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Software Engineer at Heydoc

Hi-Fi 101: The difference between preamplifier, power amplifier, integrated amplifier and receiver

If you came here to read another programming-related article, I am afraid it will be slightly different today. Still cool, but not about software.

Dipping your toes into the world of Hi-Fi can be overwhelming. I know that because I decided to build my first professional audio system recently, and I can’t get out since I got into this rabbit hole. I am not an expert in the subject, but as a massive hip hop head following ZULU Nation’s “Each one, teach one” fashion, I decided to share with you what I learned.

The purpose of a Hi-Fi audio system is to send a signal from your input device up to the speaker. But, of course, signal amplification is a mandatory step in between, which is precisely the subject of this article.

Hi-Fi separates #

A Hi-Fi system consists of multiple parts, often referred to as “separates”. Today, we will look into everything between the input (turntable, microphone, CD player or whatnot) and the output (speakers). But, first, look at the simplified diagram of an audio playback chain.

Simplified diagram of an audio playback chain

Preamplifier #

A preamplifier’s (often shortened to “preamp”) primary purpose is to take a weaker signal and amplify it to a line level strength. Another purpose of this device is an input control because there is a high chance that you have multiple sources connected to your preamplifier (as presented in the diagram above). The output of a preamplifier is a line signal that is too weak to rock drivers of your speakers (measure only a few hundred microwatts), hence the need for another amplification device in the chain.

Power amplifier #

The power amplifier takes a line level signal (either directly from the preamp or any other device) and produces enough wattage to power up your speakers. It can be anything between very few watts for little electronic devices, tens or hundreds of watts for stereo systems or thousands of watts for PA (public address) systems.

Integrated amplifier #

An integrated amplifier is simply a preamplifier and a power amplifier closed in one case. Integrated amplifiers are much more popular than separates because it is convenient to have one box to rule them all. Naively thinking, it may sound like a perfect solution, but it comes with some tradeoffs — signal interference and shared power source are the main disadvantages. I will let my mentor Paul McGowan, CEO of PS Audio, elaborate on this one.

Receiver #

A receiver is everything that an integrated amplifier is but has a built-in radio receiver. Nowadays, Hi-Fi equipment makers also like to use this name to describe devices with various network connectivity features. Therefore, all the tradeoffs that integrated amplifiers come with also apply to receivers.

Hi-Fi series 101 to be continued #

As said before, this is a massively simplified overview of the subject. We didn’t even touch the subject of separated power suppliers or monoblocks. I will leave this one for another day. I hope that you liked this a little bit unusual “Hi-Fi 101” post on my blog. I will deepen my knowledge in that matter so that you can expect more articles in the Hi-Fi 101 series. Until next time, stay curious 🔊

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