The most confusing part of a turntable stereo setup continues to be the preamp. It often causes a lot of confusion for people that are new to vinyl records and turntables.
What is this thing? What does it do? Do I need it to play records on my turntable? And is there a difference between a preamp and a phono stage?
I will answer all those questions in this article. So when you are finished reading it, you will be a ninja on preamps and phono stages.
Let us start with this question:
Is a phono stage the same as a preamp?
To be exact, a phono stage is the same as phono preamp. But not necessarily the same as a preamp. In the context of turntables, the terms phono stage and preamp are generally used interchangeably. And generally means the same.
In a broader sense, a preamp can be more than a phono stage. A preamp can, for example, be a preamplifier for a microphone or analog sensors.
The term the major HiFi magazine WHAT HiFi uses to categorize preamps in the context of turntables and record players is phono stage.
Furthermore, almost all the best selling phono preamp manufacturers on Amazon describe their products as phono stage, phono preamp, phono preamplifier or phonographic preamplifier.
So they don’t only use preamp to describe their products.
In a stereo setup, a preamp(lifier) can also be a unit that includes the volume control, the source selector and the phono stage. A preamplifier like this will have many analog input connectors, but usually only one analog output connector (LINE output). This LINE output is then used to connect the preamplifier to a power amplifier that takes care of the power amplification and drive the speakers.
When a stereo preamplifier is bundled with a power amplifier into one unit, we get what’s called an integrated amplifier or a stereo receiver.
The very unique thing that a phono stage does to the music signal is something called RIAA equalization. I will describe what that is in detail later in this article, but in short, it corrects the tonality of the music that is carved into the record so that the music sound right. A preamp or preamplifier designed for other purposes than reproduction of recorded music will not have this unique feature.
Wikipedia defines preamp like this:
“A preamplifier (preamp or “pre”) is an electronic amplifier that converts a weak electrical signal into an output signal strong enough to be noise-tolerant and strong enough for further processing, or for sending to a power amplifier and a loudspeaker.”
So according to Wikipedia, preamp is a wider term used to describe more than phono stages or phono preamps.
To conclude this section, a preamp does not have to be the same as a phono stage. But in the context of turntables, preamp and phono stage means the same.
What is a phono stage (or phono preamp)
The purpose of the phono preamp is to convert the tiny PHONO signal produced in the 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 important things happens to the signal.
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 100X (For a 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 again have the right balance between bass and treble. This process is called RIAA equalization.
Moving Magnet (MM) vs Moving Coil (MC)
There are two main types of phonographic cartridges. Moving Magnet and Moving Coil. The technical differences are outside the scope of this article to describe, but the important thing to know is that the signal level from a MC cartridge is much lower than the signal level from a MM cartridge.
A MM cartridge usually outputs a signal level between 3mV and 6mV.
A MC cartridge usually outputs a signal level around 0.2mV.
Most standalone phono preamps (and phono stages included in stereo receivers) are compatible with a MM cartridge. But not all are compatible with a MC cartridge. So if buying gear to use with a turntable that has a MC cartridge it is important to verify that the gear supports MC.
Most entry-level and mid-range turntables use MM cartridges while MC cartridges are more common in High-End stereophile graded turntables.
Different ways to include the phono stage in a stereo setup
A phono stage is an absolutely necessary component in a vinyl playing stereo setup.
Without it, the music will have extremely low volume due to the absence of the extra amplification provided by the phono stage. And the music will have no bass at all due to the absence of the RIAA equalization.
So skipping the phono stage is not an option in a stereo setup that will be used for spinning vinyl.
There are 4 different ways to include the phono stage in a stereo setup.
- The phono stage can be integrated into the turntable
- The phono stage can be a standalone unit
- The phono stage can be integrated into the receiver
- The phono stage can be integrated into powered speakers
As we see above, the phono stage does not have to be a standalone unit. You only have to use a standalone one if one is not included in any of the other stereo components.
For an in-depth helpful guide on how to set up a stereo to play vinyl, please check out my How to Set Up a Stereo to Play Vinyl Records article where I explain all the different configurations in detail.
Traditionally (like in the 70s and 80s) the phono stage was often included in the stereo receiver. But when the vinyl sales hit rock bottom on the late 90s, receiver manufacturer stopped including a phono stage in their receiver design.
Many modern entry-level turntables have a phono stage included so that it can be hooked up to a receiver without a phono stage. Or to active speakers. But vintage turntables and modern higher-end turntables seldom has this feature. And will need a standalone phono stage or a receiver with a phono stage built in.
It is worth to mention that a standalone (separate) phono stage will in most cases have higher quality (better sound) than phono stages built into turntables and receivers. So a standalone phono stage is the way to go if you are picky about the sound quality.
As I write this article, powered speakers with built-in phono stages are just hitting the market. But they are still rare. And probably not something to consider if high-quality sound is a priority.
How much does a phono stage cost?
Phono preamps (or phono stages) cost from $20 to $20,000. Or more.
I decent phono preamp to use with a mid-range turntable will cost between $50 and $200. It is a good price range to look in when shopping for a phono preamp. The ones below $50 will have questionable quality and the once above $200 will only be necessary if you have a High-End stereophile graded stereo. Which most people don’t have. Or need to enjoy music.
Below are three popular and highly rated phono preamps in the $50 to $200 range. Starting with the most affordable one.
Pro-Ject Phono Box MM
Accepts MM and high-output MC cartridges.
The go-to phono preamp for most people that are looking for a good quality preamp that won’t break the bank.
Click here to check price in Amazon.
Pro-Ject Phono Box
Accepts MM and high-output MC cartridges as well as low-output MC cartridges.
Click here to check price on Amazon.
Rega Fono Mini A2D – MM – USB Output
This multi award winning phono preamp from Rega is our favorite affordable phono preamp at Vinyl Restart and the one I personally use for my home stereo.
Accepts MM and high-output MC cartridges and can be used to digitize your vinyl records.
Click here to check price on Amazon.
What is the difference between passive and active speakers? Passive speakers need to be connected to an amplifier/receiver to produce sound. They have no power amplifier built in. Active speakers, on the other hand, have a built-in power amplifier. Active speakers can be connected directly to a CD player or a DVD player. The can also be connected directly to a turntable if the turntable has a built-in preamp. Active speakers need to be connected to power, while passive speakers don’t connect to power.