With the vinyl resurgence in full swing, it’s possible that your new turntable needs something extra that you are not too familiar with in order to properly spin your records. What goes into a preamp and why do you need it? Most of all, where should you be looking to buy one and spend a reasonable amount of money.
Here’s a list of 5 preamps that you should consider, all of which excel in these five categories:
- Ease of Use
Please take a moment to use the interactive table below to compare and contrast some of the best phono preamps on the market:
|Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box DC||$||★★★★||Input Impedence MM: 47k ohms|
|Cambridge CP2||$$||★★★★||MM/MC Phono preamp|
|Musical Surroundings Phonomena II||$$$||★★★★★||Comes in either black or silver|
|Emotiva Audio SP-1||$$||★★★★★||Supports MM and MC cartridges|
|Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE||$$$||★★★★||S/N 71dB MM / 63dB MC|
|Clearaudio Smart Phono v2||$$$||★★★★||Resonance-free aluminum chassis|
|>||Music Hall PA 2.2||$$$||★★★★★||Adjustable MC gain stage|
|Pro-Ject Phono Box RS||$$$||★★★★||Gain settings: 40, 50, or 60 dB|
|Pro-Ject’s Tube Box DS||$$$||★★★★||Gain adjustment 40/50/60 dB|
|Vincent-PHO-701||$$$||★★★★★||Two-chassis MM/MC phono stage|
What is a Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp is essential to the process of listening to vinyl on a turntable. You may also see these called a phono stage, phono preamplifier, RIAA preamp, or turntable preamp. A phono preamp is an electronic circuit that applies the correct amplification to the signal coming from your cartridge and sends it to the input of a power amplifier or audio system.
The audio signal coming from the needle on your turntable is very low and requires amplifying, sometimes up to several hundred times the original power, to bring it up to the standard line level, which is also referred to as AUX, that most modern amplifiers require. It basically provides the connection between the record player and your amp, and converts phono to line level. Simply stated, the phono preamp makes sure that you can hear the vinyl record you are spinning.
Not all turntables require an external phono preamp. Depending on what type of cartridge you are using, moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC), you will need an MM or MC phono preamp. Moving magnet cartridges have a comparatively high output, often around 5 mV on average, whereas moving coil ones have a comparatively lower output, usually around 0.5 mV on average, so they require a higher level of amplification to bring it up to line level before input to your main amplifier. This can increase the MC phono stage costs significantly. Some phono preamps are MM or MC only, but the best ones on the market will work with either an MM or MC cartridge, with a MM/MC switch or separate inputs.
The audio recorded on a vinyl record has RIAA equalization, which is a specification for the recording and playback of phonograph records, established by the Recording Industry Association of America – RIAA. The RIAA equalization is applied to each record, giving less emphasis on the low frequencies and more on the high frequencies. This permits narrower grooves, enabling more playing minutes on a record, resulting in less distortion and better sound quality. Upon playback on your turntable this emphasis needs reversing, which is achieved by the phono preamp. If you plug a record player directly into the standard line input of an amplifier, you would hear a very quiet sound with no bass, about 10% of what you might expect in comparison to a normal sounding record. Back in the day, when vinyl was the standard for audio recording, the phono stage was built-in to the receivers, allowing direct connection of a turntable, which were marked as PHONO inputs.
As new audio formats and playback devices were introduced, and the use of vinyl records declined, amplifier manufacturers removed their integrated phono stages, so most modern ones lack a phono input and need a separate phono preamp to connect your turntable. Also, many of today’s entry level turntables have line level outputs, which means that they have a built-in phono preamp, but the quality of these is often very poor, so you may want to use a separate phono stage as an upgrade.
Most good and audiophile turntables don’t have a phono preamp included. If that’s the case, or if you are just looking to upgrade your current phono preamp, look no further than this list.
Since 1995, the Lehmann Black Cube has gained the reputation of being the most cost-effective phono preamps on the market, and has been overwhelmingly acclaimed by the international press. The Black Cube SE takes what the brand has been building over the decades to a whole new level, and provides an excellent entry into high-end audio.
It has the same features as the renowned Black Cube, but the PWX power supply is added to the package. The PWX features a 30W toroidal transformer for extra punch, which serves as the main reason for the significant upgrade in sonic performance. This PWX sports a grounded isolation coil between the primary and secondary coil, resulting in much more bass authority, a more fluid midrange, as well as more openness. The price per performance ratio is why more and more analogue lovers choose the Black Cube SE right from the start. The device was vastly improved in 2006.
A special 30 VA toroidal transformer of the PWX power supply is the main reason for the sonic performance achieved with the Black Cube SE. This transformer is not only over dimensioned but also sports a grounded isolation coil between the primary and secondary coil. The results: much more bass authority, a more liquid midrange as well as more openness. These sonic benefits are without a doubt the reasons that more and more music lovers choose the Black Cube SE right from the start.
Lehmann is good at what they do, and their best work is here with the Black Cube SE. It’s near that $1000 price range cap, but it is still under, making it a viable option for your budget.
Jolida JD9 MK II
The Jolida JD9 MK II is a viable and versatile option for all within this price range. With all-tube circuitry, audiophile-grade electronics, incredible versatility, and an attractive, minimalist aesthetic, it is hard to expect more from the Jolida JD9. It meets the demands of nearly any cartridge with the flip of a few dip switches, and offers much more than just compatibility. True to its tube pedigree, the JD9 handles high-frequencies delicately, rolling off just enough brittleness without sacrificing vital details or its impressive soundstage. For only $500, the sound and imaging capabilities of this phono stage will shine, even when accompanied by much more expensive components.
The Jolida JD9 is a favorite for many who want the quality of a preamp that costs 4 times this option, but with the under $1000 price tag. For many, the features of the Jolida JD9 are comparable to $4000+ phono preamp options.
The Phonomena II+ is the successor of the original MS affordable phono preamplifier series, celebrating the brand’s 15-years in the market. The Phonomena II+ features an improved chassis design, based on the more expensive Nova II, and is available in both a black and silver finish. Boasting a new circuit board layout, the Phonomena II+ delivers discrete dual-mono signal paths, affording the listener more vibrant and dynamic music reproduction with a “blacker” background.
Expertly made, inside and out, the Phonomena II+’s small footprint optimizes signal path integrity, while its black or silver finish options are sure to match the rest of your components.
A winner of The Absolute Sound Editors’ Choice Award, the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ MM/MC phono preamplifier offers the most adjustable gain and loading settings in its price bracket. It also touts advanced circuitry and discrete dual-mono signal paths for vibrant, dynamic playback marked by extended extremes and weighty bass.
A fits-anywhere footprint, sleek chassis, short signal path, options to dial-in your cartridge just as you wish, RIAA equalization, and continuous musical satisfaction make the U.S.A.-built Phonomena II+ a budget-conscious option that all should consider when searching for a new phono preamp.
The Smart Phono v2 delivers the performance and features of more expensive phono stages in a small, stylish and cost-effective package. It features a gain attenuator conveniently located on top, allowing precise level-matching between phono and other line inputs. A power on/off button, located on top of the chassis, is another new feature on the Smart Phono v2. Looking underneath, the Smart Phono v2 features extensive loading options and subsonic filter, making it compatible with virtually all phono cartridges. High-quality, gold-plated input and output RCA terminals give superb contact.
The printed circuit board is encased in a solid CNC-machined, resonance-free aluminum chassis. The latest sophisticated surface-mount technology is used in conjunction with precision electronic components, such as Burr-Brown, also known as Texas Instruments, integrated circuits. The v2’s extremely short signal paths lead to pure, noise-free music reproduction. The fully dual-mono design features separate left and right switches for input loading and gain control. Users can also select between moving coil or moving magnet sensitivity, extracting the best results from virtually any phono cartridge.
This is a technically advanced option from the others listed so far, but it’s worth the extra learning curve to access this phono preamp’s potential.
Last but not least, this phono preamp was saved for last because of the name recognition that comes along with Pro-Ject, as well as the tube phenomenon everyone is always looking for. This precision tube phono preamplifier benefits from outstanding circuit technology from Dr. Sykora and uses ultimate components.
Compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, it offers connection for two turntables plus two selectable line outputs and a continuously variable selection of input impedance for low output MC cartridges while playing a record. Other features include input capacitance for MM cartridges and switchable subsonic that prevents your amplifier and speakers of ultra low rumble below 20Hz. All components including tube output and polypropylene capacitors are audiophile-grade and guarantee a breathtaking sound experience.
All components including tube output and polypropylene capacitors are audiophile-grade and guarantee a breathtaking sound experience. The DS2’s tube complement consists of two ECC83 (12AX7) tubes. The DS2 is a perfect upgrade for ambitious vinyl lovers. The ‘sandwich’ alu/metal casing protects the sensitive inner circuitry from vibrations and electromagnetic interference. Choose a black or silver finish to mark your style in your rig.
The Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 Phono Preamp is a great option for all. Consider it carefully when choosing your phono preamp for the future!
In order to make a high quality preamp, it essentially requires expensive parts and tough wiring techniques. Also, there are some manufacturers out there who strongly believe that the best quality preamps are the ones that take advantage of transformers, the only problem is that a good quality transformer is very expensive – so much so that certain companies simply custom make them themselves to avoid extra costs.
The reason that transformers are so expensive is that they have to work meticulously and efficient in order to produce pin point power supply levels and signal grounding – two obligatory requirements if high fidelity audio is your aim. That being said, you do not have to spend a ton to get a ton out of these phono preamps. These options for a great phono preamp under $1000 should be on your list when searching for a new preamp. Happy spinning and shopping!
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