AT A GLANCE Plus
High-performance Wolfson Audio WM8671 DAC handles signals up to 192 kHz/24-bit
AccuBASS designed to restore depth to compressed audio sources
Automatic input switching
Lack of front-panel controls may be problematic for some installs
This terrific amplifier and DAC solution improves sonics in a small package.
The quest for audio simplicity has come far closer to becoming a reality with the introduction of music streamers from the likes of Sonos and Apple. Now just connect one of these devices to an audio system, and you’ve got an entire world of music literally at your fingertips. However, these components aren’t exactly revered for their terrific audio qualities, and many dress up the sonics by running them through an outboard DAC before connecting to a quality amplifier. But in space-challenged places like an office, kitchen, or bedroom, this can be easier said than done.
AT A GLANCE Plus
Fine performance and sound
No mute control
Limited detail in volume readout
As an integrated amplifier/DAC combo for serious listeners, the D 3020’s audio quality and value are unmistakable.
Audio types old enough to have viewed Chevy Chase’s pratfalls live rather than on demand may remember an unprepossessing integrated amplifier from an unfamiliar brand. The NAD 3020, despite a power rating laughably modest even in 1978 (20 watts per channel) and next to no features, gained notice because, as the lore went, “it sounded great.” And it did—thanks to intelligent amplifier design, a conservative power rating, and the value—widely underappreciated, then and now—of dynamic headroom.
Price: $999 At A Glance: Desktop stereo integrated amp, including tube preamp and DAC • Apple-approved digital iPod connection • Jitter reduction
We’re Not in Kansas Anymore
Like many surround-sound audiophiles, I listen to a lot of twochannel material as well. It’s part retro sacrament, part necessary evil. Although I haven’t turned on my ancient stereo amp and preamp in months—their presence in the rack is mainly symbolic—I regularly run my 5.1-channel system in stereo mode when the nature of the content demands it. I also get a lot of use out of the cheap speakers and chip-amp in my kitchen, not to mention the powered iPod speakers in my bedroom. I use my 2.1-channel desktop rig throughout the day—not only when I’m at my desk, with the inevitable YouTube distractions, but also during the evening, when I curl up with a book. My armchair happens to sit across the room from my desktop system. Because the distance from the speakers is greater than the distance between the speakers—about a 3:1 ratio—this isn’t an ideal setup for stereo imaging. But it’s great for casual listening. I’ve spent some of the happiest hours of my life sitting in that chair, listening to that system.
Few audio companies are as closely associated with a single individual as Pass Laboratories is with its founder Nelson Pass, a man who has always blazed his own path when it comes to designing audio gear. Pass founded Threshold Electronics back in the early 1970s, but when he wanted to explore new, simpler circuit topologies in the early 1990s, he created Pass Labs as a way to market his latest creations.
The two integrated amps in the Pass Labs line, the INT-150 and INT-30A, are a good example of his less-than-conventional approach, seeing as both appear to be identical except for the critical question of output power. Physically the two amps are indistinguishable, with exactly the same functions, weight, dimensions, and even price tag. It’s only when you take a peek at the spec sheet that the differences become apparent, with the INT-150 delivering a healthy 150 watts per-channel, while the INT-30A tops out at just one-fifth that amount.
So what gives? Why would anyone buy an inline four when they’re offering you the V-12 for the same money?
AT A GLANCE Plus
Superb sonics from high-resolution digital sources
Substantial amplifier power
Unusual looks; fine finish quality
No headphone or other additional outputs
Un-ergonomic remote controller
Reference-quality sound from hi-rez music files made
simple—at a reference-grade price.
What form will the Audiophile System of the Future take? It’s an open question, though it’s a pretty fair bet that the pallet-loads of tube power amps and skyscraper speakers of the high end’s golden age will not return any time soon. One proposed answer, from Wadia Digital, is the Intuition 01 power DAC, a swoopily formed oblong that incorporates very substantial two-channel amplification (190 watts x 2 into 8 ohms, rated), highly sophisticated digital-to-analog conversion facilities, and basic input-selection and volume controls.