How to Set Up a Stereo to Play Vinyl Records?

Setting up a stereo to play vinyl records can be a bit confusing as there are many ways to configure a vinyl-playing stereo setup. There are different signal levels to be aware of, turntables might or might not have an integrated preamp and speakers might or might not have an integrated amplifier. And what the heck is a preamp anyway?

Done incorrectly, the setup will not play your vinyl records at all. You will not hear the music… We’ll get back to that.

But done correctly, vinyl records can play amazing warm sounding analog beautiful music.

So how do you set up a stereo to play vinyl?

To play vinyl records, the stereo setup must include four necessary components.

1 Turntable
2 PHONO preamp
3 Amplifier/receiver
4 Speakers

These four essential components can be standalone units or bundled together.

The preamp can be bundled with the turntable or the amplifier/receiver. And the amplifier/receiver can be bundled with the speakers.

This gives five possible stereo configurations that will be explained in detail later in this article.

Furthermore, it is essential that the components are connected using the right outputs and inputs. PHONO level outputs must connect to PHONO level inputs. And LINE level outputs must connect to LINE level inputs.

Alright.

That was the short answer.

For a full understanding, it is probably necessary to dig in a bit deeper.

So let us do that.

I’ll start with explaining the purpose and function of the four essential components as best I can.

Then we’ll look at every possible configuration for a vinyl playing stereo setup in detail.

And at last, the pitfalls to avoid.

#1 The Turntable

The turntable’s task is to convert the music that is carved into the record into a tiny electrical signal. What is called a PHONO signal

The groves in the record are picked up by the stylus (needle) and generate a mechanical vibration that is converted to this electrical signal in the cartridge.

The PHONO signal generated then needs to be RIAA equalized (corrected) and boosted before it can be made into sound by the speakers. That is taken care of by the preamp.

#2 The Preamp (Preamplifier)

The preamp is a component that is important to understand in a vinyl-playing stereo setup. It has two main tasks.

The first one is to correct the tone of the signal that is picked up by the turntable. When a record is carved, the bass (lower tones) of the music is significantly reduced and the treble (higher notes) are significantly increased. This is because lower tones take up more physical space on the records (wider grooves) than higher tones. So to be able to space more than one song on each side of a record this RIAA equalization technique is used.

So the first (and very important) task of the preamp is to correct the tone of the signal so that the music will sound right.

The other task is to amplify the tiny signal that is picked up by the turntable to what is called a LINE level signal. LINE level is a standard signal level that is outputted by all consumer music equipment like CD players and DVD players. And that can be inputted to an amplifier/receiver (or active speakers).

The signal inputted to the preamp is a PHONO level signal.
And the signal outputted from the preamp is a LINE level signal.
(Sometimes also called AUX signal.)

Some turntables have a preamp included and some turntables have not. And for the turntables that have a preamp included, an option (switch) to bypass the integrated preamp is often present so that a standalone external preamp can replace the integrated one if desired.

To check if your turntable has a built-in preamp, see if there is a PHONO/LINE switch or LINE output at the back. If there is, your turntable definitely has a built-in preamp,

Also, some amplifier/receivers have a preamp included. (Those that have a PHONO input.) But not all amplifier/receivers have a preamp.

And in the case where neither the turntable or amplifier/receiver have the preamp included, a standalone (external) preamp has to be included in the setup.

If a preamp is not included anywhere in the setup, the music will not sound right at all. It is not possible to skip the preamp.

A standalone preamp is connected between the turntable and the amplifier/receiver. (Or between the turntable and the speakers if active speakers are used.)

#3 The Amplifier/Receiver

This is the component that power-amplifies the signal so that it can drive the speakers. It is usually also the component that let you adjust the volume of the music, let you select between different music sources, PHONO, CD, DVD, AUX, etc.

If we use active speakers, the power amplifier is integrated into the speakers, and no amplifier/receiver is necessary.

#4 The Speakers

The final component is the speakers. They convert the audio signal to music in the air.

It is important to be aware of the two different “categories” of speakers.

#1 Passive speakers. This is speakers that do not have an amplifier included. And that is not connected to power. Passive speakers have to be driven by a standalone amplifier/receiver that connects to the speakers by speaker wire.

#2 Active speaker. This is speakers that have an amplifier included. They connect to power. With active speakers, you do not need a standalone amplifier/receiver. They connect directly to your preamp (or turntable with preamp included) via RCA cables (LINE level signal cables).

The Five Ways to Set Up a Vinyl Playing Stereo Explained

Now that the four essential components are all explained, let us look deeper into the five possible configurations.

Option 1

Turntable with built-in preamp and active speakers.

With this setup you only need two main components. A turntable with a built-in preamp and a set of active speaker with built-in amplifier. A good choice for someone just starting out playing vinyl and do not have a huge budget to spend. You can get a budget setup like this starting at about $200. A decent setup will set you back about $500.

Components

  • Turntable with built-in preamp
  • Active speakers
  • 1 x RCA signal cable (Usuall included)

How to connect

  1. Connect the LINE output on the turntable to LINE input on the active speakers with RCA signal cable
  2. Connect both units to power

Option 2

Turntable without a built-in preamp, standalone preamp, and active speakers.

In this setup a standalone preamp is added to the basic setup in option one above. If your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp this is your only choice if you want to use active speakers. Furthermore, many turntables that have a built-in preamp also have the option to by-pass it and output a PHONO signal that needs to be connected to an external preamp. So if you want to add a preamp that is of higher quality (produce better sound) than the preamp integrated into the turntable, it might be a valuable upgrade to your system to add a standalone preamp like shown in the figure above. A good quality standalone preamp that will produce better sound than the built-in one will generally set you back from $50 to $100.

Components

  • Turntable with PHONO output
  • Standalone preamp
  • Active speakers
  • 2 x RCA signal cable (Usually included)
  • Ground wire to ground preamp to turntable

How to connect

  1. Connect the PHONO output on the turntable to the PHONO input on the preamp with RCA signal cable
  2. Connect the LINE output on the preamp to the LINE input on the active speakers with RCA signal cable
  3. Connect the ground wire to GROUND on preamp and turntable
  4. Connect all three units to power

Option 3

Turntable with built-in preamp, amplifier/receiver and passive speakers.

In this setup, the active speakers included in option one and two is replaced by passive speakers without a built-in amplifier. That means that a standalone amplifier/receiver is necessary to power the speakers. Just like in option one, this setup uses the preamp that is integrated into the turntable. As this setup requires a standalone amplifier/receiver in addition to the turntable and speakers, the total cost will start at $500 for the budget variants. A good quality setup will be in the $500-$1000 range. Probably closer to $1000.

Components

  • Turntable with built-in preamp
  • Amplifier/Receiver
  • Passive speakers
  • 1 x RCA signal cable (Usually included)
  • Speaker wire

How to connect

  1. Connect the LINE output on the turntable to LINE input on the amplifier/receiver with RCA signal cable
  2. Connect the LEFT PWR OUT on the amplifier/receiver to the left speaker using speaker wire
  3. Connect the RIGHT PWR OUT on the amplifier/receiver to the right speaker using speaker wire
  4. Connect the turntable and the amplifier/receiver to power

Option 4

Turntable without a built-in preamp, amplifier/receiver with built-in preamp and passive speakers.

If you use an amplifier/receiver with a built-in preamp you can connect a turntable without preamp directly to the amplifier/receiver without a standalone preamp. Many older amplifier/receivers have quite good quality preamps built in so it might be wise to use this preamp instead of the one integrated into the turntable. If you however buy a new budget receiver with integrated preamp (PHONO inputs), don’t expect the quality of the built-in preamp to be very good as the manufacturer now days usually don’t spend a lot of money on the components in that circuitry.

Components

  • Turntable with PHONO output
  • Amplifier/Receiver with built-in preamp
  • Passive speakers
  • 1 x RCA signal cable (Usually included)
  • Ground wire to ground preamp to amplifier/receiver
  • Speaker wire

How to connect

  1. Connect the PHONO output on the turntable to PHONO input on the amplifier/receiver with RCA signal cable
  2. Connect the ground wire to GROUND on preamp and amplifier/receiver
  3. Connect the LEFT PWR OUT on the amplifier/receiver to the left speaker using speaker wire
  4. Connect the RIGHT PWR OUT on the amplifier/receiver to the right speaker using speaker wire
  5. Connect the turntable and the amplifier/receiver to power

Option 5

Turntable without a built-in preamp, standalone preamp, amplifier/receiver and passive speakers.

In this setup, all the four essential components are standalone gear. This is recommended if your budget allows is as standalone components tend to have higher quality than components bundled together. And it makes your system more upgradable in the future. Compared to the setups in option three and option four, adding a $50-$100 standalone preamp will usually be well worth money spent as a good quality standalone preamp usually have a significant impact on the sound quality of the stereo.

Components

  • Turntable with PHONO output
  • Standalone preamp
  • Amplifier/Receiver
  • Passive speakers
  • 2 x RCA signal cable (Usually included)
  • Ground wire to ground preamp to turntable
  • Speaker wire

How to connect

  1. Connect the PHONO output on the turntable to PHONO input on the preamp with RCA signal cable
  2. Connect the ground wire to GROUND on preamp and turntable
  3. Connect the LINE output on the preamp to the LINE input on the amplifier/receiver
  4. Connect the LEFT PWR OUT on the amplifier/receiver to the left speaker using speaker wire
  5. Connect the RIGHT PWR OUT on the amplifier/receiver to the right speaker using speaker wire
  6. Connect the turntable, preamp and the amplifier/receiver to power

Which option to choose?

That really comes down to three factors.

  1. Your budget
  2. The gear you already have in your stereo setup
  3. Your passion for music and home audio

1 Your budget

If you are on a low budget and need to buy the whole setup from scratch the best option is option one. To buy a turntable with integrated preamp and active speakers. If you on the other side have the option to stretch the budget and are buying a complete setup from scratch, buying standalone gear as described in option five is the way to go. The general advice is, if you can, to buy separate gear over bundles. As the quality of standalone gear is is usually higher than the quality of bundled gear.

2 The gear you already have in your stereo setup

If you already have a stereo setup and only want to upgrade it to play vinyl, the advice is simply to review the options above and see what suits you best. If you have an amplifier/receiver with a PHONO input you can buy a turntable without a built-in preamp and get away with it. If you have an amplifier/receiver or a set of passive speakers without a PHONO input you will need to buy a turntable with a built-in preamp. Or a turntable without a built-in preamp and a separate standalone preamp.

3 Your passion for music and home audio

If you are a home audio enthusiast, then skip option one to four and go for option five. Standalone gear. It will in most cases produce better quality sound, you will have all the options for further upgrades and you can, of course, spend all your precious time reading and thinking about the next stereo upgrade that will take you one step closer to your perfect sounding vinyl playing home stereo. Just like every other home audio enthusiast spend his or her time.

Pitfalls to Avoid when buying a vinyl-playing stereo setup

Now, that you have become a vinyl-playing stereo setup expert, you can probably see what the main pitfalls are. But just in case, here are the main pitfalls to watch out for.

Not including a preamp. As the preamp both RIAA equalizes (corrects) the signal from the record and amplifies it to LINE level, not including one in your system will not make the music sound correct at all.

Connecting components using the wrong inputs/outputs. Avoid connecting a turntable with PHONO signal output to LINE level inputs on an amplifier/receiver. And likewise, avoid connecting a LINE level output from your turntable or preamp to a PHONO level input on your amplifier/receiver. It must be PHONO out to PHONO in, or LINE out to LINE in.

Connecting passive (not powered) speakers directly to your turntable. Passive speakers must be connected to an amplifier/receiver via speaker wire. Your turntable and preamp are not powerful enough to drive passive speakers.

Not grounding a standalone preamp. If you use a standalone preamp make sure it is grounded correctly using a separate ground wire that connects to the turntable. As the PHONO signal is very love in amplitude it will easily pick up noise and proper grounding is necessary. The same is relevant if you connect a turntable without a preamp to an amplifier/receiver with a preamp. Make sure the dedicated ground wire is connected.

Related Questions

What is the difference between a record player and a turntable? Although the terms are often used interchangeably, a record player is usually considered to be an all-in-one device that does not need any external components (preamp/amplifier/speakers) to play records. A turntable, on the other hand, is often considered a more high-end piece of equipment and will need external components (amplifier/speakers) to play records.

What is the difference between a PHONO signal and a LINE level signal? A PHONO signal is the signal coming from the turntable cartridge that is not yet RIAA equalized and amplified in a preamp. A LINE level signal is a signal coming out of the preamp that is RIAA equalized and amplified to the same signal level that CD player, DVD players, and all standard audio equipment output. The LINE level signal can be inputted to an amplifier/receiver standard LINE inputs, while the PHONO signal must first go through a preamp.

  • Tom
  • December 25, 2018