STEREO AMPLIFIER - INTEGRATED VS SEPARATES
You can build your home audio system in many different ways, depending on your needs, preferences and its intended use. From all-in-one systems that integrate the source, DAC, pre-amplifier and power levels in a single housing, to complex systems that contain every element in a separate housing and add multiple sources, complex tone colour equalisers or network filters. Aware of this, users often seek information on what to bear in mind when deciding on the topology of the audio system. We hope that this brief article can clarify the situation and make it easier to make an informed decision for those who wish to enjoy beautiful sound at home.
Influences from the Past
The golden era of Hi-Fi audio was the 1980s. It was then that the technology to manufacture the necessary electronic components and the devices that use them was developed, providing access to equipment capable of fairly faithful music playback at prices that the middle class could afford. It was also an important channel of communication with the world of music. This has resulted in a massive demand for audio equipment and in its rapid development. Having your own stereo component tower was a dream of music enthusiasts. Such a set usually provided much better sound quality than integrated devices. This was mainly due to technological constraints. The systems were built using bulky electronic elements, and if the housing lacked internal space, it necessitated a far-reaching simplification of the system design, leading to inferior parameters. Today, electronic components have been greatly miniaturised, which completely solved the issue of limited space in the housing. You can find audio devices with a standard width of 42 cm that are almost empty inside. However, the belief that a quality audio system must be built with a large number of elements in separate enclosures, persists to this day...
Does Size Matter?
Technological progress has paved the way for all-in-one devices with very good playback and technical parameters. Integration of multiple systems in one housing significantly reduces the price of the system and saves on cabling. This solution also makes it easier to position the system in the room, which is of considerable practical importance when the room is to serve multiple different practical purposes. The emergence of class D power degrees played an important role in equipment miniaturisation. A decade ago it was impossible to listen to such systems, now it’s getting better. It even seems that some companies have developed pretty well sounding solutions. These are not systems that provide perfect sound quality yet, but thanks to high energy efficiency they take up much less space in the housing and are significantly less expensive. They are great in more affordable systems. The class AB power degrees (and especially class A), which still provide the best quality of sound, take up much more space in the housing and require a reliable, large heat sink. It seems to be the last bottleneck hindering miniaturisation of high-end audio equipment.
High-end devices are built uncompromisingly from oversized components. The best companies operating in this segment make the circuits expansive in order to achieve excellent parameters. Often, individual circuits are powered from separate power supplies and filters are built using huge, top quality capacitors. This is done to remove even the smallest signal defects regardless of the costs. In such cases, elements of the audio system must be separated and placed in individual enclosures in order to keep their external dimensions and weight within reasonable limits. A system made up of multiple separate components also allows the best matching of the system's sound to the user's taste, but also enables the system as a whole to evolve. In this case, individual components can be replaced and cabling can be selected as needed. However, such a process takes a lot of time and attention, and requires enthusiasm on the user’s part. A dedicated room for music listening, with properly prepared acoustics, also appears essential in this case.
The Future of Audio Systems
We live in an age of smartphones and reusable rockets. The audio equipment industry is very far behind the contemporary capabilities of humanity in terms of technology. Big industry is increasingly taking advantage of new advances in technology and mathematics, and in particular is making forays into the digital environment. Audio systems also inevitably follow this path of transformation. Already, highest-definition music is only available online. The future is all-in-one devices, highly configurable, where new features are delivered purely by means of software upgrades. The way to achieve this will be to further develop class D power stages and reduce the cost of fast microprocessors. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that technological progress has had a positive effect on the quality of sound while reducing equipment prices. This trend is the least visible in high-end equipment, where miniaturisation is almost unnoticeable, prices invariably remain very high, while the parameters are closer and closer to perfection.