If you’re new to the world of vinyl, you may be wondering if you need a phono stage and a preamp.
The short answer is yes, but the specifics can be a bit confusing.
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
In this article, we’ll break down what a phono stage and preamp are, why you need them, and how to determine if your turntable already has one built-in.
So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of vinyl sound systems.
Do I Need A Phono Stage And A Preamp
At a basic level, a phono preamp (also known as a phono stage) is a device that amplifies the tiny signal generated by your turntable’s stylus and re-equalizes the signal. This is necessary because vinyl records are cut with specific equalization curves that need to be corrected in order to sound correct. To play records at all, you’re going to need one in your system somewhere.
Similarly, a preamp is necessary to boost the signal to a level that your speakers or amplifier can play. Without a preamp, the sound will be very quiet or you may not even hear it at all from your record player.
So, in short, yes, you do need both a phono stage and a preamp in order to properly listen to vinyl records.
What Is A Phono Stage?
A phono stage, also known as a phono preamp, is a device that connects your turntable to your amplifier. In the past, phono stages were built-in to receivers and amplifiers, but as newer formats like CDs were introduced, manufacturers began to remove or reduce the quality of their in-built phono stages and inputs. This means that many modern hi-fi amplifiers won’t allow you to plug in a turntable directly, and you need to connect via a phono stage to make the very small signal from the turntable powerful enough for your main amp to work with.
The job of the phono stage is to amplify the signal level up to a level suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. Additionally, it applies an equalization curve to inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process. This is critical because vinyl records are cut with specific equalization curves that need to be corrected in order to sound correct.
To connect a turntable to an amplifier, you will need to pass the signal through an external phono stage to increase the level. Turntable cartridges output a very small signal, and this needs amplifying up to several hundred times the size before it is loud enough for your amplifier. If any noise creeps in before or during amplification, it will become increased in volume detracting from the potential audio quality.
While some amplifiers may have built-in phono pre-amplifiers, these are often out-performed by external phono stages. Dedicated phono stages are fine-tuned to reproduce the warm sound of vinyl, free from hiss or bearing rumble thanks to engineers’ expertise in circuit design, component choice, and layout. Connected using a single audio interconnect cable, a phono stage is set up in seconds allowing you to appreciate stunning clarity, musicality, and resolution from all your vinyl recordings.
What Is A Preamp?
A preamp is an electronic device that amplifies the signal from your turntable to a level that can be played through your speakers or amplifier. It takes the small signal from the phono stage and boosts it to a level that is suitable for your sound system. Without a preamp, the signal would be too weak to be heard, resulting in very low volume or no sound at all.
Preamps come in various shapes and sizes, and some turntables have built-in preamps. However, many audiophiles prefer to use a separate preamp for better sound quality. An external preamp has better shielding from interference and its own power supply, which means it doesn’t have to share with an electrically noisy power transformer on a hifi amplifier.
It’s important to note that not all amplifiers or receivers have a phono input, and if your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, you’ll need to purchase a separate one. But don’t worry – there are plenty of low-priced turntables that come with built-in preamps, and you don’t have to purchase a top-of-the-line model to get one.
Why Do You Need A Phono Stage And Preamp?
A phono stage (also known as a phono pre-amp) is an essential component for any vinyl lover’s setup. It provides the connection between the record player and an amplifier, allowing you to enjoy the warm sound of vinyl without any hiss or bearing rumble. Without a phono stage, you won’t be able to connect your turntable directly to your amplifier or receiver, as the signal from the turntable is too small to be amplified without distortion.
The phono stage works by amplifying the signal from the turntable cartridge, which outputs a very small signal that needs to be amplified up to several hundred times its size before it is loud enough for your amplifier. The phono stage is fine-tuned to reproduce the warm sound of vinyl, free from any noise that could detract from the audio quality.
Similarly, a preamp is necessary to boost the signal to a level that your speakers or amplifier can play. Without a preamp, the sound will be very quiet or you may not even hear it at all from your record player. The preamp performs a process on a scale that no other component in the phono audio chain comes close to matching. Instead of just being an added-on component that helps your system run smoothly, it actually shapes your turntable’s performance and ensures it is able to work with the rest of your system.
Does Your Turntable Have A Built-In Phono Stage Or Preamp?
The good news is that some turntables, powered speakers, and amplifiers come with built-in preamps. Before purchasing a separate one, it’s important to check the specs of your turntable and speakers to see if they already have a built-in preamp. If you’re not sure if your turntable has a built-in preamp, you can simply plug it into the Line In of your powered speakers and test it out. If it plays as expected, then you have a built-in preamp.
If your turntable does not have a built-in preamp, and your amplifier or receiver does not have an input labeled “phono,” then you will need to purchase a separate preamp for your turntable. This is also known as a phono preamp.
It’s worth noting that some amplifiers already come with a phono stage installed. You can easily identify this by checking the amplifier’s input selector, which should display a ‘phono’ position on its input selector. If your amplifier has this feature, simply connect your turntable’s output to the amplifier’s input marked ‘phono,’ and you’re good to go.
If your amplifier does not have a built-in phono stage, then an external preamplifier will be required. This small device connects to the turntable’s outputs, amplifies the vinyl’s audio signal to normal levels, and then connects to the main Hi-Fi amplifier’s aux-in terminals.
How To Choose The Right Phono Stage And Preamp For Your Setup
Choosing the right phono stage and preamp for your setup can make a significant difference in the quality of sound you get from your vinyl records. To begin with, you need to consider the type of cartridge on your turntable. If you have a moving magnet cartridge (MM), then you should choose an MM phono preamp that is compatible with this type of cartridge.
On the other hand, if your system features a moving coil cartridge (MC), you should focus on a phono preamp that is compatible with low output cartridges. It’s worth noting that some manufacturers offer MM/MC phono preamps that cater to both types of cartridges. This type of phono stage is versatile and can make it easier to upgrade your cartridge in the future without necessarily changing your phono preamp.
When it comes to the gain setting on your preamp, it’s important to set it according to the output voltage of your cartridge. Moving magnet cartridges typically have high output voltage, while moving coil cartridges have low output voltage. For high-output cartridges like MM, set your preamp’s gain on the low side, around 40 dB. For low-output moving coil cartridges, you’ll need higher gain settings of 60 dB or higher.
Your budget and specific needs will also play a role in choosing the right phono stage and preamp for your setup. If your turntable has a built-in phono stage or if your sound system has an input labeled “phono” with a ground screw next to it, you may not need an external preamp. However, in most cases, an external preamp will sound better than the built-in option.
As a general rule, investing about 20 percent of your budget on the phono preamp can provide flexibility in terms of adjustments like gain, loading, and compatibility with moving coil cartridges if you’re looking to upgrade in the future. While the phono preamp may not be the most important component in your hi-fi system, choosing the right one can make a noticeable difference in the quality of sound you get from your vinyl records.
Conclusion: Enhancing Your Vinyl Listening Experience
While having a basic phono stage and preamp is necessary to play vinyl records, there are ways to enhance your listening experience even further. Investing in a high-quality phono cartridge, spatial set-up, record collection, cable, and phono preamp can all make a significant difference in the sound quality you are able to hear.
A good phono cartridge can make a huge difference in the clarity and detail of the sound. It is also important to properly set up your turntable in your listening space to ensure the best possible sound. Additionally, having a well-curated record collection and high-quality cables can further enhance your vinyl listening experience.
When it comes to choosing a phono preamp, it is important to consider both the amplification and RIAA equalization capabilities. A quality phono preamp will boost the signal while also preserving the precise curve of the equalization of the raw phono input once its signal has been boosted enough to be heard by the main stereo system.
Investing in high-quality equipment may come at a higher cost, but for true vinyl enthusiasts, it is worth it for the unparalleled sound quality and immersive listening experience that vinyl records can provide. With the right set-up, you can truly appreciate an artist’s vision for an album as a complete work and immerse yourself in the warm, smooth, and silky sound that vinyl is known for.