What’s the Best Phono Preamp Under $500?
If you’re getting serious about vinyl records, then you likely already know how important it is to find the best phono preamp for the money. A great phono preamp doesn’t just allow you to listen to your records—it can significantly improve the sound of your music.
It’s really that important, as phono preamps can easily get lost in the midst of buying albums, turntables and speakers.
In this article, I’m going to present you with three of my favorite phono preamps that I think are really nice buys for under $500. That doesn’t mean that these are the only preamps you should consider—there’s no doubt many on the market that are terrific. But, if you feel you could benefit from a little bit of guidance on buying a quality phono preamp, then this is the article for you.
And, to better help you, I’ve created an interactive table below which will allow you to compare and contrast some of the best affordable phono preamps (and a few integrated amplifiers) on the market against one another:
|Project Phono Box S2||Works with MC and MM Cartridges|
|Rega IO||30 watts per channel at 8Ω|
|NAD 3020 V2||Hybrid Digital/Analog Amplifier|
|Clearaudio Smart Phono V2||Resonance-free aluminum chassis|
|Project Phono Box DS2||Works with MM and MC cartridges|
|AudioLab 6000A||Features Bluetooth Wireless Connectivity|
The Best Phono Preamps Under $500
I have tried out a handful of phono preamps, and when it comes to finding one that’s good and under the price point of $500, here are my favorites:
- The Schiit Mani
- Cambridge Azur 651P
- Vincent PHO-8
So, let’s begin with the Schiit Mani phono preamp.
So, the first thing you’ll notice about the Schiit Mani (outside of the fact that, yes, the brand name is pronounced like the curse word) is that the Mani comes in a beautiful metal chassis. The Mani, out of all the preamps I’ll discuss today, is the easiest to pick up and hold and move around your audio setup.
It takes up the least amount of space (measuring in at 5” x 3.5” x 1.25”), can be palmed by one hand (weighs just 1 lb), and because it’s built inside a small metal box, I feel that the Mani never gets too hot to the touch.
The second thing that’s important to know about the Mani is that going with this preamp will give you options when upgrading your turntable or cartridge in the future. And that’s directly due to the fact that the Mani will accommodate BOTH moving magnet and moving coil cartridges.
This is important, because a lot of low cost preamps will often be specific to just moving magnet carts. Now, however, if after a couple of years you’re ready to step up your game and purchase a higher end MC (moving coil) cartridge, you can feel comfortable knowing that you won’t also have to go out and purchase a brand new phono preamp.
The Schiit Mani also provides you lots of control when it comes to gain. If you pick up the Mani and look underneath, you’ll notice several buttons which provide you with 4 changeable gain modes (30,42, 47, and 59 db).
As mentioned before, this is especially key for when you decide to upgrade cartridges. If you purchase a new cartridge and the sound either seems off, or you just don’t really hear anything at all, you can very likely attribute it to the fact that the gain settings are off. If you consult Schiit’s website or the Mani’s manual, you’ll likely realize that one or two quick adjustments to the gain settings will have you up and running properly.
Before we move on to sound, I also wanted to mention that Schiit boasts that the Mani is made in the United States of America. So, if that’s very important to you when it comes to purchasing products, you’re in luck when it comes to the Mani.
How Does the Mani Sound?
I tested the Mani with several different albums and artists, and overall, I think the Mani does a really great job—especially for the price. In fact, for such a low price, I’d argue that the Schiit Mani is one of the best phono preamps under $100 (okay, okay, I understand it’s $130, but if you can find a great deal on it—or even purchase it used—you likely could get this for less than $100).
In my experience using the Mani, I felt that it was quite nice for treble and higher notes. If you’re someone that loves bass, I can’t say I felt the Mani did much for me in that particular department. But, the music and especially vocals were always clear and very pleasant to listen to.
Between the Schiit Mani, Cambridge Azur 651P, and Vincent PHO-8, I’d rank the treble right in the middle—meaning the Azur 651P came across as the brightest phono preamp, and the PHO-8 was the least bright and arguably the most warm (although technically bordering on neutral). And the Mani falls somewhere in between.
|Best Selling Turntables|
|1) Denon DP300F|
|2) Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO|
|3) Audio Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB|
|4) Audio Technica AT-LP60X-BT|
|5) U-Turn Orbit|
One Problem with Schiit Mani
While I do like the Schiit Mani, I did run into a problem with it. I noticed that, after several months of use, I began hearing what sounded like white noise coming through my speakers. I tried my best to diagnose the problem—I connected the Mani to another turntable. I connected it to a different receiver. I even tried using a different paid of speakers.
Nothing worked. My Mani went from working beautifully to something out of Poltergeist.
Then, I had a thought—what if I upgrade my cables?
So I purchased some Moogami cables, hooked them up, and the white noise went away.
Good news, right?
Nope. Because in its place was a radio signal. In fact, coming out of my speakers was a local pop and R&B radio station! If I picked the Mani up and moved it around, not only could I get the station to come in fairly clear, but as I moved it around the room, the “signal” would change from that station to a local rock station.
So, clearly, the Mani had become compromised in some form or fashion, and the better cables helped me diagnose the problem. I’m not quite sure if it’s the metal chassis of the Mani, or something else in regards to how the Mani is built or manufactured, but after weeks and months of use, the Mani became a glorified radio.
Now, that’s not to say that this is inherently a defect in the Mani. But there are, apparently, a few others that have experienced this bizarre circumstance. I’m not sure if something changed in regards to radio frequencies or transmission in my area, but I can say with confidence that none of the other phono preamps I have used encountered this problem.
If this issue hadn’t reared its ugly head, the Schiit Mani would be an enthusiastic recommend. As it stands, I still like the Mani, I just think you need to be aware of this potential problem.
Now, to be fair, I do believe it’s an issue based on location. In other words, if I moved to another region of the country, I don’t know if this problem would remain because I’m not quite convinced it’s a hardware problem so much as a signal interference problem. It could, afterall, be tied to the radio station and how they transmit their signal. But, at the end of the day, the fact that a phono preamp would pick this up to the point where it causes severe interference is of course concerning.
Cambridge Azur 651P
Let’s now move onto the Cambridge Audio Azur 651P. This phono preamp can be had for less than $200, and out of all the sub-$500 phono preamps I’ve tried, I have to honestly say that I found this one to be the most “fun.”
But before we get to the sound, let’s discuss a few things first. I’d like to begin with how flexible this phono preamp is, because I think that’s vitally important. As fans of music in general and vinyl records in particular, we are constantly drawn to the idea of upgrading. And so, if one day you upgrade your turntable or your cartridge, you’ll of course want to know if you can still use the Azur 651P?
The answer? Well, it’s a complicated.
Technically, the 651P works with both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. That’s the great news. The downside is that, unlike the Schiit Mani, there is no way to actually adjust the gain (all you can really do, in fact, is flick a button on the back from “MM” or Moving Magnet to “MC” or Moving Coil).
So, will this phono preamp work with MC cartridges? Absolutely?
Will this phono preamp work with the specific low output moving coil cartridge that you select? That’s tougher to answer.
How Does It Look?
The Azur 651P is quite a nice, sleek phono preamp. Like the Mani, it comes in a metal chassis and a pretty attractive brushed albumin panel on the front. The 651P comes in either black or silver, whereas the Mani just comes in the color of silver.
The 651P is definitely bigger than the Mani (8-1/2” W x 1-13/16” H x 6-3/4” D), although it certainly didn’t feel heavy by any means.
While the Mani had an on/off switch in the back, the Azur 651P has its on/off button on the front panel. This is of course all about personal preference. Some people may want a nice, sleek front panel with no buttons or switches. Other people might enjoy the fact that there’s less “work” involved in turning on and off the amp by having the button in the front.
How Does It Sound?
As mentioned before, out of all the phono preamps I tried, I found the 651P to definitely be the most “fun” to listen to. To my ears, the Azur 651P was the most lively, making the music seem incredibly energetic and full of life thanks to a wide soundstage.
If you’re looking for a neutral sounding phono preamplifier, or even a warm sounding preamp—this is not what you want. To me, the Cambridge Audio Azur 651P is a bright sounding amp that, depending on the sensitivity of your ears, could every now and again dip into being little bit harsh.
With that said, this means that you’re going to get excellent treble, and female vocals in particular seemed to really shine and soar. Instruments that are sharp sounding, like cymbals or horns—really stood out to me when using this phono preamp.
Now, if you’re someone that’s interested in something a little different—perhaps a phono preamp that can provide some bass—then I have a amp you might be interested in.
Out of all the phono preamps we will discuss today, the Vincent PHO-8 is the most unique. Like the Schiit Mani and the Azur 651P, the Vincent PHO-8 is flexible in that it allows you to use either a moving magnet or a moving coil cartridge.
But that flexibility doesn’t just end when it comes to the cartridge you can use. For starters, the Vincent PHO-8 comes in essentially two parts. You have one metal chassis that allows you to connect your RCA cables and ground wire. But then you have a separate metal chassis that’s solely dedicated to external power supply.
Oh, we’re not done yet.
The PHO-8 takes things a step further, because while Vincent provides its own power supply cord, it’s not built into the power supply chassis. This means that you can buy your own power supply cord and use it with this phono preamp (I’ll discuss this more very soon, because switching the power supply cord can have a significant impact on your sound).
The PHO-8 comes at a reasonable size (4.5” x 2.3” x 5.3”) in terms of width, but its definitely got height and depth over the Mani and 651P.
In terms of presentation, some choose to stack both of these components on top of each other, while others think it’s deeply important to separate them for the sake of keeping the power supply far away from the circuits of the phono preamp. This does make sense, but in my view, I think it comes down to your situation. If you have the room to separate them, try and do so. If your room is limited—stack them.
How Does It Sound?
Along with the flexibility of the PHO-8, the sound is where it really shines. Unlike the Azur 651P, which sounded very bright and lively, I think the PHO-8 almost comes across as subdued. It has a bit of a warmer sound to be sure, but to my ears, it sounded neutral and overall really pleasant. To me, the music just felt “right”—I didn’t feel like the music was artificially “colored” or enhanced in a way that wasn’t genuinely natural.
The mids were very nice here, and while the treble isn’t quite up to par of the Azur 651P or even the Mani to some degree, it still does a great job. Again, to me, the music on the PHO-8 sounds organic. Unlike the Azur 651P, which might have a tendency of becoming fatiguing to listen to because of its bright and very lively sound, there has never been a single moment over the weeks and months of using the PHO-8 where I had to stop spinning vinyl because my ears felt fatigued.
The bass on the PHO-8, to me, is pretty good. But, you can actually improve the bass on the PHO-8. In order to get better bass, I detached the supplied power cable and purchased the Pangea Audio AC-14 power cord. I was skeptical that a power cord really enhance the sound—and boy was I wrong.
Once connected, the bass made a significant jump in improvement—I was pretty surprised how noticeable it was. You won’t be blowing out the windows of your home just by changing the power cord, but you will notice that your records have much more depth and overall “THUMP” to them just by switching to a suitable cord like the Pangea.
If you’re fan of bass in your music, out of all the phono preamps I’ve discussed here, I would most recommend the PHO-8.
I do like all of these phono preamps (even the Schiit Mani, despite its interference problem). But, to me, the Vincent PHO-8 is the best. Despite it costing the most, I really love the separate power supply, and this German preamp just screams quality—especially as it clocks in at a combined weight (power supply and preamp) of 5 lbs. Compare that to just the 1 lb of weight of the Mani and the 2 lbs of the 651P.
Between the natural, non-fatiguing sound and the ability to actually improve the bass in your music by making a simple power cord change, I think that the Vincent PHO-8 is arguably the best phono preamp under $500 on the market.
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