How to inspect your system for a phono amp

Technology has progressed a lot since the old era of vinyl. The digital age means that not only is sound quality different (not necessarily better, though – a lot of people find digital sound too sanitised for their tastes) but the spec of the hardware used to play it have also changed. If you’re using a modern stereo system but still want to play vinyl off a turntable through it, there’s a strong chance you will need to invest in a phono stage (also known as a phono preamp or sometimes a phono amp) before you can get a signal worth putting through your speakers.

The snag is that the output from turntables tends to be a fraction of the output from current digital sources like MP3 and CD players. Thus, if you hook a record player – made for an amplifier/speaker set built to comparable specifications – up to your 21st century stereo system, the chances are that you won’t get a signal strong enough to give you any kind of decent playback quality. At best, you will have to turn the volume right up to be able to hear anything – meaning that you will also receive a disappointing amount of static and crackle, too.

A phono stage fixes this problem by amplifying the signal from the turntable and producing something that will function as an input to your stereo. Very few modern stereos have these phono amps built in – there is no need, as fairly few people still listen to vinyl. Check the back of your amp – there will likely be a range of inputs for different sources. If you’ve got one there marked ‘phono’ or ‘record player’ you’re probably fine. If not, then you’re going to need something to adapt the signal before you can plug it into one of the other inputs – the signal will now work in the ‘CD’, ‘video’ or other plug.

If you’ve forked out a decent amount of money on a stereo and a turntable for your old vinyl (or new, if you’re a current collector), then it’s also worth spending a reasonable sum on a good phono stage. A basic phono preamp will boost the signal to the right level, but if you want sound quality to match the quality of your existing equipment, then it’s best not to bargain-hunt. Purchase a good phono amp too, or you will find that this component is the weak link in your system.

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