HiFi can be confusing at the best of times – all those acronyms, all that terminology. Particularly turntables, where there are a lot of things to consider. Let’s see if we can help by cutting through some of the complexity; the last thing you want is a shiny new turntable that won’t work in your system.
Aficionados please note – I’ve simplified things, the article contains generalisations. If the word ‘needle’ gets your goat then……..chill.
The lowdown – turntables are weedy
The main job of an amplifier is to…..amplify. To boost the signal it receives from the input device (turntable, streamer etc) enough to make the speaker cones move and produce sound.
The problem is the signal from turntables, which is much lower than other input devices (sources). Like 1,000 times lower. Without any additional help that’s too low for an amplifier to do anything with.
Additional circuitry – a phono amplifier (aka phono pre-amplifier or phono stage) – is therefore needed to boost the signal from the turntable. It also shapes the sound to ensure bass, midrange and treble are in proportion (called RIAA equalisation).
The author’s phono amp
The back panel
The good old days
In vinyl’s heyday the phono amplifier was built into your main amplifier. You just needed to connect your turntable to the right input on the amplifier. The phono input.
Then CD came along and manufacturers started omitting the phono amplifier. Why go to the trouble and expense of including something that few people need? But how do you play records when your amplifier has no phono amplifier?
And so was born the external phono amplifier. The same circuitry, just built into a standalone box. Connect the turntable to the external phono amp, and that to the main amplifier. Bingo, everyone is happy.
Fast forward a few years and the vinyl revival hits. Higher demand for phono circuitry brings more options. Firstly external phono amplifiers are still prevalent. Many manufacturers are now incorporating phono circuitry into their amplifiers again. And – eureka moment – some turntables now have phono amps built in.
Having choice makes things more complex, but that’s where things currently stand. Which would be fine without further complication, but this is HiFi….
The cartridge and stylus
Wait, there are two types of phono amplifier?!
Unfortunately, yes. The cartridge is the bit at the end of the turntable arm that contains the needle (stylus). There are two types of cartridge, hence the need for two types of phono amplifiers (one won’t work with the other).
First up are moving magnet (MM) cartridges, which in practise are what most HiFi Starters will use. They’re lower cost, and when a turntable comes with a cartridge pre-installed it’s generally an MM one.
The other type is the moving coil (MC) cartridge, which tends to be better and therefore costs more. Its output is even lower than MM cartridges, hence the need for a different type of phono amplifier.
Conveniently, some phono amplifiers do both, allowing you to switch between MM and MC. Meaning you don’t have to change your phono amplifier if you upgrade from an MM cartridge to an MC one.
OK, but which sockets do you plug a turntable into?
Now to the nitty gritty, which is actually fairly straightforward. If your phono amplifier is built into your main amplifier, plug your turntable into the input on the amplifier labelled Phono (there’s normally only one, and it’s sometimes slightly separate from the other inputs).
If you have an external phono amplifier, or one built into your turntable, then use one of the ‘normal’ line-inputs on your amplifier (there are usually several).
In both cases HiFi Starters will use RCA sockets. The alternative XLR sockets aren’t common in entry-level amplifiers. Most turntables can’t use them anyway.
RCA sockets on a Pro-ject phono amplifier
Isn’t there an easier option?
You mean Bluetooth? Yes, it’s starting to appear in turntables. Purists will complain their beloved analogue is being turned into digital. And yes there’s a slight hit on sound quality, even with the better versions of Bluetooth (aptX). The convenience factor is sky high though. It’s also a pragmatic way of getting started in vinyl.
Plus you can always use Bluetooth as a secondary output – into a wireless speaker or headphones for example – when you don’t want to use your main system.
You still need a phono amplifier, but it’s built into the turntable. Together with an analogue to digital converter (ADC) that feeds the Bluetooth transmitter. None of that need worry you though, the complexity is hidden from the user. You just pair the turntable with the Bluetooth speaker / amplifier in the normal way.
For turntables with Bluetooth it’s often an optional extra. Take Pro-ject’s T1 for example. £299 in standard form. Add £80 for a phono amplifier, £130 for a phono amplifier and Bluetooth. The fully-loaded option is ideal for a HiFi Starter. Begin with Bluetooth. When funds permit upgrade to a better external phono amplifier, switching the turntable to line-out mode. Simples.
Three points that may be useful. Firstly, note that ‘RCA Phono socket’ and ‘RCA socket’ are interchangeable terms, they refer to the same thing. RCA Phono sockets can be used to connect a myriad things to your amplifier, not just turntables. In the Marantz photo above all of the inputs are on RCA Phono sockets, not just the Phono one. Yes it’s particularly confusing.
Finally two things to perhaps be aware of even though they’re unlikely to affect the HiFi Starter.
- With some phono amps you can fine tune the sound through settings for gain, capacitance and impedance (resistance). It’s a complex subject – PhDs are useful – but most HiFiStarters needn’t worry as it only tends to come into play with dearer equipment.
- Ditto balanced mode that uses the XLR sockets mentioned earlier. Balanced mode is akin to four-wheel drive for audio, audio signals are more ‘stable’. That’s a key reason it’s the de-facto standard in pro audio, but vinyl enthusiasts are starting to realise the benefits too. It’s fairly new though, and again limited to dearer equipment at the moment. So not something to trouble the HiFi Starter for now.
Settings for fine tuning
XLR sockets for balanced mode (plus phono sockets)
A final recap
Summarising all the above
- Turntables are low output devices that need their signal boosting by phono amplifiers (Moving Magnet or Moving Coil depending what type of cartridge you have).
- The phono amp can be standalone, it can sit within your amplifier or be built into the turntable itself.
- If it’s in your amplifier, connect the turntable to the RCA sockets on your amplifier labelled ‘Phono’.
- If the phono amp is standalone, or built into your turntable, connect to any of the other ‘line’ inputs on your amplifier via RCA sockets.
- Or use Bluetooth to simplify things. Pair the turntable to the Bluetooth amplifier / speaker in the normal way and off you go. Convenience is king here. As always, physical connection sounds slightly better.
The lead out groove
Once you get the need for a phono amplifier turntables become easier to understand. The question is where the phono amp goes; we’ve discussed the options. Also the fact that there are two types to choose from. Hopefully I’ve clarified things for you, letting you look at the world of analogue with a bit more confidence now.
Ortofon 2M Red moving magnet cartridge