An amplifier is the heart of any system; it drives your music from source to speakers and amplifies the signal to make it really sing. Starting out with just analogue connections, stereo amps have now evolved with the demand for wireless streaming and digital connections.
More power doesn't necessarily mean better quality and, similarly, more money doesn't always mean a better product. The five stereo amplifiers we've listed below prove that you can get a truly sensational bit of kit for less than £500. So, without further ado...
Tested at £300
If you're looking for your first ever stereo amplifier then you can end your search right here. The Marantz PM6005 is solidly built and now features a built-in DAC. which supports 24-bit/192kHz sampling rates.
It may not feature all the digital inputs we'd like: no USB port and no 3.5mm jack to connect a smartphone or tablet, but it makes up for this with a strong analogue offering. The PM6005 has four line-level inputs, an MM phono stage for connecting a turntable, a tape loop and a 6.3mm headphone socket.
As for sound, well, the Marantz is utterly superb. It's happy to treat all types of music with respect and liveliness, to deliver an articulate performance with oodles of detail.
At £300, the Marantz PM6005 is quite possibly the best budget stereo amp currently available.
MORE: Read our full Marantz PM6005 review
Tested at £400
Monitor Audio has strayed from the conventional, rectangular box design of other stereo amplifiers, with good results. The A100 is as exciting to look at, as it is to listen to.
The A100 is ideally suited for people who listen to music on a smartphone, computer or other mobile device thanks to the inclusion of Apple AirPlay. Unfortunately, there's no Bluetooth onboard, but that was down to Apple initially not allowing the two wireless technologies to exist side-by-side (Apple has since softened its stance on this with some newer products we've tested now having both AirPlay and Bluetooth).
However, the A100 does support DLNA streaming, meaning those with an Android or Windows device can stream music via DLNA apps.
As far as sound performance goes, the Monitor Audio impresses. Music is presented in a lively and detailed fashion, with large-scale dynamics and composure. Tonal balance is good too, as is bass weight and grip.
The Monitor Audio Airstream A100 is a sensational amplifier that you'll fall in love with. For the same money and forward-thinking design, you could also go for the NAD D3020 below. We'll leave that decision up to you.
MORE: Read our full Monitor Audio Airstream A100 review
More after the break
Tested at £400
The NAD D 3020 picked up the 2013 Award for best stereo amplifier up to £500, and deservedly so. Designed with the digital age in mind, it features a built-in DAC, and an aptX Bluetooth connection.
That DAC will support 24-bit/192kHz streams through an asynchronous USB input, coaxial and twin optical inputs. A pair of stereo RCA connections and a 3.5mm jack connection are available too for those with analogue sources.
With audio being provided through the USB input, the NAD delivers plenty of detail and cohesion. The same can be said for the analogue inputs, the D 3020 has the muscle and precision to handle any type of music.
Bluetooth streaming also impresses. The NAD is able to serve tracks up with warmth and makes even low data rate music streams listenable.
The NAD D 3020 combines fantastic sound quality with a compact design. Top this off with a budget price tag and you've got yourself an amazing amplifier.
MORE: Read our full NAD D 3020 review
Tested at £480
It may be a couple of years old now, but the 2012 Award-winning Rega Brio-R is still one of our favourite budget stereo amps.
Its solid, half-width casing plays host to four line-level inputs and a moving-magnet phono stage. There's no headphone socket onboard unfortunately, but Rega has opted for better sound quality over features.
In our review, our test team described the Brio-R as "agile, musical and rhythmic", so all very positive. The Rega is able to deliver large-scale dynamics and can get decent volume levels out of the connected speakers.
Newer amplifiers may have digital connections which many will favour, but for those with analogue sources, the Rega Brio-R is still one of the best stereo amps money can buy.
MORE: Read our full Rega Brio-R review
Tested at £350
The RA-10 is another amp that's a couple of years old now but still worthy of a place on this list.
Without any digital inputs, the Rotel features four line-level inputs, a moving-magnet phono stage, a tape loop for recording and a pre-amp output to connect an extra power amp. Digital files can be streamed if you connect a streamer into the analogue inputs, however.
Our favourite partner to the RA-10 is a turntable, the Rotel managing to provide depth and atmosphere and handling voices with immense detail when playing vinyl. We did find we had to be careful when selecting a pair of speakers to pair it with. We found the Acoustic Energy 301s really showed off what the Rotel can do.
The Rotel was once our favourite budget amp by a mile, but the lack of DAC, Bluetooth and a remote means it has lost ground to the competition.
But as a simple analogue amplifier, the Rotel RA-10 is still worth an audition. If digital connections and a remote are important for you though, we suggest you look to one of the other amps on this list.
MORE: Read our full Rotel RA-10 review