Looking to invest in your own external phono preamp but unsure where to look? How exactly do you find the best phono preamps relative to your own budget?
Through resources like this, that’s how!
What is a Preamp?
For those who don’t already know, a preamp is a device you can find installed in different kinds of audio equipment. Even if you know all about turntables and record players, you might still be none the wiser about what exactly a preamp is. Sure, we can hear the terms phono preamp or phono stage relentlessly in these kinds of forums. But how are we supposed to understand how important are phono preamps without a little background?
Some of the most seasoned audiophiles are even unaware of the existence of the turntable preamp. The phono stages of an amp are essentially there to amplify the raw phono signal of the turntable to a higher volume so that it can be received by the entire audio system as it would receive other types of audio sources.
This raw signal is otherwise rather quiet. Thus, a little boost from a pre-amp is essential to preserve sound quality. Now, this can be a built-in preamp or an external preamp. But it better be a good one if you want your sound system to do justice to the audio signal.
The best phono preamps actually have a dual purpose. While they focus on boosting the signal, it is also important to concentrate on RIAA equalization.
It is all well and good, simply amplifying the raw signal until it is louder. But what is to happen to the equalization of the signal?
Quality turntable preamps will seek to preserve the precise curve of the equalization of the raw phono input once its signal has been boosted enough to be heard by the main stereo system.
How Do They Work?
A preamp adds a gain of some sort to the signal so that it can be received by the amplifier and/or receiver and then projected forth through them and the speakers.
The amount of gain added is quite astronomical sometimes. It is difficult to overestimate how quiet that raw phono signal is! You might be asking how this can be the case when the turntable is already receiving power from the mains. Can this funnel into the signal?
Actually, all of this power is already being applied to the spinning of the platter. This is, in fact, the only thing that the power from the wall socket is doing for a turntable. And why it is so important to have a strong and steady electrical current.
Sure, the stylus generates a signal itself from the grooves of the record. This signal is then converted via the cartridge to an electrical signal. This signal is, however, very weak and has an incredibly low output of 4 mv.
Compared to CD players and other media, this is almost laughable. So the preamp needs to boost the signal to 300 mv – a gargantuan feat, all things considered. Thus, it should not be hard to see just how integral a good phono preamp is in converting those weak phono signals into the sweet sounds of your favorite tunes.
Thankfully, it has never been easier and cheaper to buy a preamp. This device will not only serve you well and bring to life your favorite music. It is also not going to cripple your finances.
1. Rega Fono Mini A2D MKII (Best Best)
This offering from Rega already comes highly approved by critics, having won several awards for its preamp performance, seamlessly blending cost and performance. In terms of bang for your buck, this is likely the best phono preamp on the market today.
In terms of tonal character, this preamp offers warm and smooth sounds with a muscular bass that is altogether lively and engaging with a little more grunt overall than other competitors. Considering this is not a tube phono preamp, the level of detail in the lower and warmer frequencies is really quite impressive.
- Great value and cost-effectiveness.
- Admirable detail throughout the sonic spectrum, though, particularly at the low end.
- The USB output is fully capable and useful for those looking to transfer their vinyls to CD and the like.
- Solid build quality from a trusted audiophile brand.
- Only supports moving magnet cartridges – no support for moving coil cartridges.
- The tonal response might be a little too bassy and low-end-centric for some people, especially those more used to using the built-in phono stage on their more modern turntable.
2. Pyle Phono Turntable Preamp PP444 (Best Budget)
If you are looking for real value and are not about owning a bunch of tube phono preamps, then the Pyle PP444 is most definitely your match. In fact, when tested against the built-in phono stages of a Denon receiver (costing somewhere around $1600), it is quite difficult to tell the difference. Yes, indeed, this preamp sure is an over-achiever, unlike most phono preamps.
Of course, the Pyle does not quite match up to the Rega Fono listed above, lacking that characteristic warmth and low-end girth. That being said, it is more than capable of performing alongside the internal built-in phono preamps on the more affordable end of audiophile turntablism.
So, if you are simply looking for something fuss-free to get started spinning discs, then the Pyle might just be your match, offering almost non-sensical sound quality considering the price.
- Almost nonsensically low price point compared with the sound performance.
- Sound quality can compete with plenty of built-in phono preamps at much, much higher price points.
- This is the perfect preamp for those who want to get a proper stereo setup without breaking the bank.
- When compared to more expensive external preamps, the sound does leave a little to be desired, but the sound of this thing compared with the price is honestly difficult to comprehend. While the sound lacks the characteristic warmth of something by Rega, this is still an admirable performance.
- Only supports moving magnet cartridges, sadly.
3. Schiit Mani 2 Phono Preamp (Runner-Up)
Much like the Rega Fono Mini A2D MKII, the Schiit Mani 2 is easily one of the best affordable preamps available on the market today. As with the Rega, this really is a preamp to invest in once, which means you will likely not have to think about upgrading for some time. In terms of its quality, it really is the kind of preamp that you are likely to keep for life – even if you do decide to try something else; you will likely keep this one and perhaps even keep coming back to it.
Sadly, the Schiit Mani lacks the USB functionality that really sets the Rega Fono Mini apart from the rest, though it is versatile in its own ways, supporting both MM and MC cartridges and boasting an adjustable gain that operates separately from that on the amp itself. So, if you are looking for an affordable preamp that is also going to serve you well throughout your life, then you have to give this one a try.
- Comes in at a very competitive price considering just how reliable it will be and how likely you are to want to keep using it for the rest of your life.
- Supports both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, unlike many other similarly-priced external preamps in this category.
- Extra features like adjustable gain and its ability to support different types of cartridges set this preamp apart from the rest even further.
- Sadly, this preamp lacks the USB functionality that is so central to the Rega Fono Mini that many collectors today will be seeking when looking for their first preamp.
4. Pyle Phono Turntable Preamp PP555 (Under $50)
Much like its brethren – the Pyle PP444 – this is a preamp aimed at those who are not looking to break the bank when buying their first preamp but who would still like a piece of equipment that is going to serve them well.
The Pyle really does put so many other competitors to shame. Sure, they do not always offer the best nor the fullest sonic experience, but when compared to the price, their relative performance is nothing short of extraordinary.
- Much like the Pyle PP444, this is an incredibly affordable preamp that, while not exactly able to deliver the fullest sonic experience, will no doubt stun you with just how powerful it can be at such a low price point.
- Comes in an incredibly small and compact package for those looking to save space while still investing in a stereo setup where each individual item has its own place.
- The sonic experience on offer here is not going to be as lush or rich as some of the other more expensive offerings here listed, but for such value who really cares?
- Sadly, this separate phono preamp, like the Pyle PP444, does not cater to moving coil cartridges, only allowing for the use of moving magnet cartridges.
5. Pro-Ject Phono Box DC (Under $150)
From those much-loved and critically-acclaimed manufacturers of hyper-minimal turntables, Pro-Ject brings the world this offering. Much aligned with the aesthetics of their other products, this sleek and minimal preamp delivers plenty of the goods without many of the extra features that might otherwise have got in the way of an aspiring though relatively novice record collector.
Besides the incredibly minimal and inviting physical qualities of this preamp, the fact that it caters to both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges is a real bonus. It does, after all, feel rather short-sighted and ultimately burdensome to only allow one type of cartridge to work through its machinations.
- The sleek and minimal design aesthetic is likely to appeal to those who are either already into this sort of quality in their home decor or who are new to record collecting. In this way, a novice can purchase and own a preamp that is not overwhelming with options, but that will still offer superb tonal responses.
- Supports both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, enabling upgrading of cartridges whenever the user desires.
- Sturdy and robust design by a critically-acclaimed and well-trusted brand.
- Could be said to be lacking in features – many other preamps at this price point are considerably decked out with extra features and the like.
- Minimal design aesthetics might not be for everyone.
6. Rega Fono Mini A2D MKIII (Under $350)
On equal pegging to its previous version, we have the Rega Fono Mini A2D MKIII, a worthy bearer of the righteous flame that the MKII brought into this world.
Much like its predecessor, this is a preamp with plenty of warmth and so-called grunt, designed by some of the best engineers in the business who have accrued some of the most prestigious awards in the industry.
If you are happy to go without adjustable gain and support for moving coil cartridges, then there really are not many better preamps in this price category than the Rega Fono Mini A2D MKIII or MKII.
- Much like its predecessor, this preamp is amply equipped to bring your records to life – the tonal response is warm and inviting, with plenty of girth in the low end despite there being no valves involved in the reproduction of the sound.
- Solid and robust build quality is evidence of the superior engineers who will have worked tirelessly on this preamp.
- This is going to be a preamp that you won’t soon forget or want to upgrade.
- The MKIII is more expensive than its predecessor without having much to show for the extra price.
- Lacks support for moving magnet cartridges which might be a problem for some.
- Also lacks any adjustable gain capabilities, unlike some other preamps here listed.
7. Rega FONO (Under $500)
Another offering from Rega, we slowly climb their price range to the next step of the chain. While the Rega Fono Mini is all well and good, those who take their tone seriously will prefer something a bit bigger and more capable. The Rega FONO is, after all, a multi-award-winning preamp with an exemplary quality of playback that delivers amazing results and looks good all the while.
Bypassing some of the cartridge shortcomings with the Rega Fono Mini, they have instead opted to release separate versions of this preamp, one for moving coil cartridges and one for moving magnet cartridges. Each has different circuitries perfectly matched to the relevant cartridges, totally separate from one another for optimal performance.
- Exemplary sound performance that builds on what the Rega Fono Mini does so well, offering one of the best preamp experiences you are likely to get under $500.
- Improves the Rega Fono Mini’s inability to cater to moving coil cartridges by offering separate versions for different cartridge varieties.
- Boasts a solid build quality with sleek design and finesse.
- Some may find the need for separate versions of the preamp depending on the type of cartridge they use a bit of a pain, especially if they are the kind of audiophile who likes to upgrade their equipment on a semi-regular basis.
- The price point is pushing decadence.
8. Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 (Best Tube Under $500)
All of the other preamps listed above have thus far been solid-state preamps. Amplification was originally done with tubes – this is a method that still continues in guitar amplification, and the same goes for phono amplification too. While the others above use transistors to replicate or simulate tube amplification, the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 offers a slice of the real deal.
Very often, $200 is more or less the sweet spot for finding a good and capable solid-state phono preamp. After all, this is not the amplifier or the turntable you are talking about, so spending anymore on just the preamp is difficult to justify, especially if the other components in your setup are of similar quality.
Tube preamps, though, are a different story and offer an unparalleled spectrum of warmth and harmonic variety that simply can’t be matched by solid-state preamps. As far as tube preamps go, this is likely the most affordable while still being one of the best for value, too.
- Easily one of the best affordable tube phono preamps on the market today – tube preamps offer warmth and harmonic variety that cannot really be matched by any solid-state preamp powered by transistors.
- Compatible with both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges.
- A great first tube preamp that, with due diligence and care, can be kept for a long time.
- The warmup time involved with a tube preamp – i.e. having to wait for the tubes to warm up before the preamp sounds good – might be a little cumbersome to some.
- Equally, the level of maintenance and care that need to be afforded to such a piece of equipment might be beyond the call of duty for some others.
- Not to mention the rather steep price point and the cost of replacing one of the tubes should anything happen to them.
9. U-Turn Audio Pluto 2 Phono Preamp
Though they are only a relatively new turntable company, U-Turn has become incredibly popular in recent years thanks to clever marketing tactics. Founded in Woburn, Massachusetts, they are run by and for real vinyl enthusiasts.
Sporting a sleek design that many other preamp manufacturers would be envious of, this is an able piece of kit that sounds just as good as it looks and works straight out of the box.
- Strong build quality from a company that is seriously passionate about vinyl, having been founded by a strong sect of vinyl enthusiasts who wanted to put their own spin on the format.
- The design is sleek and minimal, very much aligned with the current zeitgeist of ultra-minimalism in high-end decor.
- This preamp really does sound as good as it looks too.
- Sadly, though this preamp is incredibly pleasing to the eye, it does not welcome moving coil cartridges amongst its manifold folds.
- U-Turn has been creating a lot of busy but is perhaps not so reliable or trustworthy as, say, a brand like Rega, etc.
10. Cambridge Audio Alva Solo
And finally, we have one of the best phono preamps under $500, produced by none other than Cambridge Audio. Yes, though this preamp is a little late on the list, it does not suffer as a result.
Much like some of the other very sturdy preamps on this list, the Alva Solo has the potential to become a staple in your stereo setup, capable of bringing your favorite records to life without a problem.
Being one of the most abstract art forms, music is an inherently subjective thing – heck, it is even difficult to talk about. In this way, it is a subjective thing to own a preamp, so before making any big purchases, you should really try a bunch out and listen out for the differences, preferably using your own equipment to make a decision.
- Offers a unique tonal response that is well worth investigating even if you do not end up wholly investing in it.
- The build quality is sturdy and paired with a robust and desirable design that could easily slot into just about any more minimal home decor environment.
- Has the ability to become a preamp for life.
- Again, as with plenty of others listed above, there is a distinct lack of care toward catering to moving coil cartridges – this is an altogether unacceptable trend that ought to stop.
- Might be a little too expensive for some, especially considering the overall lack of extra features like connectivity between different cartridges and adjustable gain.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you have found amongst this extensive list a phono preamp precisely suited to your needs and tastes.
FAQs Best Phono Preamp
Are expensive phono preamps worth it?
This depends on your metric. If you are the kind of record collector that considers themself an audiophile – i.e. one who relishes making note of all the incredibly minor details in music and its production – then an expensive phono preamp is undoubtedly going to give you a lot of satisfaction. If, on the other hand, you are the kind of person who is not as fussed about these kinds of differences and just wants to listen to music without too much faff, then perhaps something a little more affordable might suit you better. There are, after all, plenty of more affordable preamps that can still deliver a considerably good listening experience.
Does a better phono preamp make a difference?
Depending on the price point, yes. If you are talking about a phono preamp that is, say, $50 more than another, then chances are the differences are going to be pretty infinitesimal. If, though, the price difference is a little larger like, say, $1000, then you ought to be able to hear at least something of a difference. This is often the reserve of the resident audiophile.
How do I choose a phono preamp?
One of the most important things in choosing your own preamp is to prioritize those things that are important to you. In audiophilia much as in other areas of home decor, there are increasing trends toward minimalism. This has resulted in a whole host of phono preamps which have very minimal features but which still cost a whole bunch of money. If this kind of simplicity suits your needs and tastes, then so be it, but some people prefer a greater wealth of features for such high price points.
Are built-in phono preamps good?
There is an ever-increasing trend in modern turntable manufacture to include built-in phono preamps. This likely has at least something to do with the way that a lot of newer record collectors will not have many ideas about all of the different minutiae relating to the accruing of a stereo setup. Many will prefer a setup that will simply enable them to plug in and listen to records. For aesthetics, many youths today simply choose to use an all-in-one record player and have that be that, comfortable with the sound of glass against glass that the resulting sound offers forth.