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Preamp vs power amp, integrated amp: Which do you need?

Understanding the roles of preamps, power amps, and integrated amps is crucial when building a hi-fi system, as they define your sound signature, system complexity, and financial investment.

Let’s analyze the differences between these three components and identify which one is right for you.

Why you should trust me

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a music producer and audio engineer who’s developed a passion for high-fidelity audio.

Being involved in the music industry for over a decade, I’ve dedicated countless hours to finding ways to experience music in the best possible way.

This led me to explore the world of hi-fi equipment and, in particular, the role of amplification in the process of audio reproduction.


Use these links below to navigate to the desired section of the article.

What is a preamplifier?

A preamplifier, or preamp for short, is the first link between the audio source and your ears. It amplifies low-level audio signal to line level so that a power amplifier can process that sound and further amplify it in order to drive the speakers.

A preamplifier comes with multiple input selections to work with any sound source you might use, from CD players to turntables and more, as well as gain control and EQ options to tailor the audio signal to your needs.

The goal of a preamp is to deliver a boosted audio signal devoid of noise to the power amp and allow you to adjust the frequency response before it reaches the next steps in the signal chain.

What is a phono preamp?

A phono preamplifier, or phono stage, is specifically designed to boost the signal coming from turntables.

When choosing one, it’s important to get a phono preamp suitable for your turntable’s phono cartridge, which can be a moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC) cartridge. Some phono preamps are compatible with both types of cartridges.

MM and MC inputs
MM and MC inputs on a phono preamp | Image: Cambridge Audio

A phono preamp usually has some sophisticated circuitry that can prevent unwanted noise from entering the audio signal. In short, the noise filtering system of a phono preamp is designed to keep the signal pristine, making the most of your vinyl sound system.

Some preamps, and even turntables, come with a built-in phono preamp. But if neither of those components of your hi-fi system has it, you’ll need to get a dedicated phono preamp.

It’s a necessary component of every sound system involving a turntable.

What is a power amplifier?

An amplifier, or power amp, is the next step in the signal chain. It takes the line-level signal provided by the preamp and further amplifies it, making it louder so that it can drive your speakers.

The output of a power amp is measured in watts, which shows you how much power the amplifier can give to each speaker.

Power amplifiers come with input and output ports, like XLR or RCA connectors, designed to connect them to preamps and speakers.

You can find mono, stereo, and multi-channel amps. Stereo amplifiers are best for traditional stereo audio systems, whereas multi-channel amplifiers are used in surround sound setups.

So, what’s the difference?

While both are crucial elements of the signal chain, preamplifiers and amplifiers serve two different purposes.

The preamp amplifies the weak signal coming from the audio source (turntable, tape player, CD player) and takes it to line level. At this point, the power amp comes into play and increases the power of the line-level signal until it can drive speakers.

It should be clear by now that the standard signal chain should look as follows:

Audio source + preamp + power amp + speakers

A power amp needs a line-level signal to work, which is provided by the preamp. A preamp can’t drive the speakers because its signal is too weak; it requires a power amp to do that.

Active speakers have built-in amplifiers, meaning you won’t need an external amp but can connect your preamp straight to the speakers.

Some amplifiers come with built-in preamps, and these are called integrated amps.

What is an integrated amplifier?

An integrated amplifier is a unit that has both a preamp and a power amp within it.

Integrated amps are generally a cost-effective, space-saving solution but also have some drawbacks in terms of sound quality and customization.

Denon PMA-600NE with DCD-600NE
Denon’s integrated amp and CD player | Image: Denon

Since everything in an integrated amp is closely packed together, the electronic circuits might interfere with each other and result in unwanted electrical noise.

However, the biggest downside is that you won’t be able to personalize your signal chain by choosing your preamp and amp separately. Once you won’t be satisfied with the sound of your hi-fi system, you won’t be able to replace just one component but will have to replace the whole unit instead.

That said, integrated amps can be a great way to enter the world of high-fidelity audio, given their simple setup and reasonable price.

Also, high-end integrated amplifiers can sound great, so make sure you do your research and don’t judge a book by its cover.

What’s the difference between an integrated amp and a power amp?

An integrated amp is an all-in-one unit comprising both a preamplifier and an amplifier, whereas a power amp requires an external preamp (or a built-in preamp in the turntable) to function.

Getting an all-in-one integrated amp will provide you with a straightforward setup at a cheaper price, but you won’t be able to customize your sound signature.

On the other hand, a power amp gives you more versatility and upgradability options at the cost of a more complex setup and higher price.

Which one do I need?

Now, let’s look into different scenarios where you could find yourself choosing between preamps and amplifiers, and I’ll highlight what I think is the best option for each use.

Audiophile-level hi-fi setup

Seasoned audiophiles and beginners who are serious about sound quality should opt for a separate power amp and preamp setup.

Rotel hi-fi setup
Rotel’s preamp and power amp setup | Image: Rotel

While more complex and likely more expensive at the beginning, this setup will allow you to mix and match the components of your system as you develop your taste in high-fidelity audio.

Casual listener’s setup

Casual listeners, as well as those with limited space, should consider an integrated amplifier for their signal chain.

It’s a great option to get a good sound without breaking the bank or investing countless hours learning about preamps and power amps.

These are plug-and-play units ideal for those who just want to listen to the music they love.

Recording studio

If you have an audio interface and active speakers, as most recording studios do, then you’re sorted: audio interfaces come with a built-in preamp, whereas active speakers have power amplifiers within them.

In the unlikely event that you’re using passive speakers in your recording space, you’ll need a power amplifier to send the signal chain from the audio interface to the speakers.

Neve 1073DPX microphone preamp
Neve 1073DPX microphone preamp | Image: Higher Hz

You can definitely buy an external preamp to add more customization options to your sound compared to your audio interface, and many professional recording studios do that.


Guitarists, bassists, singers, synth players, and more need an amplification system to have their instruments heard when performing or rehearsing.

All amplifiers for such instruments come with built-in preamps and power amps for the sake of simplicity and portability.

Each amp is designed with certain instruments in mind, so make sure you choose one that’s right for you and with the sound customization option to create the sound signature you envision.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about preamps, power amps, and integrated amps, as well as their importance in different setups and use cases.

Can I use an amplifier as a preamp?

No, an amplifier is an amplifier, and a preamp is a preamp: they’re two different parts of the signal chain unless we’re talking about an integrated amplifier, which has a built-in preamp.

Can I use any preamp with any amplifier?

Yes, you can use most preamps with most amplifiers. All you have to do is match their input/output levels and impedance before playing music.

Does a preamp improve sound quality?

Yes. The closer a thing is to the audio source, the more impact it has on the sound quality.

As such, the preamp has an impact on many aspects of audio reproduction, from noise levels to the tone and flavor of your soundstage.

How do I know if I need a preamp?

If your turntable has a line output, it has a built-in preamp, and you don’t need to buy an external one.

How do I know if my amp has a preamp?

If your amplifier has volume controls, an input selection, and EQ effects to adjust your tone, chances are it’s an integrated amplifier with a built-in preamp.

What’s the difference between active and passive preamps?

Active preamps require a power supply to amplify the sound signal and give you control over gain levels, whereas passive preamps don’t require external power, have no active circuitry, and, therefore, don’t add gain.

Active preamps tend to be more versatile, whereas passive ones are notoriously more transparent.

Are DAC and preamp the same thing?

No, they aren’t the same thing, but they’re both crucial elements of the signal chain.

A DAC or digital-to-analog converter translates audio stored digitally into something your sound system can make sense of. A preamp takes that converted signal and amplifies it to line level.

Final thoughts

I hope this guide helped clarify some of the most common misconceptions about preamps, power amps, and integrated amps.

Each setup comes with its pros and cons, so my advice to you is to think about what you value the most, whether it’s sound versatility, affordability, or simplicity, and choose accordingly.

The audiophile journey is one of constant trials and errors, so whichever option you choose, be prepared to change your mind and always be analytical when reviewing your sound system.

Happy listening!