Audiophile Sumo: Separates Can Offer Listening Lessons

“Unnnnnnggggg…” I hissed and cursed softly under my breath, shifting my stance, pulling harder.

The amplifier barely budged.

My one-year-old daughter sat passively watching me from her perch on the love seat several feet away like I was a favourite documentary television program.

I was squatting awkwardly, sweating with effort and lamaze breathing as though I was about to push something big out.

In my underwear, a torn Ramones t-shirt and gold socks I dead-lifted the 600-watt, 100-lbs+ McIntosh mono bloc onto a stand… the logic of owning such large amplifiers suddenly seemed flawed when I was forced to move one alone.

We were leaving our winter retreat at the edge of Desolation Sound on Canada’s west coast – several hours and two ferry rides north of Vancouver. Covid-19 protocols made hiring movers or enticing friends with beer and pizza a non-starter, so it was myself, a U-Haul, my partner, and our one-year-old daughter that were left to pack-up and transport all our worldly possessions.

As someone who self-identifies with audiophile as a genre of music lover, finally being able to afford switching to mono bloc amplifiers with a separate preamplifier seemed like a natural progression – from the integrated amplifiers I had been enjoying for years – to further reaching sonic nirvana. In many ways, the benefits of separates are impossible to deny – and I wouldn’t – but, I’ve heard a good number of amazing integrated amplifiers over the years. Some of which I would classify as over-achievers in the timbral, tonal, dynamic, circuit design, output and power-supply arts.

But, the thing with separates is your box count. And while I was packing up to move, believe me when I tell you, I was very aware of my box count. Mono blocs means a preamplifier is needed to drive said power amps, a source of either digital or analog predisposition is also required. If you have a dedicated DAC, then you need to feed it files from a player/streamer and if you’ve got a turntable then you probably like a separate phono stage (ooh, and a SUT if you’re running an MC cartridge and a tube phono amp), so there’s some more boxes… if you’re both analog and digital (who isn’t!) then you’re looking at a lot of boxes, a lot of interconnects, a lot of AC cables and a lot of space required to spread this sonic buffet out on.

In this day and age, a one-box player/streamer/DAC/pre-amp can take the place of several boxes, but usually the path chosen for the separates signal chain involves more boxes, not fewer.

This brings me back to my sumo stance, the sweating and socks: Did I need this many boxes and why did they weigh so much? Of course, when you commit to the way of separates, more boxes begets more boxes, begets more boxes. This makes audiophiles smile. We love all our boxes, racks, stands and cables. Where would the fun be without all this gear? For some, the gear is the fun. Especially in a hobby that has its fair share of enthusiasts who care little for music and would rather fetishize over gear, specifications, measurements or test tracks. My friend Peter Qvortrup put it well when he enthused that many involved in this hobby (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘would prefer if the music just got out of the way of their gear…’

Interestingly, many of the integrated amplifiers I’ve been most impressed with also had built-in phono stages (many now also include DACs – another box chopped from your total) that while perhaps not the final word in ultimate fidelity (some sonic compromise must be made to have everything in a single chassis), they were certainly possessed of resolution, detail, dynamics, speed, bass-slam, musicality and emotional engagement commensurate with their high four-figure price tags. These are not stereo receivers akin to your father’s Sansui, these are of the more bespoke, old-money variety. Built by companies around for decades who take high fidelity deadly serious. Most have separates of equal or higher performance levels and cost, but who understand and enable those music-loving audiophiles who prefer a lower box count for various reasons.

While I find myself these days leaning towards a lower box count in my personal reference system, I must admit I have a preference to keep my digital and analog in separate boxes. An integrated amplifier with a built-in phono stage and separate digital streamer/DAC is as close as I’d like to mix the two playback chains, but this preference came about after almost two years of dedicated computer-audio focus thanks to helming this website. When I first started, the idea of an integrated amp with both digital and analog stages, or a preamp with both seemed perfectly acceptable to my ears. Less so now after all the direct comparisons I’ve been able to experience firsthand.

So, what’s your box count and why? Are you a died-in-the-wool separates hardcore or are you copacetic with the co-mingling of digital and analog under one chassis cover? Somewhere in-between? I’d be very interested in hearing what your preferences are and why.

Me? You’ll have to wait and see where I end up on the spectrum, but I can assure you the days of my daughter having to take in a possibly psychologically-scarring spectre like she did during this moving debacle are over.

Most likely.

Paul E.'s picture

So, what’s your box count and why?
6, I too enjoy the separate life!

Ortofan's picture

... a Marantz PM7005 integrated amp, which has a phono preamp and a DAC (22 lbs.), a pair of Harbeth P3ESR speakers (27 lbs./pair) and a REL T/7i subwoofer (36 lbs.).

SpinMark3313's picture

Integrated or separates, just want the best I can get w/i my spending range. Landed on Shindo entry level separates, and a SUT to feed the Shindo's onboard phono section. Could I do better for the money?
Maybe. Probably?
I don't know.
But I'm tired of the chase and now just so enjoying the music like never before.
In the end, 8 boxes plus TT & speakers: pre, power, SUT, CD, DAC, power transformer, TT power supply, and R2R machine. Almost 60 & ready to get off upgrade train.
But, maybe speakers...

Everclear's picture

May be just get the new, soon to be released NAD M33 integrated and the Yamaha NS-5000 speakers ....
Or, the new Eikon Audio Image1 integrated system ....... One box and a pair of speakers :-) .......

Longterm's picture

Oh how I envy people who can obsess over monoblocks, box counts, separate analog and digital -- My bride and I recently downsized (we're retired) into an "open-plan" house. I had a highly reviewed pre-pro and upscale 5-channel power amp plus a suite of speakers, including a killer sub. It sounded great in our old place. It sounds like a table radio in the "great room" with soaring cathedral ceiling and lots of echo off all that wallspace. Result: pre-pro, which was obsolete with the advent of the latest HDMI spec, and boat-anchor amp got traded for a (very good) receiver -- here many of you will hang garlic around your necks to ward off evil. Result: less space occupied, and it sounds exactly like the higher-end system it replaces -- terrible. So count your blessings -- you can at least hear your systems. Lesson: your room is more important than any gear you buy.

Everclear's picture

Do you have (or, used) room correction technology in your system like 'Dirac Live'? :-) .........

Longterm's picture

Yes -- I use Audyssey MultEQ® XT32,which is built into the receiver. It helps a little, especially at lower volumes, but turn up the sound and the room echo takes over, blurring transients, distorting timbres, and making the whole system shriek-y. I don't think any software will correct that. I'm thinking of sound absorption panels, but that's a decor decision, if you know what I mean.

Everclear's picture

May I know what speakers you are using? ....... If you are already using powered subwoofer(s), just 2-way, 2 driver satellite speakers may be good enough ........ Most of the room problems originate from bass frequencies ....... Most of the separate powered subwoofer(s) provide some type of adjustable controls and they also can be independently positioned for the best bass reproduction :-) .......

Longterm's picture

I have Canton towers up front, plus a matching center speaker. The drivers in the towers are in the top half of the front baffle so they sound like satellite speakers on stands but with somewhat more dynamic range. It's not a bass problem -- the room doesn't seem to have big bass reinforcement or null zones, and between the Audyssey correction and the several controls on the Hsu Research sub the bass output is OK. It is simply the room reflections, from several directions (this is a "great room" with many corners and lots of blank walls facing each other), mostly in the upper midrange, that's causing the problem. Room damping is almost certainly the answer. But thanks for your suggestions.

Everclear's picture

Of course, sound absorption panels and other such devices will also help :-) ........

Everclear's picture

NAD is one of the companies which includes 'Dirac Live' in their pre-pros, A/V receivers and integrated amplifiers ...... NAD latest model 'Dirac Live' A/V receiver sells for $2,995 :-) .......

maasomenos's picture

Depends on how you count. At the heart is an AVM A5.2 integrated with DAC card, NAIM Credo speakers, but... Digital comes from either a MacBook pro or an iMac, running Audirvana with Qobuz and Tidal, which stream into an OPPO 203 before going into the DAC. Initially I tried this just for convenience, but discovered that I liked the sound with the optional upsampling from the Oppo (although I don't like it too much as a CD player, but it doubles for movies from BD or Apple TV into the projector or Samsung Frame telly, and I wouldn't get away with a separate CD player int he living room, and it does make fantastic sound for movies). Then there is analog: Thorens 125 rebuilt by Schopper Audio in Switzerland, into a Trigon vanguard phono pre. Oh, and then there's the kids playstation, does that count... In the end, more boxes than I would like for a tidy look in the living room, but I haven't gotten round to address that, and things just add up over time. If I was to start from scratch, it would probably be active speakers and a control hub like the Canton A45 Smart. But there's always the question of how much money you want to pour into all of this, when you're actually pretty damn happy how everything sounds currently. And have just bought a house...

S.Iqbal's picture

By the time I realised what had happened, my system had grown to consist of a:
\pair of Parasound monoblock amplifiers,
\two-box VTL preamplifier,
\NAIM DAC with separate power supply
\Graham Slee phono preamp with its own separate power supply,
\Musical Fidelity CD Player,
\Sonos network streamer,
\Nottingham Analogue turntable with its own separate power supply,
\and, two speakers (Wilson W/P 8s so another 4 boxes there).
Other than speaker cables, this required 6 pairs of interconnects and 8 power cords not to mention two dedicated amp stands and a independent component rack. Whew!
I then moved to a pair of Devialet 400 Integrated/DAC Monobolocks and, presto, in one fell swoop I obviated the need for preamp, DAC, phono stage, dedicated amp stands, 3 power cords and 3 ICs. My system now comprises Wilson Sophia IIIs (-2 another boxes there!), Aurender N10 server, Esoteric CD player and the aforementioned Nottingham Analogue turntable. It sounds better than my earlier rig, is simpler to use, occupies less real estate and allows me to spend more time listening to music than obsessing over upgrades etc. Frankly, I don't think I'm ever going back to the multi-box separates type system ever again.

struts's picture

...from 4 big Boulder boxes (plus countless bits of source equipment, power supplies etc) to one Devialet D250 "bathroom scale". I have been very happy with the result, especially when I realised that the benefits you state didn't entail any compromises in sound quality. But as glorious as it sounds (and looks) Devialet ownership has been a frustrating experience that would test the patience of a saint, featuring constant software niggles, infuriating lack of communication from Devialet as well as a clear deprioritization of the Expert Pro line - despite a ca $3000 hardware upgrade a couple years ago the promise of which has gone completely unrealised.

But if I were to hop from this lily-pad, which one would I hop to? I don't exactly see an embarrassment of options in a one-box at this quality level. So I start dreaming about building a new system around a "digital heart", musing that something like a dCS Rossini would take me a good way to where I would like to be. Add a decent power amp (would love to audition one of the new Eigentakt-based systems such as that from Nord Acoustics) and I think I would be well covered from a digital perspective. And acknowledging that vinyl is now very much a second source for me I would probably look to go the route of a decent ADC phono stage, maybe something like the m2Tech Joplin, although I would love to see more choices in the market there (maybe dCS will oblige?).

So I may be upping the box count again in the not too distant future, although almost certainly not to the same heights as before. No one right answer here. Different strokes for different folks. And in my case different points on the spectrum for different phases of life.