Loud and clear: The 8 best vinyl-friendly amplifiers

Loud and clear: The 8 best vinyl-friendly amplifiers

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stereo-20PP
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_340A

CAMBRIDGE AUDIO AZUR 340A
Price: £130+
www.ebay.co.uk

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.


Audiolab 8000S

AUDIOLAB 8000S
Price: £180+
www.ebay.co.uk

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.


stereoboxs
PRO-JECT STEREO BOX S
Price: £199
www.amazon.co.uk

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.


Rega
REGA BRIO-R
Price: £550
www.rega.co.uk

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
ARCAM FMJ A19
Price: £650
www.arcam.co.uk

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.


stereo-20PP
ICON AUDIO STEREO 20PP
Price: £699
www.iconaudio.com

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.


ROKK2AAB_1
ROKSAN K2 INTEGRATED
Price: £875
www.henleydesigns.co.uk

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!


ST25MkII
ICON AUDIO STEREO 25 MK.II
Price: £1,000
www.iconaudio.com

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.

  • jeanpaulpollue

    I am sorta confused, does the Audiolab 8000S have a phono preamp?

    • Paul Rigby

      No, you will need to grab a phono amp to use with the Audiolab.

  • jeanpaulpollue

    What’s the difference between 8000S and 8000A?

    • Paul Rigby

      The ‘S’ has a remote. The ‘A’ has tone controls. More importantly, the ‘S’ has improved circuitry and sounds better.

  • JohnoNZ

    Hi Paul, I’d be interested in your recommendation for an amp to match my vintage Garrard 401/SME 3009 combo. I currently play it through my slightly less vintage Aura Evolution integrated amp and Rogers Ls4As, both from the early nineties. This set up while sounding great with less complex recordings, such as voice and piano, lacks a certain dynamism with multi layered sounds of rock music and is certainly a bit light weight in the bass department. Appreciate any wisdom you can share. Budget is up to around 800 quid. Cheers Johno

    • Paul Rigby

      Sorry for the delay in getting back to you – if you are looking for weight, punch and bass presence, have you considered Naim? Something like a Nait 5Si is a touch over your budget but other Naim stuff (second hand?) might sort you out.

  • JohnoNZ

    Cheers Paul. Thanks for that. I’ll check out some Naim gear.

  • David

    I have a Technics SL-B22D turntable. Which amp would you recommend please? I’m new to this

    • Paul Rigby

      What sort of money are you looking to spend David?

  • David Edelsztein

    I got a Roksan K3 and sounds really low and quite flat with my project turntable, I had to get back to my old amp ( NAD 320) and its pre amp to listen to vinyl, the sound is so much better, I wonder if this is something I should expect or maybe there is a problem with the built in pre amp inside the new Roksan? I would really apreciate your opinion. Thanks in advance !

    • Paul Rigby

      What speakers are you using David and what type of Project? The K3 is a good bit of kit so I’m wondering if there’s more going on here.

      • David Edelsztein

        Hi Paul, thank you for the reply!
        Im using Mission SX2 speakers that sound amazing , the turntable sound just much better with my old NAD amp and pre amp than with the K3 phono stake, a bit more detail and better trebles, is there any chance I could have damage something when I connected the pre amp on the K3 phono stage and played 4 seconds at very low volume until I realize I was making a mistake? Apart fro that, Im very happy with the K3 amp and cd player combo

        • Paul Rigby

          What turntable/cart are you using? You say ‘pre amp’. This was a separate pre amp you were using? If so, what was it? What size room are you listening in, by the way?

          • David Edelsztein

            Im using blue Ortophone , and yes, the pre amp was a separate small NAD pre amp that I used to connect my turntable with my old NAD amplifier. Here is a photo of my room size , you can get an idea, not to big, not too small

          • Paul Rigby

            Hi David
            The K3 is a big, powerful, muscular amp (much more so than the NAD) and those speakers are the same and can, in a relatively small room, tend to overwhelm it. It’s difficult to be sure at this distance but I would hazard a guess that your K3 is allowing your speakers to really cut loose which means that your relatively small room is struggling to cope resulting in less than sparkling sonics. If I could turn back time for you, I would have encouraged a turntable/cart upgrade first, which would have kept the soul of your system in tact then, later, changed the speakers to something offering detail and clarity and then changed the amp to suit that lot. I think the K3 (excellent as it is) is revealing the potential issues with your room/speakers.

          • David Edelsztein

            Hi Paul, all that sounds reasonable, so you dont think I could have damaged some k3 component during my low volume 10 seconds pre amp experiment on the k3 phono stage?

          • Paul Rigby

            My guess is that you have not caused any damage but, again, its difficult to know exactly at this distance. From what you are saying, though, it sounds fine.

          • David Edelsztein

            That’s great, and all you said sounds reasonable,even if Im not sure why the size room and speakers are not revealing any limitations on the CD player sound , but it does on the phono stage.
            Thank you so much for your time and thoughtful answers!

          • Paul Rigby

            Ah, you didn’t mention the CD player. So, the CD player output sounds just as good with the new K3 as it did with the older NAD set up?

          • David Edelsztein

            Hi Paul
            The CD player is a K3 di , and it is connected with the K3 amp, all this is new, the sound of this 2 toghether is fantastic , not revealing any limitation on the room size or speakers. The phono stage on the K3 it is not that good, and it is better when the turntable is connected to the Nad and its separated NAD pre amp. What Im not sure is why the k3 would show the limitations from room and speakers on its phono stage, but it is not doing so when playing cds.

          • Paul Rigby

            OK, as we’ve narrowed things down I think the finger is now pointing at the quality of the phono stage in the K3. You might want to consider a phono stage upgrade. Do you have a dealer nearby?

          • David Edelsztein

            There is a Richer Sounds nearby…where I bought everything, what would you recommend?

          • Paul Rigby

            Just wondered if you had a dealer nearby that might allow you a home demo. If you did go for a phono amp (a genuine upgrade and something you should think about anyway) do you have a budget?

          • David Edelsztein

            Yes, budget might not be an issue, what would you recommend me to get to complement the K3?

          • Paul Rigby

            How much do you want to spend, David?

          • David Edelsztein

            around £1000 and £1500? let’s just consider I dont want to upgrade speakers as I already know this Mission SX2 are quite great!

          • Paul Rigby

            Take a look at some phono amp reviews on my own site. The Cyrus (http://www.theaudiophileman.com/#!cyrus-psx-r2/c1spe) or the battery powered Musical Surroundings (http://www.theaudiophileman.com/#!musical-surroundings-phono-amp/c1j1q) or a valve option, the Icon Audio PS1 (http://www.analogueseduction.net/icon-audio/icon-audio-ps1-mkii-phono-pre-amplifier.html – not a review but should be examined) or the value for money fully upgraded Trichord Dino (http://www.theaudiophileman.com/#!trichord-dino/c1hj0)

          • David Edelsztein

            I like the size of the Trichord Dino , would that get connected to the K3?

          • Paul Rigby

            Yep – just connect it to one of the standard RCA socket pairs on the back, as you would connect a CD player, etc.

          • David Edelsztein

            this might be the last question as I already took too much time from you, I read I also need a power supply? Im not sure what that means. All I need to know now is if all I need is one of those Trichord Dino and that’s it, or I still have to buy something else to connect it to my K3 amp? Thanks Paul!

          • Paul Rigby

            A separate phono amp requires its own power supply so you’ll need to plug that in separately. The Trichord has a basic power supply which you can upgrade to improve the sound. the top of the range, upgraded, model is a £1000 or so two box affair of the phono amp and the power supply as a separate item (as an aside, separating the power supply from any piece of hifi is a ‘good thing’ to improve sound).

  • Daniel Cassar

    Wait – I got into vinyl last year, got myself a RP1, a Cambridge preamp that i connect directly to the speakers, following the guidance of a friend who got me into this. The music does actually sound very well, but now I fear i might have been doing things wrong.. So, what is the proper setup? Turntable > preamp > amp > speakers? Or is it ok to do it without the amp (as i have been doing.. and this friend of mine also)? My head hurts…

    • Adam

      What you almost certainly have is an integrated amp, not a preamp. You don’t need anything else. It works, enjoy. 🙂

  • John Cumming

    I have a Technics SL-3 linear turntable and bought a cheap pre-amp but cannot get sound from my home theatre system , any ideas please ?

    • Paul Rigby

      That’s a helluva large question, John because it could be a million and one reasons why you are having issues. Are you sure that each component is in working order? Have you checked all connections (that they are in the correct sockets and fully connected when they are)? Have you done anything simple like flicked a mute switch here, not turned on a a power switch there? Start from the basic and work up from there.

  • Dave Lancaster

    Hi Paul. Firstly, thanks for all your fantastic insight and enthusiasm. Secondly, I have a Technics QL TT with Ortofon Blue and some Wharfedale Diamond 9.6 speakers with a Hafler pre and power setup. I also have a Radford HD250 being refurbished. Just wondering if you can tell me do you consider the Radford (or the Haflers, for that matter) to be suitable for vinyl?

    Thanks,

    Dave

  • Ben Feldman

    Can you reccomend a amp to go with Cambridge audio as 30 speakers and a project debut deck? I am looking at second hand on eBay for unde £100.Thanks

  • Bit of a puzzler here, as most of these amps have no phono input. Pro-Ject does make an integrated amp with a phono input, but it is the Stereo Box S Phono. Not the one shown here. Most of the amps here would actually require an external phono preamp to actually work with a turntable. It’s certainly an acceptable route, but I would not consider the line only amps “vinyl friendly”.

    • Paul Rigby

      Yes, it’s taken ‘as read’ that you would include an additional phono amp with a valve amp. It’s a good point, though, and well made. Thanks for that.

  • Ian Colville

    I would like to put a vinyl based system into my Bistro. Have a budget of around £2,000. The system needs to sound good at lower volumes.

    • Paul Rigby

      Clearaudio Concept MM deck (£1,000), Rega Brio-R amp (£550), Dali Ikon 1 Mk.2 (£530). It’s a touch over but its a good system.

  • Will Oulton

    Keen amateur seeking advice. I have a new turntable (Pioneer PL 30 K) and am cleaning up the vinyl out of storage in my loft. I am a valve fan but also have a lot of digital music that I would like to play with significantly enhanced sound quality. Can anyone recommend an amp that gives me valves warmth as well as not making my digital sounds redundant? Cheers.

    • Paul Rigby

      What sort of budget do you have, Will?

  • Essential EDM

    Would you know what the clarity of the pm-5005 is like, and if not that great a better marantz amp, I am a teen so it can’t cost too much (under£200)