Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment


Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

I should state right up front that I have absolutely no experience in marketing or product branding, so take everything that follows in this and the next paragraph with the appropriate dosage of salt. Hear me out, though. Imagine if Apple or Amazon or Roku—or any consumer electronics company whose name rolls off the tongue of your average consumer—developed a product like Emotiva’s “BasX TA1 Stereo Preamp/DAC/Tuner with Integrated Amplifier” ($549, all prices USD).

Emotiva

They probably wouldn’t, mind you, but this is a thought experiment. Let’s just pretend that they might. My question to you is: would they call the thing the “BasX TA1 Stereo Preamp/DAC/Tuner with Integrated Amplifier”? I submit that they wouldn’t. I think they’d dub it “Stereo Pro Max” or “Stereo Ultra” or some such. Me? I’d probably name it something like “The Kitchen Sink”—or just a stereo receiver, which is what we titled it for this review.

And you could argue that none of these names are terribly descriptive, failing as they do to capture all of the features of the BasX TA1. But then again, neither does “Stereo Preamp/DAC/Tuner with Integrated Amplifier.” Unwieldy as that epithet is, it manages to overlook the fact that the TA1 is also a phono preamp (MM and MC), a Bluetooth receiver (version 5, with support for AAC, AptX, and AptX HD codecs), a very nice bass-management system, and a headphone amplifier to boot. In other words, it’s everything you need to serve as the heart of a fully featured stereo system—just add speakers and perhaps a turntable and/or media streamer if you’re so inclined.

Emotiva

All of the above is packed into a slim (2.625″ high × 17″ wide × 12.5″ deep) chassis that’s a step up for Emotiva in terms of styling. It’s also a step up from its predecessor, the TA-100, in terms of rated power output, with 60Wpc RMS into 8 ohms (both channels driven; full range; THD <0.02%) or 100Wpc RMS into 4 ohms (both channels driven; 1kHz; THD <1%). Amplifier topology remains class AB, and the TA1 still relies on the same Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chip as its forebear.

Setting and dialing in the BasX TA1

Given all that it attempts to do, you could forgive Emotiva’s new integrated amp for being a bit unwieldy, but it’s actually quite streamlined in both its connectivity and its day-to-day operation. Flip the unit around and take a peek at the back panel, and you’re greeted with (from left to right) a stereo RCA phono input (with a grounding post and MC/MM dipswitch) and two RCA line-level stereo analog inputs (labeled CD and Aux), followed by an analog output section that proves to be pretty elegant and straightforward despite being more than a little flexible. The analog output section is broken into two parts, labeled “X-Over Out” and “Main Out.” The former comprises a mono low-pass output for use with a subwoofer and a stereo pair of high-pass outputs, with the active 12dB/octave Linkwitz-Riley crossover fixed at 90Hz. The latter is full range unless you flip the dipswitch next to it to High Pass. That switch also controls the output of the main amplifier and hence the speaker-level outputs, which we’ll get to in due time.

Emotiva

Continuing our eastward journey, the next connection you’ll stumble upon is the coaxial FM radio input, which can be used with the included thin-wire antenna or a beefier outdoor antenna if needed.

Next up: the digital input section, which includes independently selectable S/PDIF coaxial (RCA), optical (TosLink), and USB (Type-B) inputs, all capable of handling PCM up to 24-bit/192kHz. You’ll need to download a driver for the latter from Emotiva’s website if you’re using a Windows machine, but setup is quick and easy, and it doesn’t require the fiddling and calisthenics normally required in setting up a USB driver for a hi-fi device.

There’s also a 12V trigger output, handy if you’re using an external amp. And then, of course, there are speaker-level outputs, which are clearly labeled and well-spaced and feel a bit nicer than you might expect at this price point.

Under the hood, the TA1 also boasts a bit more configurability than you might expect from a quick glance at the front panel or the included remote. And shockingly, most of the configuration options are tied to the FM tuner. Using the included remote, you have the option to set channel presets (up to 15), auto-scan for strong FM signals and automatically add them to the presets, and even switch from stereo to monaural playback if your favorite channel happens to have a weak or noisy signal.

Emotiva

You can also set your region to Europe or USA (the latter of which would more accurately be labeled North America, since it also applies to Canada). This setting doesn’t, as far as I can tell, affect any sort of metadata, since the TA1 doesn’t display such; rather, it’s used to set the appropriate de-emphasis and pre-emphasis standards used for noise reduction in terrestrial radio broadcast.

Other inputs also benefit from straightforward trim controls, which include bass/treble adjustments, as well as balance controls, all adjustable from -10 to +10 in increments of 1dB. It does take a few seconds to get used to the navigation of the menus—in other words, figuring out when to press Enter or left/right vs. up/down—but the upside is, you’ll likely need to navigate these menus only once, and the overall lack of buttons makes everyday operation super intuitive and straightforward via the Apple TV/Fire TV–inspired BPR-2 remote control.

My only real beef with the operation of the TA1 is that I wish the front panel had individual input-selection buttons. Nothing against the remote, of course, but I often like to physically engage with my stereo system, especially when I’m using gear with a volume knob as nice as this one. (It’s itty bitty, but it feels great in the hand, particularly in the way it gives you a bit of tactile feedback with every half-decibel increase or decrease in loudness.)

Emotiva

In testing the TA1, I subjected it to an assembly line of speakers, including GoldenEar Technology’s Triton Seven, Paradigm’s Studio 100 v5, and Monitor Audio’s new Silver 300 7G towers, as well as a pair of RSL CG3 minimonitors. SVS’s PB-1000 Pro subwoofer joined and left the party at regular intervals. I relied on Elac Sensible speaker cables and Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects throughout the review, with my Maingear Vybe media PC, iPhone 12 Pro Max, and Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player serving as sources.

Does the BasX TA1’s performance live up to its feature set?

My first impressions of the TA1’s capabilities proved to be incredibly positive. I had my trusty Paradigm towers in place and found myself in the mood for some Lyle Lovett, so I cued up Joshua Judges Ruth and skipped to “North Dakota” (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Curb Records/Qobuz). I was immediately captivated not only by the level of detail rendered by the Emotiva—the appropriate crispness of the delicate percussion, the subtle nuances of the piano and guitar, the little breaths taken by Lyle and co-vocalist Rickie Lee Jones—but also the exquisite tonal balance.

Soundstaging and imaging were also spot on, something I don’t always take for granted with this track, given the tenuousness of the mix, which always seems to teeter right on the edge of falling apart. Simply put, the amp sounds to my ears like it has excellent channel separation, exceptionally low noise for its price, and great tonal balance overall.

Emotiva

This impression was further reinforced when the winds of my musical whimsy shifted in the direction of “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & War from the album Eric Burdon Declares “War” (16/44.1 FLAC, Avenue Records/Qobuz). From the very first note, I was in love with the way the TA1 handled the delicate harmonics of the organ, the utter precision of the percussion, and the nonchalant meandering of Burdon’s vocals, whose textures were rendered beautifully by the amp.

Again, the soundstage was positively expansive, both in terms of width and depth, and although I recognized a bit of liveliness in the presentation, I don’t think that liveliness can be attributed to a tonal imbalance. The amp also lacks the sharp edge I’ve heard with some other electronics in this price range. Everything I heard with War, Lyle Lovett, a number of Andrew Bird recordings, and a few playthroughs of my buddy Brent Butterworth’s new album, Take2, points toward an all-in-one music hub with good D-to-A conversion, great channel separation, excellent tonal balance, and low noise/distortion.

Emotiva

It wasn’t until I tried to break the TA1 that I started to find its limitations. When I loaded up “Weapon of Choice” from Fatboy Slim’s The Greatest Hits: Why Try Harder (16/44.1 FLAC, Astralwerks/Qobuz), I noticed that my tried-and-true Paradigm Studio 100 v5s started to thin out and lost a little something in terms of upper-bass and lower midrange presentation at higher loudness levels.

Switching to Monitor Audio’s new Silver 300s, which I currently have in for review—speakers with which I’m admittedly much less familiar—I still felt like they were a little too subdued right around the transition from midbass to upper bass when I pushed the volume knob too far to the right with the same song. Again, not a lot, but I could still hear it. So I swapped in my GoldenEar Triton Sevens and noticed that, under the same conditions, the response felt a little wobbly between those two extremes, but to a lesser degree. Of the tower speakers I own, these were undoubtedly the best match for the TA1 when I found myself in the mood for very dynamic, hard-hitting music played at ear-splitting levels.

Emotiva

My working hypothesis here is that this is a consequence of impedance. I haven’t yet seen our in-house measurements of the Silver 300s, mind you, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they have a significant drop in impedance somewhere between 100Hz and 150Hz. If I’m proven wrong once we get the Monitor speakers back from the NRC, well, I’ll have learned something.

At any rate, if this is what it takes to push the Emotiva BasX TA1 out of its comfort zone, I’m impressed. And the fact that it reaches its limits so gracefully is doubly impressive, given that the amp is specifically rated for a minimum load impedance of 4 ohms, and I know for a fact that at least two of the above speakers have dips below that.

It was at this point, though, that I decided to switch from towers to bookshelf speakers, introducing the RSL CG3s to the mix, with some bottom-end support from SVS’s new PB-1000 Pro subwoofer. And that proved to be an incredibly magical combo. With “Eleven,” from Thao & Mirah’s self-titled collaboration (16/44.1 FLAC, Kill Rock Stars/Qobuz), the TA1 handled not only the chaotic electronic percussion but also the distinctive voices of both vocalists just beautifully. The overall presentation was everything you could want from a good hi-fi setup: detailed without being harsh, neutral and well-balanced without being boring, dynamic yet effortless, and delightfully massive in terms of soundstage while still delivering exceptional image specificity.

Emotiva

Swapping the Monitor and Paradigm speakers in for the RSLs, but leaving the SVS sub in place and leaving the 90Hz crossover engaged, I went looking again for those minor recesses mentioned above and couldn’t find them. So at least as far as my speaker collection goes, it seems that the TA1 really thrives when its subwoofer output and crossover capabilities are employed.

But again, I want to stress that all of this was really dependent upon two things: the genre of music I was playing and the loudness levels I attempted to eke out of the system as a whole. The amp’s minor deemphasis of lower frequencies when paired with larger tower speakers only really came into play when, for example, I attempted to play the likes of KMFDM loud enough to irritate my neighbors. And given not only the price of the TA1 but also its rated specifications, there’s something to be said for the fact that this was what it took to push the amp past its limits.

Emotiva

In the interest of thorough evaluation, I also decided to put the TA1’s FM radio and Bluetooth connectivity to the test. In terms of terrestrial reception, the TA1 was roughly on par with my go-to FM receiver, the Sangean WR-11. That’s a good thing, by the way. With Bluetooth, my only beef is that the front panel readout doesn’t tell you what codec is currently being employed. I know, for example, that my iPhone 12 Pro Max relies on AAC, when possible, for BT transmission, but the front panel of the TA1 simply read “Digital PCM 44.1kHz.” This is purely an academic complaint, though. In terms of sound quality, the TA1’s Bluetooth connection is top-notch, and I never had the slightest issues with pairing and re-pairing.

What other integrated amps are worth auditioning in this price range?

One popular alternative that comes in very close to the price of the Emotiva BasX TA1 is the Yamaha A-S501 ($549.95). It lacks the TA1’s front-panel readout but boasts a good bit more power at 85Wpc. It doesn’t have a USB input, but it does have coaxial and optical digital ins, and it has a few more analog inputs than the TA1. That said, its phono input is MM only. It also requires a sold-separately add-on dongle for Bluetooth connectivity.

Having two sets of speaker-level outputs means that you can easily set up A/B speaker systems if that suits your needs, but it does lack the TA1’s preamp outputs. I also prefer the Emotiva’s much-less-complicated remote control, as well as its built-in FM tuner (something I didn’t think I would use but ended up really enjoying), but I really like the Yamaha’s rotary input selector, along with its physical trim controls.

If you’re willing to spend a little more, I also really like the Rotel A11 Tribute ($799). This might be a better fit for you if you’re an all-analog hi-fi enthusiast, or if you like to keep your digital decoding in a separate box from your analog switching, volume control, and amplification. Like the Yamaha, the Rotel has two sets of speaker-level outputs for A/B setups.

The A11 Tribute’s only digital connectivity is through its Bluetooth receiver, though, which thankfully supports both aptX and AAC decoding (although it lacks the TA1’s aptX HD support). While the A11 Tribute’s phono input doesn’t support MC setups, it has a lot more analog inputs than the TA1 overall. In terms of performance, the two are really close, if memory serves me. I don’t recall the A11 Tribute having quite as low a noise floor as the TA1, but I also don’t remember it being quite as sensitive to impedance swings.

TL; DR: Should you buy the Emotiva BasX TA1?

As I said in my unboxing blog post for the BasX TA1, one of the things I’m trying to accomplish with my work here at SoundStage! Access is to find products that not only deliver the goods at a reasonable price, but also spotlight hi-fi gear that’s accessible to newbies. And in both respects, the TA1 absolutely slaps. When the uninitiated come to me asking for advice on a good starter stereo system that does it all—a rare occurrence these days, but it does still happen—this is going to be the stereo receiver I recommend first.

Emotiva

Does that mean it’s the only stereo system you’ll ever need? Of course not. But it has all (or almost all) of the essentials built into one slim chassis, and its performance is shockingly good for the price. What’s more, it really stands out in terms of individualized upgradability. If, for example, you started out with a 2.1-channel sub/sat system but decided down the road that massive three-way tower speakers with roller-coaster impedance curves would spark joy in your heart? Just add an outboard amp. Want to experiment with different DAC implementations? There’s an analog Aux input for that.

Granted, I think a lot of people will likely just use the Bluetooth antenna to feed it tunes from their smartphones and call it a day. Its performance is great in that respect, so why not? I also imagine many will use the TA1 as a heart of a good nearfield desktop audio system. Its low noise floor makes it a really good choice for that.

Really, though, aside from driving large and difficult speakers, there isn’t much it can’t do. For that reason alone, it’s one of my new favorite stereo integrated amps. Honestly, the only thing I don’t like about it is its ridiculously unfortunate name. So let’s just call it a stereo receiver.

. . . Dennis Burger
dennisb@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements from the SoundStage! Audio-Electronics Lab, click this link.

Associated Equipment

  • Speakers: Paradigm Studio 100 v5, Monitor Audio Silver 300 7G, RSL CG3, GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven.
  • Subwoofer: SVS PB-1000 Pro.
  • Speaker-level connections: Elac Sensible speaker cables.
  • Line-level connections: Straight Wire Encore II analog interconnects.
  • Sources: Oppo BDP-105 Blu-ray player, Maingear Vybe PC; Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max.
  • Power protection: SurgeX XR115 power conditioner.

Emotiva BasX TA1 Stereo Receiver
Price: $549.
Warranty: Three years, transferable.

Emotiva Audio Corporation
135 Southeast Parkway Court
Franklin, TN 37064
Phone: (615) 790-6754

Website: emotiva.com