The Case For Audio Separates: Components vs. Integrated Systems

Integrated audio and home theater systems don't offer the flexibility and performance of separate audio components.


A stack of Emotiva components

by Ron Goldberg

Somewhere in the space/time continuum, with a healthy nudge from market forces, cheaper replaced better as the primary come-on in the home entertainment landscape. Case in point—the demise of separate components in favor of integrated, all-in-one “solutions.”

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Audio Separates vs. Receiver

Don’t get us wrong, cheap and easy can be charming qualities. But better is a trump card, and if you like better—as in better performance, better setup options, better reliability and a few other assorted betters—you’ll almost always find it through separate components, rather than one-box systems.

Yes, that means more components, more wires, more space, more adjustments and (typically), more expense. But it you’re building an A/V system for stereo to savor, with best performance today and best options for extending it the future, here are seven essential reasons to consider basing your system on separate components, rather than an all-in-one receiver.

Want to expand on your A/V investment with new software, features and upgrades as they become available? A separate preamp/processor will let you download them and also give you enough connectivity to extend hardware too, such as through outboard D/A converters, video scalers, flash drives and the like.

Audio separates will almost always give you more connection options for more gear (old and new). Want more power to drive those new tower speakers you’ve just upgraded to? Connect more amplification. Want an extra input so the family can watch the camcorder footage you just shot, or a USB slot for some music? You’ll usually find more (and higher quality) connection jacks/ports on separates than all-in-one receivers.

Krell Phantom II stereo preamp

With audio separates, engineers don’t have to compromise their art by the practical considerations of having to jam things into a single small (and less costly) box. The task at hand—preamplification, decoding, routing, amplification, etc, is all that matters in a separate component. Long story short—best possible performance comes from separate, dedicated components, where the designers have not been constrained nearly as much by factors of size, weight and cost. All the best performing components in the A/V market are separates; even the receiver makers (which often also make separates) would have to agree.

When one thing goes wrong with a receiver, the entire receiver goes in for repair. With separates, you’re not stuck with nothing in case there’s a problem. For example, tuner not receiving channels? Tuner goes in for repair, but you can still watch and listen to other sources. In a one-box receiver, multiple functions are often built onto the same circuit board. If one aspect of the board goes, the whole board (even the working functions) needs replacement. In separates, there are usually dedicated circuit boards for various functions, which are easier (and ironically, often cheaper) to replace.

ADA Cinema Rhapsody Mach IV-B home theater controller

Quality Of Components
Separates are the premium offerings from a manufacturer. Their best engineering and part selection is reserved for these dedicated environments where there is less need for physical or economic compromise. Internal components are chosen for their efficacy, not their efficiency or cost. This not only translates into better performance, but more often than not, greater reliability.

Anthem Statement A5 amplifier

When you’ve outgrown your receiver you need to replace it. When does this happen? Maybe you’re moving the setup into a larger room that needs more power. Or you’ve upgraded to bigger, hungrier speakers. Or you’ve decided that 7.1 would be more fun than 5.1. Or you’ve decided a new D/A converter with the latest decoding might sound even better than what you have. With separates you can always improve every link in the chain over time.

Even Receivers Can Be Separates
It may be tempting to buy that one-box disc player/amplifier/speakers/sub kitchen sink audio solution you saw displayed at the store. It’d be cheaper. It might even be easier (though not necessarily; they’re often a bear to actually operate). But it will never be better sounding or performing than any up-to-date A/V receiver and real speakers from real speaker manufacturers. You can put together an inexpensive receiver and speaker combo for not much more at all than what you’d pay for the plastic pretenders that come with a cheap HTIB (Home Theater in a Box).

All-in-one is a nice idea for a phone. For an A/V system that performs rather than just plays, you need to hear what’s possible these days. And the best of what’s possible is in separate components.


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