Preamp for Turntable – Whim or Necessity?
As you probably know, a turntable doesn’t produce sound by itself. For making its velvety audio waves perceptible, it needs a preamplifier. This turntable preamp review is aimed to help you with your choice for the best phono preamp, taking into account your wishes and your budget.
Some vinyl turntables have built-in preamps so that you can plug them directly into an amplifier or speakers. Still, using an additional preamp will add to the signal-boosting power, making the sound super-clear and enveloping. Besides, an “outdoor” preamp usually has inputs to connect to other devices like an amplifier or AV receiver, speakers, etc.
The price label for a turntable preamp is not the rate of quality. A more expensive model provides more power and functions, but you always can go with a cheaper one and get the fascinating sound out of your vinyl records. Of course, you shouldn’t forget about good best speakers for vinyl to get it!
Best Phono Preamps
Phono Preamps under 100
Rolls VP29 – Small, Bulletproof, and Natural
This tiny phono stage (only 5 x 5 x 5 inches) in my opinion is the best phono preamp under 100; still, its specifics must be considered. While it’s not an audiophile device, it definitely outperforms any built-in record player preamp, as well as any sound mixer. It provides really loud sound, with very accurate mids and strong definition at each level of the audio spectrum. It’s only on the top volume, that the slight over-emphasis of the highs is notable. This preamp provides close-to-natural sound, not spicing it with any effects. It is a highly precise mediator transmitting the audio exactly as it had been conceived and recorded.
This preamp has a simple yet breakage-proof build, with a straightforward circuit scheme and sturdy caps. Though it lacks some bells-and-whistles, like a volume dial, it provides all necessary controls, boosting the sound and purifying it in a professional way.
The setup is nothing to bother with, just plug-and-play. All this make it worth a nomination for the “best budget phono preamp”; however, it has some cons.
- Amazing power output.
- Compatible with both older and modern devices (notably, receivers without a phono connector).
- Nice vintage design.
- Can catch digital interference (can be solved by adding another grounding cable).
- No power switch to control turning on / off.
ART DJPREII – Full Control over the Phono Sound
This affordable phono preamp is certainly worth each dollar spent on it. It features the RIAA-approved built-in phono circuit scheme providing for the crystal clean sound with precisely distinct vocals. Besides, it allows choosing gain and input capacitance, guaranteeing the perfect compatibility with a turntable and the maximum sound characteristics. The controllable rumble filter makes this preamp the real value for the money.
The proper setup of this unit takes time. The jacks for phono input and the ground cable look much the same, so attention must be paid to proper plugging in. No issues in equalizer compatibility with my middle-budget Yamaha receiver; I performed just minor adjustments to my liking. Another side of all this functionality for a floor-level price is this device being larger than other ones on our list, featuring 14.2 x 7.5 x 2.5 inches, and not having a direct on/off switch.
- Perfect detailing and soundstage.
- Got it working with my low impedance headphones through the low impedance output.
- Responsive transparent buttons (lighted when pressed).
- Getting the proper balance between gain output and volume is not a piece of cake.
- The excessive brightness of the power control LED.
Phono Preamps under 200
Emotiva Audio XPS-1 – Variability is the Key
This middle-sized (9 x 3 x 7 inches) solid state preamp fits both types of phono cartridges: MM (Moving Magnet) and MC (Moving Coil). It provides great audibility even at low volumes. The perfect equalization and high signal-to-noise ratio made my instrumental LP sound full and detailed, with punchy powerful lows and clear highs. There is a lot of audio definition along with the whole spectrum, so multiple rhythms are clearly traced in the complex piece of music. Supported by the four levels of impedance and controllable gain output, this preamp can go with practically any audio setup. Having RCA connectors on the same side might be handy for placing the preamp (which is not an issue, though, considering its size and weight). However, having input and output separated is helpful and provides quick and correct plugging-in.
- Clear non-colored distortion-free sound.
- I adjusted the impedance for my system (works only with MC cartridges).
- Stylish design.
- RCA ports’ size is slightly less than standard — cables tend to get loose.
- Too bright indicator light.
Cambridge Audio Solo – Solid Build for the Solid Sound
This preamp has a revolutionary assembly design, having all the details surface-mounted on the board. It produces the pure and rich sound without slightest distortion, providing a full presence effect. While listening to the old types of vinyl, I noticed the accurately outlined soundstage, with precise “picturing” of each line. The sound has a lot of details while featuring fluent warm tones and iridescent passages. This unit has an unusual minimalistic design, with all the connections put at the rear of the preamp. It does not need much space, being 5.2 x 6.9 x 1.9 inches in size. The low consumption, especially in the standby mode, is a great bonus. So is the Auto turn off function. Besides, it is highly rated in most of the phono preamp reviews for its build quality.
- Controllable gain.
- Outstanding power supply ensuring strong and clean sound.
- Feeding through the power cable (not an adapter) — leaving room for experiments and tweaking.
- Only MM (Moving Magnet) cartridge support.
NAD PP 2e – Advanced Multi-Connecting Phono Stage
This little black box (3 x 1.9 x 5.2 inches) might not represent much in design, but it definitely has its way to lure the audiophile. First, it is compatible with both MM (moving magnet) and MC (Moving Coil) cartridges and can be run with 2 turntables (there’s a selector to switch between them). Besides, its impedance and frequency range allow connecting this phono stage to the majority of audio workstations through the dedicated outputs.
All the components are produced in accordance with the high standard, which enriches the sound immensely. The middle line is very distinctive, fully present, and dynamic. Both lows and highs are very accurate, concise and clear even at the top volume. Which, by the way, does not break the window glass but still brings full effect and vibes.
Finally, this model can boast of having a power on / off control and gold plated inputs. The green LED indicator is unobtrusive, while the wall wart could be a bit more sturdy.
- Large gain output for the powerful surge of the sound.
- Pure signal without the slightest noise or additional effect.
- Easy plug-n-play setup.
- Unresponsive customer support.
- Lower dynamics with MC (Moving Coil) tech.
Phono Preamps under 500
Puffin Phono DSP – Sets Up Every Little Thing about the Sound
The first thing to notice about this middle-sized (8.9 x 5.5 x 3.4 inches) phono preamp for 500 is the number and range of parameters it allows adjusting. Gain can be tweaked in 20 positions from -4 dB to 72 dB, fitting the different kind of cartridges (MM, MI, MC) in an optimal way.
This preamp features analog inputs and outputs, having a DSP processor as its heart. It works really fast and neatly, providing several ways of sound control and enhancement. I tested the tilt balance and null balance, getting the warm trills and sharp-angled soundstage out of the same LP record. The preamp has a wide impedance range, thus suiting well the majority of headphones and speakers.
Another great feature is the ability to enhance the old records. Setting up the bass and treble, I got my vinyl collection sound in a new, enriched way. The soundstage is profoundly deep and dense, with neat mids and palpable lows. The highs are crystal clear and noise-free.
- Sound “coloring” function for the authentic tube and tape sound.
- Direct playback of 78s due to several EQ modes.
- Easy access to all controls (on-surface knobs and switches).
- “Digital sound” effect appears at the extreme tweaking.
- An “overkill” for the audiophile beginner.
Vincent PHO 701 – an Innovative Engineering Decision
This small device (5.2 x 8 x 3.2 inches) is a breakthrough in audio engineering. It has two separate chassis for MM (Moving Magnet) and MC (Moving Coil) cartridges playback and a separate gain and impedance control for each one of them. An interesting decision is the hybrid build of the unit — it is both tube and solid-state preamp. It has a wide frequency range and provides penetrating rocking sound without being boomy at lows.
The solid build and high-quality components serve for the zero distortion and no interference in audio. The external power supply put in a separate block additionally secures the noise-free performance. The signal is pure and the sonic clarity is high ensuring the physical presence effect.
The unit is well built, with firm dials and switches, sturdy connectors. Setup takes no time, requiring only the plugging-in and basic tweaking. It is definitely a worthy preamp, while priced the highest in its segment.
- Perfect clear sound of the old 78s recording (upon the tube replacement).
- I digitized my records through the USB output.
- Unusual stylish design.
- Unsatisfactory performance of the stock tube.
Parasound Zphono – the Multifunctional Preamp for Turntables
This device is a real “universal soldier” fitting any audio system. Its numerous inputs and outputs feed both analog and digital signal and allow connecting different components of the media system, including AM/FM tuner and headphones. The solid build of the capacitors ensures the noise-free clear sound within the wide frequency range. The sound is powerful and rocking even at the mid volume. The soundstage is vast and deep, the audio channels are distinct and bright.
I applied the rumble filter for my 1980s records, resulting in much more clarity of the central audio channel. Besides, there is an option of mono / stereo switching for the relevant records.
The unit is quite large — it has 13.5 x 12.7 x 6.6 inches in size, compensated by the elongated and minimalistic sleek design.
- RIAA defeat control allows balancing between software equalization and built-in settings.
- I digitized my tape records connecting through the linear inputs / USB output.
- Unobtrusive mild-glowing indicator and handy controls / switches.
- Using the AC polarity switch requires a techie-keen mind.
Phono Preamps under 1000
MUSICAL FIDELITY MX-VYNL – a Heavy Metal Gear for the Perfect Phono Sound
This high-quality device has both RCA and fully balanced XLR inputs and outputs ensuring the all-inclusive processing of both digital and analog audio. It is compatible with MM (Moving Magnet) and MC (Moving Coil) cartridges and can be hooked up to two turntables at a time (switching between them via the special control). The unit sets many options for impedance and capacitance for both types of needle cartridges, enabling the spacious and warm enveloping sound with the dynamic highs and potent lows. The preamp features the considerable overload margin, which serves for getting the crystal clear audio out of any old and new record and any type of cartridge.
This preamp does not add any coloring to the sound, accurately transmitting all of its authentic characteristics.
The unit is middle-sized having 9.4 x 8.7 x 2.1 inches and has the inimitable sleek design. Save for slight hissing in headphones (at the top volume only), it will definitely meet most demands of the true vinyl lovers.
- Tailor-cut RIAA adjustment through the whole range of up to 80 KHz.
- Multi-layer detailed sound almost devoid of old records’ defects.
- Smart scaling of the impedance / capacitance control knob.
- No USB output.
Pro-Ject Phono Box RS – Solid Build and Performance
The large size (15.7 x 13.2 x 7.3 inches) and weight (7 pounds) of this professional preamp bring the immediate perception of its performance. It is equally solid and reliable. The high-quality components and the dual circuit provide the seamless full sound, relaying the analog warmth of the vinyl. It boosts the signal well, letting in no distortion or the slightest hum. The audio is rich, with the accentuated middle channel, deep lows, and accurate highs. These features do not deteriorate even when swapping cables and adding the longer ones, due to the low impedance output.
The unit supports both MC (Moving Coil) and MM (Moving Magnet) cartridges, enabling the fine tuning of capacitance / impedance, available during the audio playback. The external power adapter fixes the zero noise level of the device.
The design is not overly impressive, while the build is bulletproof. The switches are firm and ergonomic, the connection ports feel strong and sturdy. Summing up, it is great preamp for less than 1000 dollars.
- I reached the purest sounding via switching to DECCA equalization.
- A wide range of impedance adjustment.
- Front location of the tuning knobs.
- Limited gain control option.
Phono Preamp under 2000
SPL Phonos ProFi – for the Elegant and Strong Vinyl Sound
This curved premium phono preamp firmly takes its position on the list among the “best phono preamp under 2000”, while I do have some concerns regarding the fuses initially installed. The device has an elongated build (11.3 x 2.2 x 12.9 inches) and an informative front panel featuring the main controls. The different orientation of the switches helps find the needed one at once, while the ergonomic design makes tuning easy and intuitive. It handles the old vinyl outstandingly, removing all the noise and rumble while boosting each signal channel and creating the vibrating and full soundstage. The LPs sound is awesome even at the below-the-middle volume, the smart RIAA filter cuts the deviations in frequency. The spectrum is dynamic and dense, with clear mid sound channel and powerful bass. The rumble effect is cut by a special subsonic filter controlled by the dedicated switch.
- Separate dials for tweaking impedance and capacitance.
- Bright classy design.
- Cheap glass fuses need replacement (for stable performance).
The Best Tube Preamp
Pro-Ject Tube Box S – Tube Preamp for Real Vinyl Effect
This middle-priced cosmic-looking silver box produces the glass-clean sound with the zero noise floor. It is probably the best tube preamp among all, and here is why. All the components in this tube phono preamp are audiophile-grade. The lows are powerful yet accurate and not boomy. Overall, the sound is enveloping, while the treble is neat and sharp. The soundstage is deep and rich, the sound is detailed, each channel is precise and distinct.
This preamp manages both MC (Moving Coil) and MM (Moving Magnet) cartridges, providing the possibility to switch between the types. It has an accurate RIAA curve and ensures the full presence of sound at any level of the frequency range.
This preamp has a new advanced design with half-merged tubes, which lets demonstrating the preamp’s construction while leaving the ventilation space for tubes. Its dimensions are 4.1 x 4.1 x 2.9 inches, letting it fit even into the stereo systems with the limited space.
- Melodic, warm, and powerful tube sound.
- Gain control is available.
- Sturdy build.
- Switching between the MM and MC cartridges requires settings adjustment.
- No standby button.
What Is a Preamp?
Simply put, it is an audio component between your turntable and an audio output device (an amplifier, AV receiver, headphones, etc). It boosts the signal to make it linear and to be “caught” and processed by the amplifier.
A preamp also serves to obtain a signal equalized in accordance with the RIAA standard. Not going too techie, a preamp makes a signal sound as it was intended at recording.
Thus, a preamp restores and powers an audio signal and sends it to an output component.
Do I Need a Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp transmits the signal from a turntable, converting it from a “phono” signal to a “linear” one, used in most stereo equipment. The “phono” signal is very weak, so it cannot be traced by modern amps without the preliminary boosting by a preamp.
In case your AV receiver, headphones or turntable have a built-in phono preamp (phono stage), you can connect them directly and enjoy the sound. If they don’t, an external phono preamp is required.
Phono Stage and Phono Preamp: What’s the Difference?
Essentially, there is none. Both words identify the same audio equipment. However, in audio engineering, the “phono stage” word is used more often in relation to built-in devices. So, a phono stage may be built in an amplifier, speakers, an AV receiver or a turntable itself.
With regard to “phono preamp’, this term mostly refers to a stand-alone unit that empowers a signal and applies a RIAA curve to it.
What about the Phono Stage?
It is a synonym to the “phono preamp”, widely used in the audio world.
As vinyl had been substituted by other audio recording formats (primarily, a CD), the need for turntables and phono stages decreased drastically. Today, most receivers do not have a built-in phono stage; thus, an external one is needed to boost up the sound to the linear level.
Picking a Phono Preamp
There are 4 main parameters of a phono preamp:
- Defining the cartridge. Your turntable ultimately runs the MM (Moving Magnet) or MC (Moving Coil) cartridge. Look for the cartridge type in the preamp’s technical specification. The different types of cartridges contain specific components with various technical parameters (like impedance and capacitance). All that must be taken into account while choosing a phono preamp.There are models that are compatible with both cartridge types. Still, in order to choose the correct mode of playback, you need to know which cartridge your turntable supports.
- What technical parameters to consider? The primary characteristic is gain. It stands for the power applied to the phono signal and the volume of the outgoing audio. The RIAA curve correction defines the clarity and side effects of the sound produced. The frequency adjustment depends on the type of cartridge used in the turntable.For the MM cartridges, the minimum gain is 40 dB, with the resistance of 47K Ohms and capacitance of at least 100 picoFarads.For MC cartridges, the gain must be higher (at least 58 dB). It also has lower impedance ranging between 50 and 1,000 Ohms.
- Look at your vinyl turntable. If you managed to connect it to another device and can hear the sound, it means your turntable already has a phono stage built-in. However, the built-in preamps often do not provide the desired sound quality and volume level. It is also impossible to adjust the gain or other parameters through them. That is why most audiophiles enhance their turntable-based sound systems with the external phono preamps. Pay attention that many of the modern digital turntables with the USB output already have a built-in phono stage, which not always can be disabled.
- Considering the system and the budget. Modern phono preamps are high-class products providing in most of the cases the decent gain and low noise level. The choice of the phono preamp can be based on the value of other components of your system. If you have a middle-priced turntable and budget cartridge, a low-end phono preamp will do the trick boosting your signal and producing good sound. In case you have an overly sensitive MC cartridge, look for more expensive models that will allow getting the most powerful and clear audio out of your records.
How to Connect a Phono Preamp?
System 1: The Phono Preamp is in the Receiver. The AV receiver with the phono preamp built-in must have a separate “phono” jack. Now, make sure your turntable does not have a phono stage itself. If it does, turn it off. Then, simply plug in the turntable into the phono input of the receiver and activate it.
System 2: The Phono Preamp is in the Turntable. If your turntable has its own phono stage, make sure it is active / turned on. Then, plug the turntable cable into any analog audio input of the AV receiver. Activate the connected input via the receiver’s menu, smartphone app or using a dedicated knob or button on the receiver.
System 3: The Phono Preamp is a Separate Component. If neither of your audio system components has a phono stage, or you wish to upgrade your sound by hooking up an external phono preamp, follow the instructions.
- Connect left and right audio outputs of the turntable with the relevant audio inputs of the phono preamp, using a stereo cable (with white and red plugs).
- Remove the ground knob on the preamp’s rear side and fix the black ground cable of the turntable around the exposed metal lug. Fix the knob tightly again.
- Connect the stereo cables to the left and right audio outputs of the preamp and to the relevant ports of the receiver.
- Activate the connected inputs of the receiver via its menu or a smartphone app.