Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, and with that comes the need for a phono stage. But what exactly is a phono stage, and do you need one?
If you’re in the market for a turntable, you may have come across the term “built-in phono stage” or “built-in preamp.” But what does that mean, and how does it differ from an external phono stage?
In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of built-in phono stages and help you determine if it’s the right choice for your setup. So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of phono stages.
What Is A Built In Phono Stage
A built-in phono stage, also known as a built-in preamp, is a component that is included within a turntable itself. Its primary function is to amplify the signal level of the phono cartridge up to a level that is suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. This means that you can connect your turntable directly to your amplifier or receiver without the need for an external phono stage.
The purpose of a phono stage is to translate the electrical signal from a turntable, so you can successfully play your favorite album through the stereo. When your turntable cartridge picks up sound from the record grooves, it produces a phono signal. A phono stage converts the small phono signal into a line signal. A line signal is the standard signal level that can be played through home audio stereo components such as CD players and DVD players. A line signal can be plugged into the LINE or AUX inputs on amplifiers, active speakers, and receivers, while a phono signal can’t be directly connected to these inputs.
A built-in preamp is when a turntable has a preamplifier inside the unit itself. The job of a preamp is to convert the sound signal from the phono cartridge from millivolts to about one volt, which is called line level. Line level is the level that all consumer audio electronics operate within. But record players are much quieter, so their output needs to be amplified by a phono preamp. All phono cartridges put out millivolts which need to be amplified to line level to be used by audio equipment.
What Is A Phono Stage?
A phono stage, also known as a phono preamp, is a component that provides the connection between a turntable and an amplifier. Its primary function is to amplify the tiny electrical signal produced by the turntable cartridge up to a level that is suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. When vinyl was the standard medium for audio recordings, receivers and amplifiers included a built-in phono stage that allowed direct connection to a turntable. However, as new formats like CDs were introduced and began to replace vinyl, manufacturers of amplifiers removed or reduced the quality of their in-built phono stages and inputs as they were no longer being used.
A lot of hi-fi amplifiers now won’t let you plug in a turntable directly. You need to connect via a phono stage to make the very small signal from the turntable powerful enough for your main amp to work with. To connect a turntable to an amplifier, you will need to pass the signal through an external phono stage to increase the level. Turntables cartridges output a very small signal and this needs amplifying up to several hundred times the size before it is loud enough for your amplifier.
If any noise creeps in before or during amplification, it will become increased in volume detracting from the potential audio quality. Therefore, dedicated phono stages are fine-tuned to reproduce the warm sound of vinyl, free from hiss or bearing rumble thanks to engineers’ expertise in circuit design, component choice, and layout. Connected using a single audio interconnect cable, a phono stage is set up in seconds allowing you to appreciate stunning clarity, musicality, and resolution from all your vinyl recordings.
While some amplifiers are already able to support turntable connections with built-in phono pre-amplifiers, these are often outperformed by external phono stages. Vinyl lovers will instantly hear the difference that a dedicated phono stage makes to music quality. Additionally, there are two types of phono cartridges: Moving-Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC). The primary difference between these cartridge types is that Moving Coil cartridges have a much lower output voltage compared to Moving Magnet cartridges, so they require a higher level of amplification before input to your amp. The new CP1 is a Moving-Magnet-type (MM) phono stage, while its bigger brother, the advanced CP2, is capable of both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil operation.
Why Do You Need A Phono Stage?
If your turntable does not have a built-in preamp and your amplifier or receiver does not have an input labeled “phono,” then you will need to purchase a preamp for your turntable (otherwise known as a phono preamp). A phono stage is necessary because the signal produced by a turntable cartridge is very small and needs to be amplified to several hundred times its original size before it can be played through your amplifier.
Some amplifiers do have built-in phono stages, but these are often outperformed by external phono stages. External phono stages are also beneficial because they have better shielding from interference and their own power supply, which means they do not have to share with an electrically noisy power transformer on a hi-fi amplifier.
In addition to amplifying the signal, a phono stage also re-equalizes the signal. This means that the bass, midrange, and treble frequencies are adjusted to match the original recording. Without this adjustment, the sound quality of your vinyl records can be negatively affected.
External Vs. Built-in Phono Stages: What’s The Difference?
When it comes to phono stages, there are two main types: built-in and external. A built-in phono stage is a preamp that is already installed within a piece of audio equipment, such as a turntable, speaker, or stereo receiver. On the other hand, an external phono stage is a standalone unit that needs its own power supply and must be connected to the turntable with RCA cables.
One of the biggest differences between these two types of phono stages is their location. A built-in preamp is located within the turntable itself, while an external preamp is a separate unit that can be positioned anywhere in your audio setup. This means that an external phono stage does not have to worry about fitting into the casing of a record player and can be its own thing.
Another difference between these two types of preamps is their sound quality. While some expensive turntables may have high-quality built-in preamps, generally speaking, an external preamp will provide a much richer and fuller sound than a built-in one. This is because an external preamp does not have to worry about fitting into the casing of a record player and can be designed solely for the purpose of amplifying the phono signal.
However, it’s worth noting that external preamps can be more expensive than built-in ones. You can easily spend a few hundred extra dollars if you want an external preamp that is of high quality. This may not be feasible for someone who is new to vinyl and has already spent a lot on their turntable.
Benefits Of A Built-in Phono Stage
One of the main benefits of a built-in phono stage is convenience. Since the preamp is already integrated into the turntable, you don’t need to worry about purchasing an external phono stage or connecting additional cables. This can be particularly helpful for those who are new to vinyl or have limited space in their setup.
Another advantage of a built-in phono stage is cost-effectiveness. Since you don’t need to purchase an external phono stage, you can save money on additional components. In addition, built-in preamps tend to be more affordable than standalone phono stages.
Built-in preamps also offer ease of use. They are designed to work seamlessly with the turntable and are optimized for the specific cartridge that comes with the turntable. This means you don’t need to worry about adjusting settings or matching the cartridge with the phono stage.
Finally, built-in preamps can offer good sound quality. While standalone phono stages may offer more nuanced sound quality, built-in preamps can still provide a solid listening experience. In fact, some high-end turntables come with high-quality built-in preamps that rival standalone options.
Drawbacks Of A Built-in Phono Stage
While a built-in phono stage may seem like a convenient option, it has some significant drawbacks. Firstly, the quality of the internal components is often not as good as those found in external phono stages. Since the built-in preamp is designed to do only one job, it may use cheaper capacitors, resistors, and other parts. This can lead to increased noise and reduced sound quality.
Another issue with built-in phono stages is that they offer little to no control over the sound quality. As they are integrated into the turntable itself, there are no options to adjust or tweak the configuration to suit your preferences. This lack of control can be frustrating for audiophiles who want to have complete control over their music.
Furthermore, built-in phono stages are often prone to interference from other electronic devices. Since they share the same power supply as the turntable, they are more susceptible to picking up electrical noise from other components in the system. This can result in unwanted hums or buzzing sounds that can detract from the listening experience.
Lastly, if you want to upgrade your phono stage in the future, you will need to replace the entire turntable rather than just swapping out the preamp. This can be costly and inconvenient if you have invested in a high-quality turntable that you don’t want to replace.
How To Choose The Right Phono Stage For Your Setup
Choosing the right phono stage for your setup can be a daunting task, but it is crucial to ensure that you get the most out of your vinyl collection. The first step is to determine the type of cartridge that your turntable features. If you have a moving magnet (MM) cartridge, then you will need an MM phono preamp that is compatible with this type of cartridge. Most preamplifiers are compatible by default, but it is always best to check before making a purchase.
On the other hand, if your system features a moving coil (MC) cartridge, then you will need a phono preamp that is compatible with low output cartridges. It is important to note that many manufacturers offer MM/MC phono preamps, which means that both options are available in a single device. This type of phono stage is versatile and can facilitate possible changes of the cartridge. For example, if you wanted to upgrade your MM cartridge later on by an MC cartridge, you will not necessarily be obliged to change your phono preamp.
When it comes to gain settings, it is important to set your preamp’s gain on the low side for high-output cartridges like MM. A setting of 40 dB is a good place to start, and you might try a slightly higher setting, but going too high can result in more noise and obvious distortion. The higher gain settings (60 dB or higher) are for low-output moving coil cartridges.
It is also important to consider whether you need a separate phono stage or if your amplifier already has a built-in phono stage. While some amplifiers are already able to support turntable connections, these in-built phono pre-amplifiers are often out-performed by external phono stages. Vinyl lovers will instantly hear the difference that a dedicated phono stage makes to music quality.
In conclusion, choosing the right phono stage for your setup involves understanding the type of cartridge that your turntable features and selecting a compatible phono preamp accordingly. It is also important to consider gain settings and whether an external phono stage is necessary for optimal sound quality. With these factors in mind, you can ensure that you get the most out of your vinyl collection and enjoy stunning clarity, musicality, and resolution from all your vinyl recordings.