Weak Link in Vinyl Playback

Hi Everyone,

I’m looking for some input on a weak link in my system, mostly in regards to my vinyl playback chain in a 12’x11’ room.

I currently have a Technics SL-1700 MK1 with an AT-VM95ML cartridge. The turntable is connected to an iFi Zen Phono. The phono is connected to a Schiit Saga S via 3 ft. Blue Jeans BJC LC-1 cable, and the Saga runs to a single Schiit Vidar by the another set of the same cable. The Vidar is connected to Elac Debut B6.2’s via 10 ft. Belden 50000UE cable (as an aside, my digital path is Pro Ject S2 Pre Box Digital connected by the same 3ft. interconnects to the Saga>Vidar>speakers). I’ve connected a sub previously (a Martin Logan Grotto I that I inherited) to the Saga in the past, but am currently running without it.

My concern is that while the digital path sounds full to me, at least as much as can be expected, the vinyl path sounds a bit thin and weak. I guess I’d describe it as kind of lacking energy. My gut tells me the Saga S having 0 gain in both the passive and buffer mode (I run it in passive mode because it sounds more lifelike to me but I’ve used the buffer in the past as well) is the reason for this, but I’m not positive. I’m ready to upgrade to the Freya S if that’s the solution, but I didn’t want to start throwing money at a problem without really narrowing it down first. The Zen phono is set to MM and gain 1, which should be correct for my cartridge, the interconnects aren’t overly long (the speaker cable being 10’ isn’t too big a deal, I think?), the Vidar should be driving my inefficient speakers with no issue and judging by the digital path, it is. 

I’m hoping someone here can weigh in on what would make the biggest positive impact in my listening and give me the oomph I think I’m missing. For what it’s worth, I plan on doing some room treatment down the road, but that’s not what I’m looking for advice on at the moment.



For the level of setup you have, I'd spend a couple bucks on a cartridge upgrade.

The concern with cables if unnecessary.

@tablejockey thanks for replying! You feel I'd get more from a cartridge upgrade the a pre-amp upgrade? Any suggestions you can provide?

Try a 95SH stylus on your cart.

I don't have the AT-VM95ML but I have an AT-VM540ML and an AT-VM95SH on separate headshells for my Technics SL-1200GR. The 95SH gives a fuller, more rounded sound with a slight decrease in overall detail.

I understand that the cartridge or tube phono stage can "color" the sound differently so to speak, but will these address the lack of energy when listing to vinyl? From what I've read online about the Schist volume controls, it's normal to have to go past the 3 o'clock position to get reasonable volume, but I can basically max the volume and still get a kind of anemic sound. This isn't so much of an issue with digital sources because I keep the DAC locked at full volume and the Saga isn't doing as much lifting there.

@owl9113 Your cartridge is a high output MM type. This type of cartridge needs to be loaded correctly to prevent very high audio frequency or ultrasonic resonance. If in the audio band, which seems to be the case here, the resonance will act like a tone control, boosting the extreme highs. Your ear will thus perceive this as a bit dry- by reducing the highs, the ear will seem to pick up on the lows better.

So before you do anything else I recommend looking into loading your cartridge correctly. The inductance of your cartridge is 550mH. I don't know the capacitance of your phono cables, but they play a role in this (when inductance and capacitance are in parallel as you have in this situation, you get a resonance). So you need to find that out and then drop the numbers into this calculator:


I would read that whole page if I were you.

If the stylus is older than 4 years, its suspension may be perished. If that happens the cartridge can sound dry. So replacing the stylus is worth looking into as well.

@atmasphere This is all news to me as I'm still learning a lot of this stuff. If I understand correctly, adjusting the load is something that's done on the phono stage, and it looks like the iFi Zen that I'm using has a fixed load at 47K Ohms. Am I referring to the same thing you are?

FYI, the cartridge is only a year old and well-cared for.

it looks like the iFi Zen that I'm using has a fixed load at 47K Ohms. Am I referring to the same thing you are?

@owl9113 You are. Cartridge loading is one of the more arcane issues of LP playback and it can have a big effect on MM cartridges! Its worth doing. A phono preamp manufacturer is being remiss if this issue is not addressed. In addition to tonal balance problems, the resonance can cause ticks and pops that sound like they are on the LP surface if the phono section has poor high frequency overload margins! Loading the cartridge eliminates that issue- so it can reduce ticks and pops depending on the design of the phono section.

FWIW its far easier to design a tube phono section that has good overload margins than it is solid state.

Some phono sections will have an extra RCA jack which is intended for loading purposes. Sometimes its handled by DIP switches internally. But there should always be some sort of provision, otherwise its impossible to get all the performance out of the cartridge and the phono section together!


@atmasphere so, according to What Hi-Fi my phono does feature cartridge adjustment. Could it be that they're considering the ability to select between different gain levels for different cartridge types as such? Here's the quote from the manual: 

1. corresponds to MM

2. corresponds to MC HIGH

3. corresponds to MC LOW

4. corresponds to MC V-LOW

(>2mV) (≤2mV) (≤0.5mV) (≤0.25mV)

The phono allows you to choose cartridge type and gain level independently, but others online advise against choosing non-cartridge specified gain levels (the 1-4 I quoted are what you can toggle the switch between).

Maintaining both digital and analog systems is quite costly. You have some inexpensive options suggested above, but before spending more on the analog side, consider how such expenditures might improve your digital. I say this because getting analog right can be an unexpectedly expensive endeavor.

I say this because getting analog right can be an unexpectedly expensive endeavor.

It used to be that getting the digital right compared to the vinyl was the expensive bit.

@owl9113 The cartridge gain settings won't have anything to do with loading. You might try setting number 2 and see how that works- you won't hurt anything if you overload the phono section doing so. Sometimes if the gain of the phono is too low, the system can sound anemic. So this might be worth a try.

@atmasphere It looks like the loading value is determined by the gain setting on this guy. I'm trying it at 2 now.

So using gain 2, I definitely get a fuller and more muscular sound - hoping it ins't just placebo. If it is actually making a difference, does this point to the weak link being the phono stage in that I basically have to go against manufacturer spec to get this sound, the cartridge not having enough gain to match with the phono manufacturer spec, or the Saga preamp not doing enough of it's job to provide the necessary gain for my setup?


Think Long, have a game plan for the next few years.

I favor tubes, but I’ll keep my comments regarding your SS equipment.

1. My Office System: I tried ifi phono, nope, sent it back. tried cambridge duo, nope, sent it back. (both had good reviews) Pyle $14. MM phono sounded better than them. Eventually using built in Phono of my Little Luxman.

So, I would definitely change the ifi and buy new phono stage, from a source that allows returns. Keep going until happy (assuming other changes you make are already complete.

2. Cartridge: I prefer wide channel separation, and tight center balance: both improve imaging quite a bit. Your existing cartridge has only 23db separation, not great. It’s channel balance of 1.5db is pretty good, I like 1.0db more, but ...,

while you could change the stylus, the body will still make around 23db separation, so,

I would go for a new cartridge.

Alignment: who will install/align your cartridge for you? It HAS to be done right!

AT VM540ml


has 28db separation and tight 1.0 db channel balance. It is the one I recommend to anyone trying to improve without too high costs. AT has a trade-in program, when it gets worn, they will keep it and sell you a new one for around 1/2 price. Over time, that lowers the cost.

btw, the stiffer the cantilever: boron say, will produce a speck more/tighter bass, however if they get 28db sep with aluminum cantilever that’s darn good.

3. Preamp: My friend bought Schitt based on good reviews here/there/everywhere. We DID NOT like it, sent it back. I suspect it might be part of the problem FOR YOU, in Your System.

4. Speakers: I have never heard them, but I know any 2 way, 6-1/2" mid trying yo make bass via a port would not be my choice. Port is in the front at least.

You could try them with a Stereo Pair of Self-Powered Subs, front firing adjacent to the 2 ways. Very low bass starts mono, however the overtones become directional.

Use with preamp line out to sub’s line in; then line from sub to amp, then amp to speakers. That method removes the need for the amp to make low bass, and removes the need for your 2 way’s to try and make lower bass. Sub must have line in/line out feature.

Again, subs from a source you can return.

5. Eventually, larger 3 way speakers with larger driver for lows. No port, if so, front firing only. Keep the new to you speakers limited to high sensitivity, 90db or more. That reduces the power needs, which reduces cost/size/weight, increases placement options.

Also, efficient speakers make it much easier to try tubes. same advantages as above, plus not so much heat as a bigger tube amp.

happy days making decisions,



Hello owl9113!  It could be as simple as cartridge alignmnt in the tone arm. Has it been bumped or been in transit lately?  Has it always sounded thin?  Could the cartridge be a bit loose in the tone arm? It's worth a try and there's no charge to you if you fix it yourself. Good Luck & Happy Listening.

The OP should always run the Saga in active mode. Passive (no gain) modes in preamps tend to have a dull, lackluster sound. Next, the AT cartridge has high coil inductance. This makes it really susceptible to capacitance loading. I recommend changing to a moving coil (Denon, Hana) or moving iron (Grado, Nagaoka) cartridge - all low inductance.

@atmasphere Thanks for posting the link to the Hagermann discussion, good information. 

@elliottbnewcombjr Very helpful and to-the-point. 
@owl9113  Great thread you’ve got going here. I think both responders are offering helpful suggestions. I’ve been trying to solve some of the same issues. For vinyl, I have found the biggest difference is the cartridge itself, although, to backup Elliott’s concern, cartridge setup —the overhang, alignment, ‘azimuth’, the weight of the stylus at point-of-contact, stylus ‘rake’ angle, anti-skate, etc. can be difficult for a beginner to master. I bought a used turntable and new cartridge, in part, to get all that stuff set up correctly, because I was having a heck of a time doing it myself. It turned out my original cartridge was simply worn out. But dropping the needle on the ‘new’ turntable was such a relief: it sounded wonderful to my ears, then and now. 
Like Elliott, I found the best sound from a phono stage integrated into a line level device. It was better than the Elac phono amp I tried, more clarity, lower noise floor, which has been an issue for me on some of the Schiit gear I’ve used. I do have experience with the Freya+. I found it to be quite serviceable, and the tube stage adds 6 dB gain, which can be very helpful when a turntable is the source. I have about given up finding an analog vinyl setup that can match the signal from a decent digital disk player or DAC, but by fiddling with the controls, I manage to ‘get what I need’ from the records on the turntable. The cartridge and phonostage have so much work to do, there is really no fair comparison between the two (digital and analog) in my view. They are different animals and best understood on their own terms, in my opinion. I am sure, with your approach, you will get there. 

You need to spend much more money on the analog side, judging from the components being utilized. Your not going to tweak much out of what is there. I’d say back to the drawing board, sell it all off and start anew...that’s just me and my take on things, not trying to be rude and can understand that what you have may be all you can afford for now. The reality is analog play back is not cheap.

@audioguy85 I wasn’t planning on dumping much more than say ~$600 into it at the moment, about the price of the Freya preamp when I started the thread. I know I can sell off stuff to offset the cost of different equipment, but barring that at the moment, what would you say I could do in the price range to have the most measurable improvement?

Thin generally describes the house sound of Audio-Technica cartridges.  The AT-VM95SH is basically the low end AT cartridge engine with a more expensive stylus.  You'd need to move away from that line if you want to beef up the sound.  I would recommend a Nagaoka MP-200 or Grado Platinum 3 if you want a more robust sound.

@boomerbillone I did the same as you, @oldrooney , with a used table and new cart. I bought the alignment protractor and went as in depth with it as I could so I think I have it "fairly" lined up as it should be and it Is definitely a learning process. Which device with integrated phono did you end up going with?

@elliottbnewcombjr @jasonbourne71 The Nagaoka keeps popping up on here and many other sites...

I should probably clarify my initial post. I certainly don't think my current setup sounds "bad" - to my novice ears - as far as highs, mids, lows, etc. I don't find any one area overly lacking, but what I do hear is that since I have to crank the Saga so high to get reasonable volume, it almost sounds like it thins out the louder it gets, like if you turn up the volume way too high on a cheap system and everything kind of distorts and flattens? 



Unless you have a substantial vinyl collection (whatever that means to you), I'd spend the money on better speakers and focus on digital.

My digital source is roughly 20% of the cost of my analogue source. Both are very good. Far better ROI on the digital side, and access to millions of albums costs $12 a month.



I think a lot of this has to do with amplification. Your cartridge seems to be putting out 2mv Thats not going to cut it for most line stage pre amplifiers so a Phono pre-amp is needed first, now we can get the mv's up to 2.5 volts so that the pre-amp (volume control) will then take it on to the amp ( when I say amp I mean non-integrated). The Phone pre amp is the Key to great vinyl sound.

I fully agree with matmiller phono stage is where it is. Sure there are many phono amps BUT the lower cost ones do the job but in your case the job is not being done.  Need to think about stepping up your phono preamp and realise that the cost might be the question in hand but with a weak phono stage you will never achieve your desired outcome.  I have a Schitt, sure it is good but no comparison to Musical Fidelity - cost high -  outcome enormous.  It is your system and what you can afford might be the limiting factor.  You are on the right track just need to decided the cost of the track.

On your turntable, do you have a VTA adjustment to adjust the rake angle of your tonearm? If your platter is slightly low and your tonearm is slightly low on the cartridge side, it’ll increase the highs and thin out the low/mid. If you were to raise the platter up, it would increase the low/mid and tame the highs a little. The alternative is finding a thin junk record to boost your effective platter height, and remove it if playing thick 180g albums.


Another trick I’ve found with solid state gear is to leave it on all the time. Things seem to smooth out as they’re left on for several days. Schiit gear especially so. Not sure if you’re already doing this, but it’s worth a try if you haven’t yet.


Now if you’re looking to actually upgrade some gear, look at a tube phono stage and down the line roll some tubes around as you see fit. Something like a Tubes4HiFi PH14 would be an excellent bang for your buck for an affordable tube phono stage ($500 assembled & ready) with a rich, classic sound. I just built a hot-rodded PH16 kit and it’s beyond anything I thought possible.




When I was upgrading my setup two years ago, I bought a turntable (Schiit Sol) and an overkill nice cartridge (Benz Micro Zebra L) but ran it through a budget Project Tube Box S2 phono stage. When I finally upgraded to my PH16 phono stage this year, I realized the error of my ways in upgrading my cartridge before phono stage. It was like trying to cook a nice steak dinner, but only having a microwave to prepare it. Lol. Anything you plan to upgrade, make sure to focus a few moves in advance. Just my $0.01.


@mattmiller : the OP is using an iFiZen phono stage into the Schiit line stage. He was using the Schiit in the passive mode (no gain). That way usually results in a lackluster sound. The same applies to the AT MM cartridge. I find MM cartridges with their high coil inductance to lack transient speed and dynamics compared to MC cartridges. I recommend a cartridge change to MC or MI.

The Hana EL (Elliptical Low output) MC is an easy recommendation at $500. A Denon 103R at $340 is another option.

Thanks for this great thread, everyone! It’s super informative so far. @mattmiller @jasonbourne71 is right, I am using a phono stage before my pre amp so the level in should be technically where it needs to be.

It sounds like some of you think the issue is the cartridge and others the phono stage. I understand that a better phono stage is going to potentially color or change the sound I’m getting, but in my mind, the issue lies with amplification. Am I right in thinking that a different cartridge will have a bigger impact there than swapping my phono? Not that it’s probably worth much, but multiple publications seem to love that iFi, so surely with the right setup, it can do it’s job. No one is singing the praises of my cartridge, LOL.

@owl9113 In answer to your question, I purchased a used McIntosh MC100, a two-piece 50th anniversary edition 2-piece (circa 1992) preamp for which I probably paid too much. It has both a Moving Magnet and Moving Coil input. The MC input features a step-up transformer by Ortophon. But I’m not currently using it with my turntable. Because of electromagnetic interference issues with my new (to me) B&W 801 Series II speakers, I have gone back to the Elac PPA-2 ‘Alchemy’ phono stage which allows the user to ‘dial in’ the impedance loading for each of its two inputs, one of which allows for balanced inputs from the cartridge. But I’m not using any of that because I have a Sumiko ‘Songbird’ cartridge which is characterized as a ‘high output’ Moving Coil design which calls for the standard 47 kOhm impedance loading, and puts out the also standard 2.5 mV. I am taking advantage of the Elac’s balanced outputs, though, in order to install the turntable on a stand in the next room and thus avoid both EM interference and a cluttered room. Please note that the balanced connection usually adds at least 3 dB to an unbalanced line (sometimes 6dB) and adds Common Mode Noise Rejection as well. I made the cables between the Elac and the preamp (I’m using they Freya+) 25 ft long —no problem.

So, that is my solution at the moment. I can get decent volume from the Freya into my McIntosh MC252 power amp while in buffered mode. When I want to ‘crank it up’ on an old favorite, I lift the needle and switch into Tube mode to pick up 6dB of gain (and some tube distortion). 
Regarding your issue at present, it seems to me that you basically have a mismatch between your cartridge and your phono stage. I don’t have any experience with the Ifi unit, but I heed the advice of both atmasphere (who manufactures world-class phono stages, preamps, and especially amplifiers, both tube and solid state, if you didn’t know) and JasonBourne71 who point to high inductance of any Moving Magnet design, not just your AT-VM95SH. I looked up the specs on your cartridge on the Crutchfield site, and the output from your dual magnet design was 3.5 mV (I don’t know what Magister was looking at); so your cartridge is putting out plenty of voltage. The specs also note a capacitance load of 100-200 pF. The Hagermann calculator atmasphere linked to would want that value to be in the 10-20 pF range for optimal loading. Not too many phono stages allow one to set the capacitance loading; sometimes one has to open up the box and actually swap capacitors in and out to make the adjustment, and as atmasphere noted, adjusting gain has no effect on the capacitance or impedance loading issue. 
Finally, I will note that the manufacturer of my turntable, MusicHall (the company’s owner’s name is Hall), ships their units (at least the 5.3 model I have) with some very high quality, directional, RCA cables. I think these cables account for a good portion of the turntable’s quietness compared to my former DJ-style Numark PTT-1 even when outfitted with balanced cables. So, before you drop too much money on a new phono stage, line stage, or power amp (or integrated amp), you might want to check with Blue Jeans about the suitability of your cables for your application. You might also want to check with Ifi to see how well it matches the requirements of your cartridge and if there is any way to change their unit’s capacitive loading, it may be undocumented. And as Elliott advises, in the meantime save your money and consider what a ‘perfect’ solution would look like to you. While I like the flexibility offered by separates; integrated solutions, done well, offer great value for money. At least you’re guaranteed (or reasonably assured) someone who offers a phono input has gone to the trouble of matching its output to the internal line stage! Consider what ‘house sound’ you prefer. I love my McIntosh gear, others disparage it profusely, some like Marantz, others sing the praises of PS Audio or Audio Research, or Atmasphere. To each their own; it’s your system after all. 

You likely have no equipment issue at all.  Vinyl as a source material will vary substantially depending on recording and pressing quality.  Before spending money (plenty of those suggestions above), why not acquire a known excellent vinyl recording and give it a spin?  I have many records that pale as compared to digital…and others that are far, far better. 


@owl9113 In case I misunderstood your question, the ‘devices’ I used to setup my cartridge on the Numark table included the Riverstone Audio Record-Level Turntable Stylus Vertical Tracking Force Gauge (a very handy item), a full-size protractor in the shape of an LP record, and Analogue Production’s test record which called for the use of a Hagermann Inverse RIAA filter, a multimeter, and an oscilloscope. My old Hewlett-Packard analog scope couldn’t deal with the milliVolt level signal being putout by the cartridge and I realized that for much less than the cost of the test equipment I could buy a used turntable already setup with a new cartridge by someone who had invested in the test equipment I lacked; so that is what I did. 

@owl9113 Another thing I noticed while I was on the Crutchfield site was that your particular cartridge was specified for S-shaped tonearms ONLY. It has a fancy Shibata shaped stylus that evidently requires the S-shaped tonearm install. If your turntable has a straight-arm, that may be contributing to your issue. 

@oldrooney my head is spinning from all of this, haha. Thank you so much for the wealth of information. I actually have the microline cartridge, the AT-VM95ML.

Setting the gain level to "2" on my iFi phono, which is how the user "adjusts" the load value on this unit, makes it 47K Ohms (as opposed to gain level "1" - 47K Ohms ((Load: 110pF for MM)). Between that change and @jasonbourne71 suggestion of active mode on the Saga, I'm getting closer to the volume and push I experience with my digital sources. Does this back up the idea of a mismatch between my cartridge and phono? If that's the case, I'm going to have replace one or the other. I guess what I'm trying to narrow down is whether it's just a matter of mismatch or if one of the components is just lackluster.

Post removed 

It looks to me like the 0dB gain preamp is killing you. To get more jump and fun you'll at least 10dB more gain from your preamp.

my quick thought


good luck






@herbreichert that was surely my initial thought when I started this, but I truly don't know anymore! LOL

I’ll go along with Herb on this one, you will pick up 12 dB with the Freya’s tube’s gain of 4, and 14dB if you go the Lisst tube replacement’s gain of 5.

Edit: Your cartridge and phono stage appear to be adequately matched. 


So I guess we aren't going to acknowledge that it could be a super simple turntable setup issue that could be solved with a few quick measurements? Do you know what your stylus tracking force is? Have you measured that with a cheap little digital scale? What kind of platter mat are you running, and how thick is it? Do you normally play thin vintage vinyl records or a bunch of new thick 180g records? Can you check if your tonearm is level when set onto a record or is it slightly tilted one way or the other? I know adjusting the gain settings can give more of a sense of oompf and drive, but I think it's likely your turntable just needs a quick little tweak. It should sound much more full and pleasing than your digital setup without changing any hardware.

@oldrooney They’re adequately matched even though I have the phono set to level 2 rather than 1? As for my next question, and I know what is going to happen as. soon as I ask this...are you happy with the Freya + over the Freya S which technically measures better? I’ve never gone down the tube road before...

@nlitworld I’d love for it to be a free or cheap fix! Tracking force is 1.8g-2.2g, standard at 2.0 which is where I’m set and I did dial in the tracking on the turntable before setting that but have not measured with a digital scale. Platter mat is the original that came with the 1700, 3mm thick. Record listening is all over the place as far as vinyl weight. Tonearm is not perfectly level on a record, I don’t know how one would do that on my table because the height on the arm isn’t adjustable.


Like I said, there isn't one specific area I find lacking, i.e. dead bass or no highs, it just sounds a little weak overall, like adequate power isn't reaching the amp so I'm trying to find what ins't producing enough.

The Hana cartridges are full sounding....The PS Audio Stellar phono pre will give you a more full sound and if that's still not full enough....add a $200 Schiit Loki Mini ...you can EQ. fullness into the sound to suit your taste. Great little unit.....

@owl9113 I’m just going by the manufacturer’s specifications for your cartridge, AT-VM95ML which is not that much different than the Shibata-tipped model (except it is a lot cheaper). The impedance loading at the phono stage should be 47 kilOhms and the capacitance loading should be between 100 and 200 picoFarads. These are fairly standard values. Your cartridge puts out 3.5 milliVolts, which is higher than the standard 2.5 mV, you should be fine at a gain of ‘1’ (36 dB of gain, although Ifi allows you to move up to a gain of ‘2’ if the system is not producing enough volume. However, as the Ifi manual states, on p. 18 in their FAQ “How do I Know which Cartridge Setting is Right for Me” that you may well not be able to match the volume of CDs or downloads because vinyl recordings are less ‘loud’ since they encompass a greater dynamic range than CDs or downloads [due to the ‘loudness wars of the 80’s, etc.] (contra @nlitworld above, and from my experience, vinyl recordings are quieter, but the needles bounce more).
Regarding the Schiit products, if I had it to do over again, I might choose the Freya S, I still pick up a gain of 4 (12 dB), but I don’t have the heat and distortion from the tubes, not to mention the ability to stack other items on top, like a Schiit DAC or an Ifi phono stage. The difference for me, between a gain of 1 (0 dB) and a gain of 4 (12 dB) was about a 1/4 turn on the dial, maybe a bit more. If you’re maxed out at a gain of 1 on Saga, you should expect to get the same volume at 2 or 3:00 that you’re now getting at 5:00 (considering the volume knob as a clock face. It sounds like that is what you’re looking for.

Edit: The Crutchfield add cited various capacitance loadings, but I could find no reference in the Ifi manual. Again, the capacitance issue, while critical if not correct, should be ‘close enough’ at this point in your audio journey. You can keep it in mind when you decide to upgrade from the Ifi Zen in your system now, but I still am with Herb on this one, your immediate problem in getting satisfactory performance from your system is the lack of gain at the preamp. Scratch where you itch, you’ll feel better for it.

@owl9113, @jasonbourne71 makes a point about passive volume controls. They interact with the output impedance of your sources, in this case the DAC and your phono stage, both of which have to drive your amplifier thru the passive control, which can really increase the source impedance that the amplifier sees (this is bad, in case there's any question). Its highly unlikely that both have the same output impedance! Because of that its very possible that the phono section is working alright, but is placed in a bad light simply on this account. So its worth trying to run the line stage active rather than passive.

@atmasphere @jasonbourne71 I actually just turned off the active mode for the first time last week, prior to posting which is why I said I wasn’t using it. I switched it back on for now - thanks for the clarification. That seems to further the inability of the Saga to run gain being the problem.

@oldrooney I have no allegiance to Schiit or anything, but the Freya S does seem to get legitimately good reviews and measures well. If there’s anything else in this price range with similar performance, I’m certainly open to hearing it.

It seems to me that you are looking for greater dynamics. To achieve this you need to increase the gain. When you increased the gain on the phonostage from 1 to 2 the system sounded better. Gain 2 is for cartridges with less that 2mV. Gain 1 is for cartridges greater than 2mV. You are stuck in the middle. Now if the loading of the MM gain 1 is preferred then you need a MM cartridge having greater output, say 3.5-5.0 mV.  

DACs output 2 or greater V. Passive preamps work well with that output. With vinyl an active preamp is often preferred. 

@mesch looks like my cartridge is rated at 3.5 mV, so level 1 is correct. I suppose I could always run the preamp active for vinyl, passive for digital. This would still apply to the upgraded preamp I was considering as well.

Here is a couple cheap essential items for setting up your table. I know some tonearms and cartridges are more susceptible to setup, and your micro line cartridge would certainly play into that. Mine surely does.

Here is a cheap digital scale


Here is a cheap vertical angle alignment block



As for the idea it being power issue, if it was truly the preamp, I would suspect your digital also had the issue. Your cartridge having 3.5mV output definitely likes the gain #2 setting on your phono stage and really that could be part of the underlying problem as well. Even with gain #2 selected on your phono stage (48dB gain), your 3.5mV from the cartridge is boosted to only 0.8V into the Saga, where your ProJect dac has an output of 2V giving it the appearance of much more oompf. To match your cartridge to the same input level of your digital, you'd need about 56dB of gain from your phono stage or just less attenuation on your volume control (i.e. crank it up). It seems what you are perceiving as a sound difference is likely just a level matching between your components.


To test that theory, download a dB meter on your phone and play an album at a decent loudness, and mark where the volume dial is and the average db level. Then play the same song on digital and note where the volume dial is when matching to the same volume level. I'd be willing to bet one is cranked to 3-4o'clock while the other is 11-12o'clock. This is not a deal breaker for musical enjoyment, just a quirk when running vinyl and digital on the same system. My setup is the same way where my phono stage is outputting 0.5V but digital is 2V and you compensate by adjusting the volume knob a bit.

@owl9113 Sorry, I thought I picked up somewhere that it was stated that your cartridge output was 2mV. Yes using your preamp in active mode for vinyl should help. 

@nlitworld Thanks for the product links - I actually have an alignment block already that I used. I am going to pick up that scale.


So with the phono level set to 2 and the preamp in active mode, vinyl playback will give me about the same decibel level as digital with the preamp in passive mode.

I thought a few posts back it was determined that I should be "good" with gain level 1 and my cartridge because it’s greater than 2 hah...aye aye aye. It’s markedly better sounding to me - maybe what help most is a phono stage that I can tailor to my cartridge more as far as load and gain. With gain level 2 set currently, I'm only at about 1 o'clock on the Saga, and it feels like it would be uncomfortable maxed out.