Need a god-tier headphone and/or speaker amplifier for your desk? Do you want a set of speakers in the living room hooked up to a streaming box, CD player, FM tuner, and turntable? Read on!
First, there’s some basic terms that we need to cover:
[Power Amplifier] - takes an input signal and amplifies it to something useable for headphones or speakers.
Usually RCA input to speaker terminals and/or 1/4" headphone jack.
Power Amplifiers can be standalone units, I often refer to them as “dumb amplifiers”.
[Preamp] - takes a line level signal (constant volume) and varies it, adding volume control. Preamps are also known as control amplifiers. Usually this takes a line-level RCA input signal and modulates it into a preout RCA output signal.
If you see the term “preout” on a piece of equipment, it has preamp functionality. Those outputs allow for an external power amplifier.
Preamps can be standalone units. In this case, you also need a power amplifier to produce usable sound.
[Integrated Amplifier] - a preamp and power amplifier combined into one unit. We’ll be talking a lot about integrated amps in this guide.
Integrated amps (usually) have multiple inputs, volume control, tone controls (bass/mid/treble), speaker terminals, headphone output, and more.
[Receiver] - It’s an integrated amplifier with a tuner, for AM/FM/Shortwave.
Generally speaking, receivers look cooler, but are more complex. Sometimes you can get a better deal on a receiver, but usually they are larger physically than their simpler integrated counterparts.
Next are some more specific terms that have to do with the functionality of the integrated amplifiers and receivers:
- [Attenuator] - This is the volume control. Sometimes numbered 0-10, sometimes numbered in negative dB. Not a hard rule, but generally speaking models that are numbered in negative dB are higher-end.
- [Loudness] - Usually an on-off switch, more rarely a variable knob (Yamaha is known for this). Loudness boosts the highs and lows, which compensates for how we hear at lower volumes. If you have a hard time hearing certain things at low volumes, try using the loudness control. It doesn’t sound good at medium to high volumes, so turn it off when listening louder.
- [Tone controls] - Usually just the Treble (highs) and Bass (lows), but sometimes includes Mids. Every amp’s tone controls work at specific frequencies, which differ between models. The tone controls also work on the headphone output, which is super neat.
- [Defeat/Direct] - This bypasses the relevant tone control or all tone controls for a more pure sound.
- [Subsonic] - This cuts off all sound below an extremely low frequency, such as 15 Hz. This is useful mainly for Phono/Turntable use, as to not vibrate the turntable.
- [High Filter] - This cuts off all sound above an extremely high frequency, such as 15 kHz. For some people this can reduce listening fatigue. Not supremely useful in my opinion.
- [Aux/Tuner/CD/DAD input] - These are normal RCA inputs. Despite their labeling, they should all function the same, unless otherwise stated.
- [Phono input] - This is exclusively designed for Turntable use. Most of the time it supports only MM (moving magnet) cartridges, but some higher end units also support MC (moving coil) cartridges. The Phono input, while RCA, does not work with standard AUX-type sources. Do not attempt to use them on the Phono input.
Back in my day…
Not to overuse a trope, but they simply don’t make them like they used to. For the most part, companies listed here are simply a shadow of their former selves. Late 1970’s and early to mid 1980’s audio equipment was the true golden-age. Manufacturers figured out how to make fantastic sound and the “wattage war” hadn’t yet begun. No one cared about output wattage, instead they cared about the quality of sound. Almost all of the companies you will see in this guide are Japanese.
A lot of these units were very expensive for the time. Even the low-end models were sometimes $200 or more in the late 70’s. Using usinflationcalculator.com, that equates to very nearly $800 in 2020. Think of all of the really, really nice single items you can buy for $800.
Nothing is digital (for the most part). These amps don’t have IC’s and chips that can fail. They can fail in other ways, sure - blown/leaking capacitors, power packs, and the like. If you’re handy with reading schematic diagrams and a soldering iron, they are extremely user-serviceable. I personally avoid non-working units, and I’ve yet to have one just die on me.
A E S T H E T I C
Most of them are just plain cool. They are great to look at, and usually even better to interact with. Everything is just… physical. Knobs and switches are chunky, with audible and tactile feedback. I find myself wanting to just mess with the controls, even if there’s no reason to. It’s very satisfying. Vintage cars are cool. So is vintage audio.
An overview of an Integrated Amplifier
Pictured above is a Pioneer SA-410 integrated amplifier from 1980. It’s wide, but short, and not very deep. It has multiple inputs for an external Tuner or CD player, Auxiliary, and Phono (for turntables). It also has tone controls for bass and treble, as well as A/B speaker outputs and a headphone jack. It provides a modest 20 watts per channel, but is plenty loud for most people. It will absolutely destroy a similarly priced modern headphone amp or speaker amp. Typically you can find one of these for under $200.
It’s amazing that one of the best sounding integrated amps looks like a high school intro to EE project.
Here’s the SA-410 stacked on top of the matching TX-410 AM/FM tuner. As you can see, there’s multiple RCA inputs and outputs, as well as L/R speaker terminals for both A and B sets. It also has switched power passthrough, meaning it can turn the tuner on/off with just the amp’s power button.