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HiFi buying guide

Part 2: amplifiers

Geoff Husband's choice

[Italian version]

Amplifiers

Amplifiers are a good second hand buy. The only moving parts are the switches and potentiometer so wear in this area should be very easy to spot. Just switch the amp on and with nothing playing but the amp on phono turn up the volume. There should be no crackles as you do this.
Now repeat the test with a record playing, again no crackles just a smooth increase in volume. If the amp has tone controls or balance then repeat the test, remember in most amps the signal will have to pass through all these and so they must work well. Next play with all the switches with the volume up high, you shouldn't get any crackles...

The only other thing that wears commonly are the main power supply caps. There's no way of knowing their condition unless you open the case and look for leakage but even then they may be shot.
Generally a well used amp of ten years or more may well need these replacing, it's a simple job but you will need to budget for the caps. This would be an ideal opportunity to upgrade them, but for the moment it's a debating point when it comes to settling the price of an older amp.

You can buy valve amps for under 400GBP, both vintage and cheaper modern ones but I'd really advise you not to. They need quality, efficient speakers which are generally expensive, may well need revalving and most are either just a power-amp or an integrated without phono.
Something like an Audion Sterling integrated or Audio Innovations 300 should be possible for 300GBP but they're rare, though make a cheap CD player a lot more listenable...

So sticking to transistor amps what is the base line for performance? The legend here is of course the NAD 3020. Introduced in the mid 70's this was so far ahead of any other small integrated of the time that it defined a new market - the budget quality integrated... It is rated at 25 watts into 8 ohms, in fact it pumps out nearly double that with current delivery to match.
When first introduced in Britain it was demonstrated at the London show through Linn Isobariks - a real ball breaker. The reports said the sound was good, most integrated amps at it's price would have shut down and sulked. Even better was the Audiophile version, the 3120. Almost identical but for the removal of the tone controls and better binding posts it shared with the 3020 the ability to split the pre and power section, allowing for simple upgrades, it even had a basic MC stage!

I owned one of these for a few years back in the early 80's. I was using Warfedale Diamond II's at the time with an LP12. By then the rest of the hi-fi world was hard on NAD's heels and I tested the NAD against a Rotel 840 and an early Mission Cyrus I. The NAD had a warmth and weight the others couldn't match making the Diamonds sound as if they had bass. It didn't seem to loose much in detail or space, just sounded twice as powerful as the others.
A couple of years later I had a windfall and decided to upgrade the amp. I spent five times as much as the NAD on an Incatec Claymore, the hot integrated of the time. It looked much classier, was better all round but not that much better...

The one snag with the NAD is its age. At 20 years old it's going to be creaky by now, but get a good one for <50GBP and it'll make music for you.

Around that price and below you'll find all sorts of Japanese/Far Eastern integrateds, some good, some dreadful, some probably better than the NAD. But because none of them caught the imagination each model is going to be rare and if there's one consistent thing running through Japanese model ranges it's their inconsistency...
If I say the Kawasaki 3112 is the cat's pyjama's it's pointless as you'll never find one and the 3113 was probably dreadful :-(
Thankfully there are a few companies that produce amps that consistently perform at least adequately. Again NAD, Rotel and Marantz figure strongly, and their amps ought to run from 40 to 200 GBP depending on model - and of course are easy to find.

One amp deserves a special mention, the Pioneer A400. Like the 3020 this set the cat amongst the pigeons. A 240GBP integrated that was said to see off pre-powers up to 1500 GBP and lay waste to any integrated on the planet. Now things have quietened down a bit we can take a saner view, but by luck and judgement Pioneer, not known for their hi-fi pretensions, got this one right.
The result was that they sold by the truckload so are easy to find. Like the NAD it went beyond its rated power of 60 watts and pumped current like a good-un. It sounds like real hi-fi, fast, lucid, detailed with good imaging and clout below.
Ultimately it can be a bit harsh, and the phono stage is OK on MM and poor on MC but it's an excellent choice. The smaller A300 was pretty good too, but the phono section worse. When the 400 was replaced by the 400X some of the magic was gone (big surprise...) and demand meant that the 400 continued alongside it's replacement.
This stripped down audiophile integrated produce several clones from companies such as Denon (e.g. PMA 350) and Marantz (e.g. PM40 SE) but though good, and worth seeking out they never bettered the original and without the cult status they sold less and consequently are harder to find. They came in several model numbers, but the give away is the lack of tone controls. A good A400 ought to be under 150 pounds, the Marantz and Denon clones noticeably cheaper.

Which of course leaves us with the British hi-fi industry... Here two names spring out, Arcam (nee A & R) and Mission. Arcam first decided to take on the 3020 with their Alpha. This was a funny looking thing, very 50's in grey plastic but gave the 3020 a good run for its money with a similar warm punchy presentation but less grunt for tricky speakers.
It scored over the NAD in fine detail, but when all's said and done it was a cheap integrated like the 3020. Over the years the Alpha gradually drifted up-market, getting more power, black clothes, then a more conventional black metal fascia (Mk III). In many ways it became the industry standard, offering good sound, tone controls and reliability.
But Arcam were not to know that just as they had got the price up to 200+GBP Pioneer were going to pull the rug from under them with the 400. Here the Alpha was finally shown to be punching well over it's weight and the result was another flurry of Alpha 4, 5 and 6's.
I think they got close to the 400, but were always a little 'safe' and mainstream. Whereas the Alpha would get out of its depth with really good sources and speakers the 400 was more specialist and with cheaper components, less forgiving. Early models should be had for 50GBP going up to around 150 GBP for recent ones. I never thought the bigger Arcams much better than the Alpha so they're best left alone unless at 'Alpha' price.

Mission were always more specialised than Arcam. If Arcam tried to take on the Japanese at their own game Mission aimed at the audiophile who couldn't afford a pre-power. Primarily a speaker manufacturer, for much of the 80's and 90's their electronics range consisted of just two amplifiers and a tweeked Phillips CD player.
Whilst the CD was nothing special the amps, the Cyrus 1 and 2 were. Built into sleek shoe-box cases made from aluminium extrusions these aren't going to fit with any stack system... Simple in the extreme with just selector and volume controls both give performance beyond their price tag.
The Cyrus 1 is a 25 watt per channel amp, unlike the NAD 3020 it's not able to drive difficult loads and it's highly detailed and somewhat bright presentation doesn't suffer poor ancillaries gladly. This characteristic is shared by the Cyrus 2, which adds welly and driving ability to the 1's strengths.
Both are able to stand toe-to-toe with the Pioneer 400 on sound quality but only the more expensive 2 matches it for power.
The 2 has an edge over the 400 in one area only and that is in the quality of it's phono stage. As both 1 and 2 have been in production for 20 years now they are plentiful, the changes over that time have been mainly cosmetic.
A very early 1 can be had for 50GBP and for that there's nothing to touch it, 2's start at 100GBP and go up to as much as 250 GBP for the last of the line. As with the Pioneer 400 their biggest weakness is that they prefer partners from a price bracket above themselves, the Missions in particular will give harsh cheap CD players and cheap tweeters a grilling and so for our 500 pound limit are better off partnering a vinyl front end.

I can't leave amplifiers without adding a personal favourite - the Musical Fidelity A1.
This class A integrated formed the mainstay of MF's range for 15 years until the cretins in the EEC started to mutter about class A amps being too hot to touch.
It is one of the outstanding pieces of industrial design, a black slimline amp with an extruded aluminium top plate, all of which is used as a heatsink. At 20 watts into 8 ohms and less into 4 ohms this is a tricky amp to partner, needing efficient speakers with easy driving characteristics.
The one I owned sounded terrible though Wharfedale diamonds, shut in, slow and muddy. Changing to some easier-to-drive Mordant Short MS 3.30's made the sound blossom and open out to such an extent that it was superior to my Inca Tec Claymore that cost twice as much. Here is a little integrated that images, sounds smooth but detailed and with the right speakers packs a punch in the bass.
There's a decent MM and OK MC stage and the whole thing is beautifully put together, just don't try stacking anything on top unless you want a Dali painting for a cassette player...
There were three Mk's during production, the original being excellent, the Mk II being worse (surprise, surprise...) and the Mk III back on form. There are people who say this is the baby Krell and as they fetch between 100 and 150 GBP they are hard to beat if you accept the compromises in power and driving ability.

Lastly, as with the LP12 in the sources section there is a taste of the high end with a Naim Pre/Power. Here I think I'm probably going to lose all but the British as Naims seem to be too expensive elsewhere. The amp I'm thinking of is the 42/110.
This 40 watt power amp with its matching pre can be had for as little as 250 GBP though more usually 300. It will outperform any of the integrateds you're likely to find at this price and allows for the classic march up the Naim hierarchy.
In my case a Naim 42/140 was my first true hi-fi amp, replacing various integrateds (mentioned above) it was simply an order of magnitude better.
Its main strength is an stunningly fast and rhythmic midrange and a tight controlled bass. But with this comes a feeling of space that begins to make you think you're listening to real performers rather than machinery.
Faults? Some find Naims pushy sounding, I don't. They are superb rock/jazz amps but some find a tonal hardness spoils classical works, but to be honest anything you're going to get at the price will trail in it's wake. A 42/110 will now be nearing it's 15th birthday and so may need new caps, but Naims don't use rare exotic components so are easy and cheap to fix.
If you don't fancy soldering then Naim will recap the amp for around 100 GBP. If you can get one the 42.5 is better, it has a fractionally better sound but the power rail is split to allow a Hi-Cap power supply to be fitted and the input selector is better quality.
The 62 is more of the same with an extra input. The 140 is much like a 110 but with two sets of supply caps giving an increase in power to 45 watts and a slight improvement when the going gets tough. Pay 325 GBP for a 42.5/110, 400 GBP for a 42.5/140.
Even the basic 42/110 will, if in good condition, perform as well as Naims current entry level 92/90 combo which retails at about 1000 GBP - and it has more power and current capacity as well.
The icing on the cake are of course the famous Naim phono boards which make budget, (under 200 GBP) phono stages sound sick. Naim do make an integrated, the Nait, but its hopelessly low powered and seems to fetch almost as much as the 42/110, better to save for a real Naim amp...
If you must have a flat earth integrated then the Exposure X is a better bet but will cost much the same as the Naim pre-power for less quality.

Copyright © 1999 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com

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