Amp vs Preamp

Good Memorial Day to all.

A brief question that I have wondered about with varying opinions offered in the past.

In general, which component adds more to the overall sound of a system; preamp or amp?



40 year audio veteran

both are important

think of it this way unless you have a dac used as a preamp

the preamp is the bridge between input and output so if you have a great dac or phono stage and a great amplifier if the preamp is not up to snuff you will dramatically curtail the systems overall level of performance


Dave and Troy

Audio Intellect NJ

In general, in my system the preamp makes more of a difference probably because my speakers are a relatively easy load, but in another system it could be the exact opposite.  In the end It really doesn’t matter — what matters most is that they’re balanced (one doesn’t clearly outclass the other) and that they compliment one another sonically.  That’s been my experience anyway.

I experienced a radical sonic change when I auditioned a Mesa Baron (amp) in place of my much smaller Cary SLA 70 (amp). The sonic change was not entirely positive, so I stayed with the Cary.

Later I did pick up a pair of ARC VTM120s (amps) and the sound was a lot like the Cary (both 6550 based) but there was much more sound, and I do not mean much louder. (I don’t have the ARCs anymore as I made a somewhat lateral move for a cary that was larger than my first Cary and more reliable than the ARCs..)

The amps in all of those applications were important to the listening pleasure I was experiencing.

Going back to the first three amps I mentioned (Cary, Mesa, ARCs) I ran them with a B&K digital HT preamp to begin with. In ’99 I paired the great sounding but unreliable ARCs with a Cary SLP90 (12au7 tubed preamp) and the transformation was remarkable. warmer and sweeter (for those that like that) and just way more musical and engaging sounding. A couple or three years ago I replaced (although I still own it) the SLP90 with a Cary SLP05 (6sn7 based preamp) and there was another remarkable transformation. Wider and higher sound with more air and detail but not as warm and sweet.

So based on my relatively limited experiences, I see them both as important to ultimately enjoying the sonic experience, but I suppose that if I had to get one or the other right first, I’d say to start with the preamp. Although that is opposite of the way that I went.

But good question, and not an easy one to answer with a one size fits all reply. In my opinion, anyway.

Yes both. But often the preamp is sited because it is further up the chain and anything lost or tipped in a particular direction is simply lost to the amp.

The preamp is about nuances and small signals… so you want a really good one. So, in this regards, most of us will choose the preamp first and often put more money into it. I think if you get the right preamp, it can easily out last many sources and amps. That has been my experience over the last 50 years anyway.

In my 2 systems I use a preamp that I wanted to add as little to the sound as possible. I let the amp, speakers, and sources dictate the sound. My preamps are the Holo Audio Serene and the Benchmark HPA4. Only way I do this now.

Depends how "juicy" your preamp is. 

An amplifier can be colorful, but it also has an interaction with the speaker load, so hard to drive speakers may sound very different depending on amplifier.

Swapping out very neutral performing preamps may do little for you, but going from a neutral to juicy/colorful preamp will seem like a big step.

Personal experience tells me there are so many factors that addressing the weakest link makes the most difference. Narrowed to preamp/amp again the weakest of the two being replaced gives the most benefit. The following can be a litmus test as to what factor one might see as the most important/critical in a system. For each of you I ask, what piece of equipment would you be most resistant to replace and what piece would you least like to see replaced?

For me a recently acquired preamp has made the most difference. Once the change was made the shortcomings thought apparent in my amp largely disappeared and the strengths of the amp became more apparent.


Experiences had of Pre -Power Amp combo's, strongly suggest from an end sound assessment  that a Power Amp' that stands out when matched with one Pre Amp' Type,  can be experienced to appear mediocre, a shadow of what it can be, if the correct match of Pre Amp' is overlooked.

Whether the Power Amp' of a different type is able to lift a Pre Amp's performance, that has not matched well to certain Power Amp's in experiences I have had, is an unknown to me. 

My experiences are that the Pre' is the enabler to that very special end sound.

No preamp still can work with PVC or TVC, but the volume range will be a lot smaller than with preamp.

It seems from the comments that the process is a bit of trial and error vis a vis matching Preamps and Power amps.  I suppose it might be easier to stay within the same lineage or company when trying to match the components.  Or at least using that as a starting point.

To me it is the preamp but of course the amp matters too. Common sense says get a good preamp and marry it to a good amp. ;)

 I suppose it might be easier to stay within the same lineage or company when trying to match the components. 

I think you'd be less likely to get a truly awful combination that way.  But that typed, I know that there are a bunch of members who report sublime sound by mixing & matching.  

@mpomerantz you match sensitivity of an amplifier to the output voltage of preamp and you match output impedance of your preamp to input impedance of poweramp.

There are also vendors that provide home trials. The preamp I use does that, the Benchmark HPA4. 

The Math used for matching is only that 'Math' it is not end sound.

End Sound is the result of how Upstream Electronics have processed a Source Signal, which is being transferred to a Speakers Xover, from where a conversion from electrical energy is to become mechanical energy and hence Sound is produced. 

I guestimate 99% of individuals with a keenness to experience recorded music through audio equipment, are assessing perceived quality, through the end sound they are exposed to. 


Both. A lesser preamp can limit otherwise stellar amps, and a great preamp can help a bit (but not fix) a lesser amplifier. I've recently upgraded my preamp (Aric Audio Motherlode XL), and 2 amplifiers (CODA S5.5 and Aric Audio Transcend "Push Pull".

As individual components each FAR exceeded my expectations, but driving the S5.5 and Transcend with the Motherlode XL was much more than the sum of the parts.....more of a 1 + 1 + 1 = 5 type scenario, which I've never been able to experience in my own systems.

I would say it depends on your budget. In the low end, amps make a bigger difference - with decent, quality preamps of course, not just anything. All in the $100-500 range.

To use a analogy (a horrible one 😂 stop reading here)

the preamp gives you a tennis ball, you hit it with a racket which is the amp, and your arm is the speaker, it will fly with the force you give it.

If your racket is full of holes, you can hit the prettiest tennisball as good as a pro, it will still spin off the course.

Sorry for my goofy mood today, I must be high on the stuff coming out from the news