Amplifier vs. AV Receiver – Which One to Buy

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Steve Scott

Updated on

As fabulous as home theaters might be, they do raise some questions and doubts along the way, especially if you're inexperienced or dealing with such a setup for the first time. 

Turns out many people struggle with even some basic issues regarding home theaters. Or at least basic to those who know a thing or two about these gadgets. 

One of the most common dilemmas you'll face as a new home theater buyers is whether you'll need an amplifier, or an A/V receiver.

You might not even know the difference between the two. Which comes as no surprise since these terms get thrown around pretty often. 

We're here to help you make an informed choice and to help you learn more about both. Here's a comprehensive guide to amplifiers and A/V receivers:

See Related: 9 Common Home Theater Problems

A/V Receiver – What Is It?

The easiest way to describe an A/V receiver is to say it is a component that receives signals (both audio and video) from various different sources and transfers them to other devices, such as speakers.

In other words, a receiver is a vital part of a home theater system. Check out our guide if you want to learn about the best A/V receivers.

The difference between a usual amp and a receiver is that, unlike two channels found on the amp, an A/V receiver can have many more different channels. The most common number of outputs are five and seven. 

However, receivers with nine, eleven or even thirteen channels are becoming more and more popular. A regular receiver can also deal with video data by using an HDMI connection. To see how many channels you need in a high-end receiver, check out this guide.

Although appearance-wise there are no significant differences between amps and receivers, there are some considerable differences in terms of functionality and added features. 

Chances are it would be hard to find features like room calibration, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity on an amplifier. The essential components of an A/C receiver are audio and video inputs and outputs, preamp, power amp and a signal processor. 

How Does a Receiver Work?

So, how does a receiver work? As mentioned before, it gets an input signal from a source, like a Bluray player, PC, gaming console, or any other. Learn more about some of the best Blu-ray players.

The signal from the input source is processed and sent to the monitor (if it's a visual signal) or the speakers (if it's an audio signal).

Receivers found great use in decoding surround sound, which is the best way to recreate a movie theater feeling in your own home. Check out this guide from Lifewire if you want to learn more about surround sound.

Since there are many different sound formats out there, you need to have a way to decode those formats and have them ready for output.

Meaning, you need to be able to transfer any analog signals into digital ones. And that's where A/V receivers do really well!

With an A/V receiver you can also shift between different sources, audio and video. All you have to do is connect all those sources, and then use a remote to switch between them.

You can go from one source to another any time you wish!

A/V receivers do not only amplify sound signals. They ensure that the audio signal received is sent to the dedicated speaker, no matter how many channels there are.

The Pros of Having an A/V Receiver

PROS

  • You can choose multiple input sources – Receivers are built to handle various types of inputs in many different formats. You can connect multiple devices of different types, there are no limitations. So, you can connect a PC, movie player, gaming gear and other available devices.
  • Change sources at your convenience – The best part of having multiple inputs is that you don't have to physically switch between them and unplug them manually just to use a different source. You have the remote to do all the work for you!
  • Amplifies signals – As covered before, a receiver has a built-in preamp functionality that amplifies the sound signals, and powers a multi-channel setup.
  • It makes things much less complicated – A/V receivers are an incredible bundle of all the things necessary for a home theater experience. Sound processors, amps, preamps and other elements are all included in a receiver. This makes the whole process a lot easier!
  • Surround sound – The best functionality of an A/V receiver is that it turns analog to digital signals and outputs high-quality surround sound

The Cons of Having an A/V Receiver

CONS

  • Price – With all those components and advanced features built-in it's only natural receivers are a bit pricier.
  • Complexity – The setup is pretty complicated, especially for first-time users.
  • They are quite heavy – Receivers tend to require some muscle strength. It is hard to move them around and you need to find a sturdy shelf or a cabinet to place them.
  • Repairs – The fact that receivers have so many built-in components and features makes it a lot harder and challenging to fix them.

Setting Up an A/V Receiver

If you're a newbie, you'll probably shiver at the thought of setting up a receiver. Just taking a quick peek at the backside of it can make you faint. All those output and input sockets are a lot to take in at first. 

To the untrained eye they all look pretty much the same. But in reality they all serve different purposes. 

So, the first step to properly setting up a receiver is to get to know what goes where.

The labels that tell what is what are there to make the job easier for you. But even with those labels, it can be quite confusing, especially if you are not 100% sure.

receiver-setup


All the video or audio sources need to be connected to a corresponding port, meaning that a digital audio port on the source needs to be connected to the same port on the AVR.

As far as the input sources go, receivers accept coaxial, optical and HDMI for audio, and HDMI, video-in and component video-in for video sources.

For output, you also have several different options. Video out, component video out, HDMI out, audio out and subwoofer are all available. You can also attach an Ethernet cable or a Wi-Fi and a Bluetooth antenna.

Even when setting up all the connections, the sound might be slightly off at first. To get better sound results you might need to calibrate the system. 

Luckily, many receivers come with an auto-calibration functionality built-in, saving you from having to do this manually. However, you can do that if you prefer to do things your own way!

See related: Best Home Theater Projectors

What is an Amplifier?

The amplifier is a component that powers the speakers. With it, you can control the volume level and select the audio source. 

The difference between the amplifier and the receiver is that the amp does not support additional features, like choosing multiple input sources.

The only feature available on the amplifier is gain or volume control. With those limited features, they are much easier to set up and to work with.

There are two channels available with the stereo amp, and those are left and right. Amplifiers are necessary to power headphones or speakers.

Passive and Active Speakers

But have in mind that amplifier is needed only to power passive speakers. Those are the ones that need to be connected to an amp to gain power, and cannot be connected directly to any other power source. 

Active speakers do not need to be connected to an amp. Active (or powered) speakers already have an internal amp that connects to a driver. Learn more about the differences between active and passive speakers.

The same goes for subwoofers. They are usually self-powered and also have an internal amp. All you need to do to get the sound from such a subwoofer is to connect a subwoofer preamp. 

However, there are also passive subwoofers which need to be connected to an external amp. But this amp is meant to power only a subwoofer and not the rest of the speaker setup.

active-and-passive-speakers

The Pros of Having an Amplifier

PROS

  • Easier to work with – Since amps don't have any additional components, they are much easier to deal with. Any troubleshooting or repairs would be much easier than on an A/V receiver.
  • Various control options – Although not as rich in features as a receiver, a standard amp will have controls for such options like volume, gain, low and high pass filters, and other.
  • Improves audio quality – this one is pretty self-explanatory. The sound quality will be much better coming through an amp, thus enhancing your overall experience.
  • More control over the other components – With pre-built units you'll sometimes get features that you didn't ask for. This way, you'll have much more control over what will go into your system.
  • Easier to upgrade – You don't have to change the whole system when you want to upgrade. All you need to do is change the amp.
  • Affordable- Receivers with multiple functions and components tend to cost more. So, standalone gear will be much more affordable.

The Cons of Having an Amplifier

CONS

  • Lack of added functions – What is perceived as a trait can also be a drawback. Amplifiers are pretty straightforward, without any added components, which can make them a bit dull.
  • You'll need more space – With all the separate parts of the system, you will have to provide more space to get the system up and running. All-in-one setup such as an A/V receiver takes up much less of your personal space.

Setting Up an Amplifier

In order to get the sound signals to an amplifier, you will have to get a matching preamp. This preamp (or processor) is the place where all your components (DVD, Blu-Ray, and others) will be connected. Check out our guide on Blu-Ray vs.DVD.

So, what exactly does a preamp do? Its primary purpose is to gather and process all the incoming signals. It passes them on further to the amplifier, which sends those signals to the speakers.

preamp-and-amp


Setting up that preamp is not something you should worry about. All you need to do is to make sure you are connecting all the sources to the adequate input sources. 

Most common inputs on a preamp are HDMI, coaxial, optical and RCA, so keep in mind that you need to use proper cables for every input. Likewise, you'll have to use the correct output port to connect the preamp to the amp.

Integrated vs. Power Amps and Preamps

It is necessary to distinguish integrated from power amps to make an informed decision about buying. While it's clear that stereo amps and A/V receivers are in fact both amplifiers, they do have certain differences among themselves.

Don't know the difference between preamps and amps? Take a look at this guide.

Integrated amplifiers have all their components integrated within themselves, like preamps or switchers. And we have a common name for them – receivers!

Those amps are usually less powerful than power amps but are much more convenient to use.

A power amp is basically what you imagine when you think about an amplifier.

Power amp, together with a preamp, receives an audio signal, and then amplifies it and sends it to the output device, or speakers. Musicians tend to use these amps the most.

Both of these types of amps come with their set of benefits. Integrated amps are much more simple. Everything is in one box, so you don't have to worry about buying a separate preamp and an amp. 

Having a separate system of two amps can have its own perks. Maybe you're one of those people who only want to upgrade one piece of equipment at a time.

Thus having two separate boxes is great! You could keep the one you are happy with, and upgrade only the one that no longer does the job for you.

Preamps and Power Amps for Hi-Fi Systems

Using a separate power amp/preamp system in creating a Hi-Fi surrounding will give you some control and let you have fun in finding the best possible sound. Of course, if you have the budget for it!

You could try out different components in combination with each other and see how they work together.

So instead of going with a stereo amp you could try pairing a power amp with a preamp, and see where it leads you. All you have to do after that is find a music source and connect it to the preamp.

The preamp will receive that signal transfer it to the power amp, which will in turn send that signal to the speakers. All you have to do now is enjoy the music! 

Preamps and Power Amps for Home Theaters

You could have even more fun trying to create a home theater with the power amp/preamp combo.

But you might not want to do that just because you're bored. Maybe you're disappointed with the sound quality from your A/V receiver. 

Or you might want to take more control over your audio. Bear in mind, doing this will make a big dent in your wallet. But if you're a movie buff and a true audiophile, you won't regret doing that. 

The first step would be to get rid of the receiver since it's not necessary for what you're trying. Instead, get your hands on something called a surround sound processor.

This is a fancy term for a preamp that deals with both audio and video. Don't forget, they don't come cheap, but the end results are amazing.

preamp-power-amp-diagram


After that, you will need a power amp as a bridge between the preamp and the speakers. Now, there are a couple of options available to you.

First, you can try some of the more expensive solutions and go with a dedicated power amp. 

Or if you're really up to spending all that cash, why not try to have one power amplifier for the left and one for the right speaker! Sounds crazy, doesn't it?

But it might be just what you're looking for.

Alternatively, you can go with a more budget-friendly solution. Grab a stereo amp and use it as a power amp. Not only are stereo amps a lot cheaper, but they can do a pretty good job in emulating power amps.

​In Conclusion

We have only scratched the surface with this guide. Literally, thousands and thousands of pages could be written about A/V receivers and amplifiers.

But now that you know a bit more, you can decide which is more suitable for you. In the end, the choice you make will be influenced by your intentions.

If you plan to make a Hi-Fi surrounding and setup, then an amp would be more than enough. You actually don't need more than a couple of channels.

On the other hand, if you wish to recreate a theater experience and watch your shows and movies with surround sound, then, by all means, go with the A/V receiver. Such setups require more channels and more speakers than amps can handle.

If you're setting up your system in a smaller space, you might want to go with a receiver since it's a lot less space-consuming than amps and preamps.

If the main issue is the finances than owning a receiver would be more challenging. It consists of many different components and features, so it's more difficult to upgrade and repair it. 

But in the end, the choice is up to you! Only you will know what you want to get as an end result, and your final decision will determine the kind of experience you'll get.

 

My name is Steve Scott. Father of 2 and owner of Outdoor Movie HQ. I’ve been involved in the A/V industry for most of my life and built this blog to help people better understand projector technology. Please leave a comment if you have any questions.

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