At CES 2014, I stepped into an exhibitor's room filled with a vast array of compact audio components, all with a quality appearance, as well as an enormous assortment of turntables at just about every price point. Since then, I have been trying get my hands on one of these products to see how well it performed. Recently, Pro-ject Audio Systems came through with the MaiA, which stands for My Audio Integrated Amplifier. This product is part of Pro-ject Audio's Box Design line, which includes a variety of components from many categories that all possess a smaller footprint.
The MaiA ($499) is a stereo integrated amplifer with nine inputs, a 24-bit/192-kHz DAC, a music streamer, and a headphone amplifier. The nine inputs consist of an MM phono-stage input, three analog line-level inputs, one XMOS asynchronous USB 24-bit/192-kHz input, one digital coax input, two Toslink inputs, and lastly a wireless AptX lossless Bluetooth input. There is also a variable audio output for use as a second zone or with a subwoofer, but there's no crossover functionality (you would need to use the crossover filter on the subwoofer to control the output).
The amplifier on the MaiA is a dual mono design using the Flying Moles Class D amplifier technology, boasting 25 watts per channel at eight ohms and 37 watts per channel at four ohms, with claims that it is two-ohm capable. Flying Moles is a Class D amplifier technology out of Japan that started with a group of engineers with ties to Yamaha. Their designs have received substantial praise over the past years, and Pro-ject Audio was able to obtain the ability to replicate and advance the design to ensure future production needs. Quality touches include a motor-driven potentiometer for volume control and the XMOS USB input, which is a high-quality asynchronous USB input found in higher-end electronics--not something that's typical for a component in this price range. Also included is an infrared remote control. The MaiA is 8.125 inches wide, 1.5 inches tall, and 8.66 inches deep, with a black metal case and a choice of either a black or silver faceplate. It's manufactured in Europe.
Initially, I connected the MaiA to a pair of Totem monitor speakers from the company's Dream Catcher system, located in my home office. I used my MacBook Pro as my main source, streaming from Tidal. I started with the song Riptide from Vance Joy's Debut album Dream Your Life Away (CD, Atlantic). Imaging was very good, and the soundstage was wide and deep. The clarity, dynamics, and overall accuracy were impressive. I was enjoying what I was hearing, and my first impression was that of a much larger soundstage than one would think possible from such a little component. I listened to a variety of music from the Beatles, Carly Simon, and Journey, all exhibiting a compelling sound quality. I found myself playing song after song, from many different recording artists and genres, never feeling disappointed.
I moved on to wireless streaming from my iPhone 6. Although the difference was small, I preferred the sound with a wired connection directly from my computer. The streaming was not as convincing, with less dynamics on both the top and bottom end. Again, these differences were small. Connecting my iPhone was a bit tricky and non-intuitive, but I figured it out with a little effort and several repeated attempts.
Next, I gave the headphone amplifier a try by connecting my Sennheiser HD 700 headphones. Once again I was impressed with what I heard, forgetting about the equipment and enjoying the music while losing track of time. One could easily forget they were listening to an entry-level piece of equipment. Upper frequencies were crisp without being forward. I was never pushed back into my seat by harshness or an in-your-face presentation.
In an attempt to make the MaiA struggle, I connected a borrowed set of Audeze LCD-XC headphones, which on previous occasions have struggled with lesser amplification. However, I was unsuccessful, as the MaiA was able to push the LCD-XCs with the same finesse as the HD700s.
I moved the MaiA to my theater room, where a pair of B&W CM10 speakers resides, to determine if the MaiA could drive a challenging full-range floorstander. While I recognized that the B&Ws sound better with more powerful equipment, the MaiA did in fact perform well, as long as you don't push the limits; otherwise, you will hear some congestion in the bass drivers. The CM10s retained their ability to image, creating a wide and deep soundstage, along with control of the both high and midrange frequencies.
Pro-ject Audio Systems also sent the RPM Carbon 3 turntable, so I took it for a spin on the MaiA to take advantage of the moving-magnet phono input. The vinyl tracks I used--Pat Benatar's Get Nervous (Vinyl/Chrysalis) and Van Halen's Fair Warning (Vinyl, Warner Brothers)--played through the MaiA incredibly, and what I heard can be best described as an organic sound quality, with great detail and accuracy. Even with these rock bands, the warmth of the vinyl beamed through.
• The MaiA has an incredible variety of inputs to satisfy aspiring and experienced audiophiles alike.
• The MaiA possesses above-average build quality, with a brushed-aluminum faceplate, blue LED indicators, an XMOS asynchronous USB input chip set, and a motorized potentiometer for volume control.
• The headphone amplifier performed exceptionally and was able to drive more-difficult headphones.
• I appreciated the compact size, which works well for small rooms or living areas, or where a non-intrusive look is desired, while retaining audiophile qualities.
• The inclusion of a stereo line-level output utilizing a single cable with a 3.5mm jack for a second zone or subwoofer output is a fantastic feature that other competing products lack.
• The low amplifier power could limit speaker options.
• The Bluetooth connection process is quirky and not explained well in the manual.
• The MaiA does not have RCA pre-out connections for an external amplifier to grow your system.
Comparison and Competition
There is no shortage of entry-level integrated amplifiers on the market, with many offering a compelling array of features. The Peachtree nova65SE is at a higher MSRP of $999 but with a street price of $799. The 65SE comes with much more power: 95 watts. It has modern inputs but lacks a phono input and a headphone amplifier.
The PS Audio Sprout is $499 and has a cool look. The Sprout does have an assortment of inputs, but the MaiA has more, including Toslink and three analog inputs. Additionally, the Sprout lacks a remote control--a big mistake, in my opinion.
The Optoma Nuforce DDA120 is another interesting option, with Direct Digital amplifier technology that eliminates digital-to-analog conversion and can simultaneously works as a DAC and amplifier. It has a small footprint but lacks a phono input and a headphone amplifier. Its power rating is higher than the MaiA, coming in at 50 watts per channel, and the retail price is higher at $699, but I noticed a street price of $499.
The NAD D 3020 is another consideration at an MSRP of $499, with a street price of $399. It has digital and analog inputs and wireless streaming, along with a headphone amplifier, but no phono input.
I am sure there are more choices, but this list gives you a good start. The more I looked, the more I realized that the MaiA is the well-rounded in way of inputs and features.
I found the Pro-ject Audio MaiA to be a well-made and serious electronic integrated amplifier with a host of inputs and versatility. The MaiA can handle any source I can think of and has an abundance of features that I could not find, collectively, on any other single product. My first impression is that the MaiA is perfect for the aspiring audiophile, allowing experimentation with a variety of sources. However, after living with the MaiA for several months, I realized that an experienced audiophile would enjoy the MaiA, as well.
If anyone thinks that high-quality audio is a hobby for the rich, think again. I love the fact that consumers can venture into high-end audio at a price point that rivals more traditional, lesser-performing consumer electronics. If you are looking for starter product or the foundation for a second system, you should really give the Pro-ject MaiA serious consideration.
By the way, if the lower power rating is a concern for you, Pro-ject has an outboard power supply called Pro-ject Power Box MaiA ($499) that increases the dynamic power while powering up to three Pro-ject components like the company's CD player, streamer, or DC turntable. This will definitely facilitate a clean installation. Additionally, Pro-ject Audio recently introduced the MaiA DS, priced at $999, with 55 watts per channel. The DS also has pre-out connections for an external amplifier. Either way, the experience will be completely satisfying.