Top Picks Processors and Power Amps

Processors
< $1,999
AudioQuest DragonFly USB DAC: $99 (reduced from original price of $249; version 1.2: $149)
The AudioQuest DragonFly is a high-performance digital-to-analog converter in the form of a USB thumb drive that lets you bypass the typically awful soundcard found in most PCs. While it’s designed to feed headphones and computer speakers, it can also be used to deliver high-resolution signals to full-blown audio rigs. In comparing the sound from his PC’s analog output with sound run through the DragonFly, reviewer Mark Fleischmann wrote: “The DragonFly had better imaging, greater depth, richer texture, and could play louder without inducing fatigue.” (November 2012, Read Full Review)
NAD D 3020 Hybrid Digital Integrated Amplifier: $499
An update of a classic amplifier known for its conservative power rating and impressive performance, NAD’s D 3020 is ready to handle anything you can throw at it—analog or digital. Most notably, it has digital inputs that feed a high performance digital-to-analog converter and a USB connector, and it supports high-quality aptX streaming from Bluetooth-enabled devices. How’s it sound? “Great! In a desktop configuration…the NAD delivered all the output anyone might wish, with never a hint of strain,” wrote reviewer Mark Fleischmann. (October 2013, Read Full Review)
Outlaw Audio Model 975 Surround Processor: $549
In a category where most manufacturers add bells and whistles, Outlaw has gone in the opposite direction with a streamlined, simple-to-use processor that’s tailor-made for budget-minded enthusiasts. For $549 you get high-performance 192-kilohertz/24-bit DACs, excellent video processing with 1080p upconversion as well as DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD playback. Referring to the opening scene of Iron Man 2 on Blu-ray, reviewer David Vaughn wrote: “My jaw literally dropped... Directional cues were seamless between the speakers with phenomenal imaging and deep bass.” (May 2013, Read Full Review)
Emotiva UMC-200 Preamp/Processor: $599
If you’re looking for a workman-like pre/pro that trades frills for a heavy dose of audio performance, open another browser and grab your credit card—your search is over. In the words of reviewer David Vaughn, the entry-level UMC-200 “serves up an astounding value.” True, it is devoid of video processing, analog video inputs and networking amenities but it supports virtually every surround format and puts four HDMI 1.4 inputs and an 11-band parametric EQ at your fingertips. Most important, its audio prowess will blow you away—especially when you consider how little you have to pay to get it. (HomeTheater.com, Read Full Review)
Meridian Director USB DAC: $699
Can a digital-to-analog converter deliver a music experience that is transformative? Reviewer Mark Fleischmann thinks so: “I hooked the Director up to my desktop system, started playing The Next Day, David Bowie’s comeback album, and then had to hunt around the room for the top of my head because it had just been blown off. It was the voice that did it. The Director made the elusive Bowie stand out like a flesh-and-blood human against the skeletal backdrop of guitar, bass, and drums.” (December 2013, Read Full Review)
AudioControl Rialto 400 Amplifier/DAC: $799
AudioControl saw the need for a compact yet high-performance amplifier/digital-to-analog converter that could boost the performance delivered by many of today’s wireless music systems. The solution? Combine a robust power amp and topnotch DAC in one stylish box. AC engineers even threw in an AccuBass control that adds depth and richness to compressed audio files. As reviewer John Sciacca put it, “The Rialto 400 definitely succeeds at what it was designed to do; it provides a terrific amplifier and DAC solution in a small package.” (SoundandVision.com, Read Full Review)
NuForce AVP-18 Surround Processor: $1,095
The AVP-18 is an all-digital surround processor that can turn your living room into a concert venue with just the right amount of reverb. It’s simple to operate and boasts a proprietary calibration system that lets great recordings really strut their stuff. Reviewer Fred Manteghian was blown away: “The AVP-18 is sleek, simple, and from my view, stupendous. Sound quality is completely first rate and far and above what could be accomplished at this price point had NuForce decided to play the features game.” (February/March 2014, Read Full Review)
Integra DHC-40.2 Surround Processor: $1,200
The 7.2-channel DHC-40.2 offers THX Ultra2 certification and a bevy of modern features that includes Internet audio and home network streaming, along with most of the modern amenities of top-end AVRs such as Audyssey room correction. Reviewer David Vaughn noted that “If you’re looking to enter the world of separates on a budget, be sure to put this Integra at the top of your list. It’s one of the best values I’ve come across in years.” (February 2011, Read Full Review)
Wadia 121 Decoding Computer: $1,299
Tired of hearing music that’s been mangled by MP3? Want to squeeze every last drop of resolution from lossless files? The Wadia 121 is a DAC to be reckoned with—not to mention an awesome headphone amplifier. Signaling a new chapter in audio history, it will reveal new layers of detail with compressed music files and wow you with high-resolution files. Reviewer Mark Fleischmann reveled in the “unexpected detail, variety, and pinpoint imaging” he heard while listening to the Deep Purple classic Machine Head. In a word: Fabulous. (HomeTheater.com, Read Full Review)
Marantz AV7005 Surround Processor: $1,599
Scheduled to be replaced in late 2012 by the AV7701 ($1,699). Reviewer Michael Fremer liked the highly-loaded 7.2-channel AV7005 so much he purchased it as has reference surround processor following his evaluation. “The Marantz AV7005 offers preemptive state-of-the-art features, impressive ergonomics, inviting sonic performance, and even good looks,” he wrote, calling it “flat out brilliant.” (April 2011, Read Full Review)
$2,000 to $4,999
Parasound Halo P 7 Preamp: $2,000
An unusual home theater component, in that the P7 has no digital audio processing and is merely a high quality 7-channel analog preamp designed to be mated with a separate standalone surround processor or A/V receiver with full 7.1-channel preamp outputs. The idea is that it provides future-proof high-end analog amplification and allows the use of a relatively inexpensive (and more readily replaced) AVR to provide the latest surround sound modes and features. It’s pass-through feature may also be attractive to those who wish to retain an existing high-end 2-channel system while switching their two front speakers for surround-sound use. (June 2012, Read Full Review)
Integra DHC-80.3 Surround Processor: $2,600
Integra’s best prepro is a bargain by high end standards, and comes bloated with all the latest surround modes and Internet-streaming features, as well as Audyssey’s most sophisticated room correction scheme, MultEQ XT32, which worked extremely well, according to reviewer Kris Deering. “At the end of the day, this is the reason to own this processor,” he said. “I love the other bells and whistles the DHC-80.3 brings to the table, but this is one feature that stands to noticeably improve the sound of your system.” (February 2012, Read Full Review)
Yamaha CX-A5000 Surround Processor: $3,000
The top dog in Yamaha’s vaunted Aventage line, the 11.2-channel CX-A5000 offers all the amenities an audiophile could want—no-expense-spared build quality, sophisticated room correction (via the proprietary YPAO-R.S.C. system), Ultra HD video scaling, a full array of connections—including seven HDMI inputs and balanced inputs and outputs—and, of course, impeccable sound quality. “Surefire winner” was how reviewer Mark Fleischmann put it. “Whether it was two-channel stereo, streamed FLAC files from my home server, or multichannel tracks from Blu-ray concert discs, I was never left wanting…” (January 2014, Read Full Review)
Marantz AV8801 Surround Processor: $3,599
The AV8801 is one serious surround processor. This baby is packed with state-of-the-art goodies, including support for an 11.2-channel system with Audyssey DSX or DTS Neo:X processing, 4K video capability, six HDMI 1.4a inputs, a bevy of streaming services, and Apple’s AirPlay. It’s also the first Marantz product to use Audyssey’s acclaimed MultEQ XT32 room correction system, which left reviewer David Vaughn stunned: “I didn’t realize how much better the piece could sound until I took the 30 minutes to run the program. Wowza, what an experience!” (May 2013, Read Full Review)
Cary Audio Design Cinema 12 Surround Processor: $4995
It wasn’t without some ergonomic quirks, and its stripped-down, purist audio means it offers video switching of your HDMI sources, but no video processing or upscaling. But, as with most of Cary’s audio gear we’ve tested in the past, the Cinema 12 knocks it out of the park on sound quality. Reviewed with its matching power amp, “the Cinema 12 was superbly musical, and the Model 7.125 [power amplifier] has the ability to re-create music with the startling dynamics of a live event…Yes, goose-bumping good,” noted reviewer Fred Manteghian. (March 2012, Read Full Review)
$5,000 >
McIntosh MX121 Surround Processor: $6,000
It’s not cheap, but McIntosh’s newest surround processor is it’s least expensive by far and performed brilliantly well when mated with the company’s new MM7055 7-channel amplifier. It’s based loosely on AV7005 prepro from sister brand Marantz and has a somewhat similar (though more truncated) feature set, combined with both cosmetic and performance enhancements. (June 2012, Read Full Review)
Krell Foundation Surround Processor: $6,500
Drawing on technology developed for Krell’s $30,000 flagship Evolution 707 pre/pro, the aptly named Foundation celebrates sonic realism in favor of extraneous features. There is no onboard Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/AirPlay connectivity, no Netflix or Pandora apps, and no video processing. What you do get is an unwavering focus on sound. As reviewer Michael Fremer put it: “The 3D edition of Life of Pi sounded as it looked: truly three-dimensional…“The result was a giant, floating, shimmering, non-mechanical ether in the room approached but once before in my room...The Foundation made me want to sit and listen. And that’s what it’s all about.” (April 2014, Read Full Review)
Wadia Digital Intuition 01 Integrated Amplifier-DAC: $7,500
The Intuition 01 is a welcome step toward the Audiophile System of the Future, combining 2x190-watt amplification, sophisticated digital-to-analog conversion facilities, input-selection, and volume control in a unique, swooping chassis that screams cutting-edge. Setup is a simple matter of plugging in an audio source—be it Mac/PC or SACD player—and kicking back to experience treasured recordings in all of their high-rez glory. Listening to a DSD recording of a Mozart violin concerto, reviewer Daniel Kumin wrote: “I heard a purity of violin tone, particularly of the highest notes, that I’d rarely if ever encountered from my system.” (SoundandVision.com, Read Full Review)
Denon AVP-A1HDCI Surround Processor: $7,500
We reviewed the 12-channel, THX Ultra2-certified AVP-AHDCI back in 2009, and Denon has kept it in the line and continued to upgrade it to where it now offers Audyssey MultEQ XT32 room correction, all the latest Dolby surround modes (including PLIIz for height channels), and the Denon’s current spate of Internet music services. A truly unique component that, according to reviewer Kris Deering, had “the lowest noise floor I’ve heard in my system. Even when I put my ear right up against my loudspeakers with the system on, I couldn’t detect any noise at all. It’s this kind of noise floor that makes music playback a transporting experience.” (September 2009, Read Full Review)
Bryston SP3 Surround Processor: $9,500
The old “straight-wire-with-gain” adage applies to Bryston’s flagship processor, which forgoes legacy video connections in favor of eight HDMI inputs and provides an Ethernet jack for firmware updates so you won’t have to worry about obsolescence. Whether you’re listening to a vinyl LP or watching a movie on Blu-ray, prepare to be amazed. Reviewer Fred Manteghian singled out Zombieland’s pristine DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack for “excellent dialogue intelligibility” and called the gunshots in Safe House “extremely realistic.” (January 2013, Read Full Review)
Classe CT-SSP Surround Processor: $9,500
Another example of the bare-bones hardcore audiophile approach taken by a handful of high end audio companies, the Classe CT-SSP is both expensive and stripped down compared with most of today’s Japanese-designed modern receivers and preamp/processors, though it offers HDMI video switching and has been updated since our review to HDMI 1.4 to accommodate 3D video and Audio Return Channel. Bells and whistles are not why you buy it, said reviewer Fred Manteghian, who called it’s sonics “smooth and highly detailed.” (Oct 2012, Read Full Review)
Power Amplifiers
< $1,999
Marantz MM7055: $1,200
Tested as the mate for the Marantz AV7005 surround processor, reviewer Michael Fremer found the MM7005 a competent performer that lived up to its modest price tag. Rated at 140 watts per channel into 8 ohms with two channels driven, it achieved 108 watts with all 5 channels driven at our low .1% distortion figure. While it made some surgical compromises compared with Fremer’s much more expensive reference amp, “its musical heart was in the right place and at a price that can’t be beat.” (April 2011, Read Full Review)
Outlaw Audio Model 7500: $1,599
Internet-only Outlaw Audio is a favorite among our staffers for its high value quotient, and the 5-channel Model 7500 is a perfect example. Reviewer Gary Altunian cited its “excellent dynamics and headroom” and “multidimensional soundstage reproduction.” It’s rated 200 watts rms per channel with all channels driven into 8 ohms with low .03% distortion but easily exceeded this number in our bench tests. Throw in audiophile features like balanced audio inputs and a remote trigger input and you’ve got a big brute that sounds great at a ridiculously low price. (September 2008, Read Full Review)
$2,000-$4,999
Cary Audio Design Model 7.125: $3,995
We’ve actually tested this 7-channel behemoth twice with different Cary prepros and were equally impressed both times. It’s rated for 125 watts per channel with all channels driven into 8 ohms with .1% distortion, and nicely achieved those numbers. Reviewer Fred Manteghian found that “the Model 7.125 has the ability to re-create music with the startling dynamics of a live event. Yes, goose-bumping good. The folks at Cary are blessed with good ears and great taste.” (March 2012, Read Full Review)
Parasound Halo A 51: $4,500
The 5-channel Halo A 51, the work of respected designer John Curl, is not only gorgeous to look at, but delivers the goods with aplomb. Reviewer Kris Deering found it bettered his excellent reference amp, an Outlaw Audio Model 7900, saying “the A51 definitely had a more musical nature with it’s detailed top end,” a John Mayer track “was less fatiguing than with the Model 7900, and the instruments had a richer sound with better definition.” It’s THX Ultra2-certified, and rated at 250 watts per channel into 8 ohms with all channels driven—a spec it handily reached in our bench tests. (June 2012, Read Full Review)
Parasound Halo JC 1: $4,500
With a price tag that’s not for the weak of heart, this $4,500 monoblock amp rated at 400 watts into an 8 ohm load, will likely be used only for the front two channels in any theater set up. In that configuration, mated with the 5-channel A-51 to fill out seven channels, it took reviewer Kris Deering’s system to such new heights that he cashed in his retirement fund and bought his review samples, noting simply that “The JC 1s left my jaw on the floor.” (June 2012, Read Full Review)
$5000 >
McIntosh MC8207: $6,000
Classically beautiful, the MC8207 is a 7-channel amp based on the company’s highly regarded, $8,500 model MC207, but with the fancy analog VU meters replaced with LED meters instead, for $2,500 less. Dress it any way you want, this 200 watts per channel amplifier (with all channels driven) proved itself the real star of the $34,000 all-McIntosh system reviewed by Michael Fremer, who noted that, “it’s a rock-solid-sounding, high-power/high-performance, impeccably American-made amplifier that adds pride of ownership and bling factors that can’t be quantified.” (June 2012, Read Full Review)
ATI AT6005: $6,395
Founded in the early ’90s by Morris Kessler of SAE fame, ATI has spent much of its time working quietly behind the scenes building amplifiers for the likes of Adcom and Theta Digital. Comparing this 116-pound, 5 x 300-watt behemoth with his John Curl-designed reference amp, reviewer David Vaughn concluded, “If I were in the market for a new amp, the ATI would be at the top of my list, due to its low noise and seemingly endless power output.” Making the AT6005 even more recommendable is its confidence inspiring seven-year transferable warranty. (October 2014, Read Full Review)
Denon POA-A1HDCI: $7,500
This truly massive 10-channel (!) amplifier delivers 150 watts per channel and weighs 130 pounts; it has four power transformers with individual windings associated with each amplifier channel. With 7 of 10 channels driven in our bench tests (the most we could do), it handily achieved 169 watts. Kris Deering wrote, “On the upper end, the amp had a great sense of transparency... It provided crisp, detailed highs…If you’re looking for plenty of power and great low-end performance from a full-range speaker, you should consider the POA-A1HDCI.” (September 2009, Read Full Review)
Bryston 9B SST²: $8,095
As reviewer Fred Manteghian put it, the 9B SST² is a “nothing-held-back” old-school, five-channel Class A/B amplifier that’s easy to recommend for its ability to “absolutely astound you and connect you with your music.” Backed by an incomparable 20-year transferable warranty, this war horse delivers 120 watts per channel (200 into 4 ohms), each of which has a dedicated toroidal transformer and heatsinks “large enough to cool off a Google server.” (January 2013, Read Full Review)
Classe CD-5300: $9,000
The CD-5300 was our mate for Classe’s CT-SSP surround processor, with a power rating of 300 watts per channel into 8 ohms with all channels driven. Reviewer Fred Manteghian noted that his power-hungry Revel Salon speakers were delighted by its presence, and that “the CT-5300 exhibits that jump factor that’s all too hard to come by and makes scenes come alive.” (October 2010, Read Full Review)
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COMMENTS
idaman@q.com's picture

I use you guys for buying electronics but I notice that you never do recommendations of these larger sizes that are under $3000.00.There has to be some good units out there and I am not interested in 3-D and could live without smart features if I can get a best picture at a down to earth price.

kathleen's picture

Has anyone heard of - AZON DEAL UPDATER (google it)? They have a little gold box on the site that spits out any discount promo codes for any product on Amazon. Bought my Samsung HT-E6500 lower than the discounted price. Don't think too many people know about this.

Aschinck's picture

Good afternoon guys.
As a worker in the electronic industry i often look at your top pick to see if some of my products would find a place in it. Recently i realize that for a buyer your list is kind of shitty. First most of the model are 2-3-4 years back. Would it be possible to have a top pick of 2014 and then 2015 product so we can keep a fair track?

thank you

Vrahode's picture

There has been a lot of new technology in viewing surfaces in recent years as the prior post stated. Draper, for example, who I work for has released a new line of surfaces called TecVision that out perform many competitor products through wider viewing cones, more consistent gain, lower gloss levels and even superior angular reflectivity. We would love to send samples and allow the folks at Sound and Vision the opportunity for objective comparison of these recent breakthroughs in screen technology.

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