Some receivers have built-in phono preamps.
The same goes for some record players.
Is it a problem if both have preamps? Do you use them both?
Or do you not use either and get an external preamp instead?
The best answers to these questions depend on a few things.
Keep reading to get the answers to all of this, and to learn once and for all whether you should get an external phone preamp.
Do I Need A Preamp If My Receiver Has A Phono Input?
Technically speaking, the simple answer is no.
A phono input on a receiver has a little amplifier in it that takes the exceedingly low level of your cartridge and amplifies it to normal line level (the same electrical level as a CD Player or other component).
However, this can get a little complicated. The devil is in the details which we will get into now.
Reasons To Still Buy A Phono Preamp Even If Your Receiver Has A Phono Input
There are really two main reasons to purchase a phono pre-amp even if your receiver already has a phono input (built in phono pre-amp).
1. Your Cartridge’s Output Does Not Match Your Phono Input’s Input Level
The phono input on receivers is calibrated to match most record players’ output levels. These output levels are just the output of the cartridge.
A quick caveat here, you will still be able to hear your record player, whether the levels of the cartridge and phono input match or not. The devil is in the details as I said before.
If your cart output is too hot for your phono input, you will hear a very mild (sometimes not mild) distortion coming from your records. This is not acceptable since you just paid 50 bucks for that record!
If your cart output is too low for your phono input, your records will sound too quiet and force you to turn up the volume more on the receiver. This just ends up amplifying some of the noise present in the cart, which is something you want to avoid.
Situations Where This Does Not Come Into Play
Some receivers (that usually cost as much as a used car) have such good phono inputs that they can adjust to your cartridge’s output with extraordinarily little, to no, inherent noise.
For this reason, they cost a lot more money than a standard 200 dollar receiver. This nuance is not easy to perfect. Most people can not afford one of these receivers, so this will not come up too much in real life, but we had to mention it in the interest of being thorough.
2. Your Phono Input Was An Afterthought For The Receiver Manufacturer And It Sounds Bad.
There are some great receivers out there where the manufacturers put time and money into the phono input, and they sound fantastic (Cough….McIntosh…Cough).
But with most receivers, the manufacturers don’t really care about the phono input. For that reason, they tend to sound terrible compared to an outboard phono preamp.
If You Care About Sound And You Do Not Have a Fancy Receiver: Get A Dedicated Phono Preamp
There are many different levels of quality in the phono preamp world. The cheap ones won’t be much better (and perhaps even worse) than your built in phono input preamp. But the best phono preamps can be really, really, good.
The circuits in a good phono preamp are so much quieter and well-engineered than most receiver phono preamps. This is instantly noticeable when you compare the sound of the two.
Sure, it adds more cost to your already expensive vinyl habit, but why spend 400 bucks on a record player, only to listen to it through a circuit designed by a drunken kid in a factory?
There is no denying the fact that a good phono preamp is a necessity, unless you already have a superman receiver. This is an unfortunate side effect of vinyl technology.
It is analog, using moving parts and magnets and physical grooves to create sound. This leaves a lot of space for nuance and level of quality, which is why so many audiophiles live in a cheap house and drive a beat up old car but have a $20,000 system. Trust me I know a few of them, and you probably do too.
The Other Issue With Receivers And Record Players–Built-In Phono Preamps
Many of the more recent turntables have their own built in pre-amp. There are many different models that have these preamps, and some are quite good.
But just like receivers, most of them are an afterthought made for convenience and to boost sales with little thought about sound quality.
If your turntable has a built in preamp, you can hook it up to any receiver input. But you should not hook it up to the phono input (more on this next).
Be Aware Of The Switch
Most record players with built in pre-amps have a little switch you can turn off or on. Be very aware of the state of this switch before you hook it up to a receiver. Especially if you are plugging into the phono input.
To be clear, if your built in preamp is on, DO NOT PLUG IT INTO THE PHONO INPUT. Sorry for the all-caps, but you will blow your ears up.
If your record player has a built in preamp, you do not need to buy a special external phono preamp. The key word is need.
Technically your record player does not need an outboard preamp since it already has one, But depending on the quality of the built in preamp, you may want to seriously consider turning it off and using an outboard phono preamp.
Phono preamps are funny things. They accept an exceptionally low level electrical signal generated by fluctuations in a magnetic field caused by a needle riding on the grooves of a piece of vinyl.
This is not an easy job, and how much you pay for a preamp can have a significant effect on the quality of the sound your setup will generate. This is the same concept as with cartridges.
Fortunately, with cartridges nowadays, even mid-level turntables are shipping with some good cartridges already installed. But this is not the case with their built-in phono preamps.
The level of sound you are willing to live with will determine how much you spend on an external phono preamp. But in almost every case you are doing yourself a disservice by not picking up at least a middle-of-the-road, stand-alone phono preamp.
Preamp If Receiver Has Phono Input: Final Thoughts
You do not need a phono preamp if your receiver has a phono input. The same goes if your record player has an internal preamp.
But that does not mean you shouldn’t get one. In most cases, the phono preamplifiers included in receivers or turntables are low quality. An external preamp will almost always result in much better output.