When you get a bit more serious about a vinyl records hobby, you’ll hear a lot of talk about tube amps and preamps. The superior craftsmanship and output of these incredible pieces of audio technology can make the price tag run up quite a bit, but there are quality choices for tube preamps under $1000 out there, and that’s where this list begins.
A few criteria will guide our exploration into tube preamps:
- Sound Quality
- Ease of Use
Below, take a moment to view some of the more popular phono preamps on the market, and see how well they compare the the preamps we’ll be discussing throughout today’s article.
|Cambridge Audio CXA81||$$$||80 Watts Per Channel|
|Project Tube Box S2||$$||Audiophile Phono Preamp with Tube Tech|
|Rega Brio||$$$||50 watts per channel at 8Ω|
|Schiit Mani||$||Great, affordable phono preamp|
|VPI Cliffwood||$$||Works with MM Cartridges|
|Vincent PHO 500||$$$||Built-in Analog-to-Digital Converter|
|Project Phono Box S2||$||Works with MC and MM Cartridges|
A Look at Preamp Specifications
Preamps are a profit center for many manufacturers. While tube amps are expensive to build, a decent tube preamp can be built and sold for $1500—at a profit.
Shocked? People see a pretty faceplate and never look under the hood. But if you did look, you might be bummed out to see a lot of empty space. If it isn’t the parts inside, what exactly are you paying so much for? Manufacturers have steadily increased the price of preamps over the last 20 years at a pace that far exceeds inflation. They are also utilizing fewer parts in their designs
Manufacturers make lofty claims about their “entry level” $5,000 preamp being “inspired by” or “trickle down” versions of their $20,000 flagship models. But are they? Not really. All you need to do is search Google for interior photos and remember a few facts. The best tube preamps use more tubes. If a preamp uses one or two tubes, it’s usually a hybrid.
The tube is used for “amplifying” or voltage gain, and a solid-state device like an FET is used to lower output impedance and “drive” the voltage through. There is only ONE reason to use an FET. It’s cheap. FET’s cost pennies while a tube and tube-socket costs around $20. Since you are paying $5,000 for the preamp, you would think they might be nice and spend the twenty bucks. But they don’t.
The best tube preamps are also often dual-mono. Easier said than done because to achieve a true dual-mono design means two power transformers and all the regulation circuits. In effect, dual-mono means building two discrete and separate preamps into one box. This is a rarity even at the highest price points. The best tube preamps are also tube rectified.
Look at their flagship model and you will see a rectifier tube or tube regulation so the circuit is pure tube. Why? It’s quieter than solid state rectification, dropping the noise floor. And it offers the most natural, textured, and vibrant presentation because the circuit is now pure tube. Solid state rectification is fine choice for a $1200 preamp. That is understandable.
But a $5000 preamp? That’s absurd. Using a 5AR4 rectifier tube is not cheap, but it is the Gold Standard.
Lastly, two tips can help you avoid a tube preamp you don’t actually want. First, be wary of a preamplifier with an internal DAC. Why? Because digital changes, and history shows that preamplifiers with “old” digital become unwanted and have almost no resale value.
Additionally, never buy a preamplifier with an internal phonostage. Internal phono stages are “throw in” and are rarely good quality because manufacturers assume 90% of buyers won’t use them. The external phonostage market is very competitive. You can get something much better for as little as $200, and buy one that actually meets your cartridges needs and your budget.
With all of these more technical aspects in mind, it’s quite likely that all of it is a bit confusing. If it’s seeming a bit hard to traverse, keep reading: here are 7 great tube preamps that will push your vinyl experience to the stratosphere.
|Best Selling Turntables|
|1) Denon DP300F|
|2) Audio Technica AT-LP3|
|3) Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO|
Presonus Studio Channel 1-Channel Vacuum-Tube Channel Strip
The Studio Channel is a professional channel strip combining Class A tube preamplifier, VCA-based compressor and three-band parametric equalizer perfect for the professional and project studio. Great for all types of turntables, as well as microphones, instruments, keyboards, and synths, the Studio Channel has the sonic power and flexibility to achieve any tone you can dream of – luscious in your face vocals, crystal clear acoustic guitars, fat solid bass guitar, dynamic acoustic piano, cracking snare, punchy bass, huge MPC tracks and more.
While this serves as a preamp for instruments as well as turntables, its ability to do everything so well and so clearly is a dream come true.
The Studio Channel has everything needed to deliver big tone. The preamplifier stage of the Studio Channel is based on the award winning BlueTube preamplifier with a high output 12AX7 vacuum tube operating on voltages double than all other preamplifiers in its class delivering high headroom and big tone. Dual control Gain and Tube Drive enables a wide range of sounds from transparent and clear to edgy and overdriven.
The compressor in the Studio Channel is a fully variable ultra-fast and smooth VCA-based circuit with all of the controls needed for a wide range of compression settings: ratio, threshold, attack, release and gain make up. The VCA-based compressor is known for musicality as well as ultra-fast attack with the ability to tame the fastest transients.
From slap bass, to snare drum, to vocals, the Studio Channel’s compressor stage allows you to record as hot as needed without clipping giving you total dynamic control. PreSonus Corporation, a developer of audio technologies for the professional and semi-professional digital audio markets, was founded in 1995 and presently makes a lot of wonderful audio equipment.
The Monolith Tube Headphone amplifier brings out the best in your headphones with the rich, warm sound of vacuum tube power. Featuring a powerful 6N5P tube and dual 6N3 tubes, the Monolith Tube Headphone Amplifier will effortlessly drive the most demanding headphones. Upgrade the sound from your computer with the internal 32-bit 384kHz ESS Sabre DAC.
Connect your PC or other digital playback device and bring your listening experience to a new level with the ESS Sabre DAC combined with the warm analog sound of vacuum tubes. The Monolith Headphone Tube Amplifier utilizes a powerful 6N5P dual triode tube coupled with an output transformer for the output stage.
Many competing designs only utilize a large electrolytic capacitor on the output, which degrades sound quality. Dual 6N3 tubes are utilized for the input stage and can cross over to US equivalents 2C51 or 396a. The 6N5P crosses over to a US6080 or 6AS7. In the end, all of these specs mean that the tube sound is as pure as it comes, and through a nice pair of headphones, you’ll hear every bit of production.
The ESS ES9018 Sabre chip uses the patented 32-bit HyperStream DAC architecture and Time Domain Jitter Eliminator to bring out the best in your records. The USB receiver is the Savitech SA9227. It supports all sample rates up to 384kHz/32-bit and is clocked by two onboard oscillators.
The impedance selector allows you to perfectly match the amplifier to the headphone impedance, ensuring that the ideal power is being utilized for any pair of headphones. The impedance can be set to one of five impedance groups, from 16 to 600 ohms.
In the end, this is a specifically designed tube preamp for headphone playback, but doesn’t work with speakers as well. If you have a listening set-up for headphones, however, this is a great option that specifically targets your method of listening.
A perennial bestseller online and at advanced vinyl shops, the Bellari VP130 is a well-priced solution for your turntable listening setup. Utilizing tube circuitry usually found on higher priced models, the VP130 is an excellent introduction to the “tube” sound with its warmth and pureness highlighting the way that tubes use less circuitry to deliver output.
Another strong selling point of the VP130 is the construction. The casing is made of a heavy steel and each unit is made in the USA. Lastly, you can use the VP130 to power your headphones with a separate headphone output and volume control.
With a max output level at >10dB @ 1kHz at at .1% distribution, dual RCA inputs and outputs, input sensitivity at 30 dB gain @ 1kHz, 47k ohms Input Z, the best part of this preamp is that nothing gets lost from the record grooves to your ears. There are a lot of great tube preamps out there, but this one is a surefire way to upgrade your listening experience in a heartbeat.
A slight upgrade from the last tube preamp mentioned, the 530 is another option you should consider. Bellari’s VP530 is the first high quality tube phono preamp with built in USB out so you can record your vinyl to computer with a tube amp sound (known to be warmer and more musical than that of usual solid state amps).
The unit employs a sophisticated Burr-Brown PCM2901EG (16-bit, 44.1 kHz) chip in a smartly designed Bellari circuit for superior digital/analog conversion. It also is the only phonopre that gives you the option of by-passing the RIAA curve if you want to do your own EQing, and also features a built-in headphone amp with 1/8″ jack, and a rumble filter switch.
A Steal at this price, natural tube tonality and a USB output make this an amazing option for the 21st century. The new Bellari VP-530 Tube Phonostage with USB is an upgraded version of their award-winning VP-129 Tube Phonostage. The VP-530 adds on a USB output which allows you to burn all of your precious vinyl onto your computer and into iTunes or any other software.
The VP-530 is a MM only phonostage that you can set to by-pass the RIAA curve if you wish to perform this equalization in the digital domain. There is also a built-in Headphone Amp with a 1/8″ headphone jack and a switch to activate a rumble filter. Bellari has built the very first tube phonostage with a USB output! Now you can take your LP collection with you when you travel with the VP-530. Note too that all Bellari products are manufactured in the USA.
Tube Box S2 is the very first PRO-JECT product to feature a fully discrete circuit design without using any operational amplifiers, or OpAmps. It also is the first product to come with replaceable tubes for tube rolling and sound-shaping. This gives the customer many options to pick from and alter the sound signature to his preference. Tube Box S2 will give a full and relaxed laid back sound with lush mids, just like you would expect it from a much bigger high end tube phono pre-amplifier.
It offers support for both MM and MC cartridges and comes with many gain settings to be switched on the front panel. Five variable input impedance settings are available to adjust to any MM cartridge, the 47k ohms input impedance setting is fixed and suited for high output MC cartridges.
The aluminum/metal casing is adapted to PRO-JECT’s DS2 line in looks and protects against vibrations and electromagnetic interferences for superior sound. If you have a PRO-JECT preamp, this is a great option for you. If you don’t, still consider this great tube preamp!
The Black Lion Audio Auteur Quad is a rack-mountable, 4-channel microphone preamp and DI designed to provide versatile amplification of microphone and instrument signals for producers, musicians, and recording engineers in home, project, commercial, and mobile-recording studios. Up to 65 dB of gain is available for each preamp, which utilizes an XLR input and 1/4″ and XLR outputs. The first two preamps offer DI inputs via front-panel 1/4″ TS hi-Z jacks for easy hook-up of instruments.
The combination of an IC-based input stage and Edcor output transformers yields a tonal signature that works well on anything from vocals to drums to obscure instruments. Activate the -10 dB pads to prevent distortion when mixing loud sources. Polarity and phantom power are selectable per channel. Each channel also features a 10-segment LED meter to indicate the current level between -20 dB and +18 dB. The Auteur Quad occupies 1 RU and ships with an external power supply.
If there’s one style of preamp that professional engineers would unanimously agree has defined the tone of pop/rock records for decades, it would most definitely be the venerable ’73-style of mic pre. ’73-style preamps have been massively used in recording and live applications for many years and are still considered to be the “Holy Grail” of preamp choices today.
With this being said, it’s also an incredibly popular choice for turntable enthusiasts as well! The Warm Audio “WA73 Family” consists of single and dual channel ’73-style preamps (with & w/out EQ), that each pay careful homage to British audio history.
This classic-style preamp is now enhanced with a 3-band EQ and high-pass filter to roll-off unwanted low-end boom. With it you’ll sculpt the preamp’s signal to perfectly tune your source turntable’s output.
These 7 tube preamps are all amazing choices if you’re looking to upgrade your setup. When searching for a new tube preamp keep these recommendations in mind, and as always, happy spinning!
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