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Zoomed in shot of a black preamplifier with images of output level, input and more

Preamplifier vs. Amplifier: What's The Difference?

If you're building your very own stereo sound system, it's time to learn the basics: preamplifier vs amplifier, what's the difference?
Image of a classic control amplifier complete with input controls, volume controls & more

Getting Started

Preamplifier vs. amplifier: what are these two sonic devices? If you're going to invest in a real sound system for your home, you'll need to know. And unfortunately, building a sound system isn't as esay as connecting to Bluetooth and hitting play on your phone—but it's so worth it. These are both just two components that help make your music sing with high-fidelity depth. One thing that both of these components aren't? Receivers. Receivers combine multiple elements, like preamps, amplifiers and tuners, in one chassis for an all-in-one device. They're extremely convenient, but music lovers who know will tell you that breaking them down into "separates" is a good route for a quality system.

Preamplifier vs. Amplifier: Why You Need Them

Before we tackle definitions, let's understand the wider range of these audio electronics. Both of these seperate commponents are part of the audio chain that takes a signal, modifies it and makes it sound oh-so-good. You can think of them as rungs in a ladder: first, the signal starts at a source (CD player, turntable, streamer) then it moves up through the preamplifier, then the amplifier, and finally the speakers. Of course there are ways around this, and many ways to listen that require zero separate amplification, like a portable record player connecting to a Bluetooth speaker. But any audiophile will tell you that the best way to achieve the highest fidelity involves using both. It's not about choosing one, or preamplifier vs amplifier, it's about having them work together.

What Are Preamplifiers? What Do They Do?

"Preamplifiers vs. Amplifiers": preamplifiers are the brains of your system, controlling input, volume, and in some cases you have the ability to modify bass and treble. Their duty is to strengthen the signal they receive. Once the signal is at line level, a preamp's job is finished. Said another way, their main job is to increase a signal's voltage with as little interference as possible. Since there's nothing else for the machine to "focus" on (unlike a receiver, which performs many tasks), it's an easy process with beautiful results. When choosing this, make sure you find one that fits your sources: the things you want to hear. That could be a turntable, CD or casette player or even a separate streaming system. Whatever way you listen, make sure your device has a way to connect.
A zoomed-in photo of a large speaker beside a turntable and receiver

Preamplifier vs. Amplifier: What Do Amplifiers Do Next?

We've covered that the signal flows from its source to the preamp. Now, that boosted line signal is ready for the next step in the amplifier. This component is designed to boost the current and the voltage, while the preamp boosts just the voltage. That's a huge difference, making these audio devices true multitaskers. At the end of their cycle, you're ready to plug that power into stereo speakers to let high-fidelity audio out into your space. Keep in mind that most amps are designed for stereo output, instead of complicated surround sound systems.

Why Not Use A Receiver?

It's a great question with a simple answer. You certainly can use a stereo receiver to perform many of the tasks you'd want in an audio system. Receivers would take the place of both the preamp and power amp, all while packing in other functions like an FM tuner and potentially Bluetooth or WiFi connectivity. But that's a lot to juggle. And if you want your receiver to do even more, like sending an audio signal through a surround sound system, you'll need an AV receiver that can handle multiple channels for multiple speakers.
That means that receivers do a lot of heavy lifting, and there will be a compromise in fidelity as a result of putting all of those complex functions/pieces into a single chassis. That's where the benefit of separates comes in. Once you learn the difference between preamplifiers vs. amplifiers, you can understand that audio moves through these devices fluidly. There's only really one simple process, and that process is amplifying an audio signal from its original source. While there are benefits to having a receiver (especially an AV receiver), the best sound systems start with preamps and amps. If you're building up a home theater system instead, you can use a surround sound receiver or a surround preamp/multichannel amplifier to achieve that task.
Preamplifier vs. amplifier: if you're dead-set on having one device instead of two, consider an integrated amplifier instead. This audio device combines a preamp and an amp in one chassis. You may still lose some of the audio fidelity that you'd hear in separate devices, but if Hi-Fi is what you're looking for, it's a better option than a receiver and is a neater package than two separate devices.

Where To Start With A Sound System

Now that you know the basic difference between these audio components, it's time to find the right gear for your space. There are more questions to ask and answer, like "which amplififer matches my system best?" or "which preamp goes best with my amp?". These are audiophile-level questions—and we're lucky to have lots of audiophiles here at Abt. If you're having trouble finding the right separates for your system, call our team at 800-860-3577. Audio is one of our many passions, and we'll be excited to help you build your new system from scratch or upgrade an existing one, and we even offer local installation/integration. If you already know what you want, buy it online: you'll have it shipped to you quickly. And to take a deeper dive into audio components, check out our audio buying guides, all written by experts.