Is a preamp necessary to play vinyl records? That is one of the most common questions I get asked on the topic of turntables and record players.
A stereo must include a phono preamp to play vinyl records. But that does not necessarily mean that the phono preamp must be a separate box. Many turntables, receivers, and even powered speakers already have a phono preamp built-in.
If you try to play vinyl records on a stereo that does not include a phono preamp, the music will be extremely low in volume and totally lack bass.
The preamp essentially boosts the music signal from the turntable so that it becomes hearable. We’ll look more into the purpose and function of the preamp shortly.
Phono preamps are also called phono stage and RIAA stage. Or simply preamp.
There are four ways to include a phono preamp in your stereo setup. Let’s look at each one in detail.
#1 – 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.
On turntables with built-in preamp, there is usually a switch that can be set to PHONE or LINE. So you can choose if you want to enable or disable the internal preamp.
If your turntable has a built-in preamp, and the switch is set to LINE, then it can be connected to all types of standard inputs on amplifiers, receiver and powered speakers. These inputs are often labeled AUX, LINE, CD, TUNER, INPUT and ANALOG.
If you looking for a very affordable turntable with built-in preamp, I highly recommend the Audio-Technica AT-LP60XBT. Possible the most popular turntable on the market.
If you are looking for a higher quality turntable with a built-in preamp, then the Rega Planar 1 Plus is your best option in my opinion. It combines the award winning Rega Planar 1 turntable with the award-winning Rega Fono Mini A2D preamp into a package that is very high value for money.
When we enter the audiophile and high-end turntable categories, turntables with built-in preamps are not very common. In this price range, we mostly find purist turntables that don’t include a phono preamp.
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|
|Rega Planar 1 Plus||Yes|
|Rega Planar 2||No|
|U-Turn Orbit Plus||Optional|
#2 – 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.
If your receiver has a PHONO input, you can connect a turntable without a phono preamp to that input. This way, you will use the preamp that is built into the receiver.
#3 – Preamp built into powered speakers
There are a few powered speakers with built-in preamps available on the market as well. The selection is very limited, but there is 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.
#4 – 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 your setup have a preamp 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.
When you use a standalone phono preamp, it must be connected between the PHONO output on your turntable and one of the LINE inputs on your receiver. LINE inputs are often labeled AUX, LINE, CD, TUNER, INPUT and ANALOG.
You can check out my complete guide on how to connect a turntable here.
As a vinyl enthusiast, I have done a lot of research on best phono preamps.
This is covered in detail in my 10 Best Phono Preamps from $10 to $500 article.
Here are the three I recommend most strongly from very cheap to more expensive. Three great preamps that I use myself.
If you are not super picky on sound quality, and just want a preamp that does the job, then I highly recommend the Pyle Mini Phono Preamp PP444. It costs almost nothing and works beautifully.
You can read more about the Pyle Mini Phono Preamp PP444 in my Does an Expensive Phono Preamp Sound Better article.
If you want to invest in a higher quality preamp with true audiophile sound quality, then I highly recommend the Rega Fono Mini A2D. It punches far above its price range and have won several awards. This has been my trusted phono preamp for a long time. Highly recommended.
You can read What Hi-Fi review of the Rega Fono Mini A2D here.
If you looking for something a little bit more special, I highly recommend the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. This is a tube phono preamp that adds a touch of warmth and smoothness to your vinyl sound. Quality tube phono preamps are often very expensive, but the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 provides the sound and feel of a true tube preamp for a relatively low price.
You can read my review of the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 here.
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 if 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.
You can read more about the difference between PHONO and LINE in this helpful guide.
Is 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.
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.