Home theater receiver vs amplifier- Comparison & main differences

Receiver vs Amplifier, which one is better and more powerful for your home theater system?

In a previous article, we looked at the main components that you need to have when building your own home theater system.

In this article, we mentioned that you may need an audio/video or stereo receiver that has an in-built amplifier and in other instances a separate amplifier.

Starting I would like to mention that when it comes to receivers or amplifiers you will not always get the amount of power and sound quality that is advertised. However, in some instances, they may be as good or close enough to the advertised specs.

When shopping you should know what will give you value for your money as far as quality is concerned.

So, what is the difference between the two, and which one offers better audio output?

A receiver is a home theater device that offer offers input channels from your video and audio sources, outputs the video/audio, and also amplifies the audio frequencies making them powerful enough for the speakers. An amplifier on the other hand is a device that receives audio signals and amplifies them for the speakers (increase amplitude).

So, if a receiver is an amplifier that offers more functionality and convenience why get a separate amp? When it comes to these two devices, it is not all black and white as there are several benefits of having a separate. You also need to keep in mind that there are different receiver types.

Before you decide on whether to get a receiver alone or add separates, let us look at some of the basics.

What are the different types of receivers?

There are 2 main types of receivers that you can choose from;

  • Audio/video receivers
  • Stereo receivers

Audio/Video receivers (AVR)

An AVR or A/V receiver supports the input and output of video and audio. AVRs also have ports for connection of other media devices such as Blu-ray players, consoles, TV, Speakers, and streaming devices.

A/V receiver also helps to decode different surround-sound formats such as Dolby Atmos, Dolby Pro Logic, Audyssey DSX, Auro 3D, and others. This is the main distinguishable feature of the AVR over a Stereo Receiver.

If you do not want to go through so much hassle to connect all your home theater components and are only looking for convenience, you should probably get an A/V receiver.

Who is an AVR best suited for;

  • Gamers
  • Movie enthusiasts
  • Home theater users that are looking for a surround-system audio experience

Stereo Receivers/Integrated Stereo amps

A stereo receiver only offers solutions for audio such as amplification of audio, stereo input, ways to control your audio and some have radio tuners.

These receivers do not have video functionality nor the ability to decode the different audio formats.

So, who should get a stereo receiver;

  • Music lovers
  • Users looking a convenient/cost-effective way to listen to music
  • Hi-Fi and vinyl enthusiasts
  • Audiophiles 

Amplifiers/Separates

An amplifier is a home theater component that takes audio frequencies (signals), applies them to make them powerful enough for the speakers. Other than this, they also provide a way for you to control the volume and select the source of audio that you want to use.

Amps also offer functionality for line-leveling audio signals after collecting several signals.

All audio devices have some kind of amplification and this includes headphones. But we are here to look at home theater amplifiers.

Home theater amps provide power for speakers that have no other source of power but if you have a powered speaker, you would not necessarily need an amplifier. However, if you have powered speakers and you are looking to expand your speaker set-up, you would need a separate amp for this.

And just like receivers, there are 2 main amp categories;

  • Integrated amplifiers (main/preamps)- Contains both a power amplifier and audio pre-amp. The majority of the newer amplifiers are integrated into one with several input channels for players, aux sources and others.
  • Power amplifiers (power amp)- Amplifies low audio signals for output to the speakers. Does not have a preamp.

Receivers vs amplifiers

When talking about receivers vs amplifiers, what we are really talking about is receivers vs separates. This is because unless an amplifier is integrated, it cannot be used as a standalone device as you will also need a processor/preamp. We are going to talk about preamps later in this guide.

It may seem like receivers are an obvious choice but several things will come into play when making your final decision. Receivers offer more convenience and better functionality in most cases but there are instances where separates are the better choice.

For example, for an audiophile or a music enthusiast, an amplifier will be the better option. However, if you are a gamer, movie lover, or both, then a receiver may be the better choice for your home theater.

So, basically, amps are better for complex audio and music set-ups but the majority of the people building their DIY home theatres will need an AVR.

Each of these options has its pro and cons.

The pros and cons of separates (Tuners, power amps, preamps, etc.)

Pros Cons
An amplifier system will offer you more control in what goes to the system. You get to pick the amplifier, tuners, and others by yourself if you decide not to go for an all in one system A separate system if more expensive to set up as purchasing different individual components for one system will drive up the cost. The cost will in turn affect the quality.
Making upgrades for a home theater that uses separates is way easier. You will also not need to change the whole system in case it does not meet expectations or damage Separates will take up more of your home theatre room space than an all in one system
Separate offer more flexibility in general and in turn have a longer lifespan though it is more expensive  If you are not familiar with audio equipment, setting up separates may be confusing

The pros and cons receivers

Pros Cons
It is more convenient to almost all component in one unit In case you want to replace a damaged part or if you want to do an upgrade, you will have to replace the whole system which is not price-friendly
This is a cheaper option than having separate components The amplifier in a receiver will not be as high-quality as a separate amp and is not as powerful
It will conserve your home theatre room space For an audiophile, a receiver will not offer the functionality level needed

What is a preamp?

A preamp is an electronic device with the main function of increasing your audio gain. This is basically taking a weak audio signal and line-leveling it with other signals that the amp is processing.

From the preamp, the signal then goes to a power amp and finally to your speakers. For simplicity, a preamp is more like a personal assistant but in this case, the boss is the power amplifier. A preamp will cleanly boost the audio signal to an acceptable level and also handle your input selection and then hand over control to the amp.

In most cases, your amplifier will have an in-built preamp but this is not always the case. This is what we mentioned earlier an “integrated amplifier.”

When shopping for a preamp, you have to make sure that it works in line with your amplifier by having the same power level to prevent the creation of signal distortions or unnecessary feedback.

Other things that you should consider when you are preamp shopping are;

  • The maximum gain
  • Number of channels
  • In-line processing
  • I/O
  • Your Budget
  • Type of preamp

Point note: You will not necessarily need a preamp if you have a receiver and if you are not a dedicated audiophile.

Power amp vs Preamp

Preamps and power amps work hand in hand even in an integrated amplifier. Any weak links between any of the two will affect the quality of audio but a preamp will have a larger impact when compared to a power amp.

Key differences between preamps and power amps;

  1. The power amp boosts the signal for the speakers while a preamp boosts the signal for a power amp.
  2. Pre-amps do some level of audio processing while power amps do not.

Frequently asked questions

When should you use power amps and preamps for your home theatre system?

If you are keen on improving the audio output from your speakers or when your receiver does not give you much audio satisfaction and control, you will need to ditch your receiver. You should also be ready for the expenses.

In this case, with around $4000 you can get a high-end surround sound processor which is an advanced preamp that can also handle video input. You will also need a dedicated power amplifier (remember we said this is the expensive route). Also, if you are loaded, you can use monoblock power amps which are two power amps, one for the right channel and the other for the left channel.

Can I connect all components to my TV directly?

Most Televisions will not have enough ports for you to connect all your home theater components. However, for those that enough ports to connect all devices, the quality of video and audio will not be as good as you would get from using a receiver or separates.

Is a receiver or an all-in-one system going to have bad audio?

A receiver may not offer as much flexibility as separate devices but in terms of audio quality, it is may not always be worse. Newer receivers with better tech are catching up with the audio quality offered by amplifiers and preamp systems. But for the average home theater user, a receiver should provide the audio experience needed.

Can you add a power amplifier to an A/V receiver home theater system?

Yes, you can add a power amp to an existing AVR system. The questions of whether it should be done will depend on the size of your room, speaker load, listening habits and bass management. If you have a big enough home theater room, have speakers that are powerful enough, and like to listen to loud audio then this is an option you can go for. 

Also, some receivers can only handle a maximum of 9 powered channels. But what happens if you want to set up an 11.2.4 speaker system (11 speakers, 2 sub-woofers 4 Dolby Atmos)? In this case, you may need a dedicated power amp that can push outlet, let say, 140 watts per channel, something that most receivers cannot do, assuming that they have the number of channels that you need.

How can you match up a preamp to a power amp?

The best way to do this is to stay within the brand and making sure that you match the impedance. Typically, the power amp impedance should be 10x higher than the preamp at least (the more, the better). That means that a preamp driving let’s say, 100 ohms should have a power amp driving at least 1000 ohms or higher. If you have a power amp with a balanced input it would be better if you fed it from the balanced output from the preamp. But if you have a balanced output on your preamp but your power amp is only single-ended then go single-ended. Avoid using converters.

Should you use an amplifier or a receiver? Final thoughts

Well, if you are a casual movie watcher/music lover with a room that is not too large, a receiver is what you should use for your home theater. This will be a more convenient option.

But on the other hand, if you are an audiophile and avid music listener with a large room, you should go for a set up that offer the best in audio. This will mean having an amp with separate devices for your audio that you can personalize according to personal preference.

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