With most things simplified by technology, dealing with hardware has become, well, not one of our strong suits. To listen to music, most people need to do scant more than use their thumbs to swipe on their phone, plug their headphones in, and voila! Open the floodgates for beautiful symphonies, classical jazz, hip hop, and whatever the ears desire.
Hardware Once More
The thing is, with the current shift in the way people are buying music, it seems that the novelty, sound design, and tangibility of the old record player has given birth to its newfound popularity. Vinyl is, in fact, making a comeback. However, most people flocking to the vinyl market are novices with zero experience dealing with sound equipment. That’s totally understandable.
If you don’t know the difference between active and passive speakers, RCA Connectors and electrical wiring, cartridges, and tonearms, we’re here to guide you through a record player speaker setup. In doing so, you’ll learn a bit more about how a turntable functions, too.
In which case, what do you need to be able to pull off the foundation of any setup? See below:
- A working turntable with a built-in phono preamp, or a working turntable with an external preamp
- Speakers with an RCA input (passive or active)
- Amplifier/Stereo (if your speakers are passive)
- RCA Connectors
- A Live Outlet
Record Player Speaker Setup
Different turntables are going to have different setups. With that said, we’re going to paint a broad stroke over “standard” record player speaker setups. This leads us to the most important piece on the turntable (aside from record needle)—one that, if removed from the equation, would render the turntable incapable of playing sound on any speaker or device.
Enter the phono preamp.
What is a Phono Preamp?
When a turntable produces sound, it’s creating a PHONO output signal. This signal, like a foreign language, cannot be understood or read by audio equipment. Thus, this signal needs to be converted into a LINE LEVEL signal, which some people like to call an “AUX reading,” or an “AUX signal.”
The line level is what will be transmitted to the audio equipment, allowing it to read and process the sound data. Thankfully, most turntables have a built-in phono preamp.
- If your turntable does not have a built-in phono preamp, there are two options:
- Buy an external phono preamp
- Buy the best record player speakers that come with a built-in phono preamp (there are plenty of these available)
Active and Passive Speakers
The next thing you need to know before diving into different setup structures is the difference between speakers.
- An active speaker is one that has its own power source and comes with a power cord. Plug the cord into an outlet and the speaker is live.
- A passive speaker is one that needs to be powered by a separate amplifier. The amplifier is typically the stereo system, seeing as for decades stereos also needed to be the batteries of the sound equipment.
This explanation illustrates that a passive speaker has a more complicated setup. It requires an extra piece of hardware and additional wiring. An active speaker is what most people today are accustomed to—save for the fact that you have to actually plug the turntable into it!
The Minimalist Setup (Active Speakers)
Without being overzealous with the technicalities, let’s start with the most basic and popular vinyl turntable configuration. For this, you’ll need:
- A turntable (with a built-in phono preamp)
- A cartridge
- Active speakers
Note: this setup can also work if the phono preamp is built into the speakers rather than the turntable.
In this setup, the cartridge (the piece that holds the stylus and comes down to rest on the spinning record) connects to the turntable. Then, with RCA Connectors, you connect:
Turntable 🡪 Active Speakers
Additionally, both the turntable and speakers need to be plugged into a power source. The mechanics at work here go as follows:
- Electricity from an outlet powers both the turntable and speakers
- The audio produced by the turntable is converted to a line level signal
- This signal travels through the RCA Connectors and into the speaker
- The speakers play the sound
This is the most commonly utilized setup today—one made even simpler due to modern technology. It’s typically a painless and straightforward way of setting up a turntable efficiently. Typically, the speakers are bookshelf sized; small, compact, and nearly portable. Pair it with a stationary or portable record player, and you’re set!
The Old School Setup
Perhaps you don’t want easy, or nostalgia is the entire reason you got into vinyl in the first place. Maybe you want to recreate the setup and experience your parents had in the ‘70s when they danced in the living room and threw their necks out to Queen.
What you’ll need:
- A turntable
- A cartridge
- A stereo system with a phono preamp (the stereo is often known as a receiver, and the phono preamp will say “PHONO input” on the hardware itself)
- RCA Connectors (two sets)
- Passive speakers
There are a couple of interesting things to note here. First, this system would still work if the turntable had a built-in phono preamp instead of the stereo. Two, it would also work with active speakers; the amp inside the receiver wouldn’t need to power them.
In this setup—as with any—the cartridge connects to the turntable. Then, the turntable connects to the stereo system through the RCA cables. The stereo system then connects to the passive speakers via the RCA cables. After, both the turntable and stereo system need to be plugged into an outlet.
Wall Outlet 🡪 Turntable & Stereo
Turntable 🡪 Stereo System (receiver) 🡪 Passive Speakers
The mechanics at work here go as follows:
- Electricity from the outlet’s power both the stereo system and the turntable
- The sound that comes from the turntable is converted into “line level” by the phono preamp built into the receiver
- The line level signal, along with power (in watts), is then transferred to the passive speakers
- The speakers then have the power and data to play the given music
This is what you can consider the “traditional” configuration of a turntable speaker setup. Typically, if you’re to enter the home of someone that bought a new age record player, this will not be the way it’s structured.
The External Phono Preamp
Sometimes, neither the turntable nor the stereo system you’re using has a built-in phono preamp. This might mean you’re using some old equipment (which we encourage you to do) or just that your specific hardware left out the piece. In any case, to configure your system, you’re going to need an external phono preamp.
What you’ll need for the external phono preamp setup:
- A turntable
- A cartridge
- An external phono preamp
- A stereo system (also known as the receiver)
- Passive speakers
- RCA Connectors (3 sets)
Again, both the stereo system and the turntable will not contain a built-in phono preamp. There are no exceptions to this system, as it works no other way.
The setup of this system goes as follows. As you could guess, the cartridge connects to the turntable. The turntable connects to the phono preamp with RCA cables. The second set of cables then runs to the stereo system. From there, the third set of RCA cables connects the stereo system to the passive speakers.
Additionally, both the stereo system and the turntable are plugged directly into an outlet:
Wall Outlet 🡪 Turntable & Stereo System (receiver)
Turntable 🡪 Phono Preamp 🡪 Stereo System 🡪 Passive Speakers
In which case, the mechanics at work here go as follows:
- Electricity from the wall outlets powers the stereo and turntable
- The turntable then produces a PHONO signal
- The phono preamp turns this PHONO signal into a “line level” signal
- The “line level” signal is then sent into the stereo system
- The stereo system then provides voltage and the “line level” signal to the passive speakers
- The passive speakers both power on and play the music
While this type of setup is certainly more intricate, by dissecting the above, it can still be considered straightforward. It’s a direct connection, so there aren’t any switches to worry about. And, there is an argument to be made that this modular configuration is the true traditional setup.
The Setup Is Up To You!
How you want to set up your vinyl player is 100% your choice. There is no right or wrong, just simple and a bit more complex. With that being said, if you’ve migrated to vinyl records because of the nostalgic appeal, then challenge yourself—pick up some old audio equipment, and see if you can’t configure your own external phono preamp setup.
But, of course, going with the active bookshelf speaker—which is the most popular setup—will probably be the easiest and produce high-end audio—the highest quality of sound (for the price). We wish you the best of luck on your record player speaker setup! Hopefully, this guide answered some questions and pointed you in the right direction.
Forbes. Vinyl Is Bigger Than We Thought. Much Bigger. Sept, 2018. Retrieved from:
Turntable Lab. Beginner’s Guide To Turntables – Home Listening Edition. Retrieved from:
Media College. Sound Systems. Retrieved from: