new and modded from them) and it will be an amazing piece of gear - for solid state that is.
03-27-07: Pawlowski6132

"Uraniumcommittee; I know what you mean about integrateds being low in power (so, cheaper) and thus not as good as separates. Do you mean something like these?"

No, I mean typical low-cost to medium-cost integrated amps.
"A smart buyer can find high quality separates on Audiogon that when mated together, can outperform any integrated at the same price point. For example, find a Forte 4A amplifier for $600-$700 and a Modulus preamp at $800. There is not a $1,500 integrated on the market that can match this sound."

Yes of course a second hand Pre/Power can outperform a new integrated at the same price. How about against a second hand integrated. I have had 3 top rank integrated amps in my system and they were outstanding, in different ways. They are/were a Lavardin IT, Viva Solista and Karan K180. All outperformed Pre/Power combinations at a much higher price level, that I havbe heard. It is true that not every manufacturer makes the same effort on there integrated amps, but most would agree that the Lavardin IT is the pick of that companies range.
I certainly won't be going back to a Pre/Power combination. I do accept that for most manufacturers, there top, statement amp, tends to be a Pre and Monoblocks, but you can get very close to that with a well sorted integrated, that are increasingly appearing on the market.
You see I would shop around on agon for a piece that I need however I dont have much knowledge about what brands are considered good, all I know is the musical fidelity, mcintosh, cary, jolida, Van Alstine and a few others :(
Well fortunately for you, there is no deadline to make a decision. Take your time, search the archives, and have fun. The journey is the adventure.
Jmcgrogan2, I agree, the journey IS the adventure...here is a short observation: I bought a brand new Krell 300i integrated amp a few years ago. I loved it! It's a great amp. Then I bought pair of Dunlavy SC3's. Great speakers. I ended up buying a Krell KAV250a amp and snooped around for a "entry level" separate pre-amp. At the time Stereophile was recommending the now discontinued Adcom GFP-750. I bought it, hooked it up with some nice cables and, BAM, what a difference; more definition, separation, authority, and slam. The 300i was great. But I was amazed at the difference by changing over to the dedicated ciruitry of the separate pre-amp. It's almost 8 years later and I still have the same set-up. You can get great deals on used pre-amps. And the Adcom GFP 750 still comes up often for sale these days.
Good Luck.
I'm with David12 completely.

A simplified and budget preamplifier mated with good power amplifier very often can outperform integrated amps for the same price range.
Marankanetz; I disagree.

Assuming material, design integrity, etc. Are consistent between the two. Integrated will always sound better. Think about it...no extra cables...short signal path, etc...
gregm had it right. the poster wants to know 'what sounds best'. is there really any objective answer to this? design, signal paths, wattage,etc... ad infinitum have nothing to do with it as far as this particular question goes...in my humble opinion. which tastes better, filet or N.Y. strip? i like a pittsburgh style sirloin even tho it costs much less. i like the jolida you already own btw! snob appeal is more associated with seperates by and large and they do look impressive sitting amongst an array of wires, tubes, meters, cables, switches etc. in this marketing crazed industry this is a BIG plus for hi-ticket manufacturers.
I believe we should admit that, theoretically, integrateds should sound better than separates. Reality CAN be very different though.
I'm sure there are some excellent sounding integrated amps out there & the one excellent solid state integrated that comes to mind is the Portal Panache. But for me I feel they restrict the persons ability to experiment with different preamps. So for that reason separates are the way to go unless space is an issue.
04-01-07: Pawlowski6132
I believe we should admit that, theoretically, integrateds should sound better than separates. Reality CAN be very different though.

When evaluating theoretically, one has to look at all aspects. You list the positive attibutes of the integrated amp earlier, shorter circuit paths, fewer cables. However, you neglect to mention the positive attributes of seperates like power supply isolation and size. Both designs, integrated and seperates, have their own plus' and minus'.
You have to look at all the parameters when judging the best theoretically.

The practicality of it is that a lot of equipment sounds better with a larger, more stable power supply. Seperates can give you a larger power supply, and better ways to isolate them. That's why many preamps have seperate power supplies, to isolate the EMF from the smaller, line level signals.

Yes, shorter signal paths and lower costs are positive attributes for the integrated amps. However, seperates also have their positive attributes, namely larger power supplies and isolation techniques.

John, I take your point. However, separates don't HAVE to have a larger power supply do they??
No, I suppose they don't HAVE to have a larger power supply. Generally they do though. Also, it not just the size of the power supply, it's the ability to have multiple power supplies. Just as having more dedicated lines gives your components better isolation from intrinsic generated noise, so will seperate power supplies better isolate the noise from other internal stages.

Did you ever read about one unit having 12 isolated power supplies? Sometimes they'll do this in a high end DAC for example. The more you can seperate/isolate power supplies, from displays, L and R channels, + and - rails, digital and analog, etc, generally the less chance of one area interfering with another.

So no, to enjoy audio you do not need seperates. You don't even need dedicated power lines. However, the further you go, towards isolating components, whether it being adding 6 dedicated lines to your room, and/or going with seperates, the lower the chance you will have of noise from one unit interfering with the performance of another. Of course assuming that you are using interconnects that don't act as antennas. There are enough well made interconnects out there nowadays, that this isn't usually an issue.

Also, I would say that for the same money, and integrated amp and/or cd player is the way to go. For example, I think a $2000 integrated amp has a good chance of sounding better than $2000 for amp AND preamp.

I wouldn't recommend seperates unless you are willing to spend the extra money it will take to capture those last few degrees of isolation/seperation.

John; Agreed.

In fact, I just sold my integrated in order to buy some mono-blocs.

I have been running a CAT JL2 with a CAT Pre and now a Placette Active. I will be trying the Ars Sonum 30 Watt integrated. I have reason to believe that with my speakers, the Merlin VSM-MXs, this little integrated might prove very competetive with my separates. I have no illusion that the ARS is the equivalent of the CAT overall. The CAT can make almost any speaker sound its best, but going back to Tvad's point, a well matched integrated with the right speakers and room size can be very competitive with more expensive separates. I'll know for sure when I get the ARS, but I'm hopeful.
I like the idea of a GOOD integrated amp that takes a good amp and pre subsystem and integrates them with care into the single box with attention to not having one section compromise the other. Same true even if phono section tossed in as well.


Because the integration has been performed for you by highly trained professionals who know what they are doing and do things that way for a reason. That can save you a lot of heartaches trying to find a good match.

I also like the idea of a good stereo power amp that treates the left and right channel in a similar manner within a single package.

Or if someone you trust has achieved a good integration between a particular amp and pre, then that is a good start as well.

If you go the separates route, be prepared to have to experiment and change things along the way to a good match unless you really know what you are doing. To an audiphil, the journey in this case may have as much appeal as the result. But if you're goal is to get to the best sound possible as fast as possible, take care.
I have tried the integrated route, and Mapman makes a very strong case for integrateds and he is 100% right. On the other hand, I've not been able to find an integrated that can perform at the level of separates in my system, although at a higher cost and system complexity. Maybe the VAC Phi Beta is in that category on an integrated without compromise, but not cheap. I would also think that an integrated with a passive attenuator should not sound to different, maybe better, than the same amp with a separate passive, but I don't think you could the same quality from a built in active pre section in an integrated.

The choice of integrated amps that might possibly play in the same league with your system are surely few and far between, especially if we're talking tube amplification.

But how long did it take you to arrive where you are and how much was invested to get where you are now?
Also, the VAC Phi Beta is a stunning piece.

Anyone with any concept of how well it might drive my Ohm 5's which present a somewhat difficult load and love to suck power and current?

I haven't convinced my self that there is a tube amp out there that could do the job even as well as what I already have, but I'm very interested in being shown that I'm wrong.
Camera analogy, read on !

I can think of a dozen amp / preamp / interconnects combinations that just cannot match the quality of a fine integrated, be it tubes or SS.

The chances for a ''mis-integrated'' systems are great.

Also to consider, the trial and error cost of finding that perfect combination.

I do think separates do sound better, but only the better-matched systems.

I have owned both separates and integrateds of considerable cost in each category.

There was a time where I just analyzed sounds to find sonic flaws, which led me to re-question my separate component choices every time. Talk about being on the audiophilia merry-go-round.

Then I started listening to integrateds. These machines are no longer the ''poor man's audiophile amps'' of 20 years ago.

Factor in the hassle-free factor, and the fact that a professionnal designer actually decided on ALL of the choices inside - it's not a bad deal if you asked me.

A friend of mine who is as taken in PHOTOGRAPHY as others are in high-end audio told me this:

I had asked him why, with all of his experience and knowledge, he was using the AUTOMATIC PROGRAM MODE (think integrated amps as an equivalent in high end audio) instead of going full manual on his settings (think separates) to get that ''perfect'' photo (..or sound..)

In essence, I was really asking him why he was using the ''beginners'' automatic setting instead of the ''more serious'' and professionnal manual settings so that he could get exactly the image (sound) he wanted.

His reply: ''Are you kidding ? With the advancements in camera technology, the computer in this camera is perfectly integrated to adjust exposure, shutter speed, white balance, aperture and so on....for a photographer to BEAT THIS and to find BETTER settings takes one hell of a photographer. And besides, let's suppose I do find better settings, by the time i get there the moment's gone....and the photo opportunity might be lost. So, for 90% of the time, the auto pilot is good enough and I enjoy the photos immensely, even though sometimes I know I could have probably done better if I picked the settings myself. But, is it really worth the trouble to the point of missing the moment?

Sorry if this seems a strech, but this is exactly how I feel about integrateds. A top notch integrated has it's ''settings'' chosen by an electro-acoustic professionnal. Always subjective of course, but it's damned good most of the time.

Pretty hard challenge to beat if you asked me, with our Lego sets of amps, preamps and interconnects.

Just in case your'e wondering, the camera is a relatively inexpensive Nikon D-40 single reflex digital that retails for around $ 600.00 or so. Including the stock zoom lens.

Just a few years ago, this level of quality was available, according to some experts, only in cameras that sold around....$ 4,000.00

Separates are better. But not always. Only speaking from personnal experience, your mileage could vary.
Cheers all !
Mapman, I think your speakers simply need SS. The only amps that might be able to handle them might be something from CAT (JL2,JL3 Monos)as they do work well into falling impedances. In fact my Music Reference RM9 Special Edition also increase power into dropping impedances, but I think the difficulty for even these tube amps is the phase shifts in impedance - tube thrive on smooth, flat impedances, high or low. I could be wrong, but I doubt tubes will ever work as well with your speakers as a good SS amp. In SS, Pass is the best I have heard.
"Mapman, I think your speakers simply need SS."

That is my conclusion at this point as well.

How about a hybrid amp design like Moscode but in an integrated? Anything out there like that?
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A lot of truth in what you say.

I am an amateur photographer and my 12 year old son can take pictures on his new $300 Panasonic Digital camera (an amazingly functional gadget I must say) in auto mode that are as good as or better than many I've taken in the past on a very good Nikon FE film camera with high quality specialized lenses, filters, etc. I now borrow his Panasonic whenever I can.
I've kind of coveted Blue Circle amps to some extent. Didn't realize they were hybrid.

Read one review that indicated a Blue Circle amp took the reviewer's large Ohms to a whole new level, and he was using some pretty good amplification prior.

Pricey stuff but I need to check into it some more for sure.

I've also considered a Musical Fidelity like the Tri Vista or equivalent in that I have been very happy with my MF amp.

I am very strongly considering going integrated on my next amplification upgrade.

Didn't realize Pass made integrateds. Will look into that also.

Rowland or Bel Canto Class D gear is an attractive option as well. Does BEl Canto make integrateds? Are they in the same league as the other big boy integrateds?
At the outset, I own separates and prefer that setup. However, my opinion is that given the same power capabilities and distortion specs, a good integrated will sound as good as separates - for example I doubt that anyone could tell the difference between the Mcintosh 7000 integrated and their model 120 preamp driving an MC252. The separate power supply and noise differences that may have once provided for different performance have been eclipsed by better designs. While that presents my opinion as to the OP's question, I would add that there are other reasons for going with separates. A couple. First, you have more control over your system when it comes to upgrades/changes. Second, integrateds limit your power capability - while there may be some out there, I cannot think of any 500 watt integrateds.
"I cannot think of any 500 watt integrateds."

Class D Icepower modules go to 5002/ch into 8 ohm and 1000w/ch into 4.

Rowland makes a 500w/ch integrated using this for under $10000 I believe.

Any other manufacturers provide a 500w/ch class D integrated? If not, I'd bet there will be more coming quite soon.
I think the Pass integrated was recently reviewed in SP or AS.
Mapman: Thanks for the info on the Rowland integrated - took a look at it on their web site. I was unaware that anyone made an integrated with that rated power. I have not had an interest for personal use of class D amps but have been of the opinion that in the next few years we will see a large shift in that direction (and apparently not just pwr amps but integrateds as well) as to offerings from audiophile manufacturers. Like most other changes, the seemingly steep design challenges will get ironed out. Hi-Fi News, I beleive it was, recently did a comparison on class D amps from more 'bread and butter' companies, and it looks like there is a shift in that direction from such . The Rowland is impressive