Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XLIII: Little Black Boxes
(March 2003)

"You should write a column about phono preamps."
A reader told me this in an e-mail about a year ago, and I remember dismissing his idea politely, mentioning that it might be too technical and dry of a subject for Perfect Sound Forever. I thought that I might also have a problem with coming up with enough information to fill an entire column (something I once said about tonearms, too).  But I also had another reason, a secret reason not to do it.  I hate little black boxes.  I know it sounds crazy, but I really do.
One of the many reasons why I love turntables is that most of them are downright gorgeous, veritable works of art.  The lines, the curves, the wood, the glass, the tiny needles made from precious gems, the tonearms made from rare metals.  The platters spin true, the tonearms bob up and down gently, and the grooves in the LP reflect the room light hypnotically.  Speakers can also be exciting, with their exotic wood finishes, and woofer cones made from shiny metal or clear plastics or even the same stuff they use to make bulletproof vests.  And tube amplifiers, with their softly glowing glasswork, can be intoxicating pieces of industrial sculpture.  I have to sheepishly admit that the looks of a certain audio component can influence my buying decision as much as overall sound quality.  Audiophiles like myself aren't supposed to say that out loud, but there you go.
Phono preamplifiers, also known as phono stages or phono sections, usually come in simple black boxes.  Usually they have no knobs, no flickering LED's, and sometimes even no power buttons.  The phono preamp I use, the LFD Mistral PhonoStage, has a nice charcoal grey Corian faceplate, but even that's not enough.  I've just never gotten excited about the prospect of picking a new phono preamp, just like I never had the urge to buy an external digital-to-analog converter for my CD player.  They're just boxes, that's all.  Well, at least I thought that until very recently.
"I'm having a problem I hope you can help me with.  I started using my father's old Technics turntable again because I've been reading your articles and I thought it was time to check out what you're talking about.  I think it's broken however, because when I plug it into the auxiliary jack of my Denon A/V receiver, the sound is all muddy, and there's no bass, and the highs are really screechy, so I was hoping you could tell me what kind of turntable I should buy, or if I just need a new stylus."
This isn't from any particular reader, but rather a composite of dozens and dozens of e-mails I've been getting lately.  This type of letter has become so common that it may even surpass requests for cartridge-turntable matches, which still happen almost daily, despite my pleas in Dude, Where's My Cartridge?  Of course, the red flag in the above statement, if you haven't noticed yet, is "auxiliary jack."  You cannot plug a turntable into just any pair of jacks on the back of your receiver or preamp.  As I've mentioned before, signals from a phonograph (there's a term I haven't used before) have to be equalized in order to sound right.  This equalization, called RIAA equalization, is inserted during the recording process, and has to be decoded by your receiver or preamp.  In the old days, before the advent of the little silver discs, this was a no-brainer, because every receiver and preamp had a position on the selector knob marked "phono."  That was your phono preamp, just a printed circuit board or similar doo-dad stuffed somewhere deep within the viscera of your amp.  You never saw it, you never thought about it, and things were great.
This all changed when CD's came along, and everyone started selling off their albums and their turntables and their souls.  Manufacturers started realizing that not everyone wanted a phono section anymore, and that they could save money by simply excluding it.  That's when I first heard the term "line stage" and "line preamplifier," which pretty much meant a preamp without a phono stage.  Line preamps started becoming more and more popular, and "full-function" preamps became increasingly scarce.  Some people hastily bought line stages, thinking that it was okay since they didn't really listen to LP's much anymore.  Then the Vinyl Renaissance came along, and these people felt left out.  That's when the market for outboard phono preamps really began to take off.
Do you need an outboard phono preamp?  By the looks of all these e-mails I've been getting lately, most people have no idea if they do or not.  It can get really confusing.  For instance, with the integrated amplifier I own, the LFD Mistral, the phono stage is optional.  But, to make matters more complicated, the phono stage is offered as either an internal plug-in module, which you don't see, or an outboard unit, which you obviously do. (it's generally better to get the outboard version because it has its own power supply, which can make your turntable quieter overall).  The problem is that the amp itself looks exactly the same, with a PHONO marked clearly next to the selector knob on both versions.  The difference is that on one, twisting the knob to PHONO gets your turntable up and running, because the 'table plugs directly into the back of the amp.  On the other version, the turntable plugs into the back of the phono preamp, and then the phono preamp plugs into the back of your receiver or preamp.  In other words, just because you have PHONO written somewhere on the front of your receiver, it doesn't mean you have a phono preamp.  You really need to dig up the owner's manual and check it out for yourself.
Okay, so you realize that you need to buy a phono preamp.  Which one should you buy?  How much is it going to cost?  Do you need a special type to match your cartridge?  Is this going to be a huge pain in the ass, and should you just put the kybosh on any dreams of analog bliss in the future?
This is what you get when you type "phono preamp" into the search field on e-Bay.  When you check out the auction, the guy goes on to talk about how he charges twenty bucks to transcribe an LP to the CD format, and NOW YOU CAN, TOO!!!!  Now, to tell the truth, this unit probably works just fine and may be the practical solution for all of you who have written to me to say that you're using your dad's old Fisher or Marantz or Sony or Technics and you've discovered you like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and the Beatles and you want to listen to all of his old records as well.  Spend the twenty-five bucks, plus another ten for "shipping and handling," and God be with you.  But are you going to experience the analog bliss I've been talking about for six years?  Are you going to throw away your chintzy, mass-market CD player because it just doesn't measure up sonically anymore?  Probably not.
There are a lot of cheap phono preamps on the market, and they all probably work just fine.  Some are the size of a pack of cigarettes and come in a plastic "blister pack" so they can be hung on a peg hook at the local electronics store.  Some even lack that little black box and are basically just the innards glued onto a PC board and look like hell.  So I'm going to say this once, and although it's not an easy thing to hear, it's the truth.  I've listened to dozens of phono preamps in the last few months, and YOU NEED TO SPEND ABOUT $300 ON A PHONO PREAMP BEFORE YOU CAN EVEN START TO APPROACH THE SOUND QUALITY I'VE BEEN TALKING ABOUT.
Yes, I can hear your big collective sigh from here.  First I tell you that you need to spend at least $500 on a turntable in order to get the kind of sound that routinely trounces any mass-market CD player in the world.  Now I'm telling you that you need to spend an additional $300 on a little black box that doesn't even have cool things like knobs and lights and meters and buttons.  I know, I suck.  But unfortunately it seems to be the truth.  $300 seems to be the magic amount that buys you a phono preamp that is significantly better than the one that was probably built into your older receiver or amp, which probably isn't too different than that $24.95 one that's being sold on e-Bay.  But to me, $300 isn't that much money when you consider that it takes you and your turntable to the next level, and that suddenly you hear details in your favorite recordings that you've never heard before, and that your whole record collection seems brand spanking new.
Fortunately for you, the $300 price point seems to be a very popular one, with many outstanding companies offering units that are very competent and built to a high standard.  Just a few years ago, there were only a couple of phono preamps available at this price, like the one from Creek, and, well, the other one from Creek.  Now there are nice units available from companies such as Pro-Ject, Grado, Clearaudio, Musical Fidelity, Graham Slee, Naim, Channel Islands Audio, and many others.  Don't ask me, however, which one to buy.  Even though there are a lot of very competent, good-sounding phono preamps available at this level, there are no real standouts (there are no real dogs, either).  I think that at this price point, most companies execute solid engineering concepts that are tried and true, and they shy away from any exotic concepts that could send the costs reeling out of control.  In other words, there's probably only a couple of ways to build a decent phono section for $300, so consequently they all seem to offer about the same sound quality. 
One more thing about $300 phono preamps.  Almost all of them are designed to be used with moving-magnet (MM) cartridges, or very high-output moving coils (MCs).  If you're using a low-output MC cartridge, you may have to spend more money on a phono preamp, something you should be considering anyway if you're lucky enough to be using a really good low-output MC.  You can also buy what's called a step-up transformer, which boosts the signal from the cartridge to the preamp so that you don't have to turn the volume control to the three o'clock position in order to hear anything.  This, of course, means having to buy another little black box, so if you're okay with that, I certainly am.
Of course, the world of phono preamps doesn't stop at $300.  You could always mate the Dual 1229 you bought on e-Bay for $75 with a phono preamp such as the Manley Steelhead ($7300), the Zanden Model 1200 ($15,000), the Connoisseur Definitions 4.0 ($19,995), or even the modest, unassuming Boulder 2008, which will only set you back about $29,000  (before you choke on your ham sammich at the very preposterousness of such a product, know that while the Boulder makes this phono preamp in very limited numbers, they sell every single one they make).  Now, such a product would definitely push your precious thirty-year-old Dual to its performance extremes, but that's not my point.  Many readers lately have been stretching their budgets and buying better and better turntables, which to me is a definite thrill.  But a better turntable deserves a better phono preamp, and those $300 models may not be good enough for a Michell Gyrodec or a VPI Scout or a Nottingham Horizon or even a Rega P3.  They're more suited to the many of you who've purchased inexpensive Music Halls and Pro-Jects and Rega P2s over the last couple of years.  So hear's another hard-to-hear truth about phono preamps:  if you really want to push your already good analog set-up to excellent performance, you should start looking at phono preamps in the $600 to $1000 range, or more.
The $600 price point is where you really start to see audio designers flex their engineering muscles.  This is also the price point where you see competently-designed phono stages designed for low-output MC cartridges.  And, this is the price point where you begin to see vacuum tube phono preamps that sound smooth and natural and utterly beguiling  (like I mentioned in Tubes are for Boobs, once you've rediscovered the beauty of analog reproduction, it's not that difficult to make the jump to tubed amplification).  My current phono preamp, the aforementioned LFD, falls into this category, and is at least partially responsible for the glorious sound I'm getting out of my new analog set-up. 
At this level you do start to see certain phono preamps breaking away from the pack.  There are the stalwart, longtime offerings such as the simple, non-obtrusive Lehmann Black Cube or the excellent tubed EAR 834P.  There's the idiosyncratic fi Yph, which imbues every recording with that classic vacuum tube sound, even if you're using solid-state amps elsewhere in your system.  With its open, upright architecture and exposed, glowing tubes, this is anything but a little black box.  There's the strange-looking but unusually quiet two-box Camelot Lancelot Pro, and the Coph Nia from Sweden.  And $1000 will get you the entry-level offering from perhaps the most exciting new manufacturer of phono preamps, the Microgroove from Tom Evans Audio Designs (I'm seriously thinking about buying one of his more ambitious models).  Any one of these excellent phono preamps will, excuse the cliche, get you closer to the music, and you should seriously consider getting one if you've spent more than a grand on your turntable already.
From this point, phono preamps get better and better, and more and more expensive.  I'm not going to keep recommending specific models, because phono preamps at this price level are a hard sell to anyone who isn't a die-hard audiophile, but I do want to mention one, the Sutherland PhD.  At $3000, this isn't for everyone.  But it is one of the best available, competing easily with some of those five-figure models I mentioned before.  What makes the PhD special is that it runs on batteries.  There is no power cord on this baby.  And, unlike other battery-powered audio components I've seen, it isn't attached umbillically to yet another little black box containing an ultra-expensive proprietary battery.  All you need are 16 "D" batteries, which should last for up to 800 hours of listening time. 
What this means is that the PhD is quiet.  Unbelievably quiet.  All the hash and noise from the AC power in your house will have no effect.  This may be the wave of the future in analog.  Imagine a battery-powered turntable hooked up to battery-powered amps.  Battery-powered speakers.  It's all good.  And quiet.  Quiet, like digital.  Steve Hoffman, the legendary recording guru, just bought one, and I talked to him briefly about it.  He's floored by the sound he's now getting from his system.  I may just have to go into hock again to get one, especially since it's not a little blackbox, but a big silver one, and it's got lots of pretty multi-colored lights on the front panel.
Now that's something I can get excited about.

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