Best Phono Preamp

 

TD 160 Vinyl Turntable mounted in Irish Oak

The best phono preamp

is the one that meets your immediate needs.

The first thing to consider is where to put it.

The phono preamp optimises the signal coming from the vinyl in preparation for the main amplifier.   It reverses the RRIA equalisation and boosts the audio signal to the optimum level required to feed the main amplifier.  You must have a phono preamp between the main amplifier and the turntable.

From a sonic point of view, the best phono preamp configuration is as a separate component.  The best phono amp solution for convenience is built-in to the main amplifier.   Standard contemporary main amplifiers don’t have built-in phono preamps or a phono inputs.  They started to disappear off amplifiers in the early 1990s as CDs became the dominant music media.  By the end of the decade only audiophile amplifiers retained preamps.  So,  you needed to buy an external phono preamp or an expensive audiophile amplifier to play vinyl.  That trend is starting to reverse but, in any case, there are a plethora of separate phono preamps on the market – to be enjoyed at little expense.

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Thorens TD 160

Phono Preamp

Boosts the musical signal coming form the record.

Reverses the RIAA curve.

I never fail to be intrigued by the passions preamps arouse among audiophiles and sound hounds – musicians, sound recordists and engineers.  They like to delve into the illusive and extraordinary properties of preamps.  My distillation of all that is to suggest that the best phono preamp is the one that costs a just a little more than you want to spend.

What is a phono pre-amp and why you need one.

What is critical about a phono preamp is that it preforms two vital functions –  it reverses the RIAA equalisation and boosts the fragile electrical signal, prior to the main amplifier.

The preamp has a profound influence on what we hear.  It imbues the sound with a richness that grabs and holds you – the best phono preamp, is one that can cocoon you in the music like a high resolution image immerses you in a scene.  Pre-amps don’t affect the resolution.  They work with the information coming from the record to affect its presentation – “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”.

 

Three Types Of Phono Preamp

 

  • Built Into The Integrated Amplifier

  • Stand Alone Unit

  • Built Into The Turntable

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The RIAA Curve

 

RIAA is a standard equalisation applied on playback of vinyl records. The standard was drawn up by the Recording Industry Association of America(RIAA). The purposes of the equalisation is to permit greater recording times, to improve sound quality, and to reduce the groove damage.  The space saving is achieved by reducing the low frequencies curve on the vinyl master and then reversing the curve, by boosting the low frequencies on playback.  That all means –  if you deflate the beach ball you can fit it in the trunk and then blow it up again, when you want to play with it.  In that metaphor the phono preamp is a pump – that’s a just a metaphor.  The preamp is much more than a pump.

 

 

Thorens TD 160 Phono Preamp

If you are new to audio,  your first consideration should be an integrated amplifier with a built in phono stage/preamp.    A separate phono preamp is the best bet sonically, because it is an isolated unit it will not be affected by the other components and, also, it is easily swapped out if you get the bug to upgrade.  The phono preamp, build into the turntable, may offer the most connivence but it is, most likely, to adversly affect the sound – if it is at all noisy.   Its reversing of the RIAA curve will boost low frequencies from the vinyl but the phono preamp will also boost its self made noise.

 

 

What is a phono stage/preamp and what does it do?

The phono preamp boosts the sound coming from the stylus/cartridge, bring it to line level.  Line level signal is a hundreds of time stronger than the signal coming from the cartridge. At line level the amplifier can deal with the signal and amplify it before send it to the loud speakers.  The phono preamp also performs the crucial function of reversing the RIAA curve.

Before CDs became the dominant medium, all amplifiers had a built in phono stage/preamp.    So, most people who bough and played records never heard of the phono stage/preamp.  It was just a bit of the amplifier you never saw.

They may have been aware that the tape recorder, the tuner (radio) or the CD were interchangeable on the, main amplifier, input panel.  If you accidentally plugged the CD into the Radio input, it wouldn’t make any difference to the sound or performance of you equipment, they are all line level.  On the other hand,  if you plugged any of the line level devices into phono socket – not good – horrible loud hum and it might blow your preamp or even the speakers.   Plug the phono into any of the other, line level inputs and the sound would be barely audible, impoverished of low frequencies.

 

What Is A Phono Preamp Good For?

Most music lovers, who have been collecting vinyl for half a century, still don’t know what a phono preamp is.  They don’t know because they don’t need to know.   The phono stage or phono preamp was just an obscure part of an amplifier, any amplifier.  They were just like the power supply, the power switch or the input selector – stuff you just don’t need to know anything about.  So why now, is it something you need to know about?

Between the record grove and the phono amp is the cartridge where the dance of the needle in the groove is transmuted into electricity.  Not just ordinary electricity – electricity made by a musical impulse inscribed in the past and latent in the grove.  When the early pioneers – Scott de Martinville, Edison and Clos conceived of this instrument – they can’t have imagined it would be so powerful or so magical.   They hadn’t conceive of a preamp.  In all of the conversations about the ritual and aromatic qualities of vinyl, the preamp hardly gets a mention.   For fear of social extrication, sound hounds smile and turn their face away,  uncertain if they’d like too, they know they’d really love too – but they dare not speak of this, dull but. indispensable component.

 

 

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The Phono Signal

The signal coming from your record is minuscule, 5mV,.  The fact that it can extract music with such extraordinary quality is more alchemy then technology.  I have no doubt that when advanced extraterrestrials find  Voyager , their scientists, securicrates and elders will pass on all of the, now, obsolete seventies technology, until they find the record player – “Send more Chuck Berry”.  The brilliance of the record player isn’t the technology. its what it does when it takes vibrations from one place and time and makes them present in another.  Charles Clos, the sympolist painter and inventor, was the first person to patent the device. He called it the Paleophone, voice of the past / ghost.   In any case, as far as the phono preamp is concerned,  the voice is very dim and distant until it hits the preamp.

Everything on the signal path has a say on the what you hear from the speakers.   The phono preamp takes a tiny pulse of electricity from the cartridge and gives it energy.   The sonic nature of that energy is the difference between a good phono preamp or poor one.   Because the phono preamp is so close to the source, the first link in the chain, it’s influence is very great indeed.   Choosing a phono peramp is something you didn’t used to have to do in the 1970s, but now you do.  That’s progress and its no  bad thing.

How Does It Affect What You Hear?

When you compare to the sound of a snare drum coming from a vinyl and digital source – the stark difference is that the vinyl has a greater presence in the room.   That presence, for me, is the essence of why vinyl is more engaging to listen to.  In a much more subtle way, a violin note has that same presence. There’s a richness in the tonality. That richness comes from the preamps ability to boost the signal without distorting the music.  The best Thorens TD 160 preamp will preserve the sound made on the turntable.