Nearly every time I review an integrated amplifier, I get an email from a reader commenting on the fact that I didn’t have much, if anything, to say about the phono stage, assuming the amp has one. Some emails are friendlier than others, of course, but all boil down to something like this, which I received from a reader in the Netherlands:
Dear Dennis Burger,
You have extensively reviewed the NAD C 399—a big thank-you for this! Could you briefly reflect on the performance of the phono stage please?
Sadly, I cannot. My last turntable went kerflooey maybe six years ago, and I haven’t felt overly motivated to replace it. On the surface, that seems to put me at a disadvantage in my field. After all, vinyl is a huge part of audiophilia, and a gateway drug for young’uns coming into the hobby. So being unable to evaluate built-in phono stages means my ability to give my readers comprehensive buying advice is, to whatever degree, limited.
I want to make the case, though, that these limitations are negligible, because readers like the one I quoted above really wouldn’t stand to gain much from my plugging a record player into an integrated amp and adding the experience to my evaluation.
The reasons for that are many, but a lot of it really boils down to something I’ve said time and time again: what makes a good audio reviewer isn’t some special listening ability; it’s experience. And I simply don’t have a lot of experience with vinyl because I don’t have a lot of passion for the format. I was either born too early or too late to truly love it, depending on your perspective.
Don’t confuse that for disdain—I’m all for people making a meaningful connection with their music in any way, whether it be via analog or digital formats, or even internet radio, for goodness’ sake. I just don’t feel motivated to jump back into the vinyl format myself, because I never really enjoyed the ritual of setup and maintenance and tweaking and cleaning that’s required to get the most out of it.
Zen & the art of ritualistic hobbies
Mind you, on a purely abstract level, I get the appeal of reveling in the fuss that comes with a beloved hobby. I genuinely love disassembling my speed cubes after 1000 solves or so, cleaning their springs and magnets, greasing their cores, lubricating their cubelets, and reassembling everything better than before. I’ll spend hours tweaking the spring tensions and gaps of a single cube, fussing over minute differences that I’m probably imagining to begin with.
I also love washing my and my dad’s C7 Corvette before taking it to a show or cruise-in. The meditative process of scrubbing, drying, clay-barring, polishing, and detailing is half the fun of the experience for me. And it’s not that I love cubing or Corvettes more than I love music; it’s just that I enjoy their maintenance in a way that I don’t with vinyl. If anything, the problem (and I’m only speaking for myself here) is that vinyl introduces a few too many barriers between me and my music.
And as I mentioned in a previous editorial, that’s not the case with the Compact Disc. I’ve re-learned to love the experience of listening to CDs, perusing their packaging, inserting the disc into a tray and watching it disappear before pressing play. So it’s not as if I’m allergic to physical media altogether. It’s simply that in any endeavor, there’s a fuss-to-reward equation that we all quietly, perhaps even subliminally, calculate. With CDs and speed cubes and Corvettes, I find that the fuss actually enhances my enjoyment; with LPs, the reward isn’t worth the hassle.
That’s why I don’t love vinyl, mind you. But it doesn’t fully explain why I haven’t bitten the bullet and bought a turntable anyway so I could plug it into the phono stages of integrated amps I review purely in the interest of being able to say something—anything—about the latter’s performance in this domain.
Good, cheap, vinyl—pick two
If you really want to get down to the root of why I don’t focus too much on the phono stages of the integrated amps I review, it’s important to keep in mind that SoundStage! Access is a site dedicated to budget hi-fi (along with the occasional home-theater coverage). And as SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider is fond of pointing out, it’s a lot harder to do vinyl well on a meager budget than it is to do digital audio.
Let me be clear here. Neither of us is saying that you can’t find good, affordable record players. Hell, our own Thom Moon reviews reasonably priced turntables pretty much every month here on SoundStage! Access.
But that doesn’t mean that the phono stage built into a high-value integrated amp—even one that sounds incredible with digital audio—is going to give you anywhere near the performance of a halfway decent outboard phono preamp. And it almost certainly isn’t going to give you the same level of flexibility.
I’d like to phono a friend, please
TL;DR: I think the DAC built into a $2000 integrated amp has an incredibly high chance of being every bit as good as a standalone DAC you could buy for anywhere within an order of magnitude of the same price. But, in my limited experience from way back when, almost any purpose-built phono stage is just as likely to give you better soundstage and imaging, at the very least, than the phono stage built into any reasonably priced stereo preamp or integrated amp.
That’s my working hypothesis, anyway. But as I’ve reiterated time and again, you probably shouldn’t listen to my opinion on much of anything vinyl-related. As such, I took my own advice and posed this question to three of my favorite vinyl experts: “Even if you were setting up a budget audio system, would you rely on a built-in phono stage? And why or why not?”
I started with SoundStage! Xperience editor Joseph Taylor, mostly because he and I chat at least a couple of times a week. Joe uses a $199 Pro-Ject Audio Systems Phono Box S2 with his vinyl setup, and when I asked him why that one, his answer confirmed my suspicions: “In the past, I wouldn’t have even thought about adding a phono preamp,” he said. “But then I had some problems with a vintage McIntosh, and I wanted to see whether there was a problem with the phono stage. Turns out it was a faulty loudness circuit. I bought the Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 and noticed a big improvement in sound.”
“When I replaced the McIntosh with my NAD,” he continued, “I figured I would probably just end up using the onboard phono stage, which got high ratings. Nope. The Pro-Ject had better channel separation, sharper focus, and a deeper soundstage. Now, my HH Scott Type 299 receiver from 1959, on the other hand, has an amazing phono stage! Vinyl is, no question, a bit labor-intensive. Cleaning, prepping, etc. And it is much more varied in playback. I’ve been surprised to discover how much difference there can be in turntables and carts. I love the work of tweaking a ’table to get it to sound how I want it to sound, but, boy, is that different from digital, which has little variation in playback.”
That certainly tracked with my understanding of things, but I also wanted to hear from my aforementioned Access colleague Thom Moon, who, as I said, does all of the excellent high-value vinyl-related reviews ’round these parts. His response was a little different from Joe’s: “I switched from a McIntosh C27 to a Linn Majik IP integrated in 1996 and then to an APT Holman preamp in 2022. Each change gave me a more detailed, more refined sound from my turntable, which for a long time was my primary program source. I never noticed a lot of difference in sound among any of them on line inputs. On the APT, I use the onboard phono stage. On the Linn, I would switch back and forth between its onboard stage and the outboard Moon by Simaudio 110LP v2, mostly to see how they were different. I found a Shure M97Xe cartridge sounded better on the Moon, where I could change the line capacitance. But I preferred the sound of my Sumiko Oyster Moonstone (yeah, I get carried away with stuff that bears my name) through the Linn. The APT has made all of that academic. Its Phono 1 input has selectable capacitance, it equals the 110LP v2 in its sound, and it betters by a smidgen the Linn. So I’ve loaned the Moon to a friend who bought my McIntosh because he, too, thinks the phono stage of the Mac sounds brittle.”
Notice anything about the amps and preamps Thom mentions there? They’re all either vintage or getting close to it. So while he’s one of my ride-or-dies when it comes to vinyl, Thom didn’t do much to contradict my existing biases here.
So with that, I turned to Jason Thorpe, a senior contributor whose work shows up all over the SoundStage! Network, and whose article about MoFi-gate was the most nuanced and honest of any I read in any publication. “That’s a bit of a minefield,” he told me, when I asked if the phono stage of a budget integrated amp, preamp, or receiver could hold its own with a reasonably priced outboard phono pre. “Most inexpensive integrated [amp]s come with an MM stage only, which doesn’t require as much gain and isn’t as persnickety as an MC stage. But if you’re using an MM cartridge and an entry-level ’table, you’re probably not expecting a lot from the built-in stage. A standalone phono pre could well be better, depending on what you pay, [but] I don’t think there’s much value in saying an external one will always be better.”
So that muddies my waters just a bit. And to me, it indicates that when you’re evaluating a phono preamp, you’re almost saying more about the combination of cartridge and phono stage than you are about either component in isolation. All of which suggests that if I were to buy a record player and plug it into the phono stage of every integrated amp I review, I’d mostly be telling you about the combination thereof rather than anything meaningful about either in isolation. But again, if you’re picking between me and Jason as to whom you should trust when it comes to vinyl, you’d be wise to go with Jason’s experience with, and passion for, the format.
The measure of vinyl
The reader whose email started this whole conversation ended his missive with a simple request: given that I hadn’t subjectively evaluated the phono stage of the C 399, could I look over Diego Estan’s measurements and interpret them to the best of my ability?
I hate to sound dismissive here, because as I said above, I don’t begrudge anyone their love of vinyl. If that format is what gets you closer to your music, I celebrate that without a hint of irony or condescension. Because for me, the music is the only thing that really matters, and all this gear is mostly just a means to that end. But looking at the bench testing for the C 399’s phono stage underlines, bolds, and italicizes all the reasons why vinyl just isn’t worth the hassle for me. In terms of the things that I care about most—crosstalk, harmonic distortion, intermodulation distortion, etc.—the specs of this incredible integrated amplifier’s phono input are meh at best. If you’d told me these measurements were taken with the signal going into a line-level input, I’d be horrified.
But how do they stack up to typical phono preamp specs? The easiest way I knew to find out was to fire up Google, search “phono preamplifier site:soundstageaccess.com,” and dig into the first review I stumbled upon, which happened to be Thom’s evaluation of the affordable Audio-Technica AT-PEQ30 phono preamplifier ($229 USD). Looking over Diego’s measurements, in most respects the incredibly affordable outboard option appears measurably better to me, aside from a few quirks. And Thom described its performance as satisfactory, though not spectacular, concluding that its “sound quality is right in line with its price.” And again, just to hang a lantern on this: by all indications according to the bench testing, it’s better in many respects than the phono stage of the NAD.
Put it all together, and I’m probably not going to fuss with vinyl anytime soon, and I apologize to those of you affected by this. I might at some point add a record player to my setup again, especially if Buckingham Nicks doesn’t come out on CD soon (unlikely) or if Tesla’s Mechanical Resonance doesn’t get a decent digital remaster in the foreseeable future (the original LP sounds amazing, but every digital release has the heft and flavor of a whole-grain Triscuit Thin Crisp). Because for me, it’s all about the music, not the format. But even I have to concede there are albums that simply sound their best on vinyl, for reasons that have nothing to do with the technical merits of the format.
If I do fall to the Dark Side, though, you can rest assured I’ll almost certainly be bringing a separate phono pre to the party. So I suppose, at the very least, I could say something about the relative merits of the onboard and outboard solutions. But even still, you probably should ignore anything I say about the performance of vinyl, because I’m just not a fan.
. . . Dennis Burger