The Re-emergence of the Integrated Amplifier
Anthony Chiarella
14 April 1999

What's the fastest growing product category in consumer audio?

avatar_sfront.jpg (9991 bytes)In each of the past two years, unit sales of integrated amplifiers have more than doubled over the year before, and dollar volume has escalated even more dramatically. Nowadays, it seems that virtually every high end manufacturer has added at least one integrated to its product line. And while you probably won't find much on the shelves of your local Circuit city or other mass merchant, these compact, cost-effective components are now proudly displayed and demonstrated in all of the finest audio salons, not to mention the private listening rooms of serious music lovers!

Why have integrated amplifiers become so popular, so quickly? It's mostly a matter of how you consider the component. From the late 1950's through the mid-'70's, the product owed its immense popularity to a single factor: price. Essentially, an integrated amplifier was viewed as a receiver without a tuner. At the time, you see, a tuner was an analog device, a complex, costly amalgam of dials, flywheels and RF tuning circuits. Eliminating this contraption yielded a considerable savings, and made it possible for penny-pinching hobbyists to assemble a good system for the smallest possible amount of money. By the end of the '70's, however, the advent of inexpensive ICs and super-cheap LED displays had driven the cost of a tuner to so low, it actually didn't pay for manufacturers and retailers to inventory two separate models (i.e., with and without the tuner), so integrated faded away.

But if integrated amplifiers disappeared along with their price advantages, they have reappeared because of their dramatic sonic benefits. Rather than being viewed as a "receiver without a tuner," their designers and manufacturers now conceive them as "a high end amplifier and preamp sharing a single chassis." Big difference! One of the major problems of component design is the uncertainty of what the other components in the system will be. As a result, a preamplifier manufacturer will need to design his circuit will an extremely low output impedance, generous output voltage and a high gain factor. A similar set of requirements holds true for makers of power amplifiers, speakers, and etcetera. Only by addressing all possible interactions can a manufacturer be sure that his/her products will shine in a wide variety of systems. Problem is, adherence to these parameters often entails compromises in terms of pure performance. Simply put, if a product is designed to work with everything, it will probably not excel with anything.

This is an extreme statement, one that becomes less valid as the price, sophistication and quality of a component improves. Nonetheless, knowing the characteristics of the other parts of the system provides the designer with a tremendous advantage. By engineering the amplifier and preamplifier as a single unit, it is possible to make each half complement the other to a degree not possible with separates. What's more, integrates eliminate the need for an expensive pair of interconnects, not to mention the signal degradation which two sets of metal-to-metal RCA connections inevitably entail. Throw in savings in space and heat dissipation-and yes, the reduction in cost that occurs from using one chassis instead of two-and you've got explanations aplenty why integrated amplifiers have attained their current position of prominence.

vaclogo.gif (6349 bytes)Of course, there's more to a great component than sound quality. As National Sales Manager for VAC, I had the good fortune to work with Kevin Hayes, President, and Kevin Carter, Director of Marketing, during the creation of VAC's awesome new Avatar, an integrated amplifier that ranks as one of the most eagerly awaited products in the history of high end audio. Certainly, this is one of the finest-sounding components-at any price-I've ever had the pleasure to hear. But, as I have said, great sound is only one element of a successful product. Just as important as its superb sonics, making Avatar a winner was a matter of designing the unit with ample power (60 watts per channel) to drive the majority of modern loudspeakers, outfitting it with front panel biasing controls and metering to make it easy to use, providing a half dozen inputs (including a full tape loop and a pure tube phono preamplifier) to accommodate future system growth, and adding a unique "Home Theater" circuit which enables the unit to simultaneously flourish in both analog stereo and multi-channel digital environments. And hey, the fact that the thing is drop-dead gorgeous didn't hurt, either!

Let's add one more challenge: as if delivering all these features wasn't tough enough, delivering them at a target price of $3,490 presented a nearly insurmountable obstacle. If you've ever heard a VAC Renaissance amplifier, or some similarly state-of-the-art component, you know what can be achieved when a gifted designer has no price constraints placed upon his vision. On the other hand, when money IS an object, the creative process becomes exponentially more difficult. As remarkable a component as Avatar is, the fact that we were able to produce it a price which most folks can afford is even more miraculous.

Truth is, given the relentless advance of audio technology, and given the storehouse of knowledge available to modern designers, its not that hard to make a product that sounds good. Making it saleable is another-and dramatically more difficult-matter. A quarter century ago, when the high end was first learning to walk, demand for gear was so much greater than supply that any component which could be produced would find a buyer.

Nowadays, the abundance of sonically satisfying product makes the design process much more difficult for a manufacturer, and much more rewarding for a consumer. The Darwinian forces of competition have created a market in which only the strongest companies and best products can survive and thrive on the dealers' shelves. Reliability, aesthetic beauty, ease of operation, versatility, pride of ownership and razor-sharp pricing are factors that must be addressed and emphatically answered if a component is to win a place in the hearts and homes of modern music lovers.