If you are completely new to the audiophile world of stereo, or just completely new to the audio world, the word integrated amplifier and preamplifier might seem familiar to you. Or it might not. You definitely will have heard of the word amplifier, in which generally means a device in which will amplify the analog signal which you are outputting to speakers or maybe headphones, at least in the audio reproduction world. I believe in general they are perceived as something that will improve the sound quality of whatever you are playing out of. But there is indeed a difference between a so called “integrated amplifier”, “preamplifier” and just an “amplifier”. Even the modern versions of them have changed, of which they can be called “hybrids”, but there is no definitive term for them yet.
As you already know, amplifiers are literally described in their name. I don’t think there is much confusion between just an amplifier and the integrated amplifiers versus preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers, but this is still necessary component to talk about. For the more serious and discerning customer, the amplifiers matter quite a lot. They are the last thing before sound plays out of the speakers. Not all types and components in amplification are equal and present the same “sound”. Some amplifiers are technical, present sharp colder sound, some presents a warm sound. Others are very good at presenting you with imaging, like sound stage and extensions for the stage, while others sound just plainly more musical in exchange for those details. Price generally gets you an overall upgrade depending on the price range, but it can be a give and take on those qualities depending on the price range and manufacturer. There are also multi-channel amplifiers, as well as mono amplifiers, not just 2 channel amplifiers for the home theater system and those that really want everything as “separates”. Not only that, some even say you want to pair warm sounding speakers with cold, more technical amplifiers, and things like that.
They are meant to amplify, in the audio sense, the analog signal so that your speakers can play what song, sound, anything you tell it to amplify. If you just power your speakers from your phone’s headphone jack (if you theoretically can), you probably won’t be able to hear anything. But to my knowledge, there is also nothing in between your source and amplifier, so your amplifier will just amplify whatever it is your play. And that is actually not good. You actually need something called a “preamplifier” before that.
The purpose of this preamplifier is actually two folds. One is to select the source, if you have multiple, to which the amplifier will amplify the sound from. The second, is to control the amplification of the amplifier. They are different from an integrated amplifier because they don’t have the amplification feature that integrated amplifiers have. But they are a necessary component before you amplify anything. This “component” can come as a separate component in its own enclosure or integrated in integrated amplifiers or A/V Receivers. You’ll want it to be in a separate enclosure with it’s own power supply (hence cleaner power and better sound) and such for better sound quality, but that’s for the more serious listeners who strive for the best sound. But they are still a necessary component for the best sound you can get off your amplifier.
For simplicity sake, think of the amplifier as something that will amplify at a set amplification of say 2 times the loudness of your source, say a phone in this case. Using your phones volume control will work, but in general, you actually don’t want to do that, because doing that will cut the digital bit rate of whatever sound you are playing. That is not good. You want the best sound coming out of your source, and decreasing the volume via the traditional method of analog actually affects the sound-wave more than the digital signal, preserving the quality, such as the little nuances of the file, which I shall call the soul, of the file you are playing. For this, think of your file as a full circle picture file. Decreasing the volume from your phone will make the circle be pixelated (meaning it looks more of a circle comprised of squares) and it can’t be “upscaled” or blown up to look like smooth circle, if you cut it that way. It will still be several squares that make up into what looks like a circle. That is my visualization of digital bit-rate cutting, or volume control from a source like your phone. But having having the circle already made (image file put into a document), then made smaller right as you make the document is actually better than having a small pixelated circle, than making a pixelated circle bigger. Everything will have sharp edges and you’ll seem to have missing pixels in the circle.
In today’s world. Many of our playback devices and methods store the data digitally. Receiving and converting digital data requires the use of a Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC). In this writing I’m talking about the more “traditional” preamplifier like the Kreall KAV-280p preamplifier shown above, but more modern audio components that have these preamplifier options may also contain a DAC in them, such as this PS Audio Stellar GainCell DAC above (which they refer to as the Preamplifier/DAC on their website).
Nevetheless, that is why you need the preamplifier before an amplifier, for the best sound you can get. But what if you don’t have the space, or maybe even the budget to get a separate preamplifier for your amplifier? Well, you should have, or should be, considering what is called an “integrated amplifier”.
In the home theater world, this is the equivalent component to that of the A/V Receiver. This is the all-in-one component, exclusively for stereo, that will receiver your analog or digital signal which is then converted and/or amplified in one enclosure, to your speakers. The “traditional” integrated amplifier (like the Classé CAP-151 above) essentially contains the preamplifier as well as the amplifer so you can plug and play almost everything to your stereo system. Everything you need is “integrated” to amplify to your speakers. Hence, integrated amplifiers. Recently termed “integrated amplifiers” though, include the DAC in them to make them truly a complete package for today’s playback.
This all-in-one Swiss army knife of a component for stereo systems is very versatile, and has all the necessary components built into one to safely play your music. As I’ve mentioned before, just amplifying what your source plays, which I said was your phone as an example, is not good. Volume control on those devices relies on the device cutting your source’s bit-rate, the quality or “soul” of the file and will not present you the best quality sound your system can possibly play. Using the preamplifier component, or module, for volume control is the best way to achieve the best quality. As such I like to leave the source I play from at full volume to achieve the highest bit-rate and control volume from the integrated amplifier. Or just digitally leave the conversion to the inboard DAC (which is better than anything included with your devices such as your computer and smartphones for various reasons I shall not get into) for the best sound reproduction.
A word on equivalent components for headphones
The components I’ve been discussing are more for speaker than headphones, and what I have discussed can apply, but for headphones there are differences. What is commonly referred to as the amplifier for headphones contain volume control features, and thus technically have “preamplifier” functions included, but since they do not have an input selector function, they don’t really fall into the “preamplifier” category and hence the “integrated amplifier” category either. This is one of the ways to differentiate speaker amplifiers and headphone amplifiers, but I believe the reasoning for such feature is the fact that every headphones are different in terms of impedance, and hence how much power is needed to drive them, but also the fact that a more portable or space-saving and cost-saving solution is the general philosophy in the population for choosing headphones. These are speculations I must mention, as there is nothing I can find online regarding why headphone amplifiers generally have volume control when actual speaker amps do not.
Which one should I get?
It totally depends. Do you have the other necessary components? Do you not? Do you have the space for the other components? Do you plan on upgrading in the future? All those questions are for you the reader to answer. They are great questions to think about if you are considering buying either amplifier, preamplifier or integrated amplifier. But if you have decided on an any of them, and you’re asking me what you should get, it also really depends. Your budget matters. Your available space, your speakers (assuming you already have one or plan to have one) matters, as well as your budget. There are many out there. Many reviews on them as well. Do your research. I actually have a review on two amps as well as one desktop “integrated amplifier”. Those products may or may not be in many people’s budget however. But if you’re really asking me, at least at this time or writing, stay tuned. I’ve got some integrated amplifier reviews on the way (like that Parasound NewClassic 200, which I just received, and those are picture teasers for the actual review I’m working on at the time of writing. Look forward to that!).
In this whole article, there is only one component that I actually “possess” and it’s the Emerald Physics 100.2SE 2-Channel amplifier. Other examples are loaners, like the Parasound NewClassic 200 Integrated amplifier, but the Krell KAV-280p is my dad’s personally acquired preamplifier (PS Audio Stellar GainCell Preamplifier/DAC was actually a loaner to my dad), and I would like to thank him for his help for making the visuals of this article possible.