When it comes to starting your vinyl collection, you will doubtless have plenty of initial questions about getting set up with a decent system. A key one to consider is whether or not you need a phono preamp for your turntable – and in this guide we intend to deliver all the information you’ll require to make a decision on a small piece of kit that will have a major impact on your enjoyment of all those LPs you’ve got your eyes on.
Not only that, but we'll help steer you towards the best phono preamp for your budget.
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What is a phono preamp?
Firstly, let’s deal with the what and why. A phono preamp (also known as a phono stage) is a complete necessity when it comes to getting your vinyl setup off the ground: they provide standard equalisation – correcting sonic imbalances left over as a manufacturing necessity – and boost the weak signal from your deck’s cartridge to a level that allows you to connect it to your stereo via standard AUX sockets. If you were to plug your turntable directly into the same place, skipping the phono stage, any sound produced would be very reedy, very thin and extremely quiet.
Some turntables, including many of the best budget turntables like the versatile Sony PS-HX500, come with built-in phono stages but others, like the similarly excellent Rega Planar 1, do not.
If you were to go for something like the Rega you would also need to invest in either a separate preamp stage or an amplifier that includes its own – if your stereo has a phono input then you’re already off to the races.
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Phono preamps: size matters
Somewhere along the line you might also choose to upgrade from your built-in preamp in order to move into a more high-end realm of fidelity – and having a separate piece of gear gives you maximum versatility. A great preamp paired with a cracking turntable is the holy grail of vinyl performance, and a top notch preamp is also capable of lifting the performance of more workmanlike machines.
Firstly, though, there are a few considerations to be made when investing in a preamp with regards to setup and space. Phono stages range from compact – a small box that can easily be tucked away in the background with a few wires and possibly a power adapter – to full-on amps that will require situating among your existing gear. While your turntable might accommodate its phono stage in sleek packaging, remember to keep the size element in mind if you decide to move on.
Also, be aware that preamps are designed to work with two different cartridge types: moving magnetic (MM), and moving coil (MC). Some cover both bases, but make sure to be cognisant of the difference and ensure you’re matching the correct preamp to your turntable.
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How much should I spend on a preamp?
Now to the nitty gritty. How much is one of these things going to cost? Well, as with so many pieces of hi-fi equipment you get what you pay for. For something that sounds good and has decent build quality then you will most likely be looking to start around the £100 mark, although there are several hyper-budget options that will do the trick without causing too much in the way of disappointment.
In this arena, manufacturers like Rega, Pro-Ject and Cambridge Audio all have affordable models on their books. At the top end, you genuinely could end up spending thousands – the Aesthetix Io Eclipse, a long-standing tube-based heavy hitter in the preamp game, is still retailing at upwards of $15,000.
Don’t fret, though, as there are plenty of gems to be found across the price spectrum, and it’s important that you settle for something that complements your setup and aims as a vinyl collector. To help smooth the road a little, below we’ve assembled a wrecking crew of preamps that will soon have your record collection singing.
The best phono preamps available today
An absolute steal here from the good folks at ART (Applied Research and Technology), the DJPRE II comes into the conversation on the bargain end of the scale, but makes up for any misgivings with high standards of performance. Boasting clarity and warmth, this preamp is worth its place alongside more expensive units and is encased in a durable, well-made housing. It’s not going to die on you, or snap in two, without a fight.
This is the third edition of a critical darling, proving that sequels don’t always stink the place out. Rega are an ultra reliable brand and the FONO MM MK3 is a sterling performer in their range, offering subtle, uncomplicated revisions on its blockbuster predecessor. Boasting sleek looks, a simple user-friendly interface and sound that emphasises clarity and breadth, it’s a superb all rounder for the price. For those with slightly deeper pockets – around £800 – the Rega Aria is another excellent preamp for those in search of an upgrade.
This heavy duty piece of kit bridges the gap between phono preamp and DI box, allowing you to bask in your vinyl at home and also connect your record player – and by extension your collection – to a computer or studio equipment such as a mixing console. The sound is clean and punchy, and it’ll give you options if you want to dub vinyl to digital or work with sampling. Ideal for armchair fans or DJs.
The Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL prizes build quality and user-friendliness, with a side order of flexibility thanks to its ability to navigate both moving coil and moving magnet inputs with minimal fuss. It’s the sort of preamp that, when matched with the right turntable, brings out the depth and complexity of music, finding a glow among the nuts and bolts of songs. It’s mid-range on the price scale, too.
Now we’re starting to swim with the proper hi-fi heads. The Cyrus Phono Signature is a preamp designed for high end turntables – up to four of them at once, with each input matched to the specifications of the cartridge – and facilitating maximum fiddling and optimisation on the part of the user. Sound-wise, it’s sharp but fully rounded and doesn’t skimp on the low end in search of overall clarity.