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Old school meets new school: Yamaha A-S801 stereo integrated amplifier

It may look like a vintage 1970's amp, but Yamaha's all-new A-S801 sounds like the 2015 component that it is.

Stereo integrated amplifiers are as old school as you can get. They're pretty basic; for decades integrated amps just had a volume control, inputs for CD, radio, "aux," and sometimes a phono input for a turntable. There might be bass and treble controls, but most amps didn't even come with a remote control! My no-frills NAD C 316BEE, 40 watt per channel amp is the perfect expression of a classic integrated amp that's still being made today. Yamaha's newly introduced A-S801 looks like a clone of a Yamaha integrated amp from the 1970s or 1980s, but the features lineup is very much of our time. The Yamaha A-S801 has a $1,000 MSRP in the US.

Yamaha A-S801 Steve Guttenberg/CNET

The A-S801's front panel and the remote control were so logically laid out I didn't have to consult the owner's manual even once to get sound out of this thing! I hooked up my Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player's coaxial digital output, and a pair of GoldenEar Technology Triton Five tower speakers and started playing tunes. The sound was clean, bass had plenty of oomph, and stereo imaging was big and broad.

The A-S801's connectivity runs the gamut, there's six sets of stereo RCA analog inputs including a phono input for moving magnet cartridges; two sets of stereo RCA analog outputs; a RCA subwoofer output jack; three digital inputs, Toslink, coaxial and USB; and two sets (A+B) of heavy-duty speaker binding posts. Built-in digital converters handle ultra-high resolution 384 kHz/32 bit PCM and 5.6 MHz DSD files! If you need to go wireless order the optional Yamaha YBA-11 Bluetooth adaptor ($70).

The A-S801's back panel has an impedance selector switch for high (6 or 8 Ohm) or low impedance (4 Ohm) speakers. The A-S801 is rated at 100 watts per channel, and weighs a hefty 26.7 pounds! That's a good indication of solid build quality and the components packed inside the chassis. Most 7 x 100 watt receivers weigh less than the A-S801, for example, Yamaha's RX-V777BT AV receiver weighs just 23.2 pounds! Most of the weight differential comes from the A-S801's larger power transformer, power supply capacitors and heat sinks.

In addition to the usual front panel controls -volume, bass, treble, speaker A/B switching, etc. - the A-S801 sports a variable loudness control. That one lets you tailor the tonal balance for late night listening by gently boosting bass and treble to make up for losses associated with quiet listening levels.

I compared the A-S801 with my NAD C 316BEE integrated amp, hooked up to the GoldenEar Technology Triton Five tower speakers. The C 316BEE's sound had more body and weight, the A-S801 was leaner and lighter in tone. Classical violinist Joshua Bell's bluegrass infused Short Trip Home album sound was "riper" and more voluptuous over the C 316BEE, but more accurate over the A-S801.

With "Hard Times" from the new AC-DC album Rock or Bust the C 316BEE rocked harder, and Phil Rudd's mighty kick drum had superior kick. The C 316BEE sells for less than half the A-S801's price, but the C 316BEE lacks features like the built-in digital converter, phono preamp, and A & B speaker switching. The two amps sound different, but both provide good sound.

The A-S801's stereo home theater trials commenced with Avatar, and the amp handled the film's scale and impact with ease. Dialogue was clear and natural, and when the Hammerhead Titanothere lets off some steam in the jungle and knocks down a few trees the A-S801's power reserves were never in doubt.

"Lionsong" from Bjork's new "Vulnicura" album in high-resolution digital is a gorgeous recording, and its thunderous beats pumping against strings took my breath away. Bjork's multi-tracked vocals were front and center in the mix.

I also compared the sound of a pair of NAD Viso HP50 headphones plugged into my iPod Classic and the A-S801, and the amp made those headphones sound like much better headphones. So if you've invested in a decent pair of headphones, but you only play them in your cell phone, the A-S801 will be an easy upgrade.

While the A-S801's competence was never in doubt it lacks the more "robust" character of the $1,295 Rogue Sphinx amp's sound. The Sphinx is a cool running vacuum tube/Class D hybrid design that sounds like a classic 1980s high-end integrated amplifier. The Sphinx is rated at 100 watts per channel for 8 ohm speakers, 200 watts per for 4 ohm speakers. There's more body and soul to the Sphinx sound, the A-S801 is tonally cooler and lighter on its feet. Which one is better? I prefer the Sphinx, but tastes vary, you might go for the A-S801.