Are you new to the world of vinyl and wondering if you need a phono stage?
The answer is not always straightforward. It depends on your current setup and whether your turntable has a built-in preamp or if your amplifier or receiver has a PHONO input.
Confused? Don’t worry, we’ll break it down for you in this article. We’ll explain what a phono stage is, why it’s necessary, and how to determine if you need one.
So, sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of phono stages.
Do I Need A Phono Stage
If you’re a vinyl enthusiast, then you know that a phono stage (also known as a phono preamp) is an essential component of any vinyl setup. But do you really need one?
The answer is, it depends. If your turntable comes with a built-in preamplifier, then technically you don’t need to get a phono stage. However, many audiophiles prefer to use a separate one for better sound quality.
To determine if your turntable has a built-in preamp, check the back of it for a PHONO/LINE switch. If it has one, then it has a built-in phono stage. To activate the preamp, set the switch to LINE. If the switch is turned to PHONO, the built-in preamp is automatically bypassed.
Similarly, check if your amplifier or receiver has a PHONO input. If it does, then you don’t need a separate phono stage. However, if your amplifier doesn’t have a PHONO input and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, then you’ll need a phono stage to plug in the RCA and listen through loudspeakers.
What Is A Phono Stage?
A phono stage is an electronic device that connects a turntable to an amplifier or receiver. It is also known as a phono preamp, as it amplifies and equalizes the signal from the turntable’s cartridge before passing it on to the main amplifier.
The purpose of a phono stage is to boost the weak signal produced by the turntable cartridge, which is much smaller than the standard line-level signal produced by other audio sources like CD players or streaming devices. The phono stage also applies an equalization curve to correct for the frequency response of vinyl records during the cutting process.
In the past, many amplifiers and receivers had built-in phono stages, but as vinyl declined in popularity, manufacturers began to remove this feature from their products. Today, many modern amplifiers and receivers do not have a built-in phono stage, making a separate phono stage necessary for playing vinyl records.
There are two types of cartridges commonly used in turntables: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). Moving magnet cartridges have a magnet attached to the needle, which moves inside a surrounding coil of wire. Moving coil cartridges have a coil attached to the needle, which moves inside a surrounding magnet. MC cartridges tend to be more expensive than MM cartridges due to their smaller parts and greater precision.
While some turntables come with a built-in phono stage, audiophiles often prefer to use a separate one for better sound quality. External phono stages are designed with better shielding from interference and their own power supply, which helps to minimize electrical noise and distortion. Overall, whether or not you need a phono stage depends on your specific setup and preferences.
Why Do I Need A Phono Stage?
A phono stage is necessary because the signal produced by a turntable cartridge is very weak and needs to be amplified before it can be played through a stereo system. Without a phono stage, the sound produced would be thin, reedy, and extremely quiet. The purpose of a phono stage is to boost the weak signal from the turntable cartridge to a level that allows it to be connected to a stereo via standard AUX sockets.
In addition to amplification, a phono stage also applies an equalization curve to inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process. This correction is necessary because vinyl records are cut with a specific equalization curve that boosts bass and treble frequencies while reducing midrange frequencies. Without this correction, the sound produced would be unbalanced and lacking in detail.
While some turntables come with a built-in preamp, many audiophiles prefer to use a separate phono stage for better sound quality. Dedicated phono stages are fine-tuned to reproduce the warm sound of vinyl, free from hiss or bearing rumble thanks to expert circuit design, component choice, and layout.
Turntables With Built-In Preamps
If your turntable comes with a built-in preamp, then you’re in luck. These turntables are considered the “plug-and-play” option in the turntable community, as they come with a phono preamp built inside. This means that you can easily connect them to any audio device that has an analog input, such as a pair of powered speakers, receiver, or amp, even if it doesn’t have a phono stage.
Built-in preamps tend to have much more stripped-down construction in order to physically fit inside the turntable’s chassis. This means that the circuits and circuit boards are smaller and use more compact components. As a result, they may not offer the same level of sound quality as external phono stages. However, they are a convenient option for those who don’t want to deal with extra equipment and cables.
A lot of entry to mid-level turntables will often feature a built-in preamplifier. You’ll see this in the product specs as a preamp, phono stage, or phono EQ. Sometimes these preamps will be switchable so if you should choose to, you can bypass it and connect to an external preamplifier for better sound quality.
Amplifiers And Receivers With PHONO Input
An amplifier or receiver with a PHONO input has a built-in phono stage that amplifies the low-level signal from a turntable and applies the RIAA equalization curve to recreate the original sound. This type of input is specifically designed for turntables and provides a high-fidelity listening experience.
If you’re in the market for an amplifier or receiver with a PHONO input, there are plenty of options available. Many vintage amplifiers and receivers have a built-in phono stage, so if you’re looking for a classic sound, these might be a good option. However, if you want modern features like Bluetooth connectivity or network streaming, you may need to look for newer models.
When shopping for an amplifier or receiver with a PHONO input, make sure to check the specifications to ensure it’s compatible with your turntable. Some turntables require a higher gain than others, so you’ll want to make sure the amplifier or receiver can provide enough amplification.
How To Determine If You Need A Phono Stage
If you’re unsure whether your turntable has a built-in preamp, there’s a simple way to find out. Connect your record player to your audio system or speakers and listen for the volume level and signs of distortion. If the volume level is high and there are no signs of distortion, then your turntable has a built-in preamp.
Many new record players, such as the Audio Technica AT-LP120, come with a built-in preamp. However, not all self-contained turntables do. If you’re currently shopping for a record player and plan on connecting it to an audio system like Sonos, a receiver, or speakers, but you don’t want to purchase a separate phono stage, make sure the model you buy has an internal preamp.
It’s important to note that most audiophiles prefer to use a separate phono stage for better sound quality. So even if your turntable has a built-in preamp, it may be worth investing in a separate phono stage for optimal sound. Additionally, external phono stages can offer more versatility in terms of customization and adjustment options.
Choosing The Right Phono Stage For Your Setup
If you’ve determined that you need a phono stage for your vinyl setup, the next step is to choose the right one. The type of phono stage you choose will depend on the type of music you listen to and the sound quality you are looking for.
There are two main types of phono stages: Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC). MM cartridges have a higher output voltage than MC cartridges, so they require less amplification from the phono stage. MC cartridges, on the other hand, have a lower output voltage and require more amplification from the phono stage.
In addition to cartridge type, you’ll also want to consider the sound characteristics of different phono stages. Some phono stages use tubes which can produce a warmer, fuller sound but may sacrifice neutrality. Other phono stages use solid-state components for a more neutral sound.
To help you choose the right phono stage for your setup, consult with experts in the field who can provide detailed opinions on the sound quality generated by each phono preamp. They can describe characteristics such as dynamism, timbre, neutrality, precision, realism, and more.
Two popular options for high-quality phono stages are the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 and the Jolida JD9 SE1. These are considered benchmarks in their range and offer excellent sound quality for vinyl enthusiasts.
Ultimately, choosing the right phono stage for your setup will depend on your personal preferences and budget. Consider consulting with experts and doing research to find the best option for your vinyl listening experience.