How to choose a phono preamp
What you need to know before you buy one for your record player
What’s a phono preamp? Do you need one for your turntable?
To answer those simple questions, you can go deep into a rabbit hole of technical mumbo jumbo. I’ll do my best to keep it simple while steering you toward a wise decision.
What does a phono preamp do?
A phono preamp, also known as a phono stage, has two main jobs:
- Boost the weak audio signal generated by your turntable
- Equalize the signal
When vinyl records are made, bass frequencies are cut and high frequencies are boosted. A phono preamp restores the bass and reduces the treble.
Reducing low frequencies when records are made reduces groove width, which makes room for more music on each side of an LP. It also reduces stress on the stylus. Reducing the high frequencies on playback tends to reduce noise. If you’d like to learn a lot more, read this article about RIAA equalization.
Who needs a phono preamp?
Everyone who wants to play vinyl records needs a phono preamp. That’s why phono preamps are built into many receivers. Connect your turntable to your receiver’s phono input and you’re all set. The necessary signal boosting and equalization takes place inside the receiver.
You’ll also find phono preamps built into many integrated amps, some turntables, and even a few powered stereo speakers.
Who needs a separate phono preamp?
There are several good reasons to buy an external, stand-alone phono preamp:
- There’s no preamp built into either your turntable or your receiver, integrated amp, or powered speakers.
- You want to record your albums to your computer, and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in USB output.
- Your phono cartridge is not compatible with your receiver’s built-in phono stage.
- You want better sound than you’re getting from the phono stage that’s built into your receiver or amp.
If you’re not satisfied with the sound you’re getting from your current setup, an external phono stage might be the answer. Before you buy a new preamp, make sure there are no other weak links in your system.
Is your turntable the only music source component that doesn’t sound good? If not, maybe you need new speakers and/or a new amplifier.
How old is your cartridge? Is it a good one? Is its stylus worn out or does it need cleaning? It’s possible that a new cartridge or stylus would do more to improve your sound than a preamp would.
Maybe you just need a better turntable. How does its quality stack up to the rest of your audio gear?
Have you checked your connections? Are the turntable’s red and white RCA plugs solidly attached to the receiver’s red and white jacks? Things won’t sound right if the colors are reversed. Is the turntable’s ground wire firmly attached to the receiver’s grounding post?
Do your records need to be cleaned? A serious record cleaning machine like the Record Doctor V can work wonders.
You only need one
If you decide to go with an external preamp, don’t connect it to your stereo system’s phono input. Use an aux input instead. If there’s a preamp built into your turntable, switch it off.
What to look for in a phono preamp
To begin this section, I’ll walk you through all the inputs and outputs. If you find yourself scratching your head, please read our article about how to connect a turntable.
This preamp has stereo RCA inputs for a turntable with a moving magnet cartridge (MM), as well as a second set of inputs for a turntable with a moving coil cartridge (MC).
You’ll find at least one set of RCA unbalanced inputs on every phono preamp. Some have two sets. You’ll also find a set of RCA outputs that connect to your receiver, amp, or powered speakers.
A few high-end phono stages also give you a set of balanced XLR inputs. These are for high-end turntables with XLR outputs. XLR connections are designed to reject noise better than RCA cables. A phono preamp with XLR inputs will likely have XLR outputs, too. Those connect to a compatible amp or stereo preamp.
This preamp has a set of balanced XLR inputs, in addition to two sets of RCA inputs.
A ground wire connection is a standard feature. Many turntables include an RCA patch cable that incorporates a ground wire. If yours doesn’t, you’ll need to find a suitable piece of wire to make that connection.
An input for a 12-volt trigger signal is a nice convenience feature. Connect it to the trigger output on your receiver. When you turn the receiver on or off, the phono preamp will turn on or off, too.
Connections for recording your vinyl
The NAD PP4 has a front-panel USB input and a knob to adjust the level of the USB output signal.
A USB output lets you record your vinyl records to your computer. Then you can transfer the music files to your phone and enjoy them on the go.
But that’s not the only reason to record your vinyl.
Maybe you have some records that you’d rather not play too often on the turntable. Such as collector’s items that you want to keep in mint condition. Or rare/damaged records that you want to salvage and preserve for posterity.
Digital audio outputs (coaxial and/or optical) are found on a few high-end phono preamps. They let you connect to a PC soundcard or CD recorder that has S/PDIF input.
To learn more, read our article about vinyl-to-digital recording.
Handy headphone jack
Some phono preamps include high-quality headphone amps. When you connect your headphones directly to your phono preamp, you don’t even have to turn on your stereo system.
Tube vs solid state
What’s the argument in favor of preamps that use old-fashioned vacuum tubes? It’s a lot like the argument for listening to vinyl records, rather than CDs. Tube preamps tend to produce a sweeter, warmer sound.
The reality is that both tube preamps and solid-state preamps can deliver a transparent, highly musical presentation.
A look inside the Cambridge Solo, a highly-rated solid-state phono preamp.
Read some reviews. You’re sure to find some solid-state preamp described as “analytical” or harsh. You may also find reviews of tube preamps that say they’re too “soft” and lacking in detail. Here’s how the esteemed hi-fi writer Robert Harley put it in The Complete Guide to High-End Audio.
“It’s a mistake to ‘fall in love’ with either solid-state or tubes for the wrong reasons,” Harley wrote. “…The overly sweet preamplifier may become uninvolving over time because of its low resolution; the ‘detailed’ and ‘revealing’ solid-state model may eventually become unmusical for the fatigue it produces in the listener.”
Tubes may require a short “burn-in” period before they sound their best. And tubes will eventually have to be replaced. Read product manuals before you buy to see manufacturers’ recommendations for tube burn-in and replacement. For example, the manual for the Bellari VP130 MK2 quotes a tube life expectancy of 10 to 50 years. Bellari says the VP130 MK2’s 12AX7 tube needs 30 to 50 hours of burn-in time, but that the sound-quality difference after burn-in is slight.
The Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 has two vacuum tubes, one for the left channel and one for the right.
A subsonic filter removes inaudible low-frequency vibrations called “rumble.” Rumble is caused by a turntable’s bearings or by warped records. Even though the rumble itself is inaudible, it causes unwanted speaker cone movement. The result is distortion at audible frequencies.
Subsonic filters are not supposed to harm your system’s bass response. But in some preamps, reviewers have said, they do just that. The iFi brand touts a special AI subsonic filter that eliminates rumble without sapping bass response or causing phase issues.
Most preamps that have a subsonic filter provide a switch that lets you turn it off. A few models have a subsonic filter that’s always on.
Selectable EQ curves
The RIAA equalization curve I mentioned earlier has been an industry standard since the 1950s. However, it wasn’t adopted worldwide until well into the 1970s. If you own old records and/or foreign pressings, you might benefit from a phono preamp that has selectable EQ curves.
On page 5 of the owner’s manual for the iFi iPhono3 Black Label you'll find a brief history of phono equalization. It concludes with a couple of tips on how to use this preamp’s selectable EQ curves:
- If an LP sounds overly bright, edgy, thin, and lacking scale and body via RIAA EQ, try Decca EQ.
- If an LP sounds both too bright and with muddy overblown bass, try the Columbia EQ.
Most phono cartridges use the moving magnet design. Some high-end models use the moving coil design. I won’t go into the details here. If you’re in the market for a new cartridge, read our phono cartridge buying guide.
Here’s why this matters: Many phono preamps are only compatible with moving magnet cartridges. If you have a low-output moving coil cartridge, get a phono preamp that’s compatible with both types.
Do you own or plan to buy a typical high-output moving magnet cartridge? You’ll get good results with almost any phono preamp. You don’t need to worry too much about gain adjustments or “cartridge loading” capabilities. But tweaking those settings can yield some appreciable gains in sound quality. If you’re looking at mid- to high-end phono preamps, you should know what they are all about.
Moving magnet cartridges have high output voltage, typically in the range of 4-8 millivolts. Most of the models we offer put out 4 mV. For high-output cartridges like these, set your preamp’s gain on the low side. A setting of 40 dB is a good place to start. You might try a slightly higher setting, but the higher you go, the more noise you’ll hear. Go too high, and you’ll hear obvious distortion.
The higher gain settings (60 dB or higher) are for low-output moving coil cartridges. These high-end cartridges typically have output voltage below 2.5 mV.
Many phono preamps provide small dip switches for cartridge load settings.
You can tweak the load capacitance and impedance settings of your preamp to match your cartridge. These settings help you achieve the proper tonal balance.
Chances are you won’t have to worry about this. That’s because most preamps are preset to match high-output moving magnet cartridges, which are the most common type.
Do you own a typical moving magnet cartridge? Are you certain you won’t replace it with something very different? If you said yes to both questions, then you really don’t need a preamp with adjustable cartridge load settings.
Check your cartridge specs to make determine whether any adjustments are necessary. Incorrect settings won’t damage anything, so you can experiment with different settings and trust your ear. What sounds best to you is the thing to do.
My hands-on experience with two phono preamps
I recently purchased a Pro-ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable. It sounds great connected straight to the phono input of my Yamaha receiver. But I thought I’d try a couple of separate phono preamps to see if they would make a difference.
Bellari VP130 MK2
The Bellari VP130 MK2 wins a lot of style points. It sounds great, too.
The first preamp I hooked up was the Bellari VP130 MK2. This American-made, tube preamp is the same shade of red as my new turntable. Cool!
The VP130 MK2 has an output level knob (gain control) and a two-position load capacitance button that lets you select 120 pF or 220 pF. There’s no way to adjust input impedance, which means this preamp is not compatible with low-output moving coil cartridges.
Would the VP130 MK2 give me better sound than the preamp built into my receiver?
To find out, I turned to one of the better vinyl specimens in my collection. It’s the Nautilus SuperDisc half-speed master pressing of Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams. It sounds quite good through the receiver’s phono input.
With the VP130 MK2, I perceived a more spacious soundstage. And it was easier to notice the subtle details of each instrument. Lead guitar lines on rockers like Poor Poor Pitiful Me soared above the mix and felt a little more live. Backing vocalists staked out their own space while blending beautifully with Ronstadt. When the vocal harmonies grab me like that, I know a hi-fi component is real contender. The VP130 MK2 passed the test. The way it rendered the Ronstadt/Dolly Parton duet on the traditional ballad I Never Will Marry was a sonic treat of the highest order.
Now let’s talk about the design of the VP130 MK2. A lot of phono preamps use dip switches for the gain and cartridge loading adjustments. The dip switches are usually found on the back or the bottom of the preamp. To change the settings, you have to turn everything off, unplug the unit, and carefully manipulate the tiny switches while consulting the manual.
The VP130 MK2 gives you a large, top-mounted button for switching the capacitance between 120 pF and 220 pF. I tried the load capacitance switch while listening, which made it easy to tell the difference. I had a slight preference for the 120 pF setting.
The gain control is a top-mounted knob. In my system, the sweet spot was right smack in the middle. It’s nice to have the ability to adjust the gain while listening.
There are a few things about the design of the VP130 MK2 that bothered me a bit.
There’s no power button and no 12-volt trigger input. So there’s no way to turn the unit off other than to unplug the power adapter. At least you won’t forget to turn it on and wonder why you’re getting no sound. But I wonder if leaving it on constantly will shorten the life of the vacuum tube.
The headphone jack is on the back of the chassis — another strange choice, in my opinion. And while I do like having the buttons and knobs accessible, I’d rather have them on the front. In my rack, they’d be easier to use. But that’s a small nit to pick.
Mobile Fidelity makes audiophile-grade vinyl records, and the gear you need to play them.
Next up is the Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono. It’s in the same price range as the Bellari, but it’s a different animal.
First, it’s a solid-state machine with a more forward-sounding sonic signature. I felt like I had a front-row seat at the Linda Ronstadt show. The Bellari revealed plenty of inner detail, but the StudioPhono took it a step further.
Unlike the Bellari, this preamp is compatible with low-output moving coil cartridges. Use the dip switches for the gain, capacitance, and impedance settings. Then forget them. The only easily accessible controls are the switches for the subsonic filter and mono mode.
Mobile Fidelity’s vinyl record division offers some mono records, so the mono switch makes sense for some of its customers. And it will come in handy for collectors of old mono discs. If you want to learn more about the history and technical aspects of mono recordings, read this article.
You’ll appreciate the subsonic filter if you ever want to play a warped record. I switched it on and off while listening to Linda Ronstadt and couldn’t hear a difference. That’s a good thing. You don’t want a subsonic filter that affects your system’s bass response.
Like the Bellari, the MoFi Studio phono is American-made. And likewise, it has no power switch or 12-volt trigger input.
How much should you spend on a phono preamp?
To help you answer that question, I’d ask you a few more. Why do you want one? If your top priority is not better sound quality, then I’d steer you toward the lower end of the price range.
Do you want one simply because neither your turntable nor your sound system has one? Or is your main goal to record vinyl to your computer? You don’t need to spend a fortune to meet either of those needs.
Let’s say sound quality is your main objective. Then set your phono preamp budget to match the quality of your turntable, cartridge, and stereo system. I’ll use my system as an example.
|Pair of tower speakers||$1,200|
|Turntable (with pre-mounted cartridge)||$500|
With a system in the $3,000 neighborhood, spending about $300 on a phono preamp struck me as a reasonable proposition. That’s why I chose to review the Bellari VP130 MK2 and the MoFi StudioPhono.
I’d be happy with either one. Both gave me a sound quality improvement that justified the cost. And I’d feel good about keeping either one if I ever decided to upgrade my cartridge or any other part of my system.
You can learn a lot about phono preamps by reading reviews. You’ll find plenty of customer reviews here at Crutchfield. And I highly recommend the professional reviews at Analog Planet.
I also recommend that you get in touch with one of Crutchfield’s friendly, knowledgeable advisors before you make your purchase.