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

Pros Cons
  • 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?

If you identify as an audiophile or music lover, then it’s likely you already have a hi-fi home speaker system that pairs the right components and amplifiers to give you crisp playback. It’s a given that turntables require power amplifiers in order to blast our favorite albums through the loudspeakers. But playing music through headphones can feel like a completely different animal. This begs the question: do you need a headphone amplifier?

Over-ear headphones and earbuds don’t always provide the high-end sound quality that you’re looking for, even from a nice system playing high-quality recordings. Luckily, a headphone amplifier can improve the sound quality and be a game-changer. Before you spring for any random headphone amp, it’s helpful to sort through all the factors.


What is a Headphone Amplifier?

First things first, it’s important to clarify what a headphone amp even is. A headphone amplifier is a tool that connects to your music player, whether you're using a computer, any iPhone iOS, an Apple iPad, or Android device. The digital component allows for you to hear formats ranging from MP3s to MQA and beyond, and the amp 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. In layman's terms, it functions in the same way that large power amplifiers do, but on a smaller scale.


What is a DAC?

Most portable headphone amps often double as a digital-to-analog converter or a DAC. A DAC’s job is to convert digital audio information into a low-voltage signal that an amplifier can easily amplify.

Analog music sources like turntables or tape decks don’t need a DAC because they already put out analog low-voltage signals. But digital audio devices like PCs, smartphones, iPods, or tablets often need both a DAC and headphone amp in order for you to hear sound through your headphones. These audio converters are found in all digital audio sources, but built-in DAC combos don’t always provide high-quality amplification on their own.


What is the purpose of a Headphone Amp?

Given the fact that most (there are exceptions) headphones deliver you sound without a headamp, you may still be wondering why you’d want one. The purpose of a headphone amp is to improve the sound, add volume control options, and to allow you to enjoy more nuance and detail. If you’re using a multi-channel headphone amplifier, you have the option to play both mono and stereo records. If your volume knob is broken, you can shift volume with the one on the amplifier.

In short, headphone amps not only improve your listening experience, but they sometimes extend the shelf-life of the equipment you already have beyond the warranty.


How does a Headphone Amp affect your volume quality?

There are two main aspects of playback that affect the quality of your volume: impedance and sensitivity. Headphones that have a higher sensitivity rating tend to have a louder volume, because they’re picking more up. While high sensitivity can be great for picking up musical detail, it also means you might pick up sounds on the amplifier, electrical noises, and other sounds without a high-quality amplifier. This can get especially unpleasant when the music you’re listening to has a lot of treble, and the sensitivity makes it spike or blip in unpleasant ways.


What is impedance?

The second aspect that affects the sound of your music is impedance. Impedance is the resistance of an electrical signal, the higher the impedance, the more resistance a pair of headphones or speakers will give to an electrical signal. A simpler way to imagine impedance is to compare your electrical signal to water running through a hose. If there is nothing blocking the spout of the hose, the water runs quickly with no resistance. But if you place a finger on the hose, thus making the hole for water smaller, there is an increased resistance and it doesn’t come out as easily or quickly. Higher impedance, means the hose spout is blocked more, while lower impedance means it’s open/free to flow.


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.


Does a Headphone Amp always give you better sound quality?

The first step to improving your sound quality is to figure out what has been affecting your sound. If you’re dealing with a lot of distortion, chances are your headphones have low impedance.

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?

main kinds of headphone amps, all with equally valid and helpful purposes.

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.  Also, if the audio jack on your player is broken, a USB DAC, like Pro-Ject’s DAC Box E Mobile allows you to easily override the malfunctioning component and keep listening to your favorite tunes.


Desktop headphone 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. If you spend a lot of time at your computer, investing in a desktop headphone amp like the Head Box DS2B is a surefire way to complete your computer set-up. With an easily accessible volume knob, you can adjust the sound as needed while you do your work.


Rackmount amp

If you have a studio signal processor, 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. Rackmounts are ideal for anyone who works with professional audio mixers, because you can power a lot of headphones at once without sacrificing the ability to hear individual nuance and detail.


What features should I look for 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:


Pick out your form

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.

Confirm your 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. You can easily manually double check to see what kind of output you need.


Which headphones DON’T need amplifiers?


If you currently use noise canceling headphones, you don’t need a headphone amp. Noise-canceling headphones have a built-in headphone amp inside that prevents outside headphone amps from significantly improving sound. 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’re already designed to amplify a specific part of the sound being produced. Headphone amplifiers are designed to be used with over-ear studio headphones.

Another way to figure out if you need headphone amps or not, is to check the impedance level. If your headphones have an impedance above 50 ohms, a headphone amp is generally a necessity. If your headphones have an impedance under 32 ohms, they’ll work fine without headphone amps, but you might still want to invest for quality’s sake.


A few final considerations on what to look for

Feeling unsure whether you want to spring for an amp or not yet? Here’s a few other factors to keep in mind.

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.


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!

phono preamp

What is a Phono Preamp? Boosting Your Record Player

Before we get into what is a phono preamp doing for your listening experience, let's clear the murky waters regarding terminology.

"Phono preamp" tends to be the most commonly used term, but you may also have heard the terms phono stage (or phonostage), phono preamplifier, phono section, and/or phono equalizer (among others still!).

For practical purposes, it's important to understand that these terms refer to the same thing: a pre-amplification circuit that deals specifically in the delicate phono signal generated by a phono cartridge.

Therefore it can be said that any turntable - from the most affordable to the most expensive on the market - requires a phono preamp at some point between the tonearm output and any line-level input on the main amplification section of your sound system (this could be the receiver, integrated amp, line preamp - whatever it is that you play your music though!)

What Does a Preamp Do For Your Turntable?

The phono preamp has 2 main functions imperative to the proper handling of the phono signal:

A: The preamp amplifies the phono signal by applying gain (dB).

B: Your phono preamp can equalize the signal based on a standard most widely agreed upon for vinyl playback since the 1950s (the RIAA equalization curve).

Essentially it preps the signal for the amplification stage so that it can be handled similarly to other sources such as CD players, DACs, and streaming via your phone, tablet, or computer. Since the signal generated by a phono cartridge is extremely low-level, it requires a huge boost in gain to mirror that of other sources.

Due to the way records are cut and the phono signal's delicate nature, simply applying gain is not enough. Gain without equalization would amount to untethered sonics with great amounts of extraneous noise. So that more musical information can be captured on a given record side, records are cut such that low frequencies are reduced (reducing groove width), high frequencies are boosted.

The RIAA circuit thusly accommodates for these exaggerations and returns the signal to something listenable, re-emphasizing low frequencies and trimming back highs.

How to Boost Your Vinyl Experience With a Phono Preamp

tube box phono preamp

Investing in a high-quality phono preamp makes a more substantial difference than many listeners may realize.

You can own the world's best-sounding turntable and it would sound poor relative to what it's capable of without proper phono pre-amplification. To allow all the benefits of a good record player to pass through your audio system, a similarly good phono preamp is essential. A more 'audiophile' phono preamp will implement better componentry, whether a tube box or an integrated circuit phono box, optimizing the signal and minimizing noise.

Minimizing noise is paramount. Even subtle noise levels that may seem inaudible can swallow up the low-level detail and nuance that draws us to vinyl. It's not just the circuitry that contributes to optimal sonics. The quality of the power supply, the RCA jacks (sometimes XLR), and even the chassis can lend themselves to reducing noise and improving sound quality.

As an example, the duo of a preamp and power supply upgrade is becoming increasingly popular just because of the difference a better PSU can make. In short - and as is the case with most things analog - every little bit can have an effect, which is why you see such variance in price and design market-wide. Entry-level preamps tend to handle moving magnet cartridges only.

MM cartridges are the most typical cartridge types because, among other things, the design principle allows for a user-replaceable stylus. Mid-range & high-end phono preamps usually accommodate moving coil cartridges in addition to MM. It’s widely agreed that an MC cartridge is capable of better sound, though of course there are no absolutes in this hobby.

A good MM cartridge can certainly out-perform a mediocre MC. However, the main X factor is how you prefer your vinyl records to sound in your stereo system.

Do I Need A Phono Preamp?

Keep in mind that a phono preamp can be hidden. It doesn't always take the form of stand-alone audio component. The hi-fi integrated amplifier (aka receiver) of yore had a PHONO input.

What this means is that phono preamp circuit was implemented therein. An external preamp is never advisable in that scenario (you'd be double pre-amplifying and heavily overdriving), nor is it advisable with turntables that have them built in (unless that preamp can be disengaged). As the vinyl listening hobby continues to grow in popularity, you'll find that today’s audio equipment includes phono preamps in their designs (including powered speakers!).

There are a million things to consider if you’re a critical listener, especially one who prefers vinyl.

Again, it’s often taken for granted just how significant a difference the best phono preamps can make. If you haven’t done so yet, do yourself a favor and explore this as an option for your next upgrade. There’s a good chance it’ll compel you to pull your old records from your bookshelf and enjoy your vinyl collection like you haven’t previously.


As always, we wish you happy listening!