Importance of Amplifier versus Preamp?


New in the field. I am wondering what is most important: a great amplifier with a good preamplifier, or a good amp, with a great preamplifier? Or should I look at a good amp with a great do certain brands make amplifier to go with preamplifier and receivers?
Thank you kindly.
rockanroller
Your amp can't sound any better than what the preamp gives it. Consider the preamp as the heart of the system you eventually want and put the money there.
Pre-amps are far more important, can make a so-so amp sound
good, best amp in the world will only sound as good as the signal from pre-amp.
I like to have a great amplifier with a good preamplifier with same brand and generation.
The most important to remember that the goal is to increase your enjoyment of music. To me, I'm listening through a component that is going to make me happy, relaxing, and just settling into the music not the equipment.
IMHO, the preamp is more important, BUT the amplifier/speaker interface is more critical. Once you get the amp and speaker match correct, a fantastic preamp will make it even better.
My opinion is that a general purpose answer can't be defined. It depends on the specific components that are being considered, and also on how synergistically they match up with the speakers, the source components, and each other.

I would emphasize, though, that the amplifier/speaker matchup is one of the most important considerations.

Regards,
-- Al
Assuming your power amp has no trouble driving your speakers and it doesn't do anything really bad sonically, I would say that the preamp is easily more important. Just to give a rough example, if I had $5000 to spend on both pieces, at least $3000 would go to the preamp. Keep in mind, though, that this is very general info, and in audio, there are always some exceptions.

If you're on a limited budget and can't afford a really good active preamp, a passive unit is a great alternative. There's nothing worse than having to suffer with a cheap active line stage. Especially if you're new to high end. Chances are that you won't figure out what the problem is until after you spent a lot of money.
What Almarg said. Labels on components alone like "good" or "great" mean nothing. its only as good as the weakest link in the chain and each chain is different. Lots of ways to make really good chains. Start with getting a handle on teh speaker/room interaction including an amp well suited to drive the speakers. Then choose a pre-amp (if needed, not always anymore depending on what source gear will be used).

All these things alone will have a major effect on the sound. YOu have to get the whole puzzle right which means teh right pieces that match. At minimum, you need speakers, amp and one or more sources. Pre-amp these days is optionl. A passive pre-amp is another option that can work very well if done right. It all depends. Sorry, but if you really care about how things sound rather than just listening and being satisifed, this is what you are dealing with. Good news is if you like this stuff it may be a fun journey. Otherwise, not so much.
I think that Zd542 got it right. If I had a given amount of money, I would invest most of the money into a good active preamp, you can then fudge a little on buying an amp.

Then there is the crowd that think that buying both components of the same manufacturer will take the risk out of matching. This is true to some degree but then it is possible the mfg could excel in making better sounding amps then preamps or vice a versa. There is no substitute for years of knowledge/experience in matching and knowing what components sound good together.
I really wouldn't put much emphasis on whether the amp or pre-amp is more important. This is the grand voyage in the world of audio. You really are never done. You can take the advice of many and put more money into the pre-amp, only to find that the sound sucks because the amp isn't up to par or the amp to speaker interaction is bad. The way I have found that works for me is to keep within the price points of components and the recommendations of the manufacturers.

If you are looking at a particular pre-amp, the manufacturer will typically recommend some amps that work well with the pre-amp. Look at the prices of those amps, go audition other amps that are within that range, taking into account the speaker interactions and go for it.

For example, what amp does Audio Research recommend with their REF5SE pre-amp? I'm sure it is an AR amp, but, what is the price point? I have heard demonstrations of the REF75, REF150 and REF250 amps with the REF5SE pre-amp. But, I'm pretty sure the REF750 amp is recommended with the REF10 and 40th anniversary pre-amp.

Just a small example. I just know that it really comes down to what you like in terms of sound from each component. You may start out with components that are not really matched well in terms of costs and quality, but eventually, you will end up at the right level, because the sound just won't be right. One component just won't get you "there".

This is a dynamic hobby. I haven't seen one example (I'm sure they exist) whereby someone purchased all the equipment of the bat and each one worked for that person, without the need to upgrade to something else.

If you like mp3 quality recordings and don't care about excess compression, sound dimensionality, depth, etc., then any amp/preamp combination will do, because you won't hear the nuances anyway. But, if you do know, then you will hear problems and upgrade.

My advice is the select a price range you can afford for components, say, the pre-amp and amps are roughly the same price and start auditioning (hopefully in your home).

You may not need a stupidly expensive amp for your pre-amp because the speakers you have are extremely efficient, don't need massive power and interact well with your amp, so you can go with a very low power, lesser expensive (not all low power amps are less expensive. I know!!!) amp.

No matter what anyone says, YOU!!! have to pick a price point that you can afford first, taking into account the type of music you like, the quality of the music you like, etc.

take your time and enjoy the trip.
Great integrated amplifier....problem solved. ;^)

Cheers,
John
"
You may not need a stupidly expensive amp for your pre-amp because the speakers you have are extremely efficient, don't need massive power and interact well with your amp, so you can go with a very low power, lesser expensive (not all low power amps are less expensive. I know!!!) amp."

You're missing one point in that example. When you say that not all low power amps are less expensive. I know!!!, you have to ask why that is. When you use extremely efficient speakers, they demand a certain level of quality and experience matching components, or you'll have problems. You really need to know what you are doing when getting into high efficiency speakers. Wouldn't recommend that path for a beginner unless they fully understand what they are getting into, and have someone with experience to help.

You may not need a stupidly expensive amp for your pre-amp because the speakers you have are extremely efficient, don't need massive power and interact well with your amp, so you can go with a very low power, lesser expensive (not all low power amps are less expensive. I know!!!) amp.
IMO Minorl has made several excellent points in his post, but this one particularly deserves emphasis (although ZD also makes a good point in response, at least when it comes to speakers having especially high efficiency). For a given level of sonic quality, the price of an amplifier will tend to have a significant degree of correlation with its power capability, and with its ability to drive speakers having difficult impedance characteristics. So how a given investment in the amp + preamp should be apportioned between those two components will tend to depend on the efficiency and impedance characteristics of the speakers that are being used.

One important reason why, as I said earlier, that IMO a general purpose answer cannot be defined.
01-26-15: Wlutke
Your amp can't sound any better than what the preamp gives it.
This is true. But it is also true that the preamp can't sound any better than the amp allows it to. So the location of a given component in the chain is in itself of no significance, IMO.

Regards,
-- Al

The best ampith and the best preampith shall only be as good as thine friut.
Thy goodith music giveth and lousyith music takeith away.
And so shall it be. I have spoken :)
If Rockanroller follows all this advice he'll be out 100 thousand dollars. Misery loves company.
If Rock is all you listen to get as good an integrated
as money will allow, just make sure it is rated stable to 2
ohms.
Hey guys! You might note that he has previous posts seeking advise on how to select stuff for some Polk speakers he has already purchased. He is a novice for sure and might benefit from some really simple advise which will keep him out of a quandary (and 'trouble') would be most helpful.

If I had the requisite knowledge I would guide him towards getting a modest (price and quality wise) SS integrated, or a receiver, which would serve him well until he is financially and interest wise committed to really making an entry in to high end audio. I see pretty good stuff for sale used on many sites for $500 to $750 which would I believe would serve him well and eliminate all of the issues that would need to be addressed by an advanced audiophile. For example I saw a used Marantz 2265b for about $600+ on another site which had just been overhauled which I thought was attractive.

But, FWIW. You guys have a lot more expertise on these matters than I.
A good amp with a great preamplifier
I missed what speakers you have?

I'm not sure HE speakers makes choosing amps any easier. HE speakers tend to be sensitive to everything, including noise. It can be like listening under a microscope where any difference good or bad is apparent. It seems to me that those who go with the HE approach end up with perhaps the most expensive electronics as well before everything is good. Its true that not many watts are needed, but all teh rest probably matters more. IF using truly HE speakers that is.
Yes, getting an integrated means an expert matches amp and pre-amp for you. Assuming suitable speakers, nothing too challenging or esoteric, and not an unusually large room, you are probably good to go sooner and for less money than otherwise.
Newbee, thanks for pointing that out.

Regarding high efficiency speakers, I think that the point Minorl was making and that I was emphasizing would become clearer and less controversial if the reference was to highER efficiency speakers, as opposed to lowER efficiency speakers. For example, say 84 db/1w/1m vs. 92 db/1w/1m, those both being much more common choices than speakers having truly high efficiencies such as 100 db/1w/1m or more.

Using that example, and assuming that the two speakers have similar impedance curves, if the 92 db speaker requires say 50 watts to be able to produce the desired peak volume levels, the 84 db speaker will require 315 watts to do the same (assuming the speaker itself can comfortably handle that power level).

In general, it seems safe to assume that a 315 watt amplifier will usually cost dramatically more than a 50 watt amplifier, if they are both to provide the same level of quality. And the concerns that have been mentioned that are unique to "high" efficiency speakers (as opposed to "higher" efficiency speakers) would seem unlikely to be be particularly relevant at 92 db or thereabouts.

Regards,
-- Al
Both very important preamp more so.
The better highly efficient Class D amps out there today, and some are quite good, can deliver 500w/ch or more for comparable cost to lower power Traditional less efficient Class A/B or certainly class A amps, tube or SS.

So you can get efficiencies in speaker, amp or both these days.

Bottom line is you have to get things matched well to keep costs under control. I'd get speaker/room interactions right first using a suitable amp for the speakers, in order to be in a position first to access source sound quality meaningfully, and then tweak the pre-amp and source from there. How can one assess the sound quality of a pre-amp without the stuff downstream needed to make the music in place properly first?
There are some pretty good responses here on this subject. Sometimes we all forget that this can be pretty daunting and more so for beginners in the hobby. I guess that is true for most everything that has a "high end". Watches, cars, audio equipment, etc. You really have to know what you are doing to play and many people get so frustrated by some sales people (trying to get them to buy the most expensive items, or trying to clear out items without listening to what the buyer is all about), or "experts" that tell them to go for the very best, when they may not be there yet in terms of budget, or listening and appreciation levels.

But, I do appreciate the responses and the fact that people here generally won't look down on beginner's or snub their noses at them.

enjoy
If you are a beginner, tell ups how much you have to spend, what kind of music you listen to and what
your sonic priorities are and we can get more specific. Today there are many very good integrated amps (amp and preamp in one box) which will insure a good electrical match and save you the cost of an interconnect, if $$ is a factor. Also say new or used,
"01-26-15: Mapman
Yes, getting an integrated means an expert matches amp and pre-amp for you."

Not all experts are created equal. lol.
01-26-15: Mapman
The better highly efficient Class D amps out there today, and some are quite good, can deliver 500w/ch or more for comparable cost to lower power Traditional less efficient Class A/B or certainly class A amps, tube or SS.

So you can get efficiencies in speaker, amp or both these days.
True enough. But I think that a more apples to apples comparison illustrating the point Minorl and I have been trying to make would be comparing the prices of the Pass amps as you go up the line in power within a given series (e.g., X.5 or XA.5 or X.8 or XA.8). Or within the ARC Ref series of amps, or among Atmasphere amps, or any number of other such examples that could be cited.
Bottom line is you have to get things matched well to keep costs under control. I'd get speaker/room interactions right first using a suitable amp for the speakers, in order to be in a position first to access source sound quality meaningfully, and then tweak the pre-amp and source from there. How can one assess the sound quality of a pre-amp without the stuff downstream needed to make the music in place properly first?
Agreed completely.

Best regards,
-- Al
Of course, for the computer audio crowd these days, the rage is to remove the pre-amp and just have a good output stage and volume control in the DAC. This is basically the old passive pre-amp idea. I am still of the mind that the pre-amp matters, assuming levels and impedance match up OK. But lots of people are going without pre-amps these days. As to integrateds, one of the old standards the Naim Nait 5 is passive, it has no pre-amp state in it. They just concentrate on the power amp section.

Just wanted to throw in another option.
I believe the preamp is more important, this was evident as I moved up the food chain... most important though is the synergy between the preamp , amp and speakers. You can have great equipment that doesn't gel vs. very good gear that sounds right together.
01-26-15: Wlutke
"Your amp can't sound any better than what the preamp gives it."

Almarg -
"This is true. But it is also true that the preamp can't sound any better than the amp allows it to. So the location of a given component in the chain is in itself of no significance, IMO."

Regards,
-- Al

Al,

I agree. In the big picture, the weakest link is the weakest link, regardless.
However, signal error and noise in the preamp are facing downstream amplification. Better to rid the system of the error before it gets magnified in my experience.

Bill
"01-26-15: Dtc
Of course, for the computer audio crowd these days, the rage is to remove the pre-amp and just have a good output stage and volume control in the DAC. This is basically the old passive pre-amp idea. I am still of the mind that the pre-amp matters, assuming levels and impedance match up OK. But lots of people are going without pre-amps these days. As to integrateds, one of the old standards the Naim Nait 5 is passive, it has no pre-amp state in it. They just concentrate on the power amp section."

There's really nothing wrong going directly to an amp either. Its just a matter of how well its implemented and what you're personal preference is. I've been using Wadia CD players for years. I can get good sound with or without a preamp.

Your Naim example is excellent. If there was ever a case to be made about using a passive in a budget integrated, the Nait 5i I had was it. That thing was nothing short of a train wreck. One of the worst pieces of audio gear I've ever heard or bought. They just tried to do too much at that price point. Naim should have left it passive. Compare that to my Creek 5350SE that used a passive preamp in it
and there was no comparison. Even though both amps were about the same price, you would never know it based on SQ.
Interesting how much emphasis you guys are putting on Preamps. I always thought that the Amp was more important, but at the same time my system didn't sound right until I got a Lightspeed Attenuator.

I like the idea of only shelling out $500 for a Preamp that in my opinion just let the signal through with no coloration and not really lacking anything either. For someone like me it also opens up more $ for other things, usually amp.

I figured good source, going into a good dac, into a lightspeed, a good amp matched correctly to speakers, room treatments and you're good to go. Adding a $3000 preamp would increase my total system cost by 33%...

I don't get why preamps have to have source selections on them either. Seems like a waste for someone who is just going to be switch sources on an external dac anyways.

Interesting and very informative thread. Even though I have heard all this before, for some reason it clicked for me this time.

Someone made the point that you can achieve better results matching different manufacturers amp and preamp because one company excels in pre's and the other in amps; I like this idea and believe it to be true also,

Next question for me is what is lost using a Lightspeed vs a $3000 pre amp, and, what are the most loved pre amps by you guys? Tube?
My angle on this is that any quality combination of preamp and amp can potentially sound good if the 'tweaking' is performed with patience and perseverance. I believe we are in the 'golden age' of tweaking with so many solid choices.
I will even go out on a limb by saying that a system with the right isolation devices, room correction treatment, electrical conditioning, etc. will almost always sound better than another system thrown together at twice or maybe even three times the price. I think that in a sense, this thread is missing the point on where the $$ should be spent.
They are equally important .Your sound will only be as good as your weakest link.IMHO Of course!
My experience suggest source and preamp is where I hear the most significant differences. I submit the preamp is the hardest component to get right...at least that's what I'm going through at the moment.

Using the same manufacturer doesn't guarantee anything. I have a Parasound A21 and recently purchased a Parasound JC2 preamp. I thought that would end my quest, but I hated it. Going direct from my PS Audio Directstream was better to my ears, but something is still missing. My quest for the right preamp continues!
Rockenroller, where are you? You have initiated a good thread and have received much great advise and not responded with additional info in specifically helping you. Again what speakers and budget?
Thank you all of you Gentlemen and Ladies for the insight.
I feel like I am learning a lot about this magical world!
Here is my equipment:
amp: SAE 2401, vintage
preamp: Nikko Beta 2 , vintage
Sony TA77ESD, vintage
Yamaha CD300S cd player new.
cables from Blue Jean cables.
I listen to classic rock, blues, some classic.
as far as budget , I am looking at maybe another 1500.
All advice is much appreciated.
I generally agree with Syntax; great pre-amp and very good amp if a compromise has to be be made. In this case, however, I think an integrated really makes sense. There are some very nice tube and solid state choices listed here right now in the $1K-$1.5K range if you want to buy used (or new, the Wyrd4sound mINT integrated w dac and headphone amp is a new piece). Your speaker choice is very important in terms of going to tube vs. solid state amplification. Generally "speaking", speakers with lower sensitivity (listed in specs as dB/watt/meter or foot), those spec'd as nominally lower impedance (4 ohms or less) or with large variations in impedance with frequency, are better suited for solid state amps. Conversely, higher sensitiviy, higher impedance, more constant impedance curves are well suited for tube amps. Since you like rock and blues, I'm thinking that if you went tube, an "ultra-linear", tetrode or pentode circuit type would be more to your liking. They make more power with the same tubes and are often described as having more "drive" than triode circuits. For a variety of reasons, most people feel that tube "watts" are more powerful than solid state "watts". Of course, from an electrical standpoint, watts is watts, but to many people's ears, a 50 wpc tube amp would sound as powerful as a 100 wpc (or more) solid state.
Of course you want the amp and preamp to be faithful to the source but after using several preamps with my amp (McCormack DNA 125) I realized one thing quickly....that the amp was not the bottleneck. In fact that amp went through several upgrade phases and I felt no need to change it out. I used three different preamps and three different pairs of speakers during the time I had it. I have since replaced it with a pair of Quicksilver mono amps. Are they better ? In some ways yes, but that DNA 125 was a great amp.
Its more useful to discuss the order in which one tackles these things.

For best results fastest, you always want to get the biggest issues resolved first.

That is the amp/speaker/room domain That makes it very important to get this area all right together first.

Only then you are in a position to judge whats upstream further for its "sound quality", much of which is a very personal and highly subjective decision making process, hence the interest shown there by many.

But first thing is first. Tackle the biggest issues first! That's basic engineering best practice. You have to get the biggest nuts and bolts right first before sweating the details, no matter how important those are as well. In the case of a home audio system, that is the amp/speaker/room "subsystem".

Other ways might work out in the end but will take longer and likely end up costing more total.

In some cases, like with a single source with volume control, you could well end up with no pre-amp. Or if more than one source, possibly an inexpensive passive pre-amp that frees up money for elsewhere where truly needed.
01-27-15: Rockanroller
as far as budget , I am looking at maybe another 1500.

I said it before, and I'll say it again, integrated amp.
It will work better at your level, $1500, and a whole lot more.
With a limited budget and modest expectations as already established by your selection of speakers (I'm not suggesting that your Polks are a poor choice, Polk actually puts out some good speakers at a reasonable price) it would appear to me that you are locked into an integrated amp or a receiver. The big difference with a receiver and an integrated amp is the inclusion of a phono stage and an AM/FM tuner in most receivers. Additionally most receivers will also include tone controls, which if properly implemented and used, can compensate for some room problems (often no more than those caused by speaker placement often too close to a wall behind them), or source, or component matching issues. Line stages are very popular now but they can be rather limited in the functions they include, and usually cost more, but will probably offer you better sonic possibilities if you don't need the stuff I mentioned that a receiver can.



Now, for someone to comment further on integrated amps which you might be able to use, you will have to furnish some information about the speakers. Polk has many models and I'm sure that their nominal impedence and efficiency will differ substantially. You should supply the model number and these spec's.

It might also be helpful if posters were to know what your long range goals are, assuming you have them at all. Lots of folks are quite satisfied with modest systems and would rather spend their time and money on software once they have reached a certain level (and some want SOTA systems so long as they are on the cheap, so to speak:-). Unfortunately they don't!) Think about it, you could save a lot of time and money over the long haul by being realistic about what you really want or need, and how much money you can really chase after it.
therefore the question becomes: for a limited budget, I have looked and purchased vintage equipment because the idea was that the vintage equipment was better engineered/constructed that a lot of equipment made today, for 1/10 of the price of today equipment.
As far as the polk speakers,should I get other speakers? what do I need to look for. Just so everyone remember,at my age, my auditive range is probably 90 % of what it was when I was 20, so my ultimate goal is a sound that is clean, with an emphasis on mid range, and just enough bass to be balanced. Hope this make sense.
Speaker specs: Monitor 75 T/•1-inch (25mm) silk/polymertweeter/•Four 6-1/2-inch composite drivers/frequency response:30Hz - 25kHz /
thank you for your input.
We can't hear your system. Turn it up some! :^)

Seriously, have you done everything you can to get what you have set up best? Have you started to listen critically? How does it sound? Does it need to change? If so what are your goals for the sound that are not being hit currently?

Gotta know the goal first. Its hard to offer totally reliable advice over the internet without the ability to hear the subject. Even if someone had the same combo of gear in exactly the sme working order, every room is different.

One thing for sure, its best to try to always try to identify the weakest link make one change at a time, and take time to evaluate well before doing anything else.

Vintage gear may offer the best value in some cases but not always. It all depends.....
The Polk web site specs that speaker @ 90 dB (hopefully per watt per meter, but no detail) and the nominal impedance as 8 ohms. Without seeing the impedance curve, it's hard to be sure, but it's likely that it would be a good candidate for moderate powered tube amplification or solid state. If vocal/midrange is a priority, an EL-34/6CA7 tube amp with 2 tubes per channel that operated in ultra-linear mode, or maybe a pair of KT88 or equivalent per channel.

If it seems like I am pushing tubes, you are right. If the speaker has been designed to be compatible w tubes (see my post above) then I think they sound most like real music. YMMV.
I believe much of the "importance" of the preamp ideally would be seeking its negation as a separate component. I'd try out a fully integrated solution like the Devialet 120, or carefully seeking the match a power amp with a combined DAC/preamp. Especially with a sole digital source it'd make more sense.
Your list of the equipment you presently have includes two preamps, one of which can accept a coaxial digital input as well as analog inputs. And your CD player provides a coaxial digital output as well as analog outputs.

So the system can be configured in at least three different ways:

1)CDP analog outputs to Sony Esprit preamp to SAE power amp to speakers.

2)CDP analog outputs to Nikko preamp to SAE power amp to speakers.

3)CDP digital output via a digital cable to Sony Esprit preamp to SAE power amp to speakers.

Have you compared sonics for each of these configurations? It seems to me that the existence or non-existence of differences, and their magnitude and character if there are differences, might provide some clues as to what the weak link in the system may be, from your individual perspective.

Also, after doing some research on all of the components you listed, while I certainly can't definitively pinpoint a weak link, I'll say that the SAE power amp and the Sony Esprit preamp seem like impressive beasts relative to the other components. And although on many occasions here I've cautioned people against assuming a high degree of correlation between performance and price, I think it's noteworthy that those two components sold for well over $1K in 1980's dollars, while the Nikko sold for less than 1/4 of that amount around the same time, and the Yamaha sells for $300 today.

Provided that you have confidence in their condition, and pending your answer about a comparison between the three configurations, and given your $1500 budget, my instinct would be to direct the investment to something other than a replacement for the SAE and the Sony. So in addition to the possibility of a speaker upgrade, you may also want to consider a CDP upgrade, including the possibility of one having a tube output stage.

And one thing I would most certainly NOT do is choose how to allocate the $1500 based on generalized notions of the relative importance of preamps, power amps, or other kinds of components.

Good luck, however you decide to proceed. Regards,
-- Al
Thanks for getting back to us. I really can’t provide better advice than that provided by Al’s post of 1/27. Only other consideration might be to consider the purchase of a DAC which would allow additional flexibility for other digital sources down the road. Either way, I would consider upgrading the speakers first.
Definitely play around with the various ways identified to hook the gear up. Listen and compare. Only once you have it set up the way that sounds best should you consider any next steps, if still needed.
If you decide to go the tube integrated route, here is a very modest cost way to give it a try:
http://app.audiogon.com/listings/tube-audio-space-as-3i-integrated-el-34-tube-amplifier-in-factory-box-2015-01-28-integrateds-80020-broomfield-co.
No relationship to seller, never heard the amp, etc., etc.
Therefore, after all those advices, the quandary becomes: I will keep the Sony and the SAE ,but I need to upgrade the speakers.
What would be good floor standing used speakers for $1000?
Should I go vintage, or current? Hum.........
Apologies if this is just too far off your initial inquiry, but maybe the amp/pre are fine. For $1500 you could have a really good front end--Used Windows laptop ($300-$400,) jRiver software (on sale today for $44.98,) Wireworld Starlight USB cable ($100,) and a used Benchmark DAC1 ($500), and you still have $500 for great source material.

This would position you towards the future of hi-res, and also Internet Radio and perhaps Tidal.

Buck for buck, for me this was the greatest improvement in sound quality, access to music options, and even reduces the cost of feeding it.