April 19, 2016
Phono amplifiers have got to be the most misunderstood major component in a hi-fi system and here is why: because most of the time, you often don’t even know you have one. Having talked standard and valve amplifiers, Paul Rigby unpacks the best phono or pre-amps on a budget.
Words: Paul Rigby
What does a phono amplifier actually do? Well, it amplifies sound, just like your main amplifier does but the phono amp is a specialised piece of kit, designed to amplify those tiny signals, only detectable by trained dogs and a few curious mosquitos, that emanate from your turntable’s cartridge to a level that the main amp can see and then amplify from there.
Without a phono amp looking out for your cartridge’s tiny electrical output, you ain’t hearing anything.
If you successfully use a turntable then the chances are that you have one already, although possibly a basic model. Most commonly, phono amplifiers are buried inside an integrated amplifier (probably the most common type of amplifier currently on the market). You may see the sockets of the phono amplifier resident on the rear of an integrated amp, where the label ‘phono’ above the sockets points an accusing finger.
In today’s liberated turntable design times, the phono amp sometimes jumps from the integrated amplifier and snuggles into the bowels of the turnable instead. Again, those tell tale ‘phono’ sockets can be seen at the rear of offending decks.
For phono amps, what you normally find stuck inside integrated amplifiers and glued to the underside of some turntables, tends to be allied to the cheap and cheerful category. If you really want to upgrade your overall sound, you need to grab a stand-alone phono amp.
Once you buy one of these things then your turntable plugs into it as normal but the stand-alone phono amp then plugs into the back of your integrated amplifier, into one of the general sockets on the back, the same sort of sockets you might use to plug in a CD player, for example.
Phono amplifiers normally arrive in two principle flavours: those that handle Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges and those that offer the generally more expensive Moving Coil cartridges (they look broadly the same but feature superior technology within). You might want to think about your future upgrade path (if you have one) so that, if you do decide to upgrade to a MC cartridge in the future, then a phono amp that already supports MC cartridges will save you cash in the long run.
If you do purchase a MC cartridge in the future, you will find that each one has slightly different specifications and each requires a slightly different set-up to work at its very best. Hence, many phono amps that support MC cartridges also arrive with a series of switches to allow you to modify the phono amp to suit.
If you are looking to upgrade your phono amplifier from the bundled example present in your amplifier or turnable or if you have a turntable or amplifier without a phono amplifier built in in the first place, then what are the the options? Here’s eight examples that will do your sound quality the power of good…
Pro-Ject Box E
Just how low (in price, that is) can you go? Well, £39 is surely beyond scraping the bottom of the cash barrel, isn’t it? You’d think so but this example still provides superior sound quality when compared to (even more) basic built-in models. It not only does it, but does it superbly well. Offering support for MM cartridges only, it offers the most basic of connections to get you up and running. Available in dark grey or white and small enough to cuddle up to the turntable, it is ideal for those with little room to spare, this is a cracking budget effort.
Pro-Ject Phono Box MM/MC
This little phono amplifier is remarkable, not just for the low price that it offers but the fact that it also handles MC cartridges in addition to MM carts and still finds pennies to add little luxuries such as gold-plated RCA connection points. The front of the chassis is bare of activity while the rear includes basic connections and a button to toggle between MM and MC.
Rega Fono Mini A2D USB
Rega offers a combo option in one tiny chassis. So you get a phono amplifier for MM cartridges but you also are offered a USB port in the front which allows you to use it for transferring vinyl music to your PC. Arriving in a sturdy extruded aluminium case, it offers the basic connections on the rear with, at the front, the USB port, earth screw for your turntable and a signal level knob.
Edwards Audio Apprentice Mk.II
A small (around 115mm long), MM-only phono amplifier set inside a double U-case construction and black acrylic front panel, which has all helped to reduce the price. It’s a very simple affair with just a power light on the front and the essential connections on the rear. An ideal entry-level performer that will surprise you in terms of its high level of sound quality.
Schiit Audio Mani
No, the name is not a joke. It’s not supposed to be pronounced how you might think but no-one takes the blind bit of notice and so they are referred to, basically, as ‘S**t’. Which is interesting because everything I’ve ever heard and reviewed from this American company sounds wonderful and offers brilliant value for money. Offering MM support only, it’s a simple box that does the job and punches way above its weight.
Graham Slee Communicator
This phono amp, hand-made in the UK would you believe, supports MM cartridges only but is an ideal design for those on a budget from a company with a proven design pedigree. It arrives with a basic power supply but you can upgrade to a far better power supply later on, called the PSU1 (£185) which will improve the basic sound quality even further. Yes, you heard right, upgrading your power supply will improve sound quality.
Creek Audio OBH-15 Mk.II
Supporting both MM and MC cartridges, this phono amp is small in stature and offers a solid aluminium front panel with either a silver or black finish. Its extruded black aluminium case is fitted with turned aluminium disc feet with sound absorbing properties. Switching from MM to MC means simply pushing in a button on the rear while a number of so-called DIP switches lie underneath to configure your MC cartridge. These are tiny switches that will help your MC offer tip-top performance.
The most expensive box in this round-up but also the most flexible in terms of later upgrading. The Dino supports MM and MC cartridges and is a classic of the hi-fi industry. Now up to Mk.III status, it can be further upgraded with an external power supply (£329), a High Performance Lead (£143) and, finally, what Trichord calls its top of the range, Never Connected Power Supply (£550). Each upgrade steadily improves the sound until you end up with a top quality £1,200 (ish) phono amplifier. Ideal for those on the upgrade ladder.