Vinyl FAQ 08: Do I need a pre-amp?

By in Features, Turntables & Tech





Everything you always wanted to know about vinyl but were too afraid to ask.

Whether you’re a seasoned audiophile or a new recruit, our FAQ series aims to tackle questions big and small about records, turntables and everything in between.

From quizzical musings like “What does dust actually do to my records?” to the more fiddly “How do I change the cartridge?” or just handy information like “What’s the difference between a belt and direct drive deck?”, this series will have you covered.

Generally speaking, an amplifier consists of two main parts. There’s the actual power generating part and then there’s the part holding the controls, better known as the pre-amp. This latter features the volume knob, the source selector and more on the front to sockets in the rear where you can plug in your sources such as a phono amplifier for a turntable, CD player and so on. You can purchase a pre-amp as a separate item.

Why would you want to do this?

Improved sound quality, mainly. We human beings have a yen to get together. We are social animals. Hi-fi is quite the opposite. Each box, each chassis, each and every component in a hi-fi system much prefers to stand on its own with space between it and the next box. The reason? Noise.

Noise is insidious and harms sound quality. I don’t mean babies crying and pneumatic drills. Not that sort of noise. This noise quietly goes about its business, masking musical detail and it’s derived from vibrations in your room – mobile and radio signals, from the mains and also from other hi-fi equipment: capacitors, transformers…you name it. This stuff moves through the chassis, along the inner wiring, circuit boards and more and attacks the fragile sonic stuff. I’m talking about delicate reverb, subtle vocal changes, the attack of a strumming guitar, etc. Not dramatically important on their own, perhaps, but when you add the thousands of tiny affects that noise has on music you lose the soul of it. It’s like death by a thousand cuts.

Hence, separating the pre-amp from the power amp isolates the unit and allows it to get on with its job, unaffected by the electrical contamination from the power amp. And this works both ways. Bottom line? A well-designed separate pre-amp and power amp will sound better than a well designed integrated amplifier.

Illustration by Abigail Carlin