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Match Your Phono

So you have decided to drag out your record collection and play them again, or perhaps you have decided to burn them all on CD, either through your computer or using a stand-alone CD burner. You set it all up, you think the turntable works ok, but you don't get squat for signal from it. Serious frustration sets in. You remember very well that back in the old days the records sounded pretty good. So what is different?

The most obvious difference is what you are using to play the turntable. In the aforementioned old days, you had a lovely analog receiver, plugged the turntable into the "phono" inputs and you could listen to it and you could record that material onto your 8 track tape deck. It was pretty straightforward. The answer to this problem is not very hard though. Presently, most receivers do not say "phono" on the back. They will say "aux" or "video" or some such and when you plug your turntable into that, you get very little sound. It is guaranteed to be both low and tinny, not something you can listen to and certainly not something you can record. Of course if you are thinking in terms of running your turntable directly into your computer where you will burn your CD's, you can bet that the results will be no better.

What to do?????

Here is the story. Any turntable worth listening to has a magnetic cartridge on it (exceptions: moving coil and ceramic, we will talk about those elsewhere). Let's try again, almost any turntable worth listening to will have a magnetic cartridge on it, as magnetics became the standard in the early 70's and are very numerous. The cartridge is the little fellow on the end of the arm. The stylus (needle) fits into it. It actually produces the signal that ultimately becomes the sound you hear. A magnetic cartridge puts out a low amplitude (small) signal. It is not the same at all as what comes out of your CD, DVD, tuner, tape deck, etc. These produce what you might call a line level (large) signal. The "aux or video" inputs on the back of your nasty black receiver are looking for a line level. If you give them a phono level signal, you won't like the results at all. The same is true of your computer sound card. The receivers of the '70's had an extra circuit on them, and the phono was routed through that. It was called a phono section, or a phono pre-amp. Since it may cost a dime more to add that to your modern receiver, they don't, and computer sound cards most assuredly do not have them. They only speak line level.

Back again to the "what to do" part of this, which is after all the whole point of the story. Your best bet is to buy a lovely '70's receiver from me, or get a nice one on eBay and have me restore it for you, all with wonderful results for you and profit for me. Any of them worth having will have a proper phono input, just make sure it also has a proper tape output. If I cannot sell you on that idea, the next best solution is to add an outboard phono pre-amp. This little jewel is designed to fulfill the one need of taking a phono level signal from a turntable and making it into a line level signal so you can then do something with it. You simply plug the turntable into the input side of the phono pre-amp, and with the extra set of cables that come with it, you plug the output side into the high level input on the back of your receiver. Nearly any input will do as almost everything these days is high level, so "aux, video, tape, dvd, etc." will likely work ok. It is mainly a matter of what you are not otherwise using. The sound card on your computer can be accessed in much the same way. They usually have "audio in" and "audio out" and that is what you want to use. Most sound cards do not have right and left RCA jacks for in's and out's. You will usually find that to be a single little jack instead. These are usually what's called "miniature phone" or mini plugs. These are similar to the plugs found on current-day headphones. Since the output of the phono pre-amp is in fact dual RCA jacks, your best bet is to get a cable with right and left RCA plugs on one end and the miniature phone on the other. You then plug the phono pre-amp into your computer and there you have it. Another option is to plug the turntable into your receiver and to hook the computer to the receiver via the tape in and out jacks on the receiver. If you find that notion to be confusing, check out your owner's manual on your receiver. It will help.

You can buy phono pre-amps for anywhere between twenty and two thousand dollars. I suppose the fancy ones must be very good. The moderate ones are very usable in many applications, but they are not all created equally. We have chosen to offer one which is powered by a little DC supply (wall wart) as opposed to the ones which have a power cord running directly into them. I find the latter to be a bit hummy and since the units with the outboard power supply do not cost that much more, they are well worth the difference. So now you know what you must do. Order up a phono pre-amp and you will then walk in tall cotton, or at least your phono will work. (The tall cotton would likely make you sneeze anyway).

Since this is real life, there is always the possibility you will hook all of this up and it still won't be quite right. After all, we are presupposing here that your turntable works—a mighty big presumption. If it doesn't work perfectly right away, then some other factor is standing in your way, and your best bet is to contact me, at which point I shall have another go at selling the lovely vintage receiver to you or getting your money in some other way. But I am very helpful also, and can likely come up with the next step toward vinyl bliss.

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