What Is A Phono Preamp?
Phono Preamp: A phono preamplifier, also known as a phono stage, is an audio component that amplifies the signal from your turntable to a level that allows you to connect it to your sound system the same way you would with any other audio source.
Another important job of a phono preamp is to apply the RIAA equalization curve to the signal, reverting it back to the shape it was on the original recording, but if you’re just starting out, this may be a bit deeper than you need to go right now. The most important thing to know is that you will need a phono preamp in order to enjoy your vinyl records.
So why do you need one? Your turntable either doesn’t have one, in which case you won’t be able to play records without one. Or maybe you just want to upgrade its sound beyond what’s possible with the built-in preamp.
As with many product categories, models span all kinds of price ranges. But whether you’re looking to pinch pennies or break the bank, we’ve got a phono preamp for you: we’ve drawn on our extensive reviews back catalogue to pick the best around right now, so you can be sure that you’re buying quality.
Why do you need a phono preamp?
What is a phono preamp used for?
Does a phono preamp make a difference?
Best Phono Preamp
Great vinyl playback isn’t always easy to get right. Record players are very much like fine musical instruments, and to get them sounding at their best, your vinyl rig really needs an audiophile-grade phono stage preamp. To disperse the mystery surrounding these highly-specialized pieces of audio gear, we decided to pick the top current examples on the market and go in-depth into what makes a great phono stage, along with what to look for when buying one (in our Buying Advice section below our picks). Phono stages can be tricky, but they’re also essential. After reading our guide, you’ll know everything there is to know. For more background information on phono preamps, see our comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Best Overall Phono Preamp
1. Chord Electronics Symphonic ($4,200)
MM / MC: MC
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 50 – 300 pF.
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (58 – 85dB)
Impedance Range: 33Ω – 47kΩ
What We Like: Design, audio quality, clever control over impedance and capacitance.
What We Don’t: We would have preferred an external PSU.
Chord Electronics have been busy this year, releasing two new phono preamps. Their flagship phono stage, the Symphonic, has been on our radar since it was announced. Even on paper it showed a great promise of incredible features, musicality, and price. On this list you will find phono stages well below $100 but just like any other piece of gear, phono preamps can reach five and even six figure prices. Above a certain price point, many of the suggested sonic subtleties become subjective. The Chord Symphonic does offer some credible advantages over other preamps, which for many people out there might justify the price.
The Symphonic impresses with its ample choice of options relating to signal load. Matching signal impedance and capacitance between cartridge and phono stage is arguably the biggest factor for vinyl playback (explained in our Buying Advice section below the picks). When used with unbalanced connections, the input signal load is rated at 50pF. This is doubled to a 100pF in balanced mode and can be fine-tuned further to match your particular moving coil cartridge by pressing one of the six mini switches. With its flexible input gain options the Chord is ready for even the most obscure vintage cartridges. The flexibility of this preamp is equalled only by a few others on this list – check out the high-end Luxman at number three and the Violectric at number eight. In terms of sonic performance the Symphony is the epitome of detailed clarity. Truly deserving of its flagship status, its everything we could have expected from Chord Electronics.
2. SPL Phonos ProFi MM/MC ($1,999)
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 150, 220, 330 pF.
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (50 – 71.5dB)
Impedance Range: 10 – 1,200Ω
What We Like: Design, audio quality and user control over impedance and capacitance.
What We Don’t: No XLR outs.
SPL is one of the most recognizable names in the audio industry, and they single-handedly revolutionised transient processing (think punch) with their Transient Designer line. We mention that since, for vinyl audio in particular, transient detail is king. A brief glance at the ProFi front shows the two most desired audiophile phono stage requirements – user definable control over input capacitance and impedance (both explained in our Buying Advice below). This, plus the fact that the ProFi can accept signals from both MM and MC type cartridges guarantees that this impressively specced phono stage can handle any vinyl era.
Despite not featuring balanced outputs, there are three user-definable settings for line output gain, including the -10dB and the pro-level +4dB options. The main reason for the ProFi’s incredible gain readings and audio fidelity is SPL’s VOLTAiR technology, employing an unusually high voltage, which brings the benefits of an increased dynamic range. The Phonos ProFi is more pricy than the Pro-Ject RS, at number five on this list, which offers similar impedance/capacitance control. Although this model features fewer settings, SPL have really managed to nail the most useful settings and still win in terms of sonics. This phono stage can become the beating heart of a super-versatile vinyl setup, dragging those vintage records screaming right into the 21st century.
Tube Phono Preamp
Some newer turntables come with a phono stage built in. There is no real rhyme or reason to which tables have one built in. We’ve seen very inexpensive suitcase turntables with built-in phono stages, but they’re also included in high-performance tables including the Shinola Runwell and the VPI Player.
If you already have a turntable but aren’t sure, just try it — you won’t hurt anything. If you connect your turntable up to your system and the volume level is fine with no distortion, you have a turntable with a built-in phono stage.
If you are using a vintage receiver or amp manufactured before around 1980, it is highly likely that the phono section is built in. The big clue to look for is on the back of your unit, where a set of left and right input connections will be labeled phono with a ground screw next to them. Most newer amps and receivers do not have a phono preamp built in.
We have seen some receivers that have an input labeled phono, but it is actually just labeled that way for convenience and does not have a phono preamp—just the label. These will not have the ground screw.
Again, just like with one built into your turntable, if you connect things up and everything sounds fine, then you have a built-in phono preamp. Remember to connect the ground wire from your turntable if it has one as well.
Phono Preamp Reviews
To connect your phono preamp, you will need a set of audio cables. Take the left and right audio cables coming out of your turntable and plug them into the input jacks on your phono preamp. If your turntable has a ground wire, connect it to the ground post. Then, using a good set of audio cables, connect them to the output jacks on your phono stage and the other end to a set of inputs on your audio system. They can go into anything but a phono input.
If you are trying to rearrange your gear and the audio cables detach from your phono stage, you may be tempted to swap them out for longer ones. We strongly recommend that you keep your cables under 5 feet in length, the shorter the better. The reason is that the signal coming from your cartridge is very low. Longer cables provide more opportunities for signal loss or distortion.
Best Budget Phono Preamp
The Rega Fono MM MK2 was one of the finest phono stages available, so to say expectations were high for its successor is a bit of an understatement. Thankfully, it meets them and then some. The design has been fine-tuned within an inch of its life, making for a much sleeker product that retains the winning simplicity of its predecessor. The Award-winning sound of the MK2 now has a greater dynamic range and greater clarity, making an already fantastic performance even better. The best sound-for-pound phono preamp around.
Well this is certainly a looker. With an offset volume dial, minimalist styling and mirrored rear labelling that’s easy to read even if you’re peering over the top of the unit, it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into this device. And no less attention has been paid to the audio quality. The presentation is very good indeed, being spacious and cohesive, while the sound is dynamic and the timing spot-on. It doesn’t quite match the Rega Fono MM MK2, but it certainly holds its own, which makes it certainly worthy of consideration.
Great-sounding sub-£100 phono stages are rarer than hens’ teeth, so it gives us great pleasure to see another entrant in the field. Sure, it’s small and fairly basic looking, but every effort has been made on the innards: they give sufficient body to a song’s vocals without overloading it with bass. It has a great sense of timing, too. One of the best budget phono preamps around.
Schiit Mani Phono Preamp
At some point, the majority of us have come across the ART Pro Audio brand. Their “Applied Research and Technology” has survived many a decade by doing exactly that – creating low cost, but perfectly capable solutions for musicians and music lovers. The DJPREII phono stage is housed in ART’s trademark, heavy-duty chassis allowing for multiple units (or various other models) to be stacked on top of each other. Its shape, buttons, LEDs and even graphics are all designed with good taste. The front of the unit features the unit’s gain trim knob, with a dedicated signal/peak LED. You will also find two buttons dedicated to capacitance (switchable between 100pF and 200pF) as well as rumble filter on/off. Powered by an external power unit (DC or AC), the DJPREII feels reassuringly simple, yet sturdy and solid to the touch.
If you’re new to phono stage preamps, it would be easy to have doubts about the ability of anything so inexpensive to offer any noticeable improvements to vinyl playback. We actually found this little ART box punching well above its weight – it delivered a very clear sonic picture with a substantial weight, authority, and a pleasant mellow character. It takes a little time to dial this fella – especially with the Gain knob potentially sending signals into the clipping zone – but once set, the DJPREII is worth every penny.