Recently we’ve reviewed some big, expensive, powerful speaker amplifiers. We’ve found that big, expensive, powerful gear often sounds very good. It is important, however, to remember that audio equipment can sound good even though it’s small, inexpensive, and relatively low-powered. Sometimes a little box can do it all. Today we’re looking at a tiny, affordable integrated amplifier from Japanese manufacturer TEAC. We think that for many users, TEAC’s AI-101DA may be the “Swiss Army Knife” of stereo components.
It’s easy to spot a TEAC audio product — each features the company’s signature simple, functional appearance that harkens back to pro rack-mount audio gear. Their product line is expansive, including amplifiers, DACs, CD players, even speakers — they have something for just about every part of a hifi system. The AI-101DA fits in at the entry-level part of TEAC’s product line, but is in no way “cheap.” It’s made completely of aluminum, feels extremely sturdy, and it’s small enough to fit almost anywhere. In fact, the AI-101DA is smaller than many of the boxes of IEMs we have reviewed. On its front, three silver knobs contrast the AI-101DA’s matte black housing to switch power on/off, select input source, and change volume. The AI-101DA’s knobs are substantial and easy to operate, though a little more resistance on each of the knobs would give them a better “knob feel.” The AI-101DA’s interface is simple — a series of (bright) blue LEDs indicate that the AI-101DA is powered on, the source being used, and whether the unit is in “remote control” mode. On either side of the AI-101DA’s face are metal wings that allow the user to tilt the device forward when accessing the rear ports without accidentally moving the knobs — a nice touch. We love the AI-101DA’s industrial, no-nonsense looks and hefty build quality, although we think some will find its bright blue LEDs a bit harsh.
Around the back of the AI-101DA is where its versatility becomes clear. A wide variety of inputs are available: 3.5mm analog Line In, USB-B, two optical inputs, and a Bluetooth antenna. Outputs include two five-way speaker binding posts, a subwoofer output and, on the front of the AI-101DA, a 3.5mm headphone jack. The AI-101DA’s USB input works on macOS and Windows without drivers, and can handle files up to 24 bit/192 kHz resolution — the AI-101DA uses a BurrBrown PCM1796 DAC, which is a less commonly used brand but we have no complaints about its sound. The AI-101DA’s Bluetooth input is also very good, supporting both aptX and AAC codecs. All these make the AI-101DA an impressively versatile device — this may be the first integrated amp we’ve ever seen with two optical inputs. Call us ungrateful, but after using the AI-101DA for a few weeks, we couldn’t help but wish for even more functionality. A Line Out or Preamp output that would enable connection to active speakers, a power amplifier for more demanding speakers, or a dedicated higher-quality headphone amp, would have made AI-101DA truly amazing.
In our testing, the AI-101DA was easy to integrate into our system and use. As a desktop component, the tiny chassis takes up barely any space, and it’s a pleasure to use the AI-101DA’s knobs directly. The AI-101DA’s 22-button remote makes it usable as a home theater component (and adds Mute, Loudness, and Upconvert functions not otherwise accessible on the AI-101DA), though track controls are not passed through in USB, and the lack of any volume level display adds some guesswork when changing sources. When the remote control is used, the volume knob becomes inactive until used again. Bluetooth devices connect easily though volume must be adjusted separately from iOS on the AI-101DA. When the headphone jack is used, the AI-101DA automatically mutes the speakers and re-activates them when headphones are unplugged. When not in use for more than three minutes, the AI-101DA is supposed to enter a standby “auto power saving” state, then automatically turn on when a digital signal is detected; in our testing, however, the AI-101DA didn’t enter standby mode when connected to our Macbook and, when used with a PC, wouldn’t come out of standby mode unless we cycled the power. We wish we could disable this feature — a simple on/off switch would be enough for us.
Though the AI-101DA is versatile with inputs and outputs, it wouldn’t be worth buying if it couldn’t power the speakers attached to it. The AI-101DA’s Class-D amplifier is rated at 26 watts maximum per channel and had no problem driving the bookshelf speakers we tested to ear-splitting volumes with plenty of headroom left on the volume knob. Not surprisingly, larger floor-standing speakers benefitted from an amplifier with more power. We found the AI-101DA’s headphone output is slightly less impressive, however. Though it’s got some decent power — 100 mW per channel — we didn’t find it all that impressive when powering some of our more-demanding headphones. The AI-101DA is fanless (enabling quieter operation; one of the benefits of Class-D amplifiers) and runs relatively cool, since its entire case acts as a heat sink. Its volume knob looks analog, but its digital steps can be heard when adjusting the volume.
The TEAC AI-101DA offers an extreme level of functionality for its price. It’s well-built, with a simple, attractive design, and has enough power for small to medium sized rooms and bookshelf speakers. It might not be ideal for all use cases, but we think for many users it will be a great way to collapse multiple devices into a single neat package. The AI-101DA gets our strong recommendation.
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