It would seem, why buy and install the best phono preamp as a separate device when its integrated brothers are already in modern audio equipment (in particular, in some models of mixing consoles)? The point is that microphone preamps, made in the form of a separate unit, provide better sound transmission than the built-in mixer preamps and, as they say, have their own “sound character.” What is a preamp, what are the best models and how to choose it? Let’s go and see.
How to choose your phono preamplifier
Choosing your phono preamplifier according to the cartridge
The problem of choosing a preamp for turntables is closely related to another problem: the problem of cartridges and pickup needles to them. The fact is that two types of heads are suitable for modern advanced turntables – MM and MC. I will not bother with technical terms. It is believed that MC sounds better, but they also cost much more. Most vinyl drivers listen to records through standard MM needles/cartridges. Most turntables sold in stores are equipped specifically with MM cartridges. Because MC is already the next price level for the money (MC should correspond to the whole sound system in general and a turntable). It is also worth noting that not everyone needs it.
In our turntable preamp review, most devices support two types of the most common MM and MC cartridges, and specific support is indicated in each review.
Technical characteristics to take into account when choosing a phono stage
A parameter that shows the quality of the product is the signal-to-noise ratio: it should be as large as possible. The main thing here is that the turntable preamp itself has a minimum noise level. Also, a high-quality record player preamp may have (or may not have, and this is not an indicator that it is worse) signal and overload indicators and input switches.
There are two main opinions on the operation of these devices. The first is that the preamplifier does not have to bring anything “from itself,” but simply perform the function of cleaning the signal from interference and bringing it to the desired level. The second is that the preamplifier should have such parameters as musicality, brightness, warmth, and transparency of the signal. As a rule, people who hold the second opinion argue that all these parameters are for a tube phono preamp, unlike semiconductor ones.
Choosing the phono preamplifier according to your vinyl turntable
It is worth noting that for each individual equipment, its own amplifiers are used, which have special characteristics.
Best phono preamps
Phono preamp under 100
VP29 is a simple but integral part of vintage home audio. Its design is intended not only to provide the RIAA alignment curve but also for smooth and quiet operation.
It supports MM cartridges and MC cartridges. RCA Inputs / Outputs is 1/8 ” (3.5mm) TRS Output. It also has an AC power adapter (included). The VP29 equalizes and amplifies the phono signal to a clean and full line level for professional amplification.
- The ground lug is great to have and is needed if you have an old turntable to keep the hum noise away
- I do not hear any hum with my setup
- I noticed more definition through the whole spectrum of sound while using this device
- Decent caps used, electrolytic, but at $50 they are quality parts
- Ground plug kind of moody took a little noodling to kill the hum
ART DJPRE II
High-quality preamp with phono stage ART DJPRE II is designed to work at home or in the studio. It serves as the interface between a vinyl player and sound recording / reproducing equipment. The capacity of the analog input signal can be switched between 100 pF and 200 pF to optimize the sensitivity of the pickup head. A switchable frequency filter removes the noise created by the vinyl player, leaving a clear sound output. The gain control on the front panel and the LED signal/cutoff allows you to select the desired gain level for various input sources. The line output connectors are low impedance and can be used with almost any sound card. Housed in anodized aluminum, the ART DJPRE II can be powered by a variety of power sources. It supports only MM cartridges.
If you need to process the signal of your vinyl records with an amplifier and equalizer of a digital workstation, sound card, home stereo system, or main speaker monitoring system, DJ PRE II gives you the opportunity to create perfect audio playback in its compact size. This is probably the best phono preamp under 100.
- The gain control with clipping indication is pretty neat
- I don’t hear any power supply noise coming through
- The power-on LED (blue) is way too bright
- It has no on-off switch
Phono preamp under 200
Emotiva Audio XPS-1
The best phono preamp under 200 combines superb analog sound quality with excellent technical specifications. Accurate alignment of the standard RIAA curve (within +/- 0.25 dB). It provides support for both cartridge types: MM and MC.
Switchable input impedance to match different types of MC cartridges. Exceptional Signal to Noise Ratio and extremely low distortion. There is a sophisticated multi-stage power supply for superior noise performance.
It features all-metal housing for durability and excellent protection against noise and interference — convenient form factor to place next to the vinyl player.
What I noticed is gold-plated brass input and output connectors, as well as an earthen connector. Ideal for adding additional phono inputs to any stereo preamplifier or audio processor. Small enough and economical to use with any type of vinyl player.
- This works well for a wide range of phono cartridges
- This preamp will really be able to help you find the sound you want from your vinyl
- When I removed the ground lug and placed it right next to the Stereo Amp, I got some noise
Cambridge Audio Solo
The leader in positive phono preamp reviews.
The preamplifier uses a carefully thought-out circuit topology for high-quality sound. The model boasts high-quality components and a built-in specialized switching power supply, which is equipped with a metal screen and has a very low noise level. In this case, the installation of elements in the circuit board is performed using the surface mounting method, i.e., parts, in this case, are mounted directly on the surface of the printed circuit board without using through holes. Thanks to this technical solution, it is possible to achieve a high mounting density, minimize noise, and eliminate interference.
The company’s engineers made sure that the low-frequency rumble arising from the reproduction of old warped or crooked vinyl discs does not cause overload and damage to the speakers of the speakers. To do this, onboard the Cambridge Audio Solo, there is an infrasound filter that successfully copes with this problem. The model also received a balance adjuster integrated into its rear panel. Such a technical solution, uncharacteristic for phono stage converters, turns out to be quite useful in practice, since it allows you to level out the difference in the volume of channels, which can be caused by various factors, including deterioration of the vinyl plate or the cartridge itself. The preamp is moving magnet only.
- Mids are excellent as is mid-bass
- Does not use one of those wall wart type power supplies
- Absolutely no distortion
- The manual took time to understand it
NAD PP 2e
NAD PP 2e is the new MM / MC phono stage with an external power supply. It is ideal for thrifty audiophiles, it is incredibly easy to use and will surely please lovers of vinyl records. Its distinctive features are low noise, a wide band of MM & MC phono correction, through it, you can connect your vinyl player to almost all amplifiers and receivers. Cheap phono preamp has gold-plated input connectors, an LED power indicator, and an external 24 V power supply.
The PP 2e’s Auto Power Down feature saves energy by automatically powering the PP 2e to OFF when not in use.
- The highs and lows are nice, clear and concise
- The setup is easy
- The results are amazing even with old equipment and older records
- The NAD did not boost the signal high enough, and I could not get any volume or dynamics
Phono preamp under 500
Puffin Phono DSP – Best Overall
Apart from being the best device according to price/specifications, it is the best phono preamp under 500.
It has both MM and MC cartridges support. The Puffin offers the flexibility to adjust the volume, gain, bass, treble, tilt and air (and other parameters). Thus you can listen to your turntable with various headphone types with varying sensitivities and impedances from 32-300 ohms. You no longer have to adjust gain settings to optimize the volume range for each headphone and open up headphone amps, etc.
All I can say is wow! I underline the ease of use and the ability to customize the sound. 90% of my vinyl is from the 1970-80s, and many of the LP’s have less than perfect recordings. Lack of bass, bright, fatiguing highs, etc.
- Puffin allows me to tame the shrill highs, enhance the bass, and add a bit of “tube.”
- The Puffin is so easy to use without having to read an instruction manual
- The various modes enhance the sound – no tube rolling, cable changes or cartridge upgrades needed
- The housing may seem flimsy for some users
Vincent PHO 701
The Vincent PHO-701 tube preamp for 500 is based on the PHO-700 model, the characteristics of which, according to the developers, were already quite high. But there is no limit to perfection: they decided to make the successful PHO-700 even better and released the PHO-701.
So, in the 701 models, there were Dip-switches at the bottom of the device, with which you can adjust the phono stage for a specific cartridge, choosing the impedance and capacitance. The switch between the MM and MC cartridges is located on the back of the device. The phono stage circuit uses a 12AU7 lamp that functions as a double triode.
Also, the phono stage is equipped with a USB output, which makes it possible to digitize your favorite recordings. The power supply unit of the new product, like its predecessor, is external and is designed so as to avoid spurious interference and noise.
- The Vincent 701 was very well packaged and hooked up easily
- Manual was well written and it was easy to follow
- The soundstage was wide and warm and impressive separating vocals and each instrument
- Although the included 12au7 tube sound was quite nice, I could not resist a bit of tube rolling with vintage vac tubes
Onboard are balanced and unbalanced outputs, a switchable rumble filter, and a switch between mono and stereo modes. Independent circuits and separate inputs are provided for working with MM and MC cartridges. The switch between MM and MC is located on the front panel, and the load regulator for MC-heads is located on the rear panel. For MM cartridges, you can select a gain of 40 or 50 dB. The power supply is built-in, linear.
It is compatible with all preamps. The device has selectable gain for a pickup head with moving magnet or moving coil, AC polarity switches to eliminate background buzz.
Ultra-small distortion, the error according to the RIAA standard, is not more than 0.25 dB.
- I have one output hooked up to my home theater system and the other to my computer. In addition, I can plug my headphones indirectly, so there are only the Parasound and my ‘phones between my source and my ears
- This unit provides the versatility I need
- It may only output CD-quality sound, so a “True Audiophile” might not be impressed
Phono preamp under 1000
Pro-Ject Phono Box RS
The best phono preamp under 1000 – Pro-Ject Phono Box RS has a fairly wide range of changes in various parameters, which provides it with maximum compatibility with any MM and MS cartridges. The model received a completely metal case, eliminating any interference, and differs from the traditional boxes made in the traditionally minimalist style with a large number of controls on a thick aluminum front panel.
Circuitry Pro-Ject Phono Box RS is made on the principle of “double mono.” As the preamplifier chip, the Analog Devices SSM 2019 is used. The output stage has a low resistance. There is an infrasonic filter that eliminates low-frequency parasitic vibrations caused by the mass of the vinyl plate and the mechanics of the player.
Phono Pro-Ject Phono Box RS is equipped with balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. All of them are located on its back. There is also a filter switch, a switcher between the XLR and RCA connectors, a grounding terminal, and two DIP switch terminals for selecting indicators of cartridge load capacity. The preamp for 1000 model receives mains power from a separate external unit, which is connected to it through a special connector.
- The preamp is not overly bright
- It’s been extremely flexible, I have used it with several cartridges
- Another positive is that they are now offering an external battery power supply for this already very quiet unit
- If you are searching for a boost in high-end sparkle, this may not be the preamp for you
Phono preamp under 2000
SPL Phonos ProFi
A quick glance at the best phono preamp under 2000 reveals two of the most desirable sound performance requirements – user-selectable input capacitance and impedance controls (both explained in our buying advice below). This, plus the fact that Phonos can receive signals from cartridges such as MM and MC, ensures that this impressively designed phono stage can handle any vinyl era.
Despite the lack of balanced outputs, there are three user-configurable settings for amplifying the line output, including the -10 dB and pro-level + 4 dB options. The main reason for ProFi’s incredible gain and fidelity readings is SPL’s VOLTAiR technology, which uses an unusually high voltage, which benefits the increased dynamic range. Indeed, SPL managed to implement the most useful settings and, as before, win in terms of sound.
Balanced and unbalanced connections are often called pro and semi-pro, and can at times have a significant effect on sound quality. Generally speaking, balanced connections on phono stages are rare and are usually found in high-end instances (mainly in the form of three-pin XLR outputs).
- It is a powerful, clear amazing phono preamp with a lot of versatility to taylor the sound
- Hook up was super easy
- I do not recommend this piece for super low output cartridges. It does have a bit of self-noise
Best tube preamp
Pro-Ject Tube Box S
On the back of the phono preamp, there are two “banks” of jumpers for adjusting the capacitance and resistance of the input circuit in order to match the characteristics of the connected pickup precisely. Pro-Ject Tube Box S can work with MM and MC-type heads (the necessary gain is selected using the appropriate switch). An external power supply unit, providing 18 V of alternating current, is used to power the device.
The best tube preamp is made on the basis of components of a very high class. The RIAA-correction circuits use precision passive components of the audiophile class, lamps with gold-plated contacts. The contact surfaces of the output and input RCA connectors are also gold-plated. Corrector circuits have a “double mono” configuration, ensuring the identity of the parameters of both channels. For additional protection of lamps from mechanical vibrations, special damping pads are used. The device is assembled in a metal case (black or silver), reliably shielding its sensitive electronic circuits from external interference.
- Nothing flimsy about this unit
- Very clean treble sounds and very accurate bass tracking, which matters when you’re driving a sub
- I cannot play it at any significant volume because a feedback loop is created
How to connect a phono preamp?
Phono preamp is in the receiver
First you have to do is connect the audio signal of the vinyl player to the background input of the AV receiver. Under the PHONO input, there is a metal terminal labeled GND for grounding. Connect the ground wire of your player (if any) to this terminal. This helps prevent any “buzz” or noise coming from the operation of your player on your system.
Phono preamp is in the turntable
Just connect the audio from the vinyl player to one of the analog audio inputs of the AV receiver. These inputs are often referred to as “AUX” (auxiliary), “Line In”, “Analog In”, etc. If necessary, you can even use the input signal for your CD player or Tape tape deck. No other connections are required.
Phono preamp is a separate component
Start by connecting the audio cable of the vinyl player to the phono input signal. Be sure to connect the player’s ground wire (if equipped) to the ground terminal on the phono stage. Now connect the Phono Preamp audio output to one of the analog audio inputs of your AV receiver, connect the phono stage to its power supply, and everything is set up.
What is a phono preamp
This is an audio component that amplifies the signal from your turntable. What technical capabilities should the best phono preamp provide? The first is the number of input channels. You need to proceed from how many turntables (or other audio sources) you need to use at the same time. The option of providing phantom power for the turntable is almost always present: it should be possible to turn off the power if necessary.
The best budget phono preamp model should have manual gain control: it can be smooth or stepwise. A low-pass filter may be present in the preamplifier. This function allows you to cut off all possible low-frequency noise from the signal, including various kinds of interference, the hum of some instruments, etc.
Do I need a phono preamp
If there are a lot of tables, tonearms and heads with a good sound level, including in the medium-budget segment, then in terms of correction everything is not so rosy. There are plenty of correctors available, but, as practice shows, there are few really good-sounding devices, especially devices that are uncompromising in sound. It turns out that in today’s reality it is precisely the corrector that is often the “bottleneck” of the vinyl path.
The general tendency in the production of preamps is to simplify circuits, reduce the cost of components, save on everything and at the same time high prices. If we compare “by weight”, then the corrector is a little more complicated than the same preamplifier, however, the “kilogram” of most modern corrections costs much more than the same weight of a decent preamp. The development of the production of the mechanical parts of the vinyl tract is noticeably ahead of the development of modern preamp creating.
Is a phono stage the same as a preamp
To be precise, a phono stage is the same as phono preamp. However, not essentially an equivalent of a preamp. Within the context of turntables, the terms phono stage and preamp are usually used interchangeably. And customarily means that they are identical.
In a broader sense, a preamp will be more than a phono stage. A preamp can, for instance, be a preamplifier for an electro-acoustic transducer or analog sensors.
According to such resource as Wikipedia, phono stage is a narrower term used to describe less than phono stages or phono preamps.
What is a phono stage
The phono stage is an absolutely necessary thing in the economy of a true fan of “vinyl”. By replacing it with a model of a higher level, it is possible to modernize the audio system. By choosing a specific phono stage model, you can give the sound of the system personality.
In general, the topic of phono preamps is a complex and extensive topic, and it’s sometimes easier to assemble a good-sounding system from a table, tonearm, head and cables than to find the most suitable phono preamp for this.
A phono stage is a sound transformer from vinyl, because on vinyl, the sound is not technically recorded on a CD or other media. If you connect a turntable without a phono stage directly to an amplifier or a music center, then the sound will be barely audible even at the extreme position of the sound control and almost without bass. Turning on the phono stage immediately solves this problem.
Many budget players have a built-in phono stage, but in reality they lose the sound to their stationary counterparts. If the phono stage in the turntable is switchable, that’s good. So, you can eventually buy a good one and put it in the path between the turntable and the amplifier (receiver).