It’s 2020 and vinyl is at its most popular since the late 1980s. Record sales have been on the rise for the last 14 years (every year since 2006) and new record plants are opening up for the first time in decades. Yes, we’re in the midst of vinyl resurgence. But one hi-fi component is getting left behind.
Listening to vinyl isn’t exactly the same as it was back in the day. Of the four audio components that were necessary to listen to vinyl in the heyday of generations previous — the turntable, the speakers, the phono preamp and the power amplifier — the traditional power amplifier has fallen out of favor and is actually difficult to find in its historical form.
Integrated turntables, or turntables with a built-in phono preamp, are most popular than ever. And so too are powered speakers, which are speakers that have at least one built-in amplifier. You can pair the two components together, like the Fluance RT80 turntable ($200) and the Audioengine A2+ bookshelf speakers ($269+), and get a very good entry-level turntable system for less than $500. No external phono preamp or power amplifier required.
Despite mutual moves towards obsolescence, phono preamps aren’t endangered to the same degree thanks to their fairly low price (a high-quality phono preamp can be found for less than $100). What’s more, many integrated turntables still support external phono preamps, which audiophiles still recommend for an improvement to a system down the road.
Traditional power amplifiers, meanwhile, have been more completely replaced. Integrated amplifiers pair a power amplifier and phono preamp and are on what is probably a permanent rise. The first really popular integrated amplifier was the NAD 3020, which first launched in 1978, and today it’s regarded as one of the best amplifiers ever.
But it’s more than just that. Modern-day integrated amplifiers also provide a number of connectivity options, both wired and wireless, allowing them to become the central hub of the more modern hi-fi system. It allows your system to stream music. Or it can be hooked up directly to a turntable so you can listen to vinyl. It’s an audio component that can handle both of digital and analog, which is many people (including ourselves) believe it’s the future of hi-fi .
The dedicated power amplifier isn’t completely extinct. But the ones that still exist are falling out of the mainstream. Very few new power amplifiers come for less than $300 — a sum that could buy you an entire power amp-free hi-fi system, spent differently.
Any audiophile will tell you that the best sounding hi-fi systems will have each component be separate, because that ensures that no component can interfere or add distortion to another. For this reason, hi-fi juggernauts like McIntosh, Marantz and NAD Electronics still make dedicated power amplifiers that you can buy.
The problem is that they tend to cost a lot because they’re meant for a high-end hi-fi system, usually to drive big and expensive speakers. If you’re looking for a more affordable option, Schiit Audio, a hi-fi company out of California, makes excellent standalone power amplifiers, like the Vidar and Aegir, for under $1,000.
So, unless you’re a true audiophile with pockets to burn, there’s no reason to purchase a dedicated power amplifier. And manufacturers known this, which is why they’ve switched to integrated amplifiers instead.
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