Do I Need A Phono Preamp? – Maybe You Do!
You’re probably wondering, “Do I need a phono preamp?” In order to answer your question, you’ll need to know what they’re used for an why you might want to add one to your turntable setup.
In some cases, a phono stage is an absolute necessity. Depending on your specific turntable, you may or may not need one.
We’ll go over how a phono preamp (aka phono stage) is used, why you might (or might not) need one, and how they perform a vital function in the seemingly simple process of listening to vinyl. If that sounds like what you’ve been searching for, keep reading to get the complete rundown.
Do I Need A Phono Preamp?
Sometimes it’s easier to illustrate audio terms and components when you use real-life examples from other audio gear you might already own. We’ll start off by comparing a headphone amplifier to a phono stage and how they relate.
Have you ever used a headphone amplifier? If you have, you know how much of a difference they can make. A quality portable headphone amplifier is used to amplify the output of your portable device. A good one will help your music sound more full, vibrant, and better overall.
Usually, all you have to do is plug your headphones into the 3.5 mm jack then connect your headphone amp to your portable player. Most headphone amps are digital-based and therefore amplify digital signals.
How Does This Relate To Vinyl?
Since turntables play records, and records use an analog audio signal, they operate on a different mechanism than your MP3 player or smartphone. This doesn’t mean that you can’t amplify the analog signal, it just means that there’s a different way to go about it.
Similar to a headphone amplifier being used to boost your digital audio – you can use a different type of amplifier for the same purpose, except for vinyl records. That being said, the process isn’t as simple as plugging your headphones (or turntable) into an amp, turning the volume up and listening away.
In order to use an external amplifier with your turntable, you’ll need to make sure you have a phono stage. We’ll describe why it’s a necessity in more detail below.
It’s important to remember that a phono preamp is different than an amp. “Pre” means “before” or “in front of” and “amp” is short for “amplifier”. Basically, a phono stage is used to prepare and convert the audio signal coming from your record into a signal that can be played on external speakers.
Now that you have some background information, let’s get into the technical details on how this device works.
What Is A Phono Stage Used For?
Turntables produce something called a “phono” audio output signal. In order to amplify that signal, it will need to be converted into a signal that an external speaker or amplifier recognizes. This is where a phono stage comes into play.
Phono stages are used to convert the “phono” audio output signal from your turntable into a “line level” audio output signal. The line level signal is the ultimate goal of the whole operation.
Once the audio output signal is converted, it will be compatible with most speakers, stereo systems, and your computer or laptop. If your turntable has built-in speakers, it most likely also has a built-in phono stage. (We’ll go into more detail on that below.)
Most turntables don’t have built-in speakers, in which case you’ll need some external speakers on top of a phono stage in order to even hear your music. If you don’t already have some solid external speakers, you’ll want to take a look at the best bookshelf speakers here.
If you already have a pair of speakers that you’re happy with and you’re planning on using an external amplifier with your current setup, you’ll need to grab a dedicated phono stage – unless your turntable has one built-in. Keep reading to see how to check if you’re not sure whether or not your turntable has one built-in.
Does My Turntable Have One Built In?
Although more and more turntables nowadays will have a phono stage built-in, some do not. This might seem surprising, but it’s not that uncommon for older turntables to have them built-in. (Usually, the phono input on those is right next to a ground screw.)
If your turntable is older, brand new, or you lost the owners manual (and/or never got one), here are a few easy ways to check whether or not your turntable has one built-in:
- Look for RCA outputs somewhere on your turntable (usually the back or side)
- Check for a USB output (sometimes used to connect to an external amplifier)
- Look for an input labeled “Phono”
If you take a look at your turntable and it has any of the outputs listed above – chances are, your turntable already has a built-in phono stage. At this point, you have two choices: try an external preamp, or use the one that’s built-in.
What To Do If It’s Not Built-in
If you did the inspection above and didn’t find any of the inputs/outputs we listed, your turntable probably doesn’t have one.
No need to panic, it’s a surprisingly easy and fairly inexpensive fix. Here’s what you’ll need in order to get started:
- Cables for connecting to your audio system/speakers (Speaker wire and/or RCA cables in most cases)
- External phono stage
You can usually find a pair of quality cables for under $10. The type of cables you’ll need will depend on the type of speakers or audio system you’ll be connecting your turntable to.
Although most bookshelf speakers have RCA inputs, certain pairs of speakers and studio monitors (like the M-Audio BX5 D2) don’t have them. It’s a good idea to verify which inputs your speakers have before buying a bunch of random cables.
You could think of it as “doing your homework”, but this time it’s fun (and you won’t be graded on your performance).
If your speakers have RCA inputs, you’ll need RCA cables. If your speakers use Class 2 wiring (red and black slots for speaker wire), you’ll need RCA cables and some speaker wire.
Do You Need One? – Our Final Recommendation
The answer to the question of the hour will vary from person to person. As we previously mentioned, they’re an absolute essential in some cases. If your turntable doesn’t have one, our recommendation is to invest in the quality of your audio and add one to your setup.
If your turntable already has one built-in, there’s no need to go out and buy an additional piece of equipment. (If that’s the case, you might want to consider an external amplifier.) If you need a new turntable recommendation, the Ion Audio Max LP has both a built-in phono stage and speakers. You can see our full review here.
Do You Like To Experiment?
Some listeners prefer to use a dedicated phono stage even though their turntable already has one built-in. Whether or not it actually makes a night and day difference is still up for debate. The most important thing is that you have one (whether it’s built-in or not).
The Audio Technica LP60BT is another turntable that also has a built-in phono stage plus wireless capabilities. If you already own a similar player, our final recommendation is to use the built-in phono preamp and invest in a quality amplifier instead.
How Did We Do?
Hopefully this was easy to follow and we were able to help you understand the overall function, purpose, and complete process of how a phono stage works. Without the proper information and guidance, we understand how confusing some of these terms can seem when you buy your first turntable.
If your turntable doesn’t pass the inspection (listed above), your original question of “Do I need a phono preamp?” should’ve been answered by now. Unless you bought your turntable as a furniture accessory, you’ll want to consider taking a close look at the best-selling phono stages here.
Helping you along the journey of navigating the world of turntables and vinyl is our ultimate goal so it’s helpful to have your feedback. How did we do? Is there anything about phono stages that you need some more clarification on?
Does your turntable have a built-in phono stage, but you’re curious and want to experiment to see if an external device will really make a big difference?
Let us know what your experience has been and whether or not you think an additional phono stage is necessary by leaving a comment below!
Thanks for stopping by to learn about turntables with us, we look forward to hearing from you and hope to see you here again! If you know anyone else who would benefit from this post, feel free to share it on your social media and spread the word!
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