These are the best phono preamps that won’t break the bank

Make your vinyl collection really shine with one of the best phono preamps

vinyl 101 ultimate guide to buying cleaning storing playing records record

The warm tones of analog audio might seem like a posh status symbol for the hipster elite, but there’s a reason that vinyl is so popular among the bohemian class: Great-sounding and fun vinyl setups don’t actually have to cost an arm and a leg. They can be pieced together and slowly upgraded over time. If you’re just starting your first vinyl collection and own a solid turntable, the next big piece of the listening puzzle could be a phono preamp. But first, here’s a little background on the technology, for those wondering why they may need one.

What is a phono preamp?

While great amplifiers and receivers with phono inputs built-in are making a comeback with vinyl’s recent resurgence, many modern devices have cut the phono input to cut costs. A phono preamp is an outboard device that steps into that void, boosting a turntable’s output so modern electronics can play it at the proper volume level while adding equalization standardized by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for improved accuracy to the music. There are really two main reasons to get a stand-alone phono preamp: Either your turntable or amplifier is devoid of a built-in phono preamp, or you’ve decided to upgrade your setup with better sound than what’s afforded by your built-in options.

You can easily blow a bundle of cash on a high-end solution, but luckily there are plenty of models that provide great sound at a totally reasonable price. That’s where our list comes in. Here are our favorite affordable phono preamps, ranging in price from budget solutions to long-term investments.

Note: We’ll be using a lot of vinyl terminology in this piece. If you’re still new to the technology, scroll to the bottom for a glossary of terms commonly used in the vinyl world.

Under $50

Rolls VP29 ($50)

Those looking for a simple plug-and-play phono preamp will love the Rolls VP29, which has no buttons or knobs and is designed to perform one task and one task only — amplifying the sound of your favorite vinyl to standard playback level with RIAA equalization. A fire-red box that’s made in the U.S., the VP29 also features a 3.5mm jack, making it perfect for connecting to powered speakers or soundbars so you can skip the amplifier altogether.

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Art Pro Audio DJPRE II ($30 to $50)

ART Pro Audio has made a name for itself as a purveyor of solid studio gear for some time now. The company’s affordable and intuitive VLA II compressor is a workhorse in many a home studio. ART Pro brings its considerable sonic talents to the DJPRE II, a small rounded box that offers many features pricier models lack. Along with standard RIAA equalization, the DJPRE II allows you to choose between a low-cut and flat frequency response, as well as offering gain control to allow for optimum performance with your specific setup, or to properly feed an input device for preserving your vinyl in digital form. It’s even compatible with turntable cartridges that require special input capacitance levels, meaning even high-end buyers can consider the DJPRE II, while it’s low price presents a feature-packed solution for any budget. The TCC TC-750 LC is another solid option at this price point for those who want an adjustable gain output.

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Under $100

Music Hall Mini ($80 to $100)

If you’re eyeing a longer-term upgrade, you may want to look to acclaimed preamp maker Music Hall. The company’s tiny, American-made Mini uses a moving magnet preamp to increase the volume of the RIAA-equalized signal, providing a clean boost of sound for your amplifier to grab hold of. Like the Rolls VP29, the Music Hall features a 3.5mm output in addition to RCA connection, making it one of the best phono preamps at its price point for those with a nice pair of powered studio monitors.

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U-Turn Pluto ($89)

We’ve been using the U-Turn Pluto as an external phono preamp for some time now in the Digital Trends testing room, and have been impressed by its simple and elegant design, as well as the great sound it provides. A clean, plug-and-play preamp from one of our favorite manufacturers of affordable turntables, the Pluto adheres to the traditional RIAA equalization standard, and adds high-quality internal components to boost your signal chain via simple RCA connection. If you’ve got an entry-level turntable and a quality amplifier, or are looking to upgrade your phono preamp from the one built into your deck, this is an excellent choice.

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Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box ($100)

Though the sound coming through the Pro-Ject Phono Box is virtually indistinguishable from U-Turn’s Pluto, the Phono Box does have an extra trick up its sleeve for more high-end vinyl enthusiasts. At the back is a button that allows you to choose between optimization for moving magnet and moving coil cartridge turntables. If you already own a high-quality turntable (such as Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon) and are considering upgrading to the pricier moving coil cartridges long-term, this is a great option.

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More than $100

Graham Slee Communicator ($250)

OK, so if you want to go big (but not Manhattan trust fund big), the Graham Slee Communicator is the phono preamp for you. Designed exclusively for moving magnet cartridges (sorry moving coil fans), this handmade, aluminum-encased phono preamp out of the U.K. has no patience for flashy exterior design, instead focusing every bit of your money on high-end internals. Made-to-order, the Communicator delivers audio with beautiful detail via gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs on the back. It’s an excellent choice for those who already have a high-end turntable, amplifier, and speakers, and want a beautiful-sounding phono workhorse to enjoy for years to come. For the money, this is the audiophile preamp of choice.

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Graham Slee

Arcam rPhono ($800)

best affordable phono preamps arcam rphono

If you want a phono preamp that will last you virtually forever, look no further than the Arcam rPhono. A small and hyper-premium product that can pair with both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges, the sleek rPhono features just a single green LED on the front of its black case. On the rear, you’ll find a range of gain settings, and there’s even a built-in rumble filter to get rid of ultra-low-frequency noise generated by your turntable. The sound produced by this gorgeous device is rich and powerful, easily representing the full depth of the music that’s pushed through it. If you’re looking for the best sound possible from your setup, you’ll have to spend used car money to do better than this.

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Arcam

Glossary of terms

Here’s a rundown of some of the most commonly used technical terms in the vinyl realm:

RIAA equalization

The Recording Industry Association of America established this equalization (EQ) standard in 1954 for playback of vinyl records for two reasons: To standardize sound quality in all vinyl records, and to permit greater recording times by assuring the actual grooves in each record conformed to a smaller size. This standard setting is still the one to which the vast majority of phono preamps adhere, assuring that the audio signal of every record is as consistent as possible, no matter the system you use.

Stylus

The stylus or “needle” of a turntable is the thin piece at the end of a tonearm which physically interfaces with the grooves of a record. It is always connected to the cartridge, which converts its physical inputs into electrical outputs. Typically, styluses are tipped with a small diamond or other industrial-grade gemstone. It is imperative that the stylus is kept clean and free of static electricity to maintain quality playback, which is why experts recommend you use a record brush for every spin, every time.

Cartridge

A phono cartridge is a small electromechanical device that relays analog signal from the grooves in the vinyl disc to your entire audio system. Phono cartridges contain transducers that convert the physical variations in the groove walls into an electrical audio signal, using magnets and copper coils.

Moving magnet cartridge

Moving magnet cartridges create an electrical signal from the analog inputs of the stylus by (you guessed it) a moving magnet set within two copper coils. Moving magnet cartridges are known for their mellower sound in comparison to moving coil cartridges, and are available in numerous shapes, sizes, and quality levels. Moving magnet cartridges are typically more affordable and easier to replace than moving coil cartridges, making them an ideal choice for beginners, and they are often the standard issue cartridge in all but the highest-end turntables.

Moving coil cartridge

Moving coil cartridges are different than moving magnet cartridges in that when the stylus moves, it moves coils around a magnet to produce an electrical signal, rather than moving the magnet itself. This is considered by many to offer better overall tonality and less distortion but at the cost of specialty setup and the need for a special phono preamp (moving coil cartridges often produce a different amount of signal than moving magnets). They are also usually much more expensive than moving magnet cartridges.

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