Can it get better?

Seeking the advice of folks who have experienced significant gains when moving from an integrated amp to separate pre and power. I realize there are several threads on the topic but specifically, I’d be concerned about a lateral move in terms of sound quality while dishing out close to 2x what I purchased my integrated for. For example, my system consists of a Pass Labs Int-25 driving Harbeth Shl5+ 40th anniversaries. It’s a combination that gives coherent and smooth sound yet is quite resolving. 
Why change? For one, I would like to experiment with different power for the Harbeths and am intrigued by some of the class d options out there. The Pass was about 5k and some of the pre and power combinations I’m considering would push the cost north of 10k. There are a number of well designed preamps out there in the 5k range that I could see serving me for many years. Assuming good synergy with the power amp, is there good reason to believe that separates would sound significantly better than the little Pass which has system synergy built in? In what way? Or would I have to venture into a higher tier in terms of cost?

thanks for the advice



Although Mr Shaw denies it, I think Harbeths benefit greatly from higher current/power.

If you want to experiment without breaking the bank I would look into a Class D

power option with at least 200 wpc. That can be had new for $1,500-$2,500

and may be a direction you like. I do not think the 25INT is a great match for lower

sensitivity speakers.

The INT25, being pure class a is a power house in and of itself. It kicks out excellent power overall and delivers excellent current. I think the change from Class A to Class D will leave you disappointed possibly. Although the new GaN tech is intriguing. There are plenty of dual mono integrated amps out there that can blow away some separates systems. Something to keep in mind too is the added complexity, more cable matching/integration etc with separates. I’ve gone back and forth with both systems and settled on an integrated. It’s just simpler, less things to power, less cables to buy etc. I can say I will never go back to separates again.



Thanks for the replies. It's the age old discussion about Harbeth speakers and how much power is required given their relatively low sensitivity. My experience with the Int-25 is that it does check a lot of boxes and perhaps the most important one being able to handle peaks at my average listening levels.

Differently designed amps will have their own character, but I'm wondering if going to separates has a distinct advantage over integrateds in areas that all amps try to achieve like low noise, precise imaging, dynamics, etc.  Like you said Geof, integrated amps are great these days. Is it foolish to think I could achieve a significant Wow moment that exceeds the Pass by spending twice the money on separates?

I am going directly from my Antelope Audio Platinum dac into a Wavac EC300b. Good attenuators on the dac obviate the need for a pre. It’s important to understand that a dac’s output only needs attenuation under most scenarios, i.e. the circuitry of a pre is only going to alter but not improve the dac’s output. The Antelope has good analogue inputs, too. My next stop will be something akin to the Audion Class Ds; the Wavac though is a formidable benchmark.


I get it, although you have an excellent system you are restless right now.I used to have lots of boxes but then tried an integrated amplifier and never looked back. Now my system is only two boxes unless I include the Roon server.




@voodoochillin You clearly know what you're doing with that setup.

I have an XA 25 and it underpowers my Salk 87db speakers. I know that more power would make them sing, because I had an AVA SET 400 hooked up to them and they kicked more but (but were harsher).

In my humble opinion, I think the question is about power/current quantity, not the integrated vs. separates question, unless that is also separates-with-more-power. If you had a Pass integrated with much more power, I cannot imagine you'd not notice a lot of the change you'd get with separates with more power. My guess.

While I own an integrated and many separates, my comments come from fifty years of pursuing high end audio and owning many pieces of Pass equipment.

Your concern is well founded. Your integrated has the advantage of single design, savings in costs by one case. Long ago integrates we’re not very good. Now they are. So, it would be easy for the switch to be largely lateral. However this is treating preamps and amps as a commodity… all are exactly the same just better with cost… this is not true. The outcome will completely depends on exactly what you buy and how big the change in character there is with the new equipment. I would say that careful selection you can get very significantly improved sound… but you must choose wisely.

I was surprised to see your amp does not have preamp outputs. The traditional way to upgrade… power amp only. I am disappointed in Pass not to have provided preamp outputs.

A couple thoughts.

Long termed significant improvements will require separates… if you want to craft and customize the sound… this is the path forward.

Honestly this is where a dealer can be invaluable. At some point not trying to save a few bucks off of audio equipment by buying on-line becomes very well worth it. Also, if you are going to $10K (I would recommend) a dealer. A good one will figure out what changes you would like to hear, recommend possible choices, let you test the equipment at home and give you a trade in on your Pass integrated. Yes, of course he would most likely recommend what he sells… so research first to see what he sells… maybe target two or three places. Worth a long trip if you are in the sticks. Establish relationship with the owner in advance and make an appointment.

Why separates? Why not go with a Hegel H590-- Hegel is what Harbeth often shows with. 

Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments.

Regarding changing integrateds vs. moving to separates, my thought process has been: it will be easier to tailor the sound by investing in a quality pre with the potential for playing nicely with a variety of power amps. Perhaps one with variable gain and a low output impedance. Swapping integrateds with more power is attractive because it does reduce complexity and may play cleaner at higher volume, but it means losing flexibility and is at the risk of not sounding as good as my current integrated.

Fun to think about though...


It may turn out that after years of cost and headache, I'll come to my senses and get back to the integrated solution.  🤕 

@voodoochillin Good comments, here. One thing I know about separates is that choices of additional interconnects, power cables. adds even more complexity/fun/headache to the mix. Something else to consider. If you got a hybrid integrated, you could roll tubes and then perhaps experiment with various speaker cables and interconnects from the DAC. That would give you a fair amount of creative space. Just thinking out loud, here as I would talk to myself about it. Hope it contributes.

I’ve had mixed results with class D. On a more lush speaker like the Harbeth might be ok. I prefer AB or tubes to any class D I have heard barring the Lyngdorf integrated and that’s only because of the room correction and only with efficient speakers. 

I've thought of doing the reverse route: from separates to a really good integrated. When I said this to Richard Vandersteen, he laughed and said "Why? To save on one set of cables?" And I laughed.

My thinking was that the synergy between a preamp and amp integrated into one box (Ayre is the one I'm interested in) could in theory get me the same sound quality or very close compared to separates, at lower cost, with a smaller footprint. I don't need to simplify to one box (+ streamer and CD player) right now though. It would save $$ on connecting and power cables. I may still go that route if I need a much simpler system, and may end up with an integrated that offers an onboard DAC option.

For NOW, I want to primarily experiment with different preamps and may acquire both a tube preamp and a passive line stage (Tortuga, or Wyred4Sound STP-SE, though the Townshend Allegri Reference is my cost-no-object dream). It does open a can of worms, getting the synergy right between amps and preamps from different makers.

The lazy man that I sometimes am says to myself, "Get an integrated, you idiot, and stop obsessing about hardware! Just enjoy the music."

Bring on the worms.  😉

Can you expect a significant drop in noise when separating the power supply and circuitry of the power amp from the preamp? A pre that I’m interested in seems to have a stout power supply and lots of capacitance. Not sure how a design like this gets out of its own way. Very positively reviewed though.

The order with increased sound quality is integrated, single box components and finally two box components (separating the power supply from main components… or mono block amplifiers).


I can attest to increasing sound quality with each step. In one instance I owned a $8K Sim Moon DAC / CD player for several years and then purchased the matching add on $8K power supply. The sound character did not change… but wow… the background noice just dropped greatly, opened up the sound stage and revealed many more details. Big difference. This was worth it for me… for some I am sure it would not be.


I currently own a a Audio Research REF 160s amplifier. For fun I had my dealer drop off the Ref 160m .. exact same amp…. But in monoblocks…. two halves split. Does it sound better… yes. Night and day, no. Quieter more dynamic. Worth the extra $12K… depends on your financial condition. If mine improves, I’ll probably upgrade.

I can go on… the best sound comes from real assaults at the state of the art… isolation and separate function.

@voodoochillin You do realise there are much better integrated amps than your pre/power considerations...


Thanks. I’m here to learn so feel free to go on. No pressure! 
At the moment I feel like tone and texture is where it needs to be. A lot of that is a function of the speakers but the amp is so transparent yet smooth it let’s a lot of detail get through. I think there could be an improvement in soundstage/imaging which is something I value. Instruments can sound small at times and so it would also be nice to have a greater sense of scale.   Sounds like separates could help.


I almost pulled the trigger on a Belles Virtuoso integrated which features a dual mono design 200w per side and an upgraded preamp that Mr. Belles feels like is some of his best work. $7.5. 



Interesting, the words you use. See if you are able to listen to a Audio Research VSi75. It is an integrated, but tubed. It offers warm midrange bloom, with great imaging and soundstaging.

I recently had a audio buddy over that commented my system had the best imaging he had heard… I hadn’t even thought of it… but it is outstanding… the natural… musical sound of ARC is incredible. For the time I was an audiophile Padawan I had heard ARC and been really impressed with their sound attributes. But out of my price range. However, today for $10K you can get a large chunk of the sound in an integrated.

My history includes living with Pass preamps / amps for 20 years / 35 years. The conversion from Pass to Audio Research has been one of the most transformative things that has happened to me. Pursuing high end audio all my life… having Audio Research Phonostages for 35 years… and preamps for 15, and now all Audio Research makes me realize I should have made this conversation earlier.

Today you can get a good slice of high detail, imaging, midrange bloom, warm organic sound from the VSi 75. When I drop by my audio dealer I alway listen to it. My system is over 10x in cost, so sounds better.. but for it’s price, it is amazing… to me.

If you run out of power with the Pass try a bigger amp. But make it much bigger. The Pass is not a 25 watt amp. That's it's rating running class A into 8 ohms. It goes into AB above 25 watts and puts out about 70 watts if I recall correctly. So if you go bigger go at least twice 70 watts, preferably more or you aren't really upping the amp dynamic range.

I agree with a person who says it’s not about integrated versus separate component. If you want tone and texture, I would look at some of the more powerful tube offerings That are available these days. Cayin Makes some very beautiful amps, integrated amps, That will bring out the best in the Harbeths. I am using A triode labs EL 84 which puts out about 15 watch per channel. I’m using this was her best 30.2 XDs. Sometimes a little bit Lacking In power, but they still sound much better than they do with my Bryston 14 B3. I’m using the prime Aluna Evo 400 amp preamp. If you haven’t played with tubes yet, you’re in for a treat.

I agree with a person who says it’s not about integrated versus separate component. If you want tone and texture, I would look at some of the more powerful tube offerings That are available these days. Cayin Makes some very beautiful amps, integrated amps, That will bring out the best in the Harbeths. I am using A triode labs EL 84 which puts out about 15 watch per channel. I’m using this was her best 30.2 XDs. Sometimes a little bit Lacking In power, but they still sound much better than they do with my Bryston 14 B3. I’m using the prime Aluna Evo 400 amp preamp. If you haven’t played with tubes yet, you’re in for a treat.

@dynamiclinearity actually, that’s not correct regarding the wattage of the INT 25.

It is basically the XA25 with gain. The reason it has no pre outs is, it was intended to be single ended only and as simple as possible. This comes from the guys at Pass directly. Regarding the wattage output. Pass rates their amps at .01 THD which is where the 25w comes from. The Int25 puts out nearly 70 watts of Class A power at 1% THD. Which is the typical stat. All the measurements are in Stereophile. It’s quite the little beast and not like anything Pass has created before. 

Regarding the comment about the Hegel H590, wow that thing is a monster. Fantastic integrated. I just finished a shoot out between the Gryphon Diablo 120 and the H590, both are still in the house. I ultimately chose the Gryphon after much back to back listening with my wife. Both are EXCELLENT. But the Gryphon has a couple of character differences and it is the one I am going to keep. I could easily live with either one. There truly are some great integrateds out there that really give the separates game a run for the money.

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IMO, it's not about the speaker, it's about you and your musical priorities.  I was driving my SHL 5s with a Naim 252 preamp and a 250 amp and it was wonderful.  Only 70 wpc, but with a stout regulated power supply.  If you have a dealer, I think you might check out one of the better Naim integrateds, with an external power supply if possible. At least worth a listen.