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:
Vincent – PHO-700
Now this is an interesting product. Just by looking at it, something seems immediately different about this PHO-700 preamp. It looks like a little component system all by itself. I really like the little porthole window that lets you see the tube components inside as well.
The case is definitely a beautiful thing to behold, but I’m not sure how many existing setups are going to look good next to its light coloring. You’ll notice that the Vincent consists of two separate sections.
The top section contains the hybrid tube and solid state amplifier, while the lower section contains the power supply. The power supply sends power in a highly regulated way through a 9-pin connector. Presumably this means that each component receives exactly the right voltage and no potentially noise-producing current is being fed into the amplifier.
That’s a lot of attention to detail and care, but it comes at a price. This is a unit that will set you back hundreds of dollars. As you might expect at this price, the Vincent supports both MC and MM cartridges, although that’s also now true of many more affordable preamps.
The proof is in the pudding however, and wherever I look for impressions of this preamp, audiophiles seem very happy indeed with the clarity and quality of the device.
If you have a high-end turntable then you owe it to yourself to give the Vincent a look. The only real negative for some people is the two-chassis design, but that’s the main key to the Vincent’s amazing audio quality. It’s also a bit of a bummer that tubes need to be “broken in”, which means that only after 30-40 hours of play time will the sound really begin to reach its potential.
In the end the Vincent makes the wait worth it; that’s why it’s my top high-end choice.
Cambridge Audio CP2 Phono Preamplifier – Black
Cambridge audio is a company that has been around for decades, but today it is no longer based in Cambridge but rather mainly in China – something that’s been true since the mid-90s. Still, they continue to sell some really great audio equipment and quite a bit of it, with almost 25 million dollars worth of equipment shipping each year.
This is not a valve preamp, as you can probably tell just by looking at a picture, but it’s also not your typical solid-state amp either. You see, the input stage uses discrete transistors rather than integrated circuits.
The unit supports both MM and MC cartridges and lets you compensate for slight balance issues the cartridge might have with a balance control.
Equalization is passive, which Cambridge bills as “audiophile” class. This is priced halfway between the two hundred and three hundred dollar range, which is not what you’d think of as “audiophile” territory, but we’ll see. Maybe the discrete transistors and copper shielding will do the trick at this relatively low price.
The verdict? While it’s not exactly as good as a $600 preamp, it’s darn close. Cambridge has essentially made the rest of the mid-range irrelevant and has made it possible to shift money to a better record player. The bottom line is that at this price you won’t find a cleaner amp. That’s why it’s my midrange choice.
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.
Toroidal Transformer Little Bear T10 Pro
If the entry-level Little Bear T7 is too basic and cheap for your tastes, then it may be worth looking further up the range at the bigger and thrice more expensive T10 Pro.
Once again this is only meant for MM cartridges; MC enthusiasts need to look further up the price range for the time being.
This unit ups the tube count to three and uses the uprated 6N2 tubes as opposed to the T7’s 6J1 units. Of course, there are many compatible models that you can slot in to your heart’s desire.
The “toroidal” bit of the name comes from the use of toroidal power transformers. The toroid is a specially shaped core that doesn’t radiate much electromagnetism. This makes them very popular in high-end audio equipment, since the idea is that they will cause much less interference.
This particular model uses an acrylic case and I have to say that I love the idea of seeing the components inside the chassis so clearly. Acrylic is, of course, a material that’s pretty prone to scuffing and scratching, so if you think you’ll have to handle the unit too roughly there are other enclosure options.
Although you don’t have to do anything crazy like soldering to get the T10 up and running, it does not come fully-assembled and you’ll have to put it together first. This is not, however, a very technical process and a few minutes with the instructions should set you straight.
Most users report that their records sound noticeably warmer and nicer compared to solid state preamps. There’s no level of doubt at all. Upgrading the tubes can also improve an already solid offering.
Although this preamp is not cheap in absolute terms, it is very well-priced for what’s on offer. If you’ve bought a higher-end turntable and are low on budget for the time being, you can pair it with one of these T10 units and then later upgrade the tubes when you have some more to spend. Some people also complain about hum on this amp, but Little Bear has indicated how to fix grounding issues that crop up from time to time.
As an entry to the mid-high end I think this little bear is ace.
Emotiva Audio XPS-1 Phono Preamp
Unlike the tube preamp offerings you’ll find on this page, and despite its name, the Emotiva XPS-1 is not about warm and fuzzy feelings, but about technical superiority. Emotiva markets this preamp as one with a minimum of noise and as little distortion as possible.
Remember, while a $150 tube preamp may be cheap, the same money moves you well up the range when it comes to solid state amplifiers.
This preamp does a great job of restoring the distortion that the RIAA equalization creates. It gets within 0.25 dB of the ideal equalization curve, has very low distortion, and rates a signal to noise ratio that is almost definitely better than the turntable it’s receiving a signal from.
It’s also fantastic that this amp can be used with both MM and MC cartridges. You can manually adjust the termination impedance to match the requirements marked on the MC cartridge you have.
This guy is also much, much smaller than a tube preamp, which means that you can basically use it wherever you like, regardless of existing rack configurations or space.
The ears-on reaction from people who have bought the XPS-1 sound almost religious. Combine with other equipment of a similar caliber, and the effect is a revelation.
The only complaints are from avowed audiophiles and those are pretty mild. Show me an amp that no audiophile will complain about and I’ll call you a liar. For the rest of us, this is a great unit well worth the price and a true gift to the ears.
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.
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.
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.
Technolink TC-756USB RIAA Moving Magnet Phono Preamp
The Technolink looks the closest to what I think of as a “classic” rack-mounted amplifier. This is another very inexpensive preamp that only supports MM cartridges.
It’s a solid state preamp with RIAA compliant specifications. The gain is fairly strong, and for a cheap preamp you’ll probably still get better results than most built-in preamps in cheaper turntables.
That’s not, however, the main selling point of the Technolink. You see, some turntables have a USB output that lets you digitize your vinyls. Most of these are fairly low-end, however, so if you own a good turntable already this is a cheap way to add the functionality to your existing equipment.
You do need a computer, however, or any other device compatible with a USB audio stream. You can select the digital audio format right there on your preamp and listen to it live on the computer speaker to get an idea of what you’ll be recording.
It’s actually hard to think of this as a preamp only, since the addition of the USB is such a cool feature, but it’s actually a pretty decent one that most buyers agree does a good job.
It’s not going to transform the sound of your vinyls as some of the high-end boxes might do, but it’s affordable, flexible, feature rich, and technically competent. You’ll know if it’s for you.
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.