There is a seemingly endless list of audio components that one may or may not need to make their speaker or home theater system work and sound its best, and it can all get quickly overwhelming to someone who isn’t a seasoned audiophile expert.
Two items on this list are the receiver and the amplifier – both are distinctly important, but they’re also often confused with each other. Many people are not sure what each one does exactly, or if you need a receiver and an amplifier to make speakers work.
The goal of this article is to clear up the common confusion here and to help you figure out precisely what you need to start making your system really pump.
Receivers vs Amplifiers – What’s the Difference?
Receivers and amplifiers both perform the necessary function of powering speakers, and might thereby seem like they’re effectively the same thing, and they sort of are, but not really. Allow us to explain:
A receiver is a piece of equipment that actually has an amplifier built into it, and is essentially an amplifier with additional features, which might include a radio tuner, a CD deck, an input to hook up a TV, and/or a myriad of other possible things. If you own a receiver, you in effect already own an amplifier.
Receivers are currently the standard piece of equipment that’s used as the central hub for a sound or home theater system. You hook up all the pieces of your system to it – the speakers, tv, etc. – and it makes them all work together in cohesion.
Is There Such a Thing as a Receiver Without an Amplifier?
Yes, such a piece of equipment is usually called a preamplifier processor, or “prepro” in audiophile slang. Here’s pictures of one made by Marantz, a popular audio company that specializes in higher end niche equipment:
As you can see, a receiver and prepro look very similar. The only noticeable visible differences really are the lack of speaker wire terminals and a high number of RCA pre-outs (a pre-out is a terminal that sends a signal that is not yet amplified). If you opened up the case to look inside, you would also notice that an amplifier is missing obviously.
You might understandably be wondering: why would I spend more money on prepro than a receiver when the prepro can do less?
And the answer is indeed that most people probably shouldn’t. As we just said, receivers are the generally accepted standard for powering and controlling home audio/theater systems, and are perfectly sufficient for most people. But, a prepro and separate amplifier(s) can have some advantages that will be worth the extra cost for some people, especially those with higher end speakers and/or more elaborate setups.
Firstly, a prepro will allow you to choose the exact amplifier that you want to use (and you will need to buy at least one), and dedicated amplifiers are generally of higher quality (but are also generally more expensive) than what you’d get in most budget-tier receivers. This is only really relevant, in our opinion, if you need an unusually large amount of power to drive “specialty” speakers. Some people claim higher quality amplifiers can noticeably improve sound quality, but we haven’t ever been able to corroborate this in any tests we’ve done nor have we ever seen a solid argument as to why that could be possible anyhow. But, as any honest sound people always say, this field is always subjective and your mileage may vary.
Secondly, amplifiers produce a lot of heat, and separating them from the rest of the necessary preamp equipment can help with performance and equipment lifespan. Heat is one of the longevity killers in audio electronics, and when you cram a bunch of components together in a single case, heat becomes more of an issue and risk.
Thirdly, by giving the amplifier and preamp equipment their own dedicated power supplies and space to sit, you lower the risk of electronic interference noticeably affecting sound quality, which is a particular risk when you have high voltage amp circuits crammed together with sensitive low voltage preamp circuits.
Fourthly, modern home theater receivers, even the simpler budget ones, now have to incorporate a lot of proprietary technology that costs money not just to physically include but to get certification for as well. Think HDMI inputs, Dolby surround sound, streaming services, etc. The price of including a necessary proprietary technology is not really ever in a manufacturer’s control, and so if they want to remain competitive, the only real option is to skimp on the build quality of the various electronics like the amplifier, the circuits and wiring, the chasis, etc.
We’ve gone on a bit of a tangent now…
This is just yet another iteration of the so called “separates” hypothesis in the the world of audio: that having more separate and singularly dedicated components is “better” or will result in noticeably better sound quality than having integrated or all-in-one pieces of equipment. Is this actually true? The very short summarizing answer is that it can be, for a variety of reasons, but – there’s also a lot of claims and arguments in the world of audiophilia that reek of snake oil.
Long story short, and to reiterate: an all-in-one receiver is usually the most cost effective option that most people use for their home systems. The budget and mid tier receiver markets are currently ripe with competition, and there are many great receivers that will work fantastically for many people.
Also worth noting now, and as a segway to the next session is:
Most decent mid or higher end receivers still come with preouts, meaning you can still add a separate power amplifier to a receiver if the built-in amplifier won’t give you enough juice.
What Are “Pre-outs” on a Receiver?
A pre-out is a type of connector that sends an audio signal that has not yet been amplified, and one of its many potential functions is adding a separate external amp to a receiver to take the load off the amp it already has.
A lot of 2 channel budget receivers don’t have pre-outs because they don’t really need them, but once you get into the 5-7+ channel market, most higher end receivers will have at least one pre-out. Reason being, when you’re trying to power five, seven, or more speakers, that’s when you might run into issues with the receiver’s default amp not being able to provide enough power.
For example, a common use of a single pre-out is when you have two big main left/right speakers – you can use the pre-out to connect to a separate amplifier, which then connects to the speakers with actual speaker wires and terminals. This gives the big main left/right speakers a dedicated amplifier, and concurrently frees up the default amp in the receiver to be solely dedicated to the remaining surround speakers.
A pre-out is usually a red/white RCA connector, but can also exist in a variety of formats. A single RCA labeled “sub out” is also a common pre-out that’s intended to connect to home theater subwoofers, which are almost always powered, meaning they have their own dedicated amplifiers. A good receiver panel will usually have pre-outs of any kind clearly labeled.
The popular legacy TX-SR494 is an example of a good budget 5 channel receiver that includes a single RCA pre-out, in addition to the two sub-outs, just in case you need a separate amplifier.
The RX-A4A is a good example of a higher end 7 channel receiver with multiple pre-outs that are specifically designated for every type of speaker in a 7 channel set up.
How To Connect a Power Amp to an AV Receiver
It’s actually pretty simple and easy – if the receiver has said RCA pre-out, you can use any standard RCA cable to connect the pre-out to the corresponding inputs on the amplifier, which are usually labeled “line-in” or “audio-in” or something similar. Sometimes receivers will have an XLR pre-out as well and using an XLR cable connection is an option.
Is Connecting An Amplifier to a Receiver Without Pre-Outs Possible?
This is not a common situation that most laypeople will ever find themselves in, but yes, this is technically possible in a variety of ways. You can theoretically take any available line level output on the receiver – like optical, coax, HDMI , etc. – and, with the right adapter (there’s an adapter for pretty much anything these days), you can convert the signal into the necessary line level RCA signal that can connect to any standard amplifier. Soundcertified.com wrote an impressively comprehensive article on this exact topic which we recommend checking out if this is something you’re trying to figure out how to do.
That said, we’ll reiterate that a good all-in-one receiver is usually the best option for home theater setups. So if you do happen to find yourself in this situation, and you don’t already happen to own an external amplifier, it’s probably smarter to just buy a better receiver that does have dedicated pre-outs (and more power for that matter) rather than buying an amplifier to compensate for a subpar receiver.
So, Should You Get a Separate Amplifier if You Already Have a Receiver?
Most people won’t ever need a separate additional power amplifier. Any decent modern receiver can supply 50-100+ watts per channel, which is far more than enough to power the vast majority of non-commercial grade speakers, in which case adding a separate power amplifier to the chain wouldn’t really do anything useful – it would be like turning on a flashlight during a bright sunny day.
That said, it is possible to run into a situation where your receiver might not provide enough power to your speakers, and – contrary to seemingly common belief – too little power is what can risk damaging speakers rather than too much power. Here’s what generally has the potential to create said situation:
- Speakers with a very high RMS power handling rating, and/or low sensitivity rating, and/or lower 6/4 ohm impedance.
- A lot of speakers hooked up to the receiver, utilizing all available channels
- A large room or other logistical situation that needs unusually longer wire runs, since power wanes over longer distance travelled.
Adding an external power amplifier via pre-out connections is how to add more power to a receiver if you need it.