Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, but many modern amplifiers and receivers lack a dedicated phono cartridge input. This is where a phono box comes in.
A phono box, also known as a phono preamplifier, amplifies the low-level signal from a turntable’s cartridge and applies the necessary RIAA equalization to produce high-quality sound. It’s an essential component for any vinyl lover who wants to enjoy their records on a modern hi-fi system.
In this article, we’ll explore what a phono box is, how it works, and why you might need one. So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of phono boxes.
What Is A Phono Box
A phono box is a device that amplifies the signal from a turntable’s cartridge and applies the necessary RIAA equalization to produce high-quality sound. It’s an essential component for any vinyl lover who wants to enjoy their records on a modern hi-fi system.
Most modern amplifiers and receivers lack a dedicated phono cartridge input, which means that the signal from a turntable’s cartridge needs to be amplified before it can be played through the speakers. This is where a phono box comes in.
A phono box is essentially a preamplifier that takes the low-level signal from a turntable’s cartridge and amplifies it to line level. It also applies the necessary RIAA equalization, which is a specific type of equalization used to compensate for the way that vinyl records are cut.
Without RIAA equalization, vinyl records would sound very bass-heavy and treble-light. This is because the cutting process boosts the bass frequencies and reduces the treble frequencies. RIAA equalization reverses this process, so that the record sounds balanced when played back.
The Basics: What Is A Phono Box?
A phono box is a device that amplifies the signal from a turntable’s cartridge and applies the necessary RIAA equalization to produce high-quality sound. Essentially, it takes the low-level signal from a turntable’s cartridge and amplifies it to line level, making it compatible with modern amplifiers and receivers.
One of the main reasons why a phono box is necessary is because most modern amplifiers and receivers lack a dedicated phono cartridge input. Without a phono box, the signal from a turntable’s cartridge would need to be amplified before it can be played through the speakers.
Another important function of a phono box is to apply RIAA equalization. This specific type of equalization compensates for the way that vinyl records are cut, which boosts bass frequencies and reduces treble frequencies. RIAA equalization reverses this process, so that the record sounds balanced when played back.
How Does A Phono Box Work?
A phono box works by taking the small, weak signal from a turntable’s cartridge and amplifying it to a level that can be played through a modern hi-fi system. It does this by using a preamplifier circuit that boosts the signal and applies the necessary RIAA equalization.
The RIAA equalization curve is a specific type of equalization that is used to compensate for the way that vinyl records are cut. When a record is cut, the bass frequencies are boosted and the treble frequencies are reduced. This is done to prevent the needle from jumping out of the groove during playback.
To reverse this process, a phono box applies an opposite EQ curve to the signal. This boosts the treble frequencies and reduces the bass frequencies, so that the record sounds balanced when played back.
In addition to amplifying and equalizing the signal, a phono box also isolates the signal from any interference or noise that may be present in the system. This ensures that the sound quality is as clean and clear as possible.
The Importance Of RIAA Equalization
The importance of RIAA equalization cannot be overstated when it comes to vinyl playback. The RIAA curve is a global standard established by the Recording Industry Association of America in the 1950s, and it ensures that the audio playback is maintained at a standard as expected by the master recording of the audio.
Before the RIAA curve, individual record manufacturers had used their own standards for controlling the augmentation and control of the audio frequency spectrum coming from the grooves on the records. This resulted in different reproduction results if the recording and playback filtering were not matched.
The RIAA equalization curve is necessary because when record grooves are carved, the bass is reduced to save space on the record. The phono stage amplifies the bass and decreases the treble to correct this and create a good listening balance. This process of a phono stage balancing the bass and treble is called RIAA equalization.
RIAA equalization also allows for more time per side of the vinyl record, reduces typical noise like hiss and clicks associated with records, and boosts the rumble caused by the turntable’s drive mechanism. Without RIAA equalization, vinyl records would not only sound unbalanced but also have a shorter playtime and more noise.
Therefore, when choosing a phono box, it’s important to consider its ability to accurately correct for the RIAA curve. Cheaper phono preamps may not be able to do this effectively, leading to a flat and lifeless sound. The best phono preamplifiers, such as the McIntosh MP100, will precisely amplify and equalize the very small phono signal to duplicate the original recording without adding any noise or distortion.
Do You Need A Phono Box?
The answer to whether or not you need a phono box depends on your current set-up. If your turntable has a built-in preamplifier, then technically you don’t need a phono stage. However, many audiophiles prefer a separate phono box for improved sound quality.
To check if your turntable has a built-in preamp, look at the back of the unit. If there’s a PHONO/LINE switch, 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 doesn’t have one and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, then you’ll need a phono box in order to plug in the RCA and listen through loudspeakers.
It’s important to note that using two phono stages in a system can result in loud, distorted noise that could damage your hi-fi system. So if your turntable has a built-in phono stage and you connect it to the phono stage on an amplifier, you will double amplify the signal.
When purchasing a phono box, there are three key considerations to make: how much you should pay, what type of sound you want, and whether you need something future-proof. We recommend spending up to 50% of the value of your turntable/cartridge on a phono stage. It’s also recommended to audition or read reviews before making a purchase to ensure that it fits your sound preferences.
Choosing The Right Phono Box For Your Setup
When it comes to choosing the right phono box for your setup, there are a few factors to consider. First and foremost, you’ll want to think about the type of music you’ll be playing and the sound quality you’re looking for. Different phono stages will have varying sound quality depending on the components used by the manufacturer and the technological bias.
To help you make an informed decision, it’s a good idea to consult with experts who can provide you with a detailed opinion on the sound quality generated by each phono preamp. They can describe several characteristics such as dynamism, timbre, neutrality, precision, realism, and more.
If you’re a fan of warm, full sound quality, then a tube phono preamp may be the right choice for you. However, keep in mind that this type of preamp may sacrifice some neutrality in exchange for the warmer sound. Some popular tube phono preamps include the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 and the Jolida JD9 SE1, which are both considered benchmarks in their range.
It’s also important to consider your budget when choosing a phono box. While it’s true that your speakers and turntable should command a larger chunk of your hi-fi budget, investing about 20 percent of your budget in a dedicated phono preamp can make a dramatic difference in sound quality.
When considering different phono boxes, look for flexibility in terms of adjustments like gain, loading, and compatibility with Moving Coil cartridges if you’re looking to experiment with different setups. Ultimately, choosing the right phono box for your setup depends on your personal preferences and needs.