Do I Need a Preamp for My Turntable?
One of the most common question that people starting with vinyl ask is; do I need a preamp for my turntable?
The answer is that a stereo must include a phono preamp to play vinyl records. It is not possible to play vinyl records without a phono preamp.
The phono preamp can be included in a stereo setup in four different ways.
- It can be built into the turntable
- It can be built into the amplifier/receiver
- It can be built into powered speakers
- Or it can be a separate standalone unit
If a phono preamp in not included in the setup in (at least) one of the above ways, the stereo will not be able to play vinyl records.
If your turntable has a LINE output, it has a built-in preamp.
And if your amplifier/receiver has a PHONO input it also has a built-in preamp.
If you are using powered speakers they might have a built-in phono preamp as well. Manufacturers have recently started to include phono preamps in powered speakers as turntables have become popular again. Look for a PHONO input on your speakers.
If a preamp is not built into any of your stereo components, then you need to use a separate (standalone) phono preamp.
PS! Preamp, phono preamp and phono stage mean the same and I use the terms interchangeably in this article.
We’ll look at the purpose of the preamp and why it is absolutely necessary to include it later in this article, but first, let’s review the four ways to include a preamp in more detail.
Preamp built into the turntable
Entry-level turntables ($100-$400) often come with a built-in preamp. But not always. To check if the turntable has a built-in preamp, check if there is a LINE output. A turntable with a LINE output always has a built-in preamp. If there, on the other hand, is a PHONO output only, the turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp.
As we enter the mid-range and high-end turntable categories (more expensive), turntables with built-in preamps are not very common.
Below is a table that shows some of today’s most popular affordable turntables and whether they have a built-in preamp or not.
|Pro-Ject Debut Carbon||No|
|Rega Planar 1||No|
|U-Turn Orbit Plus||Optional|
Preamp built into the stereo receiver
If you have a stereo receiver that was built in the 1970s, 80s or early 90s, it is very likely that the receiver has a built-in preamp. But when CDs replaced vinyl records and vinyl almost stopped selling at the beginning of the 1990s, most receiver manufacturers started to exclude the preamp from their receiver designs. Until 2015 or so, when the vinyl format got popular enough so that receiver manufacturers started to include preamps in their receivers again.
To check if a receiver has a built-in preamp, check if the receiver has a PHONO input. A receiver with a PHONO input definitely has a built-in preamp.
Preamp built into powered speakers
As we enter 2019 when this article is written, there are a few powered speakers with built-in preamps entering the market. The selection is very limited, but there is now possible to buy powered speakers with a built-in preamp.
Just as with the receiver, powered speakers with a built-in preamp will have a PHONO input.
Preamp as a standalone unit
The last option is to use a standalone phono preamp.
There are several reasons to go for this option.
The first and obvious one is that none of the other components in the setup have it built-in. So there is no other option than to include a standalone preamp.
Another reason is that standalone preamps generally are of higher quality than built-in preamps. And will produce higher fidelity sound.
And at last, not having to buy a turntable or a receiver with a built-in preamp, will give you so many more options to choose from. You don’t have to limit your search to only turntables and receivers with built-in preamps.
What is the purpose of a preamp?
The purpose of the preamp is to convert the tiny PHONO signal produced by the phono cartridge to a LINE signal. A LINE signal is a standard signal level that is outputted by all home audio stereo components like CD players and DVD players. A LINE signal can be connected to the LINE or AUX inputs on amplifiers, receivers and active speakers. While a PHONO signal can not.
When the preamp converts the PHONO signal to a LINE signal, two things happen.
First, the tiny signal from the cartridge is boosted/amplified so that it is strong enough to be connected to a LINE input. The amplitude (size) of the signal is increased by approximately 100 X for a standard MM cartridge.
And secondly, the bass is significantly increased while the high tones (treble) is significantly reduced. When records are carved, the bass is reduced to save space on the record. And the preamp corrects this so that the music will have the right balance between bass and treble. This process is called RIAA equalization.
What happens if I don’t include a preamp?
If the preamp is skipped two things will happen.
The music volume will be very low. Almost so low that even with the volume knob turned to max you will barely hear the music.
And the music (if you can hear it) will have no bass at all. As the bass is significantly reduced when the record is carved. And the treble will be way too high in volume compared to the mid-range and bass.
It will sound very strange indeed.
How to connect a standalone preamp?
A standalone preamp must be connected between the turntable and amplifier/receiver. Or if you use powered speakers (with amplifier built-in), between the turntable and the speakers.
The PHONO inputs on the preamp connects to the PHONO outputs on the turntable. And the LINE output on the preamp connects to LINE or AUX inputs on the amplifier/receiver or powered speakers.
If the turntable has a dedicated connector for a separate ground wire, a ground wire must be used to ground the preamp to the turntable. Not every turntable has a dedicated ground connector. But if it has, it is important to connect it.
What cables do I need to connect my preamp?
Standard RCA signal cables. Male to Male.
Do I need to ground my preamp?
The preamp has to be grounded with a separate ground wire of there is a ground connector on the turntable.
Left ungrounded, a noticeable noise or hum might appear in the speakers.
Some turntables are grounded to the preamp by the RCA cables and do not need a separate ground wire.
Can I connect a preamp between my turntable and powered speakers?
Powered speakers normally have a LINE or AUX input, so if your turntable does not have a built-in preamp the way to go is to put a standalone preamp between the turntable and the powered speakers.
If the turntable has a built-in preamp, it can be connected directly to powered speakers without a standalone preamp.
And if you have a pair of those very rear powered speakers with built-in preamp, you can even connect a turntable without a built-in preamp directly to them.
What are PHONO, LINE and AUX signals?
PHONO is the signal coming directly from the turntable’s cartridge. It needs to be routed through a preamp to be converted to a LINE level signal.
LINE is a standard signal level that is used to connect CD players, DVD players, records players etc., to amplifiers and receivers.
AUX is a general term for LINE inputs. On some amplifiers/receivers the LINE inputs are named CD, Recorder, Tuner, DVD, etc., etc. Other amplifiers/receivers generalize these and name the inputs AUX. You can connect CD players, Record players, preamps etc. to AUX.
Are standalone preamps better than built-in preamps?
Yes. In general.
It will of course depend on the quality of the built-in preamp in question. But a standalone preamp that cost $100 or more will in most cases be of substantially higher quality than a preamp that is built into an affordable turntable or receiver.
In a budget stereo setup, the preamp is however not the component that is worth upgrading first. It is more critical to have a decent turntable and a decent pair of speakers in place. So spend the money on turntable and speakers until you have a plus $400 turntable and a plus $800 pair of speakers. Then it might be worth to spend $100 to $200 on a good preamp for your next upgrade.
How much does a preamp cost?
From $15 to $20,000. But if you are not an audiophile or a millionaire, we can skip the ones that cost above $200 or so. The increase in sonic performance per hundred or thousand dollars spent is very small as we pass $200 when it comes to preamps.
I however think preamps in the $15 to $50 range is only worth considering if you need one just to get sound out of an entry-level turntable without a built-in preamp.
If you are looking for a preamp to use with a mid-range or high-end turntable it is probably wise to look between $100 and $200 to be sure that the preamp becomes a weak link in your setup, hindering you from extracting the sonic potential from your turntable.
In the $50-$100 range, the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM is probably the best buy. Good sound. Very well reviewed.
If you up the ante to the $100-$200 range, the Rega Fono Mini A2D is a very good preamp for the price. Exceptionally well received by Hi-Fi critics, musically excellent and it offers a USB output to convert records to digital music.
You can read What Hi-Fi review of the Rega Fono Mini A2D here.
How do I connect a turntable to a receiver without phono input? If you have a turntable with a built-in preamp, you connect the LINE output from the turntable to the LINE or AUX input on the receiver. If your turntable does not have a built-in preamp, you will need a standalone preamp between the turntable and the receiver.