Phono Pre-Amplifiers

The phono preamp, also known as phono stage, phono preamplifier, RIAA preamp or turntable preamp is an electronic circuit that applies the correct amplification to the signal coming from your cartridge and sends it to the input of a power amplifier or audio system. The audio signal coming from the needle on your turntable is very low and requires amplifying (up to several hundred times) to bring it up to the standard line level (also referred to as AUX) that most modern amplifiers require. It basically provides the connection between the record player and your amp, and converts phono to line level.

The audio recorded on vinyl has RIAA equalisation (a specification for the recording and playback of phonograph records, established by the Recording Industry Association of America - RIAA) applied to it, giving less emphasis on the low frequencies and more on the high frequencies. This permits narrower grooves, enabling more playing minutes on a record, resulting in less distortion and better sound quality. On playback this emphasis needs reversing, which is achieved by the phono preamp. If you plug a record player directly into the standard line input of an amplifier, you would hear a very quiet sound with no bass, about 10% of what you might expect. Back in the day, when vinyl was the standard for audio recording, the phono stage was built-in to the receivers, allowing direct connection of a turntable (marked as PHONO inputs). As new audio formats and playback devices were introduced, and the use of vinyl records declined, amplifier manufacturers removed their integrated phono stages, so most modern ones lack a phono input and need a separate phono preamp to connect your turntable. Also, many of today's entry level turntables have line level outputs, which means that they have a built-in phono preamp, but the quality of these is often very poor, so you may want to use a separate phono stage as an upgrade. Most good and audiophile turntables don't have a phono preamp included.

Depending on what type of cartridge you're using, moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC), you'll need a MM or MC phono stage. Moving magnet cartridges have a comparatively high output (around 5 mV on average), whereas moving coil ones have a comparatively lower output (around 0.5 mV on average), so they require a higher level of amplification to bring it up to line level before input to your main amplifier. This increases the MC phono stage costs significantly. Some phono preamps are MM or MC only, but the best ones on the market will work with either an MM or MC cartridge, with a MM/MC switch or separate inputs. Below we selected some of the best budget phono preamps that will help you get the most from your turntable rig.

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