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Intro to home audio power amplifiers and preamps

How to build a high-performance home audio system

In a nutshell: Do you crave exceptional, immersive sound when listening to music and watching movies? Then maybe it's time to step up to "separates" — stand-alone preamps and power amplifiers.

Learn how to build your dream system. First we’ll explore stereo preamps and surround sound preamp/processors. Then we’ll look at range of different amplifiers, each designed for a different application:

My home audio system is a work in progress. I started with a sound bar. When I could afford it, I moved up to a stereo receiver with bookshelf speakers.

Since then, I’ve added a turntable and a nice CD player. My receiver-based setup made them sound pretty good, but I wanted great, fantastic, sublime.

Now I have a separate preamplifier and power amplifier, and I have to say — I love them.

the author at home with his stereo system

In my home system, a NAD C 165BEE preamp offers plenty of inputs for my turntable, CD player, cable box, and gaming system. A beefy Marantz MM7025 amp powers the speakers and makes everything sound divine.

Why buy a separate power amplifier and preamp?

Typical stereo and home theater receivers are practical and versatile. Like minivans and family sedans, they’re exactly what many people need. Separates are more like sports cars — you get all of the power, performance, and downright fun you could ever ask for.

A preamp is the hub to which you connect your source components. Stereo preamps typically have tone, balance, and volume controls, as well as a switch to select the component you want to play. They may include a built-in network music player.

Why put these circuits in a separate component? Two main reasons:

First, you get better sound. Because product designers don't have to cram so many parts into one box, they can lay out shorter signal paths. Sensitive low-voltage preamp circuits don't sit cheek-to-jowl with the high-voltage amplifier parts. And the amp and preamp don't have to share the same power supply. You get less noise and more horsepower.

Second, you get more freedom of choice when it comes to system-building options. The right combination of preamp, amp, and speakers will give you extreme fidelity and clarity. Trust me, it’s the kind of sound that will raise goosebumps.

What to look for in a home theater preamp/processor

Think of a surround sound preamp/processor as a high-end AV receiver without the built in amplifier.

It takes care of video processing, surround sound decoding, input switching, and audio signal processing. It may have built-in Bluetooth and streaming apps like Spotify. Most models offer some sort of room correction software that helps maximize sound quality for your space.

When you let a separate power amp take care of driving the speakers, the processor can focus on doing everything else extremely well. That means outstanding audio performance that will make stay-at-home movie nights more popular than a visit to the theater (and hey, the popcorn is certainly cheaper).

When choosing a preamp/processor, make sure you’ll have all of the inputs you’ll need. Chat with one of our expert advisors if you’re not sure.

The preamp’s outputs go to your amplifier, of course. Surround sound preamp/processors also have HDMI connections for your TV.

back of preamp-processor with illustration of XLR connector

High-end preamps and preamp/processors often offer balanced XLR connections. XLR cables reject noise that can mar your listening experience, and work very well over long cable runs.

How to choose a separate power amplifier

There are a lot of amps out there, so how do you decide which one will work best in your home? It helps if you know how you want to use it.

Here are some primary categories to think about. We’ll start with hi-fi stereo amps. Then we’ll look at multi-channel home theater amps. Later on, we’ll look at a range of amps designed for multi-room music systems.

How much power do you need? That depends on how close you want to get to concert-level volume and dynamics or theater-like sonic impact. It also depends on your speakers. Some power-hungry speakers sound best when paired with an extra-stout amplifier.

Hi-fi stereo and monoblock amps

The amps featured in this section are perfect for a high-performance stereo music system. There’s no reason they can’t be used in a surround sound system, though multi-channel amps might make more sense in your theater system.

To get an idea of how these separate amps differ from the amps inside a typical receiver, take a look at the guts of each.

internal circuitry of two amplifiers

Compare the clean, uncluttered layout of the integrated amp on the left, to the crowded insides of a standard receiver on the right.

Take a look at the amp on the left in the photo above. You'll notice a large round part bearing the Yamaha logo. That's a torroidal transformer, a key element in the power supply of nearly every hi-fi amp. You won't find them in a lot of receivers because of their size and cost.

Toroidal transformers give you two major benefits. They give off far less noise and hum than ordinary EI transformers. And they generate much more power than comparably sized EI transformers. They can easily deliver the juice that's needed for dynamic peaks in movie soundtracks and music performances. 

Sample amp/preamp pairings

How do you choose the right amp/preamp combo for your stereo system? One good way is to chat with one of our expert advisors. But I’ll whet your appetite with a few suggestions.

NAD

NAD offers a wide variety of amps and preamps work well together in a classic hi-fi stereo setup. A solid entry-level system would include the C 165BEE stereo preamplifier and the C 275BEE stereo amplifier.

McIntosh

Serious audiophiles revere the legendary McIntosh components. The C49 preamplifier pairs perfectly with the MC152 stereo amplifier.

Do you have to stick with the same brand?

While an amp and preamp from the same brand look great together, there’s no reason you can’t mix and match. Just choose a stereo preamp and a two-channel power amplifier, and you’ll hear your music come alive.

Home theater amps

A strong home theater system creates an immersive soundstage that brings a realistic edge to TV and movie soundtracks.

This is where the versatility of separates really shines. You can choose a powerful 3-channel amp to drive the crucial front left, right, and center channels. Surround speakers that require less power can have their own dedicated 2-channel amp. Or you could keep things simple and get one amp with enough channels to drive all of your speakers.

Sample systems

Here are a few suggested combos. Contact a Crutchfield advisor if you need help designing your system.

Yamaha

Yamaha’s flagship AVENTAGE CX-A5200 processor is a sophisticated AV hub. Its ideal companion is the MX-A5200 11-channel power amplifier.

Marantz

There are several Marantz preamplifiers that team well with one or more of their robust power amplifiers. This is a great way to go if you want flexibility in designing your ideal system.

The best-selling Marantz AV8805 is a home theater buff's dream, with plenty of inputs for a 13.2-channel surround sound setup and HEOS multi-room technology built in. You can then use a Marantz MM7055 to drive your left, right, center, and height speakers, and add up to four Marantz MM7025 stereo amplifiers to power surround speakers and separate zones as needed.

Anthem

Anthem is what you might term a “power player” in the surround sound world. Their extensive lineup of rugged power amplifiers lets you customize your system’s power distribution.

stack of Anthem Audio home theater components

Anthem's lineup of preamps and power amps are built to deliver maximum power and system design flexibility.

Start building your dream system with Anthem's sophisticated AVM70 preamp. It's a home theater lover’s dream, featuring the acclaimed Anthem Room Decoding calibration software. The MCA 325 Gen 2 power amplifier provides up to 400 watts per channel for the all-important front left/right/center speakers, then you can power the rest of your surrounds and effects speakers with multiple MCA 225 Gen 2 stereo amps.

Subwoofer amplifiers

Passive subwoofers (mostly in-wall models) require a separate amp. It’s common to bridge the output of a stereo amplifier, so it becomes a powerful mono channel. This will work for most subwoofers.

That said, some subwoofer manufacturers offer monoblock amplifiers that are designed for use with a specific model of sub. For example:

  • Monitor Audio IWA-250 amp matches Monitor Audio IWS-10 in-wall subwoofer
  • Polk Audio SWA500 amp can power their CSW155 in-wall sub, plus the CSW100 and CSW200 in-floor models.
  • Revel SA1000 pairs with the Revel B28W in-wall subwoofer

Multi-room amps

Multi-room amps are not to be confused with the high fidelity stereo amps we talked about earlier, but they're good, solid building blocks for a multi-room system. Many models have specialized connectors for remote control, power triggers, and infrared signal transmission. These features make it easier to control your entire system remotely.

back panel of multi-channel amp

This Niles multi-zone amplifier has multiple sets of inputs and outputs, so signal can be passed along to additional amplifiers in other locations.

AudioSource, Russound, and Niles specialize in multi-zone systems, and offer several affordable amplifiers designed for custom integration.

Stereo

There are plenty of two-channel power amps to choose from. The Russound P75 and AudioSource AMP100VS are customer favorites that provide solid power for two speakers, or two pairs in an A/B configuration.

Multi-channel

As you might guess, there are lots of ways to configure a multi-channel system for whole-home audio. (To get the full scoop, read our in-depth article about how to power a multi-room system.)

The versatile Russound D850 provides a robust 80 watts per channel for up to eight 4-ohm speakers, and offers control of four separate zones.

A few models include remote control interfaces with the amp. The Russound CAA66 and CAA66L amplifiers include six in-wall keypads and a handheld remote.

Audiophile brand NAD offers 4-channel and 8-channel multi-zone amps that are perfect for adding surround channels to a home theater system or powering music zones in a multi-room audio system.

Accessories to round out your system

You'll need a strong supporting cast to help your system achieve greatness. Take a look the following:

Need help designing your system? We can do that

Setting up your ideal home system might require a little help from a knowledgeable pro. Get in touch with us today, and we’ll help you get started.

Our expert Advisors know home stereo and home theater gear inside and out. Your Advisor can send specific Crutchfield pages to your screen, saving you a lot of browsing time. You’ll get a shopping cart loaded up with everything you need.

Better yet, free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

  • Fred from Warwick RI

    Posted on 4/28/2021

    How about writing something on the Classes of power amplifiers; Class A, Class B, Class A-B, Class D, etc. I am a bit confused on the subject.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 4/29/2021

    Fred - Fortunately, my colleague Buck wrote an article about this titled Which amplifier class is the best? Hope it helps!
  • Jeffrey Faulkner from Floresville

    Posted on 1/17/2021

    I have finally decided that it is not really possible to get good sound out of my computer with the speakers designed for computers and I want to outfit my office with a system that will allow me to play music from my computer and also CD's and mp3 from the phone etc, so need a preamp, amp and speakers. The office is about 10 X 10 feet. Any recommnedations?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 1/18/2021

    Jeffrey - I honestly think the most efficient way to address this scenario might be a pair of powered speakers. Here's a link filtered to show only ones with a USB input for the computer, and RCA inputs for the CD player. My personal favorites are the Kanto TUK, because I love the AMT tweeter, but any of these will be an improvement on computer speakers, and most let you add a powered sub if you want more oomph. Thanks for the question!
  • Landon from New York

    Posted on 12/21/2020

    Is there a point that you would recommend switching over from an AVR to separates? Are separates best reserved for top tier systems (not sure how to define "top tier" - power demand, price, etc)? Is there a framework that can help one determine if it is worth the jump?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 12/22/2020

    Landon - In a home theater system, I would base my decision on what I planned to do with my speakers. If you want your front/left/right speakers to be some power-hungry monsters, it might behoove you to give them their own amp(s). If you're happy with a more conventional setup, the AVR probably has plenty of power for what you want to do. Hope that helps!
  • Thanasis Sarigiannidis from Thessaloniki, Greece

    Posted on 11/25/2020

    Hello Eric, Congats on this analytical and really helpful guide. I am new to the hi-fi world, and started reading various reviews on types of hi-fi systems and their qualities. At first I was looking to find a pair of active speakers to fill a medium-sized living room with quality music. After seeing the passion with which you and other audiophiles talk about the "separates" (separate pre-amp, amp and speakers) advantages and superiority I was tempted to wonder if I could too try the separates route, with a budget of 600 euros or even a bit more. However all the system combinations referenced here cost way over this budget, some thousands of dollars. Do you think that, in my case, there is any point in trying to build a separates system, especially regarding the fact that there are some quality (according to reviews) active speakers (Audioengine HD6, Klipsch R-51PM) at this budget level out there? Thank you in advance for any useful thoughts!

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 11/30/2020

    Thanasis - You're right, to get the full benefit of separates, you can end up spending a fair amount of money. You may have noticed that I also write about the active speakers, and I think they offer excellent value and very good sound. I'd recommend checking out my article about the Best Powered Speakers for Stereo Listening. But I'll tell you right now, my favorites are the Kanto TUK speakers. I love the Air Motion Transformer (AMT) tweeter, and I think they fit your budget pretty well. Just make sure whatever you choose has all the inputs you'll need to connect your music sources. Thanks for the question!
  • Sergio from Lima

    Posted on 11/3/2020

    Hola Una consulta , tengo un Marantz 6013 con unos frontales Focal Aria 948 y el resto son infinity serie Beta incluye subwoofer de 12" quisiera colocarle un amplificador NAD C275 BEE para escuchar música en estéreo y utilizar el receiver como preamplificador , entenderia que obtendría una mejor eschucha, calidad de sonido, transparencia y la potencia que necesitaría los parlantes Focal , es posible , lo recomiendan? o mejor le coloco el amplificador Marantz NN7025 Saltar a Mcintosh no me da por el momento mi presupuesto

  • Hank Bonser from Kennebunkport

    Posted on 6/22/2020

    I have a Niles 2150 power amp and would like suggestions for a good pre amp to go with it.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 6/23/2020

    Hank - That will very much depend on what sources you want to plug into the preamp. The stereo preamps we carry vary quite a bit as to whether they focus on analog connections, or if they have built-in streaming capabilities. If you can narrow down what you want to listen to, one will pop right to the surface as the best choice. Hope that helps!
  • Frank from Chicago

    Posted on 5/10/2020

    Current AVR's Marantz SR7009 and Anthem MRX710. Building off of these, is it more impactful to add the multichannel amp first or separate AVR and use only the amp sectional of the AVR?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 5/11/2020

    Frank - To be 100% honest, I'm not sure what type of system you're trying to build, so I'm not sure what advice to give. You seem to have two very nice home theater receivers, however, and you can't go wrong using either one of them as-is.
  • Mohit Bhatia from Highlands Ranch, CO

    Posted on 2/3/2020

    Hi I am looking to connect a new pre-amp to my Classe Sigma AMP5. What Pre-amp pre-processor would you suggest. I have 4 Main speakers (B&W and Focal) a sub-woofer and Center channel that connects to Classe

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 2/4/2020

    Mohit - All of the surround sound pre-pros we carry have balanced (XLR) outputs, which it looks like the AMP5 can accomodate for the front L/R speakers. I personally like Marantz, but I'd make the choice based on what wired and wireless input sources you want to be able to use. Thanks for the question!
  • Peter Koch from Copenhagen DK

    Posted on 11/12/2019

    I just bought a NAD D3020 v2, and want to fit the pre out to an old Philips F4238 power amp. The ? is the F4238 got a AC and a DC indput, I do not know which to use.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 11/13/2019

    Peter - I don't have access to an F4238, so I'm reluctant to guess how it might function. If you bought the NAD from Crutchfield, you can chat with our tech support department and they might be able to help you out. Thanks for the question!
  • Mark Souza from Swansea

    Posted on 3/10/2019

    Something I don't understand is the Marantz sr6010 avr I have is (supposedly) 220 watts per channel I have two front Dolby Atmos speakers a center channel a sub and two towers for the rear. If I look at a Nad multi-channel amp it boasts a robust 80 watts of power per channel. Why would I want to go down ?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 3/11/2019

    Mark - A fair question with a complicated answer. Suffice to say that raw power numbers seldom tell the full story of how an amplifier will perform. Audiophile amps will often give less raw power, but deliver it in a more efficient way that drives your speakers more accurately. Compare numbers like signal-to-noise ratio and THD%, which tell you about how the amp will handle quiet parts of the music, and resist putting out distorted sound. The upshot? Audophile amps are worth it if you want clarity to go along with your blasts of loudness.