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Comprehensive Guide to Phono Preamps for HiFi Vinyl Records Listening

Posted by Graham
May 2nd, 2019

Beginner's Guide to Phono Stage Preamps by HiFi System Components

Vinyl records have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Countless individuals young and old around the globe are beginning to return to what was recently seen as an antiquated way of listening to music.

It used to be necessary to buy vinyl records (and even cassettes and CDs) in order to experience music; now, thanks to technological innovations and advancements, we can simply download music directly onto computers and move it onto our listening devices of choice. In the face of it all, vinyl sales continue to skyrocket.

The upward trend in vinyl purchases is far from anecdotal. Studies have proven that we're buying more vinyl now than we have in decades. Record sales are climbing rapidly from year to year, even as the recording industry struggles to stay afloat. Many people are left with a burning question, though: why?

The Comeback of a Profound Listening Experience

People miss being able to connect physically with the music that they love. There's something irresistible about the feeling of holding the means of sound delivery in your own hands. Buying real-world, physical albums can be a fulfilling hobby. In a world that's becoming more and more disconnected from what's right in front of us, it's easy to see just why vinyl is making an unprecedented comeback.

Digital audio also sacrifices significant audio quality in the name of convenience. For the average music listener, a drop in quality is permissible; but for those who are passionate about what they're listening to, it can be a tough pill to swallow. Opting to return to vinyl gives music buffs the opportunity to hear their favourite albums the way they were intended to sound.

People care about the music they listen to-- and many are excited about the experience of ownership when it comes to auditory art that they're proud of and passionate about. With these things in mind, the resurgence of vinyl can hardly be considered surprising.

Key Components of a Turntable

Platter

The turntable platter is a key component of any turntable. It's also one of the largest and simplest, which makes understanding its design and purpose exceedingly simple.

While platters are specially designed to allow for records to be placed on them without a mat, most of them are topped by mats made of either felt or rubber. This mat is in place to prevent records placed into the device from being scratched or slipping out of place. A platter's mat is also responsible for controlling its resonance. This helps to avoid ringing and other auditory issues that can colour the sound of the music being played.

Bearing

The main bearing of a turntable is responsible for supporting the platter. In this case, "supporting" means more than simply holding it up. The proper bearing will ensure that the platter rotates smoothly and consistently and remains level at all times. When this fails to occur, the stylus has a difficult time tracking the vinyl.

It's important that bearings operate as quietly as possible. Noise from operation travels into the platter and has an impact on sound quality.

Motor

A turntable would be nothing without a motor to keep it running. There are two different types of motors: AC and direct current (DC). DC motors rely on an electronic circuit to determine their speed. AC motors utilize current supply from wall outlets to keep the platter spinning consistently.

The motor of a turntable can drive the platter into motion utilizing a direct drive system, a rubber belt, or a rubber idler wheel.

Tonearm

The tonearm is frequently referred to simply as "the arm." It's responsible for supporting the stylus and the cartridge and is situated to the side of the platter. Most arms are radial (or pivotal), which allows the stylus to trace the record in an arc. Linear (or parallel) arms are also sometimes used; these allow the stylus to trace the record in a perfectly straight line.

A tonearm is comprised of several parts:

  • The headshell
    • Where the cartridge is mounted
  • A bearing
    • The point at which the arm pivots
  • The counterweight
    • Sits on the back of the arm and balances the weight of the arm and the cartridge

Stylus

Most people believe that the tip of a stylus must be spherical, but this actually isn't true. Most modern styli are cut into one of several shapes that have been specifically designed to trace a record's groves with greater accuracy. In fact, the point of the stylus isn't responsible for tracking the record at all. The two sides of its tip are what make actual contact with the side walls of the grooves, which is where stereo signals reside.

Cartridge

The cartridge is responsible for holding the stylus. It is installed directly into the end of the tonearm. Cartridges do the work of converting styli's vibrations into electrical energy; this electrical energy is, in turn, converted into sound via an amplifier.

There are four main varieties of cartridges:

  • Ceramic cartridges
    • Cheapest cartridge option
    • Also known as a piezoelectric pickup
    • Stylus is attached to a ceramic rod; this rod bends from the vibration of the stylus and generates a signal
  • Moving magnet cartridges
    • Rely on a magnet and moves with a set of coils in order to generate a signal
    • Often utilized in hi-fi turntables
    • Preferred by DJs
  • Moving iron cartridges
    • Rather than a magnet, a small piece of iron is used
    • Greater tracking accuracy than magnet counterparts
    • Infrequently offered; moving magnet cartridges are more common
  • Moving coil cartridges
    • Generally found in higher-end systems
    • Offer exceptional detail and accuracy
    • Inverted moving magnet design

Understanding the Importance of Phono Stages

Phono Stage Basics

Phono stages are sometimes referred to as phono preamps. They're responsible for providing a connection between an amplifier and a record player. As CDs and digital music began to take over the audio sphere, turntable manufacturers started reducing the quality of their built-in phono stages and in some cases, removed them altogether.

If you want a superb vinyl listening experience today, you'll need to connect your turntable to a hi-fi amplifier using a phono stage. The small signal generated from your turntable will be too minor for your main amp to work with if you don't.

The Role of the Phono Stage in a Superb Listening Experience

A quality phono stage will elevate your listening experience considerably. The phono stage will boost the minuscule signal created by your turntable in order to allow it to be run through an amplifier. It's an excellent means to create audio with higher levels of detail-- tighter bass is easily achievable with a good phono stage.

Considerations when Purchasing a Phono Preamp

You'll want to take a number of things into consideration before selecting a phono preamp:

  • Phono cartridge
    • You'll need to select your preamp based on features of the phono cartridge that's on your turntable
    • Your preamp needs to be compatible with whatever type of cartridge you have
    • Most preamplifiers are compatible by default
    • MM/MC phono preamps can be purchased in order to facilitate cartridge changes
  • Vinyl turntable
    • If your turntable is USB or digital-based, it already had an integrated RIAA preamp and does not require a phono preamp
    • You'll need to select a phono stage based on your own audio expectations and the output of your turntable
  • System and budget
    • You'll likely want to base your preamp purchasing decisions on the value of your overall system
    • Define your budget for the preamp ahead of time
  • Sound quality
    • No one preamp is best for everybody; it depends on what level of sound quality you desire and the type of music you listen to
    • Sound quality varies widely from preamp to preamp based on technological features and the components utilized by manufacturers

Choosing the Best Phono Preamp for Turntable Hi-Fi Systems

Graham Slee phono stages are the optimal choice for vinyl listeners seeking the ultimate listening experiences. With over twenty years' experience being poured into each and every preamp, it's easy to understand why the quality is second to none. Scores of respected reviewers have sung the praises of Graham Slee products; and, as the only manufacturer to be granted a phono preamp patent in recent history, it's evident that their designs are trustworthy.

While every piece is hand built and tested to order by experienced craftsmen, you can rest easy knowing that each product can be tested by you before purchase. That means that you'll get an inside view into the difference a high-quality phono stage can make before you need to drop any cash.

If you're interested in learning more about how a Graham Slee phono preamp can elevate your listening experience, contact us today. Our friendly, knowledgeable team is passionate about creating a superb vinyl listening experience; we'll be happy to help you select which products are best for your hi-fi system and guide you through the purchasing process.

We create products designed to add value to your system. Whether you're a hobbyist or a working professional, a Graham Slee photo preamp is sure to change the way that you listen to music.

Other articles worth reading:

All About The Phono Preamp
A New Phono Stage Invention


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