What is a Phono Preamp and Why is it Important?
When I was just a neophyte in the turntable world, almost everything about it is Greek to me. I was searching for information about turntables and its parts, but I had a hard time understanding specifically what they meant.
Hence, owning my first turntable did not go as harmoniously as I expected. And a phono preamp was one of the parts I undermined!
This is why I decided to write up this article—to lessen your burden of going from one site (and dictionary) to another. I am writing this the simplest way I can.
So what is a phono preamp? Do we really need one?
The literal meaning
Phono is a Greek word for sound or voice (Greek. Oh, that’s why!). Preamp is preamplifier, made shorter. Phono refers to a type of plug and its socket whose conductor is cylindrical. Others call it the RCA plug. Preamp, on the other hand, is a device that amplifies a weak sound or signal then passes it on to an amplifier.
The audiophile meaning
For the audiophiles, a phono preamp is a device, built-in or external, that boosts sounds from the turntable then transmits it to an amplifier or audio system. It does so by converting phono to line level.
USB-enabled turntables and other modern ones have built-in phono preamp. For older models, you have to buy an external one.
As you can see, the literal meaning is not a far cry from the audiophile one.
Why is a phono preamp important?
Unlike our modern music storages which can store gigabytes of terabytes of data, a vinyl record can hold only a limited number of songs.
For it to be able accommodate more songs, the grooves must be narrow. For the grooves to be narrow, equalization must happen.
This equalization lessens low frequencies (or bass) while maintaining the high ones (or treble). The reason for this is that former create wider grooves, and thus limiting the number of songs a vinyl record can take in.
If they are lessened, the grooves can be narrower and thus providing more space for more songs.
Because the high frequencies are retained and the low ones are suppressed, the sound you can hear may seem very quiet with little to no bass sound at all. For this reason, a phono preamp is necessary.
As previously mentioned, a phono preamp converts phono signal to line-level signal. A phono signal has a very low power level that makes the sound barely audible. This is the signal that turntables produce.
The line-level signal is what speakers, amplifiers, and other audio systems use. Hence, for the phono signal from the turntable to become “readable” for the audio system, it has to be converted. And conversion is what phono preamps do 24/7.
Are you sensing its importance now?
Yes, without your preamp, you cannot enjoy any music no matter how loud they were recorded. It will come out as a quiet little sound full of treble and no bass. Watch this video for you to hear the difference.
How does a phono preamp work?
As previously stated, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) equalization decreases the bass and increases the treble for narrower grooves. And again, the narrower the grooves the more songs the vinyl can store.
When a phono preamp is used, it reverses the process. In other words, it increases the bass and decreases the treble until an acceptable volume level is achieved.
How do you know if you need an external preamp?
USB-enabled turntables, portable, and all-in-ones have built-in phono preamp. If your turntable is not among this list, you may have to buy an external one. But Guttenberg suggests getting an external one if you really want to boost that analog listening experience.
How much you should spend on one depends on your need and your turntable capacity. If you are new, however, in the turntable world, start with preamps that are below $100.
The disadvantage of a phono preamp
Despite the clear manifestation that a phono preamp is beneficial for all turntables, it has a catch. It also amplifies other sounds recorded in the vinyl, resulting in some rumbling and hissing and so on.
How do you get rid of that? Get a high quality phono preamp.
You see, a phono preamp is heaven’s gift for us audio junkies. It does the impossible of allowing us to hear that blissful music every time we want to.
So if you still doubt about purchasing one for yourself, now is the time to check your bank account. See how much you can spare for a preamp. And please don’t be hard on yourself this time. Go splurge on that little box and hear it do wonders for you and your music.
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