Though the era of vinyl records is long gone, the global community of vinylophiles — adepts of the “live” mechanically extracted sound — is still very much alive. However, if you are a novice in this field, you certainly have a lot of questions about the basics and terminology, such as “What is a preamp?”
A phono preamp or a phono stage is a signal amplifier that connects the vinyl record player to the power amplifier of an audio system. There are two types of this device — MC (Moving Coil) and MM (Moving Magnet) — depending on which part of the cartridge moves in order to generate an electrical signal.
The choice of the best phono preamp and the unique features of its sounding are the subject of heated debates among vinyl enthusiasts. However, it is widely believed that the main advantage of digital phono stages is the predictable result, that is the expected high quality of sound. The task of a phono stage is to align the distorted amplitude-frequency characteristic of a signal. It is interesting to note that for a long time different record producers used their own versions of the correction curve. Thus, among the advanced vintage models of phono-correctors, there are devices that can switch between six different variations of the curves. Expensive digital preamps offer very decent sound along with high functionality, often good clarity, sufficient depth of low frequencies, excellent dynamics and a wide scene. In this article, I have collected for you the best turntable preamp reviews to compare their strengths and weaknesses and make the right choice.
Best Phono Preamp Reviews
Phono Preamps Under 100
ART DJPRE II: an Affordable Choice with Decent Quality
There is one feature in the DJPRE II design that definitely catches the eye — its blinding blue LED. You will surely need some black tape to cover it. It’s wise to buy a solid best phono preamp like ART DJPRE II, which offers decent characteristics for the money. It is hard to find better device for the same price. Connect the turntable with a short cable for better performance. The volume matches any equipment that can be plugged into the same receiver speakers. Sounds are rich and vivid; the device opened up the sound stage and improved the clarity. And I could not believe the price of this versatile product! When most good preamps cost hundreds and up to one thousand, it’s hard to imagine what they could possibly do that this one can’t.
Pay close attention to the instructions on plugging the preamp into the receiver/integrated amp inputs. Be careful not to plug it into the phone jack, find a free Aux or Tape jack to plug into. When selecting the low-cut filter on the DJPRE II, I indeed get a low cut (though not as steep as in the Pluto model) but also a high-cut above 19 kHz or so. Not sure if that is a bad thing, but it is not what the button says it is doing.
The ART DJPRE II is a great bargain despite some strange phase shift at low frequencies and lower input dynamic range.
- Quiet and reliable.
- It’s good preamp for turntables especially considering the price.
- Possible to switch the input capacitance.
- It has no on-off switch, and the power indicator is incredibly bright.
Rolls VP29: The Pure Essence of Preamps
The VP29 is a solid state phono preamp for use with moving magnet and high output moving coil cartridges. This cheap phono preamp is manufactured in the US and ensures amplification of an RIAA-equalized phono signal to a high-level signal. This record player preamp does what it should, and there are no issues with its sound that has impressive quality considering its price range. This is good option for audiophiles on a budget. The ground lug is good to have, it should be useful if you have an old turntable, to prevent the humming noise. The Rolls VP29 is a simple plug-and-play phone preamp, which has no buttons or knobs and is designed to perform one task and one task only — amplifying the sound of your favorite vinyl record to a standard playback level with RIAA equalization.
- It produces the sound with a nice musical quality. The unit sends a nice strong signal, it did not get lost in some of the more difficult records.
- There are no controls on it at all: neither a volume control of the 3.5 mm stereo input nor a power controller.
Phono Preamps Under 200
Cambridge Audio Solo: a Reliable MM-only Device
This sturdy device has an external power cord, and the power supply is built inside the unit. The Cambridge Audio Alva Solo is a moving magnet preamp. Considering its sound, the mids and midbass are excellent, but it would be perfectly completed with high-frequency sparkle. For the price, it is a nice moving magnet phono preamp and even better than built-in preamps that may be present in Mid-fi home theater receivers. The headphone amp and volume control are nice features, but if you already have a decent preamp or stereo system, you may not gain any benefits. Overall, the Cambridge Audio Solo gives you quite a bit for a pretty good price.
- Nice fit and finish, the case looks solid.
- Labels for the inputs are written upside down and right side up, which is a nice touch.
- Balance knob in the back is useful if using a built-in headphone amp.
- After a few hours of use, the unit began emitting low hum.
Emotiva Audio XPS-1: Compactness and Versatility in a Full-metal Case
The Emotiva Audio XPS-1 throws out big powerful punchy sound with a good tonal balance: bass-mid-treble are all there. Upper bass seems slightly bloated but don’t let that fact deter you. Overall, it’s very impressive: no noise, no coloration. The hum is absent, the volume is full-throated, and the sound quality is superb. Other perks associated with this equipment: four input settings for loading of your cartridges, MC and MM settings, a bulky metal construction, full documentation, including impulse response for both MM and MC settings. Its form-factor allows placement as close as it possible to the turntable. The XSP-1 has inputs for four unbalanced and two balanced sources. A phono input with selectable impedance is compatible with MM and MC. All the connections are produced with high quality, gold-plated RCA jacks or XLR connectors. The model has analog bass management capabilities as well as high-frequency and low-frequency trim options available.
- Incredible clarity and detail.
- Impeccable build quality.
- Remote is more style than substance.
NAD PP 2e: Simplistic Design and Energy-saving Features
When you connect the PP 2e to a MM head, you can recognize the sound as good by the following criteria: tonal and musical balance, lack of color, low noise level. The scene is not perfect — the sources are not so subtly focused as in an expensive professional phono stage. The biggest problems of cheap preamps are observed when working with MC heads; however, the PP 2e is clearly an exception to the rule. The vocals are somewhat simplified and the stereo scene is slightly blurred, but the sound space has gained greater depth, interesting details have appeared in the upper audio range, the bass has become more harmonious. In this mode this device fully revealed its strong qualities: neutral sound and low noise. The device uses a more effective power supply unit, consumes less energy, and has the auto power-off function. It is fully compliant with modern standards and, for this reason, may be named the best budget phono preamp.
- Neutral tonal and musical balance.
- A relatively small level of noise as when working with MM and MC cartridges.
- Problems with fine detailing and dynamics.
Phono Preamps Under 500
Parasound Zphono: Digitize Your Vintage Records
This preamp for 500 provides the versatility for you to enjoy and transfer cassettes and videotape audio to the digital format — all this in one unit. The power-on sensor and power-off delay are the main advantages of the Parasound Zphono. The medium fan speed setting is comfortable and almost silent, but the high speed preset is clearly audible.
Only thing is: I wouldn’t recommend it for enclosed cabinets; this device requires some open space and good air circulation.
- MC and MM cartridges are perfectly combinable with the receiver.
- It has poor noise level.
- The device can be used for recording.
- It’s not the same width as most electronic components and does look a bit odd.
Vincent PHO 701: Warm Sound of Any Vinyl Record of Yours
The phono stage brings out all the details from a track and it does have a warm sound. There is another new feature: it is equipped with USB outputs, which makes it possible to digitize your favorite records. The power supply of this model is external and is designed to avoid parasitic interference and noise.
The Vincent PHO 701 allows you to customize your equalizer to almost any commercially available pickup system. Switching the type of cartridge between MM and MC, as before, is carried out on the back of the device. The world of vinyl records falls under digitizing and I find this very promising. For now many vinyl releases come with an option of downloading theirs digital copies, so you can store them in a digital form and use on any device.
For vintage collections, the PHO-701 is equipped with a USB output, so any vinyl player can now be connected to a computer using it, which makes it possible to digitize records.
- Fantastically deep bass.
- Incredible build quality.
- Features a separate power supply.
- Bass is too loud and prominent.
Puffin Phono DSP: Accessible Unit for Your Customization
The unit lets you to control the shrill highs and regulate the bass if you need it. You don’t have to open up the box to access any details. The Puffin exceeds your expectations and allows you to enhance the listening enjoyment of your vinyl collection. No tube rolling, cable changes needed, therefore you can use it without an instruction. It has a good adjustment system, so it’s simple to customize the sound. In addition, the Phono DSP has a digital display, while other preamps don’t. It can be easily hooked up, as all the ports are clearly labeled.
- Lots of gain settings.
- It is compatible with any cartridge type and is especially good for old records, reducing surface noise and adding ‘tube’ harmonic warmth.
- Emits low humming noise.
Phono Preamps Under 1000
Pro-Ject Phono Box RS: Outstanding Enrichment of Sound
This preamp for 1000 does an excellent job with very extensive sound. The unit will give you the truly warmth of vinyl. The sound is light, with a slight emphasis on the upper middle. The detailing of the sound is higher than the average, which is heard even on classical music and large compositions. Maybe the dynamic moments are sharper than I would like, but the situation is not bad with detail and dynamics.
- Clarity and spaciousness of sound with great bass.
- Power supply emits annoying, very high-pitch noise.
MUSICAL FIDELITY MX-VYNL: Modern Construction for Your Room Design
The MX-VYNL is able to satisfy even restless experiment lovers. Various settings implemented in the unit let its owner to operate it easily and quickly. Special charm to the phono stage gives a stylish and effective body.
- Fully insulated inputs allow switching between two turntables.
- Ability to change the value of the input capacitance and resistance “on the fly”.
- High overload capacity.
- Fragile equipment.
Phono Preamps Under 2000
SPL Phonos ProFi: Extended Dynamic Range
This phono preamp has good dynamics, very clear sound and excellent instrument separation. Large selection of cartridges for MM and MC. If you choose a low frequency of 20 Hz, then it helps prevent the hum. SPL’s VOLTAIR technology, which uses an unusually high voltage, offers the advantages of an extended dynamic range. This model boasts fewer settings, but the manufacturer managed to implement the most important settings.
- Easy to set up.
- Very affordable price.
- Heavy to carry.
- If your Phonos ProFi goes down, you can’t take out the broken element.
Best Tube Preamp
Pro-Ject Tube Box S: Clear Bass Tracking
The first major feature of Pro-Ject Tube Box S — here is no hum. The thing is built like a tank and is very sturdy. With clean treble sounds and very accurate bass tracking, it is a really musical unit.
The tube phono preamp has incredible bass, mid and high tones. The preamplifier is easily adapted for MM and MC cartridges with switches, and its connections are straightforward.
- This preamp makes the music surprisingly enveloping and smooth.
- The valves for phono are replaceable.
- It does not have an adjustment knob; its switch installed in the front is only for turning on and off.
How to Connect a Phono Preamp?
- System 1: Phono preamp is in the receiver
Place the turntable near the receiver. Think in advance about your safe zone that can minimize the vibration of both units with low level of shaking. Connect the turntable’s output with a stereo cable. Find the inputs marked “Phono”, then just plug in the turntable’s output cable. In case your device has a ground wire, connect it to the GND terminal screw. If it doesn’t have the input, it should have a built-in preamplifier.
- System 2: Phono preamp is in the turntable
A phono preamplifier connects to a turntable to amplify the audio signal from a record, which allows it to be processed on new AV systems for playback. New AV receivers may not have a special set of jacks for the player. Instead, AV receivers receive a line-level signal from CD players and amplifiers, which does not require equalization or a significant increase in power. Turntables need additional amplification, so a receiver preamp is needed to work with receivers that do not have a dedicated set of connectors for players. Standard stereo cables are required to connect.
- System 3: Phono preamp is a separate component
In case you didn’t know, the music on your record can be heard without any electricity. Set an experiment and turn the speakers down to zero in a quiet room, so you can hear thin, tinny version of the music. It’s due to the stylus and cartridge, which receive electrical signals. The power of that electrical signal is pretty weak, and before you can enjoy the loud music, it needs to be amplified.
The low signal is amplified by a separate component known as a “phono preamp”. A signal goes into a preamp at a “phono level” and what comes out is known as a “line level”.
Phono preamp — a simple explanation
The phono preamp is the device needed to play music from vinyl records. In the stereo system it is located between the LP-player (connected to it by the cable coming from the tonearm) and the pre-amplifier. The phono preamp performs two functions: signal amplification and its correction (RRIA correction). The electrical signal from the pickup head is so weak that without additional amplification, the preamplifier simply cannot perceive it since the input threshold of the preliminary or integrated amplifier is significantly higher than the signal level from the pickup head.
Is there any difference between a phono stage and a preamp?
The term “phono stage” in its broadest meaning denotes a separate preamplifier, as opposed to its integrated versions. Thats is why these terms are essentially synonyms and refer to a standalone device that raises the turntable output signal to a line level and performs other improvements. Any amplifier or receiver has line inputs for sound sources such as turntables or tuners. They are set to a certain signal level — not lower than 150-200 mV. It’s called “input sensitivity”. The signal from the magnetic head of the turntable is lower in sensitivity: for MM-type heads – 4-5 mV, for MC-type heads – about 0.2 mV.
Is a phono preamp necessary for my system?
The phono stage is a completely necessary thing in the household of a real “vinyl” fan. By replacing it with a more advanced model, you can upgrade the audio system. By choosing a specific model of the phono stage, you can add individuality to the sound of the system.
Important features to keep in mind before buying
The problem of choosing a phono preamp for a turntable is closely related to another task: the choice of cartridges and pick-up needles for them. The fact is that modernly advanced turntables fit heads of two types – MM and MC. I will not bother with technical terms and I will say simply — it is believed that the MC sounds better, but they cost much more. Most vinyl fans listen to their records through standard MM needles/cartridges. Most turntables sold in stores are equipped with MM cartridges because MC cartridges are the next price level. In addition, MC cartridges should correspond to the turntable and the whole sound system in general, and not everyone needs them.
Thus, before buying a phono stage you need to understand what kind of the head, MM or MC, is on your turntable. The problem of choosing a turntable preamp is connected to another problem with compatible cartridges and needles. There are two types of heads for modern vinyl players — MM and MS. The MC sounds better, but it’s much more expensive. In addition to its MM/MC-type, the phono preamp has other featuring parameters, such as output resistance and output capacitance. The most advanced models from our list of phono preamps allow you to set these options, providing a more accurate recovery of the frequency response. Depending on the MC or MM cartridge, you will need a different level of amplification. Almost all phono preamps will provide their minimum gain of 40 dB, which is enough. You can also choose a model that gives amplification up to 45-50 dB.