A phono preamp is one of the first components in a HI-FI turntable setup that sounds way more intimidating than it is. It sounds like some sort of science fiction device. In this phono preamp guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to be a total expert, and hopefully, you’ll be able to decide which phono preamp is best for your setup. Let’s jump in.
What Is A Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp, also known as a phono preamplifier or phono stage, is an audio component that amplifies the audio signal from a turntable so it can be successfully connected to the rest of your HI-FI sound system.
How does a phono preamp work?
A phono preamp serves two main functions. The first is signal conversion. Your turntable produces a phono signal. A preamp converts that level to a line signal. A line signal is what your receiver or sound system needs to play your music.
The other function a phono preamp accomplishes is amplification. The sound level coming from your turntable is too quiet for your sound system to deliver. A preamp amps that sound up so you can crank those tunes properly.
Why do I need a phono preamp?
You need a phono preamp for your turntable to integrate into your system. We’ll talk about the different types of preamps later on, but some turntables have them built-in. So you may not need to buy a separate piece, but you do need a preamp for your music to play.
Types of Phono Preamps
There are two main types of phono preamps: moving magnet and moving coil. Which type you need is actually dependent on your turntable cartridge. Conveniently, these cartridge types are also called moving magnet and moving coil. You can probably guess which goes with which.
Moving Magnet Phono Preamp
A moving magnet phono preamp is the most common type of preamp. It has less amplification than a moving coil preamp because less is required. If your turntable has a moving magnet “mm” cartridge, then you need a moving magnet preamp.
Moving Coil Phono Preamp
Because a moving coil turntable cartridge has a lower output frequency, more amplification is required. That’s why a moving coil phono preamp has more amplification than a moving magnet type. If your turntable has a moving coil “mc” cartridge, then you need a moving coil preamp.
How to tell if you already have a phono preamp
Turntables with built-in phono preamps
A lot of newer turntables come with built-in phono stages; especially if the turntable is cheap. If you recently bought a suitcase turntable, it probably has one built-in, so you are good to go.
If you arent’ sure if your turntable has a built-in preamp, just plug it into your sound system. Does it sound normal? If the sound level is too quiet or the sound quality is distorted, then you need a preamp.
Receivers with built-in phono preamps
Newer receivers do not have phono preamps built-in. This is something you normally only find in older receivers. A new receiver might have an input marked “phono input”, but that just means that’s where you are supposed to plug your preamp into.
If you are using a receiver from the 1980s or earlier, look for an input marked “phono input”. If there is a ground screw next to it, then the receiver has a phono stage built-in. You just need to plug in the turntable and ground the whole setup.
Speakers with built-in phono preamps
First, for speakers to have a built-in phono stage, they have to be powered. Otherwise, they won’t be able to amplify the sound.
Speakers with a built-in preamp are going to be high end. These are going to be the best bookshelf speakers for turntables, and they actually perform pretty well. You just plug them in and you’re good to go.
How to Choose the Right Phono Preamp for Your setup
Once you’ve found out what type of cartridge your record player has, you are pretty much all set. You just pick out a preamp to match. To make this even easier, most manufacturers put a little switch on the back of the preamp marked “MC-MM”. You can switch between the two to find what fits your system.
Besides that, the best phono preamps are going to amplify your sound properly to match the rest of your system. They also need to properly convert the line-level signal so it has the best sound quality possible. To find out which has the best sound quality, be sure to check out the reviews of any preamps you are considering.
How to connect a phono preamp
To connect your preamp to your record player, you are going to need a set of audio cables. You will probably have a left and a right audio cable. Connect your turntable with the two cables, and a grounding wire if your turntable has one. Then plug the other end of the cables into your preamplifier.
Where to put a phono preamp
When placing audio components, you are trying to optimize your placement to get the best sound quality possible and avoid humming. The best way to do that is to keep cables clear and away from amplified components so there won’t be any interference with your line level. Be sure to place your phono preamplifier away from any other types of amplifiers, and in such a way that your audio cables are away from any power cables. Specifically, if you have a high-end stereo receiver, you want to keep the preamplifier away from it.
The easiest setup for most people is to mount the phono preamplifier behind your record player on the back of your record player stand. That allows you to keep all your cables organized so there’s no interference and you get the best sound quality possible.
What to avoid when setting up a phono preamp
As we said above, keep your phono preamp clear of a high-end receiver, or any powered components. Obviously, put a phono stage in a safe place. Also, never plug your phono stage into something it isn’t designed for. Plugging your phono stage into a cheap CD player won’t make it sound better. Things like that just wreck phono stages.
The best phono preamps of 2021
There’s a ton of different phono preamps on the market. Here are a few of our favorites.
What is a Phono Preamp | Final Thoughts
If you made it all the way to the end, then congratulations. This was an exhaustive guide into phono preamps, and, for most of you, it’s more than you wanted to know. If you have a higher-end turntable and a high-end stereo system, then it’s likely any phono preamp will work. But, we believe knowledge is power, and hopefully, you know more now than you did before.
If you liked this guide, let us know in the comments, and check out our other guides like this one.