Best integrated amplifiers for 2021
How to choose the right integrated amp for your stereo system
In this article: I’ll provide shopping tips to help you find an integrated amplifier with plenty of power and connections for your stereo system. And I’ll recommend seven of the best integrated amplifiers I’ve tried...
- Best value — Cambridge CXA81
- Best for audiophiles — McIntosh MA5300
- Best for wireless streaming — Marantz PM7000N
- Best desktop amp — NAD D 3020 V2
- Best for vinyl lovers — Denon PMA-800NE
- Best for playing high-res music files — Primare I35 Prisma
... with budget alternatives and links to hundreds of customer reviews.
here are many convenient ways to listen to music these days: portable Bluetooth speakers and earbuds offer quick and easy ways to stream music from a phone or tablet. You can even stream music through the sound bar you use for TV watching.
I'm not knocking those handy options, but if you're like me — a music lover who really prioritizes sound quality — you may want to make an integrated amplifier the centerpiece of your primary sound system. The one you turn to when you settle into a comfy chair for a couple of hours of serious listening.
An integrated amp is the right choice if you want all to connect all of your music sources to a dedicated two-channel amplifier using one component. And most of them can accomodate wireless music streaming, too. We'll go over everything these versatile amps can do, and help you narrow down your choices until you find the perfect one for your sound system.
What is an integrated amplifier?
An integrated amplifier is actually two components in one:
- A power amplifier, which generates the wattage needed to drive your loudspeakers
- A preamplifier that accepts the inputs from all of your music source components
The preamp lets you switch between wired and wireless sources and control the volume. The preamp may also include balance and tone controls. The built-in power amp lets you drive one or two pairs of bookshelf or floor-standing speakers.
Integrated amp vs. receiver
So what makes an integrated amp different from a stereo receiver, then? The answer is in the name of the latter component. A receiver has an AM/FM tuner built in that "receives" conventional radio signals. If you're like me, and only listen to the radio while driving, you may prefer the streamlined functions of an integrated amp.
Integrated amp vs. preamp/power amp
Many music fans prefer a system with a separate preamp and power amp. The benefits of this approach are cleaner sound — because power can introduce noise into preamp circuitry — and more flexibility in building and upgrading a high-end system.
The drawbacks, naturally, are the higher cost of purchasing two components instead of one, and the necessity of finding space in your entertainment center for two large components. It's worth noting that most integrated amps offer a preamp output that lets you send audio signals to a separate power amp and only use the integrated for source switching, so you can reconfigure your system in the future if you want more power.
There's no wrong way to build a system — your unique situation will dictate whether you choose a stereo receiver, home theater receiver, separate components, or an integrated amp. If you've read this far and the integrated amp still sounds like your cup of tea, let's dig into features and specs so you can zero in on the perfect one for your living space.
Integrated amp features
Consider the number and types of connections an integrated amp provides. You'll want to be certain that it can accommodate the components you currently have, or may want to add in the future.
The Cambridge Audio Azur 851A integrated amplifier includes plenty of analog RCA audio inputs. It also includes two pairs of balanced XLR jacks for connecting high-end gear.
Analog audio inputs
Back in the day, analog inputs were the only inputs. Modern integrated amplifiers have made room for digital inputs and wireless connection hardware, but analog features will likely never go away.
As a vinyl lover, I absolutely require a phono input, for instance. And additional RCA inputs come in handy for adding a standalone DAC, a cassette deck, or the analog output of a CD player. If you prefer to use an outboard phono preamp, you'll need to plug it into your integrated amp via a standard RCA input, too.
Some high-end sound systems use balanced XLR connections that offer superior noise rejection. If any of your other components offer XLR inputs and outputs, you can connect them using high-quality XLR cables.
If you're an analog purist, many integrated amps offer an analog mode that shuts down all digital circuits. And some integrated amps — the NAD C316BEE, for example — go old-school and offer only analog connections.
This Primare I15 provides analog and digital audio inputs, plus a USB connection for your computer.
Digital audio inputs
Some integrated amplifiers include a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that turns digital signals into analog sound your speakers can reproduce. There are a few common types of digital audio inputs:
- If your integrated amp has a DAC, you can connect the digital output of your CD player to a coaxial digital input
- An optical digital (Toslink) input offers slightly lower resolution for connecting a CD player or the output of a TV or Blu-ray player
- Music lovers who have high-resolution music files stored on their computers will need a USB Type B connection
- If you use your mobile device or USB thumb drive to store files, look for USB Type A, but make sure it's an active input and not just a service port for firmware updates
- An Ethernet port is crucial for accessing files hosted on the internet or stored on a network-connected computer or hard drive
In very rare cases, an HDMI input may be present for connecting a compatible TV or Blu-ray player.
It's hard to beat the convenience of wireless streaming when it comes to music listening. A number of integrated amplifiers support wireless music streaming — you can’t beat it for convenience. And some let you add compatible speakers and components to create an expandable wireless whole-home audio system.
- Built-in Wi-Fi allows you to connect to your home's wireless network and access popular streaming services like Spotify, TIDAL, and Amazon HD, plus online internet radio
- Bluetooth lets you stream music wirelessly from apps on your smartphone, tablet, or computer
- Apple AirPlay 2 is designed to work specifically with an iOS device like an iPhone® or iPad®
- Some integrated amps feature built-in multi-room streaming platforms like HEOS, BluOS or DTS Play-Fi that allow you to create a whole-home audio system by wirelessly connecting to compatible sound bars and speakers
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to listen to music, and you should look for an integrated amp that can give you access to all of your favorite sources.
Inputs are crucial to getting what you need out of your integrated amp, but don't overlook the output possibilities, either:
- A headphone jack (1/4-inch or 3.5mm) provides a great way to enjoy your music without disturbing others
- A subwoofer output lets you connect an optional powered sub to supplement your system's bass output
- A stereo preamp output gives you an easy way to add a new power amp to your system. This is handy if you move your system to a larger room or buy new speakers that need more power
- A + B speaker connectors offer an easy way to connect two pairs of speakers, or bi-wire a single compatible pair
Now that we know what to look for, we can single out some of the best integrated amps for specific applications. In each category, I list my favorite, plus a lower-priced runner-up to give you even more options.
Our top picks for 2020
Best value — Cambridge CXA81
Crutchfield customers love this rock-solid integrated amp. The Cambridge CXA81 offers plenty of power — 80 watts per channel — plus the detail you want when listening to your favorite tracks. Those watts are generated by a power supply that employs an audiophile-grade toroidal transformer for plenty of steady, low-noise current. And it has analog and digital inputs for connecting your favorite sources, including balanced XLR connections.
The amp's built-in high-performance ESS Sabre SE9016K2M DAC ensures that sound from connected digital sources is clean and accurate. It offers convenient Bluetooth connectivity, too. And I've always liked that Cambridge favors the classy brushed-aluminum front plate, which looks super-sharp in an entertainment center or equipment rack.
- 80 watts x 2 channels into 8 ohms (120 watts x 2 channels into 4 ohms)
- 4-ohm capability allows use with a wide range of speakers
- toroidal power transformer for low noise and high-current output
- Bluetooth with aptX® HD encoding provides high-quality music streaming from compatible devices
- coaxial digital, USB Type-B, and dual optical digital inputs
- balanced XLR and unbalanced RCA inputs
My runner-up in this category is another of our top-sellers: the Yamaha A-S501. It's got good power and adds a dedicated phono stage that the Cambridge doesn't have. Bluetooth is optional, and requires an additional adapter, and there are no XLR inputs, but it's a rugged, rock-solid choice that won't empty your wallet.
What our customers say about the CXA-81:
Best for Audiophiles — McIntosh MA5300
This isn't the first time the words "best," "audiophile," and "McIntosh" have appeared together, and it surely won't be the last. This venerable American company has been making exquisite hi-fi equipment since 1949, and the MA5300 is one of their finest efforts. It's versatile, sophisticated, powerful, and elegant.
It works smart as well as hard. The amp's large power transformer uses multiple filter capacitors for plenty of energy reserves to help deliver lightning-fast transient response and explosive dynamics, so music sounds crisp and detailed.
Digital sources benefit from the high-performance 8-channel 32-bit DAC built into McIntosh's DA1 Digital Audio Module. And the entire DA1 module can be removed and replaced in the highly likely event that McIntosh comes up with something even better in the future.
Most integrated amps are designed solely for use in a two-channel system, but the MA5300 has a handy Home Theater Pass Through feature that lets you use it in a home theater system. The right and left front channels from a surround sound preamp/processor can pass through the amplifier's analog inputs, allowing you to use its 100-watt-per-channel power output on your main front speakers.
- 100 watts x 2 channels into 8 ohms (160 watts x 2 into 4 ohms)
- 8-channel, 32-bit/192kHz Quad Balanced DAC
- large power transformer with multiple filter capacitors and regulated power supply
- 2 optical and 2 coaxial digital inputs (up to 32-bit/96kHz resolution)
- USB Type B input (PCM files up to 32-bit/384kHz, DSD files up to 11.2 MHz, and DXD files)
- 1 set of balanced stereo XLR inputs
- 4 stereo RCA audio inputs
- dedicated phono input for turntable with moving magnet (MM) cartridge
What our customers say about the MA5300:
Best for wireless streaming — Marantz PM7000N
I'm not going to pretend this was an easy choice to make — integrated amp manufacturers are packing most amps with streaming goodies these days. But I like the PM7000N for a couple of reasons. For starters, the HEOS operating system gives you access to popular streaming services, and gives you the functionality to set up a multi-room wireless sound system with the addition of HEOS-compatible speakers.
Where this integrated amp truly sets itself apart is in the hardware. The built-in DAC supports high-resolution audio files, and Marantz's Hyper Dynamic Amplifier Module (HDAM) technology offers very precise control over the drivers of connected speakers. And there's a Source Direct mode that bypasses tone control circuits for sonic purists.
- 60 watts x 2 channels into 8 ohms (80 watts x 2 into 4 ohms)
- built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- free HEOS app offers easy Wi-Fi control, settings adjustments, and music selection and playback
- Apple AirPlay 2 lets you stream directly from an iPhone® or iPad® and ask Siri to play Apple Music
- includes support for Pandora®, SiriusXM, and Spotify® (subscription required for some services)
- supports multi-room audio with compatible wireless speakers
- 24-bit/192kHz digital-to-analog converter supports PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD files up to 5.6MHz
- 2 optical digital and 1 coaxial digital audio inputs
- Type-A USB port on rear panel for connecting a portable drive
- 4 stereo RCA audio inputs (including a phono input for use with a moving magnet cartridge)
The NAD C 338 offers built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you can stream pretty much anything that's on your phone or tablet. It lacks the expandable wireless multi-room capacity of some more pricey options, but if that's not a deal-breaker, this amp is a fantastic choice.
What our customers say about the PM7000N:
Best desktop amp — NAD D 3020 V2
Since more of us are working from home these days, it makes sense to improve your desktop system, and this is an excellent way to do so. Most integrated amps are designed to lie horizontally on a shelf in an entertainment center, so the NAD D 3020 V2 stands out immediately in that regard.
It's amazing how much functionality NAD has packed into this space-saving chassis. There's a phono input as well as an unassigned RCA input pair. There are individual optical and coaxial inputs for digital sources. And wireless streaming via Bluetooth, of course.
Design-wise, I must say, I like the gentle curve at the top corner of the chassis, and the large, easy-to-grip manual volume knob.
- 30 watts x 2 into 8 ohms
- compact, low-profile design allows vertical or horizontal orientation
- built-in 24-bit/96kHz digital-to-analog converter
- Bluetooth with aptX® encoding provides high-quality music streaming from compatible devices
- 1 pair of analog stereo (RCA) inputs
- 1 optical digital and 1 coaxial digital input
- phono input for connecting a turntable with a moving magnet (MM) cartridge
- built-in headphone amplifier with 3.5mm minijack output
The Audioengine N22 is a super-affordable compact desktop amp. It has the headphone amplifier I consider so crucial for a desktop system, and I can connect a space-saving pair of desktop speakers like the Cambridge Audio Minx Mini for near-field listening that won't disturb family or co-workers.
What our customers say about the NAD D 3020 V2:
Best for vinyl lovers — Denon PMA-800NE
If you have a treasure trove of favorite records, and like to have flexibility in what type of cartridge you use on your turntable, the PMA-800NE is a great choice. It features a built-in phono preamplifier that's compatible with moving coil and moving magnet cartridges, which is rare.
The amp does have a nice DAC in it, and connections for digital sources, but Denon's engineers made sure analog fans can still have the unadulterated vinyl experience they crave. There's a Pure Analog setting that disables its digital circuitry, and Stop Mode deactivates the microprocessor when it's not in use for a lower noise floor.
- 50 watts x 2 channels into 8 ohms (85 x 2 into 4 ohms)
- stereo RCA phono input for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges
- Analog Mode disables digital circuitry for better sound with analog sources
- Stop Mode deactivates the microprocessor when it's not in use for a lower noise floor
- Advanced High Current (AHC) single push-pull circuit power amplifier
- 24-bit/192kHz digital-to-analog converter for high-performance playback of digitally connected sources
- 4 stereo RCA line-level inputs
- 3 optical and 1 coaxial digital audio inputs
- built-in headphone amplifier with full-size (1/4-inch) jack
The Yamaha A-S301 doesn't support moving coil cartridges, but it does have a bulit-in phono stage for moving magnet cartridges, which are far more common. Beefy construction reduces resonance and the buttons on the front panel and the remote are easy to use.
What our customers say about the PMA-800NE:
Best for playing hi-res audio files — Primare I35 Prisma
I'm differentiating this from our streaming champ above — I'm choosing the Primare I25 Prisma for its facility with high-resolution audio files downloaded to a computer or external hard drive, or encoded on a compact disc.
It has multiple digital inputs, which benefit from the built-in high-performance AKM AK4497EQ DAC. It's compatible with all of the file formats audiophiles favor, and it can absolutely do justice to your analog and streaming sources, too.
- 150 watts x 2 channels into 8 ohms (300 watts x 2 into 4 ohms)
- premium AKM AK4497EQ DAC (PCM up to 32-bit/768kHz; DSD up to 11.2MHz)
- compatible file types: WAV, LPCM, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, MP3, MP4 (AAC), WMA, OGG, and DSD
- built-in dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
- Apple AirPlay and Chromecast built-in
- 4 Toslink optical and 2 coaxial digital inputs
- USB Type-A and Type B inputs for digital sources like thumb drives, NAS drives, and computers
- 2 stereo balanced XLR analog inputs
- 3 stereo unbalanced RCA analog inputs
- dual Ethernet ports for connecting to a home network
This may sound funny, but if you can get by without the sheer power of the I35 Prisma and fewer inputs, the Primare I15 Prisma offers the same high level of performance, and the USB connections I find indispensible for listening to high-resolution music files. It's a one-box solution for most people's digital music needs.
Our expert's take on the Primare I35 Prisma:
Need help deciding?
Our friendly, knowledgeable Advisors can help you narrow down your choices to find the perfect integrated amplifier for your unique circumstances. Contact us today.
And don't forget, free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.