For years Yamaha has been well known for manufacturing high-value, feature-packed AV receivers. My first experience with the Yamaha brand was with the DSP-A1 in the late 90s, a seven-channel integrated amplifier with Yamaha's "Digital Sound Field Processing" to re-create the acoustic spaces of various concert halls, churches, and commercial movie theaters. The DSP-A1 was a great component that largely succeeded in re-creating these different listening environments, depending on the individual recording.
Yamaha is perhaps less well known for its HiFi component line, at least in the United States. The line includes stereo integrated amplifiers, receivers, CD players, and network players. To illustrate just how serious Yamaha is about two-channel music, the company introduced two statement pieces back in 2013 to highlight its new "Natural Sound," including the A-S3000 integrated amplifier and the CD-S3000 CD/SACD player. These two bad boys carry a combined suggested retail price of $15,000! At the very end of 2014, Yamaha sent me the new baby brothers to these flagships: the A-S2100 integrated amplifier ($3,999) and the companion CD-S2100 CD/SACD player ($3,499). While these pieces are not inexpensive, the good news is that Yamaha managed to incorporate most of the technology of the flagship products into the A-S2100 and CD-S2100 at half the price. I love it when technology trickles down from a company's more expensive products, avoiding the usual R&D costs that are added to the price. The A-S2100 integrated amplifier is the subject of this review, and a review of the CD-S2100 CD/SACD player is coming soon.
While integrated amplifiers have been around for decades, there was a period of time where they carried the moniker of "compromise product" and were avoided by so-called serious audiophiles. During that time, separates were considered the only path to true high-end sound. Lately, though, it seems that integrated amplifiers have enjoyed a resurgence in credibility with audiophiles. Many enthusiasts today are looking to get back to basics, and even ultra-high-end manufacturers like Boulder, Constellation, Soulution, and D'Agostino Master Audio Systems now offer integrated amplifiers in their product lines.
The A-S2100 is a product aimed squarely at serious audiophiles. This is no bargain-basement, lightweight product. The quality design and craftsmanship are immediately evident. Just taking it out of the box, you'll notice the heft of its 51.6 pounds. Underneath the amp's casework, the electronics are designed and constructed for right-left symmetry to optimize the separation of the right and left channels and the resulting stereo reproduction. The substantial power supply is located in the middle, with the power amp blocks found on the ends.
On the outside, the A-S2100 sports a retro aesthetic. It has a quarter-inch-thick milled aluminum faceplate with a brushed finish, available in either black or silver. The sample sent to me had a black faceplate. My impression of the black A-S2100 is one of understated elegance, while the silver faceplate adds additional pop to the A-S2100's appearance. Your preference will depend on how much you want the piece to stand out in your room. Both color options come with piano-black wood sides, a very cool retro touch. The unit is supported by high-quality spiked feet to provide isolation. The spikes can be covered by included magnetic pads to protect fine furniture. The feet can also be adjusted to level the unit if necessary.
The A-S2100's front panel features flush-mounted stereo analog VU level meters, reminiscent of amplifiers of the 70s and 80s. The knobs and switches are machined aluminum, giving them a very solid look and feel. A headphone input is found on the front panel to connect a pair of headphones to the discrete headphone amplifier circuit with low impedance drive. There is a corresponding trim selector that adjusts the volume level for headphones of different impedances to prevent sudden changes in volume. This is a really nice feature that's not commonly found on competing products.
Connections on the back panel are all logically laid out, with plenty of spacing between connectors for easy connection. There are two sets of uniquely designed brass speaker connectors symmetrically laid out and enabling solid connection with ease, no matter the gauge of speaker wire or whether using spades, bananas, or even bare wire. These are some of the best speaker connectors I've seen. Other manufacturers could take a lesson from Yamaha's unique design. Built with a fully floating and balanced circuit design, the A-S2100 has a set of balanced input jacks on the back panel to take full advantage of the design. There are also attenuator and phase selector switches that can be set for the component being connected to the balanced inputs. There are three sets of unbalanced input jacks for connecting additional components, as well as playback and record input jacks for connecting a CD recorder or tape deck. One set of Main In jacks allow for connection of a component with volume control. When the Main In jacks are selected from the source selector knob, the volume control of the A-S2100 remains fixed. There is also a set of Pre Out jacks for connecting an active subwoofer or another amplifier. In addition, trigger and remote control jacks are available, as is a power standby switch that, when selected, will automatically put the unit into standby mode when no signal has been input for eight hours.
Keeping in mind that audiophiles are the primary target market for the A-S2100 and turntables are making a comeback, Yamaha has strategically included input jacks for connecting a turntable. There is a high-quality, discrete phono amp circuit built into the A-S2100 with an MM/MC selector switch on the front panel to accommodate turntables with either cartridge type. The A-S2100 lacks a built-in DAC; however, at this price point, Yamaha is probably betting that potential buyers already own a standalone DAC or another component with a DAC, including many current CD players.
The remote control has an elegant brushed-aluminum finish. Its slender form factor and balanced weighting allow it to fit comfortably in the hand, and it includes power, input, CD control, tuner control, volume, and mute buttons. The remote can deliver large volume changes via the electronic volume control of the amp. While this can be a plus, I found that the individual steps in volume change were a bit larger than I would have liked. Sometimes I found it difficult to set the volume for a track to just the right level when using the remote.
I first took out the owner's manual and read through it before making the necessary connections. I know that one advantage of integrated amplifiers is the ease of connection to other components, but I always like to look through the manual of a product under review. The Yamaha manual is logically laid out and well written, and it includes detailed instructions on connections. The manual also contains detailed specifications, thoughtfully including block diagrams, and graphs for those who are interested.
I connected the A-S2100 integrated to my reference gear, including Aerial Acoustics 7T speakers, an Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player, and a Rega RP3 turntable with Elys2 cartridge. I also swapped the Yamaha CD-S2100 disc player for the Oppo disc player halfway through the review period. In addition to spinning discs, I streamed digital music files from the new Tidal music streaming service (review coming soon) and JRiver software via a connected Mac Mini music server. Digital files were decoded using the internal DACs in the Oppo and Yamaha disc players. Speaker and component connections were made using cabling from WireWorld.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...