phono preamp

What is a Phono Preamp? Boosting Your Record Player

Before we get into what is a phono preamp doing for your listening experience, let's clear the murky waters regarding terminology.

"Phono preamp" tends to be the most commonly used term, but you may also have heard the terms phono stage (or phonostage), phono preamplifier, phono section, and/or phono equalizer (among others still!).

For practical purposes, it's important to understand that these terms refer to the same thing: a pre-amplification circuit that deals specifically in the delicate phono signal generated by a phono cartridge.

Therefore it can be said that any turntable - from the most affordable to the most expensive on the market - requires a phono preamp at some point between the tonearm output and any line-level input on the main amplification section of your sound system (this could be the receiver, integrated amp, line preamp - whatever it is that you play your music though!)

What Does a Preamp Do For Your Turntable?

The phono preamp has 2 main functions imperative to the proper handling of the phono signal:

A: The preamp amplifies the phono signal by applying gain (dB).

B: Your phono preamp can equalize the signal based on a standard most widely agreed upon for vinyl playback since the 1950s (the RIAA equalization curve).

Essentially it preps the signal for the amplification stage so that it can be handled similarly to other sources such as CD players, DACs, and streaming via your phone, tablet, or computer. Since the signal generated by a phono cartridge is extremely low-level, it requires a huge boost in gain to mirror that of other sources.

Due to the way records are cut and the phono signal's delicate nature, simply applying gain is not enough. Gain without equalization would amount to untethered sonics with great amounts of extraneous noise. So that more musical information can be captured on a given record side, records are cut such that low frequencies are reduced (reducing groove width), high frequencies are boosted.

The RIAA circuit thusly accommodates for these exaggerations and returns the signal to something listenable, re-emphasizing low frequencies and trimming back highs.

How to Boost Your Vinyl Experience With a Phono Preamp

tube box phono preamp

Investing in a high-quality phono preamp makes a more substantial difference than many listeners may realize.

You can own the world's best-sounding turntable and it would sound poor relative to what it's capable of without proper phono pre-amplification. To allow all the benefits of a good record player to pass through your audio system, a similarly good phono preamp is essential. A more 'audiophile' phono preamp will implement better componentry, whether a tube box or an integrated circuit phono box, optimizing the signal and minimizing noise.

Minimizing noise is paramount. Even subtle noise levels that may seem inaudible can swallow up the low-level detail and nuance that draws us to vinyl. It's not just the circuitry that contributes to optimal sonics. The quality of the power supply, the RCA jacks (sometimes XLR), and even the chassis can lend themselves to reducing noise and improving sound quality.

As an example, the duo of a preamp and power supply upgrade is becoming increasingly popular just because of the difference a better PSU can make. In short - and as is the case with most things analog - every little bit can have an effect, which is why you see such variance in price and design market-wide. Entry-level preamps tend to handle moving magnet cartridges only.

MM cartridges are the most typical cartridge types because, among other things, the design principle allows for a user-replaceable stylus. Mid-range & high-end phono preamps usually accommodate moving coil cartridges in addition to MM. It’s widely agreed that an MC cartridge is capable of better sound, though of course there are no absolutes in this hobby.

A good MM cartridge can certainly out-perform a mediocre MC. However, the main X factor is how you prefer your vinyl records to sound in your stereo system.

Why You May Not Need a Phono Preamp

Keep in mind that a phono preamp can be hidden. It doesn't always take the form of stand-alone audio component. The hi-fi integrated amplifier (aka receiver) of yore had a PHONO input.

What this means is that phono preamp circuit was implemented therein. An external preamp is never advisable in that scenario (you'd be double pre-amplifying and heavily overdriving), nor is it advisable with turntables that have them built in (unless that preamp can be disengaged). As the vinyl listening hobby continues to grow in popularity, you'll find that today’s audio equipment includes phono preamps in their designs (including powered speakers!).

There are a million things to consider if you’re a critical listener, especially one who prefers vinyl.

Again, it’s often taken for granted just how significant a difference the best phono preamps can make. If you haven’t done so yet, do yourself a favor and explore this as an option for your next upgrade. There’s a good chance it’ll compel you to pull your old records from your bookshelf and enjoy your vinyl collection like you haven’t previously.

 

As always, we wish you happy listening!


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