Most Neglected Component in a
by James Leahy
For those of
you who answered anything other than the humble Phono Stage sit down
now! Those of you still unfamiliar with what we are discussing
please read on....
The Phono Stage is
the amplification required to step up the very low output levels
produced by MM or MC cartridges to line level voltages (i.e. the 1 volt
output levels of CD players, DVD players, tape decks etc.). This stage
is often severely underestimated in the contribution it makes to
producing a good sound.
The way in which your amplifier handles the
extremely low signal levels (thousandths of a Volt) from the cartridge
is critical - information is more easily lost or distorted at this stage
than later on in the signal path. Information lost can never be
and any distortions and colorations are amplified thousands of times. It
is not difficult to appreciate why this area has so much potential for
improvement and is often the weakest link in a system.
Yes folks how many
of you have paid much attention to the quality of Phono Stage you are
running with your analogue rig? More often than not it comes as no more
than an after thought in a system's layout and a small one at that. MM
or MC the differences are certainly there and in more ways than you
might first think.
The Phono Stage
can easily make or break a vinyl based system. The stage of Phono Pre-Amplification is absolutely crucial - more so than the pre-amp or
amplifier stage. The
reason for this importance is that the Phono Stage carries out up to a
massive 95% of your total signal amplification from cartridge to
One of the things
that continually surprises me is how many people are using their
cartridge / tonearm output directly into their integrated amplifier or
pre-amp (with on board Phono Stage). This is almost guaranteed to vastly
reduce the potential of the moving coil cartridge in comparison to what
is achievable through a dedicated valve Phono Stage. Why is this? When
one considers that 95% of the bass amplification for a moving coil
cartridge occurs in the Phono Stage it is easy to understand why. For
the midrange 80% of the signal amplification occurs in the Phono Stage.
The truth is that many integrated amplifiers use little more than a
single chip costing all of $1 to carry out this critical function. It is
no more than a token freebie so that people can hook up a cheap
Even integrated amps with allegedly “good” Phono Stages still fall far
short of the amazing stand alone versions that are available.
If you are using
an internal Phono Stage I would suggest trying a stand alone device –
you will be amazed at the difference. Having said this please be wary
that not every stand alone model out there is a safe bet. Models that
offer both moving magnet and moving coil facility at under $500.00 are
often nothing short of disastrous and a complete waste of money in my view.
If you are going to go above the Ortofon Rondo MC range into the
Ortofon Kontrapunkt range the minimum standard for a Phono Stage you
should be looking at is the ARC PH5.
However, having said that the
ARC PH5 will make the Rondo range really sing and lift the
performance to super human levels. I would certainly rather have a
Rondo Red with the
ARC PH5 then an
Ortofon Jubilee and the
Musical Fidelity X-LSPv8. Both set-up's would cost roughly the
Most of my customers on a budget don't want
the Phono Stage to make any difference to the overall performance of
the turntable and cartridge selection but unfortunately for them it
does and it not only makes a difference but it's one of a major
I don't make the rules, I only do my best
to report the facts.