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Editors’ Choice: My Favorite Phono Preamplifiers of 2022

Your turntable may not sound great without the right phono preamp. Our Editors’ Choice 2022 Phono Preamplifier options offer great performance for the money.

Cambridge Audio Alva Duo Phono Preamplifier with Pro-Ject Turnttable Low Angle

The RIAA’s H1 2022 data for new vinyl sales in the United States indicated that consumers are spending less due to inflation in the post-pandemic economy, but vinyl continues to grow as a viable physical media format 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. Stick that in your CD player. It has also created a surge of new phono preamplifiers in the marketplace. Most consumers don’t think about the best phono preamplifiers for their turntables and that’s a problem.

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.

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. 

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 Sumiko, 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. 

So what did I really like in 2022? It’s certainly a positive to see better quality phono preamplifiers that are more affordable and we hope that remains a trend.

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Glenn Croft’s passing in November 2022 was a rather sad moment for audiophiles who have used his products for a few decades. Not only was he a very gifted designer but a lovely man. The Croft RIAA Phono Preamplifier is a fantastic product but Glenn made them by hand so we’re likely to see used versions selling for a premium going forward.

All of my picks with the exception of the Pro-Ject are genuine bargains at their asking price and certainly better than any internal phono stage that you might find inside the current crop of integrated amplifiers or receivers below $1,000.

Schiit Mani 2 Phono Preamplifier Black

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

iFi ZEN Air Phono Front

iFi ZEN Phono ($199.00)

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 | Crutchfield

Andover Audio SpinStage Phono Preamp

Andover Audio SpinStage ($250)

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

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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. 

I’ve only been listening for the past 24 hours with the Goldring E3 and Grado Labs Prestige Red3 cartridges and they might have a winner here. Especially when combined with the warmer sounding Grado cartridge and their SpinDeck Max turntable

It is a somewhat lively presentation but it’s far superior to any internal MM stage in most $400 to $500 integrated amplifiers. Detail retrieval and clarity are not what you normally expect at $250.

Reasons to buy:

  • Very quiet operation. Not as quiet as the Moon by SimAudio but there is $350 difference in the price.
  • Solid build quality
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges 
  • Adjustability with MC cartridges
  • Solid pacing
  • Warm tonal balance 
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.

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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.

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 ($600)

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 

$600 at Amazon | Amazon.ca

Pro-Ject Phono Box DS3 B Silver Front

Pro-Ject DS3B ($799)

Almost 22 years ago, I invested in a very expensive turntable and felt that I had reached vinyl nirvana. I paid a professional $200 to properly install the cartridge, setup the table which had a finicky suspension system, and help me mount the turntable shelf to the wall.

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My building at the time was a pre-war in downtown Toronto that needed an upgrade on the electrical front. Noisy to say the least. 

No matter what I tried, my turntable setup always sounded noisy; ground loop issues, constant hiss, and it became a a source of depression (first world problems). Why bother spending almost $8,000 on such a system if it sounded terrible. 

A local dealer suggested that I have my arm and table modified so that I could run a fully balanced rig; which also included upgrading to a balanced phono stage. I sold a few other items to facilitate the changes. 

Extreme? Perhaps. 

But when I listened to the same records that mattered to me — I was stunned by the differences in clarity, noise floor, and overall dynamics of the sound. 

Does a balanced setup always sound better? Not necessarily and I’m not convinced that every manufacturer who markets “balanced” is really offering that. 

Pro-Ject knows what it is doing and the prices on these new phono stages are quite sensible.

Combined with the Pro-Ject X2 B Turntable and Sumiko Blue Point No. 3 — the DS3B balanced phono preamplifier completes a high-end analog playback system that I could live with for the long haul.

Reasons to buy:

  • Superb build quality
  • Compatibility with a wide range of affordable and high-end cartridges
  • MC/MC adjustability
  • Bold, dynamic, and excellent resolution
  • One of the quietest phono preamplifiers on the market
  • Price should be higher

Where to buy: $799 at Crutchfield

Related Reading

Editors’ Choice 2022: My Favorite Turntables

Editors’ Choice 2022: My Favorite Phono Cartridges

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Editors’ Choice 2022: Wireless Speakers

Editors’ Choice 2022: CD Players & DAC

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Craig Spiegel

    December 7, 2022 at 6:10 am

    So this review was just on non-tube phono preamps. Was there a reason for excluding tube phono preamps like the Pro-ject Tube Box S2? I’m curious how you would rank this with the other models discussed.

    • Ian White

      December 7, 2022 at 11:40 am

      Craig,

      I own the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 but it was on our list in 2021. These were new models that I personally tried in 2022.

      Best,

      Ian White

      • MVS Chandrashekhar

        December 7, 2022 at 11:45 pm

        Hi Ian,

        Thanks for the detailed list. I tried to search for your list of 2021 phono stages, but was not able to find it. Any chance you would be able to post it?

        Thanks!

        Chandra

        • Ian White

          December 8, 2022 at 12:05 pm

          Chandra,

          It should be under “Best Affordable Phono Stages” in our listings.

          Best,

          Ian White

  2. Allan Humphreys

    December 7, 2022 at 6:06 pm

    Hi Ian.

    I’ve appreciated your views and opinions, and have followed a few also (purchased a NAD 316BEE v2, installed a Goldring E3 on my NAD C558), and now ordered the Project Phono Box S2 based on your findings. As you’ve mentioned in a few of your articles, nothing wrong with the Phono Preamp in the NAD, but i’m hopeful for better with the Project.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and views.

    Regards,
    Allan

    • Ian White

      December 7, 2022 at 6:11 pm

      Allan,

      Very happy to help out. I really like the E3. The Pro-Ject sounds totally different than what’s inside the NAD.

      Best,

      Ian White

  3. Yaniv Sheffer

    December 8, 2022 at 6:58 am

    Thanks for this interesting article
    I was wondering about soundstage experience you had with all those phono preamps and not only on the Schiit Audio Mani 2.
    A topic that is most interesting for me as I always look at improving it in my system.
    Again thank you
    Yaniv

    • Ian White

      December 8, 2022 at 12:08 pm

      Yaniv,

      From this list, the balanced Pro-Ject and Moon by SimAudio did the best in that regard. I own the older Pro-Ject Tube Box (review is in the archives) and the Croft Phono RIAA. Both of these create a more spacious presentation with greater depth and width.

      Best,

      Ian White

  4. Peter

    December 8, 2022 at 9:53 am

    While useful, an important aspect seems missing. The essay has “RIAA” in several places, sometimes referencing the organization other times the frequency correction curve.
    If you collect older LPs, then you should be aware that Britain (say Decca), Germany (say Deutsche Grammophon), Netherlands (say Philips) used different curves. Consequently, playing back an old Decca record with RIAA may not sound as good as it could. If an album doesn’t explicitly mention “RIAA” then it probably isn’t and it’s your guess what it is. Decades ago, one of the German audio magazines reported about a German engineer who had created a phono pre (or prepre) that had 4 different curves and sounded great. Put aside at the time, I never found it back gain.

    The root cause of these curves is that cutting different frequencies in the master behaves differently.

    The air we hear in vinyl is most likely due to inertia in the cutting needle: an artifact. The noise floor is at the size of the huge vinyl molecules. And very limited dynamic range is in the cutting process. Which all explains why, to me, vinyl comes across like driving a Ferrari with a locked handbrake.
    The problem with digital is that it can only approximate original waveforms. Note that each instrument in the symphony orchestra may be able to play the piano’s central A (440Hz today) but they all sound different because of different waveshapes. Which is what our brains process extremely well, as our ears are like an array of 20,000 tuned microphones. Audio processing, comparing incoming sound with stored reference (I.E. learned) samples, and parsing for spatial clues, all go back to wave shape analysis. And, our audio brain, unlike the visual, has no data compression and is much faster. However needs real “learning”.
    The best recordings of the vinyl age, IMO, are the 2 or 3 track RCA Lining Stereo. In terms of spatially realistic audio.
    That’s all vacuum tubes – perfect and neutral, and zero tube sound. But the orchestra rehearsed instrument section (volume) levels and the entire orchestra adapts differences on the volume scale to the limited dynamic range. Handbrake.
    Vacuum tubes better? It’s not a matter of frequency range but bandwidth that may exceed frequency range. Wave form. Solid state needs extreme frequency range to get to such bandwidth. Having grown older, lost frequency range, my ability to hear the difference is not as great any longer as it used to be. Things sound mellower, less distorted, and a music lover’s life became cheaper.
    That all said, most reviewers assess with electronically mastered multi-track recordings. The mastering creates space with relative volume levels. This removes, confuses, phase information. To assess that, you need real acoustic recordings to begin with.

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