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.

 


pro ject debut carbon evo white

Record Skipping? Here's How to Fix It

Nothing ruins an audiophile’s mood more than record skipping when grooving to a favorite vinyl record.  It ruins the quality of the music during playback, and it ruins the moment that you are trying to create by listening to records on a record player instead of a more modern system. When records skip, there is often a reason behind it that can easily be addressed. 

 

Causes of Record Skipping

Record skipping affects old records, but it can also come into play with brand new records, especially if the reason for the skipping is unrelated to the vinyl itself. The turntable could be too close to the speakers, causing the needle to bounce out of the record grooves. Let’s take a look at some other reasons for skipping issues to consider while you’re troubleshooting.

 

Dirty Records

Dust and dirt are often found in the record groves before buying the vinyl at a local record store. It can be found on new vinyl records, and even paper sleeves don’t provide enough protection against dust to keep the records spotless. In fact, even the oils found on your skin can be transferred to the vinyl and cause record skipping.

 

How to Fix it: Cleaning records effectively is a great way to bring life back into your vinyl records, and it can be done in several ways. Record cleaning using distilled water, a cleaning solution, and an anti-static brush will sweep the surface of the records clean and help keep it lint-free. When wiping your records, always make sure to move the brush or the rag in a circular motion without using too much pressure.

 

Wet cleaning your vinyl only needs to be done from time to time, but each time you play them, you should run a carbon fiber brush along the grooves to make sure the dust and particles on the records don’t disrupt the music. 

 

Tonearm Balance

If your record and stylus are clean, then the issue causing the record skipping could be the tonearm's balance. To determine if the proper balance is being used, you will need to start by checking the weight of the tonearm to see if its balance is off. Too little tracking force on the records can cause the needle to jump, but too much will put added pressure on the records, which can damage the vinyl.

 

How to Fix it: To adjust a tonearm that’s out of balance, you will need to start by setting the anti-skate control to zero. Then, unlatch the yoke, a hook about halfway down the arm, and gently lower the arm until it rests by itself. This will help you to see if the tonearm is balanced or not. If it sits on the record, it needs to be adjusted. If the needle does not reach the vinyl well enough to play the records, it will also need some adjustment.

 

Move the counterweight, which is located on the back of the tonearm, until the arm is balanced in the air without any support. Once the arm is perfectly balanced, lock it in position at a tracking weight of 0 grams. Then, readjust the counterweight to make sure it is in the right position. This should be done until you feel resistance from the tracking force. 

 

Once the tonearm is balanced, secure the yoke and reset the anti-skate control.  This anti-skating safety should help protect the needle from wearing too quickly and keep it from scratching the surface of the records you are playing.

 

Worn or Dirty Stylus

Wear and tear will also make record skipping more common. Typically, most vinyl diamond styli provide about 700 to 800 hours of playback before you should replace them. If your player has a ruby stylus, expect to replace it after about 200 playback hours. When the tip of the stylus loses its keen edge, this will cause the stylus itself to skip over grooves that it would typically glide through. A dull stylus will also cause damage to the record itself, so replace it when needed.

 

If you play your records while they are dirty, your stylus will likely accumulate some of that dust as well. This happens because, as the stylus travels through the grooves, the needle itself will start to pick up particles that may be stuck there. Similar to how dust on the record’s surface causes skipping, dusk on the tip of the stylus will do the same.

 

How to Fix it: There are a few methods to keep the stylus in working order. Older styli will start to sound strange and pop, so this is something to look out for. If your stylus is beginning to wear down, it’s fairly easy to get a new one because most vinyl players have replaceable styli. Check out our guide on how to replace a record player needle for more detailed instructions. 

 

Cleaning is pretty simple if there’s little accumulation – you can use a stylus brush to wipe away any excess particles. Just be careful; as we mentioned in our guide on how to clean your record needle, it takes precious little force to damage the diamond tip or the headshell. Also, excess force applied to the cantilever could warp it, which will damage your records. When cleaning, be gentle and thorough so that all dust is cleared.

 

Uneven Turntable

Does your turntable seem to be unlevel in your home? This may not be something that you think about right away. Still, if the player is uneven, the speakers or movement near the turntable are likely to vibrate the needle and cause it to skip during playback, especially if the turntable is located on the floor.  

 

How to Fix it: The solution to this problem is simple. You will need to position your record player on sturdy furniture that does not move when you’re walking around or dancing. Another option to consider if you don’t have a sturdy table is placing the record player on a shelf that’s mounted on the wall. 

 

Damaged Records

Scratched or warped records become more noticeable as the vinyl ages, especially if they were not cleaned properly during their lifespan. The more damaged a record is, the more likely it will skip. If you are having issues with a new record, the quality of the vinyl may be subpar and need to be replaced.

 

How to Fix it: You can follow tutorials to repair scratches with a wooden toothpick, a magnifying glass, and a steady hand. Warped records can be clamped to help bring the vinyl back to its original shape. Most likely, if the record is too damaged, it will need to be replaced.

 

Reduce Record Skipping for Better Sound Qualityvinyl playback pro ject record player

Typically, if you find your records are skipping, the solution is a simple one that will not consume a lot of your time. Since the needle reads the grooves, anything that prevents a smooth interaction between the two will cause skipping and kill your audio experience. To maintain a perfect aural environment, you will occasionally need to replace a record, a stylus, or create a more stable home for your vinyl record player. 


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!


sweep it record broom

Cleaning Records: How to Do It Right

If you’re an audiophile or just getting into vinyl, you need to know how to clean your record collection. Old records build up static electricity and collect dust and other impurities. This static electricity builds up over time, which affects the sound quality of vinyl records.

Even new records should be cleaned before being listened to because the records are statically charged during storage. The residue is often found on the record's surface as a result of the packaging process in the factory.

 

Breathing Life Back into Your Records

Cleaning record revitalizes old and dirty records. If you don’t see scratches on your vinyl, most likely, the reason that your vinyl does not play as well as it should is because of lint, dust, and grime. Luckily, the most common reasons to clean vinyl records are easy to manage and take care of.

Clean records play with less distortion, and it helps the vinyl last longer because the friction that happens when dust is on the record will no longer happen. In fact, keeping your records clean can even extend the life of your record player’s stylus, which can save you from having to replace your record player needle. Your entire record collection will sound better with the right cleaning process than when you purchased it at the record store.

 

Importance of A Good Brushing When Cleaning Records

brush it record brush

One of the most important tools for record cleaning that you should own is a carbon fiber brush, like Pro-Ject’s Brush It record brush. You can also use Pro-Ject’s Sweep It record broom, which is directly mounted to your turntable and cleans the surface of your vinyl as the table spins. These record cleaning brushes are anti-static tools that will not only remove dust but also get rid of static build-up on the vinyl surface. This static attracts dust, so getting rid of it will help eliminate future dust from accumulating. The bristles of the carbon fiber brush easily get into the groves of the record without damaging the vinyl.

You simply need to secure the record on your turntable and move the brush in a circular motion to clean it. Move from the inside of the record near the record label and slowly move outwards as the record spins. Always follow the grooves when you are cleaning vinyl, and don’t apply excess pressure, which would cause the brush’s bristles to scratch or damage the surface.

Never use your fingers to remove dust from vinyl because the oils on your fingers damage vinyl. Only touch the labels and the edges of your records any time that you handle them. The record should be the first place to clean, but to truly keep clean records, you will need a stylus brush to ensure that you don’t miss a beat on your favorite vinyl. This is because dust is often transferred from records to the stylus during playback, a stylus cleaner is paramount to perfect sound.

 

Record Washing

Of course, you can wash your records like you would your dishes. Simply put a few drops of dish soap into a tub of water. Avoid using tap water if you are creating your own solution. This will help to keep minerals that could damage the vinyl away from the records that you are cleaning. Di-ionized or distilled water is ideal for cleaning records. Never use Isopropyl alcohol in your vinyl cleaning solution because it removes the shine from the vinyl’s surface and makes it more vulnerable to damage.

Instead of making your own cleaning solution, you can purchase a record cleaning solution that will work for your entire collection. It can be purchased individually or in a cleaning kit like the Spin-Clean Vinyl Record Washer System. This is a full cleaning system with soft brushes, cleaning fluid, and microfiber cloths that won’t scratch the vinyl.

Once the record is clean, rinse the cleaning solution or any soap off with distilled water, being careful not to get the label wet. If water or cleaning solution does get on the label, make sure that you quickly blot it dry with a microfiber cloth, and don’t put it away with your other records until it completely air dries. This helps to ensure that the ink doesn’t bleed and the label doesn’t tear.

Always make sure that the records are dry before playing them on your player. It should also be allowed at least 30 minutes to dry before it is placed back in the sleeve because the excess moisture can damage the records and cause the inner paper sleeves to mold. One way to ensure this is avoided is to use plastic sleeves instead of the paper ones that come with most records.

 

Vacuuming Records

record vacuum

Vacuuming records is one of the better cleaning methods to consider using. Using a vinyl record cleaner that is vacuum-powered will suck up any dust and debris found in the grooves. Using the vacuum cleaner should be done after the record is brushed to remove excess dirt on the surface. The VC-E Compact Vinyl Record Cleaning Machine falls into this category of record cleaner.

Record vacuuming machines will apply a cleaning solution to the records, scrub them, and vacuum away all of the wet solution and debris. It is the superior way to clean vinyl because it combines all of the cleaning methods using a machine that is quick and safe for the records. It may not be the best option for someone who has just a few records because of the price of these machines, but if you have a larger collection of albums, it’s a solid investment to make.

 

Cleaning Records and Storing Without Worry

Once you have cleaned your record collection, you need to ensure that the vinyl does not get damaged or become warped because it is stored improperly. The first step that you need to take to keep your records safe is to store them in an inner sleeve that will not scratch the surface of the vinyl.

To add more protection, you should also use outer sleeves on your vinyl to keep the dust away from your records completely. Records should always be stored vertically because stacking them on top of each other on a shelf causes warping that hurts the sound quality.


What’s the Difference in Audiophile Speakers?

In the high-end audio world, people often want to know what audiophile speakers are for the perfect speaker system. If you’re looking at a pair of high-end speakers for your listening environment, you need to define what having the best speakers means for you.

The first question, is are you looking at a traditional two-channel hi-fi system or a multichannel two-way home theater system? Are you looking for wireless speakers or bluetooth speakers? Next, are you upgrading from your home audio setup, or starting from the beginning with your sound system? There’s really no such thing as “audiophile speakers,” per se, so don’t be fooled by all the internet chatter, even if you're at the point of obsessing over speaker placement in your listening space.

Once you know where you're headed, the next big issue that needs to be sorted is the size of your listening room or living room, and if there are any problems with acoustics in said room.

Assuming you have a somewhat normal room, bigger speakers don't mean better sound quality.

We suggest doing as much research as possible, and if you can work with a dealer and arrange a demo, that will be a big help too. While amplifiers and source components definitely affect the audio quality of your hi-fi system, speakers are the biggest variable.

To make this easy, let’s consider potential rooms as small (around 10 x 12 feet), medium (about 13 x 18 feet) large (about 16 x 24 feet), and super-size (a lot bigger than that) In order to create a realistic soundstage between a pair of stereo speakers, and maybe a subwoofer, getting properly-sized loudspeakers for the room is key.

Are Audiophile Speakers Active or Passive?

As a side note, are you working within the traditional framework of an amplifier and a pair of speakers – this can also be a receiver, or a hi-fi system made up of all separate components, amp, preamp, and phono preamp if necessary? If you don’t require or would like to abandon the more commonplace rack full of gear, or if space is really at a premium, consider a pair of active speakers. These will have the amp and preamp inside the speaker cabinet.

Some even have a DAC (digital audio converter) and even a basic phono preamplifier inside. All you need to add at that point is your phone and maybe a turntable to spin records.

From the outside, active speakers look nearly identical to passive ones. They've got the same woofers, tweeters, and midrange drivers.

They can come packaged as floorstanding loudspeakers or bookshelf speakers. The main difference is that you don’t need the outboard components. With active speakers the amplification and crossover networks (the thing dividing the audio signal into separate signals for the woofer, midrange treble, and tweeter) are all optimized specifically for your speakers, leaving a big part of the guesswork out. You get a full-range frequency response and high performance from even a small consumer amplifier

And if you have active speakers with a built-in DAC, chances are high that they use the latest version of Bluetooth. Bottom line, you’ll be amazed by the sound quality you can get today, streaming from a mobile device or even your TV.

Does Size Matter for Speakers?

speaker box 15

Like your room, speakers come in all shapes and sizes, from ones that you can hold in your hand, to speakers bigger than you are. Every speaker has its own sonic signature as unique as a fingerprint – no two sound completely alike. Making a choice between them, will either be an adventure or drive you to madness.

Assuming you're still with us, a good concept to keep in the back of your head is that speakers reproduce sound by moving air or sound waves. Larger rooms typically need larger speakers that are capable of moving more air. Again, we can cheat this a bit by adding a subwoofer or two.

Either end of the spectrum will give you less than optimum results. Huge speakers in a small room usually generate too much sound and end up not being able to deliver what they are capable of. While the opposite is equally disappointing. Small speakers in a large room, tend to be swallowed up and unable to create any serious sound pressure. You’ll know when you’ve got it just right.

Conversely, small to medium speakers are usually easier to set up in your room strictly because of their physical size. If you have a large pair of floor-standing speakers and perhaps a subwoofer or two, be ready for the commitment that will entail.

What are the Design Differences in Audiophile Speakers?

Thousands of articles have been written in hi-fi magazines about the various aspects of speaker design, hand-made speakers like what Sonus faber builds, how the shape and materials all make a difference, and whether they're on a bookshelf or stand-mount changes the sound. Once you feel more comfortable relating to what you’d like to accomplish with yours, do as much reading as you can and talk to hi-fi retailers in person if possible.

Don’t get overly concerned about nit-picky measurements like whether or not speaker A has a dome tweeter and speaker B has a ribbon tweeter. That’s a good subject for further down your audiophile journey.

One measurement that will be somewhat of importance to you is how much power you have available with your amplifier or receiver, and how sensitive (or efficient) your speakers are. Speakers usually always have a sensitivity specification expressed in decibels (dB) produced with one watt of power, something like 88db/1-watt, also usually expressed at a 1-meter distance from the said speaker.

Most of today’s speakers have a sensitivity rating in the area of 86db – 92db with one watt. Again, for the sake of simplification, if you’ve got at least about 50 watts per channel of amplifier power, you should be good to go. As we mentioned, speakers move air, and the more air they have to move the more power they need. A modest-sized pair of speakers in a medium room might only need 10 or 20 watts per channel to make serious noise when speakers in a large room might not appear to be playing that loud with 100 watts per channel.

So you might need a speaker and an amplifier upgrade if you really want to go down this audiophile journey. Deeper down the rabbit hole, you can start learning about moving coil vs moving magnet cartridges and whether or not your phono preamp is right for you.


debut pro

The Debut PRO Reviews Are In!

The Debut PRO reviews have come in and the response has been overwhelming!

Vinyl lovers of all stripes love our latest turntable in the Debut series. With massive upgrades in every detail, it's no wonder that the press is raving.

Ty Pendlebury of CNET praised it as a premier option for audiophile-grade turntables under $1,000, writing:

In its 30 years, Pro-Ject has proved to be one of a handful of companies that can deliver tremendous bang for buck. For example, the Debut Evo and T1 turntables are my favorite models under $500 and $400, respectively. I look forward to listening to the Project Debut Pro in the near future.

Vinyl lover Mark Sparrow of Forbes praised Pro-Ject for consistently reinventing the build quality and playback of our turntables from the Pro-Ject 1 all the way through the Debut series :

The original Pro-Ject 1 and its successor, the Debut series, was partly responsible for reinvigorating the passion for vinyl and breathed life into an industry that many had already pronounced as dead.

Johnny Brayson of Hi Consumption extended his excitement over the details in his Debut PRO review:

The Pro-Ject Debut PRO Turntable is the latest and arguably most impressive installment in the brand’s Debut line. Most immediately, one notices the clean lines and satin black/brushed nickel finish of the new modern design, but the Debut PRO is much more than a pretty face. The turntable is loaded up with premium components, including a brand-new one-piece carbon fiber-wrapped aluminum tonearm with adjustable height and azimuth.

We're excited to hear what you think in the coming weeks as the Debut PRO hits shelves around the US!


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.