Why You Need A Phono Preamp
You could wonder why you'd need a phono preamp with there being so many line and USB-output turntables with one already built-in?
You'd use a phono preamp to obtain the correct level and tonal balance to enable you to use a high fidelity turntable with your amplifier or receiver — that's a "straight" turntable without line or USB outputs.
You'd only buy a high fidelity turntable if you wanted better results than what a line-out or USB turntable can give.
Therefore it's not about buying one simply to get a line-level output from a turntable - it's about buying a phono preamp which can seriously deliver much better musical results.
Those results might be:
1. A more-realistic sound: one that reveals much more about your music and gives you greater engagement with vocals and instruments, often with heightened emotion...
2. A more roomy, spacious or airy sound which opens up your music as if it's been set free...
3. A stereo sound stage that's not just 3D, but has tons of perspective so that when you close your eyes, your mind pictures that full orchestra, or the explosive sounds of your favourite rock music - letting you 'focus' on individual performers as if they're with you in - or even beyond - your room ...
4. And maybe you also want a reduction in the distractions of record surface noise (clicks and pops)??
If so, you need look no further because the entire range of HiFi System Components phono preamps has been designed to do all of these.
With phono preamps to suit all budgets, they will unearth more of the wonders of your records for you to enjoy - because there's a lot more music in records than you'd imagine!
Selecting A Phono Preamp
When it comes to music and spending money to improve your sound it's only right for you to be cautious and want to know as much as possible about your new stereo phono preamp before making the decision to buy.
Describing sound to anybody isn't easy. Magazine reviews bear that out, and you'll know if you bought something on the strength of a review that didn't turn out quite as you imagined, that some of the "glowing" words used might not be what you experience in real life.
Here we hope to shed light on what you can really expect from our phono preamps.
We use customer feedback as our reference and most of it is available to read at your leisure on the Graham Slee forum.
The Gram Amps
Our entry-level models belong to the Gram Amp stereo phono preamplifier range, and according to our customers they give a level of performance which goes beyond similarly priced competing phono preamps.
Can it be heard on your system? That's the question we're most often asked. And according to customer feedback, yes, it can be heard and often the difference is quite striking.
So without having to resort to "review speak" we can honestly say to the vast majority of customers that the Gram Amp 2 Communicator and its Special Edition stable mate are going to lift your musical performance for high output cartridges, and, the Gram Amp 3 Fanfare will do similarly if you use a moving coil.
Historically, the Gram Amp 2 Special Edition is our best seller out of the 20,000 or so we sold prior to 2015.
Better Depends On The System
But what about the more expensive phono preamps we make?
These hi-fi phono preamps are going to be more system dependent because they are all about improving "purity", so the step gain you'd get from say upgrading to a Gram Amp might not be quite as massive a step when moving up from a Gram Amp.
In fact, some systems might not let you hear any difference, but that's not to say they aren't there.
These phono preamps are about fine tuning - to "squeeze out" more of the music from vinyl. They will not add or take away from the tonal balance because that's a cheat way of producing a different sound.
What they do is delve deeper into stereo imagery and musical timing.
In stereo imagery they will give greater precision to the positioning of sounds with improved separation or 'air'. And they will keep accurate pace with the music so the the tempo will be spot-on.
Stereo recordings have spatial information which places an instrument or vocal in an exact position, but "smear" can confuse the position - sibilance is another word we could use in place of "smear".
These phono preamps are engineered not to add sibilance, but sibilance can be in the recording too, and they cannot remove what's already there.
Sibilance is emphasized when an amplifier circuit is not absolutely stable - where phase and gain margin is not as good as it could be.
Technically, this is because of the "ringing" caused by instability, and the ringing effect can be seen on an oscilloscope where a series of ripples or spikes appear on what would ideally be the flat top of a square-wave.
Consider now an amplifier which isn't absolutely stable (because, regardless of price, some are like that). If that were used in conjunction with one of these phono preamps, any improvement would be lost.
On the other hand, sibilance, because of its ability to "smear" (or confuse) sound-stage positioning can lead to what seems to be a wider sound stage, but to those following the music closely it would become quite tiring - the sound stage being quite false.
Everything In Its Own Space
Often in studio generated recordings where vocalists and instruments are miked individually and the sound stage is constructed in the mixing desk, each sound will have its own reverberance or resonance - this is a natural form of the "ringing" described earlier - but this time it's part of the music.
The listener often percieves this as an aura surrounding each player or vocalist. It can appear seamless or it can sound very "cut and paste" because in-effect that's what constructing a sound stage in a recording studio mixer is.
Similar effects in generating reverberance and echo are used in orchestral works. The book "Acoustics and the Performance of Music" and other manuals describe such musical techniques.
Our more expensive phono preamps have been developed to present these effects clearer-still to enable the listener to get more enjoyment of his/her records.
Musical timing, or the sense that the musicians and singers are keeping time with each other, makes the music more integrated.
By integrated it is not to say it makes the entire performance an homogenated noise. Here we mean better organised.
Each sound should appear as defined in its own space, but as more sounds are added to a performance or mix and loudness increases it is easy to lose track of one or a group of sounds because things get too "busy".
In the studio mix a particular sound might get muted, but often it's drowned-out by other players. An advanced phono preamp design will be capable of "hanging on" to individual sounds further into what is often a build-up to, and during, a finale. Orchestral or rock - it should always have that capability.
Tempo or pace should also be evident. Often the wrong component matching in a phono preamp circuit can place the bass line as if it's out of pace with the rest. Obviously that isn't on the record, but its effect is real and the listener hears it which can be quite wearying.
If, for example, tone controls were to be used to boost the bass the above effect would be very obvious - it's the presence of the wrong quantity or wrong pitch loudness which can distract the ear.
A high performance phono preamp will (or should have) the ability to make all the performance sound in tempo - to be at the right pace.
However, the wrong pairing with other equipment will easily "wreck the illusion", so it's important to create the right synergy - something all products in our range have when used together.
This bears out what was said many paragraphs above, that the more expensive phono preamps are going to be more system dependent, so before spending a whole lot more you should assess the capabilities of your system.
However, in buying a more expensive phono preamp you will be able to bring about numerous upgrades to other system components, be able to hear if they are successful, and not have to worry about upgrading the phono preamp.