Phono preamps are a necessary part of your system if you wish to play music through a turntable. The record player output is passed through the phono preamp, which in turn outputs to the power amplifier. Hence the name ‘preamplifier”. Another commonly used term synonymous with phono preamp is “phono stage”.
Many beginners to turntables and vinyl records are confused about the need for a phono preamp. If so, do read on.
How Do Phono Preamps Work?
Phono preamps work by amplifying the signal produced by the needle within the phono cartridge moving across the record. Unlike digital sources, the analog signal is very quiet, hence the need for amplification.
Many amplifiers contain preamplifiers – these are called integrated amplifiers. On the back of an amplifier there are various inputs, which will vary depending on the vintage of the amplifier. For example, an amp from the 80s may have a tape, CD and phono input. The preamplifier within an amplifier is designed to make the signals from these various sources louder. You can check if an amplifier has a phono preamp built in by checking for the phono input at the back.
Modern day amplifiers, which are largely focused on home cinema, will not contain a phono input at the rear of the unit, as the market no longer requires this. As turntables are a niche product, some amplifiers still do come with phono inputs (or in other words, a built-in phono preamp), but they are quite rare and squarely aimed towards the audiophile market. An example of this is the Marantz PM-6003/4
Turntables With Built In Phono Preamps
Some turntables come with built in phono preamps. Typically, these turntables are at the cheaper end of the market. In an effort to make vinyl playback more accessible, manufacturers have cunningly included phono preamps so that people can buy a ready-to-go system that they can plug in and play records on immediately. The more expensive turntables do not have one built in as they are targeted at audiophiles, and sound quality is generally better with a separate phono stage.
As a general guideline, most turntables under around $500 include a phono preamp.
Will a separate phono preamp improve the sound?
Almost certainly yes. Built in phono preamps are generally not of the best quality. If you are playing through a vintage system, a separate phono preamp will greatly improve the sound quality. The sound is often characterised as being far more full and balanced, and any concerns about having a ‘thin’ sound (presuming the turntable is up to snuff) are eliminated.
For many people, a phono preamp is the next upgrade path after buying a decent turntable, and rightly so.
Recommendations for phono preamps will be contained within this section of the site.