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Best Affordable Audiophile Phono Preamplifiers: 2023 Buying Guide

Your turntable may not sound great without the right phono preamp. This guide offers some of the best phono preamplifiers under $600.

Andover Audio SpinStage Phono Preamp Lifestyle

Did you invest in a new turnable during the pandemic? Are you still standing in line on Record Store Day? One of the most neglected parts of the phono chain is the phono preamplifier; this is particularly true if you’re new to vinyl playback and have not really given that much thought to how that cartridge on the end of your tonearm actually works and how that minuscule level of output is amplified. The best affordable phono preamplifiers will likely do a much better job than the internal phono stage inside of your amplifier and offer greater flexibility with both MC and MM cartridges.

Vinyl continued to grow at record pace as a category in 2022. Just how much? Last year 40 million LPs (albums) were sold in the United States alone (source RIAA), which was up 67% from the prior year and the highest number in 33 years (since 1988). 40 million.

Record Store Day 2023 was the biggest one yet and there are suggestions that Record Store Day Black Friday 2023 could deliver even stronger sales than the previous year. Taylor Swift is likely to make another appearance according to some rumors that we’ve heard recently.

Even with all of that great news in regard to record sales, most consumers don’t think about the best phono pre-amplifiers for their turntables and that’s a problem.

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?

Don’t expect vinyl nirvana from a $300 turntable set-up — you might be disappointed with how that brand new $30 record sounds. $500 is a better place to start for an affordable audiophile turntable.

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. The best phono pre-amplifiers don’t have 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. 

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. In such cases, consider the more expensive options on our list which offer greater set-up flexibility and enough gain for these types of cartridges. 

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Schiit Mani 2 Phono Preamplifier Black
Schiit Audio Mani 2

Schiit Audio Mani 2 ($179)

Inexpensive phono pre-amplifiers like the Schiit Mani 2 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. 

Reasons to buy:

  • Inexpensive and very quiet performance
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Decent pacing
  • Warm midrange

Reasons to pass:

  • Not the deepest sounding soundstage
  • Can sound slightly restrained or polite depending on the cartridge 

$179 at Amazon | Schiit.com


Screen Shot 2022-08-17 at 6.56.34 AM

iFi ZEN Phono ($199)

iFi Audio is celebrating its 10th anniversary with some exciting and affordable products including this excellent phono preamplifier that offers both MM/MC inputs. The iFi ZEN Phono is part of a much larger range that includes DACs, and headphone amplifiers and we’ve been super impressed with the products that we have reviewed so far.

Don’t look at the price and think that it must have some serious shortcomings. We were quite surprised by how quiet it is and that it can handle almost any cartridge on the market; the iFi ZEN Phono offers 32dB to 72dB of gain. The neutral tonal balance and clarity make it a very strong option below $200.

The rear panel of the chassis includes a power input, balanced output (4mm), a gain switch with four positions, two RCA input jacks, two RCA output jacks, and a grounding terminal.

Reasons to buy:

  • Very affordable
  • Excellent build quality
  • MM/MC cartridge compatibility
  • Transparent, detailed, and very quiet
  • Hard to find anything better below $200

$199 at Amazon

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Andover Audio SpinStage ($249)

Andover Audio SpinStage Phono Preamp Lifestyle

Vinyl me this…vinyl me that. Who is afraid of the big, black bat? 

Couldn’t resist. And nor should some of you when it comes to the Andover Audio SpinStage Phono Preamplifier. 

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Raise your hand if you thought vinyl would be the best-selling physical music format in 2022? Michael Fremer and Chad Kassem can lower their hands in the back of the room. 

$250 for a rather high quality MM/MC phono preamplifier? 

While turntable and cartridge options have been rather plentiful, the affordable MM/MC phono stage category below $400 has been dominated by only a few models from Schiit Audio, U-Turn, Cambridge Audio, and Rega. Andover Audio sells a lot of SpinDeck and SpinDeck Max turntables but they’ve never offered a dedicated and affordable MM/MC phono pre-amplifier until now.

The Andover Audio SpinStage has two key features not commonly found in budget phono preamplifiers. First, by adding a separate MC gain stage with ultra-low-noise discrete transistors in a type of transconductance topology usually found only in more expensive designs, the SpinStage benefits from providing the necessary gain without added noise.

Second, the addition of an Auxiliary input restores the input used by the SpinStage when it’s connected to an amplifier that has only a few inputs. For example, a system that includes a CD player or other device may need the input used by the SpinStage.

The MM section adds 40dB of gain, whilst the MC section offers 66.5dB for low output moving coil cartridges.

Phono-cartridge resistive and capacitive loading optimize the SpinStage’s high-frequency performance with any MM cartridge, while its ultra-high-precision resistors and capacitors deliver RIAA response typically accurate within ±0.2dB. 

The SpinStage’s selectable subsonic filter reduces the ultra-low-frequency noise of turntable rumble that can cause excess woofer pumping and waste amplifier power.

You can read my review here, but let’s cut to the chase.

Between the loading options, build quality, and surprisingly transparent and detailed presentation, Andover Audio has created one of the best affordable phono pre-amplifiers on the market.

Reasons to buy:

  • Inexpensive and very quiet performance
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Build quality
  • Detailed and transparent presentation
  • Pacing and overall presence are very strong

Reasons to pass:

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  • Bass impact could be stronger
  • DIP switch settings can be hard to read

$249 at andoveraudio.com | Amazon


Cambridge Audio Alva Duo

Cambridge Audio Alva Duo ($349) 

The Alva 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. For further detail, read our full review of the Alva Duo with Cambridge Audio CXA61 Integrated Amp.

Reasons to buy:

  • 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

$349 at Amazon | Crutchfield


Pro-ject Phono Box S2 Ultra Phono Preamp Front

Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 Ultra ($349.00)

Pro-Ject is the world’s largest manufacturer of high-end turntables, but a growing part of their business includes a rather extensive range of DACs, pre-amplifiers, headphone amplifiers, and loudspeakers. The real gems in their lineup are their extensive range of phono pre-amplifiers that deserve to get a lot more coverage.

The Phono Box S2 Ultra is one of the more affordable units in their lineup and it is the polar opposite of flashy; it resides very quietly on your shelf and offers compatibility with both MM/MC cartridges with multiple loading options.

It offers 43dB to 63dB of gain (there are 5 different gain settings) and it definitely gets out of the way and allows one to hear the cartridge with a very neutral tonal balance, excellent detail, and a very clean sounding top end. The treble has sufficient bite and you might discover that your cartridge has greater top end sparkle than you previously thought.

Reasons to buy:

  • Solid build quality
  • Neutral tonal balance, detailed, resolute bass response
  • Affordable
  • MM/MC cartridge compatibility
  • Extremely quiet and reliable

$349 at Amazon | Amazon.ca


Rega Fono MM MK5 Phono Preamplifier

Rega Fono MM MK5 ($445)

Rega is one of the leading manufacturers of high-end turntables in the world and we’re rather fond of the Planar 3 and their excellent integrated amplifiers including the io and Aethos which we have covered rather extensively. Rega also manufactures their own phono cartridges who are designed to work with products like the Rega Fono MM MK5.

The brand does an excellent job with all of their phono pre-amplifiers, but the Fono MM MK5 is a rather good value if you are using MM cartridges in the $150 to $500 range and want something that is very quiet, detailed, and slightly warmer sounding than the other phono pre-amplifiers on this list.

The Fono MM MK5 lacks some of the transparency and low end heft of the more expensive Moon by SumAudio LP110 V2 — but that should be the case when you are spending an additional $150 at this price level. Rega owners already know that the Fono is a solid performer, but those using the 2M Red, Nagaoka MP-110, and Goldring E3 might want to have a listen at their local dealer.

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Reasons to buy:

  • Solid build quality
  • Warmer tonal balance, punchy low end
  • Works really well with entry-level MM cartridges
  • Excellent pace

$445 at AudioAdvice | Amazon | Amazon.co.uk


Moon by SimAudio LP110 V2

Moon by SimAudio LP110 V2 ($599)

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. 

Reasons to buy:

  • 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 

$599 at Amazon | Amazon.ca

Upgrade Picks

If your budget can stretch a little more, check out list of Best Audiophile Phono Preamps under $1,000.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. ORT

    August 18, 2023 at 8:10 pm

    Personally I want one for under $250 or so that has tubes and looks like it came from the set of Fritz Lang’s film, “Metropolis”. MM and MC (the latter for the off chance I should really lose my mind and subsequently, my wallet!).

    It must have style and not just be a metal rectangle. Ugh! It can be done all I need to is find the right curtain to pull back (Wizard of Oz reference!).

    I have a nice little tube-ish Chinese one but of late I have not hooked it up to anything. Pretty but not quite the “girl-robot-next-door” look I desire from such a device.

    Orton Welles

    • Ian White

      August 19, 2023 at 2:20 pm

      ORT,

      There a few tube phono preamps in that price range but definitely look like boring boxes.

      IW

      • ORT

        August 20, 2023 at 4:23 pm

        Ian my brother, retirement does not suit the audio enthusiast in me… 😉

        How is Will doing? I hope he is getting better and better. Please say hello to all for me!

        ORT

        • Ian White

          August 20, 2023 at 5:31 pm

          ORT,

          I hear that. I just walked in the door from across the sea. Headed back out later this week.

          He seems to be making an excellent recovery. Getting back into the swing of things. I have 3 new reviews coming from him this week. And two from myself.

          I will definitely say hello.

          IW

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