In this article, I’m going to provide you with a list of five of the best phono preamps under $200 that are available on the market today. I’ll also talk about why I think they’re special, as well as some of their strengths and weaknesses.
Now, for an audiophile, creating the perfect audio setup for your turntable can be both an endeavor and adventure. An audio system consists of several different pieces that compliment each other to create a desired effect when working together in harmony. Turntables read the grooves of a record with a needle to produce a phono output signal. If you drop the needle on a record without turning on your speakers, you can hear the record playing very quietly with a thin quality to it.
This is how a turntable naturally sounds without any amplification.
To make this signal audible through your speakers, it needs to first be converted to a line level signal, or AUX signal, via a phono preamp for turntables. Some turntables come equipped with a built-in phono preamp and some older (and newer) stereo systems have built-in phono preamps of their own, but for the majority of turntable users, a separate, external phono preamp is necessary to complete a hi-fi system.
Below, please take a look at some of the best budget phono preamps (and a few integrated amplifiers) on the market, and see how they compare to some of the ones we discuss in this article:
|VPI Cliffwood||$$||Works with MM Cartridges|
|Rega IO||$$$||30 watts per channel at 8Ω|
|Project Phono Box S2||$||Works with MC and MM Cartridges|
|Rega Brio||$$$||50 watts per channel at 8Ω|
|Project Tube Box S2||$$||Audiophile Phono Preamp with Tube Tech|
|NAD 3020 V2||$$||Hybrid Digital/Analog Amplifier|
|NAD PP4||$$||Works with MM and MC cartridges|
|Turntable Lab PHO-1||$||Phono Preamp and Headphone Amp|
|Clearaudio Smart Phono V2||$$$||Resonance-free aluminum chassis|
|Project Phono Box DS2||$||Works with MM and MC cartridges|
Shopping for a Phono Preamp
When shopping for a preamp, there are several factors that should be taken into consideration. Most importantly, you’ll want to find a preamp that is compatible with the other components of your system; predominantly, your turntable’s cartridge and ports, your speaker or amplifier ports and the quality of your turntable itself. While a preamplifier can certainly compliment and accentuate your turntable’s sound, the signal it amplifies and converts is still derived directly from the turntable itself.
Much like how a pair of expensive patent leather shoes worn with a t shirt might improve the quality of an outfit overall, but can’t change the fact that you’re wearing a t shirt. So, it may not be wise to invest in an expensive preamp to pair with a budget turntable. Similarly, if you have a high quality turntable, converting its signal through a cheap preamp will lessen the overall quality. Your system is only as strong as its weakest link.
It is also important to check to see that the ports on your turntable are compatible with the inputs of the preamp and that the preamp’s outputs are compatible with the amp or speakers you wish to connect to as to avoid having to purchase an adapter or additional equipment.
Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil Cartridges
The two most common types of cartridges are the moving magnet, or MM, cartridge and the moving coil, or MC cartridge. The MM cartridge is the more widely-seen of the two, typically less expensive and most preamplifiers are compatible with this type by default (however, you should always check to confirm before making a purchase).
A moving magnet cartridge carries a tiny magnet within the stylus cantilever arranged between two sets of fixed coils, which create an electromagnetic generator. The magnet vibrates in correspondence to the stylus’ reading of the grooves to create an electric current within the coils. The magnet’s low mass allows the needle to follow the grooves of a record with precision while requiring less tracking force and putting minimal ware on your records.
If your cartridge is an MC, your options are limited to preamplifiers that are compatible with low output cartridges. A moving coil cartridge reverses the positions of the magnet and coils within the cartridge with the coils attached to the stylus creating a smaller output voltage, requiring a preamp with very low noise inputs to be able to convert the signal appropriately.
Tubes vs. Solid-State Preamps
Phono preamplifiers can vary in quality, components and cost, with some costing thousands of dollars. There are two types of phono preamps, the solid-state preamp and the tube preamp. There has been an ongoing battle for years as to which one is superior with neither side being able to claim a definitive victory, leaving it in your hands to choose which style you prefer.
Solid-state amps utilize a digital silicon transistor, similar to one you would find in a cell phone, to process and amplify the phono output signal received from the needle. Tube preamps use analog tubes and valves for the same purpose and many believe that this creates a warmer, fuller sound quality and a wider dynamic range.
Critics of the solid-state amp argue that because a turntable is an analog piece of equipment, this should be maintained through every component of a sound system and that converting analog output to a digital signal negates from the analog aspect of hi-fi audio as a whole.
Tube amps also have volume cutoffs that are smoother, whereas solid-state amps clip sound signals more sharply and are more likely to distort the sound quality at louder volumes and with certain types of music.
Additionally, tube amps are more resistant to power surges and other electrical issues that are more likely to damage a solid-state amp. However, solid-state amps are generally cheaper, more durable and require less electricity.
The Best Phono Preamps for Under $200
Though you can spend thousands of dollars for a preamp that is almost more a piece of art than equipment, you can find some budget-friendly options that will make great additions to your setup.
For this article, we will be examining a variety of phono preamps that work with a wide range of turntables, are readily available, easy to find and cost under $200, in ascending order of price.
$50. Housed in a fire-red box and made in the USA, the VP29 is a solid-state preamp that is compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, RCA inputs and outputs and a DC power supply. This preamp features a simple design without any knobs or switches allowing for easy setup but serves just two functions.
The first function is converting your record’s phono output signal with RIAA equalization to a line level signal to play through your speakers. RIAA equalization was developed by the Recording Industry Association of America as a specification of the playback of records to create greater recording times, thus narrowing each groove of a record to reduce groove damage and improve sound quality. The VP29 also features a 3.5 mm jack to connect to powered speakers, which would allow you to bypass amplification and fulfill a second function: serving as a simple adapter.
The Phono Box is another solid-state preamp with gold-plated stereo RCA ports, DC power supply and housed in a compact and sturdy black metal case that deters vibration and electronic interference. However, as its name suggests, it is only able to amplify MM cartridges with RIAA equalization.
If compatible with your turntable, this preamp provides a low noise output with minimal distortion when converting your signal to a line level at most sound decibels capable of average home audio speakers.
Though U-Turn is known for their turntables, they make this preamp with the same commitment to quality in the USA and offer a unique 3-year warranty. The Pluto is a solid-state preamp with RIAA equalization compatible with MM cartridges and RCA ports with an elegant stainless-steel design.
Apart from its manufacturer, the thing that sets this preamp apart is the quality of its internal components. A high-performance gain stage and a subsonic filter used to eliminate low-frequency noise and WIMA capacitors and precision resistors that compose its RIAA equalization network.
Schiit is a newer name to the HiFi market, but they are gaining support quickly with their quality products that are made in the USA and come with a 2-year warranty. Most preamps are either compatible with MM or MC cartridges, but the Mani’s low-noise, adjustable gain, which equates to the input level that the audio is clipped at, allowing users to choose from 30, 42, 47, and 59dB, making it ready to handle virtually any cartridge you can throw at it.
It utilizes a fully passive RIAA network along with precision 2% film capacitors, 0.5% thin-film resistors to produce an accurate, consistent sound that is capable of making the most out of your home audio speakers at a range of volumes. Users are enamored with this preamp’s versatility, quality and manufacturer for the price.
- I have a lot more to say about the Schiit Mani, so please feel free to read my complete Schiit Mani review here!
While most tube preamps will cost well over $200, the MS23B is perhaps the best deal available within our price range. This preamp is made in Japan, compatible with MM cartridges, RCA ports and features a futuristic, durable aluminum alloy casing that houses two 12AX7 tubes on top.
The MS23B utilizes high quality interior components like Japanese Nippon Chemi-Con capacitor filters, strong enamel-isolated pure OFC copper wires and metallic resistors to deliver a warm, smooth and powerful sound across a wide range of frequencies and volumes.
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