When you assemble your audio system, you will come across two units for amplifying sound: preliminary amplifiers (preamps) and amplifiers (power amplifier/amplifier). Although these accessories sound similar, they are functionally different. However, one can combine a preamp and an amp into a common unit, known as an integrated amplifier.
Whether you’re setting up a home studio or a professional one, it’s important to understand the preamp vs. amp differences. Knowing their differences and uses will help you to decide if you need one or the other or both.
In this post, we have covered everything you need to know!
What is a Power Amplifier?
A power amplifier refers to a section present in guitars that amplifies the sound. When you think of the signal chain in the system, the power amp comes towards the last stages, which impacts your guitar’s sound. Most of the guitar amps come with an inbuilt power amp. This ensures that they are compatible with other gadgets and work in sync with the speaker cabinet.
A power amplifier enhances the incoming signal quality from a preamplifier. It transmits the same to the speaker systems. Therefore, an amplifier is primarily to boost the sound wave to a higher level. As a result, the connected speakers would reproduce the sound with adequate volume.
In power amplifiers, settings and volume control are absent. Therefore, you need to make all types of adjustments at the preamplifier. The power amplifier keeps operating at its optimal power.
What is a Pre-Amplifier?
A preamplifier’s function is to transform weaker signals into significantly stronger ones. Generally, in studios, pre-amplifiers find their place under the sound source. As a result, they can catch the signal instantly.
Then these devices transfer the signal without making any change to a power amplifier. These weak signals usually come from sound players, receivers, pickups, and microphones.
You need to use a front panel to tune up and control a preamp. This is one of the fundamental differences between a preamp vs amp. There are connectors present for syncing the gadget with microphones, amplifiers, and record players on the backside of this device.
Presently, you will come across different models of preamplifiers available on the market. When exploring these models, you will come across several sound options. Besides, the reputed manufacturers have integrated these devices with knobs.
As a result, the users can seamlessly increase or decrease the timber volume or make necessary adjustments in the frequencies.
Different Types of Preamps Available on the Market
Broadly speaking, you will come across three types of preamps on the market:
- Individual preamps
- Audio interfaces and mixer preamps
- Guitar preamps
Let’s take a close look at each of these gadgets.
Individual preamps are available as separate gears and their distinct user interface and power supply. Users love individual preamps due to the warmth of their vintage sound. However, these preamps cost a lot and are not ideal from an economic perspective.
However, if you are looking for a vintage experience in vocals or any other instruments, it would be a good idea for you to go for individual preamps.
In a nutshell, individual preamps refer to analog devices consisting of transmitters. Other analog components are also present in these gadgets to generate an analog essence in the sound.
Audio Interface and Mixer Preamps
Audio interface and mixer preamps come in the second position in terms of utility. In these gadgets, you will come across two audio interfaces that are built into these systems. These interfaces are produced by combining digital and analog components in the system’s circuit.
Thanks to this sophisticated mechanism, audio interface preamps produce a clear sound. However, no additional analog is present in the sound. Since these preamps have inbuilt audio interfaces, people use them extensively. This may not be the ideal choice for pro-recordists since they lack the quality analog essence.
Some of the modern electric guitars come with guitar preamps. These preamps operate on batteries. The prime utility of these preamps is to boost the signal from weaker to the line level.
Contemporary guitarists prefer purchasing these instruments with inbuilt preamps due to two prime benefits:
- The process eliminates the requirement for an audio interface preamp or a separate preamp. In case a shortage of preamps arise, you need to plug the instrument into the normal input. This would generate an impressive sound quality.
- These preamps come with analog components. Therefore, they generate warmer vintage sound, which musicians generally like.
Preamp vs. Amp: Key Differences
- A preamp’s function is to empower the weak output signal of your guitar to line level. On the other hand, a power amp is designed to boost that signal to a larger extent. As a combined result, this sound is projected as a comprehensive output sound through the speakers.
- You may be wondering whether two distinct amp sections are necessary to bolster the signal tone of your guitar at the first stage and then again. Technically speaking, this is not required.
However, these two components are placed apart as the large transformers in the power amp produce a lot of noise and get hot with use. This might interfere with the installed preamps. In most of the branded products on the market, the power amp sections come with tubes.
- While comparing a preamp vs. amp, this is another difference you’ll notice. In preamps, the 12AX7 tubes are available universally. However, in amps, the designers incorporate different types of valves. In these valves, they can eventually integrate the power amps.
Given that an amplifier lies in the final stage of sound output, the tubes present can broadly impact the amplifier’s overall feel.
Should You Buy a Preamp or an Amp?
Choosing between a preamp and an amp is entirely dependent on your needs. The sole purpose of a power amplifier is to increase the input signal’s overall level of power.
The process involves a significant amount of power, and the gadget has to handle a large amount of current. On the other hand, preamps serve a different purpose. You will get to know the features you should look out for when you purchase these accessories.
Key Features of a Power Amplifier
The power output in an amplifier correlates to the loudness of the music you’re playing. The larger the room size or the speaker, the more power you would require.
On average, 10 Watts would be ideal, while the maximum limit would be 100 Watts for larger event spaces. While purchasing these accessories, check out the speaker’s sensitivity, as they can make a big difference in the power output.
Harmonic Distortion and Noise
The combined impact of harmonic distortion and noise would help gauge the device’s effect on output sound. If the sound distortion is more, this means that the sound would have more coloration.
Ensure that the numbers are lower, so the amplifier delivers a sound that closely resembles the original recording. Remember, speakers largely impact the sound quality.
Crosstalk refers to a measure of the extent to which left signals get mixed with right output, which is, of course, undesirable. It becomes increasingly challenging to choose the studio’s instrument position with greater crosstalk.
Key Features of a Preamp
Here are some of the basic elements to check when you purchase a preamp:
- What will you attach the preamp too, and how will you integrate it into the existing system
- Whether or not you want additional controls for shaping your sound on the preamp mic or simply mic gain
- The number of channels of preamplification necessary
- Whether it would be more efficient if you use a channel strip with an inbuilt compression and EQ
When to Consider Purchasing Both a Preamp and Amp
Preamps and amps have their specific functions and features, some of which are mutually exclusive.
It would be ideal to purchase a preamp to control the amp’s overall volume. If you are looking for a superior vocal experience, you need to get both of these gadgets. Remember, each of these gadgets has a specific role in ensuring the hassle-free and smooth functioning of your audio system.
Most of the preamps come integrated into the audio interfaces in the present sound systems. Hence, you may not need separate preamps for instruments and mics. However, if you want to experience quality analog sound, it would be wise to get a separate preamp.
Based on everything we’ve shared above, we hope you now have more clarity on what a preamp vs. amplifier is, its distinctive features, and what to buy based on your needs!