Your Ultimate Guide to Phono Preamps
Phono preamps are an oft-forgotten yet essential link in a sound system’s chain.
Perplexing even to OG record collectors with years of vinyl nerdery under their belt, it’s no surprise that newer enthusiasts get caught out by this esoteric little unit. Without one, you’ll be lucky to get anything slightly audible from your speakers.
What’s worse, even if you’re aware you need one, there’s so much more you need to learn in order to decipher which preamp is right for your system, it can be tempting to pack it all in, sell your records, and stream your tunes like everyone else.
Don’t let the preamp blues get you down, though, friend. We’ve done the legwork for you and crafted the ultimate turntable preamp guide.
So, pop the kettle on, make yourself a brew, kick back, and we’ll have your turntable blasting out bangers in no time.
We see no value in burying the lead here, folks. Let’s look at some awesome preamps.
Top 5 Best Turntable Preamps
MY TOP PICK
Having been creating pristine audio tech since 1968, Cambridge Audio have earned their throne as leaders of the industry, and the crown jewel of their preamp catalog is the Alva Duo.
A rarity, the Duo is capable of cleaning up the messy parts of your cartridge signal such as hissing and popping without coloring the core sound of your turntable, which is nothing short of witchcraft.
It even has something called a subsonic filter that eliminates sonic artifacts when playing blemished records, making it perfect for those who frequently take in stray second, third, and fiftieth-hand records from the dusty attics of friends and family.
The signal character hearkens back to the quintessential thick, crisp ‘British’ sound of the 60s and 70s, and it’s fully compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally buying the wrong device.
Aesthetically speaking, it’s sleek, neutral...we can’t fault it, but it’s not just a beauty. Despite being deceptively light, the solid, brushed metal frame makes it something of a tank.
The icing on the preamp cake is a headphone port with dedicated volume control for those solo listening sessions.
- Subsonic Filter and Balance Control - Cleans up the mix.
- Aesthetics - Will fit into any environment.
- Build Quality - Solid metal frame.
- Timbre - Thick, warm tone.
- Headphone Amp - Sound quality suffers through headphones.
- Price - Premium product = premium price.
If money’s no object, and you need a monster of a preamp to match your all-singing, all-dancing sound system, we can’t speak highly enough of the PHO 701.
A hybridized creature, it features the premium voltage gain of tubes and the low impedance drive of solid state. This means full-fat sound with diet energy consumption.
Let’s address the elephant in the room, by which we mean the sizable base unit of the PHO 701. This is actually an entirely separate power station, so the signal has its own dedicated unit to pass through, protecting it from AC distortion, enhancing the transparency of the amplification process.
Crafted from premium components exclusively, the 701 boasts the most exquisite RIAA conditioning on the market, amounting to an output signal identical in form to your cartridge's input signal.
Simply put, the output is a super high fidelity representation of your turntable’s signal.
Providing a blank sonic background, the 701 eliminates extraneous noise in order to let the music shine even brighter, and you can use the dip switches to fine-tune it to work in harmony with whatever cartridge you’re running.
- Separate Power System - Keeps signal clean.
- Hybrid DNA - Best of both solid state and tube worlds.
- Cartridge Compatibility - Works with any cartridge.
- Noise Reduction - Less noise, more music.
- Price - You’ll need to smash your piggy bank.
- Large and Heavy - Requires twice the space as other preamps.
The Mani may be small, but despite weighing only 2lbs, its signal produces some truly massive, almost spacious sounds.
It doesn’t have quite as impressive noise cancellation as our top picks, but it keeps it nice and hushed in the background while the music does the talking upfront.
Featuring four switchable gain modes, you can hook this diminutive dynamo up to turntables with any kind of cartridge, and the passively implemented RIAA protocol cleans up the feedback loop, maintaining signal fidelity.
One of the best value-for-money phono preamps on the market, the Mani punches well above its weight but has the muscle to stick it out.
- Lightweight - Won’t strain a rack or damage furniture.
- Aesthetics - Very sleek design.
- Low Noise - Keeps noise from the foreground.
- Price - Awesome price tag.
- On/Off Noise - Audible clunk when powering on/off.
Our penultimate pick is literally a pocket-sized powerhouse. Looking like it was created by Nikola Tesla himself, two exposed backlit tubes rise from the chassis, giving it a unique and pleasant aesthetic.
While they’re predominantly a visual appointment, the tubes do play a pivotal role in buffering input signals. Under the hood, a JRC dual-channel op-amp is the real muscle, boosting MM cartridge signal to line level.
You have to make some compromises at this price point, and these manifest themselves as poor grounding that does sometimes pick up electrical interference, and the internal gain control you’ll need a screwdriver to access.
That said, it has a huge amount of audio clout, so if you’re on a tight budget but crave a high-fidelity sound, this Little Bear has a mighty roar!
- Price - Grab one for a song.
- Form Factor - Doesn’t hog space.
- Big Sound - Translates the warmth of vinyl very well.
- Poor Grounding - You may hear a hum from time to time.
- Internal Gain Control - Fiddly to access.
Available for roughly the same price as the Little Bear, the DJPREII introduces high-end appointments to the budget-friendly portion of the preamp market.
Boasting a low cut filter that separates and distances motor rumble from the signal, it produces an impeccably clean sound and enhanced stereo separation.
With an adjustable analog capacitance, you can switch between 100pF and 200pF, meaning it supports a wide array of different cartridges and tonearms.
The gain control is situated front and center, which is definitely more practical than the Little Bear’s hidden gain dial. It’s also incredibly robust thanks to the anodized aluminum chassis, ensuring it can handle rugged environments and tons of travel.
Our one caveat is that it doesn’t have a dedicated on/off switch, plugging it in and unplugging it being the only way to control power - a sure way to exacerbate back issues. Besides that, we have nothing but good things to say about the DJPREII.
- Footprint - Nice and compact, saving space for some truly monolithic speakers.
- Adjustable Capacitance - Fine-tune it to support a vast array of cartridges.
- Build Quality - This thing’s tough as nails.
- Low Cut Filter - Reduces rumble from the motor and platter.
- No Power Control - You have to unplug it to turn it off.
Best Turntable Preamps Buying Guide
Before you pick your new preamp and have yourself a good old-fashioned dance party to your favorite vinyl records, we should discuss a few important tidbits just to make sure you find the perfect one for your sound system.
Just to be clear, phono preamps, phono preamplifiers, phone stages, RIAA preamps, and turntable preamps are all one and the same thing, so try not to become overwhelmed when you’re shopping around and encounter all this jargon.
Tube vs Solid State
As a whole, preamps fall into two categories, tube, and solid state. If you play electric guitar, you’ll already be well acquainted with the undying battle between these two preamp formats in forums across the web.
Which is better? Well, ultimately, it’s up to you and your lugs, but let’s discuss the general pros and cons of each.
Tube amps are a purist's dream and tend to be the premium option of the two.
The reason tube-driven preamps are preferred by audiophiles is that, much like turntables, they’re entirely analog creations, meaning they deliver a signal more in keeping with the original waveform.
They reinforce the warmth and rounded, full-bodied sound of vinyl. Furthermore, they have smoother clipping, by which we mean volume has a gentle cut off rather than a short, sharp noise-to-silence stop.
Sounds pretty great, right? But tube preamps are far from perfect. They’re expensive, not too hot at low volumes, the tubes are delicate and will need replacing once every so often, and they’re generally much larger units.
Solid state preamps transform the analog signal of your turntable into a digital signal, a process that makes many a vinyl snob shudder.
Their issue is that converting that original signal so full of character and warmth into the cold digital realm defeats the object of listening to vinyl records altogether.
To what extent solid state preamps destroy an analog sound is debatable and differs greatly from one listener to the next, but there are a few solid state facts you should know.
Firstly, they distort easier at high volumes, secondly, they have a sharp noise gate, and lastly, they can pick up radio interference which can cause unwanted sonic artifacts in playback. On the flip side, they’re cheaper, lighter, smaller, and more robust than their tubed counterparts.
Before you buy a phono preamp, it’s essential that you check the inputs match the connectors of your turntable and the outputs match up with your amplifier or active speakers.
You can buy adaptors to force compatibility, but ideally, your signal chain needs to be as short as possible. The shorter it is, the less likely it is to muddy the sound.
Cartridge type is a much larger conversation than we have time for today, so we’ll keep this short and sweet. Basically, there are two types of turntable cartridge, moving magnet (MM) and the up-market moving coil (MC).
Despite being the premium option, MC cartridges have an especially weak signal, so you’ll need a preamp with extra gain to compensate for this.
The gain of a preamp is the rate at which it can boost the input signal.
Often adjusted via a dedicated control, you can set how hard you want to drive the signal up before releasing it to the amplifier.
The headroom of a preamp is essentially the strength of the signal it can handle.
The more headroom, the better, as it can prevent distortion at high volumes.
The best preamps are built to last. Keep an eye out for premium appointments like solid metal frames that dampen vibrations, and gold-plated jacks that reduce signal latency and resist corrosion.
Are you familiar with the idea of performance bottlenecks? Computer enthusiasts will instantly understand what we mean. A performance bottleneck occurs when there’s a weak point in a chain of equipment.
For instance, in computing, if you had a powerful graphics card, but a weak processor, the processor wouldn’t be able to handle the frames the graphics card was trying to deliver, leading to wasted performance.
The same thing can happen in a sound system. If you’ve got a turntable that set you back a cool $1000, but you paired it with a $40 preamp or perhaps $50 speakers, the eventual sonic output is going to be so far detached from the quality of the original signal, you may as well be listening to a $150 turntable.
This loss of quality at some point in the chain effectively means you’ve wasted money on whatever the premium link is.
So, if you want to optimize the sound of your system as well as get your money’s worth, you’ll need to match the quality of the preamp to that of your turntable and speakers.
Let’s get physical for a moment. You’ll need your preamp to fit flush into your sound system’s ecosystem.
Some will be shaped to slide into a rack, while other tube preamps need to be freestanding. Always consider the space factor before buying.
Electrolytic Capacitors and Anodic Films
If you’re left feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the first week or so of your preamp’s performance, don’t give up on the little guy.
If it contains electrolytic capacitors, they have a break-in period of around two to three weeks as they build up their anodic films. Once this process is complete, your preamp should be firing on all cylinders.
Frequently Asked Questions
Preamps are confusing creatures, so don’t sweat it if you still have a few queries after our buyer’s guide.
We’ll try and clear up as many lingering queries as we can with this brief FAQ segment.
Does a Turntable Need a Preamp?
A preamp is the turntable equivalent of one of our vital organs, so yes, all turntables need a preamp in order to produce sound, but that’s not to say you have to go out and buy one immediately.
Whether you know it or not, a preamp may already be installed inside your turntable or speakers. If this is the case, there’s no need to buy a standalone preamp, as the pre-installed unit is all that’s required.
It’s only if your turntable and speakers don’t have an integrated preamp that you’ll need to buy one in order to hook up a sound system and start enjoying your records.
Will a Preamp Make My Turntable Sound Better?
Preamps do have the tendency to color a sound, especially at high volumes, but they’re actually designed to do the opposite.
Ideally, you want the sound formulated in your cartridge to remain unchanged as the signal makes its way to the speaker and out into the room as sound waves.
It’s this high-fidelity sound that gives vinyl its signature warmth and intricate sonic detailing. By allowing a bridging unit such as a preamp to influence that signal, you won’t actually be hearing your records in the truest sense.
The premium preamps on the market are more transparent, meaning they allow the signal to pass through unscathed, accomplished via a process known as RIAA equalization.
We won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the sonic science; all you need to know is that it stabilizes the signal entering the preamp, helping it to come out the other side intact. The goal is to keep it as close to the original signal pattern as possible.
Of course, as sound quality is subjective, you may indeed find the preamp-colored sound of your turntable more enjoyable, but in reality, the shift in timbre is the result of sonic degradation rather than enhancement.
What is a Built-in Preamp on a Turntable?
There’s no difference in the fundamental function of a built-in preamp and a separate preamp unit. If your turntable already has an integrated preamp, it has all it needs to send signals to speakers and voice your favorite records.
That said, built-in units are almost never as good as standalone preamps.
In the absence of a built-in unit, you will need an aftermarket preamp to bridge the sound signals from your turntable to a sound system. Without one, the signal won’t be strong enough to make the pilgrimage through the speakers and eventually to your ears.
Why Do You Need a Preamp?
Preamps are an essential part of a turntable’s sound production process, the reason being, the signal your turntable puts out is roughly 1000 times weaker than other musical mediums such as CD and streaming.
A signal of this strength is simply too meager for a sound system to process and transfer into sound waves. It’s a somber situation, but preamps aren’t about to let you sulk in silence.
They act as a galvanizing bridge between your turntable and the connected speakers. As the signal from your cartridge passes into the preamp, it’s boosted to the required rate of the amplifier, enabling it to process the source information and transfer it into sound waves.
Should I Get a Phono Preamp?
Unless your turntable has a built-in phono preamp, you will indeed need to invest in one if you want your records to be audible; however, discerning whether your turntable has a pre-installed preamp can be a tricky process for the uninitiated.
The easiest way to check if your turntable is locked and loaded with a preamp is to hook it up to a sound system and see what comes out. If the sound is incredibly meager and quiet or not there at all, your turntable does not have a built-in preamp.
A quicker way to check if you’re short one preamp is to look if your turntable has a LINE output. If you can find this port, it means your turntable definitely does have a preamp somewhere within its enclosure, ready to pump out your favorite vinyl records full blast.
Does Preamp Affect Sound Quality?
As mentioned above, the ultimate goal of a preamp is to amplify the signal of your cartridge without altering its form, but inevitably, intricate details will be lost in translation along the way.
High-quality phono preamps are capable of keeping most of the original signal intact to such a degree that the difference in sound is virtually imperceptible.
On the other hand, lesser preamps will color or degrade the sound more, which isn’t to say that it will sound worse; that’s up to you, but technically, the difference in sound is due to a reduction in audio quality.
Whether you choose a solid state or tube preamp will also have a noticeable effect on the timbre of playback, with tube amps sounding more rounded and warm, and solid states sounding more sterile and modern.
Does a Preamp Boost Volume?
High gain preamps will help boost the maximum volume output of your sound system, but preamps with adjustable and expansive outputs tend to cost a pretty penny.
Do You Need an Amp with a Preamp?
If your turntable doesn’t include a built-in preamp and speakers, you will need to buy both a preamp and an amplifier. Don’t worry, though; an amplifier is just an active speaker.
The preamp isn’t capable of making noise in and of itself. Its only job is to boost the signal sent from your cartridge until it’s at line level.
Bear in mind, that passive speakers, unlike active speakers, don’t have integrated amplifiers, so if you plan on using them, you will need a dedicated amplification unit.
Do I Need a Preamp if My Receiver Has a Phono Input?
If your receiver has a phono input, you won’t need to buy an aftermarket preamp. A phono input signifies that a receiver has an in-house preamp for boosting phono signals up to line level.
Simply connect your turntable up via that input, and get ready to dance.
That’s all from us, folks. We hope you learned everything you need to know about phono preamps, or even better, that one of the options on our epic list struck a chord with you, and you’ve decided it’s the one to go for.
Preamps are incredibly confusing devices, but let this article stand as a beacon of hope that you can navigate the treacherous consumer process and emerge, safely, shiny new preamp in hand, ready to finally spin some of your favorite records.
As long as you heed the advice in our buyer’s guide, you’ll be able to pick out a suitable preamp for your sound system without breaking a sweat. Enjoy!