First of all, let’s cover this one off…a phono preamp, and phono stage, are the same thing.
Exactly the same thing.
But we’re going to use the term ‘phono preamp’, or maybe sometimes simply ‘preamp’, throughout this article.
Now we’ve got that out of the way…what is a phono preamp anyway?..
What is a Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp is an audio device that has the sole job of boosting the phono signal produced by a record player, or turntable, if you prefer.
Your phono preamp is an essential component of your turntable setup.
If your setup didn’t have a preamp, you would need to crank the volume all the way up to get even the faintest sound out of your speakers.
When you think about it logically, it all kind of makes sense.
Your records are pieces of vinyl on which music has been recorded.
The only thing that makes contact with the record is the tiny diamond tip of your stylus.
The music your stylus detects is transferred to your turntables phono outputs (assuming your turntable does not have a built-in preamp).
So how would the signal be boosted above what is laid down on the vinyl?..
…well, it wouldn’t!
So a phono preamp is absolutely needed somewhere in your setup.
How Does a Phono Preamp Work?
A phono preamp converts your turntable’s incredibly low phono signal into a normal ‘line-level’ signal.
Line-level is sometimes labelled as simply ‘Line’ on audio equipment, and it’s also sometimes labelled as ‘AUX’.
As well as giving a much needed boost to the phono signal, a preamp also applies an RIAA equalisation curve to the signal.
This makes sure that the equalisation curve maintains the same shape after amplification as it had before.
And what that all means is that the sound is not altered in any way, apart from being louder.
Isn’t This What an Amplifier Does?
Close…but not quite!
Amplifiers add a further boost, to the already preamp boosted line-level signal, so that its strong enough to play loudly through a pair of passive speakers.
Isn’t This What Powered Speakers Do?
For the same reason as above.
Powered, or active, speakers are providing a further boost to the already preamp boosted line-level signal.
How to Find Out if You Need a Separate Phono Preamp
Maybe some piece of your setup already has a built-in preamp.
Let’s take a look at which one’s might…
Many new turntables come with a built-in phono preamp.
If yours has one, at the back of the record player, you’ll see a panel with a label that says phono, or phono output, and it will have a ground-screw close by.
It will look something like this:
Some models also have a ‘Phono/Line’ switch.
This enables you to turn the built-in preamp on or off.
These should look something like this:
The option to switch the built-in preamp off, is in case you prefer to put your signal through an external preamp.
If your turntable has a USB output, then it definitely has a built-in preamp.
Amplifiers also sometimes have a preamp built-in.
You can easily establish whether your’s either does or does not, by the presence, or otherwise, of inputs marked ‘Phono’.
If it has phono inputs, it has a preamp inside.
Interestingly, many new amplifiers do not have a built-in phono preamp.
Some powered/active speakers also come with a built-in phono preamp.
These enable you to connect directly between your turntable and your speakers, without the need for any external preamp or amplifier.
Now, there’s always a lot going on around the back of a powered speaker.
But aside from everything else going on back there, if your speakers have a preamp inside, you’re going to see a grounding for your turntable, and separate phono inputs.
Yes, happily, pretty much every DJ mixer on the market today, will come with a preamp built-in.
But I’d still check if I were you.
Is It better to Have a Built-In or Separate Preamp?
Personally, I prefer separate.
A separate piece of kit gives you the most versatility.
Because someday further down the line, you may want to upgrade your preamp, but that’s only available to you as an option if it’s separate.
But if your only just getting into vinyl, you might want to keep it all as simple as possible and go for built-in.
How to Choose the Right Preamp
Just to complicate things a little bit more…
…the preamp you go for will need to be the correct match for the type of cartridge you’re using.
Your cartridge will be one of two types:
- Moving magnetic (MM)
- Moving coil (MC)
Some preamps do work with both types, just make sure you keep this in mind when you’re looking at your options.
Something else to keep in mind is your physical setup. Will the preamp you’re looking at fit into your audio setup nicely?
There’s a surprising range of shapes and sizes available, so don’t just assume that it will easily slot in somewhere.
How Much Should You Spend on Your Preamp?
How much are you going to have to shell-out for a decent one of these things?
The truth is that you pretty much get what you pay for.
Prices start at about $20, and end up somewhere like $15,000.
That’s a fair old range!
At the end of the day you can only afford, what you can afford.
The good news is that there are some solid names offering preamps at the budget end of the scale; say $60 to $100.
So decide on your budget, and start investigating…
…there are a gems to be unearthed.
Wrapping it Up!
I hope this article has added a bit of clarity into what can be a murky area when you’re starting out.
I remember being totally confused about amp’s, preamps, line outputs, phono inputs…whatever, whatever, whatever, when I bought my first turntable.
And I couldn’t even Google it…because the internet didn’t exist back then!