Building the ideal vinyl listening corner, with or without a phono stage, looks different for every music lover. Your musical preferences, budget, and amount of space are all going to inform your hi-fi arrangement. If you live in a large house with the ability to generously spend, you’ll have different options than someone limited by space and funds. Likewise, if you’ve already built a sound space that works for you, you’re less likely to trade it in for a new system than a newly converted audiophile.


Still, even with all the vastly different circumstances, there are some questions all turntable lovers will face. One of these questions is whether a phono stage is worth it, and how exactly it affects the listening experience. As with all things vinyl, this topic inspires a lot of strong opinions across the board. So, let’s dive into all the disparate corners of the phono stage question.


What is a phono stage?

In layman’s terms, the purpose of a phono stage is to translate the electrical signal from a turntable, so you can successfully play your favorite album through the stereo. When your turntable cartridge picks up sound from the record grooves, it produces a phono signal. A phono stage converts the small phono signal into a line signal. A line signal is the standard signal level that can be played through home audio stereo components such as CD players and DVD players. A line signal can be plugged into the LINE or AUX inputs on amplifiers, active speakers, and receivers, while a phono signal can’t be directly connected to these inputs.


What Happens When a Phono Signal is Converted to Line?

There are two major things that happen when the phono stage converts a phono signal to a LINE signal. First, the small signal from the turntable cartridge is amplified to make it robust enough to be connected to a LINE input. For this to happen, the amplitude (size) of the phono signal must be increased roughly 100x (for a moving magnet cartridge).


Secondly, in order to convert phono to a lin signal, the bass notes are increased while the treble (high tones) are majorly reduced. This is necessary because when record grooves are carved, the bass is reduced to save space on the record. The phono stage amplifies the bass and decreases the treble to correct this and create a good listening balance. The process of a phono stage balancing the bass and treble is called RIAA (recording Industry Association of America) equalization.


Is a Phono Stage the Same as a Phono Preamp?

Yes, a phono stage and a phono preamplifier are the same thing. However, it should be clarified that not all preamplifiers are phono preamplifiers. In the context of analog preamps, the term “phono stage” is interchangeable with phono preamp. 


But in the larger context of music and sound, the term preamp can apply to microphone preamps, analog sensors, and other uses.  In a stereo setup, preamps can include the volume control, phono stage, and source selector all in one. These types of preamps include analog input connectors, but only one analog output connector (LINE output). This output connects the preamp to a power amplifier to drive the speakers. When a stereo amp and power amp are bundled together, it’s called an integrated amplifier or stereo receiver.


So yes, a phono stage is the same as a phono preamp, but not all devices with the label “preamp” are phono stages.

Does a Phono Stage Make a Difference?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that the quality of your phono cartridge, spacial set-up, record collection, cable and the phono preamp itself will all affect just how much of a difference you hear. If you don’t buy a phono preamp that’s compatible with your cartridge, then you won’t get the optimal outcome.

In general though, because the process of RIAA equalization works to balance the bass and treble for a more balanced listening experience, a phono stage improves the sound quality. Also, on a practical level, it’s harder to listen to LPs if the turntable can’t be connected to a variety of amplifiers, speakers, or home audio components.


Is a Phono Stage Necessary?

The answer to this varies based on your current set-up. If your record player comes with a built-in preamplifier, then you technically don’t need to get a phono stage (although many audiophiles prefer a separate one). 

If you’re unsure whether your turntable has a preamp, you can check the back of it. If there’s a PHONO/LINE switch, then it has a built-in phono stage. In order to activate the preamp, you must set the switch to LINE. If the switch is turned to PHONO, the built-in preamp is automatically bypassed.

Similarly, you’ll want to check and see if your amplifier or receiver has a PHONO input. If your amplifier doesn’t have a PHONO input and your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp, you’ll need a phono stage in order to plug in the RCA and listen through loudspeakers.


What is the Difference With Phono Stage for MC Cartridges vs MM Cartridges?

sumiko phono cartridge pro-ject turntable

There are two main types of phono stages: those designed for moving magnet cartridges (MM) and those designed to work with moving coil cartridges (MC). A few preamps will successfully work with both cartridges, those generally include a switch that adjusts the phono stage according to the cartridge type. The Pro-Ject Tube Box S is a great example of a phono stage that’s compatible with all types of cartridges. The Pro-Ject Phono Box RS also offers full-range compatibility with MM and MC cartridges.

Moving coil cartridges produce a lower signal, usually outputting around 0.2mV. By contrast, moving magnet cartridges create a signal level that hovers between 3mV and 6mV. Both MM cartridges and MC cartridges produce small signals that require amplification and RIAA equalization in order to be converted to a LINE signal. However, because MC cartridges output a much smaller signal, they require more work from the phono stage. 

Moving magnet phono stages are far more common, and MM cartridges are compatible with more preamps. You’ll find that many standalone preamps are compatible with MM cartridges, but many don’t do the legwork for an MC cartridge, so you always want to double-check.

Here are some of the key differences between MM and MC phono preamps:

In general, MC phono preamps have higher gain than MM phono stages, due to the lower signal output of MC cartridges. 

MC phono preamps tend to have a lower noise floor and more distinct noise characteristics than MM phono stages (this is also because of the lower electrical signal).

Moving magnet and MC phono preamps have different input impedance in order to match the different output impedance.

MC phono preamps have adjustable gain and input impedance that you must manually adjust to meet the signal levels of your specific MC cartridge. MM phono preamps don’t require that, making the phono stage set-up easier.

If you’re looking for a great MM-compatible phono stage, the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM is a great place to start.


Does a Better Phono Preamp Make a Difference?

This question brings up the complex task of defining the meaning of “better.” While ranking sound quality itself might feel like an objective undertaking, there are a lot of factors to consider. People listen to music for different reasons. While some prefer the warmth of a holographic effect, others look for the punchy distinction of a guitar riff. Changing any component of your sound system is going to shift things, at least slightly, and the way it affects sound could be different instead of better. That said, when it comes to all things audio, “better” and “more expensive” are almost always synonymous.

In direct terms, if you don’t have a working phono preamp, and can shell out a little extra money for a slightly pricier model, it’s statistically going to produce more ideal sound quality. Similarly, if your turntable has an MC cartridge, shelling out for a compatible MC phono preamp is going to be worth your buck. Because of the low signal output MC cartridges produce, you’ll need to invest in a phono stage with the right impedance and gain output. 

However, if your turntable has a relatively common MM cartridge, there are a lot of available phono preamp options that run the gamut price-wise. It’s always a solid option to shop within your budget, then judge from there. When it comes to buying audio components, it can be tempting to let perfect be the enemy of the good, and ultimately it’s a personal choice.


What happens if you don’t use a phono preamp?

If you try to play vinyl records through a speaker or receiver that doesn’t have a PHONO input (aka its own built-in phono preamp), the music will sound extremely quiet and have little to no bass. The sound picked up by your stylus is going to sound very thin, and the nuance of the music is going to be hard to make out. 


Is a Separate Phono Stage Better than a Built-In Preamp?

tube box phono stage

Since a lot of turntables come with their own built-in preamp, many have wondered whether it’s worth it to buy a standalone phono stage. While separate and built-in preamps both fall under the phono stage umbrella, there are some differences in their construction.

The most obvious difference is that built-in preamps are part of the turntable, while separate phono stages require you to connect them manually with power cables. In order to fit into the record player, built-in preamps often have smaller circuit boards and a more pared-down construction. Built-in preamps also often have cheaper capacitors, op-amps, circuit boards, and resistors. That said, built-in preamps are naturally compatible with your cartridge and enable you to plug into the power supply and blast your vinyl collection right away. 

Standalone preamps tend to have more expensive and high-end capacitors, resistors, and other parts. In general, most vinyl lovers agree that separate phono stages produce better and more nuanced sound quality. However, they cost more and require more setup.

If you’re on a strict budget or new to the world of records, sticking to a built-in preamp can be a solid start. But if you’re looking to maximize your sound quality, going for a separate phono preamp is worth the effort.


Does Phono Sound Better Than Line?

There are two main differences between a phono signal and a line signal. A phono signal is far weaker than a line signal. A phono signal needs to be boosted between 50-1500x its original output in order to reach the output level of a line signal.

Secondly, a phono signal has boosted treble (high notes) and greatly reduced bass. In order to reach the flat (neutral) frequency curve of a line signal, a phono signal must be RIAA equalized through a phono stage.

Comparing the sounds of these signals doesn’t make very much sense, since they have different purposes. A phono signal is necessary to translate the music coded in the grooves of our favorite record. When the tonearm and stylus do the heavy work to kiss the turntable, we need the small phono signal to hear anything at all. However, when it comes to playing that sound through speakers and receivers, we need the signal to be converted to line level so that we can hear the full volume and richness.


Finding the Phono Stage to Match Your Setup

Purchasing a phono stage that is compatible with your turntable cartridge is a great investment for your overall listening experience. However, if your turntable already has a built-in preamp, it’s not technically necessary.


Looking at the variety of integrated amplifiers, solid-state preamps, and tube preamps available, there are endless ways to perfect your vinyl playback.