A phono preamp or a phono stage is a signal amplifier that connects the vinyl record players to the power amplifier of an audio system. There are two types of this device — MC (Moving Coil) and MM (Moving Magnet) — depending on the type of cartridge that is equipped your turntable with.
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 phono stages is the high quality of sound. 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 completed the best turntable preamp reviews to compare their strengths and weaknesses to help you make the right choice.
Phono Preamp Reviews
Phono Preamps Under 100
ART DJPRE II
There is one feature in the DJPRE II design that definitely catches the eye — its its dazzling blue LED. In search of the best phono preamp, consider the ART DJPRE II, which offers decent characteristics for the money. It is hard to find a better device for the same price. Connect the turntable with a short cable for better performance. Sounds are rich and vivid; the device opened up the sound stage and improved the clarity.
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 a 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.
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 a 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 phono 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
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 home theater receivers. Overall, the Cambridge Audio Solo gives you quite a bit for a pretty good price.
- Nice fit and finish, the case looks solid.
- A headphone jack on the back of the unit.
- The grounding post is larger than usual.
Emotiva Audio XPS-1
The Emotiva Audio XPS-1 throws out the big powerful punchy sound with a good tonal balance: bass-mid-treble are all there. The 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, 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 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.
- Makes no distortion.
- Impeccable build quality.
- Weak power supply.
NAD PP 2e
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.
- The price does not match the quality.
Phono Preamps Under 500
Parks Audio Puffin
The unit lets you control the 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 are needed, therefore you can use it without a manual. 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.
Vincent VIPHO701 BLK
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. Now many vinyl releases come with the option of downloading their digital copies, so you can store them in a digital form and playback them 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.
- The bass is too loud and prominent.
Parasound Zphono MM/MC
This preamp 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.
But I wouldn’t recommend it for small enclosed rooms; this device requires some open space and good air circulation.
- It has a poor noise level.
- The device can be used for recording.
- No way to adjust the headphones volume.
Phono Preamps Under 1000
Rega Fono MM MK3
This appliance has the potential to become the best phono preamp under 1000 specifically working for moving coil cartridges. The unit features an adjustable load impedance to make several impedance settings that allow connecting audio source devices with different impedance.
The RIAA equalization provides good separation of elements within any given track. It reduces hiss, clicks while listening to vinyl records. Besides, it narrows the width of the grooves for longer playtime. The RIAA also contains MUSES operational amplifiers manufactured by the New Japan Radio (NJR) that are used in the high-end audio equipment worldwide. The unit is also fitted with the long-lasting polypropylene capacitors that contribute to a cleaner, smoother sound with deeper bass.
Those wondering what is the best budget phono preamp should think about this model because of its excellent sound quality, producing rich, full, and detailed tones without harshness. It delivers a clean and wide soundstage from the MM cart with tuneful bass with good texture.
It comes in a black aluminum box with a rounded front and the illuminated Rega logo. The white button on the left powers the device. The rare panel includes two sets of the DIP switches with the earthy peg and AC socket.
- The preamp provides good protection from interference.
- By using different combinations of dips, it enables the device to work with 90% of all the moving coil cartridges on the market.
- The preamp is designed to work with the Rega PS1, and the replacement will cost extra money.
- The front panel is made of plastic.
Rolls Bellari VP549
The Bellari VP549 can apply for the best turntable preamp thanks to an adjustable cartridge loading to make the correct settings and match the device to the cartridge’s internal impedance. This feature provides relevant frequency response of the recorded signal and is rare for the preamps in this price segment. The gain control is also on board to let the user regulate the strength of the signal sent through the preamp.
This preamp for a record player has RIAA EQ and delivers clear and crisp sound with well-balanced frequencies that are deeper and warmer than if to connect a turntable directly to the phono input on a receiver. The excellent performance remains at the same level at high volumes.
The steel construction is durable, and the entire device is hand built in the USA. There are gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs on the back panel to connect the preamp with a turntable and a receiver, respectively. A 3.5mm stereo headphone/line output jack is also on the back. A switcher to change cartridge load, rumble filter, and gain control is on the front panel. The unit automatically activates once the user turns on the connected device because there is no power button.
- A moving magnet preamp has an extra +20 dB of gain to work with MC cartridges.
- A rumble filter cuts low-frequency drive noise and motor noise to make the turntable work quietly and let the listener focus on the music even if the deck vibrates from the speaker output.
- The preamp produces hum if its owner has a ground loop.
- The device is designed for MM cartridges and can handle only high-output MC.
- No USB to connect a preamp to a computer.
The Parasound Zphono preamplifier has dual mono power transformers (one for each channel) to reduce intermodulation distortion. The 84 dB signal to noise ratio and 46 dB of gain ensures the preamp’s excellent performance with both MC and MM cartridges despite their output. The exception is a low-output MC cartridge that sounds too noisy.
This device significantly improves the sound from even old turntables. It doesn’t produce hum and provides a clean, natural sound without artificial coloration. The bass is rich, deep, detailed, well-defined, and deep. The tonal balance is smooth and neutral. The overall soundstage lacks depth, but it is definitely above average concerning left to right and pinpoint imaging.
The switcher on the back of the unit allows setting up the device according to the cartridge. The AC line polarity switch provides hum-free performance regardless of the preamp’s placement. The unit doesn’t have a power button, so it is always turned on until the connected equipment is turned off. The green light shows its “on” status.
- The compact preamp of 5 x 1 x 3 inches has no protruding tubes that make it suitable for traveling.
- The unit’s RIAA curve is precise to 0.25 dB.
- Flat response contributes to pure audio.
- The preamp lacks the resistive loading adjustments.
- The outdated 5334 operational amplifier inside the unit gives upper midrange glare that is especially audible when the system consists of many components.
- The rumble filter would be a great addition.
Schiit Mani SCH-18-FA
The Schiit Mani amplifies analog audio content and uses RIAA EQ to align a signal with a connected turntable. The adjustable gain allows finding the sweet spot to send the right amount of signal to a receiver. The unit is compatible with both moving magnet and moving coil built-in preamps.
This model might become the best phono preamp since it has four switchable gain modes, including 30, 42, 47, and 59 dB. Clean and detailed sound with great separation of instruments and zero background noise. The bass is loud, well-articulated, and deep, and the highs are as clear as other frequencies. However, some hiss is audible at moderate volumes. The overall sound quality helps create a dynamic soundstage if high-quality turntable and cartridge are used.
The device is available in white, silver, and black colors. It has a metal chassis with the gold-plated RCA terminals and removable rubber feet. The logo and white light indicator are on the front panel. There are RCA connectors and a switch to turn the preamp on and off on the back panel.
- The dynamics and transients are seamless.
- It is integrated with a linear power supply for low load and line regulation.
- The device picks up radio frequencies that cause interferences and result in problems with placement.
- The switches for gain settings and loading options are on the bottom of the device, making it necessary to lift or flip the preamp for adjustments.
Cambridge Audio Store AXR100
A Bluetooth capable device allows making wireless connections with smartphones, tablets, and other sources. The receiver has a built-in AM/FM tuner that expands it beyond the best preamp for a turntable, making it a full-fledged stereo receiver.
The feature-packed model makes it possible to connect both a subwoofer and turntable to arrange a 2-channel system. Besides, it boasts two Toslink and one coax optical inputs to connect a TV or digital music streamers.
The item produces a strong and clean sound with many nuances. A smooth laid-back sounding unit has enough power to drive most of the speakers and fill the rooms with a sound. It allows calibrating bass and treble separately to achieve an optimal balance of frequencies.
The menu button, the control buttons to toggle between analog and digital inputs, speaker A/B selector, volume dial, tuner presets, and the headphone jack are on the brushed metal front panel. The latter requires sensitive headphones to ensure enough power. The unit also has a screen to legibly display on/off status, radio frequencies, and other settings. The power button is on the left. The curved piece near the front isolates the device from external vibrations.
In the upper left corner of the back panel, there are the connectors for radio tuners, inputs for DACs, MM phono stage input, subwoofer output, and the USB service port. The speaker terminals in the center feature high-quality binding posts to provide a tight fit for a speaker cable while most models in this price range have cheap push pin connections.
- The device has a voltage selector switch to use it in countries with different voltages.
- The preamp features flawless FM reception without interference.
- A remote control is in the package.
- The cooling fan works loudly. It runs automatically without the opportunity to switch it off.
- The receiver lacks the USB connectivity.
- I agree with those AXR100 phono preamp reviews, where people deplore that the crossover point is set too high (200 Hz) with no option to calibrate it.
Phono Preamps Under 2000
This model deserves to be called the best phono preamp under 2000 being thoughtfully engineered as an A-class MM device that provides a 100% analog sound. Like other Marantz models, this one features smooth and warm tones. The unit sounds great with not only audio turntables but also such digital devices as CD players.
This model has a bit elevated treble that still doesn’t make the overall sound too bright or aggressive. Those who prefer to make treble dominated should hit the source direct button. The midrange is remarkably neutral and adds a lot of clarity to a sound. The receiver works quietly, without background hiss.
It sounds powerful, delivering 100 watts per channel, and having a dynamic power of 128 watts per channel into 8 Ohms. Some inefficient speakers might not keep up such a power, but they will still work in a small room thanks to the preamp’s high current. The amp can power up to four speakers at the same time, the impedance should be 8 Ohms or higher.
There is a power button, input selector, and phono out in the left corner of the front panel. In the center of the faceplate, one can see left-to-right channel balance and tone controls to adjust bass, midrange, and treble. There are also the A/B speaker switch, power amp direct, and the source direct buttons to choose the clearest signal path possible. The blue led lights indicate the selected option. The volume control dial is in the right corner of the front panel. All the inputs to build the phono stage, five analog inputs, remote control input, speaker terminals, and AC IN for a power cord are on the back.
- The electronically regulated volume control improves channel separation and dynamic range.
- The 600-volt transformer inside the phono preamplifier is well shielded.
- The high-quality speaker binding posts make bi-wiring easy and straightforward.
- There is no dedicated subwoofer output in this turntable preamplifier.
- Using a TV as an audio source through an optical cable, only YouTube but not streaming services work.
This phono preamp has good dynamics, very clear sound, and excellent instrument separation. If you choose a low frequency of 20 Hz, then it helps prevent the hum. SPL’s VOLTAiR technology 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 Phono Preamp
Wondering how to acquire the best tube phono preamp under 1000? Let’s look at the Pro-Ject TUBEBOXS2B to check whether it meets this standard. The appliance works with moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. It has a completely discreet circuit construction without using operational amplifiers.
The unit is also remarkable for its subsonic filter that rolls off the bass output sharply at 20 Hz, eliminating low-frequency distortion. So, the acoustic feedback doesn’t influence the records when they are too close to speakers.
The preamp’s 6-step gain control makes it possible to adjust the input volume to the preamp stage and regulate the level of distortion despite the final loudness of the music. The device is notable for deep and room-filling bass and warm treble.
The Pro-Ject phono box is made of metal, having a casing that suppresses vibrations and electromagnetic interferences. It has a small power push on the front left of the unit button to manually turn it on and off. The preamp cannot power off on its own if it doesn’t detect a signal for some time. The DIP switches on the bottom of the device allow adjusting the settings to the cartridge and change the preamp’s input capacities and impedance.
This model contains such high-quality components as gold-plated RCA jacks, Nichicon capacitors, and relays from Fujitsu, Japan.
- It’s possible to include this preamp into the line input of another receiver.
- One can replace the tubes with any manufacturer’s product to upgrade the preamp and play around with sound.
- The unit is getting hot fast because of the heated tubes.
- The single set of analog inputs and outputs doesn’t allow connecting a preamp to two devices at a time (to a turntable and a CD player, for example).
Douk Audio T3 PRO
This tube preamp for a turntable works with MM, high output MC cartridges, and has RIAA standard frequency response. The appliance features an excellent signal to noise ratio (≥ 65dB(A)1KHz (input: 10mV; output: 0.7V), producing clear Hi-Fi sound. It comes with 6j2 vacuum tubes, providing the opportunity to replace them with 6k4, 6j1, 6j4, ge5654, and 6ak5 items.
The device can be hooked up straight to a receiver and active speakers. The unit is also compatible with a wide range of audio equipment, including MP3 players and TVs. The external amplifier is required to connect passive speakers. Moreover, the device can work with Class T digital amplifiers only since Class D appliances have too loud background noise.
The phono tube preamp has gain controls on the front panel, MM signal input, and 3.5mm AUX input on the back. The appliance is notable for its tiny dimensions of 4.61 x 3.74 x 1.18 inches, durable aluminum chassis, and gold-plated terminals. There are blue LED lights in the tube sockets.
- It plays crispy music with a highly dynamic sound.
- The device looks outstanding since the manufacturer uses wire drawing and frosted techs.
- It lacks tone controls that makes it closer to a headphone amp rather than to a preamplifier.
- The unit has only three volume levels of 39 dB, 42 dB, and 45 dB.
The first major feature of the 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.
- Unusual design.
- Makes a sound loop at high volume.
Phono preamp — a simple explanation
A phono preamp is a 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.
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 a 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.
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. That 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
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.
Hi everyone! I’m Thomas Moody, also known as Guitarzan.