Preamp vs Amp: Which is Right For You?

When it comes to the technical side of listening to or playing music, many people are not concerned with how the pieces fit together, only that the result is a good one.

Many different facets come together to create sound. One of the most important of these is the amplification process.

Put simply, an amplifier takes a sound signal and amplifies it to audible levels that can be listened to. While this is a simple explanation, there is much more that goes into the process. After all, not all amps are created equal, and where does a preamp fit in?

In this piece, we’ll be exploring the ins and outs of amplifiers, outlining what they are and any pros and cons you need to be aware of when purchasing one. We’ll also be looking at preamps in detail and explaining how they could fit into your set-up and if you even need one at all.

But first, let’s take a look at an overview of the key differences between an amp and a preamp.

Main Differences Between Preamp vs an Amp

The main differences between preamps and amps are:

  • A preamp amplifies the sound signal to line level, whereas an amplifier boosts sound to audible levels
  • A preamp is a smaller machine that uses less power, whereas an amp is a larger and more substantial piece of kit that uses much more power generates more noise
  • A preamp is used to amplify inputs with weak signals like microphones, whereas an amp deals with stronger signals like electric guitars and mixers

These are the main differences between the two. The most important factor to remember is that a preamp is used to boost weaker signals. If you do not use anything that generates a low signal strength, then a preamp is unnecessary.

Key Specifications

 

  Amp Preamp
signal strength Line Analog > Line
Price It varies depending on the brand It varies depending on brand and strength
Power consumption high Low

Exploring the Features of Both

Now that we’ve looked at an overview of the main differences and made a side-by-side comparison of both let’s take a deeper look into the features of each and how they stack up against one another.

Preamp

preamp

A preamp is specifically designed to increase the strength of weak audio signals. These really weak signals, like that of a microphone or electric guitar, are then boosted to a ‘line’ level. Once they have been processed and are strong enough, they pass through to the amplifier.

Preamp Key Features

  • Boost weaker signals than amps
  • Placed close the beginning of the signal chain
  • Suitable for musical instruments and home entertainment systems
  • Can be kept separate from or integrated with the main amp

The Signal Chain

A signal chain is the chain of cables and components that an audio signal will travel through before being converted into sound by a speaker.

Any musician or budding audiophile must understand the order in which their setup should be. Messing this up and inputting the wrong components into each other can have disastrous consequences, from receiving no signal in your speakers to causing internal damage to the components.

A preamp, as the name suggests, sits before the main amp in this chain. They are only used if the original signal generated is too weak to be picked up by the main amp, so must be placed before it to do so.

For example, an electric guitarist would first plug their instrument into a preamp. The preamp would be connected to the main amp. The main amp would provide a powerful enough signal to use with a passive speaker system.

Sound

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a preamp has little bearing on the overall sound of your system. This, however, is not the case as the preamp is responsible for generating the core sound. This sound can be shaped and manipulated based on the model itself – some will sound vastly different from others.

While this is the case for most preamps, it only really makes a big difference to those using electrical instruments through theirs. If you’re using one for home entertainment or similar system, then the differences are negligible.

Many preamps also generate distortion. This can often sound very compressed, depending on the type of amp you have further down the signal chain. This distortion caused by preamps tends to sound fizzy and saturated, making them sensitive to volume levels.

It’s important to understand the relationship between a preamp and power amp to balance them.

Preamp Alternatives

Preamp Alternatives

For most listening and playing scenarios, a simple preamp will more than suffice. However, there are other options available in certain situations that will allow those weaker signals to make it to your speakers.

Guitarists often opt for preamp pedals in their setups rather than traditional preamps. They help portability issues for musicians on the road and solve reliability problems that plague some of the older models. These older models often house tubes constructed from glass that become brittle and break after years of use.

The solid-state circuitry that goes into preamp pedals solves these problems and creates a great alternative for musicians. They include all the features and functionality of traditional preamps without the associated negatives, even producing effects like overdrive and distortion.

Built-in Preamps

Many audio interfaces and devices will come with integrated preamps. This is great if you have a smaller setup and want to get going, as it saves time and money on a bigger setup.

However, for the more expensive audio interfaces, a separate preamp is always advised. They tend to be much better quality and will allow you to tweak the sound your speakers generate.

External preamps also allow you to generate more gain. While this is not always needed, you’ll need a dedicated preamp if you intend to use high-end equipment like low output dynamic mics. This is because an integrated one usually generates 60db of gain. However, with an external preamp, you can have up to around 70db.

Power Amps

Power Amp

A regular amp, or power amp, is placed later in the signal chain and amplifies the weaker signal generated via the preamp into a signal strong enough to be played and heard through passive speaker systems.

Power amps are essential for any system that includes passive speakers. As these speakers are not powered, the signal they receive must be amplified. Similarly, musicians using electric equipment like electric guitars and electric drums need a power amp so their audiences can hear them.

Power Amps Key Features

  • Boosts a signal enough to be heard through larger sound systems
  • Amplifies line signals
  • Placed just before the speakers in the signal chain

Where They Sit in the Signal Chain

Unlike preamps, power amps are placed much later on in the signal chain. They are usually found just before the signal is delivered to the speakers themselves. This allows all inputs and effects to be applied before the signal is heard. This is important to consider when setting up your studio or entertainment system.

Sound

This is perhaps the most important aspect of any amp. The difference in sound between models can be very noticeable. For example, Marshal guitar amps of the 1960s have a distinct sound that separates them from other leading manufacturers.

The influence a power amp will have on your sound is not to be underestimated, especially if you are using yours for live performances.

If, on the other hand, you intend to use yours on a home audio hi-fi system, the differences are more subtle and harder to pick up on. However, finding the right amp is essential to building the perfect system for any budding audiophile.

Built-in vs Stand Alone Power Amps

Much like with preamps, power amps come in a variety of configurations. They are available as rack-mounted units, stand-alone units, or often combined units where preamps and power amps sit side by side in the same casing.

They suit different needs in different ways. Rack-mounted power amps are used most often in professional settings as part of a ‘stack.’ This is where amps and effects units are brought together and wired into a signal chain.

It also allows different amps to be brought together in one place if a band or musicians uses different ones depending on the instruments being played.

Stand-alone units, on the other hand, are designed for home use. They work with HiFis and allow more powerful speakers to be used when listening to music or watching TV, depending on your inputs.

Lastly, you have all in one type units. These are usually reserved for low-powered speakers and devices. Amps and preamps can share the same casing when the power consumption is low enough as less heat and noise are produced.

If more powerful amps were housed together, there would be damaged due to the temperature at which some amps can operate.

Poweramp Alternatives

Poweramp

There are not many situations in which an alternative option exists. If you want to play sound through passive speakers, you need an amp. You can, of course, opt for active speakers, but you will be sacrificing power and clarity at higher volumes.

For guitarists, a power amp pedal may be an option. Floor-based amp pedals are ideal for integrating a chain pedal and let musicians connect the entire effects and amp setups with a guitar cabinet. They eliminate the need for stand-alone dedicated guitar amps.

Preamp Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Boosts signal for weaker audio outputs so they can be heard in the final mix
  • Some preamps can be used to craft your overall sound through effects and distortion.
  • A necessary part of many audio setups
  • They are efficient and not prone to overheating of operating at loud volumes.

Cons

  • Not suitable for boosting the signal of more powerful inputs like electric guitars and studio mixers
  • Often comes separately to power amps meaning more equipment is needed

Power Amp Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Boosts audio signals so they can be played through passive speakers
  • Necessary in the majority of audio setups
  • It can be used to craft and shape the overall sound produced
  • A wide range of models means all sounds, styles, and budgets are catered for

Cons

  • Power amps can be prone to overheating
  • They create noise while working that can interfere with other elements in the signal chain.
  • Inefficient as they use a lot of power

Which Are Some of the Best Preamps and Amps?

Here we’ll take a closer look at some of the best pre and power amps on the market and help you decide whether or not they are suited to your setup.

ART DJPREII Phono Preamplifier

ART DJPREII Phono Preamplifier

The RT DJPREII is a preamp designed with DJs in mind. They are designed to pick up the phono signal turntables produce and allow them to be heard through a standard audio recording or playback system.

It features a switchable low-cut filter that removes the static humming some older turntables produce, helping the overall quality of your sound.

The gain levels can be configured using the gain controls, and signal/clip LED found on the front of the unit. This means you can optimize and tweak the levels depending on input sources.

The unit features dual RCA ports for both inputs and outputs, meaning this preamp can be used with a wide variety of audio devices, not just DJ equipment.

If amplifying and EQing your records is needed to run with your DAW, monitor speakers, sound card, or stereo system, then this is a great option for you.

P1 Bluetooth 5.0 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

P1 Bluetooth 5.0 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

The P1 preamp is a solution for your home entertainment needs as it houses multiple input options, including Bluetooth, USB, and RCA.

It allows you to connect all of your audio inputs to your active or passive speakers while allowing you greater control over gain and EQ with highs, mids, and lows all customizable.

It can also be used as a preamp for listening through headphones. Being able to manipulate gain and EQ settings means you can get the most from your listening experience.

Lepy LP-2020A

Lepy LP-2020A

The Lepy LP-2020A is a great option if you need a full amplifier for your home set up and are looking for one on a budget. It offers all of the things you would expect, such as gain control, EQ settings, and multiple input options.

Aesthetically it will fit into most home entertainment or computer setups with its stylish silver and black design. It also offers fantastic protection for your speakers from unexpected volume increases thanks to its loudspeaker protection circuit.

This amp works with a wide range of devices like phones, iPads, MP3 players, HiFi systems, and TVs. The power output is 20w x 2RMS, so ideal for small to midsize speakers.

Crown XLi1500

Crown XLi1500

The Crown XLi1500 is a great choice for those looking for a more high-end and professional amplifier. It’s designed to fit into a stack seamlessly and includes superior integration options, including XLR and RCA options.

Rugged and reliable, the XLi500 is an affordable option for those looking for the very best in sound amplification. It’s an ideal solution for musicians, DJs, PA systems, entertainers, and many other public settings.

Some of the other key features include the ability to select input sensitivity, stereo/parallel/bridge-mono mode, efficient air cooling system, and bright LEDs to indicate signal presence, faults, and clipping. There’s also built-in protection to ensure your speakers don’t fall foul of any unexpected gain increases.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Is a Preamp Necessary?

Answer: A preamp amplifies the lowest level sound signals, so most equipment will require that you have one in your signal chain. However, this does not always have to be an external device, as many amps have preamps built-in.

Question: What’s More important, a Preamp or Poweramp?

Answer: In terms of sound quality, the preamp is much more important. As it delivers the initial sound, the signal quality must be high. Otherwise, the power amp will not be able to amplify the sound further well.

Question: Can I use a Power Amp Without a Preamp?

Answer: Yes, you can. It entirely depends on your setup and which inputs you are using. Inputs that generate a lower signal strength will need a preamp. Don’t forget that many amps come with preamps built-in.

Our Verdict: Preamps vs Amps – Do You Need Both?faq

Once again, this comes down to your usage and setup. If you’re using a home entertainment system and need an amp for your speakers to work, then a preamp may be required. In this scenario, the best thing to do is to find an amp suitable for HiFi that has a built-in preamp.

If you are looking to power a bigger and more powerful sound system, then a separate preamp is advisable. This allows the power amp to operate individually, saving against any interference or damage caused by the power amp overheating. It will also ultimately give you more control over your sound.

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