Before you buy a phono preamp, make sure you even need one.
Many modern record players have built-in preamps. As do many receivers.
Of course, you might be looking to upgrade from the built-in models to something a little more capable.
If neither your turntable nor your receiver has a quality preamp, then this makes perfect sense.
Just make sure you don’t skimp on the preamp, because that would be defeating the purpose.
Only the first three options listed below will really be an upgrade over most built-in phono preamplifiers.
The rest are good for use with a budget record player that doesn’t already have one. The one thing every model below has in common is great value for your money.
That’s why they made out list of the best phono preamps under $500.
Top Phono Preamps Compared
Best Phono Preamp Under $500: Reviews
As mentioned, the first three models are the only ones that really give you an improvement in sound quality over a decent built-in phono preamplifier. The others still give you great performance for a low price, though.
Best Overall: Parks Audio Puffin DSP Phono Preamp
- Versatile with lots of sound control options
- Unique tilt setting gives you a quick way to fatten or brighten the tone
- Small simple form factor
- Helpful digital readout window
- The digital signal processing may be intimidating to some people
- It is not the cheapest option
- Does not have USB output which you would almost expect with the digital options
The Puffin Phono DSP Preamp is my favorite in the under 500 price range.
It has a small form factor which will fit anywhere. It is a basic looking preamp with 2 RCA inputs (left and right) as well as RCA outputs.
It also has a ground screw you can use to ground your unit. It has a small screen which displays the sound settings.
You can manipulate the settings with the wheel. The simple design can be deceiving though, as this thing has a lot of features going on under the hood.
This unit has some interesting features that will get the most out of your records.
- Magic: helps minimize clicks and pops on your vinyl
- Record Grading Function: new feature recently added helps you grade your records for selling
- De-Rumble: this is another new feature that helps minimize rumble you get from the table your deck is on
DSP means digital signal processor. This unit has a DSP function which will adjust and modify the signal in the digital domain. This gives you a lot of control over the sound you hear.
This is a unique feature for a phone preamp. Many preamps just take the signal, amplify it to line level and send it on its way to the power amplifier.
The Puffin will allow you to change the sound significantly before it ever gets to the amp. This feature really appeals to people who like to manipulate the sound, but it can be a turn off if you are intimidated by tweaky techy things.
This is very straight forward and almost every preamp has this capability. The Puffin has a simple rotator knob that lets you select the volume and adjust it. A digital readout on the small display screen shows you the volume level.
Gain allows you to match your turntable to your stereo system. The Puffin lets you select from -4dB all the way to +72dB of gain.
Gain is basically volume applied before the volume output. It amplifies the input signal as opposed to volume, which amplifies the output signal. Having gain control gives you ultimate sonic signal control.
Tilt is a unique tone control option. This setting pivots the frequency response around 800Hz. It adjusts towards either a ‘warmer’ or a ‘brighter’ sound. This is many people’s favorite ability of the Puffin DSP Preamp.
Overall, this is the the best bargain on this list, even though it is also the most expensive option. But that’s only true if you want the extra digital options. If not, it makes no sense to pay more for them. One of the models below would be better for you.
Best Under $400: Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra Phono Preamplifier
- Particularly good sound quality
- Small simple form factor
- Just enough control of sound
- High quality parts used
- No gain or volume knob
- Not many extra features
The Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra will appeal to you if the first choice seemed too complicated! This is a simple black box with the usual inputs and outputs.
It has a solid metal casing which is a step up from many other options in this price range. The thicker metal housing helps to minimize room noise and interference.
It is a simple preamp: just a box with a power button and indicator light on the front and RCA jacks on the back.
The main selling point of this model is the sound performance. You are not going to see lots of knobs and digital readouts here, just a small box that makes your records sound good.
The manufacturer put a lot of thought and design hours into the circuitry inside this box. They used polystyrene capacitors, which are sometimes called the holy grail of capacitors, due to their outstanding audio performance.
The manufacturer excluded the use of OpAmps in the circuit design. OpAmps are operational amplifiers that are used in most preamps.
They are designed to be incredibly quiet but when you have several in one box the noise adds up. OpAmps are not desirable to have in any audio chain if you can avoid them.
Pro-Ject went the extra mile here to provide great sound by leaving out any OpAmps in the audio path.
Adjustable gain levels
The preamp has 4 different gain levels which you can adjust. This is another extra step taken to ensure good sonic performance. This does the same job as the gain control on the first preamp (the Puffin DSP), only with a less sexy interface.
Switchable Subsonic filter
This sounds very fancy, but it is simple. A subsonic filter means it can filter out a certain amount of sound at a frequency level that we cannot hear (subsonic).
This filter is at 20Hz which is just outside the realm of human hearing. The idea is that these frequencies interact with other frequencies causing weird phase and sound issues, even though you cannot hear a 20Hz tone.
This is an excellent choice if you are looking for a simple phono preamp with great sound, but it may be lacking in the tweaky knobs department for those who love to have tons of settings to adjust.
Best Under $300: Cambridge Audio Alva Duo
- Switchable between MC or MM cartridges
- Doubles as headphone amp
- Balance control
- Subsonic filter
- Big knob on the front may make it hard to place in your setup
- Headphone amp could add more noise to the signal chain
The Cambridge Audio Alva Duo is called the Duo because it is designed to accommodate both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges.
It has some other unique properties as well, but the switchable MC or MM option is a nice touch you will not see on many preamps in this price range.
It could also be called the Duo because it doubles as a headphone amplifier. It does 2 jobs by amplifying the incoming record signal at the same time, sending power and sound to your headphones… how convenient!
The box itself has a sleek design with a big knob on the front, the MC/MM switch next to it and the power button right by the switch. It has some useful features some of which are pretty remarkably in this price range.
Designed for Vinyl
Cambridge took care to design the preamp to reject room noise by making the circuit board a surface mounted board. This reduces hum and vibration from the table or room.
The MM/MC switch is also a big plus for vinyl listening since it easily configures the box to optimize the amp for you turntable’s output.
Subsonic Filter & Balance
This preamp has a subsonic filter which can help make older records with more noise sound better. It will also help reduce low frequency rumble and sounds from the listening environment. It also has a balance control knob which is uncommon for a phono preamp.
The balance control allows you to adjust the volume for each side of the stereo image. For example, if you have an old record that is heavy on the left channel you can simply turn the balance to favor the right side. This is a cool feature you do not come across often!
The Duo’s headphone amp is a nice addition if you are a headphone listener. Normally you must use the headphone amp on your power amplifier, which gives your headphones 3 different volume stages. This can add more noise and is not ideal. The headphone amp solves this problem.
The Audio Alva Duo is a great choice if you need a high-quality middle of the road preamp that produces good sound and allows you to switch between moving coil and moving magnet cartridges.
Best Under $200: Schiit Mani Phono Preamp
- 4 switchable gain modes
- Compatible with all phono cartridges
- Great sounding amp
- Made in the USA
- Higher standards than other amps in its price range
- Have to turn it over to access gain switches
- Appearance is very plain and looks cheap
The Schiit Mani Phono Preamp for MC and MM Cartridges is a no-frills, utilitarian, small preamp that accommodates both moving coil and moving magnet carts.
This is a simple design with no big knobs to turn, but that does not mean it does not have options. Do not let the funny name fool you. It is actually a very decent amp for the price.
This small simple preamp does have some key features that make it stand out against other options in this price range.
- Compatible with moving magnet or moving coil cartridges
- Four switchable gain modes
- Accurate RIAA network
- Made in the USA
Compatible With Both Types Of Cartridges
There are 3 main types of phono cartridges, high output, moving coil and moving magnet. Each one has its own idiosyncrasies and pros and cons.
Whichever type of cartridge you have on your deck, this small box will work with it. Many of the other budget preamps in this class are only compatible with MM carts.
Having this option to change the gain for any type of cartridge is not something you would expect in this price class. Nice touch.
Four Switchable Gain Modes
Gain modes are simply different levels of amplification you are adding to the incoming cartridge signal. Do not let the terminology scare you.
Depending on the level coming from the cart, you would adjust the gain at the input stage to keep the sonic character clean.
This preamp has 4 switchable modes accessible by turning the amp over and exposing the switches. The actual modes are 30, 42, 47, and 59dB, which covers the full spectrum of possible cartridge levels.
Accurate RIAA Network
The RIAA network is short for “Recording Industry Association of America”. The RIAA created an EQ curve to be implemented in records and has become a global standard.
The purpose of it is to improve sound quality and allow for longer recording times among other things. More information on what this means can be found here.
The way preamps comply with this is to have a network of circuits that achieves this goal.
In this preamp they do this passively without any extra amplification or op amps which results in a more pristine and quieter audio signal. Nice feature to find in this price range!
This is an impressive little amp for the price. It may look cheap and unimpressive and it is annoying to have to turn it over to access the gain switches, but you will have a hard time finding a better value and better sound for this cost.
Best Under 100: Pyle Phono Turntable Preamp
- Very low price
- Surprisingly low noise
- Quality is nowhere near the other models on this list
- As basic as it gets
OK, let us be clear. I am not recommending you use a preamp of this caliber. But if you are on a very strict budget, you don’t have a choice.
And if you have to delve into the very bottom of the phono preamp market, you are not going to get a better deal than this little Pyle PP999.
This preamp is about as simple as you can get. Inputs on one side, outputs on the other, a ground screw, and power supply input.
There are no buttons, switches, knobs, or other nonsense on this little black box. In fact, this is such a simple and ‘no-nonsense’ preamp, one of the main benefits they list on the sales page is that it “Converts phono signals”!
This gave me a good chuckle because that is the actual function of a preamp. That’s like listing “takes photos” as a selling point for a camera you sell. I guess you have to applaud their honesty in advertising.
- Converts Phono Signals
- Low Noise
- Connects to Turntables
- Plug and Play
Converts Phono Signals to Line Level
The primary function of a phono preamp is to convert the incredibly quiet phono level to line level which the amplifier can use. This Pyle PP999 does the job it needs to do, plain and simple.
You are not going to get any fancy discreet RIAA circuitry, or gain switches, or knobs. This will do what you need it to, and nothing (seriously, nothing) else.
Because of the lack of extra functions like volume control or gain switches etc. this preamp is fairly quiet and claims to be ‘low noise’. Every time you change an audio signal from one level to another (in this case phono level to line level) you are adding noise.
There are no ‘no noise’ preamps in the world, but some are quieter than others. The Pyle PP999 is not very noisy, as you would expect for the paltry cost of admission.
Connects to Turntables
I know you may be thinking this is a joke. Why even mention that it connects to turntables? Well, this product is aimed squarely at the newly initiated record collector or vinyl enthusiast and it will most likely be somebody’s first preamp.
Many of the low budget decks out there have a preamp installed so it was necessary to mention that this connects to turntables because it is aimed at the newbie market.
It has RCA inputs and RCA outputs on either side, simple as can be.
Phono Preamps: Related Questions
Should I Buy a Preamp if My Turntable Has an Internal Preamplifier?
If your turntable has an internal preamp you do not need a stand-alone phono preamp. Notice I said the word ‘need’.
You can play records with your turntable using its built-in preamp. It will work, and you will hear sound.
Built in preamps are a convenient add on to a lower-level turntable which will save they buyer of the deck some money. You will see these on many lower end turntables on the market.
If you care about the sonic quality of the records you have, you should seriously consider using an external preamp. Here is why.
The built-in preamps on most turntables (not all, but most) are low quality noise making garbage boxes. They are added as an afterthought to entice newbies to purchase the deck since they “don’t need to buy a preamp if I buy this one!”
The sound you are going to hear can be greatly improved if you use one of the high-quality preamps we cover in this guide. If money is an issue for you, there are a couple we reviewed that are under 100 bucks!
Naturally, these cheaper options will not be much of an upgrade over a good internal unit, but they will still be much better then the preamps that come with a budget record player.
So, the short answer is yes, and no, depending on whether you care about the sound. Some of the better turntables with built in preamps will have the option for you to bypass the preamp via a switch.
If you take my advice and use a stand-alone preamp, make sure you turn off the internal preamp or your signal will sound distorted and you will come raging back to call me a liar in the comment section.
What is the Difference Between a $50 Preamp and a $500 Preamp?
Like any other type of product on the planet, there are different levels of quality. Not every phono preamp has the exact same components, and not every preamp is going to affect the sound you put into it the exact same way.
There are levels of sound quality that correspond to how much you spend on your preamp. However, as you get higher in the price range those sound qualities become more nuanced and less obvious.
All the preamps in this guide are under 500 bucks, but you can easily spend over a grand on a preamp. Honestly, most humans will hear no difference at all between a thousand-dollar preamp and a 500 dollar one.
However, a geeked out audiophile like myself can hear the difference. I am not proud of this fact, by the way, I could have spent some of my time in high school with girls or socializing but instead I was listening to records alone in my room.
The difference between a $50 and a $500 model is more obvious. That’s why I used the $500 mark as the cutoff. To me, that is about the point where spending extra money does not result in huge additional gains in terms of sound quality.
Sonic detail is exactly what it sounds like. It means the amount of detail you can hear in the sound coming from the preamp.
There are a lot of things that happen to sound inside an amplifier. A preamp is just an amplifier that is used before a power amp in the signal chain, so do not think a preamp is anything different than an amplifier. They are the same thing.
In a phono preamp there are different capacitors, resistors, and other tiny little electronics in the circuitry between the input and output jacks. Each one of these little components will affect the sonic detail.
The more the manufacturer spends on these little capacitors and resistors and tiny little amps, the better they will bring out the detail.
Certain circuits with certain caps (short for capacitors) will make the cymbals or guitars sound clearer. Some capacitors will give an exceedingly small boost to a specific bass level sound making it sit better in the sonic mix.
Sonic detail is very noticeable when you get into the better preamps, and a normal person can hear the difference between a 50 dollar preamp and a 500 dollar one. However most people can not hear the difference between a 500 dollar and a 1000 dollar preamp.
The amount of noise that is audible in the sound will vary depending on how good your preamp is. This is one of the reasons people opt to spend more on a preamp. They do not want to hear the noise that can be heard in cheap preamps.
Some noise is not noticeable at low volumes but becomes audible when the volume is turned up more. However, there are some cheaper preamps that add audible noise even at low levels. You want to avoid these types of preamps!
Versatility And Customization
As you have seen in this guide, some preamps allow you to make changes to the signal with knobs and switches. These are the more expensive models that tend to have more options for customization and versatility.
In most cases, the more you spend on a preamp the more options you are getting. There are some 2000 dollar preamps that have no knobs and only a couple switches on them.
Overall, though, the more you spend the more options you are going to get.
The difference between a $50 and a $500 preamp, as I have laid out above, is mostly related to the sound they put out. Whether or not you can hear the difference is something you will have to answer for yourself as you gain more experience listening to different setups.
In general, you will be making a good choice if you stick with any of the preamps on this list. They are all the best in their classes.
I would only caution you against getting a ridiculously cheap preamp because in this market you really do get what you pay for.
Best Phono Preamps: Final Thoughts
If your record player has a built-in preamplifier, you don’t need to buy an additional external one. But you’ll probably want to, since the built-in ones are rarely any good.
Your receiver may also have one built in. These are generally better, but still tend to lag behind a quality external phono preamp. If you want to upgrade, or your turntable doesn’t have a preamp in the first place, the models listed above all outperform their price levels considerably.
Leave a Reply