The phono preamplifier has to be the most ignored and least understood component in any HiFi system. But, for anyone armed with a turntable, it is also arguably the most important part. Make the wrong buying choice here, and you can kiss goodbye to great sound.
In this article, we’re going to explain a few things. First, “What is a Phono Preamp?” and second, why it’s such an integral part of your system.
Why Does a Turntable Require a Phono Preamp?
If you own a turntable, you know about the cartridge affixed to the end of the tonearm. This houses the stylus or needle, which enters the grooves of the record and relays the vinyl information in a continuous analog form. But how do you hear music on vinyl?
If you’ve ever played a record without the rest of your HiFi switched on and placed your ear near the stylus, you’ll hear tiny screeching noises. This is the stylus reading the musical information. To hear the music in all its glory, you have to amplify that signal.
A lot of people automatically turn to their main integrated amplifier to do the job, but it simply isn’t up to the task. It doesn’t have the specialist technology to amplify such a tiny signal. This is where the phone preamplifier comes in.
A phono preamp is there for one thing only…
It takes that tiny cartridge-produced sound, and it amplifies it. That’s pretty much what phono preamps do. Not too much, just enough to pass it on to the main amplifier. It’s at this point that the main amplifier can do its job and reproduce that vinyl sound as it was meant to be heard.
Back in the day when vinyl was the only medium for music, phono preamps came built into receivers and amplifiers. When CDs became the main format, amplifier manufacturers slowly but surely, started to remove phono preamps from their configuration. This led to the need for the development of separate phono preamps.
Internal vs. External Phono Preamps
Internal phono preamps can either be built into main amplifiers or, more commonly now, built into the turntable itself. There are pros and cons of internal phono preamps.
It’s good because there is no extra setup involved. The manufacturer of your amplifier or turntable did all the work for you. All you have to do is plug in and play. They also take up less overall space. Handy if you are listening in a relatively cramped area.
Although, the cost will have been incorporated into the price of your amp or turntable. It feels cheaper as you don’t have to splash out on an external phono preamp.
Internal phono preamps aren’t as good…
This is because they tend to be cheaper budget models with cheaper components. Meaning sound quality tends to be lower. Also, when a phono preamp is situated inside the chassis of an integrated amplifier, it produces electrical noise, which can leech and affect the rest of the amplifier.
This can happen in reverse too. Leading to a decrease in overall sound quality.
How to avoid these problems…
It’s best to grab yourself an external phono preamp. This will be plugged into your main amplifier, and your turntable plugs into the phono preamp. The separate box negates any chance of high-frequency interference.
Furthermore, the external phone preamp’s independent chassis means bigger, better, and higher quality components can be used. Yes, prices can be much higher, but the sound quality rises too.
Buying the Correct External Phono Preamp
When looking to buy an external phono preamp, you’ll need to know what kind of cartridge you should use. The cartridge is responsible for converting the analog signal into an electrical one. The two types of cartridges are a moving magnet cartridge or a moving coil cartridge.
Moving magnet cartridges make the conversion by a moving magnet housed in two copper coils. They are known for producing a more mellow sound and are the cheaper of the two.
Moving coil cartridges work by the stylus moving the coils around a magnet instead of the magnet itself. This results in higher quality tonality and less distortion and, as a result, are more expensive.
Lower cost budget phono preamps tend to focus on moving magnet cartridge types. More expensive models handle both moving magnets and the more technologically advanced moving coil cartridges.
Find out what kind of cartridge your turntable is sporting, and make sure that the phono preamp you buy supports that type. There’s no point buying a phono preamp that supports both cartridge types if your turntable has a moving magnet cartridge.
Now that we answered the question, “What is a phono preamp?” there is the question of how to use it. Phono preamps that support moving magnet cartridges only, tend to be far easier to set up. Connect the turntable to the phono preamp and then the phono preamp to your main amplifier. It’s that simple.
Phono preamps supporting moving coil technologies tend to offer a variety of settings, along with knobs and switches to support the wide array of different moving coil designs on the market.
How to configure your phono preamp correctly…
You’ll need to know the exact specs of your moving coil cartridge. They come in different shapes and sizes with different specifications and requirements. A high-end phono preamp can match these settings. As a result, it can amplify the sound correctly and raise the overall sound quality.
Some of these settings include slightly scary things like loading and gain. But don’t worry too much about it. As long as you carefully read the manual of your phono preamp and retain the specification sheet of your cartridge, all will be well.
Finding a phono preamp…
Especially one with a wide range of load and gain settings is a positive thing. That unit will be better able to cope with any cartridge you might like to throw at it.
More expensive phono preamps allow you to change the settings with user-friendly knobs and switches on the front panel. Cheaper phono preamps keep costs down by replacing the easy-to-use knobs with the dreaded “dip switches.”
Why dreaded? First, because they are so small and fiddly to select. And second, because you have to study a chart to find out the correct switch pattern for the cartridge your using. Although this can be a pain, all it requires is studying the manual and taking your time to get it right.
One Box or Two Box Setup?
Phono preamps come in a complete one-box design or as part of a two-box setup. The latter separates the controls into one box and the power amp section into another.
The reason for doing this is that HiFi components prefer to be separated from one another. If they are too close together, you can get high-frequency noise and vibration leaching from one component to another. Thus, lowering overall sound quality.
So, which one is better?
Sound quality can be amazing from a high-end single box phono preamp. However, the nature of the design makes this harder to achieve. As a result, the best-sounding phono preamps use a two-box solution to isolate the components and get the best results.
One box solutions can also sound great and are better if you need to keep the costs down. But if the money is there, and you have space, a two-box setup is the way forward for superior audio quality.
Solid State or Valves?
This one is down to personal preference. But nothing beats the organic, tonally accurate, and open presentation of valves in a phono preamp. It allows the vinyl to fully breathe, presenting it in its most natural state.
There are some superb solid-state phono preamps currently available, which most listeners will be thrilled with. If you haven’t tried valves before, arrange a demo listen during your research, and we’re sure you’ll be blown away. Phono preamps with valves are, unfortunately, not so kind on your wallet. Expect to pay more for this level of luxury.
Test Your Cartridge
If you know a dealer who’ll allow you to test different models, take your turntable cartridge with you. It might be a hassle, but you’ll get a much better feel for what it will sound like when you get your phono preamp home.
Need a Great Turntable?
We have your vinyl needs covered. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Turntables Under $1,000, the Best Turntables Under $600, the Best Turntables Under $500, the Best Turntables Under $400, the Best Turntables Under $300, and the Best Turntables Under $100 you can buy in 2021.
Also, take a look at our comprehensive Pioneer PLX-500-K Review, our Audio-Technica AT-LP60XUSB-BK Review, our Denon DP-300F Review, our Sony PSLX300 USB Stereo Turntable Review, our Numark TTUSB Turntable Review, and our Stanton ST.150 MKII Turntable Review for more awesome items currently available.
What is a Phono Preamp? – Final thoughts
Hopefully, we’ve unraveled the mysteries of what a phono preamp is and how important they are in making your vinyl sound amazing.
Prices range massively, but if you’re on a budget, you can pick up decent phono preamps for as little as $100. Conversely, if you want your turntable to achieve audiophile status, you can spend upwards of $2,000 for a state-of-the-art model, valves, and all.
Whatever you opt for, remember that a phono preamp is truly one of the most important ingredients you’ll need to cook up that classic vinyl sound.
Happy listening, one and all.