Phonostage Upgrade Thread

reubensm

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I received PMs and WhatsApp messages from 3 FMs requesting some suggestions for phonostage upgrades. All 3 were interested in buying dedicated phono boxes for MM and all 3 were using Marantz PM5xxx series amplifiers.

The first part of my reply for all such enquiries is to always enquire about what amplification the user currently has even if its integrated. The reason is one should have a good understanding of what type of phonostage is currently in use before choosing an upgrade. I have noticed many users having NAD amplifiers like the 3020, 304, etc investing in phono boxes only to find out that their original integrated phonostage sounded better.

Some amplifiers, especially the modern ones like the Marantz PM 5xxx amplifiers have very basic phonostages, usually built around a single IC, dual OP Amp, one for each channel. It makes sense to upgrade these, however there are some vintage amps that have very complex phonostages that are far better than the phono boxes one can buy with a $500 budget.

Hence, before choosing to upgrade, always get a good understanding of the phonostage and amplification currently in use for realizing more value from an investment.

Here is an example of the Marantz PM 5xxx inbuilt phonostage, built around a single IC, dual OP amp:

Marantz PM5005.png

In comparison, here's an example of the NAD 3020's phonostage:

3020 phono.png

Although the design or complexity of a circuit is not a determining factor for performance, when it comes to phonostages, a well designed circuit especially with discrete components will always outperform a basic one.

In comparison, a typical phonobox is designed for use with amplifiers that do not have a phono input. These are usually basic and not worth using as an upgrade for an existing integrated amplifier phonostage.
nad PP1.png
Again, the disclaimer here is that this is my opinion and suggestion. There are many different approaches and suggestions but I believe, first to evaluate what one has in use currently, and then choose an upgrade which is higher in the value chain. I have come across many users, upgrading integrated phonostages with phonoboxes (even expensive ones) only to find that their original phonostage sounded better. Also I suggest when upgrading, more often than not, its a good idea to upgrade in steps starting from the level just above. Upgrades are all about sweet spots, while climbing the upgrade ladder, you can meet the hifi sweet spot somewhere midway, after which even higher end/value equipment may not sound as good :)

Edit: I have also suggested the CNC phonostage as a good upgrade over the single-IC integrated phonostages. The show stopper here is usually the DIY part as many are not comfortable with building stuff (not just building it but getting it right to ensure complete performance). If one can either do it one's self or have someone help, i strongly believe that the CNC phonostage should be the first upgrade for anyone to aspires for upgrades say, below the $750 phonostage price range.
 
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Selvin

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Yes. Marantz 5xxx and 6xxx series amplifiers are with very basic phono circuits and CNC or Rod Elliott - ESP phono stages offers better result. Further in my view any 40-50k budgets amps are may not worth to invest in any higher cost phono stages.

But Marantz PM8003, PM8005, PM14, PM15, PM11 phono stages are excellent one with discrete components and may not need any upgrade.
 

kuruvilajacob

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I own a audiolab 6000a IA. How do I check if the phonostage is a good one ?
You may have to borrow someone's dedicated phono box and compare with it. You can connect from the phono box to the aux of the same amplifier. Just my suggestion
 

kuruvilajacob

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I have used various phono stages from Yaqin MS 12B valve to ifi phonostage, EAR 834 clone and a few more but for my taste of music of the sixties and seventies, many phonostages of Integrated amplifiers are excellent. Yes, some of the phono that comes with the new integrated amplifiers are not upto the quality of the vintage amplifiers. I am particularly fond of the phonostages of Sansui amplifiers and vintage Pioneer recievers especially for vintage cartridges like Shure. I suppose those days turntables were used by most users and the companies made quality phonostages .
 

reubensm

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Does NAD 3020 has a good phonostage ?

This is actually a million dollar question of sorts. Very difficult to answer but let me attempt based on my listening tastes and experience with all the 3020 models:

  1. first edition NAD 3020 (1978) - great sounding phonostage, infact one of the highlights of the amplifier and one of the reasons for its success, very smooth sounding and as a result of good filtering was not noisy like some of the phonostages of that time
  2. second edition NAD 3020 (1979-80, with serial number A3205011 onwards) - the same design as the first edition but with a better component layout and isolation, i found this phonostage to sound more or less like the first edition but with slightly brighter signature
  3. NAD 3020A (1981-82) - redesigned phonostage with MM/MC capability which was switched, also featured capacitance loading with a selector. With the capacitance selector to fiddle with, many enthusiasts found this phonostage to be the best among 3020s and although I have never used MC carts with it, I can tell you for sure that its MC stage is very basic (NAD assumed that MMs were more likely to be used anyways). The MM section was more or less like the first and second edition NADs but in my opinion, that smooth neutral sound of the earlier 2 editions was missing to some extent, giving way to a more upfront sound signature (i believe this was keeping in line with the changing times)
  4. NAD 3020B (1983-84) - more or less like the 3020A, actually the amp is more or less like the 3020A with some minor modifications to layout and it had better speaker cable binding posts. I haven't listened to this amp extensively but I can tell you for sure, it sounded just like the 3020A to me
  5. NAD 3020e/i (1985/86) - these are the 3020s which phono enthusiasts avoid. NAD had redesigned the phonostages of these amps, actually reducing a transistor (not that his matters) but the sound signature of the earlier 3020 series' was missing. It sounded very dull to me. Again, i guess this was more in tune with the changing times during the mid to late 80s when CDs and Cassettes were taking over from vinyl.

Some additional information that may be useful:

Some enthusiasts say that silver or gold coloured NAD 3020 amplifiers are the best. This is actually a joke of sorts as those who are familiar with the inside of these can tell you for sure, the colour was only to do with the body paint. The inside was the same as the grey NAD 3020s. What folk find great is the sound and that's true because most of these coloured versions were produced based on the second edition 3020 (listed as no#2 above). It is easy to identify this version as its serial number is from A3205011 onwards or for the layman, all 3020s without any suffixes (a/b/e/i) but with the power transformer bolted to the back panel of the amplifier, fall in this category. The 3020 from A3205011 onwards is considered by many, to be the best sounding 3020 ever

The NAD 1020 preamp is basically the preamplifier section of the first edition or second edition (NAD actually uses the same 3020 amplifier PCB inside with all the power amp section components removed, and with a smaller power transformer), while the NAD 1020A and B are basically the preamp sections of the 3020A and 3020B, absolutely same, component for component but with a smaller power transformer

The receiver versions of the 3020 like the 7020 and 7020e/i were exact replicas of their 3020 counterparts but with an inbuilt radio. I would avoid these as the 7020 had a wiring mess inside and was quite unreliable while the 7020e/i, as with their 3020e/i counterparts did not have that original charm when it came to the sound signature for phono.

Of all the NAD amplifiers and preamplifiers i have owned or listened to, the best phonostage which i encountered was perhaps the phonostage of the NAD 1000 preamplifier. That was something indeed. It was so good sounding and so quiet that a lot of noise coming from records (especially the older ones) was dampened, resulting in pleasant listening experience. The sound was really warm, neutral and tube-like when paired with NAD poweramps. Of course, as I prefer only NAD for my amplification, i have never tried it with other poweramps.

Note: the above info is based on my personal experience with these models, having owned some of them and having serviced all of them. My opinion is based on my listening experience using a Technics SL3200 with Shure M44-7/N44-7.
 
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shafic

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This is actually a million dollar question of sorts. Very difficult to answer but let me attempt based on my listening tastes and experience with all the 3020 models:

  1. first edition NAD 3020 (1978) - great sounding phonostage, infact one of the highlights of the amplifier and one of the reasons for its success, very smooth sounding and as a result of good filtering was not noisy like some of the phonostages of that time
  2. second edition NAD 3020 (1979-80, with serial number A3205011 onwards) - the same design as the first edition but with a better component layout and isolation, i found this phonostage to sound more or less like the first edition but with slightly brighter signature
  3. NAD 3020A (1981-82) - redesigned phonostage with MM/MC capability which was switched, also featured capacitance loading with a selector. With the capacitance selector to fiddle with, many enthusiasts found this phonostage to be the best among 3020s and although I have never used MC carts with it, I can tell you for sure that its MC stage is very basic (NAD assumed that MMs were more likely to be used anyways). The MM section was more or less like the first and second edition NADs but in my opinion, that smooth neutral sound of the earlier 2 editions was missing to some extent, giving way to a more upfront sound signature (i believe this was keeping in line with the changing times)
  4. NAD 3020B (1983-84) - more or less like the 3020A, actually the amp is more or less like the 3020A with some minor modifications to layout and it had better speaker cable binding posts. I haven't listened to this amp extensively but I can tell you for sure, it sounded just like the 3020A to me
  5. NAD 3020e/i (1985/86) - these are the 3020s which phono enthusiasts avoid. NAD had redesigned the phonostages of these amps, actually reducing a transistor (not that his matters) but the sound signature of the earlier 3020 series' was missing. It sounded very dull to me. Again, i guess this was more in tune with the changing times during the mid to late 80s when CDs and Cassettes were taking over from vinyl.

Some additional information that may be useful:

Some enthusiasts say that silver or gold coloured NAD 3020 amplifiers are the best. This is actually a joke of sorts as those who are familiar with the inside of these can tell you for sure, the colour was only to do with the body paint. The inside was the same as the grey NAD 3020s. What folk find great is the sound and that's true because most of these coloured versions were produced based on the second edition 3020 (listed as no#2 above). It is easy to identify this version as its serial number is from A3205011 onwards or for the layman, all 3020s without any suffixes (a/b/e/i) but with the power transformer bolted to the back panel of the amplifier, fall in this category. The 3020 from A3205011 onwards is considered by many, to be the best sounding 3020 ever

The NAD 1020 preamp is basically the preamplifier section of the first edition or second edition (NAD actually uses the same 3020 amplifier PCB inside with all the power amp section components removed, and with a smaller power transformer), while the NAD 1020A and B are basically the preamp sections of the 3020A and 3020B, absolutely same, component for component but with a smaller power transformer

The receiver versions of the 3020 like the 7020 and 7020e/i were exact replicas of their 3020 counterparts but with an inbuilt radio. I would avoid these as the 7020 had a wiring mess inside and was quite unreliable while the 7020e/i, as with their 3020e/i counterparts did not have that original charm when it came to the sound signature for phono.

Of all the NAD amplifiers and preamplifiers i have owned or listened to, the best phonostage which i encountered was perhaps the phonostage of the NAD 1000 preamplifier. That was something indeed. It was so good sounding and so quiet that a lot of noise coming from records (especially the older ones) was dampened, resulting in pleasant listening experience. The sound was really warm, neutral and tube-like when paired with NAD poweramps. Of course, as I prefer only NAD for my amplification, i have never tried it with other poweramps.

Note: the above info is based on my personal experience with these models, having owned some of them and having serviced all of them. My opinion is based on my listening experience using a Technics SL3200 with Shure M44-7/N44-7.
Great information. Thank you.
You are a Nad Man:D
 
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I have used various phono stages from Yaqin MS 12B valve to ifi phonostage, EAR 834 clone and a few more but for my taste of music of the sixties and seventies, many phonostages of Integrated amplifiers are excellent. Yes, some of the phono that comes with the new integrated amplifiers are not upto the quality of the vintage amplifiers. I am particularly fond of the phonostages of Sansui amplifiers and vintage Pioneer recievers especially for vintage cartridges like Shure. I suppose those days turntables were used by most users and the companies made quality phonostages .

+1 Kuruvilla sir,
I have Sansui QRX 7001, recapped. the phono stage I feel is very sweet . I have not listened to any other phono stage or any other audiophile setup For that matter. I can still say its really good. I even tested a quad record ( daark side - ) with the receiver which was amazing. though I am not very sure about the exact requirements for a quad record to he heard ( low capacitance wire etc) , I managed with 3009 improved tonearm with AT20SA. on the 301. the combination of Garrard/Shibata/qrx 7001/and JBL L40- is satisfying for me.
as I posted in the cart re tipping thread, I was lucky to get the number of Mr. Mony in Trivandrum to retip/repair my both 20SA , AND 15SA.
 

reubensm

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Another example of a very nice sounding phonostage, featured in the vintage NAD 3150 stereo integrated amp, has switched capacitance loading for the cartridge and MC capability. Its really warm and smooth and features a low-noise design.

NAD 3150.png
 
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