You may have noticed that your turntable has something built-in called a “phono preamp”, or it says that it produces “phono output” and needs a preamp before you can hook it up to your audio equipment.
You see, the sound that comes straight out of the stylus and cartridge is far too weak and the frequency too distorted be handled by a standard amp that expects flat “line level” audio. So, like it or not, a preamp is part of the deal when getting into vinyl.
So now you find yourself in a position where you have to not only buy a turntable, amplifier, and speakers, but also one of these little boxes.
Alternatively, your turntable may have come with a preamp built in, but you’ve realized that it’s a pretty cheap and nasty one and you can do better. So you are ready to switch it off and get something a little better. That’s great news and it means you have come to the right page, since I will be listing ten of the best phono preamps you can buy online, selected from the most popular items.
I have decided to list a mix of different product types. I’m not focusing on only cheap or expensive units, but just ones that seem like a good deal on their own merits. So you will see ones highlighted for different reasons, price being one of them. I also decided not to separate technology types. You’ll see both tube and solid state preamps here. There are fans of both types and variety is the spice of life, as they say.
Before you delve into these, you may want to read my preamp buyer’s guide where I explain these devices in a little more detail. It will also help you in case you end up not finding any of these choices compelling.
So let’s see what’s moving and shaking in the world of phono preamps.
Top High-end Pick:
MOON by Simaudio 110LP V2 Phono Preamplifier
The MOON doesn’t have the most audacious design I’ve ever seen. This is an understated box that, sadly, doesn’t really tell you how good the insides are.
The MOON isn’t ugly by any measure, but it’s the attention to detail and the focus on fundamentals is what sets it apart. There are more expensive preamps to consider, but you have to ask yourself at what point diminishing returns come into play. Spending more money on your speakers or turntable may do more to improve the overall experience than paying twice as much for a preamp.
Simaudio themselves make much more expensive, very high-end preamps. What they’ve done with the 110LP is to take the technology they developed for the bleeding-edge, exotic products and built this “affordable” preamp using those lessons. Early adopters have paid for the research and development, now the rest of us can reap the benefits.
The MOON has a low noise floor, low impedance and amazingly clear amplification. The bottom line is that this sounds as good as units twice the price. Don’t even think about it.
Mani Phono Stage
The Mani is a good example of how hard it is to do minimalist and elegant right. At first glance this looks a bit like the simple black box of the Phono Box E from Pro-Ject. The face is actually quite nice and the material the case is made from also appears attractive. It’s all ruined, however, by the four exposed screw heads. It really doesn’t fit the overall look at all, and Schilt could really have at least put some color-matched caps on there.
Still, if this is going into a rack or some other shelf that hides the top of the device, it isn’t that much of a problem.
It may have something to do with the fact that this is an American-made device. Pro-Ject is from a Euro background and the design cues are clearly taken differently.
This preamp can handle both MC and MM cartridges, which is awesome value for money at the price and gives you options in the future if you want to switch cartridge types.
The Mani seems to be made from good components and sensible circuit design. The only issue is that the Mani seems more prone to interference noise than you’d expect. What this means is that you may have to hunt around for a spot in your home where the noise finally goes away. If you’re lucky there won’t be any EM interference at the spot you plan to use in the first place.
In terms of performance people who have bought this are very happy indeed. Great bass, and crispness and clarity across the range. It’s a mid-range preamp that sounds high-end to the ear.
Best Entry-Level Pick:
Little Bear T7 Tube Phono Stage RIAA MM
Turntable Pre-Amplifier & HiFi AUX Preamp
The charmingly-named “Little Bear” tube amplifier is not terribly interesting to look at, but it is attractive and neat. The little aluminum box with the two tubes sticking out of it just looks competent, and at this price I’m not going to be asking for more.
This is actually more than just a phono preamp, you can also use it as a general Hi-Fi preamp as well. Remember that the RIAA distortion applied to vinyl records needs a specialized preamp such as this one to come out your speakers correctly. This preamp gives you a two-in-one deal.
The makers have provided us with two 6J1 tubes in the box, but you can choose from a variety of replacement tubes to get different end results. Quite a few mini “tube” amps have turned out be fakes, where it was all solid-state amplification to begin with. Luckily it seems the T7 is not pulling a fast one and the valves are real and necessary.
People who have bought this preamp are very happy with the widened soundstage and warm tone. However, there are some problems. Apparently there may be a low hum, which is usually the result of a grounding problem. That can be lessened by removing the casing, but that is far from ideal. The good news is that not everyone seems to have this issue and I’m not sure that it’s the T7 alone that’s to blame.
The other big downside is that the output gain on this amp seems a little low. Given how much it costs and the fact that it’s still loud enough, I’m not going to knock it too much. Just know that you have to crank the dial on your amp in order to get a good listening volume.
This is a great item and makes it affordable to get into tube amplification without committing too much. I really feel if you pair this with some of the cheaper turntables you’ll get something that’s more than the sum of its parts in terms of what goes into your ears.
The fact that you can switch it to other non-phono types of gear is a great value add and clinches this as the best choice for the entry level. It also helps that the preamp is almost completely assembled out of the box, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think.
The Best Budget Preamp:
Pyle PP999 Phono Turntable Pre-Amp
If you care at all about the looks of your audio equipment you may want to walk right on by the PP999. It looks like one of those tacky car audio amplifiers you’ll find bolted to the inside of a car with light strips underneath the body. Yes, I admit to not being a fan of that whole aesthetic.
Still, looks are subjective and perhaps, somehow, you think this looks good. So I’ll try not to judge.
The most outstanding feature of this preamp has to be its price. It is going for the price of a McDonalds meal, yet still manages to put out some decent numbers. It has a signal to noise ratio of 70dB, which means it’s a good match for budget turntables, which are unlikely to do any better than that.
The Pyle sounds more than good enough by all accounts, but it does have some limitations. There is no ground prong, for one thing. So if you want to connect the ground wire from your turntable you may have to get creative. One person cleverly unscrewed one of the Pyle’s case screws and inserted a washer to which the ground wire could be connected. It’s not elegant, but it works.
It would appear that newer models do have a dedicated ground connection however, so if you’re lucky the unit that comes in the mail should already be sorted.
I don’t think you could pay any less and still get something that you would want to listen to, so the Pyle easily gets my pick as the best budget option.
Pro-Ject Phono Box E Phonograph Preamplifier
I really like the form factor of this preamp from Pro-Ject. I have to admit to developing some bias in favor of the company based on the design of their turntables alone. This little plain black (or white) box goes against the grain of most preamp designs I’ve seen and doesn’t show you any circuitry, components, or connectors. Everything is hidden around the back. It’s elegant and makes a point of not drawing attention to itself.
Clearly this would go amazingly well with something like the Debut Carbon DC from the same company, and at this price that seems to be the level of equipment that it is aimed at.
The Phono Box E may look simple, but as with most Pro-Ject products there is more to it than meets the eye.
This is preamp can drive both MM and MC cartridges, which is incredible at this price. Hats off to Pro-Ject on that count. That elegant shell houses an electromagnetic shield that should cut down or eliminate that dreaded specter of interference. The components themselves are designed to create as little electrical noise as possible.
It really is simplicity itself to use this thing, which I have come to expect as a signature of Project design. You plug on the phono, plug in the amp, and you are good to go. No muss, no fuss – just forget it’s even there.
This is well worth the money and possibly the cheapest way to amplify an MC cartridge. Owners of this preamp also are very positive about the actual sound, so kudos to Pro-Ject for getting the sound right out of the box.
Music Hall Mini MM Phono Pre-Amplifier
Like Pro-Ject, Music Hall has a reputation for making some higher-end stuff, but also like Pro-Ject it makes products that cater to everybody. Mini MM is such a cute little device.
It’s not very fancy and not very expensive, but it comes with a feature that even most high-end preamps don’t – a 3.5mm audio jack. This means that you can plug almost anything that will accept a 3.5mm input line-level signal into this box. That means many self-powered speakers that lack RCA inputs can now be directly connected without having to resort to Frankensteinian adapters.
It only supports MM cartridges – surprising no one at this price. It sounds OK according to buyers and won’t break the bank. It’s perfect for compact setups that will fit on a desk or in a small bedroom.
Pro-Ject Audio – Phono Box RS
Oh my, this little unassuming box will set you back a whopping grand. That’s twice the asking price for the excellent Vincent hybrid preamp I chose as my top high-end pick.
What justifies this high price? Well, for once it’s not Pro-Ject’s design. Usually they have really amazing designs that I fall in love with very quickly, but not so this time. It’s alright I guess, but not a thousand bucks alright.
On the technical level this really can’t be faulted. I’ve been trawling the web for audiophile and expert opinions of this preamp and people who have been ears-on can’t say enough nice things about it. The sound is smooth, noise-free, and loud. The components are top-shelf and, of course, it will work with MM and MC cartridges. It would be a crime against humanity if a preamp that costs this much didn’t.
This is not a bright or crisp amp, but one that turns your audio into rich cream. It’s highly-flexible with XLR dual-mono connectors as well as RCA. The general opinion is that this is the best thousand dollar preamp you can buy at the moment, but personally my threshold stops dead at the $500 mark of the Vincent.
Dynasty ProAudio DA-UA2D USB Phono Preamplifier/Audio Interface with RIAA Equalized Low Noise Moving Magnet A/D Converter
Let me first say that the DA-UA2D is not the most attractive audio product I have ever seen. Although the white color is quite nice and the dials seem decent enough, the overall impression is of utility rather than style. So if you want something elegant to display along with your vintage audio setup, you’re better off paying a but more for a product that has more budget to spare on looks.
That aside, this preamp is great value for money and has the added benefit of letting you easily digitize your vinyls with moving magnet cartridges or any line-level analogue source. There’s a USB interface on the back of the unit for your computer. Using the included audio driver is designed for high quality capture. You can even monitor and record at the same time.
If you want to simply listen to your vinyls, just hook up a set of speakers and you’re on your way!
Users of the preamp note with special admiration that there is no detectable hum or noise, which is brilliant for the price. Who cares if it’s a little ugly? It clearly has it where it matters most!
Vinyl Vintage Audio System Reviews
If you’re completely new to the world of vinyl and vintage audio, I’d recommend to start with the reviews on Turntables, Phone Preamps, Record Cleaners and Speakers. Once you’ve got this covered, make sure to check the menu for more of my reviews.