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How to choose the right phono stage for your turntable

How to choose the right phono stage for vinyl in 2023
How to choose the right phono stage for vinyl in 2023

Of all the elements in the sound reproduction chain of vinyl records, the phono stage seems the most mysterious to beginning music lovers. In fact, why buy an incomprehensible separate box, and sometimes it’s so expensive? And how to understand their diversity? We will try to make the pain of choice as easy as possible for neophytes.

Today, many budget turntables are equipped with built-in phono preamps, but surprisingly, the more expensive turntables become, the less common they are with built-in preamps, and then they disappear altogether. Some exceptions only confirm the general rule. And it says that the correctors built into budget players are most often made on a residual basis and are designed to simply make it easier for the buyer to put the player into operation.

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It is also quite difficult to find a truly high-quality built-in phono stage in amplifiers and receivers these days. Those manufacturers of electronic components who want to provide the buyer with a high-quality built-in corrector usually offer it as an option in the form of a separate board, and even then such a solution should be considered an intermediate one. In any case, decent built-in equalizers can only be found in devices of the highest price category, so if you want to achieve decent sound from your vinyl circuit, your choice is a free-standing component with its own power supply.

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Transistor or lamp?

Tube models sold on the market differ in true tube models – that is, those where exclusively tubes are involved in correction and amplification – and hybrid ones, where electric tubes are used only to saturate the sound with even harmonics, and transistors or operational amplifiers do the rest. The latter are much more common among budget models. When choosing between tube and transistor phono stages, you must also proceed not only from the general ideology of the circuit, but also from what kind of pickup head is installed on your player. It is not at all necessary to include a tube corrector in the lamp circuit or a transistor one in the transistor one. Compatibility with a specific head is much more important.

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If you plan to use exclusively MM cartridges with high sensitivity, then you can safely opt for a real lamp corrector. As a rule, budget models are distinguished by a not too high gain level – 36-38 dB – and to obtain adequate dynamics they require a cartridge with a sensitivity of at least 5 mV. As the price of the corrector increases, the choice expands; there are tube models with adjustable gain levels, and a wide variety of MM heads can be used with them. As for transistor models, it is easier to achieve an acceptable noise level even with a high gain, so they are less demanding on the sensitivity of the heads.

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When choosing a corrector in a high price range, personal preferences and compatibility with the tract come to the fore. For example, a tube corrector in a tube circuit with highly sensitive speakers can lead to a noticeable increase in the noise level, which does not suit everyone, and a transistor one may not be able to reveal all the timbral richness of your favorite recordings.

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When using MC heads with low sensitivity, choosing an inexpensive tube corrector will entail the purchase of an external step-up transformer or an active MC amplifier. Yes, in expensive tube models, the corresponding transformers are usually already built inside, but even in this case, many prefer separate devices selected specifically for the head used.

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On the other hand, a well-designed universal transistor phono stage has minimal intrinsic noise and allows you to use almost any MM and MC heads with it due to the ability to select the required gain, resistance and connected capacitance. And if you plan to use a corrector to digitize vinyl records, then it is best to purchase a transistor model.

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Ultimately, the choice between tube and transistor will depend on the cartridge used and the overall concept of the system. There is no general rule, however, the higher the sensitivity of the cartridge, the easier it is to coordinate it with the corrector. On the other hand, it is heads with low sensitivity that make it possible to achieve the most accurate conversion of the signal recorded on a vinyl record. And to fully unlock their potential, you will have to invest additional funds in the corrector.

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Passive or active correction?

In principle, from the end user’s point of view, there should be no difference between these two methods of restoring the RIAA curve – they both provide excellent sound when implemented correctly. It is only necessary to note that in the case of active correction, the final result very much depends on the quality and accuracy of the active elements in the correction circuit, be it lamps, transistors or operational amplifiers. And when purchasing vintage correctors with active correction, it is extremely important to make sure that the elements used in it have retained their declared characteristics. For new devices, it is enough to rely on your hearing.

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Cheap or expensive?

In recent years, a huge number of very budget phono stages from Chinese brands have appeared on the market. There is nothing terrible about this, you just need to understand that the rule formulated by Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin also applies to them: “You, priest, should not chase after cheapness.” For the first acquaintance with vinyl, there is no point in investing a lot of money in a phono stage. Well, then, as they say, appetite comes with eating.

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Coordination with the system

The last and very important point that you need to pay attention to is matching the purchased equalizer with the integrated or preamplifier in your system. We recommend that you carefully study the characteristics of the corrector you are purchasing and make sure that the output voltage at the declared input sensitivity is at least 0.5 V, or better yet, more. Otherwise, you may experience a lack of dynamics and overall volume level.