When you look at any truly world class audio system, those typically termed as a “1%” system (six figures in cost and up), almost always will they be comprised by separate components. Very often, monoblock amps, separate preamps and other individual components populate these systems.
In the more recent past, upper tier components such as amps, preamps and DACs are showing up with power supplies in a separate enclosure. Even DACs are now available as monoblock componentry. Naturally, these designs claim sonic benefits, but they also have two undesirable conditions – increased cost and storage considerations.
Most audiophiles will either lack the resources, or the desire, to purchase a DAC that sells for $40K, $50K, or perhaps even more to reap the benefits separates claim to provide. Many audiophiles are not going to make a significant investment in an audio system, especially one that utilizes far too much space in the home. Yet they do want and demand superior sonics.
So the question becomes, as the audiophile hobby progresses and technology improves, are separate components really necessary? Are they even required for premium sound? Can a one box solution provide a commensurate audio experience found with separates?
I see this as an easy question to ask yet a difficult one to answer.
In the early 1960s, as the proliferation of solid-state components grew, designers were certainly aware of the fact that circuit boards, transformers, power supplies and capacitors all vibrate and introduce electrical interference. “Common Mode Rejection” is not a term invented yesterday. Perhaps there was little done to alleviate such sonic degradation, but they knew it existed.
Today, designers are absolutely aware of the debilitating effects hum and vibrations can have on an audio signal. It makes sense, therefore, that separate components were popularized – the need for sonic purity and excellence won out over convenience and cost.
The evolution of high performance audio over the last fifty years has seen the hobby essentially divide itself into two categories – world class, or superior systems utilizing separates, and more budget minded systems with integrated components. At least to a point.
What then, are some of the advantages of separate components?
For one, sonic purity. Having separate components eliminates sharing common power supplies, transformers, capacitors and circuit boards. Furthermore, the chassis can be heavy walled and internally shielded so vibrational energy, be it internal or external, may be somewhat mitigated.
There are also heat advantages as separating the amp from the preamp tends to enable cooler operation overall. And as the need for massive heat sinks are lessened, chassis weight is therefore reduced. Because there is not a common power supply and other related componentry, separates are typically not as suspect to vibrational energy bleeding into the signal chain. At least in theory.
Perhaps less important, but seen by many as a notably essential condition, separate components offer the flexibility of mixing and matching various brands. This allows utilizing various features and benefits of one single component over another in a system.
Some will point out that separates do a better job of sending a signal from the amp to the speaker. Additionally, there is perhaps increased freedom in amplifier selection because all components stand on their own – not interdependent on each other. Proponents of monoblock amps will appreciate the opportunity for a bi-amped speaker configuration and shorter speaker cables – both generally recognized as a sonic advantage.
Integrated components have their own advantages, and their popularity is growing as the gulf between the two is not today as wide as it once was.
Probably the two most important factors in choosing integrated components are space considerations and cost. Having, in some cases, a “one box solution” means lower cost and if space is a problem, well, the benefit is obvious. I cannot even begin to imagine what I would do, or where I would put my system if I did not have a dedicated audio room. My audio rack would never fit in my den and more to the point, it would look silly being there.
There are also design benefits. Integrated components have a shorter signal path which is theoretically advantageous. And because it is a one box solution, manufacturers can design the overall component for maximum performance. Power supplies and capacitors have vastly improved in quality over the last twenty years.
And in what is almost certainly seen as a happy coincidence, utilizing integrated components means fewer connections and therefore fewer audio cables.
No longer are integrated amps, preamps and DACs simply a budget oriented stereo component potentially shunned by audio purists. Manufacturers have awakened to the fact that consumers are very desirous of the convenience and space considerations integrated components offer. Consumers are not, however, willing to sacrifice sonics to enjoy the ancillary benefits integrateds provide. Basically, they want both – performance alongside convenience.
Very often, many audiophiles are willing to pay for actually having both.
I have seen integrated amp / preamp / DAC components sell in excess of $50K. While they are also technically a one box solution, small and compact would never be an accurate description of their size. Many such solutions are large, quite heavy and require proper support – very often more than a typical bookshelf might provide. No one wants their $50K stereo system crashing to the floor in the middle of the night.
In fact, I have listened to several such systems, and I must admit, some sounded surprisingly spectacular. Matched with a proper speaker system, and a sonically advantageous set up, these systems can potentially deliver exceptionally high-quality sound.
I have also seen integrated systems that are quite affordable yet also deliver a satisfactory cost to performance ratio. Affordability and performance are more readily available today than perhaps any time in the past.
Looming in the fringes are the afore mentioned audio purists. They will always eschew integrated components because for years the common belief has been “those” systems are not up to the challenge sonically. In short, separates will always outperform integrateds in terms of creating what I like to call an “oh wow” moment.
There is also the “wow factor” of walking into a room and seeing a large rack full of audio equipment. I must admit it can be quite impressive. Audiophilia, however, has moved into a new era in the last decade or two. Dedicated audio rooms are not so prevalent today. One box solutions can also deliver an “oh wow” moment.
No longer is it necessary to have twenty components in a massive rack to enjoy a finely reproduced recording. Maybe the threshold has been lowered or cost has forced more people to lessen their standards. It’s hard to say. What I do know is integrated components are far more widely accepted now than perhaps ever before.
As for me, well, call me what you will. My system will always be separates. What can I say? Maybe I’m just too much of a purist.