Due to the way vinyl is cut, turntables and record players produce a unique analog signal and thus can’t be plugged into a line input. Most modern receivers, mixers or amplifiers don’t have phono preamps. A phono preamp converts the vinyl audio signal to line level which can then be plugged into any line input on a mixer, receiver or active speaker. This article answers many of your burning questions and offers advice on the best phono preamp for your set up.
What is a Phono Preamp?
The original design and manufacture of vinyl records resulted in a 15dB cut at 20Hz and a 20dB boost at 20kHz.
The 15dB cut of the low frequencies reduces the width of the vinyl grooves. This extends the amount of data which can fit per side and reduces the tendency for the stylus to skip.
The 20kHz boost keeps the high frequencies of the audio above any hiss caused by vinyl imperfections.
Essentially, a phono preamp corrects these adjustments through equalization characteristic called R.I.A.A. EQ (Recording Industry Association of America).
What is a Tube Phono Preamp?
Tube amplifiers were the standard until the introduction of solid-state devices like the transistor. Solid-state amplifiers replaced tube amplifiers because they were more reliable and cost-effective.
Today, only guitar amps, high-end professional audio, and audiophiles (for home use) use tube amplifiers and preamps. Tube or valve amplifiers use vacuum tubes to increase the amplitude of an audio signal. Many argue this form of amplification delivers a warmer, more natural sound compared to a transistor circuit amplifier.
A tube phono preamp simply uses vacuum tubes to amplify the phono signal during phono to line conversion.
Do I Need a Phono Preamp?
Whether you need a phono preamp or not all depends on what sort of turntable setup you have and, how much you’re willing to spend.
Built-In Phono Preamps
If you have a turntable or record player with a built-in phono preamp, then you won’t need an external phono preamp. Usually, these turntables will have a line output so you can connect directly to a line input.
Having said that, if your turntable has a switchable line/phono output and, you’re looking to improve your sound, then you might want to consider a decent phono preamp to improve the sound quality.
Most high-end turntables don’t come with a built-in phono preamp so you’ll need to purchase this item separately.
Keep in mind that a phono preamp isn’t a magic device. If you have a cheap turntable with a generic fixed stylus and average speakers, I would look at upgrading the turntable first.
More Control Over Sound Quality
Phono preamps, especially high-end models, offer you more options and control over the sound produced by your system. So if you are looking for a specific sound, then a decent phono preamp will give you the control to make that happen.
How to Connect a Phono Preamp
Connecting a phono preamp is simple, even if you don’t consider yourself technical savvy.
- Using an RCA cable, connect the phono output of the turntable to the RCA phono input on the phono preamp.
- Connect the RCA line output of the phono preamp to the line input on your amplifier, receiver or active speakers. You can use an RCA to RCA, RCA to ⅛ inch or ¼ inch jack, or RCA to XLR.
- If you experience any buzz or hum, connect the turntable’s earth cable to the earth pin on the phono preamp.
Do Cables Matter?
Yes! Cables do make a difference. Cheap cables certainly sound quality. If you are going to spend money to improve sound quality with a phono preamp then, make sure every link in the chain is as strong.
Some people go as far as using gold cables with gold connectors which, in my opinion, is taking things a little too far! In the professional audio industry, we use Canare Cables. These are high-quality cables which can be purchased ready-made on Amazon.
Best Phono Preamp with USB
The best phono preamp with USB I have come across is the Vincent PHO 701 Phono Preamplifier. The PHO 701 is a tube/solid-state hybrid which means it incorporates both transistor and tube processing.
You can use both MM and MC cartridges with the PHO 701. Load and impedance are easily adjusted via onboard dip switches.
The PHO 701 comes with a separate power supply. In some cases, DC power can interfere with the phono preamp causing hums and buzzes. Having an external power supply isolates the DC from the phono preamp for a cleaner, noiseless sound.
The PHO 701 also includes an RCA output so this phono preamp would be suitable for both recording and general playback.
Best Tube Phono Preamp
The Tube Box S caters to both MM and MC cartridges with dip switches to configure the load impedance to match your cartridge.
With its ultra-compact design and protective bracket surrounding the tubes, the Tube Box S can fit almost anywhere.
Best Phono Preamp Under $500
Parks Audio is a family run company out of the Pacific Northwest. All Puffin Phono DSP preamps are designed, assembled and tested at the family’s electronics facility.
There is no end to the EQ, gain, impedance and voltage setting adjustments you can make to the Puffin. This will allow you to tune the Puffin to meet the exact specifications of your MM or MC cartridge.
Puffin even supplies you with a list of suggested load and gain settings to match most popular cartridges on the market.
If you’ve got some money to spend, then I can’t recommend the Puffin enough. You will spend endless hours tweaking settings while listening to and appreciating your favorite records.
Best Phono Preamp Under $200
Emotiva Audio XPS-1 Phono Preamp is my best recommendation under $200. The XPS-1 is ultra compact and accommodates both moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges.
Emotiva Audio is a US based company out of Franklin, Tennessee. The company design and manufacture quality products for the home entertainment market.
Not only does the XPS-1 Phono Preamp cater for both MM and MC cartridges but also allows you to configure the load impedance on the moving coil to get the best sound from your cartridge.
All the connections, including the ground pin, on the XPS-1, are gold plated to achieve the best connectivity. The outer casing is rugged and built to last.
Best Phono Preamp Under $100
If your budget is maxed at $100 then the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM is the best phono preamp under $100. Pro-Ject Audio is a high-end turntable and phono accessories manufacturer out of Austria in Europe. Pro-Ject is one of my favorite manufacturers and their products have won many awards around the world.
The Pro-Ject Phono Box MM features stereo RCA phono inputs with stereo RCA line output. Unfortunately, the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM only caters to moving magnet (MM) phono cartridges.
Pro-Ject Phono Box MM is not just going to convert phono to line but also make your records sound warmer and fuller. Certainly a step up from most built-in phono preamps.
Best Budget Phono Preamp
While there is nothing wrong with purchasing a budget preamp, you wouldn’t want to pair this with a high-end turntable or receiver with a built-in preamp. Those built-in preamps will always be better than an external budget preamp.
A budget preamp is more for application over sound improvement. What I mean by an application is you need a phono to line conversion. No frills, just converting phono to line. While a budget phono preamp won’t sound bad, it’ll probably sound decent and do the job but, it won’t necessarily improve the quality of sound.
Whatever you do… stay away from Pyle products. They have their place, but be prepared to buy twice!
The Rolls VP29 Phono Preamp is your best bet at a budget phono preamp. Rolls Corporation is an American company operating out of Murray, Utah, USA.
The VP29 is perfect for converting phono to line and does so with zero noise delivering a smooth, clean vinyl sound.
The VP29 features a stereo RCA phono input with your choice of stereo RCA or ⅛ inch jack line output.
If you’re looking to improve your sound then a quality phono preamp is going to do just that. Keep in mind, purchasing a high-end phono preamp is not going to fix the sound of a $100 turntable or record player. Rather upgrade your turntable before you start looking at external phono preamps.
When it comes to phono products, you want to purchase from reputable manufacturers. These small phono items are often designed and manufactured in the USA, UK and other parts of Europe where there is a higher level of skill and craftsmanship. Consider these brands over products out of Asia.