Two-Channel Stereo (Part 9: Phono Stage [Pre-Amp])

Let’s start simply. You own, or may soon own, a turntable. The turntable is comprised of a spinning platter, a tone arm, and at the end of the tone arm, a phono cartridge with a tiny stylus. The stylus makes contact with the grooves on the record, and if you listen carefully, you will hear music–the sound of the stylus, or needle, running through the various bumps and valleys in those grooves. Now, the trick is to amplify those sounds, retaining both clarity and character, without introducing anomalies.

If you think back to the stereo systems of the 1970s, you could simply plug an RCA stereo cable from the back of the turntable to the back of the stereo receiver, and choose the “turntable” option on the front. The concept has not changed. The receiver contained a phono pre-amplifier to bring the turntable’s incoming signal up to a certain level, which was then amplified to a level that could be heard on a pair of loudspeakers (or headphones).

Today, this setup is still available, but we’ve become more sophisticated. Nowadays, you can buy the tonearm as one device, the phono cartridge as another, high-priced cables to assure the best quality sound running from the tone arm to the phono stage, and then, a separate pre-amplifier, amplifier, high quality loudspeaker cables, and the speakers. In this article, we’re focused on the phono stage, or phono pre-amp (the terms are used interchangeably).

One more thing before we discuss equipment. (This paragraph gets a bit technical.) There are several types of phono cartridges, and your choice of cartridge will affect your choice of phono stage–and vice-versa. The two key terms are Moving Magnet–often abbreviated as MM–and Moving Coil (MC). The difference between them is not simply explained nor easily understood. Most inexpensive cartridges are MM, but there are excellent MM cartridges available. MC cartridges are usually purchased by those with better audio systems, but a good MC cartridge can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. All of this will be discussed in a future article.

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Inside the Sutherland Insight phono stage, easy adjustments for Gain and Loading. Once you decide upon a specific cartridge, just move the four little red caps one time, and forget about them.

For now, you should know that every cartridge offers its own electrical characteristics.For purposes of selecting an appropriate phono stage for your needs, you’ll be concerned with “gain” and “load.” Gain is easy to understand–it’s the amount of amplification required from the phono stage for that particular cartridge. Gain is expressed in decibels, a familiar term. Load is more complicated, involving some understanding of impedance, capacitance, etc. No worries. Let’s move on.

I’m now spending so much of my listening time with LPs, I was becoming more aware of how good my CDs sounded, and I was wondering why my LPs didn’t sound as good. No real complaints–the current setup has served me well for twenty years. Still, I suspected there was room for improvement in the “analog front end” of my stereo system could be improved. But where to start?

I like my turntable–and apparently, so do the people who service it from time to time. I consulted my various advisors, and everyone felt I could stick with the Rotel RB900 for a long time. Nobody felt turntable replacement was the place to start.

How about if I swapped out my Shure V15vx–a classic, well-regarded MM cartridge that cost a few hundred dollars new. How old was it? How many records had I played? Did I treat it with care and love? Was the stylus dirty? Could the whole thing sound better if I just spent more on a new cartridge? Which one? I started reading reviews online–but the reviews led me to believe that the phono stage mattered more than I realized.

So here’s the challenge. You can’t listen to a phono stage in isolation. You need to listen to a phono stage connected to a turntable with a particular cartridge on the one hand, and a pre-amplifier, amplifier, various cables and loudspeakers on the other. To some extent, you can ask your local dealer to swap out the phono stage and leave everything else as-is, and try to discern the differences. Fortunately, I found a dealer who was as curious about the difference as I was, so I started there. Before we started the tests, we tried our best to match the sound of my existing stereo system in his showroom–and did that fairly quickly. And we started to listen. Remember: my starting point is a $200, 20-year old phono stage.

I know what I want to hear. I want a single cello to sound like it has heart and soul. I want a violin section to sound like individual instruments, not a like a mass of high sounds. I want a clarinet to sound like a clarinet. I want to hear the difference between brass instruments in a jazz ensemble, and I want the drummer to tap every so gently and to hit it hard and make me smile. All subjective. All in my head. All pretty easy to hear–or not.

Phono stage pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs, even colors.

Phono pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs–even colors. I prefer a more traditional look.

The tests didn’t take very long, in part because I had carefully read just about available review on the internet. It was more of a checklist exercise, with confirming glances shared between us–nope, this wasn’t it, nah that wasn’t the one either. I had high hopes for the Lehmann Audio Black Cube Original ($629), and the Creek OBH 15 MKII MM/MC Phono Preamplifier ($595), but neither sounded substantially better than my current setup. I had read good things about Vincent’s PHO 700 Phono MM/MC w/Outboard Power Supply (now on sale for $499), but I felt my existing setup offered greater fidelity, despite the Vincent’s impressive clarity (these terms are very, very squishy but I knew what I heard). In my research, I found 85 different phono stage boxes at Music Direct, and I was intrigued by those in the $700-800 class–perhaps this price point was a better choice for me. I explored the Jolida JD9 II Standard Tube Phono Preamp ($699), and the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ ($75o) but again, I didn’t find the significant jump I was hoping to hear. Confused and frustrated, I wondered whether I ought to shift my focus back to the phono cartridge purchase, but I wanted to do this exploration in a systematic way. I’ve always been a big fan of Balanced Audio Technology, but their products are designed for far more discriminating listeners. I tried their least expensive phono stage, the VK-P6 ($3,499)–and smiled.

I was right–the phono stage was the right move! I just needed to accept the idea that a mysterious box–a phono stage–was worthy of a larger investment. I continued to explore–the internet is amazing for this sort of thing but you must be patient and give yourself time to absorb and compare–and I came upon a company called Sutherland. Like B.A.T., Sutherland seemed to be very serious about engineering. The company’s website showed a whole line of phono stages that were remarkably well-reviewed. The most reasonably priced model, the Insight, cost $1,399. Along with its $10,000 big brother, the Insight was included in the useful list of Stereophile Recommended Components for 2016 with a $$$ notation which means, roughly, performs beyond the price expectation.

goldmarkkarlKarl Goldmark was a contemporary of Brahms, and he wrote a lovely piece called the Rustic Wedding Symphony. Four bucks bought a fine recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I like to use this as a test because it begins with a slow-and-steady sequence by the double basses and cellos, really low and distinct. The bass section is followed by a more animated sequence with violins and violas–a distinctly different sound. Enter the winds: bassoon, clarinet. Everything is clearly in its own section. And then comes the allegro with lots of instrument sounds: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, plus the violin and viola. Lots of variety in a relatively short time. Lots of opportunity for total enjoyment of the music and assessment of the rendition of individual and grouped instruments. (And, there is a free score available from the New York Philharmonic! With the conductor’s markings!!)

insighthero-1024x438Not wanting to make my phono stage exploration a career, I was hoping to hear what I wanted to hear. First up listening with the Insight: the low sequence. The double basses and cellos were strong, rich with quiet power, full of resonance and mystery, very natural. But the instruments were less clearly delineated than I hoped. The animated violins and violas can sound a bit screechy, but they were controlled here, again not quite as distinct from one another as I dreamed they’d be, but certainly satisfying — and the bit of screech faded with the first twenty or thirty hours of use (equipment needs to be broken-in). I loved how the soundstage was cast–the low strings were far over to my right, and the violins and violas were definitely in their own section to the left of the conductor, and for the violas, back a bit. Next, the winds–warm and lovely. And here comes everything! Would the variety of woodwinds, horns, strings all jumble into one conglomeration, or retain their individual identities? On my old (inexpensive) phono stage, they made for pleasant listening, but they were not clearly defined. Here, they were. Again, not perfect, but far more than acceptable, and filled with promise–I was beginning to imagine what an upgraded phono cartridge could deliver (in fact, I have upgraded the cartridge–that’s the topic of the next article in this series–matched it carefully by listening to good advice, and I’m now even more satisfied with the discrimination between instruments, the clarity and richness in some of the higher and low ranges–more on this coming up). The more I listened, the more I smiled. So: I was listening to records and hearing, and feeling, so much more than I had before. What a thrill! Seriously, I kept listening, trying one record after another as if I had discovered something magical.

After a month of listening, I am a kid in a candy store. Or, more accurately, a record store. When I have some free time, I drive out to a record store–yes, they’re still around but you may have to do some web searching before you go shopping–and I buy a bunch of LPs. Used LPs–high quality, often classical, some rock, some international, some this, some that–mostly costing less than $4. I get home, I wash each record (new obsession, more about that in a future article), and I just listen. I close my eyes and listen to the subtlety of a Smetana string quartet for 27 uninterrupted minutes. It’s the strangest thing–I am listening to the same stereo system that I have listened to for two decades, I changed one piece of equipment (okay, two because I have now changed the cartridge, too), and I am mesmerized.

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What’s inside the box? I sure wish I understood what I was seeing, why this design provides excellent sound. Best of intentions–I would love to spend the time learning, but inevitably, I spend my time listening instead. Which is, after all, the whole point.

So what have I learned? A quality phono stage can make the whole analog front end sound a whole lot better. I was not so impressed with most of what I tried, so the choice of a specific box from a specific manufacturer is well worth the time and trouble. My old tendency to buying lower in the product line from a small manufacturer that specializes in much higher-end products within a single category is, once again, a strategy that seems to work. The phono stage is only part of a puzzle–there are definitely places in the musical spectrum that felt inadequate when I listened through my (lesser) Shure cartridge that greatly improved with a better cartridge.

lpsMost of all, I confirmed the importance of patient listening–confirming what I thought I heard by listening to the Goldmark symphony by also listening to jazz by Lee Morgan, vocals by Ricky Lee Jones and Linda Ronstadt, rock and roll jams on the obscure Music from Free Creek (with music by Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Jeff Beck), bringing some old Delaney & Bonnie & Friends recordings back to life. There is a consistency about the listening experience that not only sounds and feels right–amazing how much pure instinct and right brain judgement is involved in confirming my sense that the Insight is the right choice–instinct and behavior. If I notice that I’m just standing next to the turntable, intending to lift the stylus but deciding to listen to just one more song, I know I’m making a good decision.

Well, part of a good decision. Based upon many listening sessions, I’m confident that the Sutherland Insight makes sense, but only with a properly matched phono cartridge. That process is the subject of the next article in this series.

Complete list of articles in the series

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