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Help me decide: external phono stage or stylus?

Abby Normal

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Hi all,

I am officially stuck in analysis paralysis over trying to determine what to do first: add an external phono preamp or upgrade my cartridge…or whether I should even do anything.

Here is my current setup:
  • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo w/Sumiko Rainier MM
  • Onkyo TX-NR686 (using onboard phono stage)
  • Definitive Technology BP-10s

I recognize that I likely need a better stylus and that I also will benefit from a separate phono preamp. After much perusing if all the forums, I have my choices narrowed down to the following, but in what order?
  1. Sumiko replacement stylus upgrade (likely Moonstone or Wellfleet)
  2. Cambridge Audio Alva Duo preamp or Schiit Mani 2

I am 80/20 HT vs music. Which one will provide the most noticeable improvement to the dynamics, stage depth/width, and overall encompassing accuracy of the record, and therefore make the best first step?

I just want to feel confident that I am hearing everything that I am supposed to hear, the way it was originally intended.

Thanks!
 

levimax

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Most decent phono sections are fine and all stylus wear out. JICO claims 200 to 500 hours of stulus life depending on profile, others claim up to 2,000 hours for line contact but my experience is that JICO is about right. In most cases replacing and or upgrading a stylus is going to be much more audible than an electronics change.
 

DSJR

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Why did you change the 2M Red the deck seems to come with to a Rainier instead of chenging to a 2M Bronze stylus for the cartridge fitted as standard? If you still have the 2M Red it apparently came with, I'd get the Bronze stylus and enjoy a more neutral dynamic performance. If you prefer a more restrained tone as the Rainier gives but 'better,' then an AT VM740 should do it nicely as the metallic mount seems to offer some difference to the plastic mounting of the otherwise similar 540 model ;)
 

Timcognito

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Why did you change the 2M Red the deck seems to come with to a Rainier instead of chenging to a 2M Bronze stylus for the cartridge fitted as standard? If you still have the 2M Red it apparently came with, I'd get the Bronze stylus and enjoy a more neutral dynamic performance. If you prefer a more restrained tone as the Rainier gives but 'better,' then an AT VM740 should do it nicely as the metallic mount seems to offer some difference to the plastic mounting of the otherwise similar 540 model ;)
Not much a LP guy anymore but if I remember the 2M Red and Blue can swap stylus' and Bronze and Black can. Bronze can not go on a Red, but could be wrong.
 

DVDdoug

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Which one will provide the most noticeable improvement to the dynamics, stage depth/width
I wouldn't expect any of that to be affected.

Different phono preamps can have different noise levels (hum, hiss, or whine in the background). There can also be errors in the RIAA equalization which show-up as frequency response variations/errors.

A different cartridge will probably have different frequency response, usually in the high frequencies (better or worse). Some cartridges may have better lower distortion with hard-to-track recordings.

But the records themselves are the worst source of noise and frequency response variations. You can tweak frequency response with EQ or tone controls. There's not much you can do about the noise, unless you digitize and then some of the worst clicks & pops can usually be removed or greatly reduced.

If you want better sound, go digital!!! No audible noise (from the digital source), flat frequency response over the audible range, and no audible distortion.
 
OP
A

Abby Normal

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Most decent phono sections are fine and all stylus wear out. JICO claims 200 to 500 hours of stulus life depending on profile, others claim up to 2,000 hours for line contact but my experience is that JICO is about right. In most cases replacing and or upgrading a stylus is going to be much more audible than an electronics change.
Thanks. This was my assumption, nut didn’t want to assume.;)
 
OP
A

Abby Normal

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Why did you change the 2M Red the deck seems to come with to a Rainier instead of chenging to a 2M Bronze stylus for the cartridge fitted as standard? If you still have the 2M Red it apparently came with, I'd get the Bronze stylus and enjoy a more neutral dynamic performance. If you prefer a more restrained tone as the Rainier gives but 'better,' then an AT VM740 should do it nicely as the metallic mount seems to offer some difference to the plastic mounting of the otherwise similar 540 model ;)
I didn’t change it. The TT came with Rainier, which is why I a, considering using their upgrade path which permits me to purchase replacement stylus upgrades (without the cartridge body) for less money.
 

dtaylo1066

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A receiver in that price range would likely have a phono stage that is fair at best. I would suggest a different phono stage and see if you perceive a difference. I would say it all depends on how much you listen to vinyl vs. digital. If you have a lot invested in vinyl and want better sound, the two phone preamps you mention likely would outperform the internal one in your receiver. That said, you will not get the signal to noise ratio from vinyl that you will from digital.
 
OP
A

Abby Normal

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I wouldn't expect any of that to be affected.

Different phono preamps can have different noise levels (hum, hiss, or whine in the background). There can also be errors in the RIAA equalization which show-up as frequency response variations/errors.

A different cartridge will probably have different frequency response, usually in the high frequencies (better or worse). Some cartridges may have better lower distortion with hard-to-track recordings.

But the records themselves are the worst source of noise and frequency response variations. You can tweak frequency response with EQ or tone controls. There's not much you can do about the noise, unless you digitize and then some of the worst clicks & pops can usually be removed or greatly reduced.

If you want better sound, go digital!!! No audible noise (from the digital source), flat frequency response over the audible range, and no audible distortion.
Thanks. I’ve been digital since it was introduced back in the early 80s. This is about playing my old records from my youth, and maybe buying a few more to enjoy the “pure” aspect of analog recordings, including their imperfections.

That being said, I do want to play “all” of the record, if you catch my drift. Meaning, I read about others having “a veil lifted” from their records and was curious as to whether one, or both, of these changes would have a positive impact on my sound..
 

Chrispy

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Thanks. I’ve been digital since it was introduced back in the early 80s. This is about playing my old records from my youth, and maybe buying a few more to enjoy the “pure” aspect of analog recordings, including their imperfections.

That being said, I do want to play “all” of the record, if you catch my drift. Meaning, I read about others having “a veil lifted” from their records and was curious as to whether one, or both, of these changes would have a positive impact on my sound..
Almost any time you read "veil lifted" it's nonsense.
 
OP
A

Abby Normal

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A receiver in that price range would likely have a phono stage that is fair at best. I would suggest a different phono stage and see if you perceive a difference. I would say it all depends on how much you listen to vinyl vs. digital. If you have a lot invested in vinyl and want better sound, the two phone preamps you mention likely would outperform the internal one in your receiver. That said, you will not get the signal to noise ratio from vinyl that you will from digital.
Agreed and understood. Digital has its benefits, as does analog, and I am just trying to get confident in knowing that I am not missing anything by not upgrading to a phono preamp or a better stylus.
 

Chrispy

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Is the 20% for music all vinyl? I'd just use what you've got unless there's something obviously wrong. I've used a wide variety of cartridge brands over the years and didn't find significant differences generally plus it's very hard to compare unless you have identical setups aside from cartridge to compare directly. I've mostly used phono stages internal to the receiver/pre-amp but not found a significant difference that way either, did get an external later and found it perhaps had an advantage as it had a gain adjustment. YMMV.
 

Robin L

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Get a better stylus. They often wear out sooner than predicted. When they wear out, they start to damage records. When I played LPs, I would swap out the stylus every six months. Note that I frequently played LPs when I had record players.
 

Chrispy

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Just because of OPs moniker, couldn't resist :)
 

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Zapper

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I'm not a cartridge expert but I wouldn't buy either the Moonstone or the Wellfleet - both are expensive but are only eliptical styli. Neither will track as well as a microline stylus.

The biggest single improvement I've had in vinyl playback was the inexpensive AT-VM95ML cartridge with microline stylus. It eliminated tracking issues and inner groove distortions that had always bothered me from back in the days when I used Shure V15 type 4 and type 5. I tried the AT-VM95E eliptical cartridge and all the familiar distortions on loud finales at the end of the LP were there. Switched to the microline stylus and they were gone. Even though I'm using a cheap AT turntable, I'm getting much better sounds from my LPs than ever before.

I'm usually in the camp of "it makes no difference". I think changing your phono preamp will likely make no audible difference. But a microline stylus really does make a difference and it's not subtle.
 

Robin L

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I'm not a cartridge expert but I wouldn't buy either the Moonstone or the Wellfleet - both are expensive but are only eliptical styli. Neither will track as well as a microline stylus.

The biggest single improvement I've had in vinyl playback was the inexpensive AT-VM95ML cartridge with microline stylus. It eliminated tracking issues and inner groove distortions that had always bothered me from back in the days when I used Shure V15 type 4 and type 5. I tried the AT-VM95E eliptical cartridge and all the familiar distortions on loud finales at the end of the LP were there. Switched to the microline stylus and they were gone. Even though I'm using a cheap AT turntable, I'm getting much better sounds from my LPs than ever before.

I'm usually in the camp of "it makes no difference". I think changing your phono preamp will likely make no audible difference. But a microline stylus really does make a difference and it's not subtle.
Changing the phono preamp will make an audible difference if it has more headroom before clipping. But switching out the stylus will probably make more difference.
 

Zapper

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Changing the phono preamp will make an audible difference if it has more headroom before clipping. But switching out the stylus will probably make more difference.
But how often is a phono preamp driven into clipping? I don't think very often, even for preamps with modest headroom, at least for clean, well maintained records.

A badly designed preamp can have poor RIAA EQ accuracy, but I would expect the Obkyo to have a basic but competently design preamp. It's a single op-amp circuit with a few R's and C's. Could be wrong about that - sometimes major vendors disappoint.
 

Robin L

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But how often is a phono preamp driven into clipping? I don't think very often, even for preamps with modest headroom, at least for clean, well maintained records.

A badly designed preamp can have poor RIAA EQ accuracy, but I would expect the Obkyo to have a basic but competently design preamp. It's a single op-amp circuit with a few R's and C's. Could be wrong about that - sometimes major vendors disappoint.
My understanding is that most licks and pops are due to the phono preamp clipping. I might be wrong, but Amirm seems to think so too.
 

Chrispy

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But how often is a phono preamp driven into clipping? I don't think very often, even for preamps with modest headroom, at least for clean, well maintained records.

A badly designed preamp can have poor RIAA EQ accuracy, but I would expect the Obkyo to have a basic but competently design preamp. It's a single op-amp circuit with a few R's and C's. Could be wrong about that - sometimes major vendors disappoint.
The main difference is during pops/clicks due the vinyl surface.
 

Zapper

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My understanding is that most licks and pops are due to the phono preamp clipping. I might be wrong, but Amir seems to think so too.
That's not what I've read. The pops and clicks are due to damage or dirt in the grooves. But how they sound depends in part on preamp headroom. They don't necessarily cause the preamp to clip, but if the preamp clips it will sound different compared to one that doesn't.

I would like to know if anyone has recorded the difference between a low and a high headroom amp that demonstrates the difference. All I've seen on the topic are a lot of hypotheses but no data.
 
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