Knowing exactly which types of audio equipment you need to create a great sound system can be tough. If you have a turntable, do you really need a preamp? What is it exactly? Do you need an internal preamp or an external preamp? We will look at things to consider and the true purpose of a preamp.
Why Get a Turntable?
Setting up a sound system that you will love forever can start to become slightly confusing. There are so many components and different types of audio equipment to choose from. For example, there are loads of great speakers to choose from. Each with its own drawbacks and benefits. Still, with all of these choices, many people have started returning to turntables and record players.
I grew up listening to the vast record collection that my parents accumulated over the years. It was a great childhood memory. For a long time, records were not the main way to listen to music, yet it has once again become really popular in recent years. Brand new albums come out in vinyl and the love of records has flared up. As it should.
There is something really special when listening to records. A richness and fullness to the sound that can’t be replicated with any other form of music storage and playing. This is why record players have also become more popular recently too.
There is a bit of a difference between a record player and a turntable. A record player had all the components built into play records. You don’t need to add any external components. For many of these devices, you do have the option of adding external pieces but you don’t need to.
A turntable on the other hand has a platter, tonearm, and cartridge, and does need to have extra components added for you to listen to it. It might need speakers and a preamp added to it. But even so, some modern turntables already have an internal preamp. But that does not mean that you can’t add one too.
If you want the option of building your own sound system and adding separate components, then a turntable is a great option. You can have complete control over the pieces you pick and how strong your system will end up being.
But if you do choose a turntable, do you need a preamp? What does it do?
What Is the Purpose of a Preamp?
One of the main purposes of the preamp is to make the signal stronger and ensure that any noise or other irritating sounds that aren’t supposed to be on the music get cleaned up before you hear it. It is the first stop for the audio signal when it comes from your turntable. Then it will go to the amplifier and eventually to the speakers.
This all happens in split seconds before you hear the sound from the record that is being played. It boosts the signal before it gets to the amplifier. Better audio and electrical signals equal better sound quality. Better quality preamps will be able to catch more mistakes and make the sound even better.
It is also the device that will help you switch between different line-level sources. In other words, if your television or even a CD player or other device is set up on the same line as your turntable, then the preamp will be the device that makes sure that your sound comes from the correct device that you want it to come from.
In other words, if you have more audio connections then it becomes even more important to have a preamp connected. But even if you only have the turntable connected to your speakers and other components, then it depends on your tastes. If you are an audiophile and small changes in the music irritate your ear, then you will surely need a preamp.
A Preamp VS An Amp
Many wonders why you would need a preamp if you already have a powerful amp. That is because they perform slightly different jobs and neither can do everything the other can. Both of the add an amount of gain. This means they boost the signal that is produced by the turntable or other audio components, like microphones.
They also have different positions in the chain of sound. Some components might be placed between them, but generally, their position remains the same.
The preamp will almost always be at the beginning of the chain, right after the source of the sound. It will boost the sound quality that the amp later will have to work with. Then other things can be added in between, but generally, the amplifier will be at almost the end of your chain.
This is when the amp will take the sound that the preamp has provided and add even more gain. This will be the last place where the sound can be changed, making certain elements, like the base, louder. The amp is directly connected to the loudness of the sound. And that is why many understand it better. It is also why many think it is more important.
But in reality, both the preamp and the amp play their own important role. The power amp or amp is needed to give the drive to the speakers. Giving them the volume and effects that you want. An amp also needs a line-level signal to understand the audio, and a preamp provides this.
If sound quality is really important then you will need to have both of these pieces to make your sound extraordinary. It is clear that you will need a preamp to play records. But there are some devices that have preamps built in. Is this enough?
Built-in VS External Preamp
The next thing to consider is if your device doesn’t already have a preamp that is built in. Or if you are just starting to put your sound system together, which product to buy, a turntable with a preamp or one that will require an external preamp added on to it?
The biggest differences in the internal and external preamp are the sound quality, the budget, and the ease of installation. There are some really great options depending on your personal needs.
How To Know If Your Turntable Has a Built-in Preamp
There are many modern turntables that do have internal preamps. And the great thing is that you don’t even need to buy the most expensive turntable you can find to get this feature. Some affordable turntables do come with a preamp.
But it can get confusing since they don’t always call it a preamp. Sometimes it will be called a phono preamp or a phono stage. And the only indication that you do have a built-in preamp will be an input spot at the back of the device, that might be labeled “Phono”. But often they don’t even indicate that.
Luckily there is a very easy way to figure out if you do already have an internal preamp. Just connect your turntable to the rest of your system. If you play the music and your volume is good, and there are no distortions, then you have a preamp already.
If you do have trouble getting volume and there are clear distortions then you will need to get an external preamp. At the same time just because you already have an internal preamp does not mean that you can’t expand your sound system.
There are many turntables that still allow you to add an external preamp if you do want to improve the sound quality.
The Sound Quality
The sound quality of an internal and external preamp is one of the biggest considerations. It does make a massive difference in the sound quality. There are a few reasons for this.
For an internal preamp, they have to make sure that it can physically fit into the turntable. That means that they have to make it much smaller than they would an external preamp. They need to make it a stripped-down version of the same piece of tech. They will use smaller components to make the turntable, like using smaller circuits and circuit boards.
This often influences the quality of the sound that the preamp can produce since it isn’t working with the same capacity of components as an external preamp would be constructed with.
Another big issue is the quality of the components that are used. It is often the case that a preamp is not the main focus when the device is being constructed. It can even be almost an afterthought. And that can mean that they use the cheapest possible components to build the preamp that they can get away with.
This is of course not always the case. Some companies take a lot of pride in making sure that every piece of their turntable is well-designed and as good as they can make it. But in many cases, since it is out of sight, they hope that you don’t think of it too carefully.
And since the preamp does have such a big influence on the sound quality, even if you have other great pieces, like a good turntable speaker combo, this can bring down the overall sound. Still, there are some turntables with internal preamps that do have pretty good sound systems.
Another massive consideration is the budget that you can afford to spend. For most of us that love sound, you want to buy the best possible sound equipment that you can afford. With the best sound intensity. But there is a limit to this.
A turntable with an internal preamp will probably work out to be quite a bit cheaper than buying a turntable and then also buying an external preamp at the same time. It all depends on what you have to spend and just how important the sound quality is for you.
Setting Up the Preamp
And finally, another major consideration would be how technically inclined you are. If you are just getting into the world of sound systems, you might want something that is slightly easier to set up.
For the easiest installation and set-up, you won’t go wrong with a turntable that already has a preamp internally. These mostly just plug and play into your speakers and it works pretty well without needing a lot of technical experience.
An external preamp will be harder to get ready to play. This makes sense since it gives you one more component to install in your audio channel. Making the installation slightly harder.
This is something to consider, but not the biggest factor. Most external preamps will give you clear instructions on setting everything up. And there are also people who will come to your house to install your audio system completely.
But obviously, this will add to the expenses even more.
Do You Need a Preamp for Turntable?
A preamp is a component that takes the audio signal from your turntable and enhances it. A record can play really softly and that is why the audio is in serious need of a boost. You also need a preamp to block out any distortions or annoying sounds that could come in with the signal.
The preamp is slightly different from a normal amp in the sense that they have different jobs and that is why you do need both of them. It is important to have a preamp when you have a turntable. But there are some that come with phono preamps or phono stage built into the device.
Deciding on going with an internal preamp or an external one comes down to a few key elements. Sound is the biggest difference. There is no denying that more often than not an external preamp will have a better quality of sound than one that is inside the turntable.
Next is the budget. If you want to save some money, then an internal preamp will be the way to go for you. And finally, it depends on whether or not you are prepared to set up an external preamp on top of setting up the turntable. It does take slightly more effort.
In the end, a preamp is important for sound but finding the perfect set-up for you will give you a lot of hours of musical enjoyment.