While we like the idea of plug-and-play set-ups as much as anyone, there’s more to getting the best out of a stereo amplifier than simply powering it up on a hi-fi rack, plugging in speakers and going wild with the volume dial.
Wondering where to start? Fear not; we’ll run you through the basics here.
Integrated vs pre/power
If you’ve already bought your amplifier and are now eyeing it up a touch warily with a view to getting started, you may wish to skip straight to the ‘system matching’ section.
But if you’re reading this before you’ve chosen the amp needed to drive your system, you have an important decision to make. Do you go integrated or separate pre/power kit?
The former is the most simple, convenient and space-saving option, packing both pre-and power amplification into one chassis. This means everything has been tuned together, saving you the work that goes into matching separate amplifiers.
Two-box amplifiers, on the other hand, involve splitting pre-amplification (input selection and volume control, fundamentally) from power amplification (go on, guess). The idea is to keep the sensitive preamp circuitry (and the delicate audio signals flowing through it) away from the electrically noisy high-current power amplifier section.
Having separate power supply sections helps to improve the sound too. So this way you double your component count but, as long as your pre- and power-amplifiers function together sympathetically, you should enjoy better performance.
The most obvious way of selecting pre- and power amplification that works together well is by sticking within one brand’s range. Invariably they will have been tuned to work well as a pair.
If you plan to go off-piste and mix and match, be aware some pairings will work better together than others. The best way to find out which is which is by trial and error.
And that’s true when it comes to matching source components to your amplification. Sonic affinity can be determined by common sense to some extent. If your source – a CD player, for example – sits on the bright side of neutral, it shouldn’t be partnered with a stereo amplifier with a similar character.
An amplifier’s partnership with stereo speakers is extremely important, and there are a few things worth considering to ensure they complement each other as well as Wensleydale cheese and wheat crackers.
Ever scratched your head when faced with specifications such as ‘75W into 8 ohms’? Allow us to explain.
The speaker/amp partnership comes down not only to an amplifier’s power output (how many watts it can deliver to each channel of a music signal) but also impedance (measured in ohms) and sensitivity (dB).
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When I first started writing for Stereophile, John Atkinson brought me a speaker to review. The shipping box was really beat, and it had some other reviewer’s name on the UPS label. After a few days of trying to get it to sound good, I speculated that John and at least one other reviewer already knew this speaker did not sound good. Flummoxed, I wrote JA a simple email (he likes simple emails), “Is this a test?” He replied, “Everything is a test.”