Hifi Beginner’s Guide: Amplifiers

Articles, Recommendations

Jumping into a new hobby or interest can seem daunting. The world of hi-fi has a particularly steep learning curve, especially the amplifiers. It’s expensive, only available in major cities, contains an exhaustingly extensive glossary, and involves as much snake oil as it does real science. For fans of music though, the pay off is exquisite. I’ve recently published a turntable guide and a speaker guide, which are great starting points to the world of hi-fi. Now we are finishing off the beginner’s course with amplifiers.

Our speaker guide introduced bookshelf speakers that will be useful in any hi-fi setup from small stereo to full home theater. From here on out, we’ll refer to the different types of systems in hi-fi shorthand. The logic is fairly simple, speakers-decimal point-subs. I run a traditional stereo system, a 2.0, at home. If I felt the itch to add a sub, I could then make my system a 2.1 (we will only recommend amps that fit this mold). Home theater systems will begin to include a center channel (3.1) or even surrounds (5.1). If the room is big, or you’ve got the cash, there are amps ready for seven or even nine speakers! This shorthand is important if you decide to test speakers in store and can also help you maneuver through the hi-fi message boards. Now we can turn to some tips for purchasing your first stereo system. Quick note: that snake oil I mentioned earlier was referring to speaker cables. This is the only speaker cable you’ll ever need. If you want it to look good, throw a sleeve and banana plugs on them. Now onto some recommendations for speakers, amps, and subwoofers. 

    When picking an amplifier, it can be helpful to have an endgame in mind. If you are fully committed to a seven channel surround sound system, then you’ll want to pursue that route. Personally, a 2.0 or 2.1 will provide you with exceptional sound as well as give you the most bang for your buck early on. My recommendation is to start with an integrated 2 channel amp. An integrated amplifier combines the multiple inputs of a pre-amp as well as the power supply for you speakers. The deeper you get into hi-fi, the more you’ll see setups with individual components. A monoblock amp for each speaker, a preamp for each device, and who knows what other nonsense that costs tens of thousands of dollars. No, for us, let’s start with some simple brilliance.

I’ve tried to remain budget conscious and give you some reasonable recommendations, but please know the hi-fi gets exponentially better as you approach the thousand dollar threshold. A typical recommendation is to keep your speaker budget at 60% of your overall. It would be good to consider that when picking out your amp. You can always upgrade later on. In fact, I hope you do! It’s the best part of this hobby. 

If you’re stretched thin for your amp, I recommend craigslist, pawn shops, or second hand stores. Vintage amps can be had cheaper and are about the same, if not better, quality than most sub $200 amps. But if new is what you crave, I’d tell you to take a peak at this SMSL. I’ve used this for my PC for years and it’s handled itself well. Bluetooth, usb, sub out, and remote, give it plenty of great features. It doesn’t have a phono stage, so be sure your turntable has a built in preamp, or you’ll be needing to buy a stand alone like this piece of Schiit.

I recommend that you save a bit and commit to something more sturdy and impressive in its sound. The American brand Emotiva makes a great entry level amp that should have no problem powering most speakers. I’ve used this same model for 2 years and it still impresses me. If you’d like to step up a bit, the Audiolab 6000A has been getting rave reviews since it debuted in 2018. Just barely coming in at under $1,000, the Rega Brio only gets 5 star reviews. Although, it doesn’t have any digital inputs, so you’ll be without bluetooth and won’t be able to hook up a PC or TV without some clever chord play.

For those of you looking to show off and prefer name brands, you’re probably gonna have to shell out some serious coin. The Marantz PM6007 is a beautiful amp and fits right alongside my other recommendations in performance and price. If you came here for McIntosh, find a dealer and go have fun. They’re beautiful amps and you pay for the branding as much as the sound. They’re great, you’ll get tons of compliments, but I can’t expect someone new to hi-fi to commit to such a cost. This ends our hifi beginner’s guide. You should now feel prepared to build an exemplary setup with a reasonable budget.