Whether you’re a hi-fi hobbyist or a vinyl collector, one of the best investments you can make for your record player is a phono preamp. Also known as a phono stage, these mostly compact external preamplifiers take the low signal output created by turntable cartridges and boost it so it's loud enough for the AV receiver, stereo receiver/integrated amplifier, or powered speakers to amplify. Some models can even let you fine-tune the sound and output to match a specific cartridge you might be using.
While many modern turntables and devices include their own built-in phono preamps, getting your own can give you more control over your sound and even improve it byadding balance, stability, smoothness, clarity and even better sound staging. Certain preamps also include additional features, like the ability to switch between more common moving magnet (MM) phono cartridges and higher-end moving coil (MC) cartridges, should you be getting into more audiophile-level territory.
There are hundreds of phono preamps to choose from, so we’ve put together this list of the best models on the market. Our roundup includes options for LP first-timers, audiophiles, and those looking to score a phono preamp for a great price.
Rega MM Mk5
Best phono preamp for most people
- Even and balanced sound
- User-friendly setup
- Custom Rega case design
- Not compatible with MC cartridges
- Pricier than alternatives
Rega is well-known for its best-in-class turntables and amplifiers. The Rega Fono MM Mk5 is designed as a phono preamp for the more common MM (moving magnet) cartridges only — you typically only see MC (moving coil) cartridges in higher-end turntables. There is an MC-only version though, the Fono MC MK4, should you venture into MC territory.
The Rega Fono MM Mk5 is affordable, simple to set up and use, and provides detailed and noise-free playback, with just enough punch and energy to reproduce any type of music just as the artist intended.
Without getting too bogged down in the minutia of the tech, a phono stage has the job of amplifying the weak signal from the cartridge, yes, but it also must process the equalization standards applied to all vinyl records by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to produce a tonally even audio signal. What makes the Fono MM Mk5 unique is that it splits the RIAA equalization into two stages — the regular signal path and the RIAA equalization circuits. This separation allows the Mk5 to provide cleaner and distortion-free playback. With a signal gain of around 41 decibels, the Mk5 is comparable to most other phono stages in this price range.
Physically, the Fono Mk5 is pretty no-frills and is about the size of a paperback novel. The aluminum case fits in with the look of Rega’s other products. Also, the preamp’s aesthetics will look great amid modern hi-fi setups.
While it’s pricier than some of the other products on our list, the Rega Fono MM Mk5 is an excellent choice for beginner LP owners and audiophiles alike.
Best budget phono preamp
- Under $100
- Simple design and setup
- Includes a 3.5mm headphone jack
- Very bare-bones
- Headphone volume cannot be adjusted
Phono preamps don’t get much more basic than the Rolls VP29, but sometimes simple is all you need. Measuring 3.25 inches wide, 2 inches tall, and 1.5 inches from front to back, the Rolls VP29 is just large enough to house RCA ins and outs, a 3.5mm output, a grounding post, and a power connection.
The internal circuitry is designed to deliver fine-tuned playback that matches the RIAA equalization curve, and the VP29 delivers 42 decibels of gain. Keep in mind that this preamp is meant for signal conversion only. If you’re looking for a phono stage with adjustable gain and EQ settings, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
In fact, not even the volume of the headphone output can be adjusted. Still, for under $70, the Rolls VP29 Phono Preamp is a plug-and-play winner that gets the job done.
Cambridge Audio Alva Duo
Great for MM and MC cartridges
- Works with MM and MC cartridge types
- Subsonic filter improves vinyl performance
- Includes 6.35mm headphone jack
- Rather pricey
- Headphone amp isn’t very powerful
The Cambridge Audio Alva Duo is a diverse phono preamp that's good for both older vinyl and new (more on this below). Under the hood, a cutting-edge switch mode power supply reduces hum, and a surface-mounted circuit board further reduces noise for clean and ultra-quiet playback. They’re also connected in a way that prioritizes short signal paths, resulting in fast and precise timing. And consistent with the quality of sound that Cambridge is known for with its receivers and integrated amplifiers, the Duo offers rich, smooth sound with a wide soundstage.
The Alva Duo’s subsonic filter and balance control mean that the preamp all but eliminates the low-frequency rumbles that come from scratches and scuffs on a record, as well as those that can come from an unbalanced cartridge.
We’re also glad to see a 1/4-inch (6.35mm) headphone jack for private listening. While some users claim the headphone amp isn’t powerful enough, it’s still a thoughtful addition.
The Alva Duo only consumes half a watt of power in standby and automatically powers down after 20 minutes of not being used, which saves energy.
Pro-Ject Phono Box DC
Best entry-level to mid-level phono preamp
- Works with MM and MC cartridges
- High-end circuitry and low-noise signal paths
- Minimalist design
- Not as advanced as other models
Pro-Ject Audio makes some of the best turntables around, so it stands to reason that it knows its way around a phono stage, too. The main idea behind the Pro-Ject Phono Box DC (or any phono stage, really) is to deliver a balanced, low-noise signal that is packed with as much precision and depth as possible. Pro-Ject achieves this by implementing high-quality circuitry that cuts down on distortion and other audible issues.
It's compatible with both MM and MC cartridge types, and switching between either setup is handled with the simple push of a button. The Phono Box pushes up to 40 decibels for MM cartridges and 60 decibels for MC systems.
For less than $150, you’re getting a phono preamp with gold-plated inputs and outputs and dual-mono circuitry for optimized performance. It’s a minimalist piece of equipment that will have no problem fitting in with your other AV gear.
While it doesn’t have as many settings as other preamps, the Pro-Ject Phono Box DC is an ideal middle-ground between entry-level phono stages and preamps that cost thousands of dollars.
Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL
A premium phono stage full of features
- Rich and immersive soundstage
- Stylish design and intuitive MC/MM switching
- Includes RCA and mini XLR 5-pin connectors
The Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL is a premium phono preamp that sounds refined and detailed, excels at vocals, is deliciously full-sounding, and is even a bit forward (and smooth) in the low end. For its $850 price tag, it should do all that and more for those with premium turntables to pair it with -- and it does.
Engineered for well-balanced and detail-focused performance, the MX-VYNL is compatible with MM and MC cartridges. It’s also one of the only phono stages to include both a standard RCA input and a balanced single XLR 5-pin input. Not only does this allow for connecting two turntables simultaneously, but the balanced input allows for much less noise.
The MX-VYNL also features RCA outputs, as well as balanced XLR outputs, which are much quieter, but can deliver more precise and fuller sound than the RCA, should you have a compatible amplifier to connect to.
The MX-VYNL goes ever further with fine-tuning features, with its dial for switching between MC and MM, and the ability to adjust cartridge impedance to perfectly match any given cartridge. Unlike other phono stages with these controls, you’ll actually be able to adjust settings during playback too.
The MX-VYNL is also one of the best preamps for RIAA correction, letting you choose between it and the newer IEC equalization curve. It's definitely more advanced than most of the other phono stages on our list, but if you're heading in the direction of audiophile sound, then a phono preamp like this might be a good place to start.
Fosi Audio Box X2
Best tube preamp
- Low-noise, high-quality circuitry
- Three different gain settings
- Solid price
- Not compatible with MC cartridges
- Tubes can get very warm
The Fosi Audio Box X2 leans on vintage engineering and delivers big results with its two vacuum tubes that are front and center.
Thanks to low-noise integrated circuitry and top-shelf components, the X2 is designed to remove as much low-frequency noise as possible during LP playback, so you’ll always have crystal clear sound. You’ll be able to choose from 39-, 42-, and 45-decibel gain settings, so you’ll never have to worry about having enough power to match your MM cartridge -- but in case you have one that needs a little boost, it's there. We’re also glad to see an onboard tube preamp with a 3.5mm AUX input.
Conveniently, the X2’s vacuum tubes can be swapped for other tube models. An excellent feature for hi-fi fans, this means you’ll be able to experiment with different makes and models to get the sound you like for your amplifier and speakers.
Best money-is-no-object phono stage
- 24K gold-plated inputs and outputs
- Built-in line conditioner for reduced noise
- Mono switch improves sound for vintage LPs
- MM and MC compatible
- Very expensive
- Might be overkill for most users
Developed by legendary master circuit designer John Curl, the man behind the equally legendary Vendetta Research phono preamp, the Parasound JC3+ Phono Preamp is a sturdy, feature-rich component that audiophiles praise for its wide soundstage, realistic imaging, refined detail retrieval, and excellent neutrality.
Featuring Vampire 24K gold-plated RCA inputs and unbalanced outputs, as well as balanced Neutrik XLR outputs, all of the JC3+ connections are designed for minimal noise and hum. This same principle carries over to the 24K gold-plated copper traces on the phono module boards. Even the power supplies and AC wires use low-carbon mild steel partitions to deliver the clearest signal possible.
The JC3+ also includes an integrated Mono switch for enhancing the quality of older mono LPs, on top of an AC polarity reverse switch for dialing down the hum that many systems generate. Impedance adjustment dials and variable MC, fixed MC, and MM selection options allow for precise pairing with a wide range of moving coil and moving magnet cartridges.
The Parasound JC3+ is more of a boutique component than many others, and its price reflects that. But audiophile users will appreciate the noise-free playback, customization options, and, of course, Curl's stamp on the product.
While great amplifiers and receivers with phono inputs built in are making a comeback in tandem with vinyl’s 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.
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.
Also called a needle, a turntable stylus refers to the narrow piece of a tonearm that touches a record’s grooves. A stylus is always connected to the cartridge, which turns physical inputs into electrical outputs. Styluses are normally equipped with a tiny diamond or other high-quality gemstone. Keeping the stylus clean and static-free is extremely important if you want quality playback, and experts suggest using a record brush with every use.
Phono cartridges are small electromechanical pieces that send out the analog signal from a vinyl record’s grooves to your larger audio system. They have special transducers that translate physical distinctions in the grooves to an electric audio signal via magnets and copper coils.
As you may have guessed, moving magnet cartridges use moving magnets to make an electrical signal from the analog inputs of the stylus. Moving magnet cartridges produce a smoother, lighter sound than moving coil cartridges. They are also less expensive and easier to use, since they are available in a standard size that is compatible with most turntables. However, there are various types of magnet cartridges for use with various quality turntables.
Moving coil cartridges function differently from moving magnet cartridges. The stylus manipulates coils around a magnet to make an electrical signal, instead of moving the magnet itself. Many people think this system produces improved tonality and decreased distortion, however, it requires an involved setup and a particular phono preamp. Perhaps because of this, moving coil cartridges cost considerably more than moving magnet cartridges.
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