An integrated amplifier combines a preamp, which basically gets a source signal ready to be amplified, and a power amp, which actually amplifies a signal’s power to be strong enough to move the components of a loudspeaker. An integrated amp is what you need at a minimum for a set of passive speakers to be optimally functional. It is possible to hook up a source directly to a bare-bones power amp, which can be even less expensive, but amplifying a non line-level signal straight out of a digital device can have mixed results.
The technical definition of a receiver is that it’s simply an integrated amp with an AM/FM tuner (to, you guessed it, receive a radio signal). However, in modern audio parlance, the word receiver has basically come to mean an integrated amp with an array of potential extra features.
Receivers are the more popular and de facto standard for powering any sound or home theater system, but you might not actually need a full fledged receiver if all you want to do is power a set of speakers, and an integrated amp can have advantages that will appeal to many.
Integrated Amps VS Receivers: Key Comparisons
Simplicity – an integrated amp excludes features that in many cases are superfluous or unnecessary.
Cost – definitely a function of simplicity, an integrated amp can deliver the same quality of power that a receiver can at a fraction of the price. This savings definitely scales as you go higher end as well.
Bulk/Clutter – also a function of simplicity, and integrated amp can be much smaller than a receiver.
This is an example of an inexpensive and basic integrated amplifier with simple bass/treble eq control. While a receiver will, at a bare minimum, run $150-$200 and be the size of a large text book, the TB10A goes for less than half that and is roughly the size of two pieces of bread. It’s an ideal option for powering two nearfield/desktop speakers.
Something to keep in mind: if you’re looking for a device to power a full fledged home theater system, then you need a receiver. Integrated amps are designed to power speakers only and won’t have HDMI or other such inputs that are necessary for TV and other ancillary components.