Great-sounding vinyl setups don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. They can be pieced together and slowly upgraded over time, an ever-changing amalgamation of gear that steadily sounds better as the years go by, and a big piece of the puzzle is a phono preamp, which is why we’ve compiled some of the best phono preamps around. But first, a little background on the technology.
While built-in phono inputs are making a comeback with vinyl’s recent resurgence, many modern receivers and amplifiers don’t include one. A phono preamp is an outboard device that steps into that void, boosting a turntable’s output so modern electronics can play it at the proper volume level, while adding standardized equalization from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for accuracy to the recording. There are really two main reasons to get a standalone phono preamp: Either your turntable or amplifier is devoid of a built-in phono preamp, or you’ve decided to upgrade your setup with better sound than what’s afforded by your built-in options.
You can easily blow your wad on a high-end solution, but luckily there are plenty of models that provide great sound at a totally reasonable price. That’s where our list comes in. Here are our favorite affordable phono preamps, ranging in price from budget solutions to long-term audio investments.
Up to $50
Rolls VP29 ($49)
Those looking for a simple plug-and-play phono preamp will love the Rolls VP29, which has no buttons or knobs and is designed to perform one task and one task only — amplifying the sound of your favorite vinyl to standard playback level with RIAA equalization. A fire-red box that’s made in the USA, the VP29 even features a 3.5mm jack for versatile connection, perfect for connecting to powered speakers.
ART Pro Audio DJPRE II ($43.99)
ART Pro Audio has made a name for itself as a purveyor of solid studio gear for some time now. The company’s affordable and intuitive VLA II compressor is a workhorse in many home studios worldwide. ART Pro brings those same attributes to its DJPRE II, a small rounded box that offers many features even pricier models lack. Along with standard RIAA equalization, the DJPRE II allows you to choose between a low-cut and flat frequency response, as well as a gain control to allow for optimum performance with your specific setup, or to properly feed an input device for preserving your vinyl in digital form. It is even compatible with turntable cartridges that require special input capacitance levels, meaning even high-end buyers can consider the DJPRE II. At an extremely low price point, this is a great option for those who are looking for a feature-packed solution without going broke.
Up to $100
Music Hall Mini MM ($84.95)
If you are looking for a longer-term upgrade, you may wish to spend a bit more to get even higher-quality sound — after all, any device that boosts the signal will have a serious impact on your sound. Enter acclaimed preamp maker Music Hall, whose tiny American-made Mini uses a moving magnet preamp to increase the volume of the RIAA-equalized signal, providing a clean boost of sound for your amplifier to grab hold of. Like the Rolls VP29, the Music Hall features a 3.5mm output in addition to RCA connection, making it one of the best phono preamps at its price point for those with a nice pair of powered studio monitors.
U-Turn Audio – Pluto ($99)
A clean, plug-and-play preamp from one of our favorite manufacturers of affordable turntables, the Pluto adheres to the traditional RIAA equalization standard, and adds high-quality internal components to boost your signal chain via simple RCA connection. If you’ve got an entry-level turntable and a quality amplifier, or are looking to upgrade your phono preamp from the one built in to your deck, this is an excellent choice.
Though the overall sound coming through the Pro-Ject Phono Box is virtually indistinguishable from U-Turn’s Pluto, the Phono Box does have an extra trick up its sleeve for more high-end vinyl enthusiasts: at the back is a button that allows you to choose between optimization for moving magnet and moving coil cartridge settings. If you already own a high quality turntable (such as Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon) and are considering upgrading to the more-expensive moving coil cartridges long-term, this is a great option.
Gram Amp 2 Communicator ($300)
Ok, so if you want to go big (but not Manhattan trust fund big), the Graham Slee Communicator is the phono preamp for you. Designed with a simple aluminum case exclusively for moving magnet cartridges (sorry moving coil fans), this handmade phono preamp out of the U.K. has no patience for flashy exterior design, instead focusing every bit of your money on high end internals. The made-to-order preamp delivers your audio with beautiful detail via gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs on the back. It’s an excellent choice for those who already have a high-end turntable, amplifier, and speakers, and want a beautiful-sounding phono workhorse to enjoy for years to come. For the money, this is the audiophile preamp of choice.