Lepai's tiny powerhouse amplifier won't break the bank

The $130 LP7498E integrated stereo amp sports, a mostly minimalist features set, but it does include Bluetooth!

The Lepai LP7498E stereo integrated amplifier, with Bluetooth Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I never heard of Lepai until about a year ago, when Parts Express sent over a Lepai LP-2020A+ amplifier for review. Well, it didn't take long to see it was a steal, and it has been my go-to amp for anyone on a super-tight budget, it's just $25, and for that kind of money the sound is pretty special. The 20-watt-per-channel stereo amplifier is a tiny thing, it's just 1.5x5.5x4.5 inches.

The new Lepai LP7498E amp isn't that much bigger, it's 4.5x8.4x1.6 inches, but its separate power supply box is almost as big. It's a considerably more powerful amplifier. The LP-2020A+ isn't discontinued, but the new LP7498E offers a big bump in power, it's rated at 160 watts per channel for 4-ohm speakers, and 100 watts per channel for 8 ohm speakers. Few receiver manufacturers dare to publish a 4 ohm spec for their products because 4 ohms is a more demanding "load," and harder to drive. The LP7498E is a Class D design, so it never gets more than barely warm to the touch. The no-frills chassis and a laser engraved metal faceplate won't win any beauty contests, but it's attractive. There are two inputs, stereo analog RCA and Bluetooth, accessible via the toggle switch on the front panel. The speaker output connectors accept banana plugs or bare wire ends. No remote control is included or available, the LP7498E's strictly a hands-on affair.

The Lepai LP7498E, left, the LP2020A+, right Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Comparing the LP7498E with the LP-2020A didn't require a lot of work on my part, they sound quite different. The LP7498E not only played louder with greater ease, it sounded clearer, more bass oomph was on tap, and the stereo soundstage was bigger. My Zu Audio Omen DW speakers proved a nice match for the amp.

Nothing about the LP7498E's sound or power reserves betrays its rock bottom price, but my comments about the sound refer to running the wired RCA inputs, switching over to Bluetooth the sound coarsened and turned rather harsh. BT made my Omen DWs sound like cheap speakers, though there was a simple cure for that problem, turn the volume down. Running the LP7498E nice and low, at background volume levels the sound was tolerable. BT technology may be perfectly acceptable for little speakers, but it's not really intended for quality audio applications. BT signal dropouts were rare, and I'm sure some LP7498E owners will take advantage of the feature, but BT speakers, including the best $600 ones never sound all that great. Apparently, that's OK with a lot of people, BT speaker sales are up year after year.

Run the LP7498E with a wired connection to a computer or CD player, hooked up to a pair of $249 Pioneer SP-FS52 tower speakers, and that combination will easily clobber the $600 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air's sound (it's an AirPlay speaker). Granted the Pioneer/Lepai set won't look as cool as the Zeppelin, and they'll take up a lot more living space, but if you prioritize sound over style, and would like to save $220 consider your options. It's your choice.

 

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