One of the confusing things about turntables (and record players) is that they come with and without preamps. Turntables with preamps are just as common as turntables without.
If a turntable has a preamp built in, it will output the same signal and signal level as other music sources like CD players, DVD players, and analog outputs on computers and digital streamers. We call this a LINE LEVEL signal.
But, if the turntable doesn’t have a preamp built in, it will output a signal that has a very low signal level, reduced bass and enhanced treble. We call this a PHONO signal.
If you connect a turntable without a preamp to a regular analog input on a stereo receiver or Hi-Fi system, the music will sound very strange with no bass and very low music volume. So low volume that you almost can’t hear the music.
How do we tell if a turntable has a preamp?
If a turntable has a preamp, it will usually have a PHONO/LINE switch at the back. To activate the preamp, the switch must be set to LINE. If the switch is set to PHONO, then the built-in preamp is bypassed.
Another, more practical way to find out, is to connect the turntable to a regular analog input on a receiver or Hi-Fi and check if the music volume or normal or extremely low. If the volume is super low and there are no other issues with the Hi-Fi, then it is very likely that the turntable doesn’t have a preamp.
What does a preamp do?
A phono preamp converts PHONO to LINE level.
When the phono cartridge that is mounted on the tip of the tonearm reads the grooves that are carved into the record, it outputs a tiny electrical signal called a PHONO signal.
The PHONO signal is very small in size and it has reduced bass and enhanced treble.
The reason for the reduced bass and enhanced treble is that the bass is reduced on the production side before the record is carved. Because low frequencies (bass) take up much more space on the record than higher frequencies (treble), the bass is reduced to fit more songs on a record.
To correct this, the phono preamp increases the bass and reduces the treble so that the frequency response is neutral again.
The preamp also boosts the tiny PHONO signal about 100 times so it achieves a standard LINE signal level.
You can read more about the difference between PHONO and LINE in this article here at Vinyl Restart.
What to do if your turntable doesn’t have a preamp?
If your turntable doesn’t have a preamp, the easiest fix is to buy a cheap standalone preamp that you connect between the turntable and the Hi-Fi. This is a sub $20 fix. One good alternative is the Pyle Phono Turntable Preamp (Amazon link). I have this preamp myself and it works fine.
In the picture below, I have connected a Rega Fono Mini A2D preamp between my turntable and receiver. Connecting a preamp is quite easy. Just follow the instructions that come with the preamp you buy.
Another fix is to replace the turntable with one that has a phono preamp built in. It might be a drastic step to take, but if your turntable is due for replacement anyway, it might be the way to go. A decent entry-level turntable with a preamp built in can be bought for as little as $100-$150. I have listed a few options at the end of this article.
Another way to fix the situation is by using an amplifier/receiver that has a preamp built-in. Check if the amplifier/receiver has a PHONO input. If it has, it has a built-in preamp. I will list a few good amplifiers with built-in preamps below as well.
The final fix is to use powered speakers with a preamp-built-in. You guessed it, there are recommendations below.
A quick word on MM vs MC.
Most turntables come with a moving magnet (MM) cartridge. But there are some very expensive high-end turntables that come with a moving coil (MC) cartridge.
All the solutions above will work for MM cartridges. But if the turntable has a MC cartridge, it will require a MC compatible preamp. Such as the Pro-Ject Phono Box DC MM/MC which supports both MM and MC cartridges.
If the turntable doesn’t belong to a hardcore audiophile with a super expensive stereo, then the cartridge is almost certainly MM.
You can read more about the difference between MM and MC in this article here at Vinyl Restart.
Below is a list of recommended products that are relevant to this topic. In addition to the phono preamps I have already mentioned.
Recommended turntables with preamp
A great and affordable turntable with preamp is the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X. It is probably the entry-entry level turntable that receives the most praise from experts and owners.
It also comes in a Bluetooth version that lets you connect the turntable wirelessly to Bluetooth compatible amplifiers, receivers, and wireless speakers.
For a turntable with preamp that will offer a more high-end sound quality, I recommend the Rega Planar 1 Plus. It combines the award-winning Rega Planar 1 turntable with the award-winning Rega Fono Mini A2D preamp.
For a more in-depth read on great turntables with preamp, I recommend this article here at Vinyl Restart.
Recommended turntables without preamp
Turntables without preamp starts at a higher price point than turntables with preamps built-in. For an affordable turntable with preamp I recommend the U-Turn Orbit Plus. It is a great sounding and great looking US made turntable that offers very high value for money.
For even better sound, a great option is the Rega Planar 2. It is the turntable I use to spin vinyl myself. And I love it. It sounds great. Looks great. Feels very well built. And is highly upgradeable.
Recommended amplifiers with built-in preamp
I have whole guide on recommended amplifiers for turntables that I recommend that you check out. The amplifiers I recommend in that article are the Denon PMA-600NE, the Yamaha A-S301BL, and the more affordable Sony STRDH190.
Recommended power speakers with built-in preamp
Powered speakers with built-in preamps are rare. There are, however, I few good options. I recommend that you check out the Klipsch R-51PM or the Kanto YU6.