What is A Preamp and Do I Need One?
Your Guide To Understanding One Of The Most Important Components In Your Vinyl Listening Setup
Listening to and collecting vinyl records is an experience. The analog music format has stuck around for over a century, making a major comeback in the last few decades and picking up many devoted fans.
Listening to music on vinyl gives fans of an artist a unique opportunity to experience the work of their favorite artists in a tangible, tactile, physical way. The feel of a record in your hands, the sound of setting the needle on it and powering your turntable on, even the weight of analog music gear in your hands – it all adds up to a listening experience like no other.
For fans of vinyl records, a high-quality audio setup is an absolute must. One of the biggest aspects of the beauty of vinyl records is their unique ability to provide lossless audio quality. While most digital audio formats give you music that is missing some of its original frequencies, records can provide audio quality that is free from the “lossiness” of MP3s and other digital music formats. When you want to truly enjoy lossless audio, though, you need a high-quality turntable and amplification to get great sound.
No matter what type of record player you use to enjoy the albums in your vinyl collection, your turntable itself is not what produces sound. Every record player needs a source of amplification, either internal or external, to get sound from records. This is where preamps come in.
Some record players are equipped with preamps, whereas others are not. To get sound from your records, you will need either a turntable with built-in preamp, active speakers, or an external standalone preamp. In this post, we’ll get in-depth about all of the different methods of getting amplification for your turntable, as well as the pros and cons of each.
How Amplification Works
A vinyl record is a double-sided, pressed copy of a lacquer master. Each copy of the master is etched with specific grooves which, when read by the stylus (needle) on your turntable, produce vibrations. These vibrations can then be converted to sound through the process of amplification.
Getting sound from a record as it spins on your turntable starts with your record player’s stylus. The stylus, often called the needle, of the record player is made from a tiny piece of unrefined diamond. As a record spins at a set rate of revolutions per minute (RPM), the stylus rides in its grooves, “reading” the copied recording that has been etched into the surface of the vinyl.
These grooves produce vibrations in your turntable’s cartridge. The cartridge houses the stylus, suspending it on a piece of flexible material. This material allows the stylus to move freely but precisely through the grooves in a record. In addition to holding the stylus, the cartridge also contains a magnet and a coil. As the stylus produces vibrations, the magnet translates them into a magnetic field that vibrates at specific frequencies. The magnetic field then generates a current that, when amplified produces an electrical signal and, finally, music.
The signal produced by the coil in your turntable’s cartridge is too weak to be heard. To produce audible sound, it needs amplification. This is where your preamp comes in. The preamp boosts the signal produced by the cartridge, making it possible to hear. However, the preamp itself does not generate sound – you still need speakers for that. And speaking of speakers...
Speakers: Active Vs. Passive
Your vinyl listening setup will be equipped with one of two types of speakers – active or passive. Active speakers contain built-in preamps, eliminating the need for a preamp in your turntable. These speakers need power from batteries or a wall plug to work. This power supply allows the built-in preamp to amplify the signal produced by the cartridge in your turntable.
Active speakers are appreciated by many in the vinyl listening community because of their built-in preamps. For record lovers who do not have turntables equipped with preamps, the only two options are using active speakers or pairing passive speakers with a standalone pickup. When you want to purchase the least possible amount of outboard gear for your turntable, active speakers are the way to go. They eliminate the need for a preamp built into your turntable or one that functions independently of your record player and speakers.
On the other hand, many record lovers also favor passive speakers. Unlike active speakers, passive speakers are not equipped with built-in preamps. This means they have no internal mechanism of amplification and rely on a preamp in your turntable or a standalone one to produce sound.
Since they do not contain preamps, passive speakers are much lighter than their active counterparts. They function independently of wall or battery power, instead drawing power and amplification from an external preamp. If you choose to use passive speakers to listen to vinyl, your audio setup may have more components than if you opted for active ones. However, passive speakers can provide great sound quality, and they are an excellent choice if you already have a preamp in your turntable.
How To Tell If You Need A Preamp
In order to listen to the records you love, you need amplification. Some turntables include built-in preamps, which boost the electrical signal produced by the vibrations of a spinning record. If your record player has a built-in preamp, playing a record with your turntable plugged into passive speakers will generate sound. If your turntable does not have a preamp, you will not get any sound from unpowered speakers.
Your audio setup is missing a preamp if neither your turntable nor your speakers have one built in. If you are having trouble diagnosing lack of sound coming from your turntable, even with speakers plugged in, chances are you are using passive speakers with a turntable that does not include a preamp. This means your speakers are not receiving an amplified signal from your turntable.
If you have active speakers for your record player, you are in the clear in terms of amplification. Active speakers eliminate the need for an external preamp or a turntable with built-in amplification.
In addition, if you have a turntable with built-in speakers, it is designed to either stand alone or work connected to external audio gear. Built-in speakers that are included in some more recent turntables tend to produce inferior sound quality in comparison to external passive or active speakers. Most record-lovers tend to favor the superior audio quality provided by connecting high-quality speakers to their turntables and letting them provide the sound.
Types of Preamps
The two primary types of preamps included in speakers and turntables are moving coil preamps and moving magnet preamps.
Moving coil preamps are capable of producing the highest sound quality between the two types. These preamps need to run at a higher gain level, but can provide better audio quality by preventing potential loss. It is important to remember that although vinyl is a lossless audio format, inferior speakers, turntables and preamps can degrade your listening experience and cause the loss of some frequencies.
Moving magnet preamps do not need to run at as high of a gain level as moving coil preamps. However, they are not as reliable for producing lossless audio. These preamps are a more cost-effective alternative to their moving coil counterparts. Investing in a moving coil preamp is definitely worth the money if you are serious about collecting vinyl and want to enjoy the format to the fullest. However, there are plenty of other components in your listening setup that can also affect sound quality, and some of them can have an even bigger impact than your preamp.
Is There A “Best Way” To Get Amplification?
When it comes to preamps, there is no clear winner between using one built into your turntable, getting active speakers, or setting up a standalone preamp to bridge the gap between your record player and speaker system. Each of these configurations has its own perks and drawbacks. In addition, there are better and worse pieces of gear in each of these formats. For example, some turntables that include built-in amplification have subpar preamps that can contribute to a “lossy” sound quality.
Your choice of speakers, turntable and even your cartridge can all have a major impact on your vinyl listening experience. Your preamp is not the only piece of gear that affects sound quality – all of the components in your setup have the potential to make or break how your records sound.
Ultimately, it is always worth it to do whatever you can to make your records sound as good as possible. Vinyl is meant to be enjoyed to the fullest, without any hindrances in the form of inferior turntables, preamps, or speakers. You can maximize your enjoyment of your records by investing in great gear, and by taking care of your vinyl collection.