phono preamp phono box

What to Look for in a Phono Preamp

As an entry-level vinyl record enthusiast, you believed that your turntable would have good amplification during playback with the use of a built-in amp. However, your audiophile friend suggested that you get a phono preamp, also known as a phono stage, to get better sound quality out of your audio system. When it comes to getting great sound, you trust his advice, but you’ve been wondering how a phono preamp will give you high-end sound. In this guide, we will look at some of these benefits and give you some things to look for in a new phono preamp.

 

Benefits of a Phono Preamp

phono preamp

Simply put, you can’t have a good audio experience without a phono preamplifier. When your LPs are playing, they are producing a very low sound that you can hear, even without the use of your speakers. This sound is very tinny and small, and you won’t hear it without close proximity and a quiet room. This sound, called the phono level sound, is the sound output that needs to be converted to electrical signals by the cartridge and stylus and amplified by the preamp to the line level, which is further amplified to the speakers.

 

Clearly, you simply can’t do without a phono preampamplifier since you need it to convert your analog vinyl player’s sound to the line level. Still, what are the benefits of an external phono preamp? 

 

For many years, vinyl record player producers included the preamp within the bodies of their players. This stopped happening with as much frequency when other mediums came into being, like cassettes and CDs, but this actually improved the lives of vinyl lovers. When you can select the phono preamp stage as part of a record player/preamp duo, you’re able to better customize the sound quality of your overall system. For example, you can select a preamp that modulates frequencies in different ways so that your favorite genre of music has better musical fidelity. 

 

External phono preamps should also closely match the quality of your audio setup; having an expensive vinyl player and a middling preamp will produce middling music. Additionally, the internal preamps included in many combo devices often don’t stand up in terms of quality, and additional component sound could equally cause distortion that will make it to your speakers. When you incorporate a preamp of sufficient quality, then your overall musical experience will be much stronger.

 

What to Look for in a Phono Preamp

When you’re on the market for a phono preamp, it’s critical that you seek out certain components and features. For example, if your audio system doesn’t have matching connections with your phono preamp, it means that you will have to purchase adaptors, which can further muddy the audio signal being sent down the chain. Here’s a look at what you should look for in a phono preamp.

 

Physical Dimensions

One of the first things you need to consider before making a purchase is the amount of physical space you have to add a new preamp to your audio system.  A preamp can be quite large, especially if you get a tubular preamp. If you don’t have enough space for a full-fledged preamp for your record player, consider opting for a mini phono preamp that can easily stack with the rest of your audio gear. 

 

Tube vs Solid State Preamp

tube box phono preamp
Tube box phono preamp with Pro-Ject turntable

With almost every new technology, especially when it comes to audio performance, there’s always an argument that pits analog vs digital. The same can easily be said about phono preamps because they tend to come in two varieties: tubular and solid-state. Let’s take a look at each:

Tube

This is the analog style of phono stage preamps. These are usually identified by vacuum tubes on the body that might even be comprised of glass. Within the bodies of a tube amp, you’ll find components like valves and transformers. When it comes to the overall design, tube preamps have a lot of similarities to guitar amps and have that same analog functionality. 

 

It’s essential to understand that tube preamps sometimes need “burn in” time to reach their maximum sound quality. This is the time for the anodic films to form on the capacitors. This should take about two weeks of use to form.

 

When it comes to everyday use, it’s important to note that tube preamps are a bit more power-hungry than solid state preamps. They also tend to be much more fragile because there are more internal components, including glass vacuum tubes. Many audiophiles feel that these also produce warmer tones, but many counterarguments state that you can get this same warmness with higher-end solid state preamps. 

 

A good example of a tube preamp is this Pro-ject Box S2. This tube box has replaceable vacuum tubes with discreet circuitry. It also welcomes most MM and MC cartridges.

 

Solid State Phono Preamps

It’s best to think of solid state preamps as circuit board amps because that’s what you’ll find under the surface. These are entirely digital preamps, and typically they are much more durable and have a tighter form factor when compared to tubular units. Equalization is done using software on the circuit board. While some consider these to have inferior sound quality, they also tend to be much more inexpensive options when compared to their counterparts.

 

One of the prime drawbacks of solid state amps is their tendency to pick up interference. Have you ever placed your smartphone too close to a speaker and heard a ticking, electronic feedback noise? Solid state preamps sometimes pick up this sound, which will hamper your listening experience. 

 

Unlike tube preamps, which need to have their tubes replaced occasionally, solid state preamps last for years before you need to replace anything. Thanks to their inexpensive price points, you may prefer to replace the entire preamp rather than replace a failing component.

 

Type of Connections

When you take your first look at the phono preamp that you are looking to purchase, make sure that the connections that you need for things like your bookshelf speakers to connect to. Most of these devices will have at least one set of RCA inputs that you can use, but many also have a high-quality phono input that will provide more hi-fi sounds. XLR inputs and outputs are also important to be built into the device because they help keep noise to a minimum.  These low noise inputs are typically found on high-quality phono stages.

 

If you plan to record your vinyls, you will need additional connection options on your phono stage. This will include things like a USB output slot to transfer the music to your computer easily. Make sure you check your devices to see what type of connectors you need because using an adapter to connect powered speakers is likely to cause sound quality issues during playback. 

 

Also, you will want to make sure that there is a headphone jack on the phono preamp.  Instead of using a headphone amplifier with a DAC (digital-to-analog) converter with your record player, you can plug your headphones into the phono amp, making it more convenient to listen to without turning on your entire speaker system.

 

Subsonic Filter

The low-frequency vibrations result from warped records can be blocked by a subsonic filter. These rumbles are not heard themselves, but they can distort other frequencies in the audio that you are listening to. Most phono preamps are designed with a switch that you can use to turn the filter on and off as you wish. These are typically found in the bass notes that you feel more than you hear, but having a switchable button will ensure that the bass notes have their intended sound when the stylus touches the vinyl. 

 

Cartridge Compatibilitypro ject debut carbon evo sumiko rainier

While record players have moving magnet (mm cartridges) and moving coil cartridges (mc cartridges), it’s important to know that many phono preamps are not compatible with moving coil cartridges. With that being said, there are phono preamps that can be used with both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges. 

 

Most preamps that are compatible with both cartridge types have an impedance, gain, and capacitance setting that you can adjust. The Pro-Ject phono box S2 is a good example of a high-performance phono preamp compatible with both types of cartridges. 

 

Learn more about moving magnet and moving coil cartridges in our Turntable Cartridge Types article. The bottom line is that you need to know which type of phono cartridge your tonearm uses so that you purchase a phono preamp that is compatible with the rest of your audio system.

 

Switchable EQ Curves

Before the 1950s, record player producers had a variety of equalization methodologies that included varied equalizations such as the Columbia-78, FFRR-78, and the Decca-US. Finally, in 1953, companies agreed that a standard equalization should be used. Full-industry adoption didn’t happen until the 1970s when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) settled on a catch-all form of equalization called RIAA equalization.

 

For this reason, if you plan to play older records or records that were pressed overseas, you should select a preamp with switchable or selectable EQ curves. This will allow you to play these pressings as they were meant to be played using some of the aforementioned proprietary equalizations.

 

Phono Preamps Provide Quality Sonic Experiences

Whether you have a traditional wired setup or a newer Bluetooth speaker wireless configuration, you will need a phono preamp to deliver the intended sound quality of your vinyl records. In the end, purchasing one will only enhance your system’s overall sound profile, especially if you buy one with multiple equalization settings and the components to produce warmer, high-quality sounds.

 


tube box phono preamp

Tube Amp Vs Solid State: Which is Better for Vinyl?

When it comes to figuring out the best set-up for your turntable, there are no one-size-fits-all prescriptions. One of the first decisions to make is "tube amp vs solid-state" and even a cursory search is going to throw you in the midst of the war between the amps.

Your ideal listening experience is going to be strongly influenced by your personal tastes, both aesthetic and soundwise, as well as your budget and the types of music you find yourself drawn towards. 

 

While there are plenty of discussions to be had about what comprises the best record player, which turntable cartridges types are ideal, and how often you should update your gear, picking an amp is one of the most important choices you’ll make.

 

As any audiophile knows, when it comes to brand and price range there is an endless abyss of options for amps and preamps. Where you land on that is going to be very individualized and will involve trial and error and personal research. But the big question one must answer before stage diving into the aisles of your local audio equipment store is which type of amp you want for your vinyl set-up: a tube amp or solid-state amplifier.

 

Unsurprisingly, both types of amps have camps full of enthusiasts who are ready to go to bat for why their preference creates a superior sound. As with all essential audio gear, there are viable pros and cons for each that directly connect with the kind of listening experience you’re looking for.

Finding the Perfect Amp

Before you land on what’s right for you, it’s helpful to break down exactly how each hi-fi amp works, the ways they sound different from each other, and why people pledge allegiance to either one.

 

Tube Amps

tube amp tube box s

Tube amplifiers (also known as valve amps) have been around since the early 1900s, marking themselves as both an early and enduring piece of audio technology. In 1906, the inventor and radio pioneer Lee De Forest created the first electronic amplifying device, the triode which he named the Audion. Forest was able to invent the first tube amp technology (it was not an amplifier by itself) by placing a zig-zag of wires inside a glass tube, with cathode and anode electrodes creating voltage gain and amplifying electrical signals in a way never seen before.

 

This creation of vacuum tubes gave way to what we now know as tube amps, a popular choice for vinyl lovers everywhere. In order to function, cathodes and anodes interact in a vacuum in order to create enough voltage to power a speaker. While there are different types of tube amps that create a variety of sounds, a commonality of all tube amps is the warmth of sound. 

 

People who love tube amps often cite the “holographic effect” as a reason to stick with them. This effect can be described as the feeling of being in the same room as the musicians, surrounded by different instruments on all sides of you. It’s almost as if the amps are immersing you in a live 3-dimensional concert. In an ideal “holographic” listening session, each instrument creates its own layer of warmth, adding to the feeling of being in the same space as the original musicians while they play.

 

Another potential pro for tube amps is the ability to switch out the tubes themselves if you find yourself desiring larger or smaller tubes, something with a warmer effect, or you want to collect more power tubes just in case. This practice is called “tube-rolling.” 

 

One of the downsides of high-quality tube amps is that they can run up a hefty bill, and the technology is more fragile than solid state and usually requires more upkeep. Also, tube amplification provides less power than solid-state, which means it requires more filtering in order to avoid hum. Common complaints about tube amps are that they add a hum to the noise floor of a recording, and sometimes lack sound definition particularly when you get into lower bass parts. 

 

However, both the pros and complaints vary based on which type of tube amp you’re looking at: single-end amplifiers or push-pull amplifiers.

 

Single End Amplifiers

Also known as single-end triodes, SETs use a vacuum tube with one single triode per channel to produce output, which means the signal’s plus and minus parts in each channel are never split. 

 

This single tube doing it all is the simplest type of analog power amp, with a total power output ranging between 2 and 8 watts. In order for a SET tube amp to truly do its work, you’ll need high-efficiency speakers (somewhere around 95dB or higher) with no low impedance curves in order to stop the amp from cutting off or fading out the sound at high frequencies. In layman’s terms, because a SET uses one single tube and creates lower wattage, it needs the help of high-end speakers. 

 

It should also be noted that the combination of low power and high heat output can also mean SET tube amps wear out faster.

 

However, the pros of single-end amplifiers are that they offer great sound detail at a low volume because the music is being channeled through fewer signal pathways. So when it comes to a potentially warm and coherent listening experience, single-end triodes can be a winner.

 

Push-Pull Amplifiers

Instead of funneling sound through a single lone ranger tube, push-pull amps use two tubes to break up the plus and minus sides of the music signal, then they slap them back together in each channel into a complete flowing musical wave.

 

From a functioning perspective, push-pull amps tend to be more efficient than SETs because the tubes wear out slower due to sharing the workload, and they have higher output power. This means they work with a wider range of speakers, create less distortion, and often provide better sound quality for bass.

 

However, a potential downside of push-pull amps is that they can provide slightly less detail than a SET, particularly in low volume, because the electrical signal is split and put back together. The complex signal path means there is more potential for overdrive or sound loss from the original recording.

 

Both types of valve amps have the potential to create gorgeous tube sound and give you a warm and holographic listening experience. But they also can require more from your wallet and your speakers.

 

Solid-State Amplifiers

pre box digital

The more modern solid-state amplifiers (also known as transistor amps) use transistor circuits to pull beautiful music from an electrical signal (versus the voltage method of tube amps), which means they can connect and work with your speakers without any transformers. 

 

Solid-state amps tend to put out more watts than tube amps and are known for creating a clean sound and supporting that deep bass boom so many people love. Unlike the potential hum that can come with tube amps, the noise floor with transistors is nearly non-existent, which makes for a clean tone and very little to no distortion.

 

People who love the specific biting guitar sounds of metal, the many small bonks of an electronic song, or even the meticulous notes of classical music might prefer the crisp accuracy of solid-state amplification.

 

Transistor amps also tend to be a lot easier for people on a budget, both because of the amp costs themselves, but also because they don’t require transformers or the same amount of upkeep as tube amps.

 

All that said, the downside of solid-state technology is that the sound itself is less warm and can even sound stark or brittle. This potential brittleness can sometimes lead to the music clipping at higher volumes, which eats into the otherwise solid headroom, and listeners feeling fatigued by the nature of the sound.

 

If you’re looking for a more affordable option with a crisp sound that’s compatible with a wide range of speakers, then solid-state is a great pick. But if your priority is warmth and fullness, they may not be your top match.

 

Hybrid amp

If you want a little column A, a little column B, then a hybrid amp set-up might be ideal. 

In general, most hybrid amps are a transistor amp set-up combined with preamp tubes. The idea is to harness the warmth and fullness of tubes and connect them to the power section of solid-state in order to have an easier time with speakers and output. When done right, you can get some of the texture of the tubes without sacrificing detail. But as with most sound technology, a high-end amp that focuses exclusively on harnessing tubes, or exclusively on the benefits of solid-state is more likely to give you the consistent quality amp sound with less configuring on your part.

 

The War Between Tube Amp Vs Solid State Wages On

When we loop back to the ultimate question of whether solid-state or tube amps are better for vinyl enthusiasts, it’s truly a toss-up. The right fit for you will directly connect to the genres of music you listen to, your budget, whether volume and accuracy is a priority, or warmth and fullness, and of course - what speakers you already have.

In fact, unless you’re in the market for a new set of speakers, checking your speaker compatibility might be the quickest way to narrow down which amp type is the best.

 


sonic boom best record shops seattlesonic boom best record shops seattle

The 7 Best Record Shops in Seattle

If you’re in the mood to browse quality record stores for a rare LP, then Seattle is one of the best places to be. With a rich history of local music and globally renowned acts like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, the city is chock full of record shops that serve up everything from indie, to hip-hop, to poppy new arrivals. No matter what your genre or sound preferences are, there’s a shop curated to your tastes.

 

In fact, in many ways the hardest part about finding record shops in Seattle is narrowing down which spots are the best record stores for you. If you’re more a fan of a small record store that specializes in rare vinyls, then your idea of the perfect day at the record store is going to be vastly different than someone who loves to browse a wide selection. Similarly, if you’re in the market for a new turntable or stereo system, then a shop that also carries gear is going to top the charts. Of course, as with the records themselves, aesthetics and vibe are also a big factor when considering where you want to shop. A place with massive selection but fluorescent lighting is going to emotionally feel different than something cozy that requires you dig into the crates in a low-lit corner. 

 

So, whether you’re new to Seattle, or you’re a local who is finally getting into vinyl records, this list should help you narrow down your next stop on the quest for the ultimate record collection. It should be noted, these are numbered in no particular order, they are all solid options for very different reasons.

 

Sonic Boom Records

sonic boom record shop seattle

Image credit: Sonic Boom/Instagram

Sonic Boom Records has been one of the top record shops in Seattle since its opening in 1997, when northwest indie enthusiasts Jason Hughes and Nabil Ayers joined forces to open up shops in Fremont, Ballard, and Capitol Hill. 

 

The flagship shop blew up as a place-to-be after Hughes and Ayers invited Death Cab for Cutie to play in one of their shops, and that opened up the doors for decades of packed and memorable live performances by local and touring acts alike.

 

While Sonic Boom is extra ideal if you’re an indie music lover, they carry new and used records across a wide variety of genres, as well as cassette tapes and CDs. So if you’re looking to sweeten up your collection, it’s likely they have something you’re looking for. 

 

Also, the location at 2209 NW Market St in Ballard is open every day from 11AM-7PM, it’s easy to find a time to pop in.

sonic boom inside record shop seattle

Image credit: Sonic Boom/Instagram

 

Gig Harbor Audio

gig harbor record shop seattle

Image credit: Gig Harbor Audio/Instagram

A record collection is only as good as the equipment you play it on, which is why stopping by a shop with top-tier gear is essential. If you’re looking to update your set-up, Gig Harbor audio is a fantastic place to browse anything from high-end used pre-amps to pristine Pro-ject turntables. If you’re strictly analog, they have everything ranging from turntable cartridges to record players to ATR reel to reel as well as cassette tapes. 

If you’re looking for some hi-fi electronics, Gig Harbor Audio also carries everything from tube amplifiers to wireless speakers so all of your listening experiences can be elite.

The store is located in the heart of Gig Harbor (roughly an hour on the outskirts of Seattle), at 3019 Judson St. Suite A.

 

Golden Oldies

golden oldies record shop seattle

Credit: Instagram

If you’re looking to score a rare or old vinyl, look no further than Golden Oldies. Nestled into the corner of Wallingford, Golden Oldies has been open since 1977, Golden Oldies isn't just one of the best record shops in Seattle, it's also got the title of “Seattle’s oldest record store.” 

Adorned with an Abbey Road mural and yellow exterior, Golden Oldies maintains its 1970s aesthetic while specializing in hard-to-find and out-of-print records. They also carry new vinyl, CDs, cassettes, and a selection of 8 track tapes.

In order to help customers cash in on rare finds, they create “want” lists of vinyls customers are searching for, and when an item is found, they notify the customer of the price and record grading of the lp. That unique service is free and can be accessed in-person, on the phone, or through their website. 

They also buy and trade records from collectors, so if you’re looking to celebrate record store day (April 22nd) by trading, they are a great place to soak up old-school vibes and fall in love with something on the shelves.

Kitsap Audio Video

kitsap audio record shop seattle interior

Image credit: Kitsap Audio Video/Instagram

If you’re a hi-fi audiophile looking to add to your record collection or upgrade your gear, Kitsap Audio Video specializes in both affordable and quality hi-fi.

When it comes to updating your listening room, they carry subwoofers, turntables, preamps, DACs, wireless audio options, and used and demo gear. Plus, if you’re looking to pick up a new vinyl, they have both new and used options spanning all genres. 

The shop is just outside Seattle in Silverdale, and is a great option if you want to grab gear and a new record in one trip. Plus, since it’s not in the middle of the city, you have a better chance of scoring something golden before someone else gets to it.

Holy Cow Records

holy cow record shop seattle

Image credit: Holy Cow Records/Instagram

If you’re stopping by Pike Place Market to watch the men toss fish, or buy yourself a warm crumpet, then it’s only natural to make a stop at one of the best record shops in Seattle, Holy Cow Records. Located inside the market on Pike St, Holy Cow is a small but mighty shop that’s been around for over two decades.

 

Holy Cow is an exclusively used record store that specializes in rare vinyl LPs and 45s, as well as a selection of CDs, DVDs, and various music memorabilia. It’s a great spot if you’re looking for a rare or weird find, or you want to actively buy, sell, or trade records and other music-related curios. If you’re not in the Seattle area, you can also find their listings on eBay. But the true Holy Cow experience involves seeing the cow sign in person and eating a croissant from Le Panier right afterward.

 

Georgetown Records

georgetown record shop seattle bowie

Image credit: Instagram/Georgetown Records

Georgetown Records shares space with Fantagraphics bookstore, so if you’re a fan of comic books then a trip to the shop will give you even more to browse through. The shop is a hub for regular live music and performance events, giving people across different mediums a chance to connect and collaborate. 

Specializing in mostly used and a handful of re-issued vinyl LPs, Georgetown Records leans older in its selection. However, they don’t sell online, so if you’re in Seattle it’s a great place to snag a find without worrying about online competition. But if you’re far away, you’ll need to save them for a brick-and-mortar shopping trip.

Silver Platters SODO

silver platters sodo record shops seattle vinyl

Image credit: Silver Platters/ Instagram

If you’re looking to shop a large selection of vinyl records, CDs, DVDs, and even books, the local Seattle chain Silver Platters is the place to be. Spanning across all genres, from popular new releases to avant garde used records, Silver Platters is an ideal place to go if you’re looking to grab multiple kinds of records at once, you want to grab a Blu-ray DVD, or you just feel like browsing a large selection.

If you like getting lost and overwhelmed in a large store full of goodies, then this is it. 

 

Notable Record Shops in Seattle

When on the hunt for the best record shops in Seattle, there are so many Seattle record stores to get lost in. It only feels fitting to add a few footnote mentions that are great options for the niche record collector. 

If you’re a big punk or metalhead, then Belltown’s Singles Going Steady (appropriately named after the Buzzcocks album) is a must-stop spot. It’s an idyllic level of crusty, with a full-on Hellraiser statue haunting you from the corner.

On the Corner of 12th and Pike, you’ll find Wall of Sound, a top pick if you’re looking for jazz, noise, avant-garde, or electronic music. This shop has remained weird and adventurous since 1990, which is a feat in the age of streaming music.

A trip to Stumbletown Records smells like chocolate because the shop is connected to Chocolat Vitale, which sells coffee, chocolates, and other delicious treats. The record selection itself is confined to a small space, so you gotta love digging through crates yourself, but there will be chocolate and coffee there to fuel you.

Last but not least of the notable mentions is the Central District’s Selector Records and Apparel, which deals in imported and underground dance music. This is ideal if you’re a DJ, an aspiring DJ, or you just love a rare dance record.

And if you're stocking up on used vinyl, be sure to check out our guide to cleaning records before you drop your stylus on them.


pre box phono input preamp

What is Phono Input and When Should You Use It?

An audiophile uses several different tools to improve the sound quality of their audio system, especially if their sound is connected to their home theater system. This could mean getting a new record player with hi-fi options, increasing the amplification of the speakers, or using a phono input to bring your vinyl turntable’s sound to the line level. With analog-vinyl playback, upgrading your turntable’s audio is just as important as making sure you spend time cleaning records before playing them.

 

What is Phono Input?

A phono input is an audio input that can be found on a preamplifier, an amplifier, or a stereo receiver. This type of audio connection accepts signals from analog turntables, which boosts and adds RIAA equalization to recreate the original sound. These records are recorded with the higher frequencies increased and lower frequencies reduced, but during playback, the frequency response is reversed to reduce audible background noise. Most A/V receivers also have this type of input to increase the number of sound options available.

 

Think of it this way: similar to how you might use an HDMI input to improve on the video quality available through an RCA connection, the same quality upgrade is possible with modern audio inputs. To improve audio quality over what’s available using a line input, using a phono input will bring a more high-fidelity sonic experience when listening to vinyl records on a turntable.

 

Phono Preamp vs Line Connection

pre box phono input preamp

A phono preamp, which is often referred to as the phono stage, is the audio system required when listening to music on a turntable that you’ll be outputting to a pair of speakers. The voltage level for this type of signal will vary based on the type of cartridge that your record player uses. 

 

Moving Magnet cartridges (MM) are found on most turntables that you can purchase in mainstream music stores. Pro-Ject’s Essential III uses Moving Magnet cartridges, but many audiophiles prefer to spend more on a turntable with a Moving Coil cartridge (MC) because the needle can read the grooves in the vinyl more accurately. 

 

With that being said, the signal level of an MC cartridge is much weaker, which is why you need to amplify the sound using a phono audio source. Since there is such a difference in the signal level of these two cartridges, some phono preamplifiers will allow you to switch between cartridge types, while others are only designed to work with one kind.

 

There are even more differences when you compare phono and line signals. Some of the main differences to consider include:

 

RIAA Equalization

Records are carved with bass frequencies reduced and treble boosted to take up less space on the record. This creates a flat frequency response that is easily equalized with the phono stage. If the record is played using a line output, the frequencies switch. When using a phono output, RIAA equalization from the preamp is needed to round out the sound.  

 

Signal Levels 

Whether you listen to music from a CD player or streaming music to your Bluetooth speakers, the analog output when using a line signal level will be 0.316 Volts. This never changes with this type of output, but when using a phono output, the signal level tends to be much weaker and varies based on the type of cartridge that you are using. Signal levels for a phono output will range between 0.0002 Volt and 0.007 Volt. 

 

Built-In Phono Input vs External Preamp

phono preamp
Turntable with phono preamp

By now, you’ve probably seen devices that include an internal preamp, and while these may sound ideal and space-saving, there are a few reasons to keep the phono preamp separate from your vinyl turntable. Before we get to that, it’s also important that you understand that an audio interface will contain a preamp that will boost your phono line signal before it reaches the amplifier stage. This is critical if you want to boost the weak signals produced by turntables and improve sound quality before it’s amplified out to the speakers.

 

One of the main reasons that you’ll want to keep the amplifier and preamp separate is noise. When you have a preamp housed within the body of an integrated unit, the device's internal noise will almost certainly impact the sound quality of the signal that’s being processed by the preamplifier. Generally speaking, all preamplifiers add noise to the weak signal, but with an internal preamp, you’re most likely to have more noise than you would with an external unit.

 

Secondly, when you’re working with an integrated unit, you can expect some corners to be cut to make the device more compact. Instead of housing the preamp in a dedicated device, manufacturers looking to integrate the functionality will almost surely use cheaper components. This means that the capacitors, resistors, and circuit boards won’t do as well of a job amplifying your turntable’s signal to line level as one with better internal components. As a rule, standalone units will have better components that will transmit and amplify sound better.  

 

So, are there advantages to an internal preamp? Well, one of the chief benefits of one of these types of integrated turntables is convenience. With a turntable with a preamp, you can send music out to the amplifier immediately without a huge amount of signal loss. Additionally, purchasing a turntable with a built-in preamp means that you’ll be saving cash compared to buying a turntable and an external preamp.  Still, if you’re an audiophile looking for sound quality, go external.

 

Pros and Cons of Internal Preamps

ProsCons
  • Space-saving
  • Cheaper on average
  • Immediate playability
  • Typically cheaper components
  • Reduced audio quality
  • Tendency to pick up extra noise

 

Phono Preamps and Amplifiers

Both of these components are extremely important when using a vinyl record player. Similar to the frequencies generated by a microphone, turntables tend to have a fairly weak signal that must be boosted before reaching the amplifier stage. Phono preamps are positioned near the start of the signal chain so that the weak signal is preamplified to the line level before the amplifier can process it.

 

Amplification of the phono line signal can be done in multiple ways. For example, some standard wired technologies include RCA or XLR connectors that connect directly from the amp to the speakers. Some amplifiers use internal Bluetooth adapters to send out a signal to the speakers for those who prefer a more wireless profile. In any situation, the signals being processed by the amplifier have to be at line level so that sound quality sounds balanced and not washed out. 

 

For those seeking a more lossless amplification experience, it’s suggested that you seek out an amplifier that uses Bluetooth 5.0 or above. This will improve the data transmission speed and ensure that more of the data reaches your wireless speakers. Bluetooth technology at this level will also have a larger wireless range; in fact, 5.0 will reach devices that are 800 feet away from the amplifier.

 

Take your Stereo System up a Notch

 

Using a phono input is absolutely critical if you’re using a vinyl turntable. With one, much more of the warmer tones inherent in vinyl will make it through the audio chain to your speakers. Fortunately, it’s a relatively simple process to find the phono stage that will fit your audio needs as well as the needs of your budget.


personal audio headphone box

Do You Need a Headphone Amplifier?

Many music lovers have an audiophile speaker system at home with components and amplifiers that produce hi-fi sounds, but what about when you want music through a pair of headphones? Do you need a headphone amplifier?

Over-ear headphones and earbuds don’t always provide the high-end sound quality that you are looking for, even from a nice system playing high-quality recordings. Luckily, a headphone amplifier can easily bring life to headphones by improving the sound quality. 

 

What is a Headphone Amplifier?

A headphone amplifier is a tool that connects to your music player, whether you're using a computer, iPhone or Android device, and increases the volume levels and the hi-res amplification heard through a pair of headphones during playback.  The amplifiers effectively push the audio signal to the speakers via vibrations that are converted into sound waves.   

 

Headphone amps that are designed to be portable often double as a digital-to-analog converter or a DAC. These audio converters are found in all digital audio sources, but built-in DAC combos don’t always provide high-quality amplification. If you are playing music from a computer, which is a common practice in many homes, then a small USB DAC converter may be all you need for better sound quality. In addition, if the audio jack on your player is broken, a USB DAC, like Pro-Ject’s DAC Box E Mobile allows you to bypass the malfunctioning component with ease.

 

What is the Purpose of a Headphone Amp?

When you have a headphone amp, the purpose of it is to improve the sound, add volume control options, and more. You can play both mono and stereo records when using a multi-channel headphone amplifier, and if your volume knob is broken, there will be one on the amplifier that you purchase. The central location of the volume knob on the Head Box DS2B is ideal for a computer setup where you’ll be using headphones.

 

More Volume

Volume has to do with two aspects of playback. The first one is the sensitivity of the headphones. Headphones that have a higher sensitivity rating tend to have a louder volume. At the same time, headphones with high sensitivity will also pick up things like sounds on the amplifier, electrical noises, and other sounds without a high-quality amplifier. 

 

The second aspect that affects the sound of your music is impedance. When looking at headsets, impedance is measured in ohms, which are rated using a large range from 16 to 600. The lower the rating is, the louder the music will sound.  Most of today’s headphones are released with a low impedance rating because a higher rating means that more power is needed. When things take more power to function, a traditional power supply is typically not enough. 

 

Better Sound

When looking to get a better quality of sound, make sure that you consider what is decreasing your sound quality. The lower the impedance on your headphone is the more distortion you will hear. 

 

You will get more volume, but is added distortion in your music really worth getting a pair of low-cost headphones that don’t require an amp? Of course not - you need to find a good balance that works for your ears, especially if you listen to low frequencies often that amplify the distortion. Low impedance headphones will not have adequate impulse response and dampening, which can also create muddy mids and bass that degrades the quality of your music.

 

What Type of Headphone Amplifier Should I Purchase?

You need to purchase the headphone amp that fits your listening style. For example, you wouldn’t want a desktop amp for your headphones if you were going for a jog, instead, you’d want a more portable amp adapter for your smartphone. Here’s a breakdown of each amp type so that you know which unit to purchase for your headphones.

  • Portable headphone amp: These are small enough to fit inside your pocket yet enhance the sound output coming out of your smartphone or MP3 player’s 3.5mm jack.  There are two jacks on these; one sends a two-end wire to your audio device and the other plugs into your headphones. Since these are separate from your headphones and audio device, they will need to be charged from time to time. 
  • Desktop amp: Unlike portable units, desktop amps sometimes have multiple inputs for headphones and sometimes accommodate studio monitors. These are in no way portable and are designed to sit atop a desk or shelf. Sometimes, these have a large volume rocker for nuanced control.
  • Rackmount: If you have studio signal processing gear, then a rackmount system is best. This is a headphone amp that is easily daisy-chained with your other equipment, like preamps. You can even connect them to other racked headphone amplifier systems for more inputs, though most will have up to six jacks already. These are designed to accommodate 19-inch wide racks.

 

Features to Consider in a DAC or Headphone Amplifier

Before making a purchase, here are a few criteria to consider that will help you decide on your best potential device:

 

The Form Factor

 This will decide the type of headphone amp you’re purchasing. Are you looking for a portable unit, one that’ll fit on a desk, or one that will fit in amongst a racked system with additional devices like preamplifiers? If you’re not going to be using your system on the go and you don’t have additional audio equipment, then in most cases, a desktop headphone amplifier will do the job. 

 

The Audio Technology

Headphone amps use digital-to-analog converters (DACs) to convert a digital signal to an analog one. At the device level, your music is arranged using pulse code modulation (PCM) to make analog music digital. 

 

The DACs use a variety of technologies, including direct stream digital (DSD) and super audio CD (SACD), to convert data so that it becomes high-fidelity audio. While DACs are present in devices like your smartphone and your laptop, it’s critical to have a higher quality DAC in place to capture all the nuance of your music.

 

The Output Type

This is a major consideration because the output type will directly affect sound quality. For example, with RCA or coaxial connectors, which have a single, unbalanced pin, you may lose signal quality if your cabling is on the longer side. Alternatively, a balanced three-pin XLR cable allows you to transfer the sound signal over a longer distance without degradation. The type of output cabling is exterior to your headphone cabling and leads directly to the sound system. 

 

Do I Need an Amp for Headphones with a Built-In Amplifier?

No, you do not needs a headphone amp if it is already built into the earphones.  Whether you are listening to music through a Bluetooth connection or a headphone jack, headphones that already have an amplifier built into the model will prevent an external amp from making changes to the headphone output, which simply makes them a volume knob that costs a lot of money. 

 

In-ear monitors that are used by live performers often don’t need additional amplification because they are already designed to amplify a specific part of the sound being produced. Headphone amplifiers are designed to be used with over-ear studio headphones. 

 

Headphone Amps Deliver Hi-Fi Sounds 

If you are using aptX technology over Bluetooth headphones or earpods that connect to your iPhone wirelessly, having an amplifier can really take your music up a notch. Some say that there is no noticeable audio difference between a recording at 44.1kHz and 96kHz, but with the right headphone amplifier, your music can have an exceptional sound, regardless of the sample rate.

However, for vinyl hi-fi listeners, it's important to consider that if you take amplifying your turntable seriously, you should take amplifying your headphones seriously as well. If you've optimized your turntable setup for tonearm resonance and alignment, taking this additional step can bring your closer to your favorite music on every spin.

There is an ultimate audio setup for every type of listener, just make sure that your mobile audio system has the same quality sound as your home system.


record weight

Vinyl 101: Do a Record Weight or Record Clamp Make a Difference?

It’s time to talk tweaks, or rather a subtle upgrade with a million approaches (as tends to be the case in our hobby). I consider a record weight to be a ‘tweak’ compared to upgrading your phono preamp, cartridge, speakers, amp, or turntable itself.

A critical listener will more readily hear the improvements a vinyl weight advances, and that same critical listener is more likely to have a more revealing system that can make a tweak seem more profound in hi-fi analog playback.

In short, record clamps are effective in theory and in practice. Varying designs, your existing equipment, your ears as well as your approach to listening all have bearing on the perceivable impact of a record clamp.

What is a Record Weight?

When I say ‘record clamp,’ I refer broadly to all of the products that fall under that canopy including the also-common record weight (or record puck) and any other form of vinyl disc stabilizer. Per the usual, here’s a list of terms that you’ll stumble across that address the notion of coupling a record to the turntable platter and/or platter mat: record or turntable clamp, record or turntable weight, record weight stabilizer, vinyl record weight, and so on…

The list goes on and becomes increasingly redundant, but you get the idea; we’re installing a device that locks the vinyl record down as much as possible, adding an extra measure of stability while the stylus is in the groove.

It should be mentioned here too that clamps & weights are the main approaches but not the only ones.

Tending to dwell in the audiophile high-end, there are things like turntable rings and even vacuums. A turntable ring rests on the outer lip of the record. The only ones I’ve seen are made of stainless steel, the mass of which not only does the coupling but is among the more effective ways to deal with warped records. The aforementioned vacuums further illustrate how far designers take this principle (and the potential importance of it).

There aren’t many out there and they get pretty expensive, but they provide literal suction of the LP record to the platter’s surface yielding uniform pressure across the disc and providing heightened stabilization.

record weight puck

Back to the [more common] topic at hand of clamps & record weights. Their task is to provide clamping and damping of the LP vinyl to allow your stylus, cartridge, and tonearm to do their respective jobs more effectively. Among turntable accessories, it’s one of the easiest ways to achieve better sound. With proper record cleaning and a heavyweight record clamp, you'll get even closer to your favorite music.

They are fitted over spindles atop the record labels (not to be mistaken for a 45 RPM adapter). As we’ve discussed, sound quality in this hobby is heavily impacted by resonance.

Apart from the usual suspects that have the more immediate and noticeable impact (e.g., footsteps on a springy floor), remember that your speakers create resonance and that your record player itself has its own resonance properties. Resonance is not inherently bad, but controlling/reducing the harmful ones is the goal among vinyl enthusiasts, and a high-quality clamp or weight can help.

Why Do You Need a Record Clamp?

On a micro level, remember that the stylus has a difficult job. It’s tasked with navigating relatively extreme topography at a high relative speed (and at a high relative temperature!) all while holding the record groove. In order to accomplish its job, it has to rapidly vibrate. Doing so causes unwanted resonance within the record itself that can return to the stylus causing the cartridge to transcribe it and send it down the arm to your phono stage.

This is the specific type of resonance with which a clamp or record weight is most helpful. Consider the ultra-light mass-produced records of yore (120-140g) vs. 180g or 200g records. 180g records are made not only with a higher degree of quality in mind but it’s widely agreed that their additional weight makes them less prone to unwanted resonance, thus are capable of better sonics.

A clamp/weight takes this notion to the next level. I like to think of it as an attempt to heighten the effective mass of the record, or to make that effective mass something similar to the platter itself by ‘coupling’ the record to it. Doing so also ascertains that the record is spinning at the precise speed dictated by the drive system (reducing micro speed variations vs. a record that’s unsecured).

Weights/clamps come in many forms. Typically they’re made of something highly rigid and massive (various metals) and/or something resonance absorbing (rubber, carbon fiber, various composites). Pro-Ject makes a few products that nicely illustrate the most common approaches. First, there’s the very popular record weight simply referred to as their heavyweight Record Puck (seen in black or brass).

This one uses the simple principle of mass atop the record to brace the disc on the platter. Being higher in mass, it’s designed for a more robust platter bearing, in this case for their inverted ceramic bearings seen on higher-end machines.

Theoretically, a mass-loaded record weight is not advisable over conventional bearing wells due to the risk of friction therein and possible wear & tear to the bearing over time, which is why they also offer Clamp it. This product works great for any turntable but is the advisable option over a conventional bearing well because it does not rely on mass to accomplish its goal, rather on the twisting force applied by the user. Clamp it grips the record spindle and applies minimal downward pressure to secure the disc have little impact on the platter bearing. Here resonance absorption is also at play via the leather pad on the bottom side (the side that contacts the record), so it’s a multifaceted approach. Also worth noting is the example of 6PerspeX SB.

Here we have a vinyl-coated MDF platter with a record spindle that’s threaded for use with a compatible screw-down clamp. The twisting force of the user plus the downward force created by the threading makes this another neat, effective approach where the platter is meant to mimic the resonance properties of the vinyl itself – a more involved approach to coupling.

Can You Hear the Difference?

debut pro with record weight

With all this clamping, damping, and coupling, you might ask what can be expected in terms of sonics? Well, reducing interfering resonance is a broad goal in analog reproduction, and record weights or clamps target just a portion of it. That said, the difference is audible, which justifies the spread of products on the market made for this express purpose. Reducing resonance brings forth things that are already there but makes them less blurred into the soundstage. Expect improvements in bass depth & texture, high-frequency extension, midrange clarity, and more.

Look at it this way… we want the motion of the stylus in the groove to be the only vibration picked up by the cartridge. A record properly coupled to the platter is less susceptible to external resonance as well as resonance with the record itself, allowing the stylus its max potential when powering through a record groove. If you're relatively new to vinyl, check out this guide to how vinyl works to understand just how important all of these details are.

As always, happy listening!


Debut Carbon RecordMaster HiRes Tonearm - Top

How Important is a Tonearm on a Record Player?

The tonearm on your turntable may not seem to make a big difference during record playback, but any audiophile will tell you when there is an issue with the tonearm.

To overcome any audio challenges, you need to make sure you have a stylus with an effective length and a tonearm that is well-balanced.  The many parts of a record player, like a solid plinth or base, will keep the record player from wobbling, but the tonearm you select is even more important for optimal playback. 

 

What Does a Tonearm Do?

A tonearm is designed to support the phono cartridge that holds the stylus.  Most cartridges are designed to attach to a headshell or a similar connector that allows the tonearm to support the cartridge as it moves inwards towards the record's center. The height and the angle of the armtube is critical. If the cartridge adds too much weight on one side of the tonearm, you will need to provide a counterweight from Pro-Ject on the other side to balance it.  The size of the counterweight you need will vary based on the weight of the tonearm, the cartridge, and the type of turntable you are using.

 

Tonearm Designs and Shapes

Xtension 12 - Gloss Olive w/ Ortofon Tonearm

Depending on the phonograph or the record player you are using, different shapes of tonearms will affect the type of hi-fi sounds that you get out of your analog vinyl record collection. Knowing how vinyl works will help you decide on the perfect tonearm. The most common shapes include:

  • A Straight Tonearm: A straight tonearm will be available in a variety of sizes. Longer options rely on anti-skate to function properly. They are designed to counteract the inward friction that the spinning of the vinyl creates. There are also shorter options that are more stable, so an anti-skate mechanism is not needed, which means less chance of arm vibration during playback. 

 

  • A J-Shaped Tonearm: A J-shaped tonearm is very similar to a straight one, but the most notable difference is that the headshell juts to the left a bit, giving it a J-like shape. The purpose of the tonearm being this shape is to allow an arm that is slightly longer to fit in the same space as a straight tonearm. It will give the arm additional weight to prevent the stylus from bouncing out of the grooves as the music plays.

 

  • An S-Shaped Tonearm: The final design you will want to consider to optimize your tonearm’s balance is an S-shaped one. This option eliminates vibrations in the chassis and the records that may cause tracking errors. This design has a fulcrum point in the middle of the arm that provides a resting point for better azimuth and stability. Azimuth helps keep the cartridge’s needle in the center of the groove so that you experience a smooth audio experience whether you are playing through basic speakers or amplifiers.

 

Tonearm Materials

Just like the tonewoods used for a guitar creates a unique resonating sound, the materials used to create the parts of a record player will make or break the sound of the music. The higher the quality of the materials, the better the audio experience that you are creating will be, even without the use of amps. 

 

The primary “tonewoods” of tonearms that help with sound quality are located in the armtubes. These are typically made of metals, like aluminum, titanium, or steel, but there are also models with armtubes made of wood or carbon fiber. Effectively, the materials used in this portion of the arm reduce the impact of the plate and cartridge vibrations, which affects the quality of the sound being produced.

 

Here’s a breakdown of some of the materials found in the armtube and how they dampen vibrations that would affect sound quality.

  • Wood: This includes teakwood, rosewood, red cedar, panzerholz, Pernambuco, and Australian jarrah woods. As a rule, the harder the tonewood, the better the acoustic performance. Wood needs surface treatment for the best sound quality, but when added, vibrations are reduced greatly, and these materials perform well for balancing the tonearm.

 

  • Metal: As a general rule, aluminum is the most common armtube material used in the tonearm. Aluminum works well because it’s both lightweight and strong, and its material breakdown helps to dampen vibrations as the record spins. 

 

  • Carbon Fiber: Lightweight and strong, carbon fiber armtubes also perform well by redirecting parasitic vibrations into the mounting board. This is because they typically are even lighter than aluminum or other metals while precisely tracking the record groove.

 

Tonearm Resonance 

debut pro tonearm

Tonearm resonance is the frequency that you get from the interaction between the tonearm and the cartridge. The compliance or the springiness of the cartridge will differ based on the parts that you are using. This springiness allows the cartridge to move along the record grooves while being stationary enough to allow the cantilever to move enough to produce sound. 

 

The resonance frequency is the amount of force that the needle needs to move the tonearm. Amplitude results from tonearm damping, which is achieved with either silicon fluid or magnets. Energy is created as the stylus traces the vinyl. This energy then can be absorbed or used to color the sound and create low-frequency resonance. Ideally, you want your resonance frequency between 8 and 12Hz. Most audiophiles prefer a smaller range that is between 9 and 11Hz. 

 

This means that if the resonance does not fall between these frequencies, the music will be affected. Too much resonance causes that cartridge to skip, and too low of a frequency causes the record player to vibrate.

 

Tonearm Distortion 

Inner groove distortion is also something that you will have to contend with when trying to get the best sound. This is a deterioration of the sound that is often heard at the end of a record. Usually, it’s noticed more at higher volumes, especially when the record player connects to a phono preamp with an RCA cable. 

 

Some songs will have a lower volume at the end to prevent distortion from occurring, but you should also make sure that your cartridge and stylus alignment is correct.

What’s so important about the alignment? Because the vinyl grooves are very narrow, it’s easy for the stylus to misread the information when the parts are not aligned properly. This creates distortion and less natural-sounding music that hums during playback. Fortunately, there are tools like Align It that make the process of getting the full sound out of your records on every playback.

 

Balance Your Tonearm for Optimal Performance

Balancing is not something that you will want to overlook when you choose a tonearm for your system.

Of course, you need to select a tonearm that fits your record player, but creating optimal-sounding music requires a balancing act that is not always easy to maintain. Once you balance your tonearm, vinyl records will sound much better with that warm, authentic sound that many audiophiles look for from their systems.  

If you've aligned your tonearm and still aren't getting the sound you're looking for, consider whether or not you've got the right turntable cartridge for your system.


Speaker Placement: Making the Most of Your Turntable Setup

One of the most overlooked aspects of a two-channel hi-fi system, or a multi-channel surround sound system is speaker placement. If you happen to be lucky enough to have a dedicated listening or theater room, getting the best sound will be easier. While it’s always sexier to talk about buying a new amplifier, a phono preamp, or another component, a little time moving your speakers will yield huge results. But we’re guessing most of you have your living room to use as a listening room, so we’ll help you tweak things accordingly.

We’ll put our emphasis on setting up a pair of speakers in a traditional two-channel system for now. These principles apply to a surround sound system, but this is a different listening experience and works with more speakers. Because most surround/home theater systems usually use some kind of sound processor in their central core, precise speaker placement isn’t quite as critical as it is in a two-channel setup.

Even a nice set of bookshelf speakers can bring out the best in your hi-fi system if placed right.

Regardless of your listening area, achieving a great listening experience isn’t out of your reach. You may have heard some talk about acoustics. Most records, movies, and game soundtracks are produced in some kind of recording studio environment with calibrated speakers and careful attention to acoustic detail. More often than not, the engineer’s sweet spot is at a console sitting close to a pair of monitor speakers, or perhaps even headphones.

We’ll concentrate on your room a bit, then move on to deciding if you have the right speakers. Also, think about where your listening position will be – is it flexible enough to move with where the speakers need to be placed? Or do you have limited flexibility?

Our biggest goal, whether we are dealing with stereo speakers, or surround sound speakers is recreating a sonic space that feels as close to the real thing as possible. “Soundstage” is a very common audiophile term referring to how wide the apparent image, or field of sound the speakers in front of you create.

Bass is the Place

If you’ve ever been to a large venue to see a concert, in addition to the high sound pressure levels created, the low frequencies (i.e. the bass) are pretty massive. You can only bend physics so far, the smaller the room, the less bass you can generate in it because those sound waves are big in comparison to the midrange that makes up the human vocal range and high frequencies you find with stringed instruments, cymbals, and the like.

Those of you that have been to a music festival may have noticed that the sound quality is usually a lot better than indoor venues. This is because outside, there are no walls to deal with, bouncing the sound around. The more sound bounces around, the more definition you lose in the listening environment. Reflected sound is a real problem when trying to reach optimum speaker placement.

There are a number of different approaches to get great sound quality in a room. One good way to strike a balance between the front wall, back wall, and side walls is to start with your speakers in an equilateral triangle placement between the speakers and your listening chair, or couch. If you can, place your speakers an equal distance apart, and then an equal distance to your listening chair from the tweeter.

Ear level and speaker height are vital to getting the most of your audio system at home.

Floorstanding speakers are almost always built so that the tweeter will be close to the height of your ears when you are listening. Bookshelf or monitor speakers require speaker stands, so if possible, choose stands that will achieve the same thing. Get those tweeters as close to ear height as possible. If you just can’t do this, make sure your speakers have adjustable feet or spikes that will allow you to tip them back slightly.

Regardless of whether you have floor-standing speakers or stand-mounted speakers, the best place to start is to optimize your speaker setup for the best bass response in the room. Before we begin, let’s double-check one thing – phase. It’s important that when the music signal makes it to your speakers the speaker cones in both loudspeakers move in and out together. If one moves in while the other moves out, there will be a cancellation effect and you’ll barely get any bass at all!

This is easy to check. If you look at the back of your amplifier and speakers, you’ll notice red and black connections, or binding posts (black is – and red is +). Most speaker cables have leads on the end with red and black. Just make sure everything is red to red and black to black all the way through and you’re good to go.

Back to the triangle. Get your favorite bass-heavy track ready to go, whether streaming or playing from your turntable, so you can really hear what your speakers are doing. Start with your speakers about six feet apart and about three feet out from the back wall. Move them closer to the wall until the bass is too prominent and overpowering, then come back out from the wall until it sounds “just right” to you. You want plenty of extension and weight, but not boom. Next, move the speakers further apart until the stereo image breaks up into distinct left and right. Again, bring them back in just a bit.

Fine-tuning Your Speaker Placement

speaker placement

Experimenting with the toe-in will maximize the mid-range and treble response. You can spend a lot or a little bit of time here. The more effort you put in, the bigger and broader the soundstage will feel. If your speakers or speaker stands have adjustable feet (and/or spikes) this is where you can really fine-tune the sound by adjusting the backward tilt, or rake of the speakers.

The quickest way to hear this effect is by moving your head up and down from your normal listening position, paying close attention to the treble. If things sound open and clearer, moving away from your normal listening position, you will either have to adjust the feet so the speaker tilts up ever so slightly or perhaps even a bit forward. Nearly almost always, a little bit of rearward tilt will be all you need.

At a certain point in all this, you’ll notice that the actual feeling of sound coming from two boxes disappears, and you feel a lot closer to the music. That’s when you know your work is done.

Do you Need a Subwoofer?

Short answer: You need a subwoofer. If you require more bass, and have the room, adding a subwoofer (or two, or six) will dramatically extend the frequency response of your system and offer up bass that you truly can feel.

Subwoofers can go just about anywhere in your listening space, as the deepest bass frequencies are not directional. Typically, for best results, placing a subwoofer in the room’s corner, or slightly off-center in the middle of a room will give the best results. This gets a bit more complicated with multiple subwoofers, but again, you can’t go wrong with corner placement.

Nearly all subwoofers have a crossover control, to determine where the subwoofer kicks in, and level control. The key to a proper subwoofer placement is to achieve a seamless blend with your main speakers. That way, it doesn’t just sound like boomy bass coming from a cube in the corner. Again, you know you have it right when you just have deeper, more extended bass. We will cover the subwoofer setup in detail in a future article.

What About Multi-Channel Speaker Placement?

multichannel speaker placement

If you have a multi-channel theater system, just break it down to optimizing the front channels, then doing the same for the rear pair. However, movie soundtracks place a lot of critical dialog and “height” information through the center channel. Try and place the center channel speaker as close to the physical center of the room, and as close to directly under the screen as possible. Check out this Sonus faber guide on different types of speaker setups.

A little time spent on a lazy afternoon optimizing speaker placement will yield great results. You might be surprised at how much more musical information is locked inside the grooves of your vinyl records or in the digital stream of your favorite song that can be revealed with solid speaker placement.

 


Vinyl 101: The Ideal Turntable Cartridge

A turntable cartridge, aka phono cartridge, is one of the more fascinating elements in the equation of hi-fi analog reproduction via a record player. In principle, one can liken it to a microphone.

Both respond to airborne sound waves and convert them to a delicate, low-level electrical signal that can then be preamplified into something usable (or listenable!). As we know from tapping on the turntable plinth or even by strolling across the room while a record is playing, the cartridge responds to vibration and resonance.

To perpetuate the analogy to a microphone, the signal generated by a cartridge is something similar – it requires special handling (a dedicated preamp) before being sent off to the amplifier.

Turntable Cartridges vs Phono Cartridges

As with previous discussions, let’s begin by clearing the air regarding terminology. ‘Phono cartridge’ is the most widely used term in our industry, but folks refer to them also like the following: phonograph cartridge, turntable cartridge, phono pick-up, stereo cartridge, and more.

This terminology refers to the piece that is mounted to the tonearm headshell, most often secured by two screws and attached to four wires exiting the playing-end of the tonearm). Here’s where it’s easy to get tripped up; the stylus is not the same thing as the cartridge, rather, it’s an essential part of the cartridge.

Technically speaking, ‘stylus’ refers only to the actual diamond that tracks the record grooves. Practically speaking, folks refer to the stylus assembly as just the stylus.

In the case of replaceable styli, the stylus assembly is the actual diamond stylus (or stylus tip), the cantilever (the metal rod that carries the diamond), the magnet at the other end of the cantilever, as well as the housing for all of this that allows you to slide or snap the stylus assembly into a turntable cartridge. A magnet then interacts with coils to generate an electrical signal.

Casual listeners or folks new to the hobby often refer to the cartridge as the stylus and vice versa. This isn’t inherently wrong though perhaps incomplete. In this hobby, we use the most descriptive terms we can muster, and this varies from listener to listener. However, it is an important point of clarification if you’re shopping for a replacement stylus or a new cartridge.

Types of Turntable Cartridges

Next, let’s cover what sort of cartridges you may stumble into on the market. At the top of the list, you’ll find things that perhaps are a bit more obscure. Toward the bottom, we’ll get to the meat & potatoes of what’s most relevant to us as hi-fi enthusiasts.

types of turntable cartridges

Ceramic cartridges

Ceramic cartridges are either vintage pick-ups typically found on very old machines or new all-in-one tabletop players. This technology predates the current landscape of cartridges. There is no doubt that the newer technology is capable of ‘better’ sonic performance and is more forgiving on the vinyl record.

 

Single-screw mount

Single-screw mount cartridges are usually proprietary or vintage, these are not user-replaceable without expertise. It usually means a single screw enters through the top of the headshell and threads into the top of the cartridge.

 

P-Mount cartridge

These were immensely popular in the 80s due to their ease of use and are really only relevant today for folks who have a turntable from that era. ‘P’ stands for ‘plug,’ as in ‘plug-mount’ cartridge, and it connects directly to a p-mount-compatible tonearm. This eliminates the need for the user to bother with the cartridge setup. Alignment is not adjustable nor is the tracking force (usually).

There are no vertical screws nor wires to futz with (often there is a horizontal screw that enters through the side – it’s not needed but is used to lock p-mount cartridges to the arm more firmly). You simply plug the cartridge in and away you go. You may also stumble into a thing called a ‘standard-mount adapter.’ This is a jig into which you plug a p-mount cartridge that can then be mounted to a standard-mount headshell.

 

Mono cartridge

There is a subset of listeners out there who are mono devotees, thus this type of cartridge is still being made. The best variant on the market is a ‘true mono’ cartridge or one that’s designed specifically and wired internally for mono (one channel of musical information as opposed to stereo’s left + right channels). Albums recorded in mono benefit greatly from this type of turntable cartridge, and the listening experience is quite a different one but no less engaging. Re-releases in mono are also a popular thing these days. The other, more affordable, and common type of mono cartridge is one whose output pins are bridged for mono. This is a happy middle ground between true mono and using a stereo cartridge to play mono records, which is also common among folks who prevailingly listen in stereo but have a few mono records they like spin from time to time. Keep in mind 78 RPM records are mono, but are comprised of different materials and have different groove sizes thus requiring a 78 RPM replacement stylus made specifically for that purpose. Note that some turntables require a 78 RPM pulley. There are plenty of stereo cartridges on the market these days that offer a 78 stylus as an aftermarket add-on, so keep an eye out for those too.

DJ cartridge

This can mean several things, but this sort of cartridge usually offers high-than-usual output, a conical (spherical or ball-shaped) stylus, and a rugged cantilever assembly that can accommodate high tracking force values. The output delivers robust, immediate-seeming sonics meant to keep you thumping at the club. Higher levels of sheer volume are within reach. Due to its shape, a conical stylus allows for bi-directional motion in the groove, meaning it’s appropriate for DJs who want to scratch and/or back-cue. DJ cartridges most always either come in standard ½” mount (more on that shortly) or in what’s known as “Concorde” style, which is a cartridge and headshell integrated into one piece that can be plugged directly into a tonearm with what’s known as “bayonet” style compatibility (often these are S-shaped tonearms). There are certainly DJ cartridges that use an elliptical stylus and even some moving coils that are heralded among DJs. As always, there are exceptions to the basic principles – to each DJ their own!

 

Moving-iron cartridge

A less common design principle but functionally similar to moving magnet. Internally it uses magnetic alloys near a fixed magnet, the assembly of which interacts with electrical coils that generate the signal.

 

Standard-mount cartridge

By leaps and bounds, this is the most common mounting style among turntable cartridges. It involves two vertical screws spaced ½” apart from that either thread directly into ‘wings’ with threaded screw holes (optimal), or into nuts that you leverage from underneath the screw holes (a little trickier). Four wires exiting the playing-end of the tonearm are attached to standard-mount cartridges (red/green = right channel hot/ right channel ground, white/blue = left hot/left ground).  Most often a standard mount cartridge is mounted to a headshell that has slots that allow, nay, encourage you to move your cartridge and secure it to its optimal position in the tonearm’s arc. In part, this is subjective as several prevailing geometries are widely used, but each was established long ago by experts and is agreed upon as best for both sound quality as well as wear & tear to the stylus & record. A cartridge alignment protractor helps you to achieve these geometries. If a protractor did not come with your turntable, there are many available from entry-level to high-end.

 

Moving-magnet cartridge

This is a design principle and the nomenclature is quite literal. The magnet’s motion propels the electrical signal that’s sent down the armtube. The basic anatomy is this: stylus bonded to cantilever (playing end)  >  magnet attached to cantilever (opposite end, inside the cartridge)  >  magnet motion directed by the stylus in groove  >  magnetic field interacts with nearby fixed electrical coils  >  electrical signal passively generated by coil windings. A moving magnet cartridge almost always has a user-replaceable stylus – an advantage to the design principle.

Moving-coil cartridge

Again the nomenclature is literal. Here it’s the motion of the electrical coils that generate the signal. A similar walkthrough: stylus bonded to cantilever (playing end)  >  coils attached to cantilever (opposite end, inside the cartridge)  >  coil motion directed by the stylus in groove  >  coils interact with nearby fixed magnet  >  electrical signal passively generated by coil windings. For practical purposes, MC cartridges do not offer user-replaceable styli.

 

High-output moving coil cartridge

This sort of turntable cartridge delivers the flavor of an MC with the functionality of an MM. Their output is usually in the neighborhood or 2.5mV, meaning you can use them with most MM phono preamps (they’re also designed for an electrical load that mirrors MMs). For reference, MMs tend to output around 4mV (give or take) and load at 47k ohms as standard.

 

Low-output moving-coil cartridge

The usual choice for the discerning audiophile, low output MC cartridges deliver the lowest possible moving mass, which in turn yields the highest possible fidelity of the stylus in the groove. Such cartridges usually hover in the neighborhood of 0.5mV and require different electrical parameters on the phono preamp (gain & loading) than MMs. Sonically as well as on paper, MC cartridges are capable of the ‘best’ performance because the design yields the most direct & accurate translation of the stylus’ motion.

They tend to be most ‘convincing,’ conveying not only the music itself but the nuances around it – ‘air’ around instruments, approach & decay, textural subtleties, and so on. It’s about musical information, and an MC cartridge can bring it. Let it also be known that because this design has the highest threshold for performance, manufacturers tend to invest more in their materials. Using more pure and rigid metals, better magnets, and sleeker diamond profiles can facilitate high-end analog reproduction via better specification (frequency response, channel separation, internal impedance, etc.) which of course is part of what you end up hearing.

There's So Much to Learn About Turntable Cartridges

We’ve only scratched the surface of some pretty big topics here. Stylus profiles, cartridge alignment, MM & MC design pros & cons – a few things we’ll be coming back to. In the meantime, we hope you’ve gathered some new and useful information today. Remember that priority #1 is your enjoyment.

Looking at Pro-Ject turntables, you'll find some models outfitted with Sumiko phono cartridges while others have an Ortofon 2M Red. With copious testing, we've found that these cartridges and styli are most compatible with our tables.

Feel free to contact us for tips pairing your table with the perfect stylus!


parts of a record player debut carbon evo

Vinyl 101: Parts of a Record Player

In the beginning, there was the phonograph, then came the turntable, today there is the record player. The main difference among these terms is who happens to be uttering the words. ‘Phonograph’ is the oldest term for this analog instrument, dating back to the mid-1800s when the concept of a stylus responsive to vibration was first being explored. Back then, the parts of a record player were different.

On a victrola, a horn was fixed near a vibrating stylus that amplified the noise with simple acoustics - like a horn to your ear as a hearing aid. Remember that even today, putting your ear near a record while a stylus is tracking reveals that it’s transcribing what’s in the record groove acoustically (in addition to electrically).

‘Phonograph’ remained the mainstay until ‘turntable’ entered the picture. This was somewhere near the time when folks started building component systems as the industry learned that there was much more to explore in the way of sound quality. The nature of the audio system changed when the principle of amplification moved from acoustic to electrical.

Enter audio receivers (amplifiers & preamplifiers with tuners & built-in phono preamps), loudspeakers, audio signal-carrying RCA cables & speaker wire as well as a slew of options among phono cartridges and styli. Here we also entered the era of the vinyl ‘Microgroove’ record as the audio community had begun to move away from shellac-coated 78rpm discs – the beginning of the audiophile era as we know it. As it remains today, ‘turntable’ was a way to describe the record-playing portion of a Hi-Fi component system.

The latest and current generation of vinyl record enthusiasts understands the term ‘record player.’ Acknowledging that this dates yours truly, more than once I’ve been met with a blank stare in response to using the word ‘turntable,’ followed by the quiet inquiry, “…you mean record player?”  To this day, ‘phonograph,’ ‘turntable,’ and ‘record player’ are all active terms and we’re all speaking the same language (at least generally). No one’s right and no one’s wrong here. I say ‘turntable’ because that is the generation from whence I came.

I digress… we are, after all, here to discuss the basics of the modern turntable. I find it helpful to start from the ground up…

Parts of a Record Player: Isolation Feet

…so let’s begin with isolation feet. It’s hugely important to understand that the impact of vibration & resonance on your turntable goes well beyond the skipping of the stylus in the groove. As an example, when you play your music, your speakers resonate everywhere (including on the floor and up the walls!). The more effectively you can separate your turntable from any and all external low-frequency vibration & resonance, the better it will sound. The feet that support the turntable are therefore significant, particularly for folks who don’t want to bother with the likes of fancy audiophile racks, platforms, and so on.

A good isolation foot usually implements some sort of spring and/or damping material (such as TPE and various types of rubber). Such a foot is good at absorbing resonance coming up from under the turntable. Another tried & true foot is the classic conical one, known in the plural as spike feet. These minimize the contact surface between your record player and the surface on which it rests, disallowing a good amount of vibration & resonance to travel upward. There are many combinations of these designs as well as plenty more ‘sophisticated’ approaches out there. Try upping your isolation for better sound. You’ll hear it in varying degrees in your playback’s clarity, spatial awareness, and low-level detail.

Parts of a Record Player: Plinth

The feet support the plinth, otherwise referred to as the turntable base or platform. Mass & solidity are paramount here. A hollow hunk of plastic serving as a plinth will resonate internally, regardless of how well you isolate the turntable. A plinth that’s optimized to give you the best sound will typically be solid (not hollow or minimally hollow) and will be made of something resonance-absorbing, resonance-dispersing, or some combination of the two.

MDF and other off-shoots of wood are typically good and keep production costs low. As plinth isolation gets more involved, many turntable makers aim to disperse and/or eliminate unwanted resonance a) through uniquely shaped plinths and/or b) by eliminating as much of the plinth as possible. Many audiophile turntables on the market lack a conventional chassis for this reason. Where there is a plinth, keep in mind that resonance not inherently bad. Some materials and combinations of materials are used specifically because of the way they resonate (their resonant frequency). The idea, though, is that resonance is controlled and deliberate.

Parts of a Record Player: Drive System

Next, we move to what’s usually mounted to the plinth: the direct drive system. The conversation regarding belt vs. direct drive is a big one that we will save for another day, but suffice it to say that a direct drive turntable uses a motor that drives the turntable platter directly, i.e., the motor & platter are coupled. We will focus today on the belt-drive system, which is widely agreed to be capable of better sonic performance (again, there are no absolutes – there are damn good direct drives out there).

There are a couple of reasons the belt drive system is most common these days: a) in the consumer range, it keeps costs down and b) in the vinyl aficionado range, it de-couples the motor from the record platter. The belt (usually some sort of rubber) is what drives the platter, so motor noise and/or resonance are isolated from the record-playing surface, amounting to a lower noise floor which in turn makes musical information more available to your ears. Stand-alone motors that are entirely decoupled from the plinth are more effective still.

The quality of the power supply, motor, and motor mounting is also very important. Shortcuts in the development and production of these parts amount to noisier motors that vibrate more, and with lower speed tolerances. Your turntable cartridge, cantilever (the metal rod that houses the diamond), and stylus (some folks say ‘turntable needle’) are highly sensitive and will only amplify unwanted noise.

Parts of a Record Player: Platter

Now we move on to the platter – that which rotates atop the drive system. Principles here are similar to that of the plinth. High mass is a good thing (less prone to being affected) and selected materials should be anti-resonant. You’ll find plenty of low mass aluminum platters on the market. When you get a chance, remove a similar platter and give it a rap or two. You’ll hear it ringing, which is far less than ideal if sound quality is your priority. Steel is better because it’s less resonant and more massive, acrylic is acoustically dead.

More advanced platters use various coatings and/or ‘sandwich’ designs that combine materials to affect resonance. The sky is the limit.

Turntable Mats and Slipmats

The turntable mat is of course the last line of defense in terms of isolating your cartridge & stylus from external unwanted vibration & resonance. As with the above, everything under the sun has been at least tried as a record mat. Some mats are meant to couple the record to the platter (to simulate the resonance properties of the platter and/or record itself), or to de-couple (to add another resonance barrier). Since it's in direct contact with your records, which in turn makes contact with your stylus, the record mat can make audible differences in playback.

For the record (no pun intended… seriously), most stocks felt mats are OEM, and their main function is to protect your vinyl from the hard surface underneath. Their greatest value is in peace of mind. They do little in the way of promoting sound quality. Cork turntable mats or rubber slipmats do the most when it comes to dampening.

The Tonearm is Essential

Needless to say, as the carrier of the phono cartridge, the tonearm is instrumental in getting the most from your system. There should be no ‘play’ in the tonearm bearing, meaning basically that tube should not wobble in any direction. Here again, plastic is no good. It resonates and is not rigid. Rigidity in the tonearm structure allows your cartridge to do its best work, unimpeded by vibration & resonance that negatively color the sound. Aluminum & carbon fiber are commonly used materials that are light, rigid, and anti-resonant. Basic elements for pivoted tonearms (most common) are the headshell, armtube, bearing & counterweight.

The headshell (sometimes user-replaceable) is the end-portion of the tonearm to which you mount the cartridge. We recommend a carbon fiber headshell.

The armtube is the prevailing length of the tonearm, longer in curved tonearms. As a general rule, a longer tonearm allows for less ‘error’ in the tonearm’s arc across the disc, yielding cartridge alignment geometry that’s closer to optimal.

The bearing structure is at the pivot point. Its job is to provide secure and fluid lateral movement of the arm. The counterweight is used to balance the cartridge and at an optimal value so that the right amount of VTF (vertical tracking force) is applied to the stylus in the groove. The anti-skate mechanism can take one of several forms, but its task is to offset the inward-directed momentum of the tonearm so that the only force applied to the stylus is vertical force (so that the stylus retrieves information equally from each lateral groove wall).

Phono Cartridges AKA Record Player Needles

sumiko phono cartridge pro-ject turntable

The cartridge and stylus are a larger conversation that we will discuss down the road, but let’s briefly go over the basics. Put simply, the stylus (the actual diamond) is responsible for responding to the contours of the record grove. At the opposite end of the cantilever (a metal rod with diamond bonded to it) are magnets and coils that generate an electrical signal based on the motion of the stylus. This principle is known as electromotive force (energy created by motion).

The signal is passively sent to the cartridge output pins to which the tonearm lead wires are connected. The tonearm lead wires carry the signal through the arm, out the turntable jacks (usually RCA), and over to the phono preamp. Moving magnet & moving coil are the two main types of phono cartridge. If a cartridge has a replacement stylus that you can swap out yourself, you can usually infer it’s a moving magnet. If the stylus is not user-replaceable, it’s a moving coil in most cases.

Keep Dust Away With a Dust Cover

Last, atop the whole machine, you’ll usually find the dust cover (some record players don’t accommodate a proper cover). Its main utility is just as its name suggests; it’s a cover that protects your gear from dust. Of course, one should use it for its practical function and/or maybe aesthetics, but it’s best to remove it or to leave it open (if hinged) while listening. The dust cover is a known resonator – it creates a cavern over your turntable, like listening to your vinyl collection inside a cave.

Feeling Like an Expert?

We hope you’ve enjoyed our overview of record player parts & principles. Indeed your CD player or MP3 player might offer a bit more convenience, but we love the notion that listening to vinyl forces you to engage more with an album proper. Truly it’s a different listening experience entirely. Turntable parts can be a lot to consider, and as always, we advise you to engage with your collection to the extent that’s best for you as the listener. The main priority is that you’re having fun. Some folks will dive in deep and make a hobby of it (or even a profession!), others will spin records from their kitchen countertop while washing dishes. What matters is that it brings you joy.

 

Happy listening!