Few people apart from audiophiles and enthusiasts will look at a receiver vs. amplifier debate and not see the same type of device. It’s understandable to some degree, as both devices pretty much serve the same purpose (assuming there’s also a preamp to go with the amplifier).
But, when you look under the hood and understand a bit more, you realize that they couldn’t be more different. Especially since one of them essentially incorporates the other. Here is some valuable information about amplifiers and receivers that you can use to figure out your ideal home theater system or to simply enhance the sound quality in your living room.
Table of Contents
- What Is an Amplifier?
- What Makes a Receiver Different?
- Will You Need Both a Receiver and an Amplifier in Your Setup?
- Pros & Cons of Amplifiers
- Pros & Cons of Receivers
- The Two Types of Receivers
- Which One Should You Pick?
- How to Use a Standalone Amplifier with a Home Theater Setup
- Closing Thoughts on the Receiver and Amplifier Debate
What Is an Amplifier?
An amplifier is an electronic device that boosts an incoming audio signal, or amplifies it (in the input stage of the amplifier) and then powers the speakers according to the load that the speakers present to the amplifier (the output stage). Amplifiers can be standalone devices or built into other audio devices.
Why is it important? Without amplification, the signal won’t be strong enough to play the speakers. That said, it is not the only essential component to getting the sound you want.
An amplifier alone doesn’t do everything. It requires input audio signals, which can be supplied by a surround sound processor or a preamp, and the outputs of the amp have to be hooked up to speakers. That’s assuming that you have passive speakers, i.e. regular speakers that don’t have built-in amplifiers – or you already have amplifiers in the speakers.
As such, active speakers that have their own internal amplification won’t need a separate amplifier to boost the signal.
What Is a Preamp?
A preamp, short for preamplifier, is a signal router that also amplifies low-level audio signals. It can give a small boost to weak signals, enough to bring them up to line level. These signals will need to be further amplified by an amp for driving speakers. This also means that preamps are much smaller. They don’t require an amplifier’s big heatsinks and power supply.
What Makes a Receiver Different?
An amplifier just takes the audio signal from the source and amplifies it so that your speakers can play it. On the other hand, a receiver is a device that has both an amplifier and a preamp, along with a bunch of features like source selection, volume controls, etc.
If you have a receiver, you’re not going to need an amp or a preamp because they’re both built into the receiver. Among the preamp features you will find on a receiver are input selection, tuner, volume control, tone control, and such.
Why do people pick receivers? For the novice, a receiver is much more convenient and space-saving than using standalone audio devices. For example, using a receiver in a home theater configuration is usually very convenient.
You get one device that incorporates everything into a single build. You only need speakers and a source device (DVD, CD, streamer, cable box) and that’s it. And it helps you save money.
But truth be told, true audiophiles often spend the extra buck and go the route of separates. That’s where you break up a receiver into a standalone preamp and a standalone amp.
Separate systems often sound better just because there’s less interference between the amplifier and preamp alone. You can also play louder as you’re free to buy an amplifier that’s much bigger than what’s built into a receiver. You can also add other pieces more easily, like room correction, equalization, and so on.
A receiver becomes even more convenient in a multi-channel configuration. It can replace a ton of cables that you’re going to need if you have an audio video preamp and 7 channels of amplification, for example.
Will You Need Both a Receiver and an Amplifier in Your Setup?
No, because receivers already have amplifiers built in them. A receiver is more than capable of taking in the signal, processing it, and amplifying it to desirable levels.
The only time using another amplifier makes sense is if you want to upgrade the amplifier section of the receiver. Like if you have a small receiver and then you upgrade to much bigger speakers. This means you might need more powerful amps that the one built into your receiver.
What is interesting is that you can use multiple amplifiers or preamps in some configurations. This is something you can’t do with receivers.
Pros & Cons of Amplifiers
- More control over equipment choices
- Easier to make system upgrades
- Better sound in general
- Serious hifi systems
- Higher cost
- More space required
Pros & Cons of Receivers
- All-in-one device
- Space-saving option
- More budget-friendly
- No real control over the amplifier quality
- Can’t make systematic upgrades
The Two Types of Receivers
There are two types of receivers you need to know about when setting up an audio system. There are stereo and A/V receivers.
A stereo receiver is very basic. It only handles audio signals and can come with input selection, radio tuner, volume control. It will have a built-in amplifier but usually only two channels (stereo is two left and right channels).
More often than not, a stereo receiver is more than you’ll need for playing music.
An A/V receiver is a very different beast. This type of receiver has both audio and video inputs (audio and video switching). It also supports multiple simultaneous inputs and is compatible with gaming consoles, TVs, and other media streaming devices.
An A/V receiver won’t necessarily have a premium built-in amplifier. However, it acts as the best way to bridge the gap between all your media devices and speakers, without having to worry about installing and placing a variety of gadgets and tools.
Which One Should You Pick?
Obviously, an A/V receiver is the most convenient option for a home theater setup. It’s usually cheap, it combines multiple audio components under one chassis, it saves space, and it can be so much easier to install on your own.
There’s also a misconception that somehow receivers just don’t have enough of an impact on quality. On the contrary, there are also high-end receivers and they can come with premium components. They can deliver booming sound and impeccable clarity regardless of whether you’re listening to your favorite albums, playing games, or watching movies.
It’s just a matter of whether a premium receiver is worth it down the line? As already mentioned, it’s much easier to upgrade a standalone amplifier setup than upgrading parts on your receiver. The latter is usually very hard to do, even with the right technical and engineering skills.
If your goal is to get the best sound and use premium-quality audio equipment, then the receiver route might not be worth the trouble. A solid preamp and amplifier combo and top-of-the-line speakers will get your where you need to go.
It will really come down to a matter of budget and space constraints. And, I should also point out that not a lot of people will be able to tell the difference between a midrange A/V receiver and an entry-level or midrange amplifier.
The sound is so great in both cases, compared to TV speakers, for example, that few people will feel the need to upgrade, unless maybe they become audiophiles.
How to Use a Standalone Amplifier with a Home Theater Setup
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, a receiver is like an all-in-one tool. It can process signals, boost them, select the input and so on.
To use an amp in a surround sound setup, instead of a receiver, you will also need an audio video preamp, sometimes also known as a surround sound processor. This is just a preamp with surround sound processing built-in, which means it also has a lot more audio and video inputs and outputs than a regular stereo preamp.
In simple terms, a surround sound processor is a more complex preamp that can also process video data and surround sound encoded audio signals (Dolby Digital, DTS, and such). You still need an amp between the processor and the speakers.
With that in mind, the processor will allow you to manage where the signals are coming from, where they’re going, and how they’re going to get there.
But, since a good home theater 5 or 7 channel amp can be considerably pricier than an A/V receiver and the cost of a surround sound processor can sometimes exceed that of the amp, you’re talking some serious money.
This kind of setup is a dream for audiophiles. Especially when you consider the idea of amp stacking for even more power. That said, something like this would be overkill even for most medium-sized rooms. Not to mention small entertainment rooms.
So as far as most homeowners are concerned, an A/V receiver will be the best option for setting up a home theater system.
Closing Thoughts on the Receiver and Amplifier Debate
As you know by now, these two pieces of audio equipment are very different. Even if in the end, they serve more or less the same purpose.
Standalone components will always be better if your only goal is the highest quality. But this kind of configuration is not for everyone as it involves sizable investments and a bit more technical know-how when it comes to picking compatible components.
For most people, an A/V receiver will work beautifully and help save money and space.