As our music and our lives become more and more entrenched in the digital realm, the need for specialty products that take advantage of this fact will continue to rise. Today's digital lifestyle is one that puts as much a premium on convenience as it does on style, but does so, according to some, at the cost of substance. But what if you could have all three? What if technology made it possible for you to have a product that was not only well-suited to a digital lifestyle, but that also managed to perform at a level that was previously thought to be reserved for those who preferred fossil fuels rather than today's eco-friendly way of thinking? I believe I've stumbled upon such a product, a product that manages to be both connected and stylish, while also packing soul. What would such a thing be called? Well, if you're into specialty AV and know of a little Internet-direct company by the name of Wyred 4 Sound, than you might call it mINT, short for Mini-Integrated Amplifier.
• Read more stereo amplifier reviews by the writers of HomeTheaterReview.com.
• See our Bookshelf Speaker Review section for more reviews.
• See the mINT and others on our 2012 Best of Awards.
The mINT, like all Wyred 4 Sound products, is offered direct via the company's website and it retails for a rather reasonable $1,499. On the outside, the mINT looks every bit a Wyred 4 Sound product, what with its small footprint, silver and black color scheme and straightforward, modern design. The beautifully constructed but smallish chassis of the mINT measures roughly eight inches across by three-and-three-quarters inches high and nine inches deep (measured from the end of the binding posts to the front of the chassis). Despite being half the size of a man's shoebox, the mINT is rather stout, tipping the scales at around 10 pounds. The front panel is neatly and cleanly laid out, with buttons for input selection (USB, Coax, Toslink/Optical, Aux1 and 2) and mute. The center-mounted volume knob is not easily overlooked, though it doesn't appear nor feel garish in its implementation. In the lower left corner rests a headphone jack and off to the right is the unit's standby button. When on, the input selected as well as the standby button glow a pale blue and, when off, the standby button glows a sort of pale green.
Inside, the mINT packs two individual ICE power modules that are good for a solid 100 watts per channel into eight ohms and 170 watts per channel into four ohms. The mINT's internal DAC is powered by an ESS DAC chip, not unlike (but not the same as) what you find in Wyred 4 Sound's discrete DAC efforts. The internal DAC will support files up to 24-bit 192kHz via its coaxial and/or optical inputs, whereas the USB input is capable of supporting files up to 24-bit 96kHz. The internal headphone amp (yes, the mINT has one of those, too) utilizes its own independent power supply that is said to be an improvement in eliminating crosstalk and noise. The headphone amp itself is rated at 720 milliwatts into 32 ohms, 123 milliwatts into 300 ohms and 60 milliwatts into 600 ohms.Around back, the small mINT is awash with input options, starting with the most notable, which are its digital inputs (USB, Coax and Optical). Below the mINT's digital inputs rest a pair of analog audio inputs (Aux 1 and 2) that are flanked by two other sets of RCA style inputs, though these inputs are labeled Aux Out (preamp out) and Fixed Out. The Aux Out can be used to facilitate a subwoofer or more powerful amplifier, while the Fixed Out is there to allow for the mINT to send a signal to a recording device or secondary system or zone. The Fixed Out can also be configured, via a small button on the rear of the mINT, to operate as a Main In, which will allow those wanting to employ, say, a digital crossover to do so when using it in conjunction with the mINT's preamp or main Aux Out. While I'm normally game for features such as these, I didn't set up a system to take advantage of such functionality for this review, so we'll have to take Wyred 4 Sound at the company's word. Turning my attention back to the mINT's main Aux outputs, the Aux 2 can also be configured, via the touch of a button, for HT pass-through. A pair of five-way binding posts as well as two 12-volt triggers and a removable power cord round out the mINT's connection options.
This brings me to the mINT's remote. The mINT remote is long and slender and reminds me of the neuralizer from the sci-fi franchise Men in Black. There is a master power button, input selection (denoted by up and down arrows), volume (again, up and down) and mute - that's it. Because of how I chose to set up and review the mINT, I never had to rely on the remote, as the mINT's volume control was always within reach. Nevertheless, the remote is nothing if not functional.
I set up the mINT in my office, which allowed me to connect it to both my desktop PC and Oppo's new BDP-103 Blu-ray player, as my main equipment rack now resides in my office as well. I connected the mINT to my desktop PC via a single USB cable, which automatically set off a chain reaction of driver downloads and soundcard configurations that was the very definition of plug-n-play. I then connected the mINT to my Oppo player via an optical cable that I had lying around. In truth, there was little to no difference in sound quality (in my office setup) between the Oppo and my desktop PC. Most - okay, the majority - of this review was carried out with music being played back via the JRiver software already loaded on my PC. The speakers I chose for this review were a pair of Wharfedale Jade 1 bookshelf speakers that I still had in the house. I went with the Jades rather than my reference Tekton Design Pendragons because I wanted to make the mINT work for it a little, as the Wharfedale Jade 1s are far less efficient than my beloved Pendragons. Less efficient doesn't mean bad, as the Jade 1 is a terrific speaker in its own right, it's just that, at 98dB efficient, the Pendragons could be powered with a nine-volt battery if you were so inclined (joking). All the cabling used in my setup was of the generic or DIY variety, though I did use a pair of Sanus Steel Series speaker stands under the Jade 1s. All in all, the setup procedure was pretty straightforward and able to be carried out in less than 20 minutes.
I began my evaluation of the mINT with Tori Amos' "Intro Jam and Marys of the Sea" from the box set A Piano (Atlantic/Wea). The opening bass guitar and kick drum were shockingly effective. I say shockingly because the Jade 1s are bookshelf speakers, and yet the bass being dished out by them and the mINT was extraordinary, not to mention incredibly taut, resolved and natural in its tone.
Read more about the performance of the Wyred 4 Sound mINT on Page 2.
Tori's vocals had tremendous presence, too, which was conveyed with a sort of effortless quality that put little in the way of the music, i.e., my ears and her voice. Tori was placed front and center within the soundstage, which managed to be enveloping but still appropriate to my physical surroundings. Soundstage depth was a touch better than width, though overall the stage was nicely appointed, well-defined and, again, natural in its portrayal. The track's high frequencies were smooth and I'd say neutral, though they lacked a sense of sweetness that I think you just don't get with digital amplifiers. I'd make the argument that any sweetener is bad and the result of a product's intent to change or alter the sound of the music, which the mINT doesn't appear to do - at least, not in my opinion. Still, the highs had plenty of top-end air and decay, and they never became fatiguing or shrill even when pushed to their ragged edge. I kept coming back to and getting wrapped up in the mINT's effortless demeanor, whereby music just sort of happened - any and all editorializing seemed to stem from the Wharfedale speakers and not the mINT itself.
Moving on, I fired up Dido's breakout album No Angel (Arista) and the track "My Life." The opening rim shots sounded positively live, as if they were in the room with me. The rim shots' organic nature, natural timbre and dynamic snap were stunning in their portrayal. The accompanying kick drum was also impressive, possessing, again, surprising heft, but following up with natural detail and texture. For the lowest of lows, you may have to resort to using a subwoofer, though I'd urge anyone considering purchasing a mINT to listen first before assuming you're going to need more in terms of bass. In my office, which is little more than a second bedroom, the mINT via a pair of bookshelf speakers dished out palpable bass response. Dido's vocals not only sounded right, but they also felt right, as the mINT captured and translated her vocal inflections with ease. Another thing I noticed on this particular track was the mINT's vertical scale as it pertained to the soundstage, which is something I've come to appreciate more since welcoming the Pendragon loudspeaker into my home.
Let's face it, not everything we listen to is audiophile grade, especially through components designed to be connected to portable or computer-based music devices. Convinced the mINT can hang as a stodgy all-in-one audiophile solution, I decided to try something different and see how it fared with some of today's popular music. First up was the single "Cyclone" featuring T-Pain from the hip-hop artist Baby Bash (Arista). I hate to keep hitting the same point, but good Lord, the mINT's bass prowess is staggering. In truth, it was the biggest surprise I took away from my time spent with it. "Cyclone" is a dance club anthem of sorts and via the mINT I wanted to dance - that's right, I said it, it made me move. Like I said, not all music is meant to be listened to in the dark while clutching a brandy or glass of red wine - some is made to be played loud and with gusto. The mINT gets this part of the equation right. Moreover, because it doesn't appear to editorialize (or chastize) what it's asked to play back, nor is it too concerned with genre, its appeal I feel is universal, something that more two-channel products should aspire to possess. Before you go writing off "Cyclone" as just another trunk-slamming jam, you'd be surprised at how well mixed it is, possessing a real three-dimensional sound à la some of Michael Jackson's finer recordings, albeit from two speakers. These more spacious moments were rendered brilliantly via the mINT. Also, when I took things to eleven, I never got the sense the mINT was even remotely close to running out of muscle.
Since I was having fun, I opted to keep the party going and spooled up Apollo 440's hit single "Stop the Rock" off their album Getting High On Your Own Supply (Sony). The mINT proved once again that it was anything but shy on power. The soundstage was grand and encompassing. In terms of dynamics, they were breakneck quick and positively violent in some instances - again, a testament to the mINT's power and control over my speaker's drivers. With all this big in-your-face sound, you might be thinking it was a one-dimensional wall, but you'd be wrong, as the soundstage, despite the added volume and change in genre, remained very nuanced and balanced front to back and side to side. Indeed, the mINT's ability to resolve such detail in the face of utter chaos was another attribute I found most surprising during my evaluations.
Even when plugging in a pair of headphones, I found the mINT's overall sound to remain intact, as what I heard was an effortless, smooth and full-bodied portrayal of whatever music I chose to play. The backgrounds were "black," as they say, and the vocals natural - it's just that now the sound was inside my head, as opposed to shaking the rafters. A nice feature that I found when using headphones with the mINT was that, upon plugging it in, the sound being played through my speakers was immediately muted and the input deactivated.
Lastly, and this speaks volumes to the quality of the mINT's internal DAC, all of the above-mentioned sound examples and notes were taken while listening to 320kbps MP3 files. I did compare each of them to their CD counterparts via my Oppo player and found the sound quality to be comparable enough to justify my various audiophile no-no's.
There isn't much not to like about the mINT, especially when viewing it through the lens of being a desktop or minimalist solution. That said, there was a particular instance where I did manage to get the mINT to enter into what I believe to be a protection mode, whereby all the lights on the front panel lit up and the volume knob zeroed itself out. Try though I did to select a different input, or even turn the volume knob, nothing seemed to work. Unplugging the mINT from the wall was the only way to terminate whatever process I had inadvertently caused and return the mINT to its normal self. As near as I can tell, what set the mINT off was a buildup of static electricity, for upon touching it, I was given a sizeable shock, while the mINT itself then lit up like a Christmas tree. Unplugging and then re-plugging in the mINT fixed the issue and, for weeks thereafter, I never had any further issue as a result of that strange and rare occurrence.
Outside of that, I really didn't find a whole lot of fault with the mINT. I suppose if you have power-hungry loudspeakers, a bit more power would be necessary. To deal with this, the mINT has preamp outs. During my three-week evaluation, I never was left wanting more in the power department and I can't imagine many would, given how relatively efficient modern loudspeakers are.
I would've liked to have some form of wireless connectivity, too, though the mINT's USB input does go a long way in curbing this need, for you could argue that a laptop or connected device can stream wireless music or Internet radio if need be. Also, I didn't care for the tactile feel of the volume knob, as I found it to be a bit vague, but man, am I nit-picking at this point.
Competition and Comparisons
Integrated amplifiers are nothing new but, like DACs, they are experiencing a bit of resurgence as of late. Maybe it's their all-in-one status and/or the fact that they're often cheaper than their separate counterparts that have people paying closer attention to integrated amplifiers these days; needless to say, there is no shortage of options. The easiest and most direct comparison you can make to the mINT is Bel Canto's C7R, which offers much of the same functionality as the mINT, though it does so at a higher cost, retailing for $2.995. Visually, I prefer the look of the Bel Canto over the mINT, but in terms of performance, I find the C7R's price tag hard to justify, especially when you consider it offers less power (60 watts into eight ohms, 120 watts into four ohms) and a lesser DAC. On the flip side, the C7R does have a built-in phono stage, which may or may not appeal to some, though I'll argue you can add an outboard phono stage to the mINT for less than the difference between it and the C7R.
Other integrated amplifiers in and around the mINT's price range, not necessarily offering up the same connectivity but comparable in sound quality, are Napa Acoustic's MT-34 tubed integrated amp, Marantz's PM8004 and NAD's C 390DD Direct Digital Powered DAC/Amplifier. For more on these integrated amplifiers and more, please visit Home Theater Review's Stereo Amplifier page.
Just as when I finished my evaluation of Wyred 4 Sound's DAC-2, I came away from my time spent with the mINT in disbelief over how much performance, connectivity and outright fun Wyred 4 Sound managed to pack into such a small and affordable package. While $1,499 may not be uber-affordable to some, the mINT definitely deserves to be considered, for buying a separate DAC, preamp and amplifier that work as well together as they do in the mINT would definitely cost a lot more. But after living with the mINT for several weeks, I'd say that budding audiophiles or music enthusiasts might not need more if they were shopping for a system or component that encompassed all their digital needs yet was easy to live with day-to-day. If what I just described appeals to you, than you should definitely check out the mINT, for it is, in my opinion, that good. Even if you have a big, tricked-out system already but are looking to spice up, say, an office or a den, the mINT is worth a look. I love this little thing. If it had some form of wireless connectivity, like Bluetooth, it might be perfect. Needless to say, these are just my opinions, but you owe it to yourself to check out the mINT if you're in the market.
Read more stereo amplifier reviews by the writers of HomeTheaterReview.com.
See our Bookshelf Speaker Review section for more reviews.
See the mINT and others on our 2012 Best of Awards.