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Intro to home audio power amplifiers and preamps

How to use separates to build a great-sounding stereo or home theater system

In this article: Is a separates system right for you? We'll cover the basics, including...

Separates vs receivers

Using separates for stereo music

Using separates for home theater

Choosing the right amplifier

...along with shopping tips and a look at some fun and practical ways you can use separates to create your ideal home audio system.

My dad always had nice hi-fi components, but he was a receiver guy. The first time I saw and heard a separate amp and preamp system was in college, and I can still remember how cool the simple black face and single on/off switch of the amp looked. And how great it sounded.

That system commanded your attention. It helped that the setup included a pair of Klipsch floor-standing speakers. But the sound from that amplifier/preamp setup — immediate, expansive, and substantial — hands-down beat the refined but somewhat loose sound of my dad's old Sansui receiver.

Turns out there are good reasons why separates sound better than a receiver.

Ned with his audio setup

If you want full, articulate, and nuanced audio with flexible streaming capability, the NAD C 268 stereo amplifier and C 658 preamp I'm currently running at home produce beautiful music together.

Why buy a separate power amplifier and preamp?

Noise. That’s the number one reason separates have an edge on receivers or integrated amps.

Think about what a receiver has to do. In addition to providing power to the speakers, a receiver typically accepts and selects several inputs, and has a built-in AM/FM radio tuner. Most also include a phono input. There’s a lot going on under the hood.

In separates, product designers don't have to cram so many parts into one box, so they can lay out shorter signal paths. Sensitive low-voltage preamp circuits don't sit cheek-to-cheek with the high-voltage amplifier parts. And the amp and preamp don't have to share the same power supply.

So you get less noise and more horsepower with separates. And typically their build quality is a notch above what you'd see in a receiver.

internal circuitry of two amplifiers

In these two multi-channel home theater components you can see the less crowded layout of the preamp/processor on the right, compared to the busier insides of the AV receiver on the left.

Don’t get me wrong — a good receiver or integrated amp is the best solution for many people and situations. You have fewer wired connections, and central control for everything. Check out our stereo and home theater receivers buying guides, plus our top integrated amp picks to help you decide.

But in a hypothetical apples-to-apples comparison, if you modified any given receiver or integrated amp by putting the power and preamp sections into separate chassis, your sound would improve.

Are separates for you?

There are a lot of reasons you might want to get into separates. Maybe, like me, you saw and heard a great-sounding system, which left you feeling meh about the way your receiver sounds. Or maybe you’re not getting the heft and detail you’d like out of your home theater system.

Whatever your reasons, you can’t help it. You’re a critical listener. You like paying attention to detail in your audio. You don’t even need a reason beyond that. Or maybe you're just trying to power a set of stereo speakers in another room.

A great amp can be almost forever, but preamps change with the times. For example, these days it’s fairly common for preamps to have onboard wireless network streamers. Ten years ago, not so much.

Marantz SACD 30n CD player/network streamer

The Marantz SACD 30n is a preamp for digital sources, a network player, an SACD/CD player, and a high-performance DAC in one low-profile chassis.

Separates take up more space, and need more wire connections. A good rack and some mindful cable management can help keep your system from looking like a rat’s nest.

Integrated amplifier vs separates

If you’re wanting to upgrade your stereo receiver but the move to separates seems overwhelming, you should consider an integrated amp. It’s a power amp and preamp in one box — another way to look at it is as a receiver without a tuner.

Integrated amps generally — but not always — have better internal construction and use more robust power supplies than receivers.

At my house, I have two stereo systems, one powered by an integrated, the other by a separate amplifier and preamp. The separates sound better, but the integrated fits into a space that's too tight for any more components. And it sounds great.

Using separates for stereo music

I like to listen critically to music. Not all the time, but enough that I’ve got a space where the speakers are carefully placed to fire toward a sweet spot on a couch. I’m listening carefully to a lot of different things — the artist, the recording, the amplifier, the speakers. This is where stereo separates can really feed the audiophile in you.

cambridge stereo preamp

A power couple like Cambridge Audio's high-performance Edge NQ preamp and Edge W amplifier will give you detailed, authoritative audio.

A separate stereo preamplifier and stereo amplifier can be a great way to get your feet wet. A nice stereo preamp can deliver degrees of rich, articulate detail that you might never have noticed from your receiver.

Crutchfield senior editor and longtime professional musician Charlie's ears are attuned to differences in sound.

"I used a Peachtree NOVA150 integrated amp until I got the McIntosh C47 preamp a few months ago," he says. "I ran the McIntosh directly into the Peachtree's amp section, and the difference was astounding. CDs in particular sounded way, way better going through the McIntosh."

McIntosh's MC152 amplifier would be a natural match for Charlie's C47 preamp or the newer C49, and I could see it as a natural evolution for his system. Not just for its accurate and distortion-free power (and iconic blue stereo power meters!) The MC152 would give him even greater speaker flexibility, as discussed in the video below.

Consider your sources

Choosing a stereo preamp with all the right connections for your gear is important. Do you want to connect a turntable, CD player, or cassette deck? And even though a lot of preamps have onboard network streaming capabilities and digital-to-analog converters, you might still want to connect a separate network streamer and/or DAC.

If your stereo preamp doesn’t include a phono preamp, you’ll need a separate phono preamp to connect a turntable. Many stereo preamps include built-in phono preamps with limited adjustment capabilities. A lot of people — myself included — prefer to use a dedicated outboard phono preamp for more flexibility.

You can even connect an outboard digital radio tuner to one of the stereo inputs on a stereo preamp. I need my radio, so that's what I do.

It's not always a question of quantity, though. And while quality gets very subjective in higher end equipment, that's really what you're striving for, isn't it?

Multi-channel preamps for home theater

If you're ready to invest in a top-notch surround sound system, an AV separates system with a great home theater preamplifier/processor at its center can give you accurate, cinema-like sound with crisp dialogue, immersive effects, and earth-moving rumble you can feel. And if you use the same system to listen to music, your stereo sources will also sound great.

Like their home theater receiver counterparts, AV pre/pros can decode Dolby and DTS surround sound formats, including "object-based" formats like Dolby Atmos or DTS:X, which place sound effects in space around you with lifelike accuracy. They also process 4K video and have onboard room calibration that tailors the sound from your speakers to your exact space. They even let you stream high-res music.

back of preamp-processor with illustration of XLR connector

Most home theater preamp/processors offer balanced XLR connections. XLR cables can handle long cable runs, and they reject noise that can mar your listening experience.

Home theater preamp/processors are designed for top audio performance. They're made with high-quality components and feature connections you won't find on most home theater receivers. Another benefit to choosing a separates system over a receiver is that pre/pros offer greater flexibility and more configurations for setting up your surround sound system.

And with the right amplifier (or amplifiers) you can ensure all your speakers get the power they need to sound their best.

You could set up a crazy cool home theater system using a 15-channel pre/pro like Anthem’s AVM 90. This premium surround sound processor supports up to six surround speakers, six height speakers, and four subwoofers, allowing up to a 9.4.6 Atmos speaker configuration — not too many AV receivers can do that.

stack of Anthem Audio home theater components

Anthem's AVM 90 preamp/processor is a home theater lover’s dream, shown here stacked with three of their MCA Gen 2 amplifiers.

Listening to stereo music through a home theater separates system

Crutchfield senior copywriter Kramer uses a Marantz AV8805A preamp with an MM8077 power amp in his home theater. He loves the authority and detail he gets from his 5.1.2 surround system for movies and TV.

He also uses it for stereo listening, with app- and remote-controlled options built right into his preamp. "It sounds fantastic," he says.

“My current favorite way is to listen to music in multi-channel stereo mode, and turn down the center channel speaker,” Kramer says. “But you can also listen in two-channel stereo mode through just the front left and right speakers.”

marantz

With with 13.2-channel processing, Dolby Atmos, Apple AirPlay 2, Bluetooth, and HEOS Built-in, Marantz's AV8805A preamp gives you bountiful input options and beautiful, clear sound.

Choosing an amplifier to power your system

Two-channel stereo amplifiers are most common. The NAD C 268 I'm currently running will power two speakers at 80 watts. Two or more NAD C 268s can be used in mono "bridged" mode, where each amp powers a single speaker at 300 watts — which happens to be the maximum power handling for many 8-ohm floor-standing speakers.

There's even a high-end category of one-channel amplifiers called monoblocks, where you use one each to power your front left and right speakers.

illustration of multiple amps connected to single preamp

You can use two or more separate amps to power different speakers in a surround sound system, each amplifying signals coming from one multi-channel preamp.

You can use a single multi-channel amplifier or multiple amplifiers to power your home theater surround sound system. You might try a more powerful and better amplifier for your more demanding front speakers and a less powerful multi-channel or multiple stereo amplifiers to power your center and surround speakers.

Output wattage can be important, but doesn't tell the whole story. That's why some 40-watt amplifiers are much, much more expensive than some boasting 200 watts or more. I've heard a 1-watt two-channel amp that sounded great, and one of my favorites is the amplifier section in my old Harman Kardon Stereo Recital receiver that puts out only 15 watts per channel. If you can audition an amp in person, it's best to trust your ears.

Do you have to stick with the same brand?

A matched preamplifier/amplifier pair looks great, but there is absolutely no reason you should ever feel like you’re breaking the rules to mix and match.

In fact, that’s part of the function and fun of experimenting with separates. As I mentioned before, a great amp can be almost forever. Preamplifiers more often change with the times.

Matching amplifiers with speakers

Speakers can accept a range of wattages and it’s best to go for the high end of that range. And then there's impedance — most home speakers are eight ohms and it’s easy to match those by looking at power handling. But if you have six- or four-ohm speakers, you need to be sure the amp is compatible.

Using separates in a multi-room music system

Many AV preamp/processors have multi-room audio outputs that let you play music in different rooms, or even outdoors. To take advantage of these, you’ll need to add amplification to each zone where you want to hear music. The easiest way is to use a separate stereo amp to power each individual zone.

A multi-channel, multi-zone amp gives you a lot of flexibility for powering speakers throughout your home. See our article on powering a multi-room music system for examples of different multi-zone configurations.

If you’re planning on setting up more than three audio zones, it’s a good idea to talk to an experienced system designer. And if you’re setting up a multi-zone system for a business, our commercial design team can help.

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.

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?

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.

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

  • Matthew Salzone from Bucks Co. PA

    Posted on 7/19/2023

    Does it make sense to use a device that reduces the power on the Left and Right speaker outputs of your receiver to line level and inserting a high quality power amplifier or would you just be amplifying the noise from the receiver?

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 7/25/2023

    Hi Matthew, Some receivers have preamp outputs that allow you to connect to a power amplifier. I've asked one of our advisors to get in touch with you to learn more about your specific setup.
  • Donnie

    Posted on 7/16/2023

    Jußt looking for a good cd player and speakers, home stereo, nothing outrageous as far as pricewise

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 7/17/2023

    Hi Donnie, We've got tons a great options. I've asked one of our advisors to get in touch to help you figure out the best system for your needs.
  • James from Aiken

    Posted on 7/14/2023

    Nice article. Would you happen to know who makes the table pictured at the top of your article with the Marantz gear on it? Thanks.

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 7/17/2023

    Hi James, Unfortunately, I don't know where the stand in the image came from. Sure is pretty, though. I've asked one of our adivsors to get in touch to see if we have something similar that might work for you.
  • Darren from Camarillo CA

    Posted on 7/1/2023

    I have a GE 23292 pre-amp that uses a 9v battery but I'd like to find a power supply for it. I can see on the device that it is 9V DC centre positive but I have no idea about any other specs. I have tried to find more info online without success. Can you tell me which 9V adapter to buy? Thank you.

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 7/3/2023

    Hi Darren, I'm not sure what the correct power adapter for your 23292 would be, but we carry one that comes with six interchangeable device plugs. I've asked one of our advisors to give you a call to figure out if that one might work, or if you might want to consider getting a new phono preamp altogether.
  • Jason from portsmouth

    Posted on 3/21/2023

    I have a CAMBRIDGE CXC CD Player connected to my CAMBRIDGE CXA60 Stereo integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and a NAD Pre-amp for my Pro-Ject turntable. Do I need a system pre-amp or separate power amp for my system? It sounds good, but I want it to sound even better. Thank you.

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 3/22/2023

    Hi Jason, Since your CXA60 has a preamp output, you could connect to a separate power amp. That would be fun to experiment with, and that's where I would start. Then if you want to take it even further with a separate preamp, you can use your CXA60 as the heart of a second system. I've asked one of our advisors to get in touch to help you consider the possibilities.
  • Dan

    Posted on 3/5/2023

    Hi, I have an Onkyo M508 power amp connected to JBL L100S titanium speakers. Currently the amp it is connected to an Onkyo receiver but I want to separate them to just use the 508 and Jbls for music, I have a surround set of speakers now for tv, movies, etc. I need something to provide volume control but also connect other components like an iPod, CD player, etc to the amp. Suggestions? I don't have a ton of money but need something to perform great. Thanks, Dan

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 3/6/2023

    Hi Dan, It sounds like you need a preamp, and we've got a lot of choices. I've asked one of our advisors to contact you to get more details and make some recommendations that fit your needs.
  • Jim

    Posted on 1/17/2023

    I have a new Onkyo TX NR696, movies are great but my music not so much. I have 2 1980 Klipsch La Scalas, a sub and a center channel speaker. Thinking about adding a external power amplifier, not sure how to connect that. I hate to scrap the new TX so looking for the best way to beef up my music, any recommendations or suggestions?

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 1/18/2023

    Hi Jim, The TX NR696 manual says that the American version of this amp doesn't allow for connection of an outboard power amplifier. But there may be a work-around that will let you use one to get "more" from your awesome vintage La Scalas. I've asked one of our advisors to get in touch to help you figure out how to get better sound for music out of your system.
  • Elvis from Toronto

    Posted on 1/10/2023

    Wow, wow and wow....just the info. I needed....Zabardast, cheers from Canadà....

  • william list from Tulsa

    Posted on 11/28/2022

    My present AVR is lacking power to do justice to my new front speakers. Can I get a 2 channel amp to boost the power to the fronts and still use the AVR power to the center, rear and surrounds and all work together in theater mode for movies. And in 2 channel stereo (fronts only) mode for music?

    Commenter image

    Ned Oldham from Crutchfield

    on 11/29/2022

    Hi William, Great question. A lot of AVRs are designed to allow exactly what you're talking about: use an external 2-channel power amp for your front left and right speakers, and give you a stereo listening mode, and even to optimize your surround speaker array for stereo music. I've asked one of our advisors to get in touch with you to get more details about your system so you can make the best choice.
  • David King from In America

    Posted on 7/29/2022

    Being in a working band for 30+yrs I had the best of both world's, a PA as my home sound system. Now need to get my home audio setup, the info provided here will prove invaluable. Undoubtedly several purchases. Thanks Crutchfield

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