Last updated: June 30, 2020

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Turntables and vinyl records are having a big resurgence in popularity these days, which is why you need to get yourself a phono preamp if you are building a sound system in your home. However, sometimes these devices are not required, as these days many record players already incorporate a preamp.

Serious audiophiles prefer turntables that can be used with an external preamplifier, because it means they can buy one that is perfectly suited to their individual requirements. It is possible to find preamps of much higher quality, and at very reasonable prices, than those that are already integrated into record players. In this guide we tell you everything you need to know to find the option that is best for your individual requirements.

Key Facts

  • Phono preamps are small devices that should not be underestimated, despite their tiny size and rather basic appearance. They are primarily used for converting the phono signal of a turntable, so that it can be played on home speakers. As with most audio gear, you can spend a lot of money if you want something that is top quality. However, there are also some great options that only require a moderate financial outlay.
  • Phono preamps are also widely used in the world of professional recording, and depending on the audio gear you have, you might find other uses for it too.
  • If you are not very familiar with sound systems, you might not know much about phono preamps. No need to worry though, they are usually very easy to use. When making your purchase, there are several key factors to keep in mind, such as the power rating, frequencies and other specifications that we will cover in this article.

Our Selection: The Best Phono Preamps on the U.S. Market

To give you an overview of the range of phono preamps currently available on the market, in this section we present you with the four best products available right now. They all offer great value for money, have positive customer reviews, and are made by respected manufacturers.

Best Phono Preamp on a Budget

At a cost of less than $15, this is the best option for anyone wanting great sound quality for a small financial outlay. It offers outstanding performance with its low signal-to-noise ratio (SNR).  The state-of-the-art circuitry accommodates magnetic pickups, with an input sensitivity of 3 mV at 50K Ohms. It comes with both a 30 day no hassle money back return policy, and a one-year manufacturer’s warranty.

Best Phono Preamp for DJs

If you are a professional DJ and you want to spin vinyl at your next gig, this little unit is a great option as it is easily transportable. The analog input capacity can be switched between 100 pF and 200 pF to optimize the phono cartridge response. A low-cut filter removes turntable rumble, while leaving the audio pristine. The front gain trim control and signal/clip LED are great extras.

Best Phono Preamp for MC and MM Cartridges

Schiit Mani gives you the flexibility you need for both moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) cartridges, together with exceptionally accurate, and low-noise performance. With 4 switchable gain modes, (30, 42, 47, and 59 dB) this phono preamp is ready for any cartridge you can throw at it. Designed and assembled in the USA, with a two-year warranty.

Best Phono Preamp for Serious Audiophiles

If you are a serious audiophile, and your budget can afford it, you should take a look at the Puffin Phono DSP from Parks Audio. This next-generation phono preamp has a wide range of gain settings which allow easy system matching for all cartridges and vinyl systems. The wide selection of tone controls makes it a breeze to tweak the sound to perfection.

Shopping Guide: Everything You Should Know about Phono Preamps

If you are considering buying a phono preamp, it is essential that you have a solid understanding of how these devices work, and their main characteristics. So that you can find out everything you need to know, in this section we answer the most frequently asked questions about phono preamps.

A Phono preamp applies the RIAA equalization curve to an audio signal, which is necessary for the playback of LP records.
(Source: 36clicks: 75782500/ 123rf.com)

What are phono preamps and how do they work?

A phono preamp (also known as a phono stage, RIAA preamp or turntable preamp) is an audio component that amplifies the signal from a turntable up to line level. This allows you to connect it to a modern sound system, in the same way as you would with any other type of audio device, such as an .mp3 or CD player. Most record players (especially older models) cannot be used without one.

The audio signal that is emitted from a turntable is very low (up to 1000 times weaker than that of a CD player). This means that it must be boosted to reach the standard line level (also known as AUX) that modern amplifiers require. In basic terms, it connects a record player to an amplifier, by converting the phono signal to a line level signal.

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Did you know that RIAA equalization is the standard specification for the recording and playback of phonograph records, as established by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It was designed to allow greater recording times, to improve sound quality, and to reduce the groove damage that would otherwise arise during playback?

A phono preamp applies the RIAA equalization curve to the signal emitted from a turntable, returning it to its original shape. We will not go into too much technical detail about this topic in this guide. However, it is important to know that you must buy a phono preamp that has the RIAA standard, so that you can enjoy your music with the best possible sound quality.

What are phono preamps used for?

There are no less than four sound configurations that require the use of a phono preamp. Each one is suitable for being used with specific types of audio systems. More expensive units are capable of producing more professional configurations, so your budget will come into play here. In this section we break each of them down, to make the different options easier for you to understand:

  • Common record player and amplifier configuration: The turntable is connected to a preamp (either integrated or external), which is then connected to an amplifier or receiver that powers either headphones or speakers. This is the most common configuration for using a record player.
  • Simplified configuration of a turntable and amplified speakers: The turntable is connected to a preamp (either integrated or external), which is connected directly to amplified speakers. This configuration can only be used with powered speakers.
  • Record player and computer configuration: The turntable is connected the preamp (integrated or external), which is connected to your computer with an audio cable. If your turntable has an integrated preamp with a USB port, you can connect it directly to the computer using a USB cable.
  • Old stereo system configuration: This is the method that was used when turntables were first manufactured. The record player was connected directly to a stereo system with an existing phono input. From there the audio would be played on connected speakers or headphones.

Audiophiles always choose the first system, as this setting allows greater control over the sound and equalization. This audio configuration requires four separate devices, working in a chain as follows:

Turntable Phono Preamp Amplifier Speakers or Headphones

What types of phono preamps are available?

Phono preamps are divided into two main types, each of which are designed for using with one the two types of cartridges used by record players. They are called MM preamps and MC preamps. If you don’t know what type of cartridge your record player uses, look up the manufacturer’s specifications, or check if there is a label somewhere on the turntable.

MM (moving magnet) cartridges use a needle and a pair of magnets, which send the signal to the coil. In the case of MC (moving coil) cartridges, the needle works directly with the coil. This system is much more precise at collecting information than an MM cartridge. However, it has a much lower output level.

A phono preamp amplifies the signal from a turntable to line level, which allows it to be connected to a sound system.
(Source: Belchonock: 95167265/ 123rf.com)

Most turntables use MM cartridges because they are much cheaper, however an MC cartridge with an external phono preamp will give the best audio quality. This table sets out the information more clearly:

MM Phono Preamp MC Phono Preamp
Output Level Higher Lower
Millivolts (mV) Up to 7 mV Between 0.3 and 2.5 mV
 Amplification Required Less More
Price Low to Moderate Moderate to High

Who should buy a phono preamp?

Phono preamps are recommended for anyone who wants to build a high-fidelity sound system that incorporates a turntable. If you are just starting out, and building your first audio system, this type of device may not be necessary. Instead you might be better advised to invest in a receiver that is capable of boosting a phono signal, or a turntable with an integrated preamp. However, if you want to best possible audio quality, an external phono preamp is definitely the best option.

A phono preamp is also known as a phono stage, an RIAA preamp or a turntable preamp.
(Source: Hanohiki: 57934155/ 123rf.com)

Investing in a quality phono preamp is key to getting the best sound quality in your audio chain. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, in order to get a great product. All the options we reviewed earlier in this article offer great value for money.

What are the advantages of an external phono preamp, over an integrated preamplifier?

This is the most frequently asked question about phono preamps, especially from people who are just starting to get serious about building a high-fidelity sound system. It is true that nowadays many manufacturers sell receivers that are capable of receiving a phono signal, or else they integrate a phono preamp into their turntables. In terms of practicality, this is definitely more convenient and allows you to listen to records with the least number of devices in your chain. However, there are some advantages of having an external preamplifier that is dedicated to boosting the phono signal from your record player.

Advantages
  • You can upgrade them whenever you want.
  • There is a wider selection range.
  • They allow much better control of EQ.
  • They give you the freedom to choose your desired sound settings.
Disadvantages
  • They must be purchased separately.

Buyer’s Guide

As the majority of phono preamps offer the same basic functionality, there are not too many complicated criteria you need to understand. In this article, we will not go into overly technical aspects that can get a little confusing. In order to find the option that is best for you, from the wide range of products available on the market, just keep the following factors in mind when making your purchase:

Power

The unit of measure for rating power in the world of audio is measured in watts (W). However, you need to be very careful when considering this rating, as many manufacturers exaggerate the specifications of their products to try and boost sales. As a general rule, a higher power rating will give better results, as long as your speakers and amplifier are capable of utilizing it.

When buying products online, it’s not possible to test them for yourself. However, even if you were to purchase a phono preamp in a physical store, you still wouldn’t be able to try it out, since it would be impractical to take all your audio gear into the shop. That’s why following recommendations from other buyers, or reading guides such as this one, is the best way to be confident you a purchasing a quality device.

Signal to Noise Ratio

The signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) compares the signal power level to the noise power level. Most commonly, it is measured in decibels (dB). A higher signal-to-noise ratio will generally mean better sound quality, since there is more useful information (signal) than unwanted information (noise).

As long as the signal level is strong, and well above the noise level, you can expect high-quality audio that is clear and precise. You should definitely avoid buying any audio equipment with a low SNR.

Total Harmonic Distortion

The total harmonic distortion specification compares the input and output audio signals, with the difference between the two measured in percentage. This type of calculation requires a little math, but all you need to know is that the percentage represents the deviation of the output signal. A lower percentage is always better.

A certain amount of harmonic distortion is inevitable, but in reality, it is barely noticeable because these days manufacturers create devices with distortion specifications that are in small fractions of a percentage.

There are two main types of phono preamps: MM (moving magnet) and MC (moving coil).
(Source: Tomertu: 47272203/ 123rf.com)

Frequency Response

Frequency response is often shown on a graph as a curve. It describes how a device responds to sound within a frequency range, and is measured in hertz (Hz) along the “x” axis of a graph, with the sound pressure level (SPL) measured in decibels (dB) along the “y” axis of a graph.

Most manufacturers list specifications on their products that cover a minimum of 20 Hz to a maximum of 20 kHz, which is within the frequency range humans are capable of hearing. The frequency response, together with the signal-to-noise ratio and total harmonic distortion, will largely influence the stability and overall quality of the sound.

Speaker Output

Many phono preamps include an output for connecting directly to speakers or headphones. This is typically an audio jack port that is clearly labelled “output”. However, some models, especially more expensive ones, do not include this type of output, as they focus solely on preamplification.

Summary

A phono preamp plays a very important role in a sound chain, especially in a high-fidelity audio configuration. This is why it is worth investing is a high-quality dedicated device. If you are an audiophile and you are planning on building a new sound system, don’t overlook one of these devices. This piece of gear will give you the best possible sound quality, when using a turntable to play records.

Although it is no longer necessary to use a dedicated phono preamp, because these days most record players are shipped with an integrated preamp, it will always be a better option to buy an external one. Purchasing all your sound gear separately gives you greater flexibility to gradually assemble and configure your sound system, in addition to improving it over time.

We hope this shopping guide helped make your purchase process easier. If you enjoyed reading this article, please leave us a comment below and be sure to share it with your friends and family!

(Source of Featured Image: Konstantin Fresher: 54939676/ 123rf.com)

Why you can trust me?

Writing and reading have always been passions of mine, and I have a really fun time being part of the team. I have a wide range of interests, so reviewing products is a great way to share my experience with people. I'm always researching online about the latest tech gadgets and looking for things to buy for around the home.