TEAC AI-503 Integrated Amplifier/DAC Review


Performance
Features
Ergonomics
Value
PRICE $1,000

AT A GLANCE
Plus
Clear, crisp sound
Cool, retro design
Can drive efficient speakers to reasonably loud levels
Minus
Hi-res Bluetooth requires LDAC source
Pricey

THE VERDICT
TEAC’s stylish, computer-friendly integrated amp is a great option for both desktop and living-room listening.

Integrated amplifiers designed for use both on the desktop and in the listening room are a niche category that we’ve looked at before, most recently in reviews of Elac’s $699 Element EA101EQ-G and Cary Audio’s AiOS. But of all the hi-fi manufacturers working this space, TEAC is the one that embraces it most enthusiastically. The company offers a full lineup of compact, desktop-friendly integrated amps, including the new AI-503 ($1,000), a model that combines an asynchronous USB input (for a computer), a dedicated headphone amp, and hi-res-capable Bluetooth streaming (more on that in a bit).

The key to the AI-503’s compactness is its use of a high-efficiency Class D amplifier from Denmark’s ICEpower, which eliminates the need for bulky heatsinks. Power is spec’d by TEAC at 2 x 30 watts (8 ohms), and the amp is compatible with both 8-ohm and 4-ohm speakers.

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Separate Verita AK4490 digital-to-analog converters are used for the left and right channels, with support for up to 384-kilohertz/32-bit PCM and 11.2-megahertz DSD. When in asynchronous USB mode, the DACs are driven by separate clocks that operate at 44.1 and 48 kHz, as well as multiples of those frequencies for hi-res audio playback. Along with its dual DACs, the preamp section uses a fully balanced, dual-mono circuit design that, according to TEAC, brings particular benefits to headphone listening.

The AI-503’s Bluetooth streaming capability is worth calling out for its support of LDAC, a coding technology developed by Sony that allows for wireless transmission of up to 96-kHz/24-bit original files, resulting in the claimed equivalent of hi-res audio. Like other Bluetooth implementations, LDAC uses lossy compression, although its 990-kilobit-per-second maximum data-transmission rate in Quality priority mode is three times what you get with regular Bluetooth. At present, LDAC-compatible sources are limited to Sony’s hi-res-capable Walkman digital audio players and Xperia smartphones, so to benefit from the TEAC’s pumped-up Bluetooth, you’ll need to use one of those devices. Fortunately, the high-quality AptX Bluetooth codec is also supported, as are the lower-fidelity AAC and SBC codecs.

Now that I’ve covered what’s inside the AI-503, it’s time we talk about its stunning, jewel-like exterior. My review sample came in a silver brushed-aluminum case with rack-mount-style handles on the front. (An all-black version is also available; both are substantially narrower than standard 19-inch rack mount width.) A pair of backlit meters track signal levels independently for the left and right outputs, and they’re flanked by aluminum dials for input selection and volume adjustment. In a slick design touch, the volume dial is motorized, moving in response to remote control commands. Other front-panel features include a power on/off switch, a 3.5mm analog input, and a four-pole 3.5mm headphone jack with a high/low gain select button to tailor the headphone amp’s output for cans with a range of impedances.

Besides its USB Type B computer port, the AI-503 provides RCA analog and coaxial and optical digital inputs on its back panel. There’s also a preamp output for future amp upgrades, as well as a connection for the removable power cord. If it had a phono input, too, that would almost put the AI-503 over the top, but in its absence you can always use an external phono preamp or a turntable with a built-in phono stage to get that capability.

TEAC’s sturdy, comfortably sized remote control has an aluminum surface that matches the exterior of the amp/DAC’s silver version, and it provides a clean layout of same-sized rubber-coated buttons. Input select buttons are located up top, while the volume adjustment and mute buttons are at the bottom for easy access. (There are a few other buttons that, confusingly, have no corresponding function on the AI-503.) Controls to dim the front-panel meters and adjust the filter characteristics of the DACs can be found in the remote’s middle section.

COMPANY INFO
TEAC
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Ovation123's picture

Seems this would be at least as likely, if not more so, to be used with headphones than speakers (even if both are connected, I'd wager headphones would get a fair bit of use). Not all headphones play equally well in such devices--would have been nice to get output impedance for headphone jack, as well as power ratings at different impedance levels (for example, 300-600ohm cans, or some with low sensitivity at lower impedance).

anmpr1's picture

Compared to the feature set on integrated amps from the '70s, these modern things offer no real value. Basically a 22 watt/channel line level stage for a thousand dollars. No phono. No tape facilities, No filters. Where's the value in that? Good thing it has meters, so you'll know that the 20 watts aren't going to blow out your speakers. LOL. I just don't see it. I'd rather buy a used Accuphase or Sansui, refurbish it, and add an external DAC.

katherinerose6's picture

The AI-503 would be nearly perfect if it included a phono input, but if it doesn't, concrete driveway brisbane you may still obtain that functionality by using a turntable with an integrated phono stage or an external phono preamp.

johnsmith54's picture

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