If you’re unsure as to what sort of equipment you’ll need for your new hi-fi system or home theater, today I’ll explain the main differences between a receiver and an amplifier, two components that might seem interchangeable at first but are actually quite different.
Let me tell you right away that it all comes down to your needs: whether you’re building a home theater or listening room or if you’re willing to compromise audio fidelity to obtain an immersive audio-visual experience.
By the end of this article, you’ll know which option will suit your needs best.
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What is an amplifier?
Let’s start with definitions. An amplifier is a device that takes the signal from the audio source and amplifies it enough to drive the speakers or headphones.
An amplifier is generally divided into a preamp and a power amp, the former making the weak electrical signal strong enough for the latter to do the “heavy lifting” and send it to the speakers.
These two components can be combined (combo, or integrated) or bought separately to customize your audio system further.
If you’re an audiophile, you’ll need an amplifier to send the music from your vinyl, CD, or tape player to the passive speakers. They’re also called hi-fi or stereo amplifiers because they focus on creating a high-quality sonic experience and have two channels for stereo imaging.
Together with a preamp, a turntable, and speakers, the power amplifier is an essential part of a hi-fi system, with each component working seamlessly with the others to perfectly reproduce audio.
What is an AV receiver?
AV stands for audio/video. Therefore, an AV receiver is a unit that can control everything about a home theater: it’s a power amplifier with video playback equipment and more function as to how the signal is processed and where it’s sent.
An AV receiver also comes with many functions an amplifier doesn’t have, like multiple channels, video selection, and signal processing.
If you’re setting-up a home theater, you definitely need a receiver to make the most of your equipment.
All in all, an AV receiver is a single unit that does what an amplifier does in a hi-fi system and then some more. That’s because a receiver is designed for home theatres and, therefore, to bring to life a multisensorial experience as opposed to amplifiers, focused exclusively on high-fidelity music.
The main differences
From their description, you might be led to think an AV receiver is a one-size-fits-all solution for your home theater and hi-fi system: after all, receivers come with incorporated amplifiers, so why opt for an amplifier at all?
It’s true that an AV receiver is more in line with the sort of entertainment people are looking for these days, but the receiver’s versatility comes with a price: the inability to reach the pristine audio quality of a dedicated amplifier.
The multiple channels, various functions, and even the large screen in front of the receiver, can cause electromagnetic interference that has a negative impact on sound quality, while the simplicity and minimal design of an amplifier is designed to avoid all possible disturbances.
Another major difference between an amplifier and an AV receiver is the number of channels. While an amplifier comes with two audio channels for stereo imaging, an AV receiver is designed to create the soundscape typical of a surround system, so a standard 5.1 or even more complex configurations, depending on the model.
What about stereo receivers?
A stereo receiver is an amplifier with some additional functionalities, most notably, a built-in radio tuner to listen to AM and FM radio.
Stereo receivers are designed to be the central hub of your audio system, with a preamp, power amp, radio tuner, and multiple connectivity options to satisfy the needs of audiophiles and radio enthusiasts. Amplifiers, on the other hand, are mainly designed to focus on and enhance the purity of reproduced audio.
Check out my recent article on the best budget integrated amplifiers to find out more about the integrated amplifiers and stereo receivers that provide the best value for money these days.
Which one is better?
There’s no definite answer as to which one is better, as it all comes down to what you need.
If you’re building a home theater and looking for a simple and cost-effective unit to handle all your channels, then you need an AV receiver.
You might not get the best sound, but the gradually improving audio quality provided by standard receivers definitely satisfies the needs of most users. Plus, you’ll have the chance to create a cinematic experience with a surround system.
If you aim at pristine audio quality, have large speakers, or want absolute control over sound reproduction, then you should buy an amplifier and start building your hi-fi system accordingly.
There’s a reason why most audiophiles opt for buying components separately (preamp, power amp, speakers, turntables): this option allows for more control over the audio output and endless customization based on one’s needs and taste.
Sound personalization is an essential factor many audiophiles take into account when choosing their gear, and the fact that each component of a hi-fi system focuses on a single task means the audio performance is overall superior when compared to the standalone receiver.
There’s one caveat, though. Amplifiers are designed to create stereo sound: the audio comes from two speakers, one on the left and one on the right.
If you want to create a realistic sound field with an enveloping soundscape, a receiver is the right option to make the most of your surround system with multiple speakers.
Which one should you choose?
The audio quality you’re looking for is the crucial factor here, but not the only one.
An AV receiver is an all-in-one solution for your audio and visual entertainment; it’s easy to install and ready to use as soon as you connect it to your TV and speakers.
Furthermore, an amplifier is not a standalone unit and requires a preamp to function, and all its components must be finely tuned to deliver the perfect sound you’re looking for. It’s often hard work, but what you get in return is exceptional audio quality.
Choose a good AV receiver if music is not your main focus, but if it is, then get ready to go into the rabbit hole of hi-fi audio reproduction.