Are preamps or power amps more important?

July 13, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

14 comments on “Are preamps or power amps more important?”

  1. The whole audio chain is important; from power source & recording quality
    all the way through to tweaks & room treatment(s) for ‘evil’ rooms.
    As far as pre/power goes; toss a coin.

  2. As Paul points out, the answer depends on what you’re starting with. If the original system has a terrible pre-amp and an excellent power amp them it makes sense to upgrade the pre-amp first. If we respond to the question by asking which component has a bigger effect on the overall sound, then it has to be the power amp. My view is that any competent designer should be able to create a decent pre-amp. By contrast, it’s a much bigger challenge to design a great sounding power amp. The power amp has to drive a wide range of different reactive low impedance loads, with large currents flowing in the output stage, and generally aiming to be reasonably efficient.

    1. Interesting point. Maybe unless you have a DAC without a built-in pre-amp, for most DACs have an amplification stage. But not all, like the Chord Qutest. But if they have an amplification stage, then … which matters more: the DACs amplification stage, or the power amp?

      Or in general, what matters most in that chain: DAC or power amp?

      1. Well I would say the DAC but not everyone would agree and of course it all depends. If for example, your current DAC is of much higher quality than the power amp then you will likely see a greater improvement by changing the amp.

        It’s accepted that speakers have the biggest overall influence on the sound but it’s up to the individual how they approach system building. Spend a lot on one component, say speakers, and then improve the cheaper components as time and budget allow or build a balanced system price wise, which might well satisfy for longer, until the upgrade bug eventually bites. If you’re an audiophile it will.

        Things don’t always go to plan but if I start with speakers I would then go to the DAC, with volume, and then source. If you’re using cd don’t underestimate the importance of a good transport. I’ve always considered the power amp the least important component in a system having less influence on the sound but having recently changed mine I’ve been surprised, pleasantly, but it wouldn’t change my approach.

        If you haven’t got decent speakers and a decent source the power amp can’t give its best, but that’s true of every component in the chain, as already pointed out.

  3. It all depends on what kind of a sound you’re trying to get.
    But for the most part, I agree with Paul on this one.
    But if you have to start from the bottom, I would do this.
    Speakers, cables, power amp or amps, preamp, and audio sources, whatever you’re in to.
    Stands if you’re going for book shelf speakers.
    But if you’re going for floor standing speakers, don’t worry about stands.
    But for the rest of your equipment, a good equipment rack that’s heavily damped against vibrations.
    But any how, that’s my take on the whole thing.

  4. The interesting balance is in how much money you should put into each to reach an optimum. Let’s say you have 10k, to take a round number. Obviously both 9.5k preamp and 500 dollar power amp on the one side, and 500 dollar preamp in front of a 9.5k power amp on the other, will sound inferior to a system with both components at 5k.

    But where is the optimal balance point within that budget? Is it maybe 5k/5k? Or could it be 7k/3k, or the other way around? I read an experiment by a guy who had tested out on a 4k budget, and he found better results from 3k preamp and 1k power amp than from the opposite.

    But different people may have different experiences, and Paul might know a bit or two.

    1. Good afternoon Nyber!
      Grate point there man!
      Because when you really stop to think about it, that makes perfick sense.
      Lets just say, that you’re a Mcintosh man.
      You mite spend $9000 on a Mc-2150 all tube power amp.
      And perhaps maybe spend $6000 on an MC-22 all vacuum tube preamp.
      Ok, well and good.
      But how much money are you gonna spend on the right speakers for that system?
      Because, you’ve spent $12000 on the amplification.
      Should the speakers cost the same amount?
      Or, should they cost twice as much?
      Over all, I get the point!

  5. Seems as though we are missing the “SOURCE MATERIAL” here.

    Once one has their “System Dialed In”, 95% of one’s existing library will be found to be sub par.

    Therefore it’s important to only use only your VERY BEST “SOURCE MATERIAL” whenever attempting to evaluate changes to one’s system.

    The very Best Pre-Amp or Power Amp cannot make up for poor “SOURCE MATERIAL”.

  6. A ‘chicken and egg’ prospect indeed! However, given that you need to start somewhere, I’m for concentrating on the speaker end of the chain first. Before I explain why, I should declare that my opinion is based on my experience with fundamentally only one high-end system to which I’ve enjoyed listening for the last 20 years or so. Although some parts of the system have changed over time, the speakers and power amps have remained the constant. (Well, not quite true. The brand of speaker stayed the same but I have had one model update.)

    Back then in my mid-40s I had been a hi-fi enthusiast since my teenage years but was never really satisfied by the sound I was getting from the gear I had tried over the years. Being mid-way through my career, earning a reasonable income and having a good credit rating, I decided to splurge on a ‘complete’ high-end system. Not having a good knowledge of the market, I searched for and found a good dealer in Tivoli Hi-Fi in Melbourne to help me navigate the choices. They were immensely helpful in curating a system for me. Their emphasis was on the speaker/amp synergy. One of the recommendations of which I liked the sound was the B&W Nautilus 801s matched with the Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks. For no reason other than I liked consistency, I also chose the Electrocompaniet preamp and CD player alternatives to complete the system. The listening was heavenly. I thought surely you can’t do better than that! I was totally oblivious to the rabbit hole down which I had fallen.

    Some little time later, excitement from Tivoli about power regeration was gathering. Although skeptical (I also sensed a level of skepticism amongst the sales staff), I accepted an invitation to come in and listen to a demo. It was astounding! And so started my adventures with PS Audio.

    Briefly, other major changes in the last 10 years that have significantly improved the listening experience are upgrading the B&W 801s to 800 Diamonds, the addition of a pair of B&W DB1 active subs matched to the 800s, PerfectWave DAC (upgraded twice to the current DirectStream DAC) and, most recently, a Matrix Audio reclocker and protocol converter.

    Getting to the point I want to make with this story is that the resolving power of the speaker/power amp synergy has managed to survive the other changes I’ve made to the system. That’s why I believe that part of the chain is the most important.

    One more most important point (maybe THE most important). Don’t underestimate the importance of the room or space inwhich the system is located. I’ve learnt that from Paul McG and other learned members of this community. I believe their comes a point when no matter how much you improve your gear, the effects will be swamped or at least dimished by an inadequately prepared room. (That’s the situation inwhich I find myself at the moment.)

    My apologies for the long story but my hope is that it may help others in their deliberations and assembling or upgrading their systems.

  7. In my case it was the preamp that was the big improvement to my system. I had a CJ ET-3 SE and it just lacked the top end detail. My local dealer let me take home a Luxman CL38U SE tube preamp and the whole system came to life. When I owned the CJ I always thought that the album Black Magic Woman sounded flat. I thought it was a bad recording. My jaw dropped when it was through the Luxman. It was the icing on the cake for my stereo.

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