Imagine having the opportunity to sit in an acoustically perfect concert hall, listen to a piece of music performed while it's recorded on the finest recording equipment, and then have the recorded playback sound nearly identical. This is what audiophile obsession is all about. It's also a process that the famous speaker/designer Jon Dahlquist employed back in the 70's, but we'll save that discussion for another post. Having discussed vinyl playback in my two previous posts (here and here) - generally agreed to be the finest reproduction media - let's also leave a discussion of CD players for another day and look toward how to choose the most appropriate signal amplification component(s) for your budget.
If we define optimal sound reproduction as that which sounds as near to the live studio or concert performance as possible, we can call that realism. If your listening taste in music includes western orchestral instrumentation (brass, percussion, strings, and woodwinds) and operatic vocal reproduction, you will also want to capture the subtle timbre and ethereal transparent quality that accomplished musicians exude in performance. This same benchmark will typically apply to most other musical genres.
Amplification components are segmented as follows: Pre-amps process the source signal (from a turntable, CD player, tuner etc.) and have volume, tone and balance controls as well as multiple inputs and switches for tuners, tape recorders and the like. Power amplifiers receive the processed signal fed from the pre-amp and literally power the speakers. It is also possible to buy integrated pre-amp + power amplifiers, and if the integrated unit also has a tuner, it's called a receiver. Most audiophiles prefer separate units. Separates, as they're called, are generally (though not always) more well engineered and also provide a great deal of flexibility for upgrade and driving various types of speakers.
Amplifier circuitry falls into to basic categories: tubed and solid state. New and well maintained (or refurbished) tubed amplifiers are the gold standard in exquisite sound reproduction. Not surprisingly, they are very costly. A vintage tubed, excellent condition, preamplifier will cost between $2K and $5K in the used audiophile market and matching tubed power amplifiers go for between $2.5K - $10K. New tubed audio amplifiers sell for more, and the upper limits are in the stratosphere. Suffice it to say that these components will not fit most audiophile budgets. That's okay, because extremely high-end solid state (transistors rather than tubes) amplifiers have been manufactured for the past 40+ years and many of those remain highly sought after.
One price caveat worth mentioning: if you want the tubed pre-amp, tuner, power amp experience in your collection on a budget, find a vintage 60s Fisher 500c receiver. They can be found for between $300 - $500 (the original MSRP) in working order and will need to be serviced by a technician for an additional $200.00. Very important note: Never power up a tubed amplifier without first connecting it to a pair of speakers. And if a tubed amplifier has not been serviced for many years, do not leave it powered on for more than 15 minutes prior to having it serviced.
There are many high end audio amplification manufacturers and I will not attempt to discuss them all. McIntosh Laboratory, located in Binghamton, NY, has designed, engineered, and manufactured (on site) some of the finest components ever made beginning in 1942. McIntosh's engineering and build quality may well surpass every manufacturing standard across all industries. And more importantly (my subjective opinion), they have continuously produced the most sonically warm and realistic sounding amplifiers on the planet. And so far, they appear to be indestructible and may well last forever - bold statement, I know.
I caught the McIntosh bug back in 1974 when I purchased their (to become legendary) solid state (SS) MA6100 integrated amp (pre + power) and their to become equally famous MR77 tuner. These two components remain unsurpassed. The original MSRP was $699 each. Today, they command a bit more on the used market - about $750 - and are among the best deals out there. After 30 years in service, they can be fully rejuvenated to beyond original factory specification for about $250.00. I now also have Mac's C-28 pre-amp and 2105 power amp that I found at an estate sale (all SS btw) for less than the original MSRP - elusive buys, but still available. I'm intimate with McIntosh's contemporary line of products via show room demos and feel confident that my vintage components are very comparable at a fraction of the cost.
Other vintage sleeper brands to watch for include Carver (founded and designed by Bob Carver, an electronics genius, since deceased) Luxman, Adcom, Rotel, Yamaha and NAD. There are others, of course, and please chime in with your favorites. Among the latter, I am a huge fan of 80's and 90's vintage Luxman solid state integrated amplifiers and receivers. Luxman has since moved into the stratosphere of cost/benefit components but their vintage solid state amps and receivers are likely the very best buys in the used marketplace. I power my kitchen system with a slim Luxman R113 receiver - signal fed from my Mac C-28 preamp - and I must say that it sounds darned near as good as the pure Mac feed repro I have elsewhere. I purchased the Luxman R113 on Craigslist for a mere $100.00.
Diminishing returns are the rule of thumb when it comes audiophile everything, but while they're diminishing from an investment perspective, it is truly all about one's personal discriminating ear. Please also keep in mind that audiophile equipment was and is an impulse extravagance in most instances. A 20, 30 or even 40-year-old component may only have a hundred or so listening hours under its belt. And there are many very competent service technicians who can bring any quality vintage component up to and beyond original spec for just a couple hundred bucks.