There is an endless stream of mediocre phono stages which have great reviews, so your range of choice is enormous. We have heard a good number and even some award winners do not come close to those listed on this page. Life is too short to consider everything so we have distilled what we consider to be among the very best at their particular price points.
Before making any decision on brand or budget you may do well to consider a number of factors. Firstly your 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 - if you have any doubts about this we urge you to get a demonstration of something like the gsp audio or puresound phono stages. 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 speakers. This is too much to entrust to a feeble £1 chip used in many integrated and pre-amps.
To clarify why the phono stage is special, you know that the signal output from a cartridge is around 0.5mV for a moving coil and around 5mV for a moving magnet cartridge. Your CD player, DVD player, streamer etc can produce around 1Volt of signal ( Approx 200 to 2000 times higher than a cartridge). The phono stage therefore amplifies a very low level signal by an enormous amount. The fragility of this extremely low level signal is often severely underestimated along with the amplification quality needed to produce a good sound.
The way in which your amplifier handles these 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 regained 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.
Why upgrade to a stand alone phono stage?
Many amplifiers neglect the phono stage:
- With a focus on CD replay, many companies produce amplifiers with no phono input at all. The solution is to add a phono stage and then use interconnects to plug it into a spare input socket on your amplifier such as as an aux, tuner or tape input socket.
- If an amplifier does have a moving magnet or moving coil input, it is often assumed that all is well. The problem is that many phono inputs often use budget integrated circuits costing less than £1 as a cost cutting solution. Expertise in the area of RIAA equalization and cartridge amplification is not an area that many amplifier manufacturers have the time or resources to invest in. For this reason a well researched and properly designed phono stage is a huge upgrade.
There are theoretical advantages for a separate phono stage:
- The power supply is separate and uncorrupted by the drain of larger current circuits.
- If the supply is seperate, the sensitive circuitry is not susceptible to stray fields from the large transformer inside most amplifiers.
Should I use a step up transformer?
Step up transformers are used to increase the voltage of moving coil cartridges. They connect between your cartridge and a moving magnet phono stage. This is necessary because a Moving Magnet Phono stage can only accept higher signal levels to work properly.
Step up transformers tend to be favoured by Valve amp designers (possibly because of a bias against solid state). The drawback is that they have severe problems in matching impedance loads required by different cartridges. Many deny this or are unaware of the problems. After a lot of experimentation, we have found that unless a step up transformer is designed for a specific cartridge (not just the load), you are highly unlikely to get a perfect tonal balance. The alternative is to use a solid state active stage such as the GSP Elevator. These work perfectly even with valve phono stages.
- Amazon Audio B Labs Phono Stage
We were initially skeptical of the Amazon Audio B Labs – after all, it’s virtually unheard of so we carried out careful evaluation in a variety of systems. The verdict was that we had to acquire this fantastic piece of kit because it does so much for the sound – highly involving, organic with a beautiful integrated presentation. It’s hard to characterise the sound because it’s essentially right – yes it has fabulous low-end power, depth, definition and slam but subtle timbrel shading, exquisite vocals and top end transients are also outstanding. A few pointers to the quality of this almost underground product is that Les of Walrus Hi-Fi rated it as a very high value product. Secondly, a “no advertising” piece in a German magazine (renowned for their honest and sometimes scathing reviews) used it as their reference amplifier for many years. Lastly, the UK importer stated that after he replaced a 21K phono stage with the B-lab Amazon, the difference was not that great which points to exceptional value.£4,975.00
- Creek OBH-15 Phono Pre AmpThe most recent addition to the Creek range is the OBH-15, combining moving magnet and moving coil Phono pre-amplifiers, into one diminutive chassis. Seriously impressive and offering audiophile performance, the new OBH-15 will augment any system.£240.00
- Creek OBH-18 Phono Pre AmpThe OBH-18 was released in late 2003. The function of the OBH-18 is to boost the level and correct the frequency response of a low level signal coming from a moving magnet phono pick-up on a conventional turntable. The OBH-18 is designed to boost the signal and introduce an R.I.A.A. frequency response characteristic.£209.26
- GSP Audio - Accession Phono StagePhenomenal phono stage that cannot be overhyped because it really is that good - comfortably outperforms many phono stages at well over 4 times the price. GSP audio may not always be flavour of the month but is a true market leader that shatters the recommendations of a seemingly endless stream of mediocre stages with great reviews.£936.00
- GSP Audio - Era Gold V
The Era Gold V phono stage preamp is for moving magnet, moving iron and high output moving coil phono cartridges in the range 2mV to 10mV.
"This amazing-sounding product took me by surprise. I continue to recommend it for high-output moving coil cartridges..."
Michael Fremer, Analog Corner, Stereophile£430.00
- GSP Audio - Gram Amp 2 Communicator
It may look cheap and plain but this little phono preamp is legendary for its audio performance! The Gram Amp 2 Communicator phono preamp is THE phono preamp that first made the GSP name synonymous with superior vinyl reproduction and incredible sound staging!£180.00
- GSP Audio - Gram Amp 2 Special Edition
A phono stage/preamp for moving magnet, high output moving coil and moving iron phono cartridges.
"I can't think of any other phono stage anywhere near its price that can match the 2 SE's clear, taut, and dynamic bass response, nor approach its high frequency clarity and resolution." STEREO TIMES£260.00
- GSP Elevator EXP c/w PSU1 power supply (MC step up)
The Elevator EXP Pre Preamplifier preamplifies the signal from a conventional output moving coil phono cartridge to moving magnet cartridge sensitivity. The signal is then fed to a moving magnet phono stage as pictured right.
It's better than a step up transformer because noise cannot be induced into it, and it's far more linear making for a better bass response.
It's the electronic equivalent of a moving coil step up transformer, or as moving coil enthusiasts abbreviate it:SUT. However, a step up transformer easily picks up hum and electrical disturbances — it also consumes some of the delicate signal current to magnetize its core. What's so bad about that? Read on.£640.00
- Puresound P10 MM Phono StageThis Phono stage is the best we have heard at this price point and betters highly regarded phono stages in excess of £3000. Sound is exceptionally good tonally with complete freedom from grain and any hint of harshness. Fluid and beguiling with great texture on instruments and timbral insight - Dynamic, yet detailed, this phono stage is the whole package and is a delight to recommend. This is all you need for Moving Magnet (MM) and high output moving coil cartridges. For Low output moving coils, the best option is to add the high quality GSP Audio (Graham Slee) Elevator active step up. This has variable input loadings to accommodate any moving coil. If you're on a tighter budget then the Pure sound T10 step up transformer is the other option"£689.00
- Reflex M or CThe Reflex M phono stage preamp is the new one box solution for Moving Magnet Cartridges - capable of high end performance. The Reflex C phono stage preamp is the new one box solution for conventional (low) output moving coil cartridges having an output of 0.2 to 1.0 mV.£540.00
- Revelation M or C
Revelation M phono stage preamp: for moving magnet, high output moving iron and high output moving coil cartridges
"...the musical delivery steps up several levels - to the extent that with certain records it starts to challenge the musical virtues (as opposed to the sonic qualities) of the more expensive units here."
Roy Gregory, Hi-Fi +
Revelation C phono stage preamp: for low output moving coil cartridges. Capable of high end sound with huge levels of flexibility.£740.00