If you’re a vinyl enthusiast, you know that a phono stage (also known as a phono preamp) is an essential component in your setup.
It’s what allows your turntable to connect to your speakers or amplifier and produce the rich, warm sound that vinyl is known for.
But do all phono stages need preamps?
The answer is not a simple yes or no.
In this article, we’ll explore the different types of phono stages and preamps, and help you determine what you need for your specific setup.
Whether you’re a seasoned audiophile or just starting out with vinyl, read on to learn more.
Do All Phono Stages Need Preamps
The short answer is yes, every turntable will need some form of preamplifier to boost the signal to a level that your speakers or amplifier can play. However, not all phono stages require separate preamps.
Some turntables come with built-in preamps, meaning you don’t need to purchase a separate one. You can check the specs of your turntable and speakers to see if they have built-in preamps before buying a separate one.
If you’re unsure whether your turntable has a preamp, you can check the back of it for a PHONO/LINE switch. If there’s a switch, then it has a built-in phono stage. To activate the preamp, you must set the switch to LINE. If the switch is turned to PHONO, the built-in preamp is automatically bypassed.
Similarly, you’ll want to check and see if your amplifier or receiver has a PHONO input. If your amplifier doesn’t have a PHONO input and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, you’ll need a phono stage in order to plug in the RCA and listen through loudspeakers.
It’s important to note that while some turntables come with built-in preamps, many audiophiles prefer to use a separate preamp for better sound quality. External phono preamps have better shielding from interference and their own power supply, so they don’t have to share with an electrically noisy power transformer on a hifi amplifier.
Understanding Phono Stages And Preamps
To understand phono stages and preamps, it’s important to first understand what they do. A phono preamp, also known as a phono stage, is an audio component that performs two critical functions. Firstly, it amplifies the signal level up to a level suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. Secondly, it applies an equalization curve to inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process.
Phono stages can be built into turntables or purchased separately. Built-in preamps are part of the turntable and often have cheaper components due to their smaller size and pared-down construction. Standalone preamps tend to have more expensive and high-end components, resulting in better and more nuanced sound quality.
While all turntables require some form of preamp to boost the signal, not all phono stages require separate preamps. Some turntables come with built-in preamps, meaning you don’t need to purchase a separate one. However, many audiophiles prefer to use a separate preamp for better sound quality.
It’s important to check the specs of your turntable and speakers before purchasing a separate preamp. If your turntable has a PHONO/LINE switch on the back, it has a built-in preamp that can be activated by setting the switch to LINE. If your amplifier doesn’t have a PHONO input and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, you’ll need a phono stage in order to plug in the RCA and listen through loudspeakers.
Moving Magnet Vs Moving Coil Phono Stages
When it comes to choosing a phono stage, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is whether to go for a moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC) design. MM phono stages are designed to work with MM cartridges, which are heavier and exhibit greater inertia when reading the grooves. As a result, MM designs may struggle to track high-frequency content and can lack transient detail.
On the other hand, MC cartridges are preferred by many audiophiles because they use far less moving mass. This means that the stylus and cantilever are more nimble in the record groove, allowing them to pick up more of the surface area and react accordingly. Additionally, MC phono stages have higher gain than MM phono stages due to the low signal level of MC cartridges compared to MM cartridges. This leads to a lower noise floor and better noise characteristics.
It’s worth noting that MC phono stages usually have adjustable input impedance and gain that need to be adjusted to match the output impedance and signal level of the specific MC cartridge used. This is unnecessary in MM phono stages.
If you’re looking for a phono stage that can accommodate both MM and MC cartridges, then an MM/MC phono stage might be the way to go. These phono stages include electronic circuitry to support both types of cartridges, usually accomplished by including two entirely separate phono stages with load and gain adjustment for the MC input. However, it’s important to note that budget MM/MC phono stages may skip important load and gain adjustment for the MC input, sacrificing some sonic performance.
Built-In Vs External Phono Preamps
When it comes to choosing between a built-in or external phono preamp, there are a few factors to consider. Built-in preamps are convenient because they come with the turntable, and you don’t have to purchase a separate component. They are also generally less expensive than external preamps. However, built-in preamps may not have the same level of quality as external preamps.
External preamps are built to do one thing: be a preamp. They are designed with better build quality and electrical components, resulting in less noise and distortion and overall better sound quality. External preamps also offer more flexibility in terms of compatibility with different amplifiers and speakers, allowing you to experiment with different cartridges and upgrade your system over time.
Another advantage of external preamps is that they provide better shielding from interference and have their own power supply, which means they don’t have to share power with other components in your system. This can lead to a cleaner, more accurate sound.
Do You Really Need A Preamp?
In short, yes, you really need a preamp for your turntable. The reason being that every turntable has a cartridge that generates a tiny signal that needs to be amplified to line level in order to hear the music. A preamp, also known as a phono stage, is responsible for this amplification and re-equalization of the signal.
While some turntables come with built-in preamps, others do not. If your turntable does not have a built-in preamp and your amplifier or receiver does not have a PHONO input, then you will need to purchase a separate preamp. This is essential in order to hear the music from your record player through loudspeakers.
It’s important to note that while some may argue that a built-in preamp is sufficient for most listening needs, many audiophiles prefer to use a separate preamp for better sound quality. An external phono preamp has better shielding from interference and its own power supply, which can result in better overall sound quality.
Choosing The Right Phono Stage For Your Setup
When it comes to choosing the right phono stage for your setup, there are a few factors to consider. First and foremost, you’ll want to ensure compatibility with your turntable and cartridge. Moving magnet cartridges typically require a phono stage with high gain, while low-output moving coil cartridges need a phono stage with even higher gain. Make sure to check the specifications of your cartridge before purchasing a phono stage.
Another important consideration is the quality of the preamp. While some turntables come with built-in preamps, they tend to be of lower quality compared to standalone phono stages. Separate phono stages often have higher-end capacitors, resistors, and other parts that can improve sound quality. However, they also tend to be more expensive and require additional setup.
It’s also worth considering the flexibility of the phono stage. Look for a phono stage that allows for adjustments in gain, loading, and compatibility with different types of cartridges. This can give you more control over your sound and allow for experimentation.
Lastly, consider your budget. While the phono preamp is not the most important component in your hi-fi system, it can still make a significant difference in sound quality. As a general rule, investing about 20 percent of your budget on the phono preamp can be a good starting point.
Conclusion: Finding The Perfect Phono Stage And Preamp Combination
When it comes to finding the perfect phono stage and preamp combination, it ultimately depends on your specific setup and preferences. If your turntable has a built-in preamp and your amplifier has a PHONO input, then you may not need a separate phono stage or preamp. However, if you’re looking for better sound quality and want to avoid interference, an external phono preamp may be worth considering.
It’s important to note that not all phono preamps are created equal. Some are only compatible with moving magnet cartridges, while others have selectable or variable cartridge loading for low-output moving coil cartridges. Additionally, the quality of built-in phono stages in amplifiers and receivers can vary drastically.
If you’re in the market for a separate phono stage or preamp, do your research and read reviews to find one that will work well with your specific turntable and amplifier. Look for features such as adjustable gain and cartridge loading, as well as good shielding from interference.
Ultimately, finding the perfect phono stage and preamp combination may require some trial and error. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different setups and configurations until you find the one that sounds best to you.