Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, with many music enthusiasts rediscovering the warmth and depth of sound that only a turntable can provide.
However, playing vinyl records requires more than just a turntable and speakers. In order to hear the music properly, you need a phono preamp.
But what exactly is a phono preamp, and why is it so important?
In this article, we’ll explore the basics of phono preamps and explain why they are an essential component of any vinyl setup.
So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of phono preamps!
Why Use A Phono Preamp
The signal produced by a record cartridge is much weaker than the standard signal level produced by most other consumer Hi-Fi electronics. This means that in order to hear music from vinyl through your speakers or stereo system, you first need to boost the signal. This is where a phono preamp comes in.
A phono preamp serves the primary function of amplifying the signal from your turntable to a level that can be played properly through your sound system. It is an essential component of any vinyl setup, as it not only boosts the signal but also applies the RIAA equalization curve to the signal.
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.
Without a phono preamp, any sound produced from your turntable would be very reedy, very thin, and extremely quiet. Some turntables come with a built-in phono stage, but others require a separate preamp stage or an amplifier that includes its own.
Incorporating a phono preamp into your audio system is essential if you want to enjoy your vinyl collection at a volume you can actually hear. It is important to note that not all stereo systems have a phono input, so it’s important to check before purchasing a turntable or preamp.
What Is A Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp, also known as a phono stage, is an audio component that amplifies the signal from your turntable to a level that allows you to connect it to your sound system the same way you would with any other audio source. It performs two critical functions – first, it amplifies the signal level up to a level suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. Second, it applies an equalization curve to inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process.
The equalization curve helps to restore the original signal by balancing out the frequencies that were boosted or reduced during the recording process. Without this curve, the sound would be distorted and unbalanced. A phono preamp is therefore essential in order to enjoy your vinyl collection at its best.
There are basically four possibilities for incorporating a preamp in your system. Some turntables come with a built-in phono stage, while others require a separate preamp stage or an amplifier that includes its own. External phono preamps are also used for turntable-to-computer applications.
How Does A Phono Preamp Work?
A phono preamp works by taking the signal produced by a record cartridge and boosting it to a level that can be played through your speakers or stereo system. The signal produced by a cartridge is much weaker than the standard signal level produced by most other consumer Hi-Fi electronics, which is why a phono preamp is necessary.
The phono preamp also applies the RIAA equalization curve to the signal. 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. The 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.
Some turntables come with a built-in phono stage, but others require a separate preamp stage or an amplifier that includes its own. 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.
Phono stages range from the neat and compact to the beefy that you’ll need to house somewhere convenient in your audio setup. Keep size and space requirements front and foremost when making your choice. Also, be aware that preamps are designed to work with two different cartridge types: moving magnetic (MM), and moving coil (MC). Some cover both bases, but make sure to be cognizant of the difference and ensure you’re matching the correct preamp to your turntable.
Incorporating a phono preamp into your audio system is essential if you want to enjoy your vinyl collection at a volume you can actually hear. It is important to note that not all stereo systems have a phono input, so it’s important to check before purchasing a turntable or preamp. A great preamp paired with a fabulous turntable really does lift the overall experience and give your ears a real treat.
The Importance Of RIAA Equalization
One of the most important functions of a phono preamp is to apply the RIAA equalization curve to the signal. This curve was established by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in order to create a de facto global industry standard for records. Before the adoption of this standard, each record company applied its own equalization, resulting in different reproduction results if the recording and playback filtering were not matched.
The RIAA equalization curve works by reducing low frequencies and boosting high frequencies during the recording process, and then performing the inverse function during playback to recreate the original analog signal. This ensures that the sound does not change apart from being amplified, and helps to reduce typical noise like hiss and clicks associated with records.
In addition to improving sound quality, the RIAA equalization curve also helps to reduce groove damage that would otherwise arise during playback. By reducing bass frequencies during recording, groove dimensions can be kept small, allowing for longer recording times. This is especially important for LPs, which can hold up to 30 minutes of music per side.
How A Phono Preamp Enhances Sound Quality
A good phono preamp can make a major difference in sound quality. This often-overlooked component has a critical job. First, it takes the tiny electrical signal from the cartridge and increases it many times, so it can be used with a line level input on a receiver or amplifier. Then it must adjust the signal from the cartridge so it does not sound distorted.
The cheaper the phono preamp, the less accurate it corrects for the RIAA curve and the worse the record will sound. Cheap, poor-performing phono preamps don’t convey the magic of music on vinyl. They sound flat, lifeless and don’t provide the wonderful warm experience that people covet with vinyl playback. Owing to cheaper components and less engineering care, less expensive preamps may also introduce noise as they do their job of increasing the signal.
The best phono preamplifiers, such as the McIntosh MP100 ($2,000), will precisely amplify and equalize the very small phono signal to duplicate the original recording without adding any noise or distortion. The sound of a tube preamp is to a large degree determined by the type and quality of the tubes. Therefore, there is always an option to upgrade to different and better tubes to change and improve the sound character and sound quality down the line.
Types Of Phono Preamps
There are two main types of phono preamps: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC).
Moving magnet phono preamps are the most common type and are designed to work with turntables that have a moving magnet cartridge. The majority of turntables on the market today come with a moving magnet cartridge, making MM phono preamps a popular choice. MM phono preamps are generally less expensive than MC phono preamps and are easier to set up.
Moving coil phono preamps, on the other hand, are designed to work with turntables that have a moving coil cartridge. Moving coil cartridges tend to produce a lower output voltage compared to moving magnet cartridges, which means they require a higher level of amplification before being input into your amplifier. MC phono preamps are generally more expensive than MM phono preamps but are often preferred by audiophiles for their superior sound quality.
Some phono preamps cater for both MM and MC cartridges, allowing you to switch between the two with ease. It’s important to match the correct type of phono preamp to your turntable cartridge to ensure proper functioning and optimal sound quality.
Factors To Consider When Choosing A Phono Preamp
When choosing a phono preamp, there are several factors to consider. Firstly, the type of music you play and the sound quality you are looking for will determine which phono stage is best suited for your needs. The sound quality of a phono preamp depends on the components used by manufacturers and the technological bias. To make an informed decision, it is recommended to consult with experts who can provide a detailed opinion on the sound quality generated by each phono preamp.
Some phono preamps feature tubes, which generally provide a warmer, fuller sound quality but can sometimes compromise neutrality. If you prefer this type of listening experience, then a tube phono preamplifier may be more suitable for you. Two popular options include the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 phono preamp and the Jolida JD9 SE1 phono preamp.
Another important consideration is the type of cartridge used in your turntable. Most phono cartridges use the moving magnet design, while high-end models use the moving coil design. It’s important to note that some phono preamps are only compatible with moving magnet cartridges. If you have a low-output moving coil cartridge, we recommend a preamp with selectable or variable cartridge loading.
The specifications of your cartridge will also influence your buying decision. Moving magnet cartridges generally require around 41 dB of gain and a resistive load of 47k ohms, while moving coil cartridges require more gain (around 61 dB) and adjustable loading due to greater variability among MC cartridges.
Lastly, budget is a significant factor when choosing a phono preamp. High-end audio manufacturers offer a range of options in their line-up, including phono stage modules for their line-stages. It’s important to determine what kind of phono preamp to buy based on your specific needs, preferences, and budget.