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6 Phono Pre-Amplifiers That Will Make Listening to Vinyl Better

Your turntable may not sound great without the right phono preamp. This guide offers some of the best phono pre-amplifiers for any budget.

Vinyl continues to grow as a category in 2020. Albeit at a much slower pace. The mid-year sales figures were a disaster due to the closure of physical record stores in N. America during the COVID-19 pandemic and there isn’t enough sales evidence yet from Q3 to make any predictions for the rest of 2020. Digital streaming has also grown to 85% of the market which leaves a much smaller piece of pie for vinyl to acquire. Used record sales are not included in the data and we’ve noticed a shift by some dealers to more online sales. Vinyl isn’t going anywhere but its record growth has stalled. 

What concerns us the most is that consumers who have taken the plunge into vinyl for the first time have not even scratched the surface when it comes to the playback quality of their turntable. Will this group abandon vinyl as high-end digital streaming becomes more affordable and accessible?

Do you have to spend more money on analog playback to really hear what the format is capable of? We find that there is a comfortable middle ground if you really want to experience what records can sound like and while that doesn’t mean you need to drop $5,000 on a new turntable, there is some merit to putting more money towards your set-up. Don’t expect vinyl nirvana from a $300 turntable set-up — you might be disappointed with how that brand new $30 record sounds.

There is nothing worse than taking the plunge on an expensive component like a turntable and discovering that the fancy cartridge installed on the tonearm sounds dreadful. The reality is that your turntable isn’t broken and the cartridge that you painstakingly installed is capable of so much more. A phono pre-amplifier isn’t supposed to look nice. In a perfect world, it should sit all alone on your rack and properly amplify the output of your cartridge. 

A phono preamp is also asked to apply the RIAA equalization curve to the signal, reverting it back to the shape it was on the original recording. No pressure there. The problem is that phono cartridges don’t play well together in the sandbox. They don’t have the same output level and require relatively precise loading (impedance) to sound their best. Everything about their performance changes if you don’t select the right phono pre-amplifier; color, pace, transparency, detail, soundstage, dynamics, and degree of immediacy. 

If your cartridge buying options lean towards high-output moving magnet cartridges from brands like Grado Labs, Ortofon, Audio-Technica, Hana or Nagaoka – all of our suggestions will work rather well. 

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Low-output moving coil cartridges from Denon, Audio-Technica, Dynavector, Ortofon, Hana, and Grado Labs require more gain (50dB or more) and the ability to adjust their load settings. The more expensive options on our list offer greater set-up flexibility and enough gain for these types of cartridges. 

Schiit Audio Mani ($129)

Inexpensive phono pre-amplifiers like the Schiit Mani are very rare. Not only does this tiny metal box sound like a far more expensive unit, but it’s manufactured and assembled in California. The adjustability of the Mani makes it versatile and opens the door to a wider range of cartridges that users may want to try. If you are new to vinyl listening and your amplifier doesn’t offer an internal phono pre-amplifier – this might be a great place to start. 

  • Inexpensive and very quiet performance
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Decent pacing
  • Warm midrange
  • Not the deepest sounding soundstage
  • Can sound slightly restrained or polite depending on the cartridge 

Cambridge Audio Duo ($299) 

The Duo is very similar to the Schiit Mani from the perspective that it delivers a warm sounding midrange and a very low noise floor. It offers both MM and MC inputs and a rather propulsive presentation. Some may find the inclusion of a dedicated headphone amplifier strange, but it delivers a lot of power and makes listening to vinyl with a pair of headphones very enjoyable. 

  • Zero noise. Deep space nobody can hear you scream level of quiet 
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges 
  • Very little adjustability with MC cartridges
  • Solid pacing
  • Warm tonal balance 
  • Headphone amplifier has engaging sound and a lot of power

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Moon by SimAudio LP110 V2 ($399)

This very solid piece of engineering offers adjustability for almost every cartridge on the market and is dead quiet in its operation. The neutral tonal balance makes the LP110 V2 ideal for warmer sounding cartridges like the Grado Timbre Series or low-output MCs from Hana. Music moves with a sense of purpose and the level of detail retrieval is superb for the asking price. 

  • Built like tank
  • Works well with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
  • Zero noise
  • Neutral sounding tonal balance that makes a lot of cartridges sound their best
  • Excellent sense of pace
  • Borscht for the asking price 

Buy from Amazon

Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 ($699)

From the manufacturer that sells the most audiophile-grade turntables in the world comes one of the most versatile phono pre-amplifiers available below $2,000. Music flows out of the Tube Box DS2 with excellent pace and sense of immediacy. The adjustability of the unit makes it ideal for users who like to swap out cartridges and prefer a warmer tonal balance. Combined with the 2M Series carts from Ortofon, the Tube Box DS2 really delivers a lot of performance for the money. A truly exceptional and affordable phono pre-amplifier that soars under the radar.

  • Excellent build quality 
  • Tubes give both MM and MC carts fleshed out presentation 
  • Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
  • Sounds excellent with wide range of cartridges 
  • Warmer tonal balance 
  • Excellent soundstage depth
  • Music moves with solid pace

Buy from Amazon

iFi iPhono3 Black Label Phono Stage ($995)

iFi has demonstrated a unique commitment over the past few years to its line-up of affordable and high-performance phono stages, DACs, headphone amplifiers, and power supplies. They constantly improve rather than dump products and the iPhono3 Black Label is one of their most impressive products so far. A phono pre-amplifier needs to be very quiet so that you can hear every last piece of music in the grooves and this very well engineered black box is one of the quietest we’ve ever heard. 

iFi has always designed the iPhono to be the last word in cartridge loading options and the iPhono3 Black Label takes a backseat to almost nothing available. We’re not in love with the print size of the load options on the bottom panel (glasses or magnifying glass required) and the supplied tool to adjust the switches works but requires some patience to get things exactly right.

The iPhono3 has more than enough gain for the vast majority of cartridges on the market and it’s hard not be impressed by the balanced presentation of this unit. Music flows out of this phono pre-amplifier and competes with far more expensive units. 

  • Built like a tank
  • Wide range of adjustments and load settings
  • Quietest phono pre-amplifier we’ve tried 
  • Excellent pace
  • Neutral tonal balance
  • Excellent sense of pace and timing 
  • Load settings are hard to read on the bottom panel
  • Don’t lose the DIP switch tool

Buy from Amazon

Tavish Design Adagio Vacuum Tube Phono Stage ($1,890)

This handmade hybrid phono stage manufactured north of New York City doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, but it does sell out very quickly when the manufacturer finishes a production run. Don’t let its industrial design fool you – this two-box unit can play with the most expensive phono cartridges in the world and compete with far more expensive units. The inclusion of a step-up transformer makes it compatible with low-output moving coil cartridges that need more amplification and the wide range of load settings only broaden what users can try. 

  • Solid build quality 
  • Neutral tonal balance 
  • Wide range of adjustments and load settings 
  • Excellent pace
  • Brilliant sounding with a wide range of cartridges
  • Internal step-up transformer for low-output MCs
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