Whether you’re just getting started in the world of vinyl or have been listening for years, phono preamps can be one of the more confusing elements of turntable setups. A record player can come with a built-in preamp, so what’s the deal with people buying an external phono preamp?
As most things with turntables tend to be, there’s no “right” answer – just solutions that best fit your style and listening habits. However, if you’re considering purchasing a phono preamp for yourself, you came to the right place. Let’s dive into what these systems do and why you might need a phono preamp.
What is a phono preamp?
A phono preamp, or phono stage, is an electronic audio device that amplifies the PHONO signal coming from a turntable to line level (sometimes known as aux level), which is an audio level that most stereos and sound systems are used to receiving.
When your turntable cartridge rides along the grooves of your vinyl records, it picks up and passes a phono output signal. Without amplification, the signal from the turntable would sound extremely quiet.
Phono stages with either vacuum tubes or transistors to amplify the sound so your stereo and speakers can accurately play at a listenable volume.
Is a preamp necessary for a turntable?
Some sort of phono stage or preamp will be necessary to properly play vinyl records. That doesn’t always mean you need to buy an external preamp. Some turntables and stereo receivers come with a built-in phono preamp, while some do not. If it’s the former, the choice is yours if you want to purchase a standalone preamp.
While you don’t need a preamp to produce decent sound quality, a high-end external preamp can drastically improve sound quality if the preamp built in your turntable or stereo system is of lesser quality.
How do I tell if I already have a phono preamp?
Phono preamps or phono stages can be included in systems in a variety of ways and often come pre-built into various audio components like a turntable or sound system.
If you already have a phono stage, improving your sound is usually better tackled at the turntable, cartridge, and speakers first – then revisit your phono preamp to tie everything together.
Assuming you don’t have an external box with a phono input, output, and ground knob, what are some other audio components that might have a phono preamp built within?
Turntables with a built-in preamp
Many turntables, especially modern ones, have built-in phono. These turntables will usually have a switch on the back that indicates “Phono / Line.” This is a clear indicator that your turntable has a built-in phono stage.
If you’re not sure, simply try to plug the turntable into your system and set it up normally. Since the phono signal is very weak, you will not damage your sound system or speakers by doing this. If the music plays normally and you can adjust the volume to your liking, congrats, you have a built-in preamp! If not, the audio will be very quiet, barely audible, and sometimes distorted.
Stereo systems and receiver amplifiers with a built-in preamp
While in modern times this is becoming less common, many stereo systems and receiver amplifiers in the pre-CD era (the 1970s and 1980s) came with a phono input, sometimes 2, built into the amplifier. It’s easy to find if your amplifier has a phono input, just look at the back for an input labeled PHONO. There is a left and right connection along with a ground terminal that your turntable to plug directly into.
Occasionally, a stereo system will have a connection labeled PHONO with no ground. This is an indicator that the amp does not have a phono preamp and therefore will not be able to convert the phono signal to line on its own.
Similar to the test above with the turntable, if you’re unsure, simply plug everything into your amplifier as normal and see if your music sounds alright. If not, you now know that both your turntable and audio system lack a preamp.
Powered speakers with built-in phono preamps
A slightly newer component to the vinyl audio system mix is powered speakers with a built-in preamp. These speakers allow for a direct connection from your turntable to the speakers, negating the need for an external preamp or amplifier/ receiver.
While more serious vinyl enthusiasts and audiophiles will want to connect to these components, powered speakers are perfect for the casual listener or one who doesn’t have as much space or money to spend on audio equipment.
How to choose the right phono preamp?
Diving into the market for a phono preamp for the first time can seem like information overload. The range of price points is drastic so how do you know if you’re getting something that will actually improve your sound quality?
The first thing to figure out is what kind of preamp you need which coincides with the type of cartridge on your turntable. There are two categories of phono cartridges:
Moving Magnet (MM) Cartridges
Moving magnet cartridges, or an MM cartridge for short, are the most common phono cartridge and work by vibrating the cartridge cantilever through to a set of two magnets that in turn vibrate between two coils and produce a small electrical current which is known as the line or aux signal.
Moving magnet cartridges are typically stronger than their moving coil counterparts and produce a high output. Due to their increased size and strength, this makes them slightly heavier which can affect sound quality in the high-frequency range.
Moving Coil (MC) Cartridges
A moving coil, or MC cartridge, works in the opposite way of an MM cartridge. Here, the cantilever vibrates coiled wires near a set of fixed magnets to produce the electrical current also known as line/ aux signal.
The weight of moving coil cartridges is generally much less than their MM counterparts, meaning less force pushing down on your record which improves sound quality in the high frequencies. Due to this, these cartridges are a little more delicate and finicky.
Not sure what phono preamp is best for you? We’ve got you covered!
We’ve compiled a list of the best phono preamps for any budget. Whether you’re new to the world of vinyl or a seasoned audiophile, there’s something for everyone.
Does a phono preamp make a difference?
If you’re transitioning from an all-in-one record player to a proper turntable, phono, and speaker setup, yes there will be a drastic difference in sound quality.
However, if you already have an existing turntable of decent quality, an upgraded phono cartridge, and a system with built-in phono (whether it’s the turntable or stereo), you might not notice a marginal improvement in sound quality at first.
It’s recommended you upgrade and improve your speakers, turntable, cartridge, and stereo amplifier before purchasing external preamps.
Should you purchase a phono preamp?
A Hi-Fi, or high-fidelity, setup can take a while to piece together depending on your budget. If you don’t need a phono preamp for your sound system, the choice is ultimately up to you. The beauty of turntables is that you can do a variety of things to improve the performance and fidelity of your music – all with different price points.
Sometimes it’s important to step back and just enjoy the system you have. While it can be fun to upgrade your setup performance, it’s important to still enjoy the music that got you into vinyl as a hobby in the first place.
So go ahead and pop on a record and relax to the music – you’ll be happy you did!
Lead Editor / Owner
After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.