Phono stage means records sound like they used to

Most people are either LP lovers or not – you’re either sold on an old technology that was never bettered, or you’re not interested in vinyl. The difficulties start to come when you combine old with new. LPs were intended to be used with the record players and amps of their day. That means that they don’t work as they’re supposed to when you hook them up to modern stereo systems. The stereo you have that plays CDs perfectly happily might have other inputs that fit your turntable and can be plugged in, but the sound isn’t right. That’s because you’re missing a crucial bridge between old and new technologies: the phono stage, otherwise known as a phono preamp or phono amp.

Unfortunately, enjoying your old LP collection on current top-of-the-range stereo equipment isn’t as easy as it might be. The output from a record turntable is very different to the kind of output you get from a CD or MP3 player. The signal is much lower, which in practice means that you have to turn the volume right up before you can hear the music properly. But that means that all the additional noise – the interference, crackles and hiss – is also amplified. The subsequent playback quality is poor as a result. What you need is a unit that plugs in between the turntable and the stereo amplifier that converts the signal from the LP into something that the stereo can usefully send to the speakers.

That’s the point of the phono stage. It’s a gadget that interprets the signal coming out of the turntable and pre-prepares it for your stereo amplifier. A phono preamp can make all the difference to playback quality. Some modern stereos have the right circuit inside already, but not many, because there is little demand for them (few people listen to LPs any more). You’ll be able to check by looking on the back of your stereo and seeing whether there’s a turntable jack – if not, then you’ll almost certainly need the phono amp before you can listen to records properly. These components are available on the internet, but it’s worth doing a little research around them first. The overall sound quality is only going to be as good as the weakest link in the chain, so if you’re hoping to play your much-loved record collection on an expensive stereo set, it doesn’t make sense to economise on the phono stage.

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