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Andover Audio, a Massachusetts company known for manufacturing high-quality, entry-level turntables and speaker systems, has added the SpinStage phono pre-amp to its lineup. The SpinStage is an outstanding audio component that delivers a surprising number of features and great sound for the price.
This review is related to TechHive’s in-depth coverage of the best turntables.
Lots of turntables feature a built-in phono stage these days, but there are plenty of reasons to consider using a discrete unit instead. The first—and most obvious—is that you own a vintage turntable and a receiver and neither of them have phono stages. The second is that you’ve upgraded the cartridge on your current turntable in an effort squeeze bit more life out of it before committing to an expensive upgrade, but its onboard pre-amp is holding it back. The third is that you’re ready for that expensive upgrade, and you want to get a great phono pre-amp at a reasonable price.
The SpinStage sounds great, and since it supports both moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) cartridges, it’s versatile enough to support years or even decades of turntable swapping and hi-fi experiments.
The purpose of a phono pre-amp
The signal coming from your turntable’s stylus and cartridge requires a boost to be loud enough to work with your audio system. It’s the most critical stage in the vinyl audio chain, and a step where unwanted noise can be introduced into the listening experience.
If you want to know why CDs were so exciting back in 1982, it was because digital was supposed to eliminate all the rumble from unbalanced turntables and electrical noise from dodgy phono stages.
An effective phono pre-amp will amplify the signal to match the industry standard RIAA curve without introducing any unwanted noise into the listening experience.
Moving magnet and moving coil cartridge support
The SpinStage supports both moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges. The cartridge is the electronic unit that sits at the end of the tonearm. The stylus plugs into the cartridge, which sends the unamplified signal to the phono pre-amp.
A moving magnet cartridge is the most type you’ll find on an entry-level turntable. It utilizes a magnet in a coil of wires. As the stylus traces the record’s grooves, the magnet moves to generate the electrical signal that will be boosted by the pre-amp. This type of cartridge generates higher output than a moving coil; but it’s also heavier, so it’s less capable of tracking subtleties in the grooves. Back on the positive side, it’s easier to replace the stylus on a moving magnet cartridge.
A moving coil cartridge reverses the equation: The magnet is stationary, and the fine coil moves in response to the stylus action in the grooves of the vinyl. This allows the cartridge to be lighter, but the signal it generates requires far more amplification compared to a moving magnet cartridge.
This is a simplified explanation of how the vinyl audio chain works. The important thing to note here is that the SpinStage is versatile enough to work with a moving magnet cartridge, and it can still be useful if you ever switch to a moving coil.
Andover Audio SpinStage design
The SpinStage is an attractive piece of gear with a bead-blasted, anodized aluminum case. There’s an RCA auxiliary input, so you can use the box as a pass-through to an amplifier or pre-amp with a limited number of inputs.
There are also separate RCA inputs for turntables that have either moving magnet or moving coil cartridges. A selector switch on the back lets you choose between those two options. With long enough cables, you could potentially connect two turntables if one had a moving coil and the other had a moving magnet cartridge, but the location of the switch would make it hard to go back and forth between the two.
There’s a ground wire connection and a confusingly labeled RCA “aux out” connection for sending the signal to your amplifier, pre-amp, or receiver. A power switch on the front panel also toggles between turntable and auxiliary inputs. An LED status light glows white for phono and green for aux.
The auxiliary port acts as a direct passthrough, so that signal is not touched by the SpinStage’s internal electronics. Phono processing includes isolated dual-mono circuitry to minimize crosstalk and maximize stereo imaging.
There’s also a separate MC gain stage with ultra-low-noise discrete transistors. This kind of transconductance topology is typically found only in more expensive designs. There are no capacitors in the phono stage’s direct signal path, which reduces distortion and qualifies as another feature not usually found at this price.
Advanced tinkering options
The SpinStage allows the listener to adjust the input resistance and capacitance to match the values recommended by the moving magnet cartridge manufacturer. A series of DIP switches on the bottom of the unit can be flipped to adjust the settings. It’s a thoughtful feature, even if it’s not something the overwhelming majority of SpinStage users will ever need to consider. If you’re drifting up to the moving magnet cartridge heights that will require an adjustment here, you’ll know from all the research you did before dropping the cash on that new cartridge.
So why has Andover Audio included such a feature? Because the SpinStage is designed to be flexible enough to support a wide variety of cartridges with features that aren’t otherwise available in a phono stage at this price point.
Listening to the Andover Audio SpinStage
I tested the SpinStage three ways: I first connected my Technics SL-1200 direct-drive turntable with an Ortofon OM 10 MM cartridge and stylus to the Spinstage, which I then plugged into a NAD S100 stereo preamplifier and a NAD 2400 Monitor Series amplifier connected to B&W P5 floor-standing speakers.
Listening to a 180-gram pressing of the 2016 remaster of David Bowie’s 1972 LP The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, there was an immediate upgrade in detail when compared to the NAD PP-1 phono pre-amp I’d been using before. There was longer decay on chiming guitar parts and better separation of individual drums on the low end.
I next switched to the Fluance RT81 belt-drive turntable, which comes with an Audio Technica AT95E cartridge and a built-in phono stage that can be shut off if desired. The AT95E is an outstanding entry-level cartridge, but it’s still on the lower end of the audiophile curve.
Fluance’s built-in phono stage is very good, so I was especially curious to see if the SpinStage could make a difference with the AT95E. The difference was not dramatic, but the SpinStage offered noticeable improvement over the Fluance phono stage.
Is the Andover Audio SpinStage a worthwhile investment?
What’s the takeaway from all of this? The better the cartridge on your turntable, the better the SpinStage will sound. In other words, this pre-amp will keep pace with upgrades to the rest of your home audio system for a good long time—or at least until you’re ready to make the leap to turntables and phono pre-amps that cost thousands of dollars.