Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What to Purchase for a Basic Vinyl Sound System

Sales of vinyl record albums are up almost 20% this year alone! Can't resist the tug of a resurgent analog technology? Maybe you want to hear for yourself what the aficionados say, that vinyl is warmer and truer to the source? You want to build a sound system with a turntable to experience it for yourself. What do you purchase? You embark on an online research quest to find the best components in your price point. Depending on your level of understanding of the technology that today’s systems hold, you may be quickly overwhelmed with all the choices when it comes to a vinyl sound system. To help the layperson become a vinyl audiophile and make the right selection for a home music system, here is a list of the necessary components. So, grab your budget and read on for some direction on how to become a vinyl audiophile by choosing the right components for your space, technology level, and budget.

You need the following for a basic vinyl sound system: a pair of speakers, electronics including an amplifier (there are several directions to go), a phono pre-amplifier, and a turntable.

1.    Speakers. You do not need a surround sound speaker set up. Vinyl is stereo (or “two-channel”), right and left speakers only. You will need a set of speakers that fit into the area where you are putting your vinyl system. For example, if you are placing your system on a bookshelf, then a set of bookshelf speakers would be a great choice. For optimal listening, you want to consider the layout of the room where you will be listening to your system to determine the best placement of the speakers. For example, where will you sit to listen to this system? The answer to this question may lead to floor standing speakers being a fit for your need. Once you determine the layout of your system, pick a set of speakers that fit your need and your budget. Paradigm’s Monitor SE or Premier series of speakers are a great entry line for vinyl systems. 

2.    Turntable. Things to look for when choosing a turntable are a tonearm with adjustments that can accommodate a range of phono cartridges, a heavier, more precisely balanced platter with better bearings for smoother, quieter rotation, and a middle-to-higher-end cartridge and stylus that can pull more music from your records’ grooves while treating your vinyl collection gently. Many commercially available tables often include a tonearm and cartridge. Pay attention to the playback speed when you are shopping for a turntable. Most turntables give you 33-1/3, and 45 RPM capabilities. However, if you plan on possibly having a collection of 78 RPM records that you want to play, pay careful attention to the numbers since most new turntables lack this speed

3.    Phono Stage or Phono Preamplifier. A phono stage is sometimes included in electronics (more on that in section four). A phono preamplifier is an outboard audio component that amplifies the signal from your turntable to a level that allows you to connect it to your sound system the same way you connect other audio sources. Audio terminology can be confusing. Don’t confuse a phono-preamplifier with the audio component commonly known as a pre-amplifier. A phono pre-amplifier is dedicated only to your turntable. The more commonly used term “pre-amplifier” usually described the electronic component that is used to connect all your sources (CD, streaming, etc.), switch between inputs, and control the volume.

Something else worth mentioning is the phono’s prime purpose and why you need it in your vinyl system. First, the electrical output of all phono cartridges is minuscule compared to the rest of the components in a system, so it’s more “delicate” and prone to picking up noise. The phono section must amplify this small signal a lot (high gain), without adding noise.  So the “phono section” is one of the most critical stages in any system.   The other important purpose of a phono is to reverse the EQ that was applied to the records originally.    If a record were recorded with the whole frequency band at the same level, high frequencies would be barely scratches and the grooves of the low frequencies would be way too large, resulting in a very limited amount of music being held on the record. The EQ concept was devised to apply an EQ that reduced low frequencies and boosted high frequencies, so they were more even with more music on a record.  Modern records recorded after the late 50s and early 60s are pressed with what’s known as the RIAA EQ curve.  More on that in a bit.  When you connect a record player to a standard RCA input, you do not get the EQ so what you are hearing is the song with drastically reduced bass and boosted highs.

The most important thing to know is that you will need a phono pre-amplifier to enjoy your vinyl records. There are two types of phono pre-amps based on the type of cartridges that go on the turntable—moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). The most common is moving magnet. Those who are looking to achieve the best overall sound for turntables often choose the less-common moving coil cartridge. A moving coil type has less output than the moving magnet type, so it requires more amplification. Just about every single phono pre-amplifier on the market that can handle a moving coil cartridge can also work with a moving magnet cartridge. You will usually see a little switch to change between the two. If you were to connect a moving coil cartridge to a moving magnet phono stage, the sound would not be loud enough. However, if you connect a moving magnet cartridge to a moving coil phono input, the music will probably be distorted.

4.    Electronics. You will need electronics for your vinyl setup, and there are three routes you can choose.

a.    Integrated Amplifier. This is the cleanest and quickest way to set up your system because an integrated amplifier contains both the amplifier and pre-amplifier sections. The Anthem STR Integrated Amplifier includes a phono stage as well as an amplifier and pre-amplifier technologies. Anthem’s STR series, both the Integrated and the Preamplifier have a very special phono section. All records today are made with the same EQ curve applied, the RIAA curve (Radio Industry Association of America) which has been considered a standard since 1954 but before that (and even after) there were records made with different EQ curves applied.  If you have one of these older records, you’ll likely have never heard it correctly as the wrong EQ was applied.  In the STR series, we have 6 presets curves apart from the RIAA curve so you can select the one that pertains to your record.  However, there were over 100 different EQ curves available at the beginning so these 6 common curves might not cover those other odd curves.  What we’ve done to play back those records made with the less common curves is to have an option for custom made EQs (more details in the manual on how to set them up, it’s fairly easy).

When buying an integrated amplifier for use with a turntable, be aware that not all include a phono stage within – the bit that connects directly to your turntable and allows you to hear what’s going on inside those grooves. Always check the specs to see if a phono stage is built-in (it’s usually described as a phono input when it’s built-in).

b.    Audio Video Receiver. An audio/video receiver is a component used in a home theater. Its purpose is to receive audio and video signals from several sources and to process them to drive loudspeakers and displays such as a television, monitor or video projector. An AV receiver consists of a multi-channel decoder, a pre-amplifier section, and amplifiers. The multi-channel decoder plays the role of handling the incoming signals and decoding them. The pre-amplifier in AV-receiver performs signal expansion and volume control to get the signal to the amplifier which, in turn, drives the speakers. Few AV receivers include a phono stage (phono input), so be prepared to add an external phono-preamplifier when connecting your new turntable.

c.    Stereo Pre-Amplifier and Amplifier (Stereo Separates). Stereo separates are optimized to function as the control and connection hub for an audio-only listening experience. A stereo pre-amplifier provides for a two-channel speaker configuration (left and right). In other words, no surround sound decoding or video switching is provided. A pre-amplifier switches inputs controls the volume and prepares the signal for further amplification. Much like an integrated amplifier (which houses pre-amplifier and amplifier sections in a single chassis), there’s no guarantee that a separate pre-amplifier will include a phono stage. Always check specs to see if there is a phono input (phono stage) built in. One reason that people may choose the option of going with stereo separates is that this approach allows greater control of the amplifier selection. If, for example, an audiophile wants to use tube amplifiers with their system, they could easily add this type of amplifier by hooking it to their existing pre-amplifier. The best option for stereo separates is that the quality of separates is generally the best out of all the options.  For example, choosing separates that have a power supply that feeds a separate amplifier and a power supply that feeds a preamp without each other drawing from each other along with more real estate internally for appropriate parts for that product.  If you look at our STR amplifier, it is bigger than a lot of receivers and it uses every square inch of space internally.