Table of Contents
- What is a Phono Preamplifier?
- Why Do You Need a Phono Preamp?
- Are Cheap Phono Preamps Worth Buying?
- Our Pick of 5 Best Phono Preamp Under $200
- What to Look for When Choosing a Phono Preamp Under $200
- Final Words
Many music lovers claim no other material can produce the same sound as that of vinyl. They argue vinyls are the OG record and new CD formats don’t hold a candle to it. But as the world has progressed, vinyl devices have become almost obsolete especially when it comes to amplifying sound systems.
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Most of the top quality amplifiers just don’t accommodate record players any more so if you want to show everyone how beautiful that original vinyl sound is, you’ll have to buy a phono preamp to act as an interim for the speakers. And while these are usually pretty pricey we have made sure to keep a budget in mind when choosing these picks!
What is a Phono Preamplifier?
A phono preamp or phono stage, is the connection between the record player (turntable) and an amplifier. Hence the name “preamplifier”. It is a component of an audio device that allows the signal from the turntable to reach a normal level so you can connect to any sound system of your choice without difficulty.
Why Do You Need a Phono Preamp?
Most turntables or record players are different to other audio sources on the market. If you would connect them to a sound system it is very likely that the sound would not get amplified at all, and it is equally likely that you may not be able to make the connection in the first place. A phono preamp allows you to overcome this barrier by amplifying the signal so that it is equivalent to the other audio sources. Now you can easily connect to whatever speaker system you want.
Are Cheap Phono Preamps Worth Buying?
If this same question was “are expensive phono preamps worth buying?” Our answer would be the same. The worth of a gadget comes from its features and use rather than the price tag. In the end there is only one function of a preamp and even the cheapest models can fulfill it. More expensive phono preamps have a special design that lets them accomplish more tasks and those features are irrelevant to most users. This is why we recommend our users to save their coin and go for the less pricey options.
Our Pick of 5 Best Phono Preamp Under $200
Little Bear T7 Mini – Best Tube Phono Preamp
Most tube preamps are on the pricier side of the spectrum but we were able to find one within the 200 dollar budget. Just like all similar devices this one too produces a high quality sound with minimum background noise. However make sure to turn it on 10 minutes before you start playing the music because otherwise the sound will be muddy.
We love how it’s portable and can fit different situations thanks to its small size. The vacuum tube and the small size makes it visually pleasing as well.
- Vacuum Tube component
- Mini Size
- Tube components are replaceable
The Little Bear T7 Mini is the best tube phono preamp for the price. You will have to wait those extra ten minutes but the end sound will be absolutely glorious!
Schiit Mani Phono Preamp – Best Sound
In all aspects this is a very ordinary preamp. It has high quality components that are very durable in all conditions. But it stands out in terms of sound. Usually preamps have one fixed setting but this lets you switch around 4 different decibel values to best accommodate each record you are going to be playing. This way you can make sure that the best possible sound is what you hear.
However we must tell our readers that there is something weird about this device. While there is absolutely no interference or strange fluctuations when the record is playing, when the record stops playing but the preamp is still plugged in there is a loud hum. For most this hum is unbearable, so only buy this device if you think you can bear it when switching records.
- Four switchable modes for different decibels of sound
- High quality components
The Schiit Mani Phono Preamp is definitely a product that produces the best sound quality and hits all the check marks for the other factors as well. But for some reason makes its own sound as well when the music isn’t playing which makes it quite annoying long-term.
Pro-Ject S2 Phono Preamp – Best External Phono Preamp
If you are looking for a stand-alone phono preamp then this is it. It has a handy size and a cool look so you don’t have to worry about hiding it away. Our favorite thing about this unit, however, is its customizability. It has dip switch settings underneath the box which you can use to fine tune the sound to your preference and you can even choose the capacitance you want the device to work with.
This will let you bring out the full potential of your record player. But because of this customizability, the initial setup of the system may be a little difficult. After all it’s difficult to understand all the knobs and their functions in one go.
- High quality capacitors
- Dip switch settings
External devices don’t need to fit into a turntable so they have more range to offer customizability and are compatible with other devices. Of course the installment procedure is a little complicated with the Pro-Ject S2 Phono Preamp but we believe the clear sound produced in the end is worth the effort.
Rega Mini A2D – Best Internal Phono Preamp
While this is a preamp and definitely does its job amplifying the sound like all the others. It does more than that too. It can actually convert the analog signal from a vinyl record and let you transfer it neatly to your laptop. Did we mention that it has a USB output? So it gives you way more range to connect with more devices other than sound systems. Of course there is a little change in the sound, after all this is a pretty cheap device.
Because it is an internal preamp it will fit neatly into your turntable and you don’t have to worry about displaying it with the rest of your equipment. Of course this also means you won’t have to carry it around either.
- Compact size
- USB output
For a budget of 200 US dollars, the Rega Mini A2D is definitely a good choice, especially if you are specifically looking for an internal amp. It’s cheap and compact and gives you the ability to transfer the music to your laptop or mp3 players. However there is a slight change in the sound so it may be a no go for most out there.
Pro-Ject Phono Box E – Best Phono Preamp Under $100
Yup, we went even cheaper. While 200 US dollars is a tight budget already, we bring to you the best phono preamp under 100 US dollars. Pro-Ject is a company known for their phono preamps so we were surprised to find such a cheap option among them.
Despite its low price they didn’t compromise on sound or durability at all and made sure to create a unit that will last you years of perfect amplification. However we must warn our readers that this unit does tend to leak electricity, so be careful to ground it with a grounding cable before use, otherwise you may get a little buzz. Nothing life threatening but still unpleasant. It’s important to keep safety a priority.
- Internal metallic shielding
- Gold plated connections
For those on a very tight budget we really recommend going for the Pro-Ject Phono Box E and just investing in a separate grounding cable. You can save some major coins and enjoy nice music as well.
What to Look for When Choosing a Phono Preamp Under $200
Solid-state vs Tube preamps
When you go looking for preamps one thing you will see is that there are predominantly 2 types in the market. One is a model that works with solid-state components like a transistor and the other is a vacuum tube.
There are unique perks and downsides to each model. The vacuum tube preamps provide a sweeter and warmer sound compared to the solid-state counterparts. However they are not only rarer but also way more expensive. So for those on a tight budget tube phono preamps are probably not the right choice.
The whole reason you are buying a phono preamp in the first place, is to amplify the sweet sound of vinyl records playing. It would be disappointing if in the end the gadget you spent so much money on, ends up ruining the sound you bought it for. Some people look for devices that will enhance the sound and make it even more audibly pleasing, and some look for gadgets that will project the exact same sound with no alterations all together. However, some of the cheaper options end up affecting the quality of the sound in a negative way and ruin the whole experience.
Of course, the better quality you go for the more expensive the devices will become, so we recommend choosing what works best for your ears and wallet. For some the slight changes made by the preamp are not even audible so there is no reason for buying one of those expensive models that claim to make the sound better, and similarly if the cheaper causes the quality to degrade, if you can’t notice it it’s not a problem.
Nowadays we are used to devices turning on the moment we touch them, and find it annoying if there is even a moment’s delay. And while there are many phono preamps available that are ready to function the moment you plug them, there are some that take their time getting ready. Especially those with a vacuum tube, have a slow warm-up time of up to 30 minutes! Yes, you heard me right. That’s a whole 30 minutes of your life spent waiting for the preamp to get ready each time you want to listen to your favorite record at full volume.
Why waste your effort and money on something that’s not going to last you? You want something that will give you years of perfect sound amplification. This means making sure that the device you buy is made of the toughest material and can take the brunt of being handled roughly, multiple plug-ins, hours of use and constant flow of electricity.
The preamp should have strong wires that aren’t likely to blow a fuse or short circuit, and won’t show wear no matter how long you use the device for. Of course this also means that the body shouldn’t heat up quickly. Of course any material that it is built out of should be strong, and feels good in your hands. Anything made out of cheap plastic won’t be very durable and you’ll have to search for a replacement very soon
On the topic of durability, we should also discuss warranties. When investing in an electronic product like a phono preamp we always recommend looking out for these. Warranties give you reassurance that if something goes wrong and you receive a defective product, or it suddenly stops working you will be able to get a free replacement or your money back. But that’s not all, they also prove that the company and manufacturers behind this preamp trust their product and know that is a worthy purchase.
Warranties are promises from the creators to you that the product will be worth your time or you can have your money back. The longer the warranty, the more durability the device has to offer, it’s a straightforward proportional equation.
While this isn’t something we give much priority to, and we don’t advise our readers to give it much priority either, this is definitely an important aspect. Nobody wants to invest in something that will look ugly in their house, especially if you are someone who plans to use the preamp for parties. Although we don’t recommend making it a first concern, the overall look of it can definitely help you make a choice, especially if you want a tie-breaker between two gadgets. But make sure you aren’t buying a pretty device that fails to deliver the other factors.
There are two types of phono preamps, internal and external. While this setting makes close to no difference on their use it does on the overall look. The internal preamp will fit like a jigsaw piece with your turntable so you can easily hide it away. But with an external preamp it can’t join with the player so you will have to display it separately.
Of course, above all the factors there is one king of factors and that is the cost. Why buy a more expensive product when you can get one that is just as good and matches your needs better at a lower price? But cost isn’t just about finding dupes for expensive products, it’s about finding the best product for you. More pricey gadgets have fancier features which attract you but in the end they are an overkill for most users. It’s important to not fall in that trap and keep your eyes on your specific requirements.
We know that the only people searching to buy this device will be hardcore audiophiles. In the end the only thing that matters is the sound, and the sound alone. While all of the other options are pretty great for their individual aspects, when it comes to sound there is a clear winner. The Schiit Mani phono preamp will fulfill all your audio cravings to perfection and you can hear the individual sound of each guitar pluck coming clearly through to you. Of course each device has its downside and if the humming isn’t something you can get used to we recommend checking out the other options in our list.
Buying electronics is difficult to buy, but when we look at phono preamps they are even harder to buy. Not because they have many features that you should carefully check but because you’re purchasing this to fulfill a hobby.
You want the pleasure of that vinyl sound around your house, so you can hear each note loud and clear. This is not about fulfilling an everyday need but for sensory satisfaction, so we recommend taking your time making the best decision for yourself even if it means to save a little extra coin. After all this is not something you want to regret buying.