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Thread: Phono pre-amplification options - advice needed

  1. #1
    Join Date: Oct 2017

    Location: Ontario, Canada

    Posts: 570
    I'm Svend.

    Default Phono pre-amplification options - advice needed

    Hi All!

    As a followup to my Heybrook cartridge thread, I would really like to hear your opinions on what to do about phono pre-amplification. I mentioned in my Welcome post that I have a Sony TA-E86B preamp with on-board MM and MC phono stage (info here: http://www.thevintageknob.org/sony-TA-E86B.html Click on the User link at bottom left of the page for a review). I am presently using this in my main system together with a modded Teac VRDS-10 cd player and Belles OCM 200 power amp. Some years ago the preamp was modified to become a passive device for the line stage section, which really lifted a veil from the music, as the saying goes.

    This mod left the phono amp intact, but with the consequence that the phono stage no longer benefits from the added gain of the main preamp section. As a result, any turntable has insufficient gain to really drive the power amp and speakers. It can get to a reasonable volume, but the attenuator has to go to 11 to get there...not good. I suppose if I got a higher output MM, like a 6.5mV Goldring, it would have more drive than the 4mV Shure I’ve tried with the Sony so far, but it would probably still be anaemic.

    So now that I’m adding a good phono source (the Heybrook), I need to do something about this. The way I see it, I have three options here:

    Option 1 – Reverse the Sony mod, and then recap the thing to get better sound than pre-mod. This is the path of least cost, esp. if I do the work myself. The big question is: will the sound quality, even with the recap, be better or at least equal to Options 2 and 3, below? Further, as a passive line device, the Sony sounds great – very clear and detailed -- but will I be able to maintain that transparency even with a high quality recap?...that’s an unknown. Any recap I do would include the phono stage. On the plus side, the Sony has a MC head amp, and in total there are five input impedance choices – 100k, 50k, 25k, 40, and 3 ohms – so there is some versatility here. According to the review linked above, the phono stage is of high quality, but that review is decades old, so I’m not sure how relevant it is by today’s standards.

    Option 2 – Buy a separate phono preamp. If well chosen, this is potentially the path of best sound quality (your opinion needed here), and moderate cost. I am also not averse to building a kit, and it looks like there are a few good ones out there which should be simple to build. If I go with this option, I would get one with MM and MC capability, as well as switchable impedance and capacitance. Not sure if a kit could do that, but there seem to be some good off the shelf models that have this flexibility. A well-designed tube preamp would be in the running here too.

    Option 3 – buy a whole new preamp with line inputs and phono stage. This is the path of highest cost, but perhaps least flexibility to fine tune the phono input for impedance, etc.. The big advantage here is that the line input components (CD player and tuner) will get the added benefit of a gain boost and even more oomph to drive the speakers (same as Option 1, but with a modern circuit). The CD player really doesn’t need the boost, as it’s pretty dynamic after the clock and op-amp mods, but it wouldn’t hurt. My fear is that I may lose the transparency I’m getting now with the Sony as a passive device, but diligent auditioning should weed out the bad ones. Belles makes a nice Aria preamp that looks appealing, for reasonable money, and I would have confidence buying another Belles product any day. Higher cost and lack of flexible phono input adjustment are the deterrent here.

    I suppose Option 4 might be to buy a separate phono amp plus a new active line stage preamp (the best of both worlds?), but that could get costly and maybe not necessary(?).

    So there you have it. I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experience with this, and your recommendations. Most important, obviously, is good sound quality, followed by reasonable cost. In your experience do separate phono preamps provide better sound than on-board phono stages? Is this pretty much universally true (ignoring the cheapo bottom end models)?

    Another fundamental question, beyond the phono preamp thing, is whether active line and therefore downstream phono preamplification better than a passive device? I've read little about this question...interested to hear your opinions.

    Looking forward to hearing some feedback.

    Thanks in advance, and regards.


  2. #2
    Join Date: Dec 2011

    Location: sussex

    Posts: 227
    I'm phil.


    nuff is selling a firebottle plus on hear for a very reasonable price, not heard this one but have heard others from Alan and I must admit I've been very impressed,so if I was you I'd look no further, I use a angel audio which is very good, but my advise is to get the firebottle as I believe Alan is very approachable if you need help advise etc.
    Technics 1200, Ian Mac bearing, rb300 AO arm analogue seduction crystal glass 6mm mat modded plinth external psu, angle audio studio pro mc virtual battery phono amp, Onix pre and mono amps, Onix CD player, Onix BWD and soap tuner. B&W dm2 speakers or super pencil 12 speakers, atlas cables, seperate mains power supply with earth spike.

  3. #3
    Join Date: Apr 2012

    Location: London

    Posts: 394
    I'm james.


    If there is enough gain in the line output stages to drive the power amp then there should be enough coming out of any stand alone phono stage as well, so no benefit in reverting to active status in the Sony and the loss of transparency may hurt. Easy to check the output levels of your cd etc and compare them to any phono stage you are contemplating.
    If the old phono stage in the Sony hasn't got the output level to work then it's probably a waste of resources tweaking it and you might make the sound worse anyway.
    Many cheap and decent phono stages exist and there are kits available on DIYAudio forum, some of which have adjustable impedance and so on. I'd suggest a battery powered solution for noise reasons. Personally I like SUTs and wouldn't bother with an MC stage but that's just me. I've never heard the Firebottle stage but it is cheap enough and his stuff gets high praise here.

    Sent from my GT-I9195 using Tapatalk

  4. #4
    Join Date: Oct 2017

    Location: Ontario, Canada

    Posts: 570
    I'm Svend.


    Hi Phil -- I am located in Canada, so likely too expensive to ship from the UK and deal with customs duties here. Otherwise Nuff's unit would certainly be a consideration. Very reasonable price too. Too bad that wouldn't work out for me. I looked up Angle Audio, but they seem to be UK-only sales. Looks like I will have to stick with brands distributed here, of which there are quite a number from the UK -- Graham Slee, Rega, Creek, Cambridge, Trichord....to name a few.

    James -- yes, reversing the mod on the Sony may bring about a worsening of the sound, and that's the big unknown with going that route. Could be good, but then again it might be a big waste of time.

    In general, do outboard phono amps offer better sound than inboard ones? I'm thinking of models in the C$300 to C$1000 range (about £200 to £600). Curious to know opinions on that.


  5. #5
    Join Date: Apr 2009

    Location: Near Saffron Walden, Essex

    Posts: 5,970
    I'm Dave.


    I have a TAE-86B here and it's a very good pre-amp, despite it's age or because of it ?

    As I recall, the volume control starts at 6 o/c, so going up to 11 is not a problem at all. Even 4 or 5 o/c is not a problem if you are able to get your desired output. If you could get your required output at 7 o/c - that would be a problem.

  6. #6
    Join Date: Aug 2009

    Location: Staffordshire, England

    Posts: 22,000
    I'm Martin.


    Keep the Sony passive, buy the best offboard phono stage you can afford. The quality of the phono stage makes a hell of a difference, so spend the top of your budget and buy a used item if you can to maximise value, not sure what is available in Canada though.

    Do your research and don't buy something that is just a couple of op-amps in a fancy case. Choose well and it will blow the Sony stage into the weeds on sound quality and solve your gain problem too.

    Current Lash Up:

    Technics SLP1200 CD Player * NVA P90SA passive pre / Krell KSA50S Power amp * JM Lab Electra 926 loudspeakers *

    'This is the sort of music I'd be listening to if I was going shopping for a training bra.'

  7. #7
    Join Date: Feb 2008

    Location: Sunny (occasionally) Devon

    Posts: 1,602
    I'm Shane.


    These are well thought of if you fancy a bit of kit building. Top of budget and I’m not sure if the export to Canada, but a quick email to Matthew would soon find out:

    Time flies like an arrow.
    Fruit flies like a banana.

  8. #8
    Join Date: Mar 2010

    Location: Sheffield

    Posts: 2,655
    I'm Simon.


    1. increases the volume level but will it offer improved sound

    2. You need to know the gain of the current phono first, no point adding what might be an expensive external phonostage with no higher gain.

    3. Mmm, using an external pre with the power stage of an integrated..

    4. Fix the amp back to normal, recap and sell it, buy a better amp and or phonostage...
    Kuzma Stabi/S 12", (LP12-bastard) DC motor and optical tacho psu, Benz LP, Paradise (phonostage). MB-Pro, Brooklyn dac and psu, Bruno Putzeys balanced pre, mod86p dual mono amps, Yamaha NS1000m

  9. #9
    Join Date: Oct 2017

    Location: Ontario, Canada

    Posts: 570
    I'm Svend.


    Quote Originally Posted by hifi_dave View Post
    I have a TAE-86B here and it's a very good pre-amp, despite it's age or because of it ?

    As I recall, the volume control starts at 6 o/c, so going up to 11 is not a problem at all. Even 4 or 5 o/c is not a problem if you are able to get your desired output. If you could get your required output at 7 o/c - that would be a problem.
    Dave, I was actually just having a bit of fun. The "goes to 11" comment was from Spinal Tap: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOO5S4vxi0o
    What I actually meant to say was that I have to turn my Sony amp to the max to get any decent volume out of the phono stage. I wish mine actually did go to 11! I could use it.

    And nice to see someone with another TA-E86B! Glad you like it.

    Martin -- great advice. Thanks for the insight. I had expected that might be the answer. It's also the easiest to achieve - basically a plug and play option. I have been looking at several models here in the C$300 to $1000 range. It seems more money buys features I don't necessarily need, but not always better build quality. Will take a bit of research to find a good one.

    Simon -- re. gain of the Sony's phono stage, I have been looking at specs of this unit and I'm not able to find that value. I could probably get around this potential issue by choosing a separate phono pre with switch-able gain values. There are several which allow from, say, +40/50/60 dB gain from a front panel selector. Also, comparison to the output of my primary line source (modded Teac VRDS-10 cd player) should help figure this out. The stock Teac has a listed 2.2V output, and the mods seem like they boosted this by at least 30% to 40%, so roughly 3V would be my guess.

    Shane -- thanks for the link and recommendation. I will look into those and if they would suit, I will contact them. I kind of like the idea of a tube preamp! And kit building is no problem, as long as the instructions are good (i.e. idiot proof )


  10. #10
    Join Date: Oct 2017

    Location: Ontario, Canada

    Posts: 570
    I'm Svend.


    As a quick trial to see how an active preamp would behave in my system, I swapped out the Sony for my Sugden C28. Immense improvement! The sound was far more dynamic and fluid, fuller and richer, much better soundstage, more immediate presence. I'm not very good at describing these sorts of things without sounding clichéd, but basically the sound was improved in almost every way, and quite dramatically so. The speakers finally sounded like they were really alive and properly in the control of the power amp, if that makes sense. Within minutes of hooking up the Sugden and playing a CD, my wife came up from the basement where she was watching TV, with a quizzical expression..."What did you do to the stereo? Sounds totally different, and WAY better!" She could hear the difference one floor down through a stairwell and narrow hallway, with the TV on! (True story!).

    The Sugden has a CD Direct button which bypasses the active line stage (basically exactly what the Sony was modded to do), so I used this to switch back and forth to compare active to passive -- no comparison. The direct path sounded lightweight, thin and distant, basically exactly like the Sony did.

    So lesson learned -- the Belles power amp and those speakers really need an active preamp to come alive. I suppose a passive amp would sound great in many systems, but not in this one.

    I had bought the Sugden pre- and power amp duo in order to set up a second system in the basement, which I will do sometime this winter, but for now the C28 stays in the main system. In the meantime I have already reversed the passive mod on the Sony and will plug it in again soon to hear how it now sounds and report back here. Who knows - it may surprise me. If it's not up to it, then I'll be searching for a new preamp soon to take it's place and pass the Sony along to one of my daughters....or sell it.

    At least I've answered one of my questions above -- an active preamp is in. It's quite likely that, if I keep the Sony in the main system as an active device, I will still be looking for separate phono preamp to use with the Heybrook, as it seems from your feedback here that the phono stage in the Sony will easily be bettered by a separate phono amp.

    Interesting weekend...some fun tinkering....


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