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.