Home Resources What Is A Phono Preamp? Exploring Its Role In Vinyl Sound

What Is A Phono Preamp? Exploring Its Role In Vinyl Sound

by Stuart Charles Black
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Cover Image: Anton H

Greetings mate and Welcome aboard!

Stuart Charles here, HomeStudioBasics.com helping YOU make sound decisions, so…

In the realm of music production, sampling has become an art form that marries the old with the new.

Sample-based producers such as myself, inspired by the rich tones of vinyl records, dig into past eras to unearth sonic treasures.

We rely on turntables to capture the essence of yesteryear’s music and weave it into modern compositions.

Amid this creative process, a crucial but often overlooked element plays a pivotal role: the phono preamp.

Sample-Based Producers and Vinyl Turntables

Sample-based producers embrace vinyl records as their palette.

Armed with turntables, they explore these grooved disks, extracting fragments of vocals, beats, and melodies.

These vinyl-driven artisans use their turntables as instruments, spinning history into contemporary tunes.

The Unsung Hero: Phono Preamp

Yet, behind the scenes, the phono preamp, short for “phono preamplifier” or “phono stage” plays a vital role.

It takes the subtle vibrations embedded in vinyl’s grooves and transforms them into vibrant audio signals.

By amplifying and equalizing these delicate sounds, the phono preamp bridges the analog-digital gap, preserving the authenticity of vintage tones.

Turntables and vinyl records produce a much weaker signal compared to modern audio sources like CDs or digital files.

This weak signal needs to be amplified and equalized properly before it can be sent to a regular amplifier or receiver and eventually to speakers.

There are two main types of cartridges used in turntables: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC).

Each type has different output levels and impedance characteristics, so phono preamps are designed to match these specifications.

Phono preamps include the following functions:

Amplification

The primary function of a phono preamp is to amplify the weak signal produced by the turntable’s cartridge.

This amplification brings the signal level up to a suitable level that can be further processed by other audio equipment.

Impedance Matching

Different types of cartridges have different impedance characteristics.

Phono preamps are designed to provide the appropriate load impedance for the specific cartridge type being used.

This helps optimize the performance of the cartridge and maintain accurate frequency response.

Grounding and Noise Reduction

Vinyl playback systems can be susceptible to various types of noise, including hum and interference.

Phono preamps often include grounding options to reduce these types of noise and ensure a clean signal.

Gain Adjustments

Some phono preamps offer adjustable gain settings to accommodate cartridges with varying output levels.

This allows users to match the preamp’s gain to the specific characteristics of their turntable setup.

Equalization (RIAA Curve)

Vinyl records are mastered with a specific equalization curve called the RIAA curve.

This curve compensates for the frequency response limitations of vinyl records and allows for more accurate reproduction of the original audio.

Phono preamps include circuitry to apply the inverse of the RIAA curve, which “corrects” the audio signal before sending it to the amplifier.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, so let me explain the reasoning behind this process.

The RIAA curve is a specific equalization curve applied during the mastering of vinyl records.

Mastering Process

During the mastering of vinyl records, the RIAA curve is applied intentionally.

This involves boosting the low frequencies and attenuating the high frequencies before cutting the audio onto the vinyl.

This is done to optimize the use of the limited space on the record and to help reduce surface noise and distortion.

Playback Process

When the vinyl record is played back, the cartridge on the turntable generates an electrical signal that mirrors the RIAA curve applied during mastering.

To achieve accurate sound reproduction, the phono preamp then applies the inverse of the RIAA curve.

This effectively cancels out the equalization applied during mastering, resulting in a flat frequency response and faithful audio reproduction.

So, to reiterate, the phono preamp’s role is to correct the signal by applying the inverse of the RIAA curve, which was originally applied during mastering.

This correction is necessary to ensure that the playback audio accurately represents the original recording’s intended frequency balance.

And as a final note, all of this happens before the sound hits our ears, so remember that the purpose of the RIAA curve is only to mitigate the limitations of cutting audio onto vinyl and nothing else.

Additional Features

Depending on the model and brand, phono preamps can include additional features such as variable loading options for MC cartridges, analog-to-digital conversion, headphone outputs, and more.

Overall, a phono preamp is a crucial component in a vinyl playback setup, ensuring that the delicate and unique characteristics of vinyl records are accurately translated into high-quality audio that can be enjoyed through speakers or headphones.

Built-In vs. Standalone Phono Preamps

Turntables can be broadly categorized into two types based on whether they have a built-in phono preamp or not: those with a built-in preamp (often referred to as “phono preamp” or “phono stage”) and those without.

This distinction has implications for how the turntable is integrated into an audio system and the flexibility it offers to users.

Turntables with Built-In Phono Preamp

Many modern turntables come with a built-in phono preamp.

This means that the preamplification and equalization functions required to boost the signal from the turntable’s cartridge to line level are already integrated into the turntable itself.

These turntables are sometimes labeled as “phono preamp included” or “line-level output.”

When using such a turntable, you can connect it directly to the line-level inputs (e.g., AUX, CD, or Tape inputs) of a receiver, amplifier, or active speakers like the Presonus Eris e3.5.

Advantages:

  • Convenience: Turntables with built-in phono preamps simplify the setup process since you don’t need an external phono preamp.
  • Flexibility: You can connect these turntables to any input labeled for line-level sources, making them versatile and compatible with a wide range of audio systems.

Disadvantages:

  • Limited Upgradability: If you want to upgrade the phono preamp’s quality, you can’t do so without replacing the entire turntable.
  • Sound Quality: Integrated phono preamps might not offer the same level of sound quality as dedicated standalone phono preamps.

Simple turntable setup with the G6 and K702 headphones.

Turntables without Built-In Phono Preamp:

Some turntables do not have a built-in phono preamp.

These turntables require an external phono preamp to be connected between the turntable and the receiver, amplifier, or active speakers.

The signal from the turntable’s cartridge is too weak and needs the preamplification and equalization functions provided by the external phono preamp.

Advantages:

  • Sound Quality: External phono preamps are often of higher quality than built-in ones, leading to potentially better audio performance.
  • Upgradability: You have the freedom to choose and upgrade the phono preamp independently of the turntable.
  • Customization: You can match the external phono preamp’s characteristics to your cartridge’s specific requirements.

Disadvantages:

  • Additional Equipment: You need to purchase a separate phono preamp, which adds to the overall cost and complexity of the setup.
  • Cabling: Having an additional component means more cables and connections, which can sometimes introduce noise or interference.

Closing Thoughts

In the realm of music production, sample-based artists wield turntables as their time machines, extracting sonic treasures from vinyl’s grooves.

The RIAA curve, an unsung hero of vinyl’s journey, fine-tunes the recording process, making vinyl records possible while reducing noise.

When the turntable spins, the cartridge’s signal echoes the curve’s touch. Yet, the true maestro is the phono preamp, performing its elegant counterbalance by reversing the curve’s effects.

In this harmonious interplay of history and technology, the soul of vinyl thrives, offering a reminder that even as the digital age advances, the warmth of analog sound remains an enduring pleasure.

Well, that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed this What is A Phono Preamp? discussion and came away with some valuable insight.

Questions? Comments? Requests? Did I miss the mark on something? Please let me know down below or Contact me!!

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Are you looking for a turntable? If so, would you go with one that has a built-in phono preamp? I would love to hear from you. Until next time…

All the best and God bless,

 

 

-Stu

[Xtr@Ba$eHitZ]

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4 comments

Slowlearner August 30, 2023 - 7:45 am

In your experience, can connecting an external phono preamp to a turntable with a built-in phono preamp result in a better sound quality?

Reply
Stuart Charles Black August 30, 2023 - 4:24 pm

Hey man!

Connecting an external phono preamp to a turntable that already has a built-in phono preamp is technically possible, but whether it will improve sound quality depends on the specific equipment involved and your personal preferences.

I have never personally used an external phono preamp with one that had it already built in, but there’s really no universal answer for this. I guess it would partly depend on the quality of the built-in preamp in the existing gear. If it’s known to not be all that great, maybe utilizing a different one could help. It is said that standalone units provide better components, but that’s a matter of opinion.

I suppose in specific circumstances it could be worth trying out, but it’s also possible that you might not notice a substantial improvement.

Hope that helps! Let me know.

Cheers,

-Stu

Reply
Gregory August 30, 2023 - 9:00 am

What about the Vinyl Video Preamp with a HDMI output to feed video to your TV set

Reply
Stuart Charles Black August 30, 2023 - 4:26 pm

Hey man I’m not sure I understand your question.

Reply

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