The category of integrated amps or just amps as they call them in the UK has gone through a big resurgence in the last decade as more people are enjoying music than ever before. We thought it would be fun to pick our top 5 under $1,000 to help you narrow down your choices if you are in the market for an upgrade.
For those of you new to home audio, an integrated amp is a combination of two pieces of gear: a stereo preamplifier and stereo power amplifier. The job of a preamp is to switch your inputs and adjust the volume before sending the signal off to the power amp. It just handles all of the source signals which are at a low level. A power amp provides the power that actually drives your speakers.
Preamps vary in the number and type of inputs. Some may have a phono input, digital inputs with a built-in Digital to Analog Converter, and a few models have a Bluetooth receiver built-in as well.
When you combine the amp and preamp into one box, it becomes an integrated amp.
Music lovers like integrated amps over home theater receivers as they usually have a more musical sound due both to their simplicity and the fact that most companies that make integrated amplifiers focus on better sound quality over lots of features.
Our customers who upgrade to a new integrated amp usually give us great feedback on how much of a difference in sound they hear.
When picking out the best integrated amp for your system, you should think about the sources you want to connect up to it, and what kind of speakers you have now or might get in the future.
Your sources might include a turntable, in which case you will want to get an integrated amp with a phono input or you can buy a better phono preamp as a separate component. Most integrated amps have several analog inputs for CD players and such. Some have digital inputs for a connection from your TV. If you are going retro with a cassette deck or reel to reel, you’ll be fine with the analog inputs for playback, but if you want to make your own tapes, you will need an integrated amp that has tape outputs.
How powerful an amp you need will depend on the speakers you are looking to drive. You’ll notice a lot of these amps do not have what seems like a high power rating. However, what they do have is a lot of current, which is what really determines how well an amp can drive your speakers. But even so, you still would not want to pair up a pair of speakers with a low sensitivity rating in a large room with a low-powered amp. We consider anything below 88 dB to be on the low side for sensitivity.
So with all that in mind, let’s dive in and look at our top five suggestions under $1,000.
Cambridge Audio AXA35 Integrated Amp w/ Built-In Phono Stage
At Audio Advice, we love the sound of Cambridge Audio gear, and we were just amazed at how good this unit sounds for the money. In typical Cambridge Audio fashion, the AXA35 uses an expensive toroidal transformer, which is something you only normally see in much more expensive products. This gives it a drive and control that makes it sound like a much bigger amp.
Input-wise, the AXA35 is pure analog. There are 4 Auxiliary inputs, a Moving Magnet phono input, and for those of you with a cassette or reel to reel, it even has a record out. You’ll find a full-size headphone jack on the front, and we were impressed with the quality of the speaker binding posts on the rear. As an added bonus, there are controls for bass and treble you can access from the front panel.
When we first tested the AXA35, we gave it a real run for its money driving a pair of $2,500 B&W tower speakers that are not super easy to push. It totally surprised us at how well it powered them, only running out of gas when we really pushed things. The great news though is how the AXA35 gave us that toe-tapping feeling we love about the best British audio gear. It is very musical with the ability to easily drive most moderately sensitive speakers with ease.
We can not think of a better amp for the money than the AXA35!
Rega IO Integrated Amplifier
The Rega io is based on the Rega Brio design and was made to let more people experience the great sound of Rega components. We have to start off by saying, in this day and age of globalization, it is just super impressive that Rega makes the io and almost all of their other gear at their own factory in the UK rather than offshore. That is impressive by itself!
The io is pure analog-only with two auxiliary inputs and one moving magnet phono input. The headphone amp actually uses the power amp to drive the headphones, so it can push any headphones out there.
Rega used very high-quality parts inside the io, including an Alps volume knob and high-performance Sanken output transistors in the power amp stage. Like all Rega amps, the io has a massive toroidal power transformer.
We have to say — if you love a sweet musical sound, can make-do with limited inputs, and have speakers that are pretty easy to push, the io will give you the best sound for your money of any amp on this list. When we listened to the io, we were just blown away by its sound quality. You’ll get a sound that draws you into the music and makes you want to pull out the next record.
Rotel A11 Tribute 50-Watt Stereo Integrated Amp
The A11 Tribute was made in honor of Ken Ishiwata, who was with Marantz for over 40 years and became great friends with the Rotel engineers. Ken took the original A11 design and came up with several ways to improve its performance. Unfortunately, he passed away as the product was being finalized, but his family and Rotel agreed to produce these as a tribute to his great contribution to the audio industry.
The A11 is a model that will give you wonderful sound, but with a full feature set for more contemporary music systems. It has 4 analog inputs, a moving magnet phono input, Bluetooth Apt-X, a home theater bypass, and even a preamp output for driving a subwoofer.
The front panel has a beautiful, simple display that will let you adjust bass, treble, and balance. You are probably noticing a trend here, yes, the A11 Tribute has a toroidal transformer too, for great performance.
This is another very smooth-sounding amp, as a matter of fact, “sweet” is the first term that we all agreed on when the first demo cut started playing.
For those of you who appreciate a few more features and want to stay well south of $1,000, the A11 is a great choice.
The next two integrated amps on our list both top out at just under $1,000. These are the bigger brothers of two of our favorites already on the list. Both have received numerous 5-star reviews from all over the world.
They are vastly different in feature sets, but similar in that both deliver sound that makes your toes tap to the music and can push harder to drive speakers a lot better than the other ones on this list.
Both of these have great dynamics with excellent detail. The CXA61 reminds us of a punchy punk rock band, while the Brio is a little more laid back — but with the power of a full symphony orchestra. We do give the Brio a slight edge on its headphone amp.
The one that is right for your system will come down to the feature set you need and matching up to the sound of your speakers and listening tastes, but you really can’t go wrong with either one as it astounds us how good each one sounds.
Some of you may be thinking of putting this much, or more, into a vintage receiver from the ’70s. We can tell you — either one of these will blow the sound those produce totally out of the water —there is just no comparison! Don’t get us wrong, we love vintage gear, but the advancements in power amp and preamp technology over the last 50 years have been huge, and these two are the best of the best at $1,000.
Cambridge Audio CXA61 Integrated Amp
The connections on the CXA61 cover a lot of situations. You have 4 rear analog RCA inputs, a front mini-plug analog input, built-in Bluetooth aptX HD, 2 Toslink digital inputs, a coax digital input, and even a USB input. We should point out there is no phono input but Cambridge makes a couple of great ones you can add as a separate component.
You also get a subwoofer out and preamp outputs, plus connections for 2 pairs of speakers.
In the digital section, the DACs are ESS SABRE ES9010K2M. These are high-performance, audiophile-level DACs capable of Hi-Res Audio, even up to 32-bit/384kHz, and DSD256 quality when using the USB input from a computer.
The unit houses a massive toroidal power transformer with separate windings for each channel. Cambridge trickled down a lot of tech from the top-of-the-line Edge products into the CXA61. They reduced the number of devices in the signal path for an even cleaner sound.
This series of Cambridge amps has always really impressed us with how well they get you involved in the music. With all of its connection possibilities, the CXA61 is a great centerpiece for a modern music system.
Rega Brio Integrated Amp
The Brio is all about combining old school analog with the latest solid state technology to deliver engaging British sound. They package it all up in a retro-looking small case that looks pretty unassuming until you turn it on and listen.
For the inputs, you get an excellent moving magnet phono input, 4 more analog inputs, and a record out to allow you to make cassette or reel to reel mixtapes. There is one set of solid speaker binding posts on the rear. Interestingly, all the switching occurs at the back panel to keep the signal path as short as possible.
The front has a full-sized headphone jack with a headphone amp that rivals many separate headphone amps we have heard.
Rega also uses a toroidal power transformer and a Class AB amplifier design. The preamp section has a secondary power supply to keep things fully isolated. The volume knob feels a little jerky to us in how it responds to the remote, but it is superlinear and you can tell Rega put the money into the sound.
Like the AXA61, this amp will surprise you at how well it can drive speakers way beyond its price range. If you are the type who wants your amp to be pure analog, with a great phono preamp, with an excellent headphone amp to boot, you can not beat the Brio.
We hope this overview will help you pick the best amp when it comes time to upgrade your system. As always, if you have any questions feel free to reach out to us over chat, email, phone, or drop into one of our Raleigh or Charlotte, NC showrooms!