How to Choose the Best Phono Pre-Amp

Digital music is great. You can fit huge amounts of it on a tiny device that can go with you anywhere. But even with all of our impressive new audio technology, no medium of sound storage has managed to beat the richness and warmth of analog vinyl audio. The good news for audiophiles is that the more digital becomes ubiquitous, the more people looking for something richer and more exciting and turn to the goodness that is vinyl. In other words, there’s a growing demand for records and record players, and that means you have lots of options.

If you read our last installment in this series, you might be all fired up to run out and buy either a belt driven or direct driven turntable. But before you rush out to pledge your allegiance to team belt drive or team direct drive, there’s one more thing you’ll need to consider; will you purchase a turntable with a pre-amp or without. Determining which is best for you depends, once again, on your needs.

Subtle design on this Pro-Ject Phono Preamp
Turntables with pre-amps built into them are usually labeled “phono.” You would be surprised to learn how many people go to a record store, buy a turntable with no pre-amp, take it home, and think they’ve got a dud. Why would we need such a thing, you might ask. Well, the fact is that the signal that comes from a vinyl record is at least a thousand times less powerful than that which comes out of a CD, and a few hundred times weaker than that of a cassette tape. What’s a cassette tape, you ask? Don’t worry about it.

Just lay the needle down on a record without an amplifier and you will understand very quickly why the sound needs to be boosted with an amp. A pre-amp is just an internal amplifier built into a turntable that boosts the sound so that the music will come out of the speakers that you plug it into. You can also get a separate external amplifier that you plug your non-pre-amp turntable into and then plug the amplifier into your speakers.

Why buy a pre-amp or external amplifier? Well, once again, it depends on your needs. Most professional musicians, disk jockeys, and audiophiles have learned that an external amp is better than a “phono” or pre-amp turntable. In most cases, they are right. But there are some high quality phono turntables with high quality internal amps that are just as good as most professional turntable and external amp pairings.

You might also keep in mind that not all external amps are created equal. It’s possible to buy a low quality turntable with no internal “pre-amp” and to also buy a cheap external amp and get a low quality result. So, just because you buy a non “phono” turntable with an external amp does not mean that you’re now the owner of a professional grade DJ station.

At the end of the day, your best bet is to research the phono turntable or non-phono and the amp you intend to pair it with to find out which is best.

If, by grace, you have glanced under the bench at the bus stop and found a copy of The Quarrymen – That’ll Be The Day / In Spite Of All The Danger (listed at nearly half a million dollars) and you’re in an all-fired hurry to play it- run down to Dartmouth’s local turntable shop and get a phono turntable. As long as it has a set of inputs, a set of outputs, a small ground screw, and says “phono” on the side – you’re ready to rock.

Finding the Best Phono Pre-Amp

There are two basic types of pre-amplifier turntables. The reason for this is that there are two types of cartridges for use with your turntable. They are the “Moving Coil” type (MC) and the “Moving Magnet” type (MM).

Inputs On Bryston BP-2 MM
Most phono turntables come with the moving magnet type. That’s because the moving magnet type of pre-amp offers more output than the moving coil type. In other words, an MM is closer to 11 when you take it out of the box. An MC pre-amp is quieter and requires more amplification, but many of them deliver finer sound quality.

A lot of folks decide to have their turntables upgraded, end up with an MC amp instead of an MM amp, and can’t understand why they lost so much power. Most turntables can take either or both types of cartridge. But mixing and matching them is not so cut and dried. If you connected an MC cartridge to an MM phono, the sound would be clear enough, but it would be a bit on the quiet side compared to what you were used to or what you were expecting. But if you connected a MM to an MC turntable input, chances are that the sound will be distorted.

The only way to be sure you’re getting the right setup is to review the specifications laid out by the manufacturer. That will tell you whether you have an MM or an MC. On the other hand, you could ask the salesperson here at Glubes, Dartmouth’s local turntable shop. They will make sure you know what you’re getting and what you need before you waltz out of the store.

Have any more questions about turntables? Feel free to contact us or ask in the comments below!