If upgrading your stereo system is on your wishlist this year, pay attention to the differences between AV receivers and stereo amplifiers. While they both produce overall better sound quality, only one of them caters to music lovers.
Overall, the stereo amplifier is better than the AV receiver for music. Both products accomplish different tasks. AV receivers manage audio information to create home theater surround-sound effects. Stereo amplifiers, on the other hand, concentrate their power and task load towards detailed musical playback.
This guide will break down the features of AV receivers and stereo amplifiers and what makes them different. If you find yourself convinced that a stereo amp is right for you, keep reading for buyer’s tips, installation how-to, and product recommendations.
Table of Contents
How Amplifiers Work
In sum, amplifiers send music signals and amplify them on speakers. AV Receivers and stereo amplifiers purpose their amplifiers differently. How they utilize their amplifiers affects their sound quality. That’s why it is essential to discuss what amplifiers are and how they work.
The amplifier prototype, an electron vacuum tube called the “Audion,” was invented by Lee de Forest in the early 1900s. Engineers Irving Langmuir and Edward Armstrong refined the invention by creating the triode, an airless vacuum tube with three components. A platinum plate served as the positive terminal, and a cathode served as the negative terminal. Lastly, there was a platinum grid in the middle.
In modern terms, we would refer to the platinum grid as the input and the cathode as the output. The cathode receives power from heat, causing negatively charged electrons to travel to the platinum grid. Once the electrons reach the platinum grid, the current of the flow breaks and changes the electrons’ voltage. This process creates amplification.
It would take some time for amplifiers to become safe for use. The first, smaller device that made this possible was the transistor in 1947. However, modern amplifiers work similarly to their founding prototypes. These devices receive small electrical signals from an input device, like a TV or media player, and output an amplified version of the same signal.
The Types of Amplifiers You Should Know
There are all kinds of amplifiers out there. You may have assumed that amplifiers only apply to theaters and concert halls, but they are everyday devices. Even devices as small as hearing aids use amplifiers to communicate audio to the user’s ears. One common way of categorizing amplifiers is by function. There are several amplifiers in this category, but I will be focusing primarily on audio amplifiers.
Here are the audio amplifiers you should know:
- Preamplifiers: These amplifiers receive very faint signals, like mic-level signals, and amplify them enough so the power amplifier can consume them (line-level signal).
- Power Amplifiers: Power amplifiers add the power needed to amplify the line-level signals more, making them ready to be usable by devices like speakers.
- Stereo Amplifiers: Stereo amplifiers take signals from the stereo output, like a CD player, and send them to the speakers connected to the amplifier. Usually, stereo amplifiers contain two outputs for left and right speakers.
So if stereo amplifiers and AV receivers both contain amplifiers, how are they any different. There are a few differences that we will discuss in more detail. However, in terms of amplification, the main difference is that AV receivers manage multiple devices, visual and audio. Conversely, stereo amplifiers only focus on audio outputs. Their functions dictate how the amplifiers are packaged and used.
To see some samples of amplifier setups, check out TurboFuture: Wattage for Stereo and Home Theaters Explained.
The pathway is essentially the same; the signal moves from the source to the preamplifier to the power amplifier and arrives at the speakers. However, there are a few configurations of the same pathway. An AV Receiver contains the preamplifier and power amplifier in one unit. Stereo amplifiers usually have the preamp and power amp in the same console. Still, they can consist of two separate pieces.
Now that we got amplifiers out of the way let’s talk about what each device has to offer to music lovers and where they lack.
AV Receivers vs. Stereo Amplifiers: A Breakdown
The Pros of Music on an AV Receiver
AV receivers accommodate a lot of sources. And I mean A LOT. Let’s take a look at the back of this Onkyo (TX-NR696) receiver. Onkyo has been a favorite of mine for nearly 2 decades. The model just linked is equipped with a remarkable set of features and offers clear sound quality.
As you can see, there are plenty of inputs on this device. The system can accommodate six HDMI ports, an ethernet cable, a USB, and digital and analog sources. And those are only the sources you can see.
Many AV receivers provide wireless and Bluetooth connectivity. That is a lot of ways to listen to music!
Plus, while intended for home theaters, specific models can handle music very well. This quality rings especially true for companies that branched out from stereo amplifiers to AV receivers, like Marantz or NAD.
AV receivers provide channels for five or seven-speaker setups with one subwoofer. There are adverse effects to this, which we will address later. But if you already have a setup that uses many speakers, an AV receiver will meet your needs. Plus, some AV receivers have multi-room support. While this is a new and developing feature with its share of kinks, this could help you extend your music to other parts of your home.
In sum, AV receivers favor quantity over quality. These devices have more inputs, support more speakers, and can even play in more rooms. These features can cut back on musical quality. That may sound cheap, but it could be the right move if you would like to support multiple musical devices without constantly hassling with a stereo amp. It’s also a better choice if you already have a vast surround sound speaker system.
The Cons of Music on an AV Receiver
An AV receiver’s biggest strengths are also its weak points when it comes to playing music. Since AV receivers specialize in handling multiple tasks for a stacked home theater system across a higher number of speakers, their musical capabilities are hit or miss. The biggest shortcoming is the split-up of amp power, which is a must for listening to music, especially in large spaces.
First of all, an AV receiver divides its amp power across at least six speakers. What is worse, receiver manufacturers are known to cut the ratio of transformers to channels to reduce price while maintaining high wattage.
The best AV receivers pair one transformer to one channel transistor. Many receivers pair left and right channel transistors to one transformer. The worst component sharing offenders pair one transformer with all channel transistors. These models are the cheapest but provide the most inferior sound quality.
Plus, an AV receiver’s specialty is television and film, especially film that uses surround sound codecs like DTS:X and Dolby Atmos. Music recordings, unless they are from a concert film, do not utilize these features. While this quality may improve stripped-down tracks with that in-the-studio experience, most songs will suffer from the lack of amplified power.
So if you are someone looking for the concert experience at home, an AV receiver will not serve you.
The Pros of Music on a Stereo Amplifier
Stereo amplifiers are simpler devices. Instead of packing many features in one box, the amp provides straight-up musical power and clarity. Plus, one amplifier supports a maximum of two speakers, meaning more power goes to each speaker. While stereo amplifiers can sometimes lack inputs, they make up for it in better musical quality.
Take a moment to think back to the workload that an AV receiver does. Not only does it amplify sound, but it also manages AV devices, connects to the internet, and decodes surround sound, among other things. So the electrical power coming from your wall outlet is getting divided amongst these tasks. From there, the amplifier dispenses wattage between half a dozen speakers at least.
On the other hand, a stereo amp has one job: amplifying your music to play on your speakers. That’s it. There is no additional energy going to other functions. This matters, especially when you are playing music in a room that requires a lot of power.
If you are concerned about the low quantity of speaker accommodation, you have nothing to fear. In this case, speaker quantity certainly does not equal speaker quality. Home theaters benefit from multiple speakers because they disperse sound in various locations. That is great for home theater viewing, but it does not translate to music. Musical tracks benefit from heightened amplification that gives you more details at higher volumes.
Most stereo amplifiers come in a box that compacts the preamp and power amp. This bundling saves on space and takes the guesswork out of pairing the appropriate preamp and power amp. However, dedicated audiophiles can buy these amplifiers separately, adding even more quality to their music.
The Cons of Music on a Stereo Amplifier
A stereo amplifier may not be the best choice for you, depending on how you wish to listen to music. If you want to listen to your music from multiple rooms, then a multi-zone enabled AV receiver would be a better call. Or, if it is not practical to replace your surround sound speaker system or add dedicated stereo speakers, you should stick with an AV receiver instead.
Audio inputs vary by each stereo amplifier as well. Most do not include an FM receiver, although some can pick up digital radio. Wireless connectivity is also hit or miss. Bluetooth connectivity, for example, is not a universal staple of stereo amplifiers. If you are looking for a USB connection, they are not standard either.
Digital input is not entirely available in stereo amplifiers. On the other hand, analog connections are readily available. Stereo amps use RCA inputs that connect them to all sorts of players, even turntables. Purists will adore this functionality. But if you prefer streaming over physical formats like CDs, tapes, or vinyl, you may feel ripped off.
In my opinion, however, if you are looking for the best sound quality, not having a cavalcade of inputs is not the end of the world.
So Which Is Better?
If you are looking for the best sound quality, stereo amplifiers are the way to go. These devices are all about the music. A higher majority of its power goes towards concentrated amplification, which produces better musical sound. Plus, hardcore audiophiles will love the ability to connect stereo amps to older formats like turntables and tape decks.
Also, if you are working with fewer speakers, why would you spend money on a receiver meant for half a dozen speakers?
AV receivers can generate sufficient musical quality, but devices are hit and miss by genre and recordings. They are home theater systems designed to distinguish film and television sound effects for enhanced viewing. That is an excellent thing for watching TV, but it does not affect music in the same way.
However, if you are a tech enthusiast looking to manage all of their AV devices, a receiver will do. Just check for brands that emphasize music quality.
What to Consider When Buying a Stereo Amp
Have we convinced you to rock out with a stereo amplifier of your own? If so, there are a few things you should know before you pump those speakers up to eleven.
Note: Never play your speakers at max volume, it will damage your amp and your speakers.
Next up, a walkthrough of a few factors to consider when purchasing a stereo amplifier.
Separate or Integrated Amplifier Setup
Stereo amplifiers come in two flavors, integrated amplifiers and separated preamp/power amps. An integrated amplifier is more convenient since it contains the preamp and power amp in the same box. However, separated amp systems provide superior sound quality.
That does not mean separated amplifiers are the best option. The separated components can take up space and are tricky to set up. Plus, isolated preamps are very sensitive because of the sensitive signals going through them. Users like to separate their amplifiers to accommodate the excessive noise coming from the power amplifier. But is that worth fitting in two components from the same manufacturer no less? That is your call to make.
Choosing between a separated and integrated system will most likely come down to your experience level and how much space you have in your media cabinet. If you are a first-time buyer, we would recommend an integrated system to get you started.
Since your stereo amplifier is working directly with your speakers, you must confirm how well they work together. But how can you measure their compatibility? Here are some considerations for you:
The power provided by your amplifier is the best indicator of how loud your music will be. Power measures in wattage and different spaces require different amounts to fill the space sonically. Small apartments only require about 10W, but more significant areas may need up to 100W. Keep in mind that the wattage of your amplifier gets divided between the speaker channels.
Impedance describes the capacity to resist, or impede, electricity. The measurement of impedance, Ohms, ranges from 8 to 600 ohms. Knowing your speakers’ electrical resistance is vital for determining how much voltage your amp will need to work them. In other words, your amp’s voltage is the amount of work required to overcome your speakers’ resistance.
It is necessary to know what your speakers can handle and what they cannot. Sensitivity, measured by sound decibels (dB), dictates how much volume a speaker can take. Increasing sound decibels produces pressure. If you force a speaker to play more decibels than it can, the resulting pressure will damage the speaker. Practice caution and buy speakers that can handle more dBs than you plan to use.
For this part, focus on the rear panel of the stereo amplifier. This panel has all of the inputs and outputs that your amplifier can support. The rear panel will also indicate the possibility of adding upgrades to your amplifier.
First, let’s focus on what input devices a stereo amplifier can support. As mentioned before, analog connections are expected, including RCA inputs, which require high equalization levels. Three-pin XLR connectors handle the kind of balanced audio you would expect in studio equipment.
Digital connections are not as standard, but not absent either. Some amplifiers include them, while others do not. It is even possible to find stereo amplifiers with USB connections for listening from laptops, tablets, or smartphones.
Outputs are equally as important. Remember, a stereo amplifier is not capable of powering multiple speakers. However, it may be possible to add a subwoofer for powerful bass or headphones through a 3.5mm (.1 in) or 6.3mm (.2 in) port. Always keep the health of your amplifier in mind. Just because an amp can power multiple outputs does not mean it always should.
Lastly, while Bluetooth features are not standard, they are relatively common. It should not be hard to find an amplifier that can connect wirelessly to Bluetooth devices. Some amps even feature hi-definition Bluetooth audio, but we will get to that later.
How to Setup Your New Stereo System
So you bought yourself a stereo amplifier and speaker system, now what?
Place the speakers and audio components. Place your speakers following the space you will be listening in. There are a lot of guidelines to follow in this regard. For starters, keep your speakers away from the walls, facing toe-in to the listening area. Furthermore, set the speakers on a stand, so they are ear level without any obstructions.
Refer to the owner’s manual for component installation instructions, and don’t plug anything in yet!
Note: Save the boxes for any components and speakers you have not tested yet to anticipate returning any defective products.
Connect the speakers to the stereo amplifier. There will be outputs dedicated to the Main or Front speakers on the amplifier’s rear panel. That is where you will connect the left and right speaker channel wires for speaker phasing.
Connect any digital outputs to the stereo amplifier (if applicable). Older music players, like turntables and tape decks, usually rely on an analog connection over digital. However, CD players support an optical digital output or coaxial digital output. If your amplifier supports digital outputs, go ahead and plug them in.
Connect the analog inputs and outputs to the stereo amplifier. Stereo amplifiers primarily support analog sources. While not as straightforward as digital, connecting an analog source is relatively simple. You will make two connections between the devices: input and output. First, join the left and right channel inputs from the source to the amplifier. Then, connect the left and right channel outputs from the amp to the source.
Plugging in the components and testing the system. With the power off, plug in the components. You will probably need a power strip and multiple outlets available. Make sure to set the volume low before turning on your components.
From there, test each source individually for sound. If an individual source does not work, check the connection to the amplifier. If nothing works, check the speakers’ connection to the amp.
Stereo Amp Recommendations
Now you know about stereo amps! Do you have one in mind yet? Check out a few top picks of integrated amps, preamps, and power amps below.
Cambridge Audio CXA81 Stereo Two-Channel Amplifier with Bluetooth and Built-in DAC
Time and time again, Cambridge Audio comes up with superior products that break the conceptions of what to expect from a stereo amplifier. The Cambridge Audio CXA81 is no exception. Remember how stereo amplifiers usually do not cater to digital audio sources? This one defies that expectation.
This stellar integrated amplifier includes a DAC, or digital-to-analog converter so that you can listen to today’s newest audio formats. Plus, the device has a USB port that touts hi-res audio. And if that was not enough, the CX81 has aptX HD Bluetooth connectivity.
With an improved signal path and a slew of upgrades from its predecessors, the CX81 provides a beautifully clear and robust sound. The attention to detail is stunning and leaves no musical genre overlooked. You may think this unit costs thousands and thousands of dollars, but it retails just shy of $1500 (Note: prices do vary).
Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic Plus Digital to Analogue Convert
The DAC of the Cambridge CX81 is pretty impressive, but how about a DAC preamp? The Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic Plus offers just that.
The DacMagic is next-level technology. The preamp takes a direct digital signal from your source devices, overrides their built-in DAC, then upgrades the signal with ATF2 upsampling technology. The resulting sound would make you think your digital source devices were analog all along.
But that’s not all. If you purchase the BT100 wireless receiver, you can even convert music from a phone or tablet to an analog output. Now options previously unavailable on stereo amps are on the table, including streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and Amazon Music. With all of these capabilities under its belt, this preamp still retails at an affordable price. If you prefer a separated amp setup, this preamp is a must-have.
Cambridge Audio Azur 851W Power Amplifier
If you are looking for a power amplifier to pair with that DacMagic preamp, why not check out the Azur 851W power amplifier? The Azur 851W is a durable power amplifier. This big black box features 12 output transistors per channel, effective impedance buffering modules, CAP5 protection, and a highly competent all-metal chassis.
Plus, if you prefer a more specific coupling, this power amp pairs perfectly with Cambridge’s 851E preamplifier.
In short, stereo amplifiers play music better than AV receivers because that is their focus. An AV receiver separates its power between a multitude of features and a more complex speaker system. Stereo amplifiers focus that power from the source component to the speaker system. Some stereo amplifiers cannot support all of the devices that an AV receiver can.
However, there are products out there, like Cambridge Audio’s DAC, that are changing that narrative.