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Do You Need a Preamp for a Home Theater?

When it comes to setting up a great home theater system in your home, the electronics world can appear overwhelming. If you are like me, all the various technical components and specifications can become confusing. In my search for the best home theater system, I repeatedly came across the word “preamplifier”, or “preamp” for short. If you find yourself as lost as I was on the topic, then you’re in luck. This article is all about the preamp and whether you need it for your home theater.

So, do you need a preamp for your home theater? Based on the many different home theater systems available today, the need for a preamp is dependent on three main factors. The first applies to existing home theater systems. If you have a receiver, it is unlikely that you will also need a preamp. If you do not have a receiver, the answer depends on how many sources you will need to connect to. Finally, you also need to consider the sound quality you desire.

When I first began setting up my own home theater, I found myself constantly trying to figure out what pieces I needed and what worked together best. Depending on your desired usage and outcomes, as well as your space requirements and personal taste, a preamplifier may be a necessary piece of equipment for your home theater system.

What Is a Preamplifier?

Stereo Preamp

A preamplifier is a device that allows you to connect multiple audio or audio/video (A/V) sources to a single audio output signal. But what does that really mean to you?

A preamp is used to connect multiple source components, such as an A/V receiver (our guide), your compact disc player, DVD player, and Blu-ray player to a single output signal that can be controlled through an amplifier. (We will talk more about the differences between the preamp and the amplifier later.) When you use a preamp to do this, it allows you to switch between each of the source components seamlessly, with no need to disconnect one device to use another.

What Is the Difference Between a Preamp and an Amplifier?

As stated above and in our article comparing the WXA-50 and the WXC-50, the preamplifier turns multiple input signals into a single output that is sent to the amplifier. The amplifier, in turn, then sends this signal, as well as the necessary power to produce sound, to your speakers.

It should be noted that both the preamp and amplifier will need their own power sources. They are separate and distinct devices that often require the use of the other to produce a rich, quality sound. As such, if you opt for a preamp system, it is essential that your amplifier works with your selected preamp.

Why You Should or Should Not Use a Preamplifier with A Home Theater System

Now that you understand what the purpose of a preamp and amplifier are for your home theater system, you may be asking yourself why you should or should not invest in one. Let’s take a look.

Why You Should:

If you want a fully unique and custom home theater system that you control in its entirety, then a preamp/amplifier combination is the best choice for you. Why? By opting for a preamplifier set up, you will need to pick and choose each component for use in your home theater system. From the preamp and amplifier to the speakers and subwoofer – every aspect of a home theater system will need to be carefully selected.

For those looking to go beyond the standard 2.1 and 5.1 channel home theaters, the preamp solution offers much more. In fact, depending on the device you buy, you can expect even an 11-channel set up to produce crystal clear sound steadily. Certain preamps will also allow you to connect a subwoofer, making those deep tones even richer as your amplifier pushes sound through your surrounding speakers.

With some of the top of the line preamps, you may also be able to stream music. Wireless and Bluetooth capabilities, as well as HDMI, are all becoming more prevalent in preamps.

Why You Should Not:

If you are not quite confident in your ability to establish a working custom home theater, the preamp option may be a bit much. An A/V receiver is an electronic device that combines multiple functions in one box. Multichannel audio processing, video switching, and amplification are some of the standard functions of today’s A.V receivers. Modern technology has also made the A/V receiver more versatile, expanding their input terminals to support multiple types of sources, including RCA, HDMI and sometimes even USB devices. While not quite an all-in-one home theater, investing in an A/V receiver instead of a preamp combination is much simpler.

Pros and Cons of Using a Preamplifier Over an A/V Receiver

If you opt for using a preamplifier, you will likely need to purchase each component of your home theater separately. In doing so, there are a number of pros and cons you should considered before making this decision.

Pros of Using a Preamplifier Over an A/V Receiver

  • When you opt for the preamplifier, you have more control over every aspect of your home theater system.
  • The sound quality produced through a preamp/amplifier combination is often much richer than that of an A/V receiver.
  • Opting for a preamp expands your home theater potential from 5-channels to 7-,8-, or 11-channels depending on which model you buy. This means larger rooms will benefit greatly from the use of a preamp/amplifier combination. It also means that you have room to expand your home theater system over the years, although, before you do this, make sure you’ve chosen a room with proper lighting because it’ll save you a lot of time and energy. In case it’s too late, you could read our article on preventing excess lighting or our general troubleshooting guide.
  • Preamp and amplifier system manufacturers are often more clear and direct with their product’s marketing, leading to fewer disappointments. Power supplies for these types of devices are typically well developed and provide constant, steady power to each channel. On the other hand, A/V receiver manufacturers often rate their products on a 6-ohm load. (The standard for home theaters, however, is 8-ohm.) This can lead to a misunderstanding when it comes to the power being delivered per channel. In other words, that “160 watts” receiver you were considering may only provide roughly 50-watts to each channel instead. This is because their power supplies often begin to struggle when you go beyond one or two channels.

Cons of Using a Preamplifier Over an A/V Receiver

  • Because you need to purchase multiple components for use with a preamp, the A/V receiver is often the cheaper option.
  • An A/V receiver is more convenient; simply plug the device in and enjoy. The preamplifier option, by comparison, is much more complex.
  • The A/V receiver often takes up less room because of its multi-function capabilities.
  • If you are looking to buy used, older preamp standards may not be as great as the comparable A/V receivers. New models, however, have been doing a great job with keeping up with modern industry standard, including HDMI capabilities.

Related Questions

Can I Hook My Speakers Directly to My Preamp? Most preamps do not come with speaker connection terminals because they do not output any power. If you are serious about connecting your speakers directly to your preamp, you need to make sure you purchase speakers that are self-powered and include RCA input terminals. 

I Keep Hearing About a Control Amplifier; Is This Different from A Preamplifier? No. Preamplifiers go by many names in the electronics industry. Control amplifiers, A/V processors, A/V preamps, and preamp processors are all variations on the preamp.

Can A Preamp/Amplifier Combination Be Too Much for A Room? This is more of a personal taste question. Small rooms can be well supported through the use of an A/V receiver. However, as the space increases, the preamp/amplifier combination will provide a much cleaner sound quality. Does that mean a preamp is too much for a small space? Not necessarily. For those with auditory problems, the preamp may be beneficial even in a smaller area. For those who hear perfectly well, the preamp may be a bit overkill.


In all, choosing to use a preamp with an amplifier over an A/V receiver is a personal preference type of thing. Both systems will work well, it just depends on the level of control you wish to maintain when it comes to choosing the different components. Check out our article on A/V Receivers vs Amplifiers. This article will give you a better idea about the key differences between these two powerful devices.

Sam Weaver

Wednesday 24th of April 2019

It's good to know that having a preamp sound system for your desired home theater is a great choice to have especially when you want to have a fully unique subwoofer experience when watching movies at home. My husband and I are talking to have a small home theater at our house since we are both film buffs. Instead of spending too much money going to the cinemas, we want to watch movies at home as it feels more convenient and we get to watch the movies we like whenever we want. Having the best sound system will also add up to a greater experience. Hopefully, I can find a good home theatre electronic shop that has the latest equipment to offer.