Preamp vs Phantom Power – What’s The Difference?

Power is a significant element when it comes to operating microphones.

Different types of mics exist, and these require varying powering techniques for them to function optimally.

Some of these microphones come with inbuilt amplifiers, while others need an external one for them to work.

So, the powering options you select will depend on this feature. Preamp and phantom power work differently, and in most cases, you cannot use both options to fuel your microphone without ruining it.

Let’s look at each of these options and learn more about how they work to bring mics to life.

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What is a Preamp, and How Does it Work?

Video: “What Is A Preamp, And Do I Need One?”

A preamplifier is a gadget that boosts a weak microphone signal. The final product is strong enough to send to a loudspeaker but not distorted.

This device essentially increases the volume of the signal it receives from the mic so that this sound is useful to the next gadget in line.

You have to plug the microphone into the line inputs to ensure that you receive clear sound and no distortion. Depending on the type of microphones you have, you can choose between clean and colored mic preamps.

Clean mic preamplifiers dramatically boost the signal without introducing any distortion. These gadgets can increase the sound up to 75dB effortlessly. Colored mic preamps, on the other hand, tweak the signal through the introduction of some harmonic distortion.

And while these pre-harmonic colorations will limit your processing options along the chain, they create a distinct sound and reduce the amount of time you spend mixing the audio.

If you’re still battling whether or not to get a preamplifier, here are the top reasons for getting one.

  • Dramatic sound boost
  • Clear, undistorted sound
  • Unlimited choices for mics and guitars
  • More gain unlike when you don’t use a preamplifier
  • On the flip side, preamps, especially the inbuilt ones, limit your gain range when you do not have supporting equipment to sustain the link.
  • You cannot use them in conjunction with phantom power

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What is Phantom Power, and How Does it Work?

Video: “What Is Phantom Power And Why Do You Need It?”

When it comes to phantom power, you do not need a go-between gadget to help stabilize the signal. Phantom power is a direct connection circuit that travels through the cables to power up your microphone.

This powering option is commonly used in conjunction with condenser microphones. You only have to press the 48V button for the mic to begin functioning. Plugin the mics into the mixer and connect the loudspeakers.

Before turning your power source on, ensure that the volume controls are set on low. This way, you avoid damaging the speakers when the power comes up.

Finally, hit the 48v button on your mic and start recording. Some notable perks of using phantom power include:

  • Smooth, effortless connectivity process
  • It is less expensive
  • Provides a stable power supply
  • Unfortunately, phantom power is mostly suitable for condenser and ribbon mics

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Preamp vs Phantom Power Differences

Preamplifiers differ from phantom power in several ways. Some of the most significant differences between the two options include:

Preamps work as a switch between the power source and your microphone. Without it, none of these two entities would function as they should. Phantom power, however, is the main circuit breaker in this chain.

A preamplifier has plenty of control knobs that you use to equalize the sound at the end of the chain. You can increase the bass, volume, texture, and other essentials that’ll produce a smooth and balanced sound.

A phantom power supply box, on the other hand, only has mic output and input plugs and an on and off switch. You’ll plug in the microphones and switch the box on, and you’re good to go. If you want to alter the sound controls, you have to rely on the mixer.

[amazon link=”B000CZ0RME” title=”Preamps” link_icon=”amazon” /] can support multiple gadgets at the same time. You can plug in your mics, bass guitar, loudspeakers, and woofer simultaneously.

More so, you can control each of these gadgets separately, thanks to the independent control knobs on the preamplifier. The phantom power supply only supports the mics.

A preamplifier’s most significant task is to increase the volume of a weak signal to benefit the speakers or gadget that’s next in line. Its counterpart, however, only functions as a power source for the microphones plugged into it.

The [amazon link=”B014H8AWGC” title=”phantom power box” link_icon=”amazon” /] is an external gear that helps to power up microphones. When it comes to preamps, you can find two types; the built-in and external ones. Some mixers and turntables have this built-in preamp, while others don’t.

Using some types of preamps, such as the colored mic variants, can limit your sound mixing process later on in the chain, unlike phantom power supplies, enabling you to edit the sound as you wish. Colored microphone preamplifiers alter the sound by incorporating a sweet distortion.

This feature gives your audio a distinct texture that’s sweet. However, the same characteristic will make it hard for you to edit the sound at a later stage. Phantom power sound is easy to edit since the box powers up the mic.

So, there you have it. Each of these devices has a specific function that they play to ensure that the microphones work optimally.

Do I Need a Preamp and Phantom Power?

Newbies usually wonder whether it is necessary to get a preamp and phantom power box. And while this is a valid concern, you need to ask yourself a few questions to determine whether you need both gadgets. For instance:

What type of microphones do I have?

Will, I focus on live events or studio recordings alone?

Does my preamplifier have a built-in phantom power supply?

These questions will help you rule out the unnecessary baggage, thereby choosing the best option.

Let’s analyze these three possibilities for a clearer understanding.

  • Microphone types

What type of microphones dominates your collection? Do you own more condensers than dynamics and ribbons? Or is it the other way around?

If you have more condenser microphones, it means that you want to specify in sound production. As such, you require a phantom power supply to support your devices.

The opposite is true. If your microphones collection has more dynamics, it is only sensible to buy a preamp to boost their sound.

  • Where is your focus? Live events or studio recordings?

Preamplifiers are more common in live events than studios because of microphones that rule this realm. Most performers prefer to use dynamic mics because they are less sensitive than other options in the market.

As such, they can withstand higher sound levels and can take a fall without damaging the core. However, these mics work using a coil and magnet that vibrate when you strum a guitar or sing into the mic.

The signal from these mics is not a strong one, which is why you need a preamp to boost it to audible levels.

  • Do you have a built-in power supply?

If you have a preamplifier, one of the top reasons that will make you consider getting a phantom power supply is the lack of a built-in phantom power supply. If your preamp lacks this circuit controller, it will not work.

You have to get an external one to power the preamp for you to gain your desired results. However, if you have a built-in phantom power circuit, it eliminates the need to get an external one.

Some microphones also require both a preamp and phantom power supply, such as the low output dynamic mics. One such microphone is the Shure SM7b, which has an output of -69dBv. Normal mixers and preamps have gains that stretch up to 40 or 50 dB.

Therefore, you have to find a way to hit the missing decibels. In this case, you will connect the mic to an amplifier for elevated signals, then add a phantom power supply into the mix to help increase the gain even higher.

You can do this if you cannot get your hands on an amplifier that can go all the way and boost the mic over 70dB.

Whether or not you need both devices depends on several variables that regard your specialty and gadget capabilities.

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Final Words

The preamp Vs. Phantom power battle is a tough one to conclude. The reason for this is that these devices all serve a purpose in sound creation. More so, singers and studio producers use these items in different scenes, meaning that I cannot downplay their importance.

While a phantom power supply is easy to operate, it does not offer many sound regulation options as the preamplifier. These same preamps offer dynamic sound variables but may limit your editing process, more so if you opt for colorant preamps.

However, a few things stand out in my observation. If you have a preamplifier built for dynamic and ribbon mics, you have to get additional cables and other supplies to make the preamp compatible with the condenser mic.

Juan Stansbury
Juan Stansbury

I'm Juan Stansbury, author and owner of Homerecordio – your ultimate destination for everything about homerecording. With hands-on experience, courses, workshops, and industry research, I offer tips on selecting the best equipment, and mixing and mastering your recordings to achieve professional-quality results at home. Join me on this journey to explore the world of homerecording and music production.

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