September 9, 2014
Hopefully by now you’ve picked up a top-notch turntable – whether it’s a home listening, budget or vintage machine. Now it’s time to locate the perfect amp to complement, not clash with, your warm analogue setup.
Words: Paul Rigby
Once you’ve listened to enough setups, you will begin to discern that, like certain people, there is a sense of calm and harmony with certain combinations, and there is a definite clash and conflict with others.
Let me give you an example. One of the first hi-fi systems I bought featured a Naim CD5 CD player, a Rega Mira amplifier and a couple of KEF Q55, floor-standing, speakers. The Naim CD player offered meaty, powerful bass but the upper frequencies could be a rather strident and a touch on the brash side. The Rega Mira amp, however, was a touch sluggish in those same areas, which calmed down the slight stridency. The KEFs were also a bit lively in the upper frequencies so they added a touch of excitement to the overall sound. The result was a dynamic, musical sound that had plenty of guts.
I then ‘upgraded’ the amplifier to a more expensive pre-amp and a power amp, again from Naim. In theory, the sound should have offered more information, lots more detail and transparency. What I ended up with, though, was that same strident, big bass sound emerging from the CD player and going into a pre and power amp, which had the same ‘house sound’ as the CD player. So that strident sound was now amplified and made more extreme. Then the excitable KEFs blurted that stridency out in an almost panic-stricken manner. The end product? Screech. The sound was almost unlistenable. It made my ears hurt. My older, cheaper hi-fi system sounded better than the new, more expensive system. I ended up playing all my music on headphones until I could afford to upgrade my speakers.
Building a hi-fi system is all about synchronicity. That essential turntable-based analogue sound can vary, depending on the sort of amplifier that you hang off it. Initially, you need to find an amp that will be able to handle lots of detail, subtlety and nuance from the analogue signal. Secondly, you should be wary of clashing with vinyl’s trademark warm sound. A poorly matched amp can produce a confused muddle from an analogue source.
What follows are eight vinyl-friendly amplifiers. We would recommend, if you are able, to demo any prospective amplifier purchase within your own system before you buy. See the following as an informative guide.
CAMBRIDGE AUDIO AZUR 340A
A solid-state design, the 340A has been discontinued and replaced with a slightly better model priced at around £300 or so. Look out for this amp, however, on auction sites. I even saw a example on Gumtree for £70! Well finished with an exciting presentation, it provides great value for money.
This amp has recently been discontinued but you can still find them on eBay. A solid-state design, it is a very well made design and is tremendous value for money. When it was first released around 2006, it cost £400 but was easily worth around £1,500 in terms of its sonic capabilities.
PRO-JECT STEREO BOX S
Built in a tiny chassis, spanning 40x100x100mm that you could easily hold in your hand, the Stereo Box S still manages to pump out 25W of power. It’s not the best sounding amp at high levels but, at a reasonable volume, this little amp has a lot to offer with excellent focus. Great for those people with little space to spare.
The solid state Rega Brio-R is great for those people who don’t have a lot of space because it only spans 80x218x325mm. It still offers all the inputs you’ll need. More importantly, however, the sound quality is remarkably good for an amplifier at this price point: open, airy with plenty of bass slam. It is no exaggeration to say that the Brio-R would sit easily within a more expensive hi-fi chain.
ARCAM FMJ A19
If you are looking for an amp to fill a big-ish room with sound then this is the guy to go see. It’s authoritative and dynamic but that doesn’t mean that it’s King Kong-clumsy. There’s subtlety there when needs be. A well-built amp with plenty of connections. Needs some lively and open sounding speakers, though.
ICON AUDIO STEREO 20PP
Good quality valve amps are near impossible to find at under 1K. This design is ideal for those looking for a nostalgia-fest. It’s based upon the old Leak Stereo 20, first issued in 1958! The Icon design might not have much bass oomph but it does sound sweet and very musical while those valves look gorgeous. They give off a fair amount of heat too – great on a cold winter’s day, then.
ROKSAN K2 INTEGRATED
Sometimes timing can be important when buying your amp. The K2 has just been replaced by the K2 BT so, while you can find the amp new in the shops (priced at £875), these boxes are beginning to appear on eBay. As I was writing this, I saw a mint condition model on a Buy It Now for just £550. Roksan always offers a very balanced, quality sound in all of the products they produce. This K2 is especially interesting in the high quality of its output. A bargain at £875, even better at £550!
ICON AUDIO STEREO 25 MK.II
Another one from Icon. Why? Because the company offers the best quality, best (hand) built amps toting valves for under £1,000 (well, at any price, really but that’s another story). It also offers an invaluable lifetime support structure for your amp too. Also, vinyl loves valves. The warmth of a vinyl disc ‘fits’ the valve presentation very well. This amp might not be particularly suited to bombastic, complex, demanding music featuring deep bass but the Stereo 25 remains a highly enjoyable and revealing amp.