Many years ago, Peter Walker, the founder and then owner of Quad Electroacoustics postulated that "the perfect amplifier is a straight wire with gain." By this, he suggested that the perfect amp would solely adjust the volume of the signal it received, losing nothing from the original and adding nothing of itself to the process. The theory is admirably simple, the execution is another matter altogether. From the perspective of when Walker uttered that line (which, like all good quotes, is surprisingly hard to pin down) modern amps are capable of startling transparency but they cannot achieve Walker's goal. As such, it becomes the task of seeking out the amp that adds the least of what you don't like to your signal.
The amps listed here have been selected because they offer some slightly different takes on the compromises necessary at the price and in the case of most of them offer a phono stage that should be able to do a good job with a moving magnet cartridge on a sensibly priced turntable. There is a solid argument for looking at used amplifiers but as high voltage devices full of parts with a defined shelf life, it is important to consider that they do not last indefinitely and in many cases, a good new budget amp is going to be a more sensible choice.
Yamaha AS-301 $400
Cards on the table time. I was for a time, an employee of Yamaha. The UK division hired me as a marketing manager and in a brief but eventful period before I was dismissed, I discovered two things. The first is that I am terrible at marketing and the second is that Yamaha really cares about the processes that go into its electronics. As a truly brilliant home theatre brand, it is easy to forget that the company has considerable pedigree in stereo too.
The AS-301 is the cheapest stereo amp that Yamaha makes but in microcosm, all the things that make Yamaha amps are here. The amp is symmetrical in design and uses a basket style mains transformer instead of a more conventional toroid. You also get a genuinely comprehensive specification too. The AS-301 is fitted with five line level inputs, a very respectable phono stage and a pair of digital inputs. Everything is controlled by remote and Yamaha still fits an effective set of tone controls too.
More importantly, the AS-301 sounds good. There is enough power and authority to sound in control and the Yamaha is capable of getting the best out of the sort of speaker you will generally partner it with. The AS-301 also has the trademark Yamaha tone to it. There is plenty of power and drive to the sound but instruments sound consistently real and voices are well handled. When you throw in the solid build and pleasantly retro aesthetics, you have a very talented amplifier indeed.
Marantz PM5005 $499
Marantz and Denon are sister brands these days and exist under the same ownership umbrella. Slightly curiously, while Denon continues to be a manufacturer of turntables and cartridges, their amplifiers are now technically interesting digital designs that are taking the brand in a new direction and aren't really suited for analogue use. Marantz by contrast has been given the job of making 'normal' amps and happily, they seem to be taking that job seriously. Marantz as a company has one of the most curiously international arcs of anything in the industry wearing as it does the name of an American, being headquartered in Japan but doing a great deal of industrial design in Europe. While it might be a little convoluted, the results have been rather successful and Marantz has made some great affordable amps.
The PM5005 is the entry level Marantz amp but you get 40 watts into 8 ohms, full remote control and speaker A and B connections and the all important moving magnet phono stage built in. The PM5005 makes use of current feedback technology, a Marantz innovation and something intended to allow the amp to more swiftly and effectively produce the current required to drive a speaker effectively during a demanding passage of music. The PM5005 is simple but it has technology where it matters.
This reveals itself in an amplifier that manages to sound powerful and lively across a wide variety of music. There is an energy to Marantz products that is subtly different to the smoothness of many Japanese house brand amps and the PM5005 embodies this while still sounding refined and civilised enough to handle rough and ready recordings. This is a straightforward amp with a simple mission and by and large it does it very well.
Pioneer A20 $299
There was a durable notion for many years that Ferrari as a company could either produce great racing cars or great road cars but could not do both at the same time. Thus, if they were walloping all comers on the track, they were busy selling you undriveable tat in the dealerships and vice versa. It is slightly harsh to accuse Pioneer of being exactly the same but when the company is conquering all in AV and home theatre, things are quiet in stereo and vice versa. To be clear, for some reason, large tracts of the company's excellent stereo range doesn't seem to make it to the USA but the A20 does and this is a good thing.
Like many amps at this price point, the Pioneer does without the full technology used in some of the more expensive models. There are no class D amps, no digital inputs and build quality is merely good rather tank like. Some purists among you might be annoyed by an Elite badge- something historically reserved for the biggest and baddest products in the Pioneer inventory- on a budget amp but it shouldn't take away from what is a well specified and well thought out amp.
The important thing is that the Pioneer gives a little taste of why the company developed such a following for their budget amps in the eighties and nineties. The A20 is confident, refined but above all, fun, It manages to bring the joy in a piece of music to the forefront of the performance and it does this while sounding far more forgiving than those older designs. Like the Marantz, the Pioneer is a simple amp that focuses on the basics to excellent effect.
Pro-Ject Stereo Box S Phono $499
While turntables have little choice but to stay a certain size or they tend not to work terribly well, the rest of our audio electronics have been tending to get smaller. The slow death of physical digital media has meant that DACs and streamers predominate and these have no need to be very large at all. Amplifiers are a slightly different case as there is a greater requirement for power supplies and other bulky components to be used but even here, things are changing.
At first glance, Pro-Ject might not seem like the obvious choice for these developments to be widely embraced- after all, they make a large selection of conventionally sized turntables. Despite this, their Box range of electronics is all tied together by their non standard sizes. The Stereo Box S Phono is only a whisker over eight inches wide but it is still a fully fitted integrated amp with remote control. It is also an all metal amp in a world of plastic so despite being small, it feels very solid.
It also sounds good too. As you might expect, Pro-Ject has a very solid grounding in phono stages and the Stereo Box S Phono might be the most affordable amp on the market that feels and sounds like it was built for vinyl playback first and digital second. There is a plenty of drive and excitement to the sound and for a mere 37 watts into four ohms, it never seems to have any trouble going impressively loud. If space is tight, this is a fine choice but it still has much to offer in full size systems too.
NAD D3020 $499
A great many turntables breaking cover at affordable price points have chosen to fit phono stages direct to their chassis to prevent problems for first time owners buying their wares and being unable to get sound out of them. This also means that depending on what turntable you own, you don't necessarily need to choose an amp with a phono stage on board. If this is the case, there are is an interesting extra option available to you- one that happens to wear one of the most emotive model numbers in the business.
The NAD D3020 is the spiritual successor to the original NAD3020 for 1978. Like the original, it is designed to be everything someone starting out in audio would need. To this end, it goes long on digital connections, with a USB, optical and coaxial input as well as bluetooth. There is also a single RCA analogue connection on the back that would allow for a turntable to run via a phono preamp. Given that the vertical footprint of the D3020 is tiny and works direct with most digital sources, you wouldn't need a great deal of space to accommodate a system built around the NAD.
The other benefit of this would be that you'd be in possession of a very fine sounding system indeed. The D3020 is a class D design but it sounds punchy, involving and refined enough that you tend to end up driving it very hard indeed because you are having a great time doing it. This is a very modern amp indeed. You can sit there with your mates sending tracks to it by Bluetooth or boosting your TV sound but when you want it to be a hifi product it can deliver absolute musical bliss.
There are of course many other options available at this price point but these five amps offer a range of features from the pared back Pro-Ject to the fully specced Yamaha while at the same time delivering the sound quality you should reasonably expect for your outlay. Peter Walker's dream of absolute neutrality might still be out of reach but it shouldn't stop you having fun in the meantime.