Week 20, 2017: High-end amplifiers, spending $6,000 wisely on system upgrades

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 20, 2017

Q. I have a pair of Polk LSi9 speakers and recently purchased a high-end tube preamplifier. I would now like a high-end amplifier to go with it. What is the best for around $6,000?

-G.F., Livermore, CA

A. “The best for around $6,000” would probably be the Pass Labs X150.5 for $5,500. passlabs.com

Before you whip out your credit card and order one we should discuss if that is the best use of your money. You have a wonderful pair of speakers, but they retailed for about $1,100 per pair in their heyday. Using a $6,000 amplifier with a $1,100 pair of speakers is backwards as the speakers are much more important, especially in high-priced systems. It would make much more sense to use a $1,100 amplifier with a $6,000 pair of speakers.

With two-channel stereo amplifiers I think you hit greatly diminishing returns around $2,500, unless you have exotic speakers or extremely high power requirements. In considering your question I looked at the marketplace and realized what I have chosen for my own use is exactly what I would recommend for you.

The old school approach would be a traditional solid-state analog amplifier with a large power supply. My hands-down favorite in this category is the Cambridge Audio Azur 851W, which will deliver 350 watts per channel to your 4-ohm speakers. I use an 851W in my main music system and I love the warm, rich and powerful sound. It makes a lot (a LOT!) of heat even at low volume, so be sure your equipment rack has good ventilation before buying one.

The new school approach would be a high-tech digital amplifier. Axiom Audio makes unique digital amplifiers that combine the best features of traditional power supplies with digital amplifier technology, and I use one in my home theater. The sound is absolutely pristine and clear, backgrounds are absolutely silent, and I have found the LSi9 speakers match well with digital amplification. The Axiom amps perform neck-and-neck with the $15,000 esoteric brand digital amplifiers, but at affordable prices. The $1,090 ADA1000 will deliver 250 watts per channel to your speakers and unlike most other powerful amplifiers, the efficient modern design is cool-running and consumes little electricity. More powerful models are available as well.

With either of these choices you have at least $4,000 remaining from your original $6,000 budget. Why not use it to really make a difference, with some high-end speakers? Even if you plan on continuing to enjoy your LSi9s, it’s always fun to have different speakers to play with and when properly spent, $4,000 gets you stunningly good sound. You can get some nice Ohm Walsh speakers in that price range, and Polk’s LSiM towers retail from $3,000 to $4,000 per pair and are a logical upgrade from your LSi9s.

If you decide on an Axiom amplifier you can get a package deal with their LFR880 omnidirectional speakers, one of the most advanced designs on the market today. Unlike most bipolar or dipolar speakers that simply radiate sound from front and back, the Axiom omnidirectional speakers use four separate amplifier channels combined with an external digital signal processor to precisely tailor the front and rear output so you get a large, spacious soundstage combined with pinpoint imaging. A package with the LFR880s, the processor and a matching four channel Axiom amplifier is $4,763, well within your budget for the amplifier alone. Most systems of this type that I have seen cost well over $15,000, making it a bargain for the technology and sonic performance.