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The power of one: convenience or compromise?

  • Dis-integration. Rolling loudspeaker amplification, DAC and headphone listening into a one chassis comes with clear advantages: 1) only a single power cord is required to juice the entire playback chain – good news if you’re a fancier of ‘audiophile’ wire – and 2) the need for analogue interconnects is eradicated; shorter signal paths and tidier aesthetics are your new friends. Hook a computer in via USB or a CD spinner over S/PDIF and you’re ready to the rock the casbah with a single unit. Welcome to the world of simplicity.

    Are there compromises to the world of unification?

    At the entry-level, in-built DACs (and phono stages) are neither fantastic nor terrible. More often than not they meet the price-point expectations of the surrounding unit. The NAD D 3020 (reviewed here) arrives with an impressive feature set: D/A conversion, Bluetooth streaming and hybrid amplification – terrific value for money at its US$500 price point. However, the DAC stands out as its weakest feature; it gets the listener up and running but is ultimately bested by even the most humble of hired help. The NAD’s single analogue input keeps that very door open. I’d recommend one of the smaller dongle DACs so as not to debase the D 3020’s most accommodating form factor. Think: AudioQuest Dragonfly v1.2 (US$149), Schiit Fulla (US$79) or HRT microStreamer (US$179 – soon to be discontinued).

    It’s a similar story over at Peachtree Audio whose Nova 220SE (US$1995) is their only dual-mono digital integrated. Having lived with this amplifier for six months I can say with confidence that it’s a genuine all-rounder. ICEPowered output delivers 220/350wpc into 8/4 Ohms such that it will play nicely with Magnepan MMG, KEF LS50 as well as the super efficient Zu Soul MKII, a combo for which my a priori expectations of some sterility were swiftly nixed. Little wonder Zu Audio partner with Peachtree Audio at US trade shows time and again.


    The compromise? The 220SE’s internal DAC is bested by some of the better standalone converters found in and around the US$500 marker. In rarer cases, equivalence can be found at lower price points. One only has to hook a Schiit Modi (US$99) or AudioQuest Dragonfly into the Peachtree Nova 220SE to find approximate performance parity with its internal ESS Sabre 9023 implementation. Stepping up to the Schiit Bifrost or the Resonessence Labs Concero HD gives us an end result that sits above that wrought from the Peachtree’s innards.

    The well above average visual styling of the Peachtree makes a third party D/A converter even less appealing. We can turn the Nova 220SE’s sensitivity to jitter and electrical noise to our advantage by adding a USB-S/PDIF converter or S/PDIF reclcocker to the mix. Further improvements still can be effected by those with even bigger dollars at their disposal, the internal DAC also responds really nicely to the superior digital feed of an Aurender X100L and (especially) Antipodes Audio DX music servers. I noted a larger delta here than in applying those same servers to the PS Audio DirectStream DAC.

    This then begs the question: do you spend big on the DAC in the hope of its greater immunity to the jitter and EMI/RFI spilling from a lesser, noisier transport….OR are you better off dropping the lion’s share of your budget on a fancy-schmancy transport/server and have it feed a more affordable DAC? The decision is all but made for you when faced with all-in-one solutions. Besides, vinyl heads will want to keep the 220SE’s and NAD D 3020’s single line-level inputs for their phono pre-amplifier.


    Talking of the black stuff, Rotel specify an MM phono stage in their entry-level integrateds but bring a Lehmann or Graham Slee to the table and you’ll soon discover what you’ve been missing. Sat next to the similarly tube-buffered Peachtree models, the Rogue Audio Sphinx trades ICEPower for Hypex and digital conversion for phono pre-amplification about which I wonder how much must be spent on an external box before its SQ is surpassed? And if you choose to go down that path, doesn’t adding a separate phono-preamplfier defeat the purpose of the (presumably) initial intention – and purchase(!) – to keep it all in one? There are no easy answers.

    For some consumers – yours truly included – deferring to a third party box to pick up the slack in an already phono- or digitally-equipped integrated feels out of step with the spirit of its DNA. Inclusiveness is fundamental to the core attraction of every Peachtree, NAD D3020, Rogue Audio Sphinx, Naim Uniqute 2 or PS Audio Sprout. Side-car-ing a DAC or phono stage erodes some of that attractiveness and returns cabling considerations to the picture. USB powered options aside, a second power cord is then required for the incoming outboard solution. Additional expense turns up for tea soon thereafter as shorter signal paths are surrendered to the lossy nature of interconnects. A single one-two upgrade manoeuvre and the satisfaction of housing everything under one roof is gone.

    Less-than-stellar news can also present for headphone enthusiasts. Manufacturers building amplifiers to a price might often see their their headphone stage’s potency diluted compared to that of dedicated head-fi units. Exceptions do exist but the circuitry that sits behind your average integrated amplifier’s headphone socket – often a resistor applied to a loudspeaker output that’s optimised for for up to ~16 Ohm loads – will rarely do justice to a pair Sennheiser HD650 or Beyerdynamic T1. With Sennheiser HD800 or MrSpeakers Mad Dog, the Peachtree’s headphone output gets slam-dunked by the Schiit Vali (US$119). Let’s liken the difference to that found between filter (drip) coffee and an Americano (espresso + hot water). One packs a punch, the other not so much. For the aforementioned NAD and Nova, portable friendly phones are a must.


    Experience tells us that marketing departments tend to make a BIG noise when special attention is paid to extra features like DACs, phono stages and headphone outs. We can safely assume such additions to be price-point satisfactory (and little more) when the promotional blurb reads in a lower key.

    One company stepping up the all-in-one game is AMR-subsidiary IFi whose Retro Stereo 50 conjoins speaker outputs, DAC, phono pre-amplifier and headphone amplifier sections; each of which are directly derived from products that already have a proven track record as standalone models in the iFi ‘micro’ range. On paper at least Retro talks the talk but even if it walks the walk, the AMR spin-off must fess up to a lack of user upgradeability.

    Moreover, with our manufacturer trying to hit all targets, the buyer might find one or more features surplus to requirements. But why pay for what you don’t use? Such is the conundrum of opting for an amplifier whose internalised bonuses are locked down in perpetuity: you get twice (or thrice) the features and therefore twice (or thrice) the risk or redundancy and future obsolescence.

    Further information: NAD | Peachtree Audio | Rogue Audio | iFi Audio

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. John – great article, man! It is the very things you mentioned here that torment me when considering the full-integrated options on the market. It just seems so difficult to decide whether to go for the simple elegance route, but take the inherent compromises, or go a bit more complex and (likely) expensive route, and get that additional performance.

      I will say, though, that the iFi Retro 50 is a truly intriguing component. Upgradeable? Nope. But from initial reports, the headphone output is legit, the speaker section is robust for its output ratings, and the dac section is well implemented. If I had the money right now, I’d consider pulling the trigger on it…but there’s still always that “what if”?

      • The iFi Retro really does stand head and shoulders above its peers right now, doesn’t it? That DAC! That headphone stage! Bluetooth streaming! It’s all there and a long way from the lip service we occasionally see elsewhere.

        • Oh wow!! I hadn’t even heard of this one. Sounds like a great bit of kit. One thing I’ve always like about iFi products are their DAC implementations. Don’t know whether it’s that BB Japan developed chip they wax so much lyrical about, or some other tuning, or a combination of various implementations, but their Micro and Nano line always sound really good.

    2. All in one is great if you can stay happy with what you’ve got. My first Marantz receiver lasted me for years. Headphone out, tuner, phono, bass, treble… The thought of adding extra boxes never crossed my mind.
      Now it’s all about more features (and compromises)
      Amplifier technology evolves very slowly compared to digital. Look at resale value of Naim amplifiers vs their streamers or all-in-ones.
      So give me a good integrated with a good HP output and I don’t mind one or two extra boxes for source, DAC, etc that I can upgrade when something better comes along.

      Anecdote: I was at an audio show recently. A guy there was demoing a rather pricey system but the power section was a vintage (1979) Threshold 400A amplifier. That, along with an SL-10 pre was my first serious bit of audio gear. One of the attendees in the room yelled out to guy if it was for sale. His reply was ”never – you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands”

      • I’m with you on the headphone staging. Get speaker and ‘phone outputs sorted and I’ll happily defer to external boxes for the rest (if I have to).

    3. I’m in the market for a new integrated amp, and given I sometimes use headphones at home and have digital sources (but ones going through cheap/outdated DACs), an all-in-one solution is tempting.
      In the end, my decision will probably be based on the rate at which technology is moving in different fields. A good amp with quality headphone output might last me 10-15+ years. From what I’ve read, DACs are improving much more quickly. So I’d rather put up with the DAC as an extra box and replace that when it has been superseded.
      My research is still in its early stage. I’ve heard the Arcam A19 has good headphone outputs and can drive a speaker like the KEF LS50 (I’ve only auditioned with loudspeakers so far) – can you or other readers recommend any other integrateds at this price range which tick both these boxes?

      • I’d recommend the iFi Retro 50 if you want headphone *and* speakers both driven properly. The 50wpc *should* be just enough for the LS50 but delivery of larger scale dynamics will depend on its current delivery.

        • Yeah I was also thinking that this read like a prelude to a LIO review.

          I wasn’t aware of the iFi Retro Stereo 50. Looks like a good product. Strangely enough, just before I read this article I was thinking about exactly this sort of thing, including others not mentioned (Schiit Ragnarok, W4S mINT, Audio-GD Precision). I really believe in less boxes and, hopefully, less $ spent.

          With that said, I also understand the philosophy of leaving a DAC out, since it’s bound to become outdated – something that can’t be said for phono inputs.

          • Based on this article, my hunch is that the individual LIO modules are going to shine where other parts of all-in-ones have lacked (DAC/phono stage especially). Add in the ability to upgrade/swap modules out when newer tech becomes available, and we’re left with quite an attractive single chassis system. Convenience+

            Of course, it could be that the LIO is just another item to add to The Status Quo… but I’m betting not.

            Mine gets here in 2 weeks.

            Looking forward to what John has to say about it.

    4. BTW – I’m not too keen on the ”faux” retro thing.

      The real charm of retro (vintage) is just that – it’s been around for a while and is a little piece of audio history. The other stuff is bordering on tacky.

      • Yeah Mike, I know what you mean… bordering on tacky. Not quite tacky, but considering all the cheap retro stuff I’ve seen at Target, it’s ALMOST cheap looking. I do think LEBEN manages to pull of a very nice retro look.

    5. That pretty much explains my recent journey. I set out about 18 months ago to get an all-in-one box. I ended up with the Yamaha R-N500 but have never been that impressed with the inbuilt DAC. The problem is that if you don’t like the DAC the rest of the functionality becomes irrelevant because it all goes through the DAC. But a fairly cheap way to get started. I since purchased a secondhand Linn Sneaky DS which is an interesting box of tricks (the most recent software update adds EQ). It’s a shame there isn’t an all-in-one box that sits between the Yamaha price range ~$900 and the next level up which appears to be around $7,000 for a Linn/Naim/Devialet box. I’d be happy to pay $2,000-$3,000 for something in between.

      Out of interest do you have a ‘goto’ set of RCA interconnects or do you mix and match depending on components?

    6. There’s always been a dilemma: buy all-in-one for convenience, portability and (sometimes) aesthetics, or buy quality components for relative affordability (’cause you can buy one component at a time), quality of sound and customization options.

      Taking into account today’s state of audio technology, I would prefer the all-in-one approach, but the manufacturers are not yet on the same page with me. I have yet to see an all-in-one product that will satisfy all my audio needs, even though I got no use for vinyl and I play (mainly) hi-res files.

    7. Something tells me.. a counter argument to this article is quickly forthcoming… centering around a specific piece of hardware… just a hunch.

      • Ha! You’re ahead of the game Alex. 😉 Not so much a counter argument but a potential solution to the twin problems: of 1) paying for an unused feature and 2) the obsolescence of some features arriving sooner than with others.

    8. I’ve got a Devialet 200 and I like it a great deal. My sense in reading most of the reviews is that the DAC, phono stage et al are comparable to many high-end stand-alone devices. The only real let-down has the been the robustness of the AIR steaming software, which is magic when it works and just plain frustrating when it does not. Finally, Devialet can play magic with their planned software updates, such as increasing the wattage of the unit from 170 to 200. Now that’s a huge boon to avoid obsolescence!

      • Good points Michael and yes, I totally skipped out on Devialet in that piece didn’t I? Not mind, I’ll hopefully be investigating one of their units later this year.

    9. From experience, a word of caution for ANT regarding the Retro 50 and KEF LS50…the Retro 50 is 25 wpc and struggles to bring the LS50 to life.

      • Good to know – thanks PNW. With the Retro 50 being a tube amplifier it could be that its output impedance isn’t as low as that seen in the LIO, which has no problem at all driving the LS50 to proper levels without any sign of acoustic mass surrender.

    10. Thanks for the caution PNW, your feedback is consistent with a comparison I did the other day to work out how I might be able to balance my audio budget. I tried the KEF LS50 and new Quad S2 – first on the Arcam A19, then on a NAD3020 amp. The Arcam drove both but the cheaper NAD could only (IMHO) drive the Quads effectively (I really thought the Quads were impressive btw!). A timely demo for me about how an efficient speaker can broaden your options on amplification, be they all in ones or a separate box.

    11. Keep up the demo action, ANT. I bought my LS50 on reputation/reviews alone, without a proper demo. Contemplated selling them now and again…until I introduced them to Croft Acoustics (incredible ((relative)) value) and Hugo. Think the KEFs will be around for a while.

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