When I entered Naim’s room at last January’s Consumer Electronics Show, my attention was immediately captured by the company’s Uniti offerings. On display were three new network-capable integrated amplifiers -- the Nova, Star, and Atom -- each capable of streaming via a wide range of protocols. All three had large, front-panel LCD displays showing album art in full color, and the Star had a disc drive plus built-in storage for ripping CDs. In a CES that seemed low on excitement, the Unitis were something to get stoked about.
For many people, computers have become an indispensable tool for listening to music. Computers rip CDs, and play tracks using software such as Audirvana Plus, iTunes, and JRiver Media Center. They download high-resolution files from sites such as HDtracks, and stream music from services that include Spotify and Tidal. Linked via USB to a DAC, preamplifier, or integrated amp, a computer can function as a source component. Alternatively, in a networked setup, it can be tapped to direct the flow of data via Ethernet.
Finding a perfect integrated amplifier isn’t easy. While most now provide a USB input for hooking up a computer, many lack a wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection for streaming. Some integrated amps are compatible with AirPlay, and others are Roon Ready. Many provide a phono input for a turntable, but definitely not all.
An understatement: all-in-one speakers come with built-in limitations. Destined to be placed on a shelf or kitchen counter, they’re usually quite small, with little drivers designed to fit the space available within. The downside of all-in-ones, of course, is their limited output of sound, along with soundstaging that barely extends past the edges of their small enclosures. Convenient? Yes. Replacement for a system of separate components? Hmm . . .
It’s often said -- usually about fashion -- that what’s old becomes new again: every decade or so, flannel shirts and skinny jeans come back in style. That’s the way Simaudio sees its ACE, the latest model in the Canadian company’s value-oriented Moon Neo line ($3500 USD). ACE is an acronym for A Complete Experience, and Simaudio is pitching it as a contemporary extension of the stereo receivers that drove the hi-fi boom of the 1970s. And a complete system it is, housing a moving-magnet phono stage, DAC, network player/streamer, preamplifier, power amplifier, and headphone amp in a single, compact box. Just connect it to speakers, link it to your wired or wireless network, and plug in any legacy components you have lying around. The ACE is like having a whole hi-fi system up your sleeve.
In the past year I’ve reviewed an array of all-in-one products, ranging from wireless powered speakers to integrated models combining streamer, DAC, preamp, and amp functions in a single case. A related category that I’ve ignored completely is the network audio player, a group that includes Arcam’s new rPlay ($599 USD).
Integrated amplifiers are the multitaskers of hi-fi, earning their keep by meeting multiple requirements at once. Since they usually need to be priced affordably, integrateds tend to be conservatively designed. That said, many recent models accommodate contemporary listening habits through features like Bluetooth streaming and a USB DAC input. Others, like Hegel Music Systems’ Röst, which I recently reviewed on SoundStage! Simplifi, go further by incorporating a wired LAN connection, IP control, and AirPlay streaming.
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