Most consumer-grade vinyl turntables come with built-in pre-amplifier, which lets you connect your turntable audio-out directly to a sound system or headphones. Some premium turntables like AT-LP7 come with a switch that allows you to bypass the built-in preamp so that you can use an external phono stage of your choice. In doing so, you can upgrade the vinyl experience.
Of all the home audio formats, the vinyl turntable is probably the most customisable. No other consumer audio playback system allows you to change the “head” of the player to improve the sound quality, except the vinyl record system. How liberating is it to be able to decide the parts that go into the end-to-end delivery of the music from the source medium to the speaker! I will be sharing my findings on the effects of using different phono cartridges in my next article.
I have been reading up about the benefits of phono pre-amps, and have been contemplating getting one. During one of my interactions with Audio-Technica Singapore, I came to find out, much to my delight, that A-T also sells phono pre-amps. The AT-PEQ30 phono equalizer is compatible with turntables with MM (moving magnet) and MC (moving coil) cartridges. The product benefits from Audio-Technica’s years of analog audio expertise and uses the finest quality parts, like high-quality FET inputs to ensure a low-noise signal, an all metal construction enclosure provides superior isolation from radio and electronic noise interference, and machined aluminum front panel and gold-plated input/output RCA connectors.
Why Does Turntable Need Phono Preamp?
A turntable phono preamp is different from a normal preamp. There is a process called “RIAA Equalization” where the output from the vinyl record is adjusted to the original balanced sound. Why is this necessary? This is due to the limitation of the vinyl record medium: lower frequencies are more difficult to cut, while the groove tracking noises are audible. Eventually, a standardisation is agreed where vinyl recordings are made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted. During playback, the phono preamp reverses the EQ curve to “correct” the sound. Therefore, a phono preamp is different from a normal stereo preamp. Make sure the input has a “PHONO” label, which means any audio signal that goes into it will apply the RIAA equalization curve. This is also why if you feed any other audio source into this “PHONO” connector, the output sound is distorted.
How Does the PEQ30 Improve The Turntable Sound?
I connected the AT-PEQ30 to the AT-LP5X and the treble section is noticeably clearer, relatively less veiled. The improvement seems to focus more on the treble and not so much on the bass. Other than the upper frequency, there are no distinct alterations to the overall sound presentation. The imaging remains consistent.
Is it dramatically different? I would say it is not. However, it really depends on your existing pre-amp quality. In the case of LP5X, the difference is slightly noticeable when I do an A-B comparison. I am pleased that the LP5X built-in preamp holds up to the challenge, but it also shows that sound quality can be improved especially on the upper frequencies when PEQ30 is introduced into the audio transport flow.
I’ve put together a video to illustrate the audio difference using two phono cartridges, the AT-VM95E (original AT-LP5X cartridge) and AT-VM95ML. You may also notice how different cartridges produce different sound outputs, and I will drill into that in my next article.
Does Vinyl Sound Better than CD?
I covered this question in a separate article when I compared CD vs. Vinyl. There are more ways to improve the sound quality of the vinyl compared to the CD, however, it is easier to attain a consistent sound quality on CD. Comparatively, vinyl depend on the varying factors during playback, for instance, a dirty vinyl groove, or quality of cartridge. In the end, this comparison between vinyl and digital audio goes beyond the sound quality, but on other intangible aspects. Read my opinions in the article.
Verdict: External Phono Preamps Are Better Than Built-in Turntable Preamps
I think it’s a no-brainer that if you were to invest in a separate phono stage, the sound will be better. How better it is depends on the quality of your existing built-in pre-amp. The AT-PEQ30 retails at S$298 in Singapore and helps elevate a bit of the upper frequencies when paired with AT-LP5X. I would not rely solely on the pre-amp to improve vinyl sound quality. In fact, swapping the phono cartridges achieve more distinctive outcomes.
Ultimately, vinyl listening is more of a hobby and an experience rather than a medium of audio perfection. Thanks to digital audio, consumers are able to enjoy clearer and perfect audio as intended by the studio producers in modern recordings. As for older analog titles, there are consumers who prefer the original sounding records cut by music craftsmen. I am forever in awe of the ability to own a piece of musical product before my time and to listen to the sounds as it was intended, in all its flaws and beauty.