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?



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.