Every year the amplifier gets that little bit more complex! The amplifier used to have just two jobs to do – select the right source, and then make those small signals large enough to be played by a pair of loudspeakers. Increasingly, however, the humble amplifier is more of a complete digital nexus, having to cope with new formats and streaming standards and a whole lot more. Fortunately, there are some clever audio designers who are very good at combinations.
It's a mark of resilience that the amplifier hasn't changed quite as dramatically as it could. Notionally at least, a modern amplifier could be almost entirely digital, operating in Class D, and about the size of a roll of sticky tape. And although such things do exist, many chose not to go there and still prefer their amplifiers a little more traditional. Sometimes very traditional, but most of us meet somewhere in the middle, with amplifier systems that feature inputs new and old.
I'm buoyed by the diversity on offer in the amplifier world. We've happened across digital phono stages, DACs as preamps, Class A, Class D, and Class AB designs. We've seen amplifiers that weigh as much as a car engine, and some that weigh as much as a paperback book. And yet, even though some claim to mark the end of amps as we know them, people just keep coming back and buying integrated amps, preamps, and power amps.
It's interesting to ponder just where the next great change in amplifier design will come from. For my part, I reckon the future will continue to be diverse, with valve amps from the earliest days of audio at one extreme, and state-of-the-art designs at the other.
I do suspect integration is the way forward, both in terms of integration into networked audio systems and ultimately into home automation. The idea of Control4 codes driving devices around a home may seem like a bridge too far for today's enthusiasts, but we live in a world of HomePods and Alexas now, and the next generation of amplifiers will need to learn how to speak to them. Not all amps, and such a change is certainly not for everyone, but in the same way 10 years ago most audiophiles still used CD and now those numbers are declining, I suspect there will be more call for greater integration in the coming years.
Congratulations to John Robinson of the USA, who wins an outstanding Chord Electronics Hugo2 and to Adrian Hull in Wiltshire, UK who wins the excellent Gold Note PH-10 phono stage from our competitions in issue 154. Well done to both of you!