An In­tro­duc­tion to Phono Stages


With the resur­gence of vinyl and all things re­lated to the medium, more and more peo­ple are jump­ing on the vinyl band­wagon. No longer is vinyl con­strained to the realms of the audiophile; rather, it has be­gun to pro­lif­er­ate in the hands of the masses. Some are sim­ply at­tracted to vinyl for nos­tal­gic rea­sons, oth­ers be­cause it’s hip and trendy. How­ever, there are a grow­ing num­ber who ap­pre­ci­ate the sound that vinyl can de­liver, the very unique mix of sonic qual­i­ties that it can serve up and for th­ese ones, learn­ing more about vinyl play­back is a map to hid­den trea­sures. For a moment, just con­sider what goes into play­ing back a vinyl record. There is the turntable with its plat­ter, the ton­earm, the car­tridge with sty­lus, and then there comes the re­ceiver or maybe a pre-am­pli­fier with ac­com­pa­ny­ing am­pli­fier and of course, the speak­ers. Is that it? Not quite, we’ve missed nam­ing the phono stage, also re­ferred to as the phono pream­pli­fier, phono am­pli­fier, phono step-up or turntable preamp. Know­ing a thing-or-two or per­haps even three about the phono stage is a must for those who hope to reap the ben­e­fits from their vinyl col­lec­tions. All-too-of­ten the phono stage is re­duced to noth­ing more than an af­ter­thought and it shouldn’t be.

In the past, pre-1990, the typ­i­cal au­dio pream­pli­fier / in­te­grated am­pli­fier / re­ceiver came with an in­put called “phono”. Those with a phono­graph, more com­monly called a turntable, sim­ply con­nected it di­rectly to the back of one of th­ese pream­pli­fiers / re­ceivers, se­lected the phono in­put and as sim­ple as that mu­sic be­gan to play. With the in­tro­duc­tion of the Com­pact Disc (CD) in 1982 and its rapid growth there­after, vinyl sales, as well as those of turnta­bles be­gan to take a dive. It wasn’t long be­fore au­dio com­po­nent man­u­fac­tures caught on and in their ea­ger­ness to cut costs, the phono in­put soon went the way of the dodo. What did this mean? Well, it meant that if you pur­chased a newer pream­pli­fier / in­te­grated am­pli­fier / re­ceiver, it no longer came with a phono in­put and there was no way to con­nect your turntable di­rectly. Well, to be hon­est, you ac­tu­ally still could con­nect it di­rectly but noth­ing re­motely lis­ten­able would be heard. Why? It’s be­cause the out­put sig­nal of the com­mon turntable is very dif­fer­ent then that of a CD/DVD player, tape deck, com­puter sound card or even a por­ta­ble mu­sic player - en­ter, the phono stage. A phono stage is a de­vice that mod­i­fies or in other words, “stages”, the out­put sig­nal of a con­nected turntable, be­fore it can be pream­pli­fied in a stan­dard man­ner. Bear with me, while I ex­plain. Within older pream­pli­fiers / re­ceivers, which had a tra­di­tional phono in­put, there lay a built-in phono stage. Se­lect­ing the “phono” in­put re­sulted in this built-in phono stage be­ing en­gaged. With the phono stage en­gaged, the di­rect sig­nal re­ceived from the con­nected turntable was mod­i­fied or staged be­fore it was passed on to the stan­dard in­ter­nal pream­pli­fier cir­cuit, within the re­ceiver / pream­pli­fier. In newer, more com­mon pream­pli­fiers / re­ceivers / in­te­grated am­pli­fiers, a ded­i­cated phono in­put no longer ex­its and there­fore, no in­ter­nal phono stage. To use a turntable with th­ese new com­po­nents, the turntable must first be con­nected to a sep­a­rate phono stage that can mod­ify or stage the sig­nal be­fore it can be used by th­ese pream­pli­fiers / re­ceivers. Th­ese sep­a­rate phono stages are sold as stand-alone au­dio com­po­nents or in the case of a few bud­get ori­ented turntable prod­ucts, are ac­tu­ally in­cor­po­rated within the turntable it­self. Sur­pris­ingly, there are still a hand­ful of new pream­pli­fiers / re­ceivers that con­tinue to of­fer a stan­dard or per­haps op­tional phono in­put and cor­re­spond­ing in­ter­nal phono stage.

Now that you know what a phono stage is and in most sim­ple terms, why you need one, let me ex­plain what a phono stage ac­tu­ally does. As men­tioned ear­lier, a phono stage mod­i­fies or stages the di­rect out­put sig­nal of a con­nected turntable. This stag­ing in­volves two key as­pects: 1) boost­ing and; 2) equal­iz­ing.

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