Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, and with it, the importance of a phono stage has been brought back into the spotlight.
But what exactly is a phono stage, and why is it necessary for playing vinyl records?
In this article, we’ll break down the basics of a phono stage and explain why it’s an essential component for any turntable setup.
Whether you’re a seasoned vinyl enthusiast or just starting out, understanding the role of a phono stage is crucial for getting the most out of your vinyl collection.
So, let’s dive in and explore the world of phono stages!
What Is A Phono Stage On A Turntable
A phono stage, also known as a phono preamp, is a device that connects a turntable to an amplifier. It amplifies the small electrical signal produced by the turntable’s cartridge and applies an equalization curve to reverse the frequency adjustments made during the record cutting process.
In the past, phono stages were built into receivers and amplifiers, allowing for direct connection of a turntable. However, as new formats like CDs became more popular, manufacturers began to remove or reduce the quality of their in-built phono stages and inputs.
Nowadays, many hi-fi amplifiers do not allow for direct connection of a turntable. Instead, a phono stage is needed to amplify the small signal from the turntable and make it powerful enough for the main amplifier to work with.
What Is A Phono Stage?
At its core, a phono stage is a device that performs two critical functions. Firstly, it amplifies the signal level up to a level suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. Secondly, it applies an equalization curve to inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process.
When a turntable cartridge picks up sound from the record grooves, it produces a phono signal. This signal is very small and cannot be directly connected to home audio stereo components such as CD players and DVD players. A phono stage converts the small phono signal into a line signal, which is the standard signal level that can be played through these components.
Phono stages come in different forms. Some amplifiers have built-in phono pre-amplifiers, while some turntables come with the phono pre-amp already built in. However, for the best sound quality, an external phono pre-amp is recommended. As a stand-alone device, it has better shielding from interference and its own power supply, so it doesn’t have to share with an electrically noisy power transformer on a hi-fi amplifier.
The Role Of A Phono Stage In Playing Vinyl Records
A phono stage plays a crucial role in playing vinyl records. 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 a 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.
Without a phono stage, the signal from a turntable would be too weak and would not sound good. The primary function of a phono stage is to amplify the small signal produced by the turntable’s cartridge up to several hundred times its original size before it is loud enough for your amplifier to work with.
Moreover, a dedicated phono stage is 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. A phono stage allows you to appreciate stunning clarity, musicality, and resolution from all your vinyl recordings.
While some amplifiers have built-in phono pre-amplifiers, they are often outperformed by external phono stages. Vinyl lovers will instantly hear the difference that a dedicated phono stage makes to music quality.
Moving Magnet Vs. Moving Coil Phono Stages
When it comes to phono stages, there are two main types: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). MM designs are heavier and exhibit greater inertia when it comes to reading the subtle changes within the grooves. This means that MM designs are less competent at tracking very high-frequency content, and therefore some listeners may feel they lack transient detail.
On the other hand, MC cartridges have fewer coil windings, resulting in a much lower output level compared to MM cartridges. This means that more gain is needed to amplify the signal, and there is less distance for the signal to travel. As a result, lower internal inductance and lower internal impedance can lead to a wider frequency response value when properly preamplified.
Load impedance is the electrical property to which a low output MC cartridge is most sensitive. A rule of thumb is to take the internal impedance value as measured by the manufacturer, multiply by 10, and often that’s a good place to start listening. However, because electrical parameters vary from system to system and preferences vary from listener to listener, it’s common for an audiophile to experiment within a range of loads.
In terms of cost, MC cartridges tend to be more expensive compared to MM cartridges due to their smaller parts and greater precision. However, the audible differences between the two magnet types can create a spirited debate amongst vinyl aficionados.
Ultimately, the choice between MM and MC phono stages comes down to personal preference and system compatibility. It’s important to consider the cartridge anatomy and electrical parameters when choosing a phono stage for your turntable setup.
How To Choose The Right Phono Stage For Your Turntable Setup
When it comes to choosing the right phono stage for your turntable setup, there are a few things to consider. Firstly, the type of music you play and the sound quality you are looking for will determine which phono stage is right for you. Different manufacturers use different components and technologies, resulting in varying sound qualities. To help you make an informed decision, our experts can provide detailed opinions on the sound quality generated by each phono preamp, describing characteristics such as dynamism, timbre, neutrality, precision, and realism.
Another factor to consider is whether you prefer a warmer, fuller sound quality or a more neutral sound. Phono preamps with tubes generally provide a warmer sound quality, but this can come at the expense of neutrality. If you are a fan of this type of listening, then tube phone preamplifiers may be the right choice for you.
It’s important to note that moving magnet cartridges have high output voltage, typically in the range of 4-8 millivolts. For high-output cartridges like these, set your preamp’s gain on the low side. A setting of 40 dB is a good place to start. On the other hand, low-output moving coil cartridges require higher gain settings (60 dB or higher).
Additionally, it’s important to ensure that your turntable is completely flat and level to allow the stylus on the cartridge to drag evenly across a record’s grooves without favoring one channel over the other. Adjusting the feet on your turntable or using a record weight with a built-in spirit level can help achieve this.
Finally, consider whether your turntable has a built-in phono stage or if your sound system has an input labeled “phono” with a ground screw next to it. If not, an external preamp may be necessary for optimal sound quality. There are two types of phono preamps: those designed for moving magnetic cartridges (MM) and those designed for moving coil cartridge types (MC). Some preamps cater for both designs with a simple switch that adjusts the preamp accordingly.
The Importance Of Proper Setup And Calibration For Optimal Phono Stage Performance
To achieve optimal phono stage performance, it is crucial to properly set up and calibrate your turntable’s tonearm and cartridge. Tracking force, which is the amount of pressure the phono cartridge puts on your records, can greatly impact the performance of your phono stage. Too little force can cause the cartridge to bounce and skip, while too much can wear out your stylus and records too quickly.
Different cartridges are designed to apply different amounts of tracking force, and it’s important to make sure your turntable’s tonearm is set up to apply the correct amount for the cartridge you’re using. This information is usually specified in grams somewhere in the owner’s manual. The tracking-force adjustment, or counterweight, may be a dial or hanging weight on the tonearm.
While most turntables come with instructions on how to properly balance the tonearm and set the counterweight dial to the correct setting, it’s important to note that this method can be prone to error. The most accurate way to adjust the tracking force is with a dedicated scale. For example, the Riverstone Audio scale is a reliable option that measures the tracking force at the same height as though a record were on the table.
In addition to proper tracking force calibration, it’s also important to ensure that your phono preamp is compatible with your cartridge. If not, you won’t get the optimal outcome. Many phono preamplifiers offer different levels of cartridge loading settings, but one can never know if the manufacturer-provided specs are spot on. Missing the exact loading can lead to distortions, gain mismatch, and most importantly, failing to exhibit the cartridge’s real potential.
The Future Of Phono Stages In The Age Of Digital Music.
As digital music continues to dominate the industry, many wonder if the need for a phono stage will eventually become obsolete. However, with the resurgence of vinyl in recent years, it seems unlikely that phono stages will disappear anytime soon.
In fact, the 2020s may be considered the golden age of standalone phono stages, with a plethora of options available for vinyl enthusiasts. While some modern devices have cut the phono input to cut costs, there are still plenty of affordable and high-quality phono preamps on the market.
Additionally, as technology continues to advance, it’s possible that phono stages will evolve to incorporate digital features. For example, Pure Vinyl offers digital RIAA correction and a wide range of equalization curves for an even more customized listening experience.
Overall, while the future of music may be digital, it seems that phono stages will continue to play an important role in the world of vinyl and audiophile culture.