Adding a phono preamp to your sound system setup instantly takes your music from regular to glam. It glorifies the right parts of a song, cleans the sound from distractions, and picks up the tiniest music details. All the beautiful sounds that could otherwise be overlooked.
You might’ve come across a fascinating vinyl, only to hear a dull aging version of its past glory. Or maybe the built-in preamp in your sound system produces tinny sounds when you increase the gain. The absence of a preamp can actually cause plenty of sound defects.
Preamps are amazing devices that solve these problems, but only when you select the right one. A mismatched preamp is as useless as a mute mic. Choosing the right preamp does require a bit of practical expertise and some knowledge of how sound systems work.
If you’re not a pro don’t worry, we got your back here. This article contains all the necessary information to facilitate understanding preamps and the essential criteria for picking the right one. We also cherry-picked la creme de la creme of preamps. They come in various configurations, and at price points that fit most budgets. Read on to find out what’s the best preamp in 2020!
What Is a Phono Preamp Used For?
The difference between a rich sound full of gusto and a weak screechy tune is primarily in the preamp. Also, some devices put out an extremely weak signal. To the point that if you connect it directly to the speakers, you would only hear a flat yet noisy sound. Vintage turntables are known for creating lovely but barely audible music. Hence, the importance of a fine preamp.
Some devices actually come with an internal preamp to provide the necessary gain, annotation, equalization, and cleaning of an incoming signal. However, since not all devices come with a phono stage, then, it’s essential to include a preamp in your setup.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Phono Preamp
A preamp that doesn’t match your setup correctly, or doesn’t have the ‘timber’ you were hoping for, is always a bummer. And since we don’t ever want to see a music lover listening to subpar tunes, here’s a guide to the essentials you should look for as you shop for a preamp.
Most people have limited space on their shelves or counters, so adding a large device to a setup could be an unnecessary excess. It’s worth noting that high-end preamps lean more towards being massive. Also, tubular preamps are characterized by being rather bulky.
In general, compact preamps are often preferable to large ones. But still, if you have space, and need extra control, then a larger unit would be the right choice. Another matter to consider here is whether the preamp ‘fits the stack’; if that’s the turntable configuration you have.
The Budget Has the Last Word
In sound systems, it’s often said that you get what you pay for. But the savvy chaps would beg to differ. You could actually get some brilliant devices on a budget, so don’t let a tight budget discourage you.
To be fair, the pricey stuff usually comes with hard to beat perks. The big names like Rega and Cambridge Audio have been in the business for decades, so they do know what exactly to offer audiophiles.
You might also consider the amount of cash already invested in the rest of the setup. If you’ve put in $4000 for a vintage turntable, and a few hundred dollars for groovy speakers, then you might as well complement this fine bunch with a classy preamp.
Tubes or Solid-State Preamps
Choosing between tube vs. solid-state preamps is a matter of personal preference, since some people swear by the richness of the tube preamps, while others can’t get enough of their digital preamps. Still, it’s best to get all the facts right, so you can pick the one that fits the bill for real.
Old school preamps definitely look and feel different. The tubes and analog valves add significantly to the overall vintage configuration. There’s also a rustic warm quality about analog devices that can hardly be matched by a digital concoction.
Solid-state preamps are often perceived to be ‘too perfect’ and thus cold-hearted. However, this is more of a myth than an undebatable truth. This image mostly comes from the way digital sound systems started. Back in the day, they did sound rather tinny and sterile. But the new ones are so not like that. Just make sure to steer clear from the cheap stuff.
Whether you go tubular or digital that’s totally fine, and they both create amazing sound profiles.
Matching the Turntable Cartridge
Turntable cartridges come in two basic forms: Moving magnetic (MM) and Moving Coil (MC). It’s absolutely essential to use a preamp that goes with the type of cartridge you have.
Some folks have devices of both varieties, and it would seem more convenient for them to have one preamp that caters to both. However, this option doesn’t always provide the best outcome. It usually gives a half-hearted performance with either option.
A dedicated preamp, on the other hand, is more intent on making the best out of the incoming signal. So, if you can buy two preamps, an MM and an MC, that would be great.
What Are the Benefits of Owning a Phono Preamp?
You’re going to invest your hard-earned cash into a sophisticated piece of audio, so you might as well know what you’ll be getting in return.
Giving a Weak Signal an Extra Boost
The audio signal coming out of most devices is usually much too soft to be directed to a set of speakers right away. It needs extra oomph to ring nicely in every corner of the room and reverberate in your soul.
A nice preamp typically has a high consistent gain, an appropriately high input impedance, and a relatively low output impedance. These parameters are often sufficient to boost a signal several orders above its current state.
Cleaning up the Noise
Any kind of signal often carries with it a load of noise. No matter how careful a recording studio is, the tunes will always have an unintended noise. That’s not the only source of ‘dirt’ on the sound though. Vinyl records and even CDs degrade with time and usage, and this often comes out as an increase in unwanted sounds and a decrease in coveted sounds.
Cleaning up these noises is among the perks you’ll get with a preamp. Choose one with a high signal to noise ratio, and you’ll hear crystal clear tunes that really pamper your senses.
Equalizing and Normalizing Distorted Sounds
Recorded sounds don’t always come in neat packages, and they often need a bit of sorting out to enhance their quality. There’s a standard curve that most equalizers use, but there are several variations that add interest to your audio.
Adding character to a Tune
Varying the filtration profile, equalization, in addition to the bass and treble, instantly gives character to your music. Even the most basic tunes get plenty of glam after moving a few switches!
The Top 5 Phono Preamps Reviewed
Here’s a roundup of the best phono preamps you can add to your audio setup now.
ART DJPREII Phono Preamplifier
Flawless audio in a rugged housing
The ART preamp is loaded with awesome features like the variable gain, low-cut rumble filter, high accuracy, and low noise. It has versatile connectivity with its dual RCA-type inputs and outputs, which makes including it within the setup a breeze.
The housing is made from a black aluminum anodized case, which looks pretty rich and sophisticated. The controls are quite intuitive and easy to understand. Every setting in the panel gives you more control over your audio signal, and there’s plenty you can adjust for optimal results.
There’s plenty of value for the money in this preamp, as Photoman says “For the price and what it accomplishes, I’d buy it again without any hesitation. My vinyl finally sounds like it should at the appropriate power level it deserves! If you are experiencing the same issues, buy it..I’m guessing you won’t find a better product at a better price.”
It doesn’t have an ON/OFF switch and its power indicator seems a bit too bright for some users. But otherwise, it’s among the best all-purpose preamps.
Behringer Microphono PP400 Ultra-Compact Phono Preamp
- Phono Preamplifier with Stereo RCA Inputs
- 1 x Stereo 1/4" Output
- Stereo RCA Outputs
A rugged ultra-compact preamp for MM cartilages
The German-made Behringer Microphono PP400 comes with a 3-year warranty for a good reason. This device is built with perfect craftsmanship and precision. It would definitely help you in recreating the best days of vinyl records. It’s also stylish and would fit neatly within your setup.
The connectivity of this preamp is another plus, as it has RCA in addition to 1/4″ TRS output connectors. The Behringer is a bit above mid-range, but it’s not too sophisticated that a beginner would feel intimidated. It’s actually a great preamp across the board, provided you can afford it.
As for the sound and performance, Billy says “I was shocked. Absolutely no hum, no distortion, plenty of pre-amp volume to match the other components, and quite honestly, I was delighted. It actually sounds great.”.
A few users thought they heard a buzz or an occasional thump in the speakers, but that was easily resolved by connecting the ground properly.
rolls Phono Preamp
A great performer with a fair price
The rolls preamps aren’t normally attention seekers. They just get the job done in a praiseworthy manner.
It’s a smallish device measuring about 3.25″ x 2″ x 1.5″. It’s designed to provide RIAA Equalization, which is the gold standard for great tunes. It has RCA inputs/outputs, plus a 1/8 inch (3.5mm) TRS output.
AC adapter included
This preamp summarizes the American way of building things to the nines. It’s as Larry puts it “I needed a good, but inexpensive phono preamp and, once I saw the name “Rolls”, my interest was piqued as Rolls’s components have always worked well for me, regardless of application.”
Another pleased user says that “This little wonder preamp just produces pure joy, not a bit of noise. I guess you can say I am thrilled. And who can complain about the price? Don’t bother wasting your money on those costing only $25 to 40. I had one. I have replaced it with this Rolls”.
The gain is not adjustable though, and this seems to turn off a few users. However, once they get past the initial stage, they realize its 42 d/b setting is perfect for most applications.
Fosi Audio Phono Preamp for Turntable
- ❤Tube MM Phono Preamplifier: Converts phono signals to Line Level Signals with low-noise integrated circuits and high-quality components to remove low-frequency noise and ensure clear sound quality. Designed with a grounding post to protect your turntable.
- ❤Three switchable gain modes: 39, 42, and 45 dB. Adjustable gain levels to give you customizable control and outstanding compatibility. Entry-Level high-end analog sound and top-notch circuitry for an unbeatable low cost.
- ❤Tube Preamplifier: It's also a tube preamp with 3.5mm AUX Input. Designed and assembled by Fosi Audio from high-quality components. Great warm, smooth-sounding.
- ❤Applicable vacuum tube model: 6K4/6J1/6J4/GE5654/6AK5/66*In vacuum tubes, etc. You can replace the vacuum tubes to DIY your stereo system. Different tubes with different sounds.
- ❤What You Get: Box X2 phono preamp x1, Vacuum tubes x2, RCA cable x1, power adaptor x1, user manual x1, our worry-free 18-month warranty, and friendly customer service.
A classical tube preamp in a sleek housing for your MM turntable
It has three adjustable gain modes, which gives you total control over the emitted sound. It’s a low-noise device that clips low-frequency oddities, leaving only a crystal clear signal for the subsequent audio stages.
The exceptional performance of the Fosi is quite clear in Clofus’ words: “I was not sure there would be a great difference between the built-in preamp, but there certainly is – the little unit really opened up the musicality for me. I am hearing my albums in a whole new way, and am very happy with this investment.”
Marc, who is another content buyer continues along the same lines: “Hey I’m 69.so its not like I didn’t originally buy all this vinyl I’ve been shleppimg around. This thing makes you fall in deep love with your vinyl. I’m at a loss of words. One of the best things I’ve ever bought.”
Some of the folks fancied changing the tubes to boost the preamp’s power even more, and they swear by that little upgrade.
Pyle Phono Turntable Preamp
- CONVERTS PHONO SIGNALS: A turntable preamp that converts phono signals to Line Level Signals. This state-of-the-art circuitry phono preamp can accommodate magnetic pickups with an input sensitivity of 3mV at 50K Ohms
- LOW NOISE OPERATION: Offers outstanding performance with it’s Low-Noise Audio Operational Amplifiers. The output is 2V max (P-P) at 10K Ohms. It’s better to position the preamp close to the source to reduce unwanted noise and interference
- CONNECTS TO TURNTABLES: Connect any turntable to modern sound equipment without specialized phono input for amplifying music. For the receiver, this can be connected to speakers, computers, laptops and more
- SIMPLE PLUG & PLAY: This mini preamp has stereo RCA inputs and stereo RCA outputs. Connect the turntable to the RCA inputs and ground. Then, connect the amplifier receiver to the RCA outputs
A compact sized, low-noise, and low-budget device for entry-level audiophiles.
The Phyle Phono is a small-sized device, measuring around 3.54” x 2.13” x 1.02”, and weighing only 0.88 lb. It’s dedicated to converting a phono signal all the way to a line-level signal, and it does that across a broad dynamic range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
It has stereo RCA inputs and outputs, so you simply plug-and-play any devices you like. This includes laptops, computers, and of course all kinds of speakers. It’s among the least noisy preamps, and you take that a step further by keeping it away from interference.
“Let’s be frank, a preamp’s function is simply to boost the phono signal up to line level without changing it. If you want to shape the sound in some way, you do that elsewhere.”, said a content user, who had exactly what he wanted from the Pyle preamp.
And true to these words, the users who have high-end audio devices with a turntable that needed a boost, seem to find this preamp a bit below their expectations. Then again, this preamp wasn’t the correct choice for them to start with. It’s best suited for a basic setup and entry-level audiophiles.
Preamps pick up the slightest detail in the music and magnify it. Thus, giving it a new life and letting everyone enjoy its true richness and warmth. These devices also condition the audio signals and clean up any inherent distractions.
To get the right preamp, you need to look at the size, consider your budget, and see whether you like an old-school analog tubular preamp or a modern digital one. You should also match the preamp with the cartridge of the turntable.
The best preamp on this list would be hard to pinpoint, as they’re all great choices. Still, the ART DJPREII Phono Preamplifier seems to have it all: the looks, the flawless performance, and the fair price tag.