Whatever happened to the budget stereo amplifier market?

Old NAD 3020 amplifier
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

There used to be a thing called a 'starter hi-fi system'. It was the first rung on the separates hi-fi ladder – a clear level above any of the micro, mini or all-in-one packaged tower systems that were available in shops at the time. 

From the 1970s to the early 2000s, such systems were the bread and butter of the hi-fi industry. Not only did their affordability encourage more people into this hobby we so love, but they also established a foundation – a starting point, if you like – from which people could continue to climb the upgrade ladder in search of their version of hi-fi nirvana.

There is an argument that excellent all-in-one speaker systems such as the KEF LSX II and LSX II LT, Triangle AIO Twin and Elac Debut Connex DCB41 have replaced such budget systems. It is fair to say that such products deliver excellent performance in wonderfully compact packages, and in many ways represent the best (and neatest) way to deliver affordable stereo hi-fi sound in the modern age.

Green KEF LSX II LT on a table in front of books

 KEF LSX II LT: neat, feature packed and sonically capable (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Ultimately, these kinds of products may well lead to the demise of traditional budget separates systems due to their innate practicality and terrific performance potential; but I don’t think we are there yet. Right now, I suspect a greater danger to the hi-fi status quo is the paucity of great-sounding budget amplification.

Let me be clear that by 'budget' I mean under £300/$300/AU$600. Spend that amount on each major component in the system and an extra, say, 10 per cent of that cost to acquire quality cables (yes, they do matter) and you have the 'classic' hi-fi starter set-up that just about steps over the four-figure threshold. This kind of system has been the staple introduction into the world of hi-fi for decades.

In years gone by, there was so much choice of this level of product. You could pick any of a dozen options for each part of the chain and still end up with great-sounding results. The story is very different today. The rising costs of manufacturing caused by the prices of everything going up (raw materials, energy and transportation) means that our choice of affordable products of all genres is significantly more limited than before.

But it isn’t all bad news. There remain great options, even in these belt-tightening times. If you are after a CD player, Marantz’s CD6007 sits just under the 'budget' ceiling, as does Cambridge Audio’s AXC35. WiiM’s Pro Plus music streamer is something of a steal at £220/$220/AU$329. Stretch your budget a bit further to the Cambridge Audio MXN10 (£449/$499/AU$899) and you get much of the brand's legendary CXN (V2) performance at a cut-down price.

WiiM Pro Plus music streamer on a bookshelf

WiiM's excellent and affordable Pro Plus music streamer (Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Love records? In that case, you are still spoiled for choice with the Rega Planar 1, Pro-Ject Essential and Audio Technica AT-LP5x all performing superbly for their modest budget asking prices. The story is equally positive on the stereo speaker side of things, with various talented performers from Wharfedale, Q Acoustics, Mission and Dali, to name just a few, featuring in our budget hi-fi speaker buying guide.

The problem is in the middle of the system; where are the great budget amplifiers?

Look at What Hi-Fi?’s Award winners and you have to go back to 2017 to find an amplifier Best Buy winner that costs less than £300. That was the talented Onkyo A-9010, which retailed for £200/$300/AU$550 when we first tested it a few years ago. It isn’t that we haven’t tried hard to find something to recommend. A quick Google search for ‘Budget stereo amplifiers below £300' here in the UK will turn up several products from established brands such as NAD, Cambridge Audio and Sony. But they tend to be older models, and the ones I've heard always tend to remind me of their modest price rather than persuade me that they can sound good.

Onkyo A-9010 with remote on a white background

The talented Onkyo A-9010 (Image credit: Future)

Times are hard for manufacturers and dealers alike. The profit generated on a budget amplifier is tiny, and quickly wiped out if the dealer has to spend time demonstrating the product or if there is a problem. But without a wider choice of great-sounding budget amplifiers, there is much less chance of people buying their first proper hi-fi separates setup.

If fewer people start on the hi-fi ladder, there will be a knock-on reduction in the sales of more premium products in the future, as the upgrade path doesn't get walked on. That is a sobering thought when you consider what that means for the hi-fi audio industry as a whole.

I spend quite a lot of time looking through the What Hi-Fi? magazine archive that is stored lovingly in our test rooms. Almost 50 years of the magazine packed with group tests and great products is there in neatly organised binders. I came across an issue from the 1980s recently and looked through its substantial Buying Guide at the list of recommended affordable amplifiers. It featured the likes of the Arcam Alpha, Creek CA4040, Denon PMA250, Mission Cyrus One, Musical Fidelity A1, Naim Nait, NAD 3020 and Rotel RA820B, to name just a handful or so.

I would love to think that the industry still has the will to produce a new budget amplifier with the sonic talent to sit beside some of these greats. Sadly, I'm not sure it does.


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Ketan Bharadia
Technical Editor

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.

  • Friesiansam
    I think you might be judging budget amps by the wrong standards. You need to lower expectations, not compare them with the expensive kit you test. A good motoring journalist, won't judge a Dacia, against the Mclaren he/she was driving the day before.
  • SteveR750
    Yamaha A-S501 (not even the entry model) was £320 in amazon, Elac DBR62 can be found for under £500 and a Wiim pro for £150. Problem solved. Real hifi at sensible prices with plenty of power to fill a room and build quality to last for years.
  • Hifiman
    An article making good points. Whether it is because far fewer people buy hifi separates nowadays compared to the 80s or not, it seems the traditional U.K. brands have decided to aim for a higher margin on the products that they do sell. Just look at the nostalgia premium there seems to be with the Naim Nait 50 (a barely believable £2699 despite it having usability flaws) and the £1500 Musical Fidelity A1.

    The music streamer market was going in a similar direction until the likes of WiiM completely disrupted it, leaving many of the U.K. premium priced streamers appearing high and dry. The concern is that similar disrupters could fill comparable gaps now found with other separates, including amplifiers, leaving the U.K. brands to chase a more rarified, and presumably much smaller, market.
  • Combat
    I don't mean to be rude but the author and other readers seem to be out of touch with the market. You only have to watch cheap audio man on YouTube to realise that the budget amp market is thriving. You have the WiiM Amp but also loads of other brands like Fosi Audio, Aiyima and then a step up brands like Emotiva. It would pay to do a but of research rather than assume that the same brands would always be the best.

    I have a WiiM Pro Plus feeding my Kef KC62 Sub that feeds a high pass filter to two Aiyima A07 Max running in mono that then feed on above 80hz to my Kef LS50 Meta. Two £65 mono block amps driving £1100 speakers!
  • Tinman1952
    Interesting. I am wondering if this is because the music source has changed these days...
    In the 'golden age' referred to, you bought a budget amplifier to pair with a budget CD player, tuner or record deck. These days (especially for young people) the 'source' is their smartphone, tablet or perhaps laptop. They find it much simpler to stream to crappy bluetooth speakers....😖
    I can't see this changing soon unfortunately.....we seem to be supporting an increasingly 'niche' hobby...
  • Fandango Andy
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    The budget stereo amplifier market has dwindled to a point where it's time to worry.

    Whatever happened to the budget stereo amplifier market? : Read more
    Not sure I agree. At the turn of the century, an entry level Marantz was about £150 with a Sony, or Cambridge Audio a little less and a NAD a little more. Ajust that for inflation and you have abut £250 to £300 in todays money, what can you get for that? Cambridge Audio AXA25, Yamaha RS202D or AS201, WiiM Amp, Sony STR DH190, and the fantastic Merantz PM6007 is only £50 over budget at £349 and worth saving up for if you are in the market for something a little cheaper.

    Then on top of this you have all the little class D amps like the Fosi Audio V3 that offer a very cheap way into hifi. And there is also strong second hand market thanks to online marketplaces. There was a post on here the other day where someone was putting a system together on a budget and started with an old Cambridge Audio A1 and a Marantz 41CD. I have a second system in my bedroom that probably gets as much use as my main hifi, it is all second hand including a Sony TA F246E that I paid about £25 for ten years ago.
    It makes sense that the market is smaller as it becomes more specialised as people listen to music on their TVs, mobile phones, and little plastic "smart" devices. But for those who are interested there is plenty out there and at a huge variety of prices. Look at how the cost of streaming is coming down. Add an external DAC to a WiiM mini and you have a £160 streamer that will destroy a £500 streamer from a few years ago. I'm not sure the availability of a newish technology has moved that quickly since the first ten years of CD.
  • Hifiman
    Combat said:
    I don't mean to be rude but the author and other readers seem to be out of touch with the market. You only have to watch cheap audio man on YouTube to realise that the budget amp market is thriving. You have the WiiM Amp but also loads of other brands like Fosi Audio, Aiyima and then a step up brands like Emotiva. It would pay to do a but of research rather than assume that the same brands would always be the best.

    I have a WiiM Pro Plus feeding my Kef KC62 Sub that feeds a high pass filter to two Aiyima A07 Max running in mono that then feed on above 80hz to my Kef LS50 Meta. Two £65 mono block amps driving £1100 speakers!
    What seems to have changed (and mentioned by the article writer) is that you used to be able to walk into a hifi dealer and listen to a variety of budget amps before choosing the one that you preferred. Those days seem gone, instead having to rely on YouTube gurus and a lot of mail order before you get to listen to anything yourself. I can see many people not willing to climb that ladder.
  • thatguy
    The budget amp that you kept for years and slowly moved through your home as you upgraded to higher end amps is fading. It has been replaced with the direct from China amps that are hyped by salespeople on youtube and are priced to be somewhat disposable.
    A salesperson at an audio shop could only talk up an amp to one person at a time. The youtube people can sell to thousands at a time. The mainstream manufactures were a bit slow on the influencer game and it has killed their introductory amps. It is also a bit difficult to compete with companies that don't have any service setup in every country they sell in and the big guys can't say "It broke? Ship it back to the country where it was manufactured."
  • jimmymcfox
    I recently bought a Wiim Pro Plus (250 Euro), Fosi Audio V3 48V (115 Euro) and a pair of Dali Oberon 5 (615 Euro). It's a pretty amazing budget system for less than 1000 Euro.
  • drmale
    First, I apologize for my bad English. I read the article with stupore.. I had to put a small system in the kitchen, and the requirements were: design (due the high risk of divorce), low cost, and sound must be very good. I got Ampli class d smsl AO300 €230, with a good integrated DAC, wiim mini €86, Q-Acoustic 3020i speakers, €350 (500 with original supports), qed xt25 cables €100). It costs less than 1000 euros and sounds exceptional, much much better than systems that once cost a fortune.