When I tried the tube amp the first time years ago, I was instantly hooked. Now I’m a 100% audiophile who can’t wait to go home and enjoy that warm, harmonic music.
Little did I know that there was a lot more to that experience. Pair your tube amp with a vinyl turntable and you’d be instantly sent to the 1950s.
However, shopping for these vintage products can be quite tricky. You may end up buying a device incompatible with the rest of your setup.
That’s why I went along and collected the 5 best tube amps for turntables. I’ve based my choices on performance, sound quality, authenticity, and overall reviews. You’ll get to know my personal favorite in the end, so make sure to stick around!
What Is an Amplifier?
An amplifier, as the name suggests, strengthens the audio signals coming from relatively weak sources like a turntable. Why? Because otherwise, a high-power audio output, like a speaker, won’t be able to pick the signal.
How Do Tube Amps Work?
The transistor, the component behind digital amps, does a similar job but within an electric circuit instead of a vacuum.
Here’s a more detailed explanation from Brandon Doherty:
So, Do You Need an Amplifier?
If you’re running a turntable, then absolutely yes. The faint audio signal coming from a turntable needs amplification to be audible on a speaker.
But the question is, do you need a standalone amplifier? It depends. Some speakers actually have a built-in amplifier so they could strengthen and play turntable audio at the same time.
However, standalone amps offer higher quality and adjustability than built-ins. It’s pretty self-explanatory, right? Any standalone device would have a larger space to incorporate better materials.
Moreover, if you chose to opt for tube amps, built-ins won’t be an option. The vacuum tubes present on those devices can’t be held inside a speaker.
But that moves us to the next question, should you choose tube amps over solid-state amps?
What Will You Need to Connect a Tube Amp to a Turntable?
As I said before, vinyl turntables produce signals too weak to be caught on speakers or headphones directly.
Therefore, if you want to include a turntable in your stereo system, you’ll need those 4 basic components in this order:
- Turntable, naturally!
- Tube amp
The preamp, as the name implies, is a step that usually precedes a tube amp to make the signal suitable for amplification. It transforms the 10mV phono signal that turntables supply to a 300mV line signal.
Then, the tube amp strengthens this to what we call a power-amplified signal at 10-30V, or whatever value your speakers need.
That said, you have a couple of options for your stereo setup:
Setup #1: 4 Devices
In this setup, you’ll purchase 4 standalone devices to do their respective steps separately. This costs you the most in terms of money and space, yet it delivers the best audio.
Setup #2: 3 Devices
You can purchase a turntable with a built-in preamp to deliver a 100mV line input directly to your tube amp.
Here’s some more information from Devoted to Vinyl:
What To Consider Before Buying a Tube Amp
So, we’re off to the actual shopping. Buying a tube amp can be somewhat overwhelming, especially for first-timers.
No worries, though. Here are the top factors you should bear in mind before choosing your device.
Consider Your Intended Use
Will you listen to your turntable on headphones or speakers? As you might expect, headphones need much less power so it wouldn’t melt.
Impedance for Headphones
The best way to know if an amp is headphone-compatible is through checking its output impedance value. Generally speaking, you should be looking for a value between 20 and 600 ohms.
However, headphones can vary in their required power. So it’s better to check your headphone specifications to avoid messing up your hardware.
Or, if you want more freedom with the headphone choice, you should opt for an amp with an impedance dial to specifically adjust it to your needs.
Impedance for Speakers
You might think that if headphones need 20-600 ohms, then speakers should require even more, right? Well, no.
I won’t dive into the electrical principles behind this concept since it can take a lot of time. But it’s enough to say that as impedance increases, output power decreases.
So if you want to run a speaker, get an output around 4-8 ohms.
Consider the Other Components of Your Setup
Generally speaking, the tube amp needs 100mV to function, to say the least. So luckily, you won’t have to get confused by numbers like those in the output.
However, you need to consider the input cables. Make sure to buy an amp with ports that match your setup.
Otherwise, you’ll have to plug in an adaptor that will cost you the pure, warm sound you’re craving.
Figure Out Where You’ll Put Them Beforehand
Tube amps look magical in the dark with those glowing power tubes. However, this very advantage can be a downside for some people.
A tube amp will need a lot of vertical space to accommodate for the size of the tubes. Therefore, it can’t fit in a constricted rack like a solid-state amp.
Here’s a nice look at why we like tube amps from Laney Amplification:
What’s Unique about Tube Amps?
Alright, let’s be honest. If we compared tube amps with solid-state amps in terms of durability, the latter would definitely win.
Power tubes need to be changed every two years, assuming that you use them at a regular rate. If you use them more frequently, their quality will deteriorate much faster.
Nevertheless, I’ve seen more and more people switching to tube amps recently. Then why?
We Crave Imperfect Music
As you might expect, electrons flowing through a circuit are much more stable than vacuum. We value this benefit in powering things like smartphones to create a perfect, reliable current.
But in music, perfect is pretty boring, right? It’s those little imperfections that add personality to your favorite band.
A tube amp does that seamlessly. It’s able to harmonically distort sound up to an octave above the same note. All science aside, it makes the music sound “warmer” and richer.
Go Higher and It’ll Go Better
Tube amps don’t only produce imperfections, they also vary them with the amount of overdrive.
As any instrument plays louder, a tube amp will add more harmonic content. It’ll feel like a concert where the band gets better as the audience cheers more!
The 5 Best Tube Amps for Turntables
How does every product perform? What are the downsides? That’s what I’ll answer in each of the following reviews. Shall we see?
Nobsound NS-08E Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier – Best Overall
What I like the most about Nobosound products is their optimal performance at the lowest price. They even have a mission that says “make Hi-Fi affordable”.
This amp version operates via two 6J3 vacuum tubes. These are supposed to give you warmer music. Best of all, it’s a lot more abundant in the market than other alternatives. When you need to replace them, you’ll easily find new ones.
Here’s a nice video review from PaaTing Reviews:
It can support a wide range of headphones with an impedance ranging between 18 and 600 ohms.
On the downside, several customers complained about issues in the power cable. Ted Colegrove, an Amazon customer, said that he had to apply slight pressure on top of the cable, or else the amp won’t work.
However, considering that you have an 18-month warranty, you can always return your device if you encounter a similar problem.
The amp features superior aesthetics with a brown CNC aluminum shell. I think this is the best design for a truly vintage setup.
SMSL T2 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier – Runner-Up
With a stunning textured-black CNC shell, this amp would fade into the darkness to let the tubes glow epically. It depends on 6J9 vacuum tubes to power the signals.
The best thing about it lies in its electrical design. SMSL incorporated a small microprocessor that eliminates the annoying buzz you usually hear when you turn on other tube amps.
However, this small addition doesn’t interfere with your music at all. This ensures you’d enjoy the same warm experience found in a classic tube amp.
Here’s a video review from JohnyTechReview:
I can’t describe how much I love the design. It’s made from a black, textured CNC aluminum shell. The power tubes glow in a faint violet that fits well with the black body.
The only thing I don’t like about this amp is the impedance range. It can only support up to 300 ohms. Therefore, if you regularly use higher-impedance headphones, it’s better to save your money and invest in another product.
Fosi Audio P2 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amp – Best with Built-In Preamp
If your turntable doesn’t have a built-in preamp and you don’t want to purchase a standalone alternative, this tube amp would be your best bet.
Its embedded preamp can pick up a 0.2mV phono signal, which is far less than most turntables can supply. In other words, it’ll be compatible with a large number of models.
A customer named Elio said that it worked fine with his AT-LP60 turntable. He added that it produces a loud hiss at the start but it fades in a couple of seconds.
Here’s a nice unboxing and review video from ClassicJunk88:
For the design, it looks pretty much like the SMSL without the texture. Moreover, the tubes illuminate in a strong orange tone that would look stunning in the dark.
The only thing that I don’t really like is the “stepped” dial. You’ll hear small gains with each increase in the volume. Then again, some people might appreciate this added distortion.
Bravo Audio Ocean Tube Driven Headphone Amplifier – Best Compact
If you’re absolutely restricted on space, consider this tube amp from Bravo. It measures only 6” by 5” for width and length, allowing you to place it almost anywhere.
Bravo chose a unique approach to design this amp, with its warm blue exterior and single tube housing.
This amp features only one EH6922 vacuum tube. Don’t think that this means less performance, though. It can support headphones up to 600 ohms.
Oroboros, an amazon customer, said that this amp is a quality item at an extremely low price. This makes it perfect for people not willing to spend much on HiFi, like students.
Though it’s the most compact, it measures 4.5” in height with the tube installed. Still, I think the minimal horizontal size makes up for this extra 1.5” above the height average.
LOXJIE P20 Full Balance Tube Amplifier – Best Value
Loxjie is relatively new in the tube amps industry considering that it was founded in 2017. However, it was able to prove itself rapidly by releasing high-quality products with unquestionable materials. The P20 model is currently one of its best selling.
For the vacuum tubes, this model features two military-grade 6N3 tubes. Although these tend to live long, they don’t offer the same warm feeling you experience with other models. An Amazon customer named Devon explained that they sound too clean, much like a solid-state amp.
Then again, how warm music sounds is a highly relative matter. Maybe you’ll find that it fits your preferences more than anything else.
Here’s a nice walk through video from jingjing zhang:
My most favorite feature in this amp lies in the volume control. It’s equipped with an electronic dial made by JRC. With this dial, you can fine-tune the volume through 60 steps!
This tube amp measures around 5 inches in height with the tubes installed. It can’t really be considered a con. But some people might not have sufficient vertical space to accommodate it.
Owning a tube amp is imperative if you want to experience the full nostalgia of a turntable. Whether you’ll use speakers or headphones, make sure the amp supplies the required amount of power.
However, verify that the amp you’ll purchase has the ports required by your setup. Otherwise, you’ll have to use low-quality adaptors.
In my opinion, the best tube amp for turntables is the Nobsound NS-08E headphone amp. It’s an affordable, yet powerful product that operates with two 6J3 vacuum tubes.
Do you have another product in mind? Tell me in the comments below!