Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, and with that comes the need for a phono stage on your amplifier.
But what exactly is a phono stage, and why do you need one?
In this article, we’ll explore the basics of phono stages and how they work to amplify the small signal from your turntable and create a balanced listening experience.
Whether you’re a seasoned vinyl enthusiast or just starting out, understanding the importance of a phono stage is crucial for getting the most out of your record collection.
So let’s dive in and explore the world of phono stages on amplifiers.
What Is A Phono Stage On An Amplifier
A phono stage, also known as a phono preamp, is a device that connects your turntable to your amplifier. It amplifies the small signal generated by the turntable cartridge and applies an equalization curve to balance the bass and treble frequencies.
In the past, phono stages were built-in to receivers and amplifiers, but as new formats like CDs became more popular, manufacturers removed or reduced the quality of their in-built phono stages and inputs. This means that many modern amplifiers won’t allow you to plug in a turntable directly, and you’ll need to connect via a phono stage to make the signal powerful enough for your main amp to work with.
The Basics Of Phono Stages
Phono stages come in two main types: those designed for moving magnet cartridges (MM) and those designed for moving coil cartridges (MC). MM cartridges are more common and compatible with more preamps, while MC cartridges produce a lower signal and require more work from the phono stage.
To connect a turntable to an amplifier, you will need to pass the signal through an external phono stage to increase the level. Turntable 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.
MC phono preamps have higher gain than MM phono stages due to 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 because of the lower electrical signal. MC phono preamps have adjustable gain and input impedance that you must manually adjust to meet the signal levels of your specific MC cartridge, while MM phono preamps don’t require that, making the phono stage set-up easier.
If you’re new to the world of vinyl records, it may surprise you to learn that you can’t simply plug your turntable into most sound systems without a phono preamp. The good news is that you might already own one. If you’ve ever tried plugging your turntable into the input marked as “aux” or “TAPE” on your sound system, you’ll likely notice that firstly, the signal is very weak, and secondly, it sounds exceptionally thin and tinny. Before you can fully enjoy those sweet vinyl tones, your turntable signal must first pass through a phono preamplifier, either built into the turntable itself or as an external unit.
Why Do You Need A Phono Stage?
You need a phono stage to properly play vinyl records on your sound system. Without a phono stage, the small signal generated by the turntable cartridge would not be strong enough to connect to your amplifier. A phono stage amplifies this signal and applies an equalization curve, which balances the bass and treble frequencies. This results in a more accurate and dynamic sound quality that is true to the original recording.
While some amplifiers may have a built-in phono preamp, these are often outperformed by external phono stages. Additionally, if your turntable does not have a built-in preamp and your amplifier does not have an input labeled “phono”, then you will definitely need to purchase a phono stage for your turntable.
How Does A Phono Stage Work?
To connect a turntable to an amplifier, you need to pass the signal through an external phono stage to increase the level. Turntable cartridges output a very small signal, and this needs amplifying up to several hundred times its size before it is loud enough for your amplifier.
A phono stage works by applying an equalization curve to balance the bass and treble frequencies. This curve is necessary because of the way vinyl records are cut. During the record cutting process, the bass frequencies are reduced, while the treble frequencies are boosted. The equalization curve applied by the phono stage reverses this process, so that the bass and treble frequencies are balanced.
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 have built-in phono preamplifiers, these are often outperformed by external phono stages. Vinyl lovers will instantly hear the difference that a dedicated phono stage makes to music quality. The new CP1 is a Moving-Magnet-type (MM) phono stage, and its bigger brother, the advanced CP2 is capable of both Moving Magnet and Moving Coil operation.
Types Of Phono Stages
There are two main types of phono stages: those designed for moving magnet cartridges (MM) and those designed to work with moving coil cartridges (MC). While some preamps can work with both cartridges, most are designed to work with one or the other.
Moving magnet phono stages are more common and MM cartridges are compatible with more preamps. They create a signal level that hovers between 3mV and 6mV, which is higher than the signal level produced by MC cartridges. MM phono stages don’t require any manual adjustment, making them easier to set up.
Moving coil cartridges produce a lower signal, usually outputting around 0.2mV. This means that MC phono stages require more work from the phono stage. MC phono preamps tend to have a lower noise floor and more distinct noise characteristics than MM phono stages because of the lower electrical signal. They also have adjustable gain and input impedance that you must manually adjust to meet the signal levels of your specific MC cartridge.
If you’re looking for a great MM-compatible phono stage, the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM is a great place to start. For those with MC cartridges, the Pro-Ject Tube Box S is a great example of a phono stage that’s compatible with all types of cartridges. The Pro-Ject Phono Box RS also offers full-range compatibility with MM and MC cartridges.
Features To Look For In A Phono Stage
When shopping for a phono stage, there are a few key features to look for to ensure you’re getting the best possible sound quality from your vinyl records.
Firstly, it’s important to consider the type of cartridge your turntable uses. Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges require a phono stage with a gain of around 40 dB and a resistive load of 47,000 ohms, with a capacitive load of 100 pF. On the other hand, Moving Coil (MC) cartridges require a minimum gain of 58 dB and the ability to adjust the resistive load between 50 and 1,000 ohms. Some phono stages are capable of both MM and MC operation, offering greater flexibility for those with multiple turntables.
Another important feature to consider is the ability to adjust the capacitive load. Some more advanced phono stages allow you to adjust the capacitive load between 0 and 500 pF, which can have a significant impact on the sound quality.
The precision and quality of the RIAA curve correction is also an important factor to consider when choosing a phono stage. This correction balances the bass and treble frequencies, ensuring that your vinyl records sound their best. Look for a phono stage that offers high-quality RIAA curve correction for the best possible sound.
Finally, it’s important to consider the overall build quality and design of the phono stage. Look for a device that uses high-quality components and has a well-designed circuit layout to minimize noise and interference. A well-built phono stage can make a significant difference in sound quality, even on an entry-level hi-fi system.
Setting Up Your Phono Stage And Turntable
Setting up your phono stage and turntable is a simple process that can be done in just a few steps. First, plug the RCA cables connected to your turntable into the “In” or “Input” RCA jacks on the rear of the phono preamp.
Next, using a separate pair of RCA cables, plug one end into the “Out” or “Output” RCA jacks on the rear of the phono preamp. Then, plug the other end of the RCA cables into the Aux or CD input on the rear of your receiver. It’s important to note that you should not plug the RCA cables into the phono input on your receiver.
Before you start playing your records, make sure to set your preamp to the proper cartridge setting, either MM or MC. If you are new to vinyl and using a standard turntable, you are most likely using a Moving Magnet (MM) cartridge and not an expensive Moving Coil (MC) cartridge.
Once everything is properly set up, you can start enjoying your vinyl collection with high-quality sound reproduction. It’s important to note that using a separate phono stage can greatly improve the sound quality of your vinyl records compared to using an in-built phono stage in your amplifier or receiver.
Overall, setting up your phono stage and turntable is a straightforward process that can greatly enhance your listening experience.