The Difference Between a Preamplifier and an Audio Controller

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What's the Difference Between a Preamplifier and an Audio Controller?

Many people get confused when faced with the choice between preamps and audio controllers, because on the surface, they do the same thing. In fact, it can be argued that the preamplifier is a type of audio controller. There are many types of equipment that musicians and audiophiles use with names that can be interchangeable, which can be difficult for the buyer looking for one or the other, or something that contains both names. It becomes even more difficult when manufacturers combine different functions within a single piece of equipment that before were two or more separate components.

Preamplifiers and audio controllers can be found in most general electronics shops and music shops. The individual who wants a more varied selection always checks online listings, and Internet retail sites, like eBay, are some of the most popular for electronics and other audio paraphernalia. A buyer hoping for a successful purchase of the equipment he or she needs should know how to differentiate one piece of equipment from the other despite the many names, know the features of each, and be able to choose which options best fit their personal needs or situations.

What Is a Preamplifier?

To incontestably characterise one device in a way that does not confuse it with another, a good definition is needed. So what is a preamp? It is a device that generally is installed between the audio source and the power amplifier that is basically the loudspeaker. The audio source can be anything from a CD player to an electric guitar; the preamp can take multiple input devices. The job of the preamp is to take a low-level signal, such as that from a guitar, and enhance it to line level and ready it for the power amplifiers.

A preamplifier is simple in its construction, composed of three major parts: the input select switches, volume controls, and an amplifier for voltage. Most preamps are analogue devices and have stayed that way since they have been created. When the digital era came about in the 1980s, most people were content to use DACs or digital-to-analogue converters just to get their digital devices to work with preamps.

There are preamp-plus-amplifier combinations sold as a single unit, called receivers. But for better quality or higher-end sound and hi-fi applications, most people prefer to keep their preamps and amps separate.

What Is an Audio Controller?

Audio controllers are basically devices that are used to manage both audio input and output, much like a preamplifier, they can be used to control various aspects of the sound before it is actually heard. However, in many cases, controllers have more advanced functions than simply controlling the volume, tone, and various other signal processing, which is what regular preamps do. An audio controller can be used to process signals, mix sound, and more, including automation, sequencing, compression, and EQ. That is more control over the sound signal than any preamp can have, even when hyped up. Examples are the control boxes and consoles used by sound mixers and DJs.

Most audio production outfits purchase both controllers and preamps when recording or producing sound. Most mixers and advanced audio control devices do not control the signal voltage as well as a dedicated preamp, lowering the quality of sound coming out of the speakers, which is why discerning musicians, recorders, and audiophiles pair a good preamplifier with their audio interface device.

Types of Preamplifiers

There are several types of preamps based on how their circuits are constructed. Most audiophiles only bother with the two major categories, depending on which they think sounds better.

Tube Preamplifiers

These are preamps that use vacuum tubes to regulate voltage within the device. The way it is designed gives the preamp natural compression characteristics, which is one of the contributors to the high-quality sound signals that these devices produce. Tube preamps are known to give body and depth to a sound, hence the descriptions of tube preamp results as "warm".

Solid State Preamplifiers

Solid state preamps use transistors and op-amps, rather than vacuum tubes to increase the signal level. There have been many debates regarding whether solid state or tube preamps produce better sound, but it depends on other factors as well. For example, many people prefer tube preamps and defend their musicality, but a well-designed solid state preamp is sure to produce a better sound than a tube preamp that is shoddily made, the opposite also being true.


There are some manufacturers that offer hybrid tube and solid state preamp designs. Solid state preamps capture input signals better than tube, but tube preamps have better gain. Putting these two characteristics together, manufacturers hope to create a superior audio production unit.

Features of Audio Controllers

Digital and electronic technology is growing by leaps and bounds, the audio production industry is not lagging behind. There are many kinds of consoles, mixers, and virtual instruments out there. Options and features for audio controllers increase every year, and knowing which features are ideal for an individual's style of music consumption is beneficial when purchasing audio controllers and preamps.

Ease of Use

Even a simple mixer can have complicated designs. Audio controllers can be simple, and they can also be so complicated that only the experienced DJ can get the most out of them. A person who wants to set up a rock band in their garage, for instance, can do just as well with simpler interfaces. The more complicated audio controllers may even hinder the creation of good sound, especially if the band members have just started playing together.

Analogue and Digital

Digital audio is rapidly eclipsing analogue, which is a trend to look out for when buying sound enhancement, control, and production devices that are meant to last for years. In this regard, audio controllers have the advantage over preamps, most of which use analogue signals. There are increasing numbers of digital devices used in sound production as more people purchase digital audio.

Dedicated vs. Combination Units

There are many audio controllers that have increased functionality, adding the features of various devices like mixers and consoles into a single interface unit. Dedicated audio controllers control only one major aspect of sound creation and control. There are advantages to both. Dedicated units are often better made and higher quality, and combination or all-in-one units generally take up less space and are less cluttered. Also, as mentioned before, dedicated preamplifiers are better than many devices that have combined amplification and signal processing.

Buying Preamps and Controllers on eBay

Controllers and preamplifiers can be acquired in local electronics shops, though if you are looking for something that the shops do not have, then online sites can be your salvation. Retail sites, like eBay, are some of the most popular for electronics and other hi-fi equipment that cannot be had anywhere else. Navigating the eBay site to see what they offer is simple. Just get to the site and type the keywords or phrases for what you are looking into the search bar. You are sure to see thousands of results for just the keyword "preamplifier" or the phrase "audio controller". This massive selection can be narrowed down by using more specific keywords, like "new black RCA preamplifier" or something similar.

You can always narrow down a selection by using the site tools provided by eBay. They can filter out what you specifically do not want, or re-order the listings in a certain way. These are great tools if you do not have a specific item in mind and want to browse for a while to see the options that you have.

Just remember to evaluate both seller and product thoroughly. Preamplifiers are expensive, and digging into the background of the seller and the condition of the product protects your investment and helps ensure the seller you choose is reliable. In addition, make sure the courier and shipping company the dealer uses is reputable, and make sure you get your purchase quickly and in good condition.


There are those who use the term "preamplifier" to mean various incarnations of audio interfaces, like mixers, sound cards, and other audio control devices. The short of it is that the preamp is an audio controller, by virtue of them having the same or similar functions, and there are many types available. Preamps can be installed in various other audio control devices, like instrument panels or pedals. Others differentiate between preamps and audio controllers, as mentioned and demonstrated earlier.

A preamplifier is used to enhance the voltage gain of a signal to levels high enough to use in the power amplifier. By doing this, it also enhances the sound heard from the speakers, either with pre-determined calibrations or by manual manipulation using dials, buttons, switches, and knobs located on the preamp body.

Preamps and varied audio controllers can be found easily, physical shops and eBay are good places to start for the buyer wanting to break into the audio production and recording business, or merely if he or she wants to get the most out of hi-fi music and other audio.

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