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While it’s doubtful that you’re cranking up the music for a party at your place right now, there’s something to be said for using a stereo amplifier in your home entertainment setup. These black or grey boxes with rows upon rows of buttons and knobs may appear sombre and daunting, but they fulfil a very straightforward purpose: they make your music sing.
What is a stereo amplifier?
A stereo amplifier, sometimes called a receiver or an integrated amp, serves as the engine of your hi-fi setup. In short, they’re used to connect your dizzying array of sources – such as a record player, TV, smartphone and cassette deck – to your speakers. And they let you flit between those sources without having to reconnect cables.
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Most stereo amplifiers – especially entry-level models – pack a preamplifier and a power amplifier together. The former is used to bring your sources, be they a smartphone or a CD player, up to ‘line level’; the latter drives your speakers. (Do note, however, that stereo amps are meant to be used with passive speakers, not active ones.)
So if you’re looking for a piece of tech to pump your audio through some snazzy speakers, then you’ve come to the right place. Whether it’s playing records or streaming from a digital source like your smartphone, there’s a good chance these will make the output crystal clear – and then some.
What to look for in a stereo amplifier
With stereo amplifiers running the gamut between relatively affordable and prohibitively expensive, it’s important to narrow down just what we’re looking for here.
Price: While value is subjective, price is not. Everything you find on this list will set you back $500 or less. While you can always spend more, these offer a great mix of features for a relatively low price, at least in comparison to other, more audiophile-geared units.
Connectivity: This is the most critical factor in selecting an amplifier: what inputs do you need? While there’s no ‘catch-all’ player that supports every format possible (at least in this price range), we’ve been careful to list the available input methods for each. One thing to note, however: if you intend on playing records, you’ll need a phono input. And if you want to connect a smart TV, you’ll need a digital input.
Style and build quality: Sure, this is also down to personal preference, but a stereo amplifier that sits on a shelf or out in the open is going to look a lot better doing so when the manufacturer takes some time to make what could easily be a large, rectangular box into something a little more pleasing on the eye.
Extra features: We all love a bonus, and plenty of these have some extra bells and whistles to help justify the purchase. It could be a remote control, headphone output, or anything else.
The best budget stereo amplifiers under $500
The Denon PMA600NE’s spec sheet reads like a checklist of features you’d want in a budget stereo amplifier.
Bluetooth? Check. Remote control? Check. Inputs for optical? Try two. The Bluetooth circuity is actually divorced from the analogue circuitry almost entirely, meaning it’s essentially two pieces of tech in one – and preventing any interference on either signal.
Denon claims the PMA600NE is also designed for “emotional reproduction” of vinyl and high-res audio, meaning it’ll positively sing, whatever you put through it.
Sony may be known for plenty, but the company has always remained consistent when it comes to audio tech.
This no-nonsense offering has a smooth, brushed gunmetal look, the ability to connect two sets of speakers at once, and in-built Bluetooth connectivity, making it ideal for anyone looking to stream their audio from another device.
On the other hand, the STR-DH190 doesn’t have any digital inputs, so you won’t be able to directly connect, say, a smart TV to this.
Essentially the other side of the coin to Sony’s effort, this Marantz unit has plenty going on visually, and it packs more digital inputs than you can shake a, well, input at.
Offering 40 watts per channel and the added bonus of Bluetooth connectivity, the PM5005 also uses Marantz’s proprietary tech to ensure two- and three-stage amplification options for the perfect audio regardless of format and connection.
The Source Direct button will also channel your audio as cleanly as possible, bypassing tone control and loudness control when required.
NAD C 316BEE
The Canadian brand is renowned among audiophiles for its affordable, reliable units that get the basics right. And the C 316BEE is a prime example of that ethos.
The clue is in the design. This NAD amplifier’s design screams “utilitarian” – it’s a sleek and slim display-less black box within which hides a phono preamp (in the latest version), five line level inputs and NAD’s PowerDrive power amplifier technology. You even get a remote control and headphone jack.
What you will end up missing with the C 316BEE, though, is an in-built Bluetooth input, which means you’ll need to purchase a separate Bluetooth receiver to stream tunes off your iPhone.
Cambridge Audio AXR100
Cambridge Audio’s AXR100 looks like it could belong in any decade – its hefty yet sleek grey enclosure design is timeless, understated and serious.
Within the box, the AXR100 offers a huge 100 watts per channel (which might be unnecessary if it’s meant to be used in a small room), in-built Bluetooth connectivity, a phono stage, an FM/AM receiver, a headphone output, two S/PDIF co-axial inputs and an optical input. That’s a lot of inputs, making this amp more future-proof than the others on this list.