Are you a vinyl enthusiast looking to get the best sound out of your turntable?
If so, you may have heard about phono preamps. But what exactly are they, and do you really need one?
In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know about phono preamps and help you determine whether or not you need one for your setup.
From built-in preamps to external options, we’ll cover it all.
So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of phono preamps.
Do You Need A Phono Preamp
The short answer is yes, you do need a phono preamp if you want to play your turntable through external speakers or audio systems.
But before you rush out to buy one, it’s important to understand what a phono preamp does and whether or not your current setup already has one.
At its core, a phono preamp amplifies the tiny signal generated by your turntable’s stylus and re-equalizes the signal to a level that can be played properly through your sound system. Without a phono preamp, your turntable’s signal would be too weak to be properly amplified by your speakers or amplifier.
If your turntable has a built-in preamp, then technically you don’t need a separate phono stage. However, many audiophiles prefer the sound quality of an external phono preamp.
To determine if your turntable has a built-in preamp, check the back of the unit for a PHONO/LINE switch. If there is one, then it has a built-in preamp. To activate the preamp, set the switch to LINE. If the switch is set to PHONO, then the built-in preamp is bypassed.
Similarly, check your amplifier or receiver for a PHONO input. If it doesn’t have one and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, then you’ll need an external phono stage in order to connect your turntable to your sound system.
It’s also worth noting that some amplifiers do come with a built-in phono stage. These can be identified by a ‘phono’ position on the input selector and corresponding phono connectors on the rear of the unit.
What Is A Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp, also known as a phono stage, is a device that amplifies the low-level signal produced by a turntable’s cartridge and re-equalizes the signal to a level that can be played properly through your sound system. The signal produced by a turntable is much weaker than that produced by other audio sources like CD players or smartphones, which is why a phono preamp is necessary to boost the signal to a level that can be properly amplified by your speakers or amplifier.
Phono preamps can be built into some turntables, amplifiers, and powered speakers, but they can also be purchased as standalone devices for those who prefer the sound quality of an external preamp. Standalone phono preamps are shielded from interference and have their own power supply, which helps to eliminate electrical noise and interference that can affect sound quality.
It’s important to note that not all turntables come with a built-in preamp, and not all amplifiers or receivers have a PHONO input. In these cases, an external phono stage is necessary to connect your turntable to your sound system. Checking for a PHONO/LINE switch on the back of your turntable or amplifier/receiver can help determine if you need an external phono preamp.
Why Do You Need A Phono Preamp?
The reason you need a phono preamp is because the signal produced by a turntable’s cartridge is very weak, much lower than the standard signal level produced by most other consumer Hi-Fi electronics. A nominal output level from a phono cartridge is 1 mV (0.001 V), while the Aux input on your stereo system requires a signal level of 100 mV (0.1V). To meet the required level, a typical phono preamp will boost your signal by 40 – 50 dB.
Furthermore, records are cut with the bass frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted. This equalization helps to permit longer recording times by keeping groove dimensions small, while also increasing sound quality and decreasing record wear. A phono preamp acts to equalize the signal in an attempt to bring it back — as close as possible — to the frequency response of the master recording. The entire process is referred to as the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) equalization curve, which became the general industry standard during the 1950s.
Built-in Preamps Vs. External Preamps
While built-in preamps are convenient, they may not always provide the best sound quality. External preamps are designed specifically for this purpose and often have better build quality and electrical components. The reason for this is that built-in preamps are often an afterthought and used as a sales “add-on.” On the other hand, external preamps are built to do one thing: be a preamp. This means that they often have less noise and distortion, more gain, and overall better sound than a built-in one.
Additionally, external preamps offer more flexibility over time. You have a wider choice of amplifiers you can work with, and you can use it to hook into other systems to stream your vinyl across multiple speakers. You also have the option of experimenting with different cartridges, whether they’re moving magnet or moving coil. When you buy a more budget-style phono preamp, it gives you the ability to upgrade later and improve your sound system bit by bit.
While many entry-level turntables have a built-in phono preamp, an external preamp can often upgrade by virtue of adding some distance alone. There is also the flexibility to upgrade as you learn what you like. Many integrated turntables have toggle-able phono preamps, meaning you can turn on and off its built-in phono preamp. If you decide you want to add an external phono preamp to your setup, you still can.
Factors To Consider When Choosing A Phono Preamp
When choosing a phono preamp, there are several factors to consider to ensure that you get the best possible sound quality from your vinyl records.
Firstly, it’s important to consider the type of cartridge that your turntable uses. Most cartridges use the moving magnet design, but some high-end models use the moving coil design. If you have a moving magnet cartridge, you will need an MM phono preamp compatible with this type of cartridge. If you have a low-output moving coil cartridge, we recommend a preamp with selectable or variable cartridge loading.
Secondly, you should consider whether you want a phono preamp that caters for both MM and MC cartridges. This type of phono stage is versatile and used to facilitate possible changes of the cartridge. For example, if you wanted to upgrade your MM cartridge later on by an MC cartridge, you will not necessarily be obliged to change your phono preamp.
Thirdly, it’s important to choose a preamp that gives you the level of control that you need. Some preamps won’t adjust your output level to where you want it, and some won’t even let you switch equalizations. More expensive preamps generally sound better and offer more flexibility in terms of adjustments like gain, loading and compatibility with Moving Coil cartridges.
Finally, it’s important to consider your budget. While the phono preamp is not the most important component in your hi-fi system, it has the potential to make a dramatic difference in sound quality. As a general rule, it’s recommended to invest about 20 percent of your budget on the phono preamp, splurging for flexibility in terms of adjustments if you’re looking to mess around.
Top Phono Preamps On The Market
If you’re in the market for an external phono preamp, there are plenty of options to choose from. Here are three top contenders:
1. iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp – This entry-level preamp boasts a feature set that exceeds what most competitors deliver. It offers both MM and MC capabilities with selectable gain, a smart subsonic filter, and even an additional 4.4mm balanced out. The Zen delivers excellent sound quality with great depth and a subsonic smart roll-off filter.
2. Schiit Mani 2 MM/MC Phono Preamp – This phono preamp has been called “the most improved analog product of the decade” and for good reason. It offers both MM and MC capabilities with adjustable gain and a switchable subsonic filter. The Mani 2 delivers a warm and detailed sound that rivals more expensive preamps.
3. Puffin Phono DSP Preamp – This compact preamp packs a lot of features under the hood. It has a small screen that displays the sound settings, which can be manipulated with the wheel. The Puffin also offers A/D conversion, allowing you to digitize your vinyl collection. It delivers a clean and dynamic sound with low noise and distortion.
Ultimately, the best phono preamp for you will depend on your budget, your turntable setup, and your personal preferences for sound quality. But any of these top contenders would be a great place to start your search.