HolidayBuyer's Guide

Are you ready for this? A $160 stereo system an audiophile could love

The Audiophiliac pairs the Dayton Audio APA100 stereo integrated amplifier with the Dayton Audio B652-Air bookshelf speakers, and loves the sound.

I get a ton of emails requesting more coverage of cheap, but great, audio products. I do as many as I can, but the problem is that most cheap stuff isn't good enough to review. Making exceptional audio products at any price isn't easy, but the challenges escalate with budget gear, so when I get an exceptional budget component I'm eager to share the news.

The Dayton Audio APA100 stereo integrated amplifier is my latest find. This sleek design prioritizes audio quality over features, and keeps the price just under $100. As I unboxed the amp it seemed obvious I had to try it with Dayton Audio's remarkable B652-Air speaker that sells for just $60 per pair.

This 11.8-inch-high bookshelf speaker has a 6.5-inch polypropylene woofer; that's a good deal larger than the woof than you'll find in most budget speakers. And instead of a run-of-the-mill dome tweeter, the B652-Air boasts a high-tech air motion transformer tweeter. This flat, 1-inch-square tweeter promises clearer, lower-distortion sound than cheap dome tweeters can manage. Impedance is rated at 6 ohms, so the B652-Air is compatible with receivers that support 4- to 8-ohm speakers.

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The Dayton Audio APA100 amp (top), and B652-Air speakers (bottom)

Photo by Dayton Audio

While most cheap amps are Class D designs, the APA100 is a bona fide Class AB traditional audiophile design. Power output is rated at 60 watts per channel for 8-ohm speakers, and 75 watts per channel for 4-ohm speakers. Again, 4-ohm power output ratings are rare, and not only for budget designs -- I doubt you'll find a $500 receiver with a 4-ohm power rating, because 4-ohm speakers draw more current (amperes) than most $500 receivers can safely deliver. The APA100's 4-ohm power rating demonstrates the designers' commitment to producing an exceptional design for a very low price.

If you crave even more power, buy a second APA100 and run the two APA100s in "bridged" mono mode via a switch on the rear panel. The amp's stereo channels will be combined, and Dayton claims the bridged APA100 delivers up to 160 watts to an 8-ohm speaker, but no 4-ohm rating is specified for the bridged amps. The low-slung APA100 chassis measures 16.5 by 8 by 2.5 inches. It runs slightly warm to the touch.

Peek inside the APA100 chassis and you'll see why it's more powerful than most budget amps: it has a relatively large power transformer, and transformers are usually the single most expensive part of a power amplifier. The output power transistors are mounted on a substantial-looking heat sink, as again Dayton's engineers directed their budget toward making the APA100 sound as good as they could. To help manage that feat connectivity options are pretty minimal: you get just two stereo RCA inputs, and one set of fixed-level stereo RCA outputs, but you can't use those outputs to drive a powered subwoofer. Fortunately you can use the APA100's speaker outputs to hook up nearly any self-powered sub. I wrote a blog that covers how to hook up a subwoofer to any stereo amp that doesn't have a sub output jack. If you need a budget sub, I like the $99 Dayton Sub-800.

Oh, and the APA100 also has two sets of speaker five-way binding posts (A and B) that work with cables fitted with banana plugs, spades, pins or stripped-bare wire ends. You can manually turn the APA100 on and off via the power button on the front panel, or have it automatically turn on when it receives a signal, and it will turn itself off after a few minutes without signal. The APA100 doesn't have digital inputs, a phono (turntable) input or a remote control. If you absolutely need an amp with a remote I recommend the Onkyo TX 8020 stereo receiver.

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Instead of a more common dome tweeter, the B652-Air uses a special air motion transformer tweeter.

Photo by Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Listening to electronica wizard Amon Tobin's stunning "Bricolage" album over the APA100/B652-Air combination, the first thing that grabbed my attention was the stereo imaging. The sound stage spread wider, much wider than the actual locations of the speakers, and sometimes the beats and sampled horns leaped forward a bit, ahead of the plane of the speakers. This sort of "holographic" stereo imaging is more akin to what I expect from much more expensive systems, but the APA100/B652-Air system made a habit of surprising me. Treble detailing was smooth and clear, far beyond what any other budget speaker I've heard can muster.

Play a massively compressed recording like The National's "High Violet," and the APA100/B652-Air won't gloss over the sound's crunchy haze, but I can't blame the APA100/B652-Air for letting me hear how nasty The National's music sounds. Things picked up with Elliott Smith's gorgeous "Heaven Adores You" soundtrack album. Smith's layered vocals and dense instrumentals were a feast for my ears.

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The Dayton Audio APA100, shown without its top cover.

Photo by Dayton Audio

Listening to jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, accompanied only by Joe Pass on electric guitar on their "Sophisticated Lady" album let me focus on the APA100/B652-Air system's lifelike midrange tonality. I mean that, Ms. Fitzgerald's swinging vocals left no doubt, this little system's audiophile credibility was assured. You'd have to spend at least three times more on a wireless system to begin to approach the sound quality of the APA100/B652-Air system, and no single wireless speaker at any price will generate as wide and detailed stereo image as the APA100/B652-Air system.

Still, the B652-Airs have their limitations: notably, bass oomph and definition are lacking, it's not a high-impact speaker, but then again for just $60 per pair they can't be beat.

My admiration for the B652-Air is based on its sound quality for the money. The Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speaker is better in every way -- bass, dynamics, clarity, treble -- you name it, but it's roughly double the price of the B652-Air. The B652-Air can play fairly loud, but it sounds best at softer, more moderate volumes; the SP-BS22-LR handles volume better. If you can afford the difference go for the SP-BS22-LR.

Of course, I could continue to cite better-sounding, but more expensive alternatives to every product mentioned in this post, but my goal this time was to offer rock-bottom-priced components that still produce excellent sound quality. The Dayton Audio APA100 is highly recommended for buyers seeking a best-possible-sound-quality amp for under $100.

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