Unlike most source components that have a peak signal-output level up around a couple of volts, phono cartridges deliver an infinitesimal signal that's often about 1,000 times smaller. There was a time when every receiver and preamplifier came with a built-in phono preamp that delivered the additional boost required, but on today's gear, this is the exception.
Instead, connecting a turntable to your system these days often means routing the signal through an additional signal amplifier, called a phono stage or preamp, before sending it to any available line-level input on your receiver or preamplifier. This provides the cartridge with the additional amplification and equalization needed to make it match your other sources.
Phono cartridges come in two basic flavors: the so-called high-output moving-magnet (MM) types that have an output around 3 millivolts and the more exotic low-output moving-coil (MC) models with an output that's typically about one-tenth as strong.
While most built-in phono inputs are designed to handle only high-output cartridges, many high-quality outboard phono stages have a switch to engage additional gain for low-output pickups.
To simplify all of this, here are three phono stages that would make excellent matches for the turntables in our roundup:
• For the Pro-Ject, the company's own Phono Box II ($119) is an obvious choice, handling both high-output MM and low-output MC cartridges. It provides a good match for the supplied cartridge, with plenty of scope for cartridge upgrades down the road.
• For the Roksan, I chose the Creek Audio OBH-15 ($450), the latest in a long-running series of well-respected phono stages from that company. It also offers both MM and MC gain settings, making it easy to switch to a moving-coil cartridge in the future.
• For the V.Y.G.E.R., the Moon LP5.3 ($1,400) from the fine Canadian manufacturer Simaudio would be a good choice. In addition to having four different gain settings, the Moon lets you adjust the cartridge-loading (resistance and capacitance) settings to provide a perfect match for your cartridge. It even offers balanced outputs for connection to preamps with the corresponding inputs.
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