Positive Feedback Logo

2015 CES - A Yellow Brick Road Of Integrated Amplifiers

05-24-2015 | By Robert S. Youman | Issue 78

If you have been following my reviews over the last few years, I have taken a considerable interest in integrated amplifiers. This includes those from Pass Labs, Vitus, D'Agostino, Simaudio, BMC and more. It was not my intent when arriving at CES this year to focus on this subject, but I noticed that there seems to be a definite trend going on with some exciting new models and features hitting the market from some of our most prestigious high end manufacturers.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating. The discussion concerning separate verses integrated solutions has been around for years and it is the classic audiophile dilemma. An integrated amp will save you money on interconnects, power cords and resonance control devices. At the cost of high end wire alone these days, you can use these funds to significantly upgrade your other components (including wire and resonance), or just leave it in the bank for other priorities. Not a bad thing at all when negotiating budget with your significant other. You also need not worry about the sound impact and synergy of interconnects and power cords between several components.

You do lose some flexibility to tweak the sound presentation with a separate preamp and amplifier from different manufacturers or with different design philosophies (some like to mix tubes and solid state for example), but I like the whole concept of one vision and one voicing behind the design. Many will argue that separates can provide the advantages of independent power supplies, reduced internal noise and heat, and better isolation for the preamp section. All of these factors can tip the scale either way, but in the end it's still all about the execution.

Pass Labs INT-60 and INT-150 Integrated Amplifiers

Pass Labs continues to evolve their lineup by implementing the Point 8 topology within their new INT-60 (Class A) and INT-250 (Class A/B) integrated amplifiers. This includes the same power supply and output stages and only two gain stages. Both have four direct access buttons for inputs, a digital level display, a mute button and a volume control on the faceplate. The back includes four line level inputs, one line level output, and two pairs of Furutech speaker binding posts (a nice upgrade).

From an aesthetic standpoint, the thing that got me especially excited is the new Point 8 faceplate and power meter on both models. Thank you Desmond Harrington! Over the years, Desmond has been a key driver behind the industrial design and casework for all the Pass Labs designs, which are considered by many as some of the best in the industry. I always felt that the original integrated amp designs from Pass Labs were slighted by not having the same sexy meters as their counterparts in the amplifier lineup. Someone has been listening.

At a conservatively rated 60 watts per channel, the INT-60 has doubled its stated output from the original INT-30A. Similar specifications hold true for the INT-250 at 250 watts per channel compared to the INT-150 at 150 watts per channel. The power supply enhancements are said to have significantly increased. the overall unit weight for both models. Clearly, the INT-60 and INT-250 are different animals from their early siblings.

I did not get a chance to hear either of these amps at CES as only static display models were available. General availability is targeted for the April/May 2015 timeframe. I will have a full review for our readers as soon as I get my hands on one or both.

Pass Laboratories
13395 New Airport Road
Suite G
Auburn, CA 95602

Pass Labs INT-60 and INT-150 Integrated Amplifiers

Stacked INT-60 & INT-30

Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems M-Life Integrated Amplifier

My review of the D'Agostino Momentum ($45,000) Integrated Amplifier was just published. I found it to set new bench marks for integrated amplifiers and that it could compete on virtually any level with the very best separate components.

The new D'Agostino M-Life Integrated Amplifier ($48,000) was introduced at CES with a big bang and plenty of well deserved fanfare. Based on the same preamp, amplifier, and exterior design of the Momentum, it adds new streaming functionality for Bluetooth and Airplay. Android and iOS applications are available along with vTuner and Tidal access. Formats such as DSD, WAV, FLAC and PCM up to 24-bits/192kHz will be supported. A new five inch LCD display is now included in the front faceplate replacing the tone control functionality.

Like the Momentum, at 200 watts per channel, the M-Life is an elegant and refined beast but a very well thought out and feature rich king of the jungle. Dan continues to promote ease of use and consolidation for typical room applications and real life needs. And of course we have the unique D'Agostino aesthetics which will make your head spin. Again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but my guess is that the M-Life will have a high WAF (wife acceptance factor) in any living room.

There were just too many people in the room for me to get a serious listen, but I assume the sound performance will be similar if not identical to the Momentum. I have a factory tour in Phoenix coming up in February. I hope to learn more and I will be reporting back to readers with additional pictures and information. Exciting stuff!

Dan D'Agostino Master Audio Systems
P.O. Box 89
Cave Creek, AZ 85327

M-Life Integrated Amp

M-Life Integrated Amp

VAC 160i SE Integrated Amplifier

There were plenty of impressive big buck big scale big thrill systems in the Venetian Tower, but the two rooms that really touched my soul were two smaller rooms with a more intimate yet amazingly robust sound. The first included the VAC 160i SE integrated amplifier, DCS Puccini CD/SACD player, Dynaudio C2 Platinum Loudspeakers, Brinkmank Bardo Turntable and 10.5 Arm, Pi Cartridge and all Shunyata wire.

I put the system through the paces with my ripped CD of some familiar audition tracks (yes, I am that guy—sorry). I was immediately taken back by the vast layers of rich detailed harmonics and natural sound at all frequencies. Highs had just the right amount of sparkle and speed with no edge. Mids were warm and seductive with a never ending amount of texture and bloom. I was amazed by the bass performance with plenty of slam and weight. I looked around the room to make sure that there was no subwoofer hiding in a corner (that was unfortunately the case in another unnamed system).

Obviously each individual component played a part, but my suspicions were that the VAC 160i SE ($17,700) was a critical contributor. A speaker manufacturer once confided in me that they used the 160i for initial speaker placement for some of their most expensive systems in the field. As a one box multi-tasker, it was easy to set up and move when needed. It wasn't long before he realized that this design could compete with some of the best separates at a fraction of the price.

The 160i is not a new player in the game, but VAC separates are held in such high esteem and are used in so many elite systems, that the 160i has not received the press and the praise that it so rightly deserves. At 85 watts per channel, it is a true triode tube amplifier with an optional moving magnet phono stage. Trickle down technology and circuit design from the cost no object Statement amplifiers have been utilized. The SE (Special Edition) includes upgrades for the input transformer and several additional passive components. There is no question that this is a strong contender and should be at the top of your audition list!

VAC Amplification Company
1911 North East Avenue
Sarasota, Florida 34234

VAC 160i

VAC 160i & System

VAC 160i

VAC 160i

Aavik Acoutics U-300 Unity Amplifier

Lars Kristensen is one of the most interesting players in the high end industry. His resume includes some very impressive associations with several premier brands including Nordost and Riadho and now the newly formed Aavik and Ansuz. His demonstrations are extremely entertaining and informative. There is no question that he is a music lover of all genres and his enthusiasm and passion are unsurpassed. My wife immediately fell in love as he skipped from demo track to demo track and just could not turn down the smile and dance from beat to beat.

This room included the Aavik U-300 Unity amplifier, the Raidho X-3 speakers and all Ansuz Acoustics wire. I was amazed how these moderately sized speakers and simple system configuration pressurized the room. Bass performance was exceptionally tight and detailed with plenty of authority. Again, I took a quick look around expecting a pair of subwoofers to be placed somewhere in the room. They were not to be. Mids and highs were outstanding from every perspective.

The Aavik U-300 ($30,000) immediately caught my attention as Lars magically skipped through his paces and comparisons. Another stunner from an industrial design perspective, the casework is machined from solid aluminum billet and has been anodized to a beautiful gunmetal finish.

At approximately 37lbs. and 300 watts per channel, this Class D design includes not only preamp and amplifier stages, but also an adjustable RIAA phono stage and full featured DAC. Advanced mechanical and electrical grounding has been implemented throughout. This has become an important consideration for virtually every product developed by this design team. An adjustable gain is provided in three steps (3, 6, 12dB) for each line input. I was also impressed by the hybrid volume control that works in the digital domain but turns off when the volume is set.

The DAC seems to be the key with extraordinary levels of transparency and dynamics. Digital inputs include SPIDF, TOSLINK and asynchronous USB up to 24-bits/192kHz. I have never heard a Class D amplifier design sound so smooth and natural. Chief Designer Michael Borresen has hit this one out of the ball park. It might be worth a trip to Denmark to beg, borrow or steal this little jewel.

Aavik Acoustics
9000 Aalborg
+45 40 51 14 31

Aavik Acoutics U-300 Unity Amplifier

Aavik U-300 & System

Aavik Acoutics U-300 Unity Amplifier

Aavik U-300