Power amps have been around for many years, and they were the standard devices used to drive speakers. Quite recently, integrated amps came into the scene, and they are gradually replacing power amps.
However, many people don’t know the difference between a power amp and an integrated amp and which one to go for. And that’s why I wrote this article.
At the end of this article, you should know the difference between a power amp and an integrated amp, the pros and cons of going for one over the other, and which one you need for your audio setup.
What is a Power Amp?
A power amp is a device that amplifies a line-level audio signal to a speaker-level audio signal to drive speakers.
Speakers require very strong audio signals to drive them. This type of audio signal is known as a speaker-level signal.
Unfortunately, many audio devices can transmit line-level audio signals, which is a weaker audio signal compared to speaker-level signals, and they can’t drive speakers. For this reason, you’ll not hear any sound when you play a line-level audio signal through a speaker.
This is where power amps come in. Power amps receive a line-level signal, usually from a preamp, and then boost it into a much stronger speaker-level signal. The strong speaker level is then sent to speakers.
It increases the power, voltage, and current of an audio signal to a level where it can drive loudspeakers efficiently.
What Is an Integrated Amp?
An integrated amp is primarily an audio device with a preamp and power amp built into one unit.
Integrated amps mainly have two sections – the preamp section and the power amp. The preamp receives a very weak audio signal from an audio device, such as a turntable, FM/AM receiver, or a DAC, and then boosts the signal into a line-level signal.
This line-level signal is then sent to the power amp section of the integrated amp. And then, the power amp section also amplifies the signal into a very strong audio signal known as the speaker-level signal.
The speaker-level signal can then be sent to speakers to drive them.
Now, modern integrated amps have more features as part of their basic functionality. Some integrated amps come with a built-in DAC and multiple input options with an input selector, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi functionality, etc.
Difference Between Integrated Amp and Power Amp
An integrated amp and a power amp are quite similar since they perform the same primary role of amplification. However, some key variables distinguish an integrated amp from a power amp.
A power amp is a standalone audio unit. This means it contains a single audio component in its housing. Due to this, a basic power amp performs only one function, that is, the amplification of an audio signal to drive speakers.
With an integrated amp, the situation is different.
An integrated amp is not a standalone audio unit. Just as its name suggests, it is a two-component audio unit. Two audio devices have been integrated into one unit.
An integrated amp unit combines the functions of a preamp and a power amp. Integrated amps are built to have extra circuitry for their preamp. This preamp circuitry has a gain knob and sometimes a volume control.
This enables you to control the volume of an audio signal that is passed through an integrated amp.
Unlike integrated amps, you cannot control the volume of an audio signal that is sent through a power amp.
Also, even though an integrated amp combines the functions of a preamp and a power amp, a standalone power amp unit provides speakers with much greater power than integrated amps do.
Due to this, power amps can usually drive large speakers and subwoofers efficiently that cannot be driven efficiently by integrated amps. Integrated amps are less powerful than power amps. Thus, audio signals that are boosted by integrated amps are not as strong as those boosted by power amps.
Which is Better: Integrated Amp or Power Amp?
If you’re looking for one device for all your audio needs, then integrated amps are better than power amps. It’s cost-efficient and easy to set it up. However, power amps are much more efficient and better for driving bigger speakers and subwoofers when combined with a standalone preamp.
One of the main advantages of an integrated amp is that you have a single unit that does all the jobs you require. It does the job of both power amp, and preamp separates.
Unfortunately, the circuitry of a preamp is more delicate than that of a power amp. Therefore, since an integrated amp contains preamp circuitry, this makes integrated amp units more delicate than power amp units.
Since power amps are a single unit, their circuitry has not been attached to another unit. Thus, they do not have any additional component that can add any distortion or interference to the audio signal that passes through them.
Due to this, a power amp introduces little to no amount of interference into the audio signal it transmits.
However, this is not the case with integrated amps. The preamp and power amp sections of most integrated amps draw power from the same power supply. Also, the preamp and power amp circuitry in integrated amps tends to be closer together.
All these make integrated amps’ preamp and power amp circuitry more susceptible to interference and noise. Thus, audio signals carried by integrated amps are more likely to be affected by noise and interference than audio signals carried by power amps.
What this means is, ultimately, the quality of audio output from power amps tends to be much better than that of integrated amps. This is why audiophiles usually choose a power amp/preamp combination over an integrated amp.
In fact, it has been well established that hi-fi systems that produce the best sound have every component separate from the other. I have an article titled “Integrated Amp Vs Separates,” which talks more about this. You should give it a read.
Can You Use an Integrated Amp with a Power Amp?
You can use an integrated amp with a power amp. You can do this by plugging the power amp into your integrated amp’s preamp output. This will enable audio signals to be sent directly from your integrated amp’s preamp to the power amp.
Using your integrated amp with a power amp comes with lots of advantages. Doing this can help you generate greater power to drive your speakers.
If you’re looking to drive bigger speakers that require more power than your integrated amp’s power amp can supply, then using an external power amp with your integrated amp is something you can definitely consider
Adding a power amp to your integrated amp increases the signal strength of your audio signals exponentially by stepping up the voltage and current. This provides you with enough power to drive bigger speakers.
Also, using your integrated amp with a power amp helps to improve the sound quality generated from your audio system.
Even though using your integrated amp with a power amp comes with lots of positives, it also has its negatives. Using your integrated amp with a power amp can open your system up to some problems.
Some of these problems include the generation of unwanted background noise inside your audio signal and loud distortion from speakers. To learn more about why these problems can arise when you use your integrated amp with a power amp, read this article.
Unfortunately, not every integrated amp allows you to connect a power amp to it. Many integrated amps don’t provide you with a preamp output (or Pre Out).
With these integrated amps, the preamp section is connected to the power amp section internally. There is no way you can connect a standalone power amp to the integrated amp’s preamp section.
However, there are still some integrated amps with preamp outputs. In fact, I have an article that discusses five of the best integrated amps with pre-outs. You should definitely check it out.
In summary, an integrated amplifier is an amplifier unit that comes with a preamp, tone control, and a power amplifier. On the other hand, a power amplifier is an amplifier unit with no preamp and tone controls.
The job a power amplifier does is to amplify the audio signals that pass through it. An integrated amp does the same thing and more. With an integrated amp, you can also regulate the tone of the audio signal. However, power amplifiers do a great job at amplification than integrated amps do.