What does a phono stage for turntable do and why do I need one?
A phono stage pre-amplifier is essential for anyone wanting to use a turntable. The reason for this is two-fold:
- The audio signal coming from the needle on your record player is of very low output and needs amplifying to bring it up to the standard line level that most amplifiers require.
- The audio recorded on vinyl has RIAA equalisation applied to it, giving less emphasis on the low frequencies and more on the high frequencies. This allows for narrower grooves, enabling more minutes per side and requiring less needle movement, resulting in less distortion and better sound quality. On playback, this emphasis bias needs reversing which is performed by the phono stage.
If you were to plug a turntable into a standard line input on an amplifier, you would hear a very quiet and tinny sound with no bass.
Some integrated amplifiers contain an inbuilt phono stage on a designated input. Other amplifiers can be upgraded to add a phono stage internally. In either case, the quality of these build in phono stages can vary drastically, so a separate phono stage preamp as almost always a worthy upgrade.
Including phono stages inside integrated amplifiers and AV receivers has fallen out of fashion recently. Fewer customers need this feature, costs can be cut and it frees an input for other sources (game console, TV, iPhone etc). In this situation, you will need a separate phono stage pre-amplifier to sit between your turntable and main amplifier.
MM or MC, What Flavour Should I Get?
Cartridges on turntables come in two flavours: Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC). The critical difference is MC cartridges output a much lower strength signal, so require much more amplification to bring it up to line level. This ultra low-level signal requires very high-quality components to maintain clarity. MC phono stages often have the option to tweak ‘loading’ to fine-tune impedance matching too. Both of which increase the MC phono stage costs significantly.
Sort of simple, except… there also exists high output MC cartridges. These follow the same design as normal low output MC cartridges but output a much higher level signal that can (and should) be plugged into an MM phono stage.
Another alternative is to use a step-up transformer, to sit between your low output MC cartridge and an MM phono stage. The transformer performs a little amplification, then the MM phono amplifies a bit more again.
In summary, if you have an MM or high output cartridge, then you need an MM phono stage. If you have a low output MC cartridge, you need an MC phono stage.
Some phono stages are MM or MC only, whereas some are switchable between MM and MC.
What Phono Stage Should I Buy?
Now you’ve had some background, the question is what are the best phono preamps around the £100 mark. At this price point, you are mostly limited to MM phono stages. Those that do support MC are generally basic and often have no option to tweak cartridge loading.
These recommended budget phono amps are a mixture of current new models and older models that you may be able to find second hand within budget. The latter may give you a better bang for your buck since they probably retailed for a lot more than £100 when new.
Best Phono Preamps on a Budget
In alphabetical order…
Cambridge Audio Phono Stages
Cambridge Audio produces the excellent AZUR 540P and AZUR 640P, both of which launched late 2004. The former was an entry-level model, MM only and sold for £40. However, it was the AZUR 640P that took the vinyl community by storm as one of the best phono stages in this price range. It was MM/MC switchable and sold for a measly £60 new, yet gave outstanding sound quality. Little else at this price could compete and roundly received rave reviews from all. Second-hand prices of the AZUR 640P reflect this, with examples selling for £60-70, especially now it is no longer available new and has been replaced by the more expensive 651P.
In 2012 Cambridge Audio updated their range with the AZUR 551P and AZUR 651P. Both featuring updated power supplies and numerous other updates. These sell new for £70 and £120 respectfully. A big jump in price, but more appropriate considering the quality of these phono amps.
In the UK all Cambridge Audio gear is sold exclusively through Richer Sounds.
Creek Phono Stages
From Creek Audio, there are a handful of models that fall within budget. There is their old OBH-8 and OBH-9 models, which launched around 1995, which are now pretty common on the second-hand market. The OBH-8’s are MM, whilst the OBH-9 is MC only. Both are also available as uprated SE versions, which are supplied with the OBH-2 PSU, and have better noise, distortion and RIAA deviation specs. In 1997 the base models sold for £110 whilst the Special Editions for £160. Today expect to pay around £60-90 for these.
The OBH-15 and OBH-18 are later models from 2003. The former is switch-able MM/MC whilst the latter is just MM. New is £200-£250, but they do crop up second hand now and again, for a little over a £100.
All model share a characteristic neutral sound, with well-defined bass, smooth midrange, but a slightly bright and harsh top end.
Graham Slee Phono Stages
Graham Slee is a small British firm, who have been making high-end phono stages since the late ’70s. They have however build a couple of budget phono preamp models that sometimes pop up second hand near our £100 remit and a new model that is only a little over £100.
Available to buy new, there is the Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator, their entry-level MM only phono amp, that retails for around £140.
On the second-hand market, you should be able to pick the Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 for less than £100 and maybe even a Gram Amp 2 SE for not much more. Both are MM only. The former came in a basic budget plastic case but gave an excellent performance for its price, it is the direct predecessor to the Communicator. The Gram Amp 2 SE features a quality silver metal case and uprated component throughout. This model is still available new, but not cheap at around £220. Next up the range is the Gram Amp 3 Fanfare, an MC phono stage, not too dissimilar to the Gram Amp 2 SE. New this retails for around £250, but you might get lucky and find a second hand (one recently sold for £127!).
You may also find the cheaper Gram Amp 1, but it was quite far behind the Gram Amp 2 in performance.
Musical Fidelity Phono Stages
Musical Fidelity began in 1982 by Antony Michaelson and have since become a well-known brand name on the British Hi-Fi scene. However, this has meant the brand commands strong second-hand prices. At around the £100 price point, the key products to look out for are the X-LP series. These are:-
X-LP – Released around 1997 for £130. Featured the distinctive cylindrical metal case used on all X-Series components of the time.
X-LPS – Released in late 2000, selling for around £150. It shares the same case as the X-LP and has a smooth sonic quality, with improved sound-stage.
X-LPS V3 – Released in 2003, for around £250. The V3 switch back to a more classic box-style case.
X-LPS V8 – Released in 2007, for around £300.
V-LPS – Released in 2009, for around £100.
V-LPS V2 – Released late 2011, for around £120.
All were switch-able MM/MC and often described as clean, detailed, but slightly one dimensional in presentation. The X-LPS is regarded as the best of the bunch, offering the best value for money. The X-PSU external power supply can be used to upgrade all, for further improvements to sound. The V-LPS models are more recent and are based loosely upon the X-LPS v8, but with a more utilitarian case and produced for a much lower price point.
Nad’s standalone phono stages come in the form of the PP-1, PP-2 and PP-3. The PP-1 launched back in 2000 and sold for a bargain £50. It was a cheap and cheerful phono stage and received mixed reviews. Not amazing, but by no means bad for the price.
The PP-2 released in 2008 addressed early complaints and was greatly improved, featuring a better power supply, film type resistors and capacitors and better components throughout. MM/MC switch-able support was also added. All in all, producing a more refined and defined result. Reviews were better, but it struggled against competitors like the Cambridge Audio 640p.
The PP-3 is a recent addition, which is essentially the exact same circuit as the PP-2, but with the addition of a 16bit/44.1 USB Analogue to Digital Converter (ADC), for digitizing vinyl directly to your PC. Interestingly, this circuit is powered exclusively from USB, thus no shared power lines between analogue and digital sides. A later PP-3i variant was released claiming green credentials by using a mere 1W of power in standby.
Sound-wise, all models are described as having a very neutral sound, a little on the flat side with no sparkle. A far cry from the likes of the old Nad 3020 amplifier. The PP-2 and PP-3 are both still available new for around £80 and £100 respectfully.
This is the first standalone phono stage Naim released, back in 2001. It is styled after their 5 series components and is a rather non-descript black textured shoebox, with a tiny green light on the front. Original it cost £175, but these days it retails new for around £300. That said, in the second-hand market, it can go for around £120-150.
Being Naim, it features DIN style connections, so a little faff to plug into other brands of an amplifier. The older models have a single DIN socket for power in and signal out, which goes to the power supply (e.g. SNAIC). The newer models have two DIN sockets, one for signal out, the other for power in from the i-Supply. The Stageline can also be powered directly from the power out on some Naim amplifiers e.g. Nait 5i. Do check if you need a power supply and if one is included when you buy!
The Stageline comes in three flavours (all the same price), the N for moving magnet, and S, K and E for moving coil, but with different gain attributes. The E is best suited for high output MC cartridges. Sound quality is very good, favouring a full-bodied, fast and upfront presentation, very much in tune with many Naim products. They don’t crop up cheap second hand often, but definitely worth considering if you do spot one.
Pro-Ject have been building and selling turntables and related phono electronics since 1991 and offer some of the best phono stages available new for around £100 and even higher-end models that may be found second hand within budget too. The range of Pro-Ject Phono Boxes runs like this:-
Phono Box MM – The basic entry-level MM model. Retails new for around £60.
Phono Box II – High-quality model, released in 2007, featuring better case, MM/MC switchable. Retails new for £90.
Phono Box USB – Same as II, but with the addition of USB ADC.
Phono Box USB V – Released in 2012 and very similar to above, but with the addition of manual gain control. Note this one sometimes goes by name of ‘Phono Box III USB’. Retails for around £130.
Phono Box SE – Uprated version of Phono Box, with better component all round and improved power supply. Sold for £200 when launched in 2004.
Phono Box II SE – Uprated version of Phono Box II, also released in 2007, with better components all round and improved power supply. Retails for £200
All feature a dual mono design with a separate power supply. Overall, they are great value for money and offer very good sound quality, refined with good sound stage and separation. If you can find one of the SE versions within budget, you’ll be onto a winner. Otherwise, the other versions make a great buy brand new.
Rega has a long history of producing excellent turntables and related accessories. Their main phono stage is the Rega Fono, which launched initially in 2001 and comes in MM or MC variants, but is not switchable. The casework is a rather basic plastic box, but it’s what’s inside that makes it one of the best phono preamps. Sound quality is universally regarded as top-notch; clear, no background noise, expansive sound stage and a rich forward character. Very much one of those products that shoots above its price.
The Rega Fono currently retails for £170 for the MM version, and £230 of the MC version. However, on the second-hand market it goes for less than £100, so keep your eyes peeled.
A new Fono MkII is also about to hit the shelves, updated and cased to match the new Brio-R range. The new price will be £200 for the MM version, so don’t expect many to show up cheap second hand for a while.
Rega also has a cheaper version called the Fono Mini. This is merely a cut-down version, at a cheaper price point, albeit still pretty good sounding, maintaining a clean, rich and dynamic presentation. However, in 2011, Rega’s component supply chain was shattered by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Rega redesigned it as the Fono Mini A2D, with the addition of a built-in Analogue to Digital Converter (ADC) with USB output. It could only manage 16bit, 44.1kHz, but at £85 new and still sounding top-notch, who can moan?
The Japanese HiFi manufacturer Rotel released the RQ 970BX phono stage in 1994. Its a sleek, simple, no-frills black box, in standard HiFi separates width of 440mm. This is actually quite rare for phono stages, which usually come in small boxes with separate power supplies, this RQ 970BX weighs in at just over 3Kg and has a captive mains lead. It is also switchable between MM and MC.
The RQ 970BX is legendary for its upfront presentation, rich, forward and full of dynamics. It may not be as detailed as other phono stages, but then it’s overall sound quality can give competing products costing a great deal more, a good run for their money. Back in 2001, it retailed for a mere $200, these days, second-hand prices vary between £40-80. The combination of high-quality sound, cheap price and limited availability has been this phono stage a bit of a cult product, for budding audiophiles getting into vinyl.