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Thread: How good should a phono stage be?

  1. #1
    Join Date: Apr 2013

    Location: Barry, South Wales, UK

    Posts: 674
    I'm Rich.

    Default How good should a phono stage be?

    Evenin' all,

    The only upgrade I might consider this year is a phono stage. It's more of an 'I wonder' thought at the moment rather than an earnest plan to make a purchase. So my question is, how good does a phono stage need to be to make a worthwhile difference? What sort of budget would I realistically be looking at?

    My kit should be in my signature.

    Cheers

    Rich.

    Clearaudio Emotion with Clearaudio Performer cart
    Copland CDA 266
    Copland CSA 28
    Squeezebox Touch
    Impulse Lali
    Van Damme I/Cs and cables

  2. #2
    Join Date: Apr 2011

    Location: London

    Posts: 3,563
    I'm Robert.

    Default

    From what I've read, a phono stage can make a very big difference

    Thing is like a lot in hi-fi it can be a bit of a mine field in terms of options

    I like things simple (not a boxes man), hence I've gone the 'excellent intergrated' amp with 'excellent built in phono stage' route, with very excellent results

    I'm sure some good recommendations and advice will start to come through
    My System:
    Amplification - Sansui AU-alpha 707 DR
    Turntable - Modified Technics SL1210 MK5G
    Mike New precision bearing, bearing base plate, ETP Platter
    Micro Seiki MA-202 tonearm, rewired, hybrid ceramic bearings
    Ortofon Cadenza Black moving coil cartridge - Fritz Gyger S re-tip
    Yannis Tome 423.5 Silver-Litz tonearm cable with KLEI Pure Silver Harmony plugs
    Ebony armboard
    Audio Technica MS-8 Magnesium headshell, Ortofon pure silver headshell leads
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    CDP - Pioneer PD-91
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    QED Silver Spiral speaker cable, Airlock plugs - bare wire amp end.
    Mains - Ultra Pure silver plated un-switched socket, Missing link EPS 500 silver plated plugs with Hi-Fi Tuning gold plated silver ceramic 13 amp fuses

  3. #3
    Join Date: Sep 2016

    Location: Brussels, Belgium

    Posts: 110
    I'm Tim.

    Default

    Preamps for me should always be adjustable on gains, loads and impedance to accommodate better any cartridges. No models of cartridges are exactly the same. Some even qualify as "exotic". Such feature is more and more common on the better end preamps. Then they must the external PSU with long power cords on both ends and a good shielded boxing.

    Now I do tend to prefer the 'solid state' amplification (preamp as well) since when they are well build with better end components, they give more dynamic and clarity allowing more depth as well. This gives them still some "organic" feel I have find. Unlike the valve/tube ones that generally qualifies as "warm" (= slow IMO) and "round" (= muffled IMO). That some do seek.

    Now such good to decent preamps, at entry level (like mine) are selling from $300 upwards. For about $1.000 you start to get some of the better end ones with (am aiming for one) more depth I understand. Now to truly benefit from that difference in sound, between an entry level preamp and a "better" one, your amp and speakers will have to be able to let that shine through.

    The differences after those preamps price range should take you even further in depth and on sound separation, but I am yet to hear the difference with those in real time and place. Yet I am not convince that it should prove necessary or a real worthwhile upgrade in all phono situation, nor to everybody's earbuds and finally to any kind of records and all genre of music if ever...
    - Cart Denon DL-102 in bakelite Ortofon SPU 'G' type headshell
    - TA SME 3009 'Improved' converted in heavy mass with detachable headshell
    - TT Thorens TD160 'E' totally tweaked driven by an 'Eagle & RoadRunner' PSU & tachometer combo
    - Matts top to bottom: leather, cork, felt & 12" vinyl
    - Pre-amp 'Modulis' Isem
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    - Speakers 12" Leak 'Sandwich' first generation creatively recapped

  4. #4
    Join Date: Mar 2016

    Location: Barnet, london UK

    Posts: 1,404
    I'm Adam.

    Default

    Hmmm... Imho there are many examples of dynamic valve phono stages that can deliver it all.
    I certainly wouldn’t discount valve phono amps as warm or lacking dynamics and would get to listen to as many phono amps as possible if you want to achieve the best sound for your pound £...
    "lack of passion is fatal"


    Vinyl: Garrard 401 with upgraded NWA bearing spindle, Russ Collinson 'shindo style' plinth / Tenuto gun metal mat / Townshend feet / SME-3012 j7 rewired / audio-technica ATP-12T - phonomac modified / STEREO: Jan Allaerts MC1 Boron/Shure M3D / Ortofon Royal N / Cartridge Man Music Master with isolator / Shure - SC35C (US) / SAEC C3 MC MONO: Miyajima Zero B 0.7mil mono / Denon DL102/ Ortofon Vintage SPU CG25 / Amps & SUTs: Radford STA25 mk3 / David Coe AD Audio 'Satchmo' pre & phono / Hashimoto HM-7 SUT / Carver MCt SUT (Jensen winding) / ETR-MONO SUT Digital: SW1X Audio Design DAC 1 signature / Roon / Tidal Speakers: Tannoy 12" MGs' in RFC custom 'Rutland' Cabinets with RFC custom crossovers / Tannoy ST-100 Super Tweeters Cables: Duelund DCA16GA tinned copper / Kimber 12TC / SW1X Audio Design USB-SPdif / Duelund DCA20GA interconnects / SW1X Audio SPDIF Aero 6 / Mains Power Conditioner / Box Furniture rack / Audiodesk Systeme Vinyl Cleaner / a very beautiful & understanding Wife!

    'when years of work on perfecting tone and technique suddenly drop away and a direct channel opens up between the musicianís brain and his or her fingers'

  5. #5
    Join Date: Apr 2013

    Location: Solihull, UK

    Posts: 348
    I'm Bob.

    Default

    It all depends on what "flavour" of sound you are looking for, as they all have different characteristics, but don't rule out valves - they're certainly not the high maintenance nuisance some would have you believe and they're definitely not lacking in dynamic range. And for "warm" don't misinterpret this as "soft" or "slow".

    I've had both solid state and valve based phono stages. Buying an Icon Audio PS 1 maybe 10 or 12 years ago with both MM and MC inputs (used on ebay for about £500) was a vinyl changing experience for me. Easily bettered all of the solid state stages I'd owned up to then including Tri Chord Diablo, PS Audio and a few others. The PS 1 was so capable I later bought it's bigger brother and haven't looked back. They crop up in many magazine reviewer's reference systems.

    I get a warmish but crisp performance from the PS3, lots of detail and sharp attack and decay. Bass lines and instrument placing in music are a delight to follow.

    The direct answer to your question is that yes, they can make an incredible difference to what you hear - probably even more so than changing to a different type or make of cartridge.

    But it all depends on what you're looking for and what appeals to your ears. It's one area where you can't dodge the auditioning process and any self respecting dealer should be happy to give you a unit to try at home. I know the well respected Graham Slee used to do a postal loan scheme if solid state takes your interest.
    Source: Orbe SE / SME IV / SAE 1000LT (again) / AT33 PTG II
    Source: AKAI GX-635D - Seriously Serviced by VintageTech
    Source: WD NAS / Cyrus Stream X2 / Chord DAVE
    Source: Oppo UDP-205 (CD/DVD-A/SACD)

    Amplification: Icon Audio PS 3 Sig Phono + Audio Research LS27 + Musical Fidelity A5cr Power Amp
    Loudspeakers: ProAc Response D28
    Cables/stands: Mark Grant G1500HD + Linn K20 + Cat 5e
    Other bits: Okki Nokki keeping things clean

  6. #6
    Join Date: Jun 2010

    Location: Bucharest

    Posts: 878
    I'm Geoff.

    Default

    Back in the day, when vinyl was king, an integrated amp with a poor phono stage was simply a poor amplifier, because that was the source of choice. As time went on, and digital took over, manufacturers produced line level only and then began to make separate phono stages. It makes sense from a profit persepective and it could always be marketed on quality and demand grounds.

    I owned and listened to a number of high-end phono stages, with excellent results, but then scratched an itch and bought a high-end pre-power vintage amp, with integral phono stage. As a whole, I preferred its sound to my separate phono stage that retailed for £3,600 on its own, and used in conjunction with 15k worth of amplification. That got me questioning the improvements that separate phono stages brought when compared to investing the same amount elsewhere.

    I now own two vintage integrated amplifiers that contain phono stages of their own and I do not feel I am missing anything whatsoever. They are both solid state designs and were high end at the end of the 1970's.

    The key is the whole system, not the individual components, and I question the merit of separate boxes that do the same job, in value terms. Honestly, investing in speakers and amps will deliver far greater results in my opinion.
    Last edited by oldius; 01-01-2019 at 11:18.
    Main system: Sony TTS8000; SME IV; Audio Technica Art1; The Lentek integrated amplifier; SBT; Technics sh-x1000 DAC; Yamaha NS1000M.
    System 2 - SBT; Kinshaw Perception DAC; Denon PMA850 integrated; Kef Reference 103.
    System 3 - Taken over by my son! Chromecast; Beresford Caiman II; Klark Teknik Jade 1 active studio monitors.

  7. #7
    Join Date: Jun 2018

    Location: Mildenhall, Suffolk

    Posts: 207
    I'm John.

    Default

    Hi Rich
    I have spent the last 18 months travelling around the Country auditioning Phonostages.
    Combining Hifi Shows and Bake Offs, I have heard 30+ as well as purchasing Two Models, and supplying a set of critical ears for a recent new build model for a friend.
    A Phonostage that I purchased and enjoying the use off, was shown its position in a line up at a Bake Off, it sat comfortably in the
    £1000 - 2000 bracket, but was not noticeably being outperformed or Outperforming other models in this price bracket.
    This lead me to consider other models, and I took a punt on a model that had my attention for a period of time.
    This proved to be a ideal choice for me, in a cost to performance ratio, I have taken this for auditions as it has impressed me, it has also impressed others as well. I dropped it off at a Bake Off that I could not attend, the feed back that it punched above its purchase price and that it showed strengths that surpassed expensive branded models and Hi End DIY models, bolstered my belief in my choice.
    There are only a few models I have gained knowledge of, through travelling to hear them, that I would like to hear it against.
    There are even fewer models I have gained knowledge of, that I would consider to share the same role or become a replacement.
    The point I am trying to make, is that a Phonostage, is a very individual choice, and learning how a choice is going to interface with a system, is going to be a time consuming, if a particular presentation is being sought.
    I would fear that certain designs may create a Bass Bloom when using horn loaded speakers, this is a sound effect I dislike, something that I lock onto and find it a detractor when present. I can recall from these experiences, the Soundstage feels restricted as well, as if the boundaries of it are perceivable, I like the wings and the depth of a soundstage to seem endless.
    Also a Moving Magnet Cartridge can offer the perception of separated performers in a Soundstage, to a point where a believable imagery is present. I find this a attractive in a replay.
    I have felt from a few Phonostages, a Cohesive grouping of performers is being perceived in the Soundstage using MM.
    If you can hold back on a purchase, attend a Bake Off or two during the year. I feel you will get a much better idea of performance to cost ratio of a device, if you attend a Bake off where your Turntable and Cartridge was able to be put on after the main event, being played through a Phonostage that captured your attention, then Win + Win.
    I encouraged a friend to do a Similar thing with SUT's at a Bake Off earlier this year, he learnt a lot, his Phon' as a result become the performer that aroused the biggest applause of the day. The friend now has two AI SUT's purchased as well.
    I think it is a case off, " How good should a Phonostage be for me "
    If you would like to know about any Bake Off Venues outside off AoS, PM me.

  8. #8
    Join Date: Jan 2013

    Location: Birmingham

    Posts: 4,456
    I'm James.

    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by JohnG View Post
    Hi Rich
    I have spent the last 18 months travelling around the Country auditioning Phonostages.
    Combining Hifi Shows and Bake Offs, I have heard 30+ as well as purchasing Two Models, and supplying a set of critical ears for a recent new build model for a friend.
    A Phonostage that I purchased and enjoying the use off, was shown its position in a line up at a Bake Off, it sat comfortably in the
    £1000 - 2000 bracket, but was not noticeably being outperformed or Outperforming other models in this price bracket.
    This lead me to consider other models, and I took a punt on a model that had my attention for a period of time.
    This proved to be a ideal choice for me, in a cost to performance ratio, I have taken this for auditions as it has impressed me, it has also impressed others as well. I dropped it off at a Bake Off that I could not attend, the feed back that it punched above its purchase price and that it showed strengths that surpassed expensive branded models and Hi End DIY models, bolstered my belief in my choice.
    There are only a few models I have gained knowledge of, through travelling to hear them, that I would like to hear it against.
    There are even fewer models I have gained knowledge of, that I would consider to share the same role or become a replacement.
    The point I am trying to make, is that a Phonostage, is a very individual choice, and learning how a choice is going to interface with a system, is going to be a time consuming, if a particular presentation is being sought.
    I would fear that certain designs may create a Bass Bloom when using horn loaded speakers, this is a sound effect I dislike, something that I lock onto and find it a detractor when present. I can recall from these experiences, the Soundstage feels restricted as well, as if the boundaries of it are perceivable, I like the wings and the depth of a soundstage to seem endless.
    Also a Moving Magnet Cartridge can offer the perception of separated performers in a Soundstage, to a point where a believable imagery is present. I find this a attractive in a replay.
    I have felt from a few Phonostages, a Cohesive grouping of performers is being perceived in the Soundstage using MM.
    If you can hold back on a purchase, attend a Bake Off or two during the year. I feel you will get a much better idea of performance to cost ratio of a device, if you attend a Bake off where your Turntable and Cartridge was able to be put on after the main event, being played through a Phonostage that captured your attention, then Win + Win.
    I encouraged a friend to do a Similar thing with SUT's at a Bake Off earlier this year, he learnt a lot, his Phon' as a result become the performer that aroused the biggest applause of the day. The friend now has two AI SUT's purchased as well.
    I think it is a case off, " How good should a Phonostage be for me "
    If you would like to know about any Bake Off Venues outside off AoS, PM me.
    Well considered post John and Happy New Year. In particular I agree with your point about individual taste and about MM cartridges and their Imaging and soundstage, something i am particularly sensitive too. I don't know if MM do this better than MC but i like what mine does.
    I think it is best as you have done to try and listen too as many phono stages both valve and SS as possible and also decide is MC important or are you happy with a good MM.
    I also like the 'live' aspect of some phono stages - does it take you to the performance or are you just listening to a recording?
    VPI Scout 1.1 - Ortofon 2M Black FGS - Croft 25R+ - Croft Series 7 - Spendor SP2

  9. #9
    Join Date: Jun 2018

    Location: Mildenhall, Suffolk

    Posts: 207
    I'm John.

    Default

    Happy New Year Jim

    Make a bit of time, put on brew and have a look at the Video posted in my Abstract Chat thread.
    It is a pleasant surprise.

  10. #10
    Join Date: May 2010

    Location: Worcestershire, UK

    Posts: 725
    I'm Rob.

    Default

    The simple answer is try one and find out. I'd highly recommend seeing if Firebottle has a lone unit.

    Personally, I think cartridge and phono amp are THE main elements you need to get right in a turntable system. Those two make the biggest difference to the sound IMO. And as with most hi-fi, the only way to get the sound you want is to try a few different ones.
    Rob.
    Powered by crossed fingers and clenched buttocks

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