For those who are new to the world of vinyl and record players, you may be in for a shock.
Unlike other more modern forms of technology sometimes it doesn’t just work straight out of the box.
That means that to get the best sound quality you can’t just hook your turntable up to some speakers and let fly.
That’s why you sometimes need additional pieces of kit to both compliment and complete your turntable equipment set up to allow you to get the most out of your vinyl collection and give you that killer sound quality that got you into vinyl in the first place.
One of these additional pieces of equipment that you are going to need to buy to enhance your vinyl listening pleasure is a phono preamp.
But you may be wondering just what one of these is and why you need it?
Well, this piece of kit takes the signal from your vinyl records and boosts it so that it can be played through your sound system.
I did say that this piece of kit will allow you to get the most out of your vinyl records.
So, if you are looking to get the best sound quality from your new or vintage turntable then you need to invest in a phono preamp.
In this article, I am going to give you the rundown of six of the best phono preamps that I think you should buy, and they are all available for under $500.
But it’s not as easy as just buying a phono preamp either.
For instance, there are several different types of preamps that you can buy and those who are new to vinyl have to make sure they pick the right one for their particular listening needs.
And the several different types of preamps are only compatible with the cartridges that you wish to play.
And what you intend to play can also produce different levels of THD (total harmonic distortion) from the preamp, so you have to take this into account also.
Lastly, you also need to consider the gain range that you need to produce the level of sound quality that you desire.
It all sounds complicated, doesn’t it?
But it doesn’t have to be.
That’s why in my list I’ve taken only the best phono preamps that you can buy right now within our budget.
You don’t have to worry about looking for reviews or comparisons or anything like that.
Everything you need to help you buy the best phono preamp for your turntable is right here.
Best Phono Preamp Under $500
All right, let's take a look at our contestants:
Emotiva Audio XPS-1 Phono Preamp
For those who are not aware, Emotiva is one of the major players in the preamp industry right now.
When you think of hardware from them you expect to get high-quality sound, a great build quality, and a price that isn’t sky-high.
This preamp is no exception to any of these hallmarks that you typically get from an Emotiva product.
To start with, unlike many other preamps on my list that are bulky, this one is rather tiny.
Making it compact means that it will go well and fit into any audio setup.
Of course, for that to happen you first have to hook everything up to it.
Luckily, this is a doddle thanks to its design and the ports which make connecting all your equipment a cinch.
But just because it’s small doesn’t mean that it is not mighty.
This little preamp can produce a great level of sound quality.
Unlike other preamps here it is quiet, so you don’t have to worry about any humming sounds that you can get with other models on my list.
This preamp is also very versatile.
Supporting any type of cartridge.
Furthermore, just because it may be small, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t sturdy.
Many people tend to think that smaller equipment is somehow flimsier than something bigger and bulkier.
This preamp is built to last and has a great build quality throughout.
This means that it can withstand damage and will last you in case you were to accidentally drop it.
When it comes down to the controls on this preamp they are also of a very high standard.
Just like everything else is on this model.
They are easy to use and you can set them up to allow for a high level of control over the sound quality that it will produce.
So, you can configure this preamp to play nearly any kind of music that you enjoy easy and at the highest quality.
So, no matter what you listen to, it only takes a few quick adjustments for you to get the most out of it and to start experiencing the awesome sound that this preamp can give you.
It also features a low level of THD no matter what cartridge type you are using with it.
The only downside to this model is that even though it supports all cartridge types it doesn’t play as well with MM cartridges as other preamps on my list, so if you prefer to use MM cartridges you have to bear that in mind when looking at this model.
Nobsound Little Bear T11
If you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to tinker with their vinyl setup too much and is in the market for a preamp that can permanently fit your requirements then this may be exactly what you are looking for.
As with other preamps on this list, it is quite bulky.
It also has tubes protruding from the top which means that it isn’t portable.
So, don’t try and take this preamp anywhere. Instead, it needs a permanent home.
If you can find one for this preamp in your vinyl setup then you won’t be disappointed with the results.
To start with, it does have a small amount of TDH which helps with its signal boosting power.
Its gain range is 48 dB.
This is one of the highest available on the market today.
But this isn’t as versatile as other preamps that I have reviewed here.
It only works with MM cartridges.
This limits it to the turntables that it is compatible with so make sure it’s 100% compatible with your setup if this preamp sounds like something you want to buy.
This is also one of the easiest preamps to setup and install on my list.
It gives you clearly labeled ports on the front of the device so you can hook everything up quickly and easily.
But make sure that you have the proper red and white RCA cables before you start.
Once you do then you’ll be up and running in no time.
And your permanent preamp will be ready for use.
Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box MM/MC
This preamp was one I decided to include for those who are budget conscious.
So, if you want a preamp on a budget then this should pretty much be your automatic pick.
And not only is it affordable but it also gives you a wide range of features for the price.
Starting with the design and build quality.
For a preamp that is budget-friendly, it has a high build quality.
So, the overall level of design and manufacturer on this preamp is high.
This isn’t something you might always get given the price range.
But what I like most of all about this budget-friendly preamp is that it works with just about any type of cartridge.
With this preamp, you don’t have to spend more money.
You can just sit back and enjoy the awesome array of features that this preamp gives you.
This preamp will improve the sound quality of your turntable.
It gives you clearer, richer, and fuller sounds.
It especially sounds good when the volume is low also.
This is one preamp that is also user friendly.
With it, you get RCA cables included and it is super easy to set this device up.
To connect it to other devices the user manual gives you clear and easy to follow instructions.
So, you will have this set up to your system in no time.
Once you have done that you will immediately hear the difference and overall improvement in sound quality that this little preamp gives you.
It also packs quite the punch when it comes to delivering high fidelity performance.
This applies to both moving coil cartridges and moving magnet.
This is all possible with low noise distortion and a flat RIAA equalization curve.
If you want more power this preamp is also capable of delivering a maximum output of 9.5V RMS /1kHZ.
One thing I didn’t like about this preamp is that you can’t tell when it’s functioning.
This means that when you turn it on there are no actual LEDs that tell you it’s on or what it is doing.
I also thought that compared to other preamps in my list this one was a little on the heavier side and was quite bulky compared to the others that have looked at.
Puffin Phono DSP Phono Preamp
This is another preamp on my list that is rather expensive.
But it’s still within our overall budget.
But with that expense, you are getting a truly top of the line phono preamp for your money.
So, you could say that purchasing this preamp could be an investment in the future of your turntable and vinyl collection.
This preamp plays nicely with a wide range of different systems thanks to the wide range of gain levels available.
You can also adjust this preamp to easily use either MM or MC cartridges.
This makes it exceptionally versatile and compatible with a wide range of setups and systems.
It has a nice and easy to use adjustment system so you can easily set it up for the configuration you want to get the best sound quality for whatever type of music you want to play.
Unlike many other preamps that one comes with a digital display and toggle switch.
This makes it easy for you to quickly find the gain level that your system needs to give you the level of sound quality that you desire.
It’s also another one of the preamps on my list that is super simple to hook up to your system.
This is because all the ports on the front are clearly labeled.
A key feature of this particular preamp is that you can use it with more than just turntables.
This one can also be used with CD players to play CDs.
That is quite rare as most other preamps are only for turntables.
This is probably only one of a few preamps that can amplify the signal of CDs from a CD player.
And it does this without risking damage to the preamp itself.
The downside to this otherwise fantastic preamp is its size.
It is quite bulky.
And also, like other preamps on my list, it emits a low humming noise whilst in use.
Again though, this doesn’t interfere with or detract from the overall sound quality which is otherwise fantastic and worth the higher price tag.
If you have read this far in my list, you’ll no doubt have realized that one issue that many preamps face is the production of noise.
They can be quite noisy at times and this is especially true when you are not using your turntable to listen to music.
So, if you are in the market for an actually quiet preamp then this is one that you seriously need to consider.
Even when you are not using your turntable, unlike with other preamps, this one hardly makes a sound.
This is all because of the AC polarity switch that this preamp comes with.
It’s designed to help eliminate the hum that many other preamps produce.
This is a versatile preamp.
So, it can be used with both MM and MC cartridges.
Switching between each type of cartridge is very simple.
You just need to toggle a switch on the back of the unit to change the type of cartridge it can work with.
Now depending on what cartridge, you want to use this preamp definitely can produce a lot of gain.
This preamp is also portable.
It doesn’t have any tubes coming out of the top and it is slim and somewhat lightweight compared to others.
If you want a preamp that you can take along with your turntable when you are traveling, then this may be the best option.
If you are always setting up different turntables, then this preamp may be just what you need.
The only downsides to this unit are that whilst it can produce a lot of gain the range is limited.
But to counter that another benefit is that you can also use this preamp for recording.
That is something that a lot of other preamps on my list cannot do.
Pro-Ject Tube Box S
This phono preamp is not only extremely versatile, but it’s also easy to use.
It’s also within our budget.
So right there that’s three boxes ticked to what may be the best phono preamp for you.
It gives you three different gain levels so you can adjust the sound quality based on what you want.
This means you can set this preamp to any kind of music that you want to listen to.
It is also quite compact and tiny which is not always the case with preamps.
So that’s another bonus.
It features a very sleek design.
This means that you can set it up within any turntable setup and it will fit right in.
It doesn’t matter if your turntable is modern or vintage.
This preamp has a definite place.
The valves on this preamp are replaceable which is a fantastic touch.
This is because they can age quickly.
Being able to replace them means that this preamp will last you a long time.
It’s also really easy to control.
You can easily adjust all the settings to meet your specific needs.
Everything on this preamp is labeled nicely so you can quickly and easily hook this up to your system.
You can use this preamp with either MM or MC cartridges.
That gives you a limitless possibility in terms of the types of music you can listen to on your turntable through this preamp.
If I had to give some cons to all the pros, I have explained then it may be too pricey for those who are new to the world of vinyl.
They may want a cheaper preamp to start with before working their way up to a model such as this.
Also, it can sometimes tend to emit a low humming sound whilst in use.
It doesn’t detract from the build quality or sound quality of the preamp overall and I guess I am just nitpicking as I try to find something negative about what is a great preamp overall.
Before we go into deciding what is the best preamp on my list.
I’m going to give you a mini guide on what you need to know about preamps.
This information will help you to make a better decision for the type of preamp that you are in the market for.
Features to consider in a preamp before buying one
If you are in the market for a preamp you may think that buying one is quite easy.
That’s not true.
There are several things that you need to consider first.
This ensures that when you do pull the trigger on your preamp of choice that it will meet all of your needs.
Type and functionality
There are two different types of phono preamps on the market that you can buy.
Each of these works with the two types of cartridges that you can find inside your turntable.
But before you purchase your next preamp you must first make sure that you examine your turntable thoroughly.
This is because it allows you to make sure that you will get the right phono preamp for your system.
After all, you don’t want to spend money on a new preamp that doesn’t support the cartridges inside your turntable.
Moving Magnet (MM)
If you have a newer turntable, then chances are the type of cartridge it uses will be this one.
These types of cartridges don’t require as much amplification as MC cartridges.
If you were to connect a preamp that supports MC cartridges to your turntable that used MM cartridges, then the sound quality would not be good and there would be a lot of distortion.
Moving Coil (MC)
These cartridges have less output than an MM cartridge.
This means that more amplification is required.
And even though you can connect an MC cartridge to a preamp that only supports MM, the sound would most likely not even be loud enough for you to hear.
That’s why its great that most preamps on the market are versatile and support both types of cartridges.
This means you can connect the right preamp to either of these cartridges and get the sound quality that you are after.
Most models that support dual cartridges have a small switch on the back of the unit for you to toggle between using either an MM or an MC cartridge.
The gain range refers to the amount of amplification that a preamp can create.
That’s why you need to make sure that whatever preamp you do buy can create the amount of amplification you require.
After all, depending on whether you use an MM cartridge or an MC one, the amount of amplification needed is different for each one.
But don’t worry. Most preamps on the market make it easy for you to understand the amount of gain you will be getting.
The majority of them will at least provide you with 40 dB of gain, and that is usually more than enough.
There are also models out there that can provide you with a gain of 45 – 50 dB.
If you want this much gain, then chances are you are using an MC cartridge.
That’s because, as I said above, these types of cartridges require far more amplification than an MM cartridge.
I referred to THD briefly at the beginning of this article.
But I also wanted to include it here as well.
As already said, THD stands for Total Harmonic Distortion.
This is a measurement system that is used to estimate the degree to which is a system is non-linear.
A THD measurement applies a sine wave as an input to a system.
It measures the total energy that appears at the output of the system.
This is then compared with the input frequency to give you the amount of THD.
To make this a little simpler, the amount of THD that is predicted helps predict how clear the sound quality will be.
If the amount of THD is closer to zero, then the truer the sound is going to be.
This is because there is less distortion compared to if the THD level was higher.
Just what exactly is included in the box along with your shiny new preamp?
Even though these are sophisticated pieces of equipment the majority of them are quite easy to setup.
All you need to do this are a few different types of cable and some adapters.
These allow you to connect the phono preamp to your turntable and your sound system.
Remember that you will need two sets of audio cables to hook everything up.
Make sure you look for a preamp that includes these cables.
They allow you to connect your turntable to your preamp and then from there to the sound system of your choice.
Make sure that your cable length is kept short and it doesn’t exceed five feet.
This is because the longer your cables are the more chance that you will experience signal loss or distortion in the sound.
If you are tempted to stick with a basic model preamp you may want to set your sights on something with a little extra.
There is, after all, a lot of extra features that you need to consider when you are looking to buy a preamp.
This includes the preamp being versatile and allowing you to switch between using either MM cartridges or MC cartridges.
Another additional feature to be on the lookout for is to make sure that you can adjust the level of gain provided by the preamp.
This allows you to create the exact level of sound quality you want for whatever type of music you are listening to.
Now that the basics have been covered, I’m going to dive straight into a more technical FAQ.
This is designed to answer your questions about how a preamp plays nicely with your system, as well as other useful information.
Commonly Asked Questions
What is a phono preamp and how is it used?
A phono preamp is a device that translates.
It translates the signal between your turntable and your speakers.
It is needed because the signal that comes out of a cartridge on any turntable is around 1000x lower than the frequency you would get from a CD player or an audio streaming device.
Because this signal is so low you need something to help boost it.
That’s where the phono preamp unit comes in.
It boosts the signal to allow you to hear it out of your speakers.
A phono preamp amplifies the signal to a level where you can connect it to your stereo system.
This is the same way that you would connect any other audio device to your same audio setup.
If I have a mixer or digital interface already do I need a preamp?
There are some turntables that you buy that come with a built-in preamp.
If you are using one that has a digital interface as standard, then chances are it also has a preamp of its own.
If you are using your turntable with a mixer then you will not need the extra preamp.
This is because the mixer acts as a preamp for you.
If your current system has a preamp built-in there are a few ways to tell.
If you have an older system, then chances are you will also have a phono input.
Also, if you have a newer system and it has a USB port then that means it already has a preamp built-in.
Can I connect a preamp to my media player or smartphone? Or are they designed to only be used with turntables?
It isn’t recommended to connect a preamp to any kind of media player.
Or to any smartphone.
This is because these devices don’t need their signal to be amplified as a turntable does.
And even though you can connect these devices to a preamp if you wanted to, it is not recommended.
This is because the results, i.e. the sound quality, would be distorted and this may damage the preamp.
What cables and accessories do I need to connect my preamp to my turntable? How do you hook it up?
If your turntable doesn’t require an external preamp you will still need several cables to connect it successfully to your sound system.
The preamp you buy should come with a necessary power adapter that takes care of this straight out of the box.
You also need two sets of RCA cables.
You use one set to connect your turntable to your preamp and the other set to connect your preamp to your sound system.
This is not that difficult and is quite easy.
This is because the cables are color-coded red and white.
Make sure that any cable you get does not exceed five feet in length.
If your cable length is longer then it means that the sound produced by your preamp will be interrupted or distorted.
Now that everything has been covered it’s time to reveal which of the preamps on my list is the best one you can buy for under $500.
My vote goes to the Pro-Ject Tube Box S.
It’s easy enough to set up, provides a great gain range, and can use either MM or MC cartridges.
But if your budget is less than $500 and you still want a great preamp, then go for the Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box MM/MC.
Again, it’s easy to set up and it supports both cartridge types.
And at the other end of the needle, if money is no object, you have to pick the Puffin Phono DSP phono preamp.
Again, easy to set up and it has the widest gain range on the market for you to get the exact level of sound quality you want for whatever you listen to.
Last update on 2020-12-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API