Best Budget Turntable Preamps For 2020

Depending on your turntable and amplification setup, you may need pre-amplification of the signal from the record player to properly hear the sound from the record. If so, what are the best budget turntable preamps you can get for your hard-earned dollar, while still having a great sounding system?

The focus of this review is finding a good choice for your needs for under $300.

WHAT IS A PHONO PRE-AMP?

The signal from a turntable comes from the movement of the stylus in the groove of the record, both laterally and vertically. The stylus motion is translated into an electrical signal by the mechanical setup of the cartridge on the tonearm. There are different types of the cartridges, but the primary types used are moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). A more detailed description can be found in our article on turntable basics.

The most typical type of cartridge is the moving magnet. Because the movements of a stylus are very small, it produces a very weak signal – typically a few millivolts. A moving coil cartridge output is even lower, at around 1 mV or less. For comparison, a typical CD player outputs around 2 volts – this is the expected “line level” for a receiver / amplifier input.

So unless the turntable has an internal amplifier built in or the receiver / amplifier you are connecting to has a “Phono” level input, the signal needs to be boosted to a level that produces a clean signal for the main amplification to the speakers. Otherwise, all that you will hear is an extremely low volume, thin sound.

In addition, records are intentionally produced with the low frequencies reduced and high frequencies enhanced to limit groove width (longer playing time) and long term damage. The methodology is known as the RIAA equalization standard and is present in all modern records. Because of this, the raw signal from a turntable must be corrected for this modification, or the music will not replay properly.

DO YOU NEED A PRE-AMP?

If your current or new phono does not have a built-in pre-amp to adjust the signal to “line in” level, you need to verify how your signal is sent to your speakers. If the receiver/amplifier does not have a “phono” input, or you are using powered speakers, you need to have something to raise the level of the signal as well as equalize the cartridge output as mentioned above.

How much you need to spend to achieve an acceptable sound depends on your ears. I personally have no issues with my receiver output with the phono input vs a system with an inexpensive pre-amp I set up recently – many other personal accounts validate this. It somewhat makes sense that an integrated pre-amp in a receiver/amplifier can sound as good or better – any time you add wires and components you can introduce noise or distortion.

I have heard systems with a much more expensive pre-amps that sound very noticeably better than my receiver only system, but they also had much better speakers.

The main issue is that you can’t hear anything “added” or “subtracted”. For example, there are some reviews of lower end (or even some higher cost) units that have a noticeable buzzing or humming due to component build or grounding issues. In the end, you want the unit to be “transparent” – but perfection is almost impossible when you are not only attenuating but also correcting the signal for low and high frequencies.

Since the output of any cartridge is actually very low, any issues with amplifying the signal can get magnified. It is important to match the specs of whatever unit you are trying to the output of the cartridge type you are using. However, in general, unless you have a very high sensitivity to sound imperfections, most of the units we are recommending will probably work just fine.

OPTIONS AND BUDGET CONSIDERATIONS

One possible option is to buy a receiver or amplifier that already has a “phono” input. This has less flexibility as you can’t do much to match the phono cartridge to optimize the signal and sound. But for most MM phono/cartridge setups, a good quality receiver will work quite well. This is what I have always done up to 10 years ago – first an inexpensive Sony receiver, then two Yamaha amplifiers. I ended up upgrading the cartridge on that early Sony system to improve the sound, but overall I did not have too many complaints.

However, if you already have a system without the phono input and your existing or new turntable does not have a built-in pre-amp, then buying a stand-alone unit is a good option to allow you to match your components. There are not as many options these days for built-in units, and then you are limited to whatever quality and specifications already exist.

There are essentially two types of pre-amplifiers – vacuum tube and solid state. This is somewhat an oversimplification as there are endless variations of design and circuitry, but in general, these are the choices.

In a vacuum tube phono preamp the circuitry needed to amplify and RIAA correct the signal is built around vacuum tubes. While this circuitry is built around transistors (or operational amplifiers) in a regular solid-state phono preamp.

Tube amplifiers respond differently from transistor amplifiers when signal levels approach and reach the point of clipping (overload). In a tube amplifier, the transition from linear amplification to limiting is less abrupt than in a solid state unit, resulting in a less grating form of distortion at the onset of clipping. The technical explanations are more thoroughly explained here.

And this is the main reason why so many studio musicians, guitarist and home stereo enthusiasts prefer tube amplification. The softer clipping that tubes provide results in a warmer and more pleasant sound character.

  • Sound characteristic – warmer sound, softer clipping and transients. Since this warmer sound is an argument for using analog vinyl in the first place, it stands to reason vinyl audiophiles could prefer this sound “color”. It can be argued that today’s solid state circuitry can very closely replicate these characteristics, but many still claim the smoother tone can’t be 100% copied.
  • Replaceable and upgradeable vaccum tubes – the tubes used in the circuits are removable and can be replaced with new and/or better tubes fairly easily.
  • Have a “cool” factor – especially when the vacuum tubes are exposed, this types of amps just look retro and classy. Paired with a fully analog system, there are some bragging rights involved here – although I think that should always take a back seat to sound quality and practicality.

However, there are some clear downsides:

  • Cost – finding a good (and real) vacuum tube pre-amp at a reasonable cost is much more difficult than a solid state version. Although there are a few “budget” versions using tubes, they tend to not get a lot of love, and in most cases aren’t true, tube only, amplifiers. Unless you are willing to spend more than $500, you will be hard pressed to find a really high quality version.
  • Reliability and maintenance – vacuum tubes wear out over time. They need to be replaced at certain intervals, and they are not very cheap. If you are trying to stay within a reasonable budget for your system, this can be a significant factor.
  • Warm up time – solid state circuits are ready as soon as you turn them on. Tube amps require a significant warm up time, often more than 30 minutes before use. Although this could be just considered the cost of the sound you desire, it is another factor in ease of use.
STOCK vs TUBE Preamps

Opting to go to a standard solid state pre-amp leaves you with many more options and typically at a much lower price point for similar performance. Much like vacuum tube versions, the sound still depends on the component and build quality. Premium performance generally means a deeper bite into the wallet, but there are many solid options for less than $300 that should satisfy anyone but the most critical audiophile.

In my opinion, unless you have already invested in building a 100% analog system, including the main amplification to your speakers or headphones, purchasing a good quality solid state pre-amp (or a receiver with a built in version) is the best path. For the purposes of this article, I am including some vacuum tube pre-amps in the list. But since these recommendations are more for the budget-minded vinyl enthusiast, I am focused more on the better rated solid state versions.

Full disclosure, I have only personally used Pyle and Pro-Ject Phono pre-amps. Pyle because they super cheap and can be used for any budget system, in my case an old setup. Pro-Ject because I used the older Phono Box S for my system, as it was a good bang for buck unit on my mid-range system using my older Teac turntable. I have used multiple produce reviews, manufacturer specs and vinyl forums to reach conclusions on many of these models.

I have also added a YouTube review where possible to give further insight, although it is not really a good listening medium to gauge the sonic performance. That can really only happen when you try it in your system. But you can get a pretty good idea from the reviews and tech specs if it will work with your turntable.

A final note, a USB connection is optional on some newer pre-amps – it has no effect on performance but you may want it if you plan to use it to create digital recordings of your records. Several of the choices listed have this ability, or has an upgrade version with USB.

PHONO PRE-AMP RECOMMENDATIONS

Vacuum Tube Pre-Amps


Little Bear T7 pre-ampNobsound Little Bear T7

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 35-40dB
Impedance Range: 47kΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 220pF
Key Features:
Both Phono and Aux inputs, adjustable gain

Cost: $65

 

This pre-amp comes with extremely mixed reviews overall. One thing to know right away is that this is not truly a full vacuum tube amplifier. The actual amplification is done through a solid state amplifier, the tubes are signal buffers and add some analog “warmth” to the sound.

Built in China, the appearance and build quality seem good, but at a price point below $100, don’t expect audiophile performance. Overall, it looks nice and the sound quality is reported to increase quite a bit if you buy a set of better tubes to replace the originals from the start.

The main reported problem (besides sound reproduction) is reports of loud humming due to grounding issues. This doesn’t seem to be an issue with everyone, but that would be a major concern if it can’t be resolved during the setup on your system. There have also been commentary on high end harshness in comparison to other higher priced products.

However, at this price point it would be hard to find a better choice, especially for a unit with vacuum tubes incorporated in the design. If you want some of that analog smoothness without the wallet crushing price, this might work for you.

LITTLE BEAR phono pre-amp T7 vs T8 sound comparison


Little Bear T11Nobsound Little Bear T11

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 48dB
Impedance Range: 47KΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100pF
Key Features: Fully analog pre-amp at a low price point.

Cost: $220

 

The Little Bear T10 tube pre-amp has been a popular choice for tube circuit enthusiasts, and the updated T11 is the newly improved version – dedicated to MM cartridges only. The T11 provides a good value to a fully vacuum tube pre-amp. The Little Bear T11 comes with one 6Z4 power tube and three 6N2 preamp tubes – the latter can be swapped for the classic 12AX7 variety. All of these can be used with or without the supplied (metal or acrylic) covers, which are included in the package. Those help quite substantially with hum and noise issues, which are quite common with tube designs.

Much like the T7 shown above, background hum due to grounding issues seems to be the main concern when setting up this pre-amp to your system. Although the dynamics are very acceptable if the grounding is good, the tubes can (and maybe should) be upgraded to improve the sound quality. The connection of the RCA inputs in the front of the unit does not lend to an attractive setup in a system.


Pro-Ject Tube Box S

Cartridge: MM & MC
Input Gain Range: 40-60dB
Impedance Range: 10-2kΩ (MC), 47kΩ (MM)
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 50-370pF
Key Features: Dual mono configuration, adjustable gain, impedance and capacitance ranges. High grade ECC83 12AX7vacuum tubes.

Cost: $300

This pre-amp touches the top end of our price range, coming in just at $300. For a true tube pre-amp with MM/MC capability and configuration capabilities, this is still an excellent value. I have found very few negative reviews of this product. It appears to have good build quality, with a simple solid design. The vacuum tubes are removable, protected by ring cages, and are good quality units out of the box.

The Pro-Ject is a rare example of a reasonably priced tube pre-amp that is capable of handling both MM and MC cartridges. Dip switches on the bottom of the unit allow for gain, impedance and capacitance adjustments to match almost any cartridge you could throw at it. If you are looking for the tube pre-amp sound that is capable of multiple configurations, this could be for you.

Getting back my Vinyl Sound with a Pro-Ject Tube Box S Phono Preamplifier

 

Solid State Pre-Amps


Pyle Pro PP999

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 40dB
Impedance Range: 50KΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: N/A
Key Features: It’s really cheap

Cost: $15

 

The price shown is not a misprint – you can buy this capable solid state pre-amp from Pyle for the cost of a couple of ballpark beers. This is the ultimate entry level unit for a system you want to build on a tight budget. It is not that attractive and the back and front input / output configuration is awkward, but it is dead simple and easy to use.

For the current version, Pyle added a grounding post as in the PP444 version to eliminate any issues with background noise. Overall the sound will not match a higher end unit but most reviewers have found it perfectly acceptable. One other note, there is no power button so it is always on – just plug in and leave it.

Introducing the Pyle PP999/ PP444/ PP555 Phono Preamps


Pro-Ject Phono Box (E, MM, DC MM/MC)

Cartridge: MM & MC (DC only)
Input Gain Range: 40dB
Impedance Range: 47kΩ (100Ω for MC)
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 120pF
Key Features:
Entry level costs but very acceptable audio quality for any system.

Cost: $60(E) $73(MM) $99(DC MM/MC)

From Pro-Ject’s vast selection of pre-amp choices, here we will focus on the entry level options in their “E” and “C” lines. Pro-Ject is known for their high quality design and construction, so even at these price points, you can expect good results for your system. Your choices would mainly depend on what cartridge requirements you have and if you want any other options like USB.

The Phono Box E is Pro-Ject’s least expensive option with a compact form fit, but still has the quality you would expect from this manufacturer. Even at this end the specs are solid at 0.05% THD and 88dB signal to noise.

The Phono Box MM specs are virtually identical to the E version, slightly better THD. I don’t think there is much to distinguish these products, it may come down to appearance or slightly less cost.

The Phono Box DC MM/MC has an appearance much closer to the higher cost S2 line, a clean metal box. Since it supports MM and MC cartridges it is more flexible than the other versions, but the base specs are again very similar. It does have an improved THD spec (0.01%) but I think you would be hard pressed to hear a difference between these 3 versions.

If you don’t need a pre-amp that supports MC cartridges, the MM version would probably work very well for you and provide good performance for <$100. There are also Record Box E USB and Phono Box MM/MC USB versions for those who would like to digitize their records.

Entry Level Pro-Ject Phono Box (E/MM/DC) What's going on?


U-Turn Audio Pluto

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 36dB
Impedance Range: 47kΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100pF
Key Features:
High quality stainless steel case for reduced interference, high quality components, simple elegant design

Cost: $99

There is not a lot that needs to be said about this unit – it just works. It is not perfect, as some reviews have mentioned a somewhat muddy sound with a less than crisp high end. However, most users seem to find the performance relatively unobtrusive, which is what you are looking for in a decent pre-amp.

For this price point, if you are looking for a simple setup and mid-range performance, this could work well for you. As with the Pyle unit mentioned above, this does not have a power button, it is always on once plugged in.

Uturn Pluto phono preamp review


Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 (Ultra)

Cartridge: MM & MC
Input Gain Range: 40-63dB
Impedance Range: 10Ω-47kΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100-400pF
Key Features:
Compact, simple but flexible – highly adjustable to match cartridge type. High quality sound (dual mono), upgraded components. Opamp-less design for Ultra.

Cost: $199(S2) $299(S2 Ultra)

Pro-Ject has a wide selection of pre-amp choices, we will focus here on the Phono Box S2 (mid-range) options, we have already looked at the more budget minded choices (E, MM, DC) versions. Both the S2 and S2 Ultra are good options for high quality sound characteristics and cartridge flexibility.

The Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 is the next generation of the popular Phono Box. The Pro-Ject S2 Ultra is very closely related to the limited edition Phono Box Ultra 500. If you’ve felt slightly overwhelmed by the number of phono stage choices on their website you won’t be the only one. The S2 line bridges the gap between affordable and audiophile. Upgrading to the S2 Ultra give you an op-amp-less design. Operational Amplifiers, also known as op-amps, are circuit components widely used to boost the whisper-quiet cartridge signals. They also upgrade the capacitors to polystyrene capacitors for improve high-end sound quality (according to their claims). The THD and signal to noise specs for the Ultra are very good (0.00052% and 89dB).

I have seen very few negative reviews of the sound quality either of these pre-amps, although as with anything sound related it is difficult to judge without hearing yourself. Based on Pro-Ject’s history with both turntables and amplifiers I would say these are pretty safe bets.

Project Phono Box S2 Phono Preamp Review


Rolls VP29

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 42dB
Impedance Range: 47kΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 120pF
Key Features:
Price and simplicity with reasonable sound quality.

Cost: $49

Those looking for a simple plug-and-play phono pre-amp you might like 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. The price is right on this product, although don’t expect audiophile level playback. Solid grounding helps prevent any noticeable issues with background hum, reported by some users. However, overall the reviews seem very positive for such a simple and inexpensive product.

Music Hall Mini – beware:

Many sites list the Music Hall Mini as a competent budget alternative for your pre-amp requirements. While this may be, in reality it is the Rolls VP29 guts just in a different case. It sells for $30 to $40 more than the VP29, which is quite a premium for a different name on the case. The only reason I could see for purchasing this instead of the Rolls version would be for the cleaner black case appearance.

This Preamp Reveals the Dark Side of the HiFi Industry



Schiit Mani MC/MM

Cartridge: MC & MM
Input Gain Range: 30-59dB (4 switchable modes)
Impedance Range: 47Ω (MC) or 47kΩ (MM)
Cartridge Capacitance Range: NA
Key Features:
Great sound, flexible settings, reasonable price. If the name doesn’t bother you, this is a great mid-range choice.

Cost: $149

Yes, they have an “interesting” name. But Schiit has a good reputation for solidly made products, and if you have concerns where products are made, the Schiit Mani is made in America. This is a small footprint pre-amp with a nice simple metal case, very clean looking.

Despite it’s modest look, this is a versatile unit, capable of accommodating almost any type of cartridge. If you pick up the Mani and flip it over, what you’ll notice is a handful of different switches that, ultimately, give you 4 changeable gain modes at your disposal (30, 42, 47, and 59 db). The input impedance that Mani can take is automatically adjusted from 47 Ohms (typical for MC) to 47 kOhms (MM). A high quality passive RIAA compensation network, with high quality components resulting in low noise. The sonic precision of this preamp belies its fairly modest price.

One issue seen was significant RF interference by some users. This could be a big problem with no simple solution. However, most users rate this very highly for overall sound quality, so if this doesn’t affect your setup, at <$150 this is an extremely good choice for close to audiophile results.

Schiit Mani review - mega-shootout


Rega Fono Mini A2D MM MK2

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 35dB
Impedance Range: 47kΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100pF
Key Features:
Level control for USB transfer of analog to digital.

Cost: $175

If you’re looking for a phono preamp converts analog signals to USB, this may be a good option for you. The Fono Mini A2D comes with a built-in USB output that allows you to connect it to a computer or any other device that supports USB connection.

The appearance is not much to write about, it is a small form factor aluminum black box with the ground lug on the front. The sound quality has been mostly reported to be punching above it’s weight for this mid-price range. With minimal coloration and good dynamic range, it matches up well to higher end models.

You may want to use a DAC to play the digital format at its best quality and for some reason the USB cable is not included. I am not sure why they chose to but the USB input right in the middle of the front panel, looks “cyclops” ugly to me. But as in all these units, the sound is the key.

Rega Fono Mini A2D+ my view on budget kit


Cambridge Audio Alva Solo (Duo)

Cartridge: MM & MC (Duo)
Input Gain Range: 39dB / 60dB (MC)
Impedance Range: 50kΩ / 100Ω (MC)
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100pF
Key Features:
Duo has additional headphone input

Cost: $180(Solo) $299(Duo)

Cambridge Audio is a company that has been around a long time and has been well known for quality audio products. Although now manufactured in China, the sound quality still seems to be there. The Duo unit supports both MM and MC cartridges and lets you compensate for slight balance issues the cartridge might have with a balance control. It also has a headphone jack with a volume control for direct listening.

Sound quality has been classified by most users as “almost” audiophile – comparable to a Schiit Mani unit or other mid-range products. While there were a few reports of noticeable hum or hiss, most professional reviews I found seemed to classify these units as extremely quiet. The biggest gripe seemed to be for the headphone amplifier, so use caution here.

Overall this is another good mid-range choice with a nice appearance and the Cambridge reputation for sound quality.

Cambridge Solo & Duo Phono Preamp Review


ART Pro Audio DJPREII

Cartridge: MM
Input Gain Range: 45dB
Impedance Range: 47kΩ
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100pF and 200pF (switchable)
Key Features:
Adjustable gain on front of unit, switchable rumble filter, low price

Cost: $66

Applied Research and Technology (ART) is a high quality supplier of many types of audio gear, including an array of pre-amplifiers. At the entry level end is the DJPREII, an inexpensive, simple but well-built phono stage that performs well above it’s price point. If you can deal with the super bright blue power LED….

It takes a little time set this correctly and not overdrive with the front panel gain knob, but  – but this compares favorably in sound quality with the Rolls V29 and the Pro-Ject Phono Box offerings. The internals are housed in a heavy-duty case, with a front signal/peak LED – the unit has no power switch. The capacitance level is switchable to match your MM cartridge and there is a rumble filter option. As the DJ in name implies, this can be used as a DJ unit where you might want to reduce any effects from heavy bass or speakers close to the speakers, thus the rumble filter switch. I have no idea if this actually works,

There has also been discussion on forums about the effects of using the AC adapter supplied vs a 12 volt DC power source – there are claims the 12v DC is quieter. Overall this unit is a low price alternative to the other units I have shown in that it has some features unique to this product.

Art DJpre ii vs Rolls VP29


Parasound Zphono MC/MM (USB)

Cartridge: MM & MC
Input Gain Range: 46dB & 61dB (MC)
Impedance Range: 47kΩ & 100Ω (MC)
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 150 pF
Key Features:
Flexible cartridge use, with or without USB capability, AC polarity switch to reduce hum.

Cost: $199 ($249 w/USB)

If you are looking for one of, if not the, quietest phono stages on the market today, then this might be the right model for you. Even when you are not using your turntable, this preamp is extremely quiet. This is because this system has an AC polarity switch that helps to eliminate that annoying hum.

This model can be used with either MM or MC cartridges. It is very simple to switch between the two – all that you have to do is flip a switch on the back of the preamp. The USB model can be used to easily digitize your vinyl, and has a gain knob to adjust the output. This model also has a headphone jack input, although one negative is no volume control which many users say render this feature not so useful. The USB also has a RIAA switch for using external equalization for USB digital recordings.

This is another mid-range pre-amp option with a nice look and form factor which gives you the option of upgrading cartridges without a change.

Parasound Zphono USB MM/MC Phono Preamplifier – Audio Advisor


FINAL THOUGHTS

Making a decision on what phono pre-amplifier is needed for your system can be a little overwhelming – there are a number of decisions to be made. Like much of the vinyl hobby, it requires a little more effort than plugging your headphones into a digital source and hitting play. Carefully review the specification requirements for your system based on your turntable, cartridge, and output / speaker setup.

In the end, we think it’s worth it to get that sweet vinyl sound.

My personal choices would be the ART Pro Audio DJPREII for a tight budget, the Schiit Mani or Pro-Ject Phono Box DC for mid-range price sound quality and flexibility, and the Pro-Ject S2 Ultra for the high end of our range. But all of these brands have solid reputations and product / sound quality, so in the end it depends on your musical tastes, budget and specification requirements. It would be hard to go too far wrong with any of these choices.

If you are still looking for that first or new turntable, we have some cost-conscious recommendations and reviews for you – take a look and start your vinyl journey today!

New Turntables For Any Budget

 

 

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