What Is A Phono Amp? A Comprehensive Guide

Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, and with it, the need for a phono amp.

But what exactly is a phono amp?

In simple terms, it’s an electronic device that amplifies and equalizes the analog output of a turntable cartridge. It boosts the signal to a level suitable for your stereo and applies an equalization curve to restore the original sound.

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the world of phono amps and explore why they’re essential for any vinyl lover’s setup.

So sit back, relax, and let’s get started!

What Is A Phono Amp

A phono amp, also known as a phono preamp or phono stage, is a crucial component in any vinyl setup. It provides the connection between your turntable and your amplifier, boosting the signal to a level that can be properly processed by your stereo system.

Back in the day, phono stages were built into receivers and amplifiers, allowing for direct connection of a turntable. However, as new audio formats like CDs became more popular, manufacturers began to remove or reduce the quality of their in-built phono stages and inputs. This means that many modern hi-fi amplifiers won’t let you plug in a turntable directly.

This is where a separate phono amp comes in. It amplifies the very small signal from your turntable cartridge up to several hundred times its original size before it reaches your main amplifier. This ensures that the signal is loud enough for your stereo to work with.

The Basics Of A Phono Amp

At its core, a phono amp has two main functions. Firstly, it amplifies the signal level from your turntable cartridge to a level that is suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. This is necessary because turntable cartridges output a very small signal that needs to be amplified up to several hundred times its original size before it can be properly processed by your stereo system.

Secondly, a phono amp applies an equalization curve to inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process. This is called RIAA equalization and is necessary because during the vinyl mastering process, certain frequencies are reduced in order to fit more music onto the record. The phono amp restores these frequencies to their original levels, resulting in a more accurate and balanced sound.

While some amps and turntables may have built-in phono stages, these are often outperformed by external phono amps. External phono amps 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. They also have their own power supply and shielding from interference, resulting in higher quality audio reproduction.

Why Do You Need A Phono Amp?

There are a few reasons why you need a phono amp in your vinyl setup. Firstly, turntable cartridges output a very small signal, which needs to be amplified in order to be processed by your stereo system. Without a phono amp, the sound produced would be very weak and thin.

Secondly, many modern amplifiers no longer have in-built phono stages or inputs, so you need a separate phono amp to connect your turntable to your stereo system. This is especially true if you have a high-end turntable with a moving coil cartridge, which produces an even weaker signal than a moving magnet cartridge.

Thirdly, a dedicated phono amp is fine-tuned to reproduce the warm sound of vinyl, free from hiss or bearing rumble. This is thanks to the expertise of the engineers who design the circuits and choose the components for the phono amp.

Finally, vinyl lovers will instantly hear the difference that a dedicated phono stage makes to music quality. External phono stages out-perform in-built phono pre-amplifiers, providing stunning clarity, musicality and resolution from all your vinyl recordings.

Types Of Phono Amps

There are two main types of phono amps: those designed for moving magnet (MM) cartridges and those designed for moving coil (MC) cartridges. MM cartridges are more common and compatible with more preamps, while MC cartridges require more work from the phono stage due to their lower signal output.

MC phono amps have higher gain than MM phono stages because of the lower signal output of MC cartridges. They also tend to have a lower noise floor and more distinct noise characteristics than MM phono stages. This is because of the lower electrical signal produced by MC cartridges.

Moving magnet and MC phono amps also have different input impedance in order to match the different output impedance of the cartridges. MC phono amps have adjustable gain and input impedance that must be manually adjusted to meet the signal levels of your specific MC cartridge. MM phono amps, on the other hand, don’t require this adjustment, making the phono stage set-up easier.

It’s important to note that some preamps are compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, with a simple switch that adjusts the phono stage accordingly. However, it’s always best to double-check compatibility before purchasing a phono amp for your specific cartridge type.

How To Choose The Right Phono Amp For Your Turntable

Choosing the right phono amp for your turntable can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some key factors to consider when making your decision:

1. Cartridge type: The type of phono stage you need will depend on the type of cartridge used in your turntable. Moving magnet cartridges (MM) generate a higher signal level than moving coil cartridges (MC), so MM phono stages are more common and compatible with a wider range of preamps. However, if you have an MC cartridge, you’ll need a phono stage that’s specifically designed to work with low-output cartridges.

2. Budget: Phono stages come in a wide range of prices, from budget-friendly options to high-end audiophile-grade units. Determine how much you’re willing to spend before you start shopping.

3. Sound quality: The sound quality of a phono stage can vary greatly depending on the components used by the manufacturer and the technological bias. Consider the characteristics that are important to you, such as dynamism, timbre, neutrality, precision, and realism. Some phono stages also feature tubes, which can provide a warmer, fuller sound quality but may sacrifice neutrality.

4. Compatibility: Make sure that the phono stage you choose is compatible with your turntable and amplifier. Some turntables have a built-in phono stage, while others require an external one. Similarly, some amplifiers have a phono input, while others require an external phono stage.

5. Reviews and recommendations: Do your research and read reviews from other vinyl enthusiasts to get an idea of which phono stages are highly recommended. You can also consult with experts who can give you a detailed opinion on the sound quality generated by each phono preamp.

By considering these factors, you can choose a phono amp that will provide the best sound quality for your vinyl setup and enhance your listening experience.

Setting Up Your Phono Amp And Turntable

Setting up your phono amp and turntable is essential for getting the best possible sound quality from your vinyl records. Here’s how to do it:

1. Connect the RCA cables from your turntable to the “In” or “Input” RCA jacks on the rear of the phono preamp.

2. Using a separate pair of RCA cables, plug one end into the “Out” or “Output” RCA jacks on the rear of the phono preamp.

3. Plug the other end of the RCA cables into the Aux or CD input on the rear of your amplifier or receiver. Do NOT plug the RCA cables into the phono input on your amplifier.

4. Set your phono preamp to the proper cartridge setting, either MM or MC. If you are new to vinyl, you are most likely using a MM (or moving magnet) cartridge and not an expensive MC (or Moving Coil) cartridge.

5. Once your turntable and phono preamp are connected, you will need an amplifier to connect to the preamp in order to boost the signal to a line level signal. You could utilize an A/V receiver, separate amplifier, or powered speakers that have a built-in amplifier (different than pre-amp).

6. When choosing an amplifier, consider its price and features. Some A/V receivers also have a built-in pre-amp allowing you to plug your turntable directly into it without needing a separate pre-amp.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your phono amp and turntable are set up correctly for optimal sound quality. Remember to always use high-quality cables and components for the best possible performance.

Troubleshooting Common Phono Amp Issues

Despite their importance, phono amps can sometimes experience issues that can affect the quality of your vinyl playback. Here are some common problems that you may encounter and how to troubleshoot them:

1. Power Supply Issues: One of the most common problems with phono amps is using the wrong type of power supply. It is essential to use an AC power adapter instead of a DC power adapter, as this can cause significant problems with your phono amp’s performance. Make sure to check the manufacturer’s recommendations for the right type of power supply.

2. Signal Cable Problems: Another issue that can arise is not using shielded signal cables or failing to connect the ground between the turntable and the phono stage. This can cause interference and noise in your audio output, affecting the overall sound quality.

3. Faulty Components: Faulty components such as capacitors and resistors can also cause issues with your phono amp. If you notice any changes in volume or distortion, it may be due to a faulty component. It is best to consult a professional technician or refer to the service manual for your specific phono amp model.

4. Poor Connections: Poor connections can also cause problems with your phono amp’s performance. Make sure that all connections are secure and free from any dirt or debris that can affect the signal flow.

5. Wiring Issues: If you experience issues with only one channel of your phono amp, it may be due to wiring issues. Check the wiring for any loose connections or damaged wires that may be causing the problem.

In summary, troubleshooting common phono amp issues involves checking for power supply issues, signal cable problems, faulty components, poor connections, and wiring issues. By identifying and addressing these problems promptly, you can ensure that your vinyl playback experience remains smooth and enjoyable.