The Road to the Best Phono Preamp

Finding the best phono preamplifier or just tech in general in this context is tricky. The goals of this article are to describe what a phono preamp does, provide advice on finding the best phono preamp and provide at least a vague notion of the likely price point for these vital devices. The goal is to provide information that will increase the chances that you’ll buy a device with which you are happy.

So What Does a Phono Preamp Do?

Preamps — which in the phono world also are called phono stages — are used in a variety of settings. The term gets a bit tricky since there are preamps that are not phono preamps, but in terms of analog stereo systems, the terms are interchangeable.

Where the phono preamp fits in (Graphic: Pyle)

A preamps’ position in the hierarchy is more or less summed up in its name. Phono preamps — or the circuitry that performs the task — sit between the cartridge and amplifier. It can be a housed in a separate unit (the configuration dealt with in this article) or housed in the turntable or the amplifier (in what is called an integrated amplifier). The fact that this circuitry may be in a number of places suggests that you have a preamp in your system that you don’t know about.

If all else is equal, preamps that are not collocated with other equipment are preferred. For one thing, squeezing all those electronics goings-on in one housing can lead to signal contamination (signal leakage and crosstalk). A separate unit also enables upgrades. However, entry level folks or those not overly interested in building their systems piece by piece will do fine with preamps that are co-located with the turntable or integrated amplifier.

Wherever it is, the circuitry’s primary job is to take a very weak signal and amplify to the point that it is robust enough to be processed by the main amplifier, which sometimes is called a power amp.

Besides their nomadic tendencies, there are two important things to think about in the world of phono preamps.

The type of cartridge your turntable has is important. The tonearm holds the cartridge over the record. At the end of the cartridge is a needle (also called a stylus). The stylus sits at the end of a cantilever, which is a rod that moves freely in reaction to the motion of the needle in the grooves of the record. The other end of the cantilever connects to four coils that in turn connect to tiny magnets. The stylus’s bounces around the grooves of the record causes the cantilever to take the magnets through an electrical field, creating minuscule currents. These currents — the electronic representation of the physical grooves of the record — are what the preamp processes and sends to the power amp.

There are two main approaches. In high end cartridges, both the coils and magnet move. In mid-level and lower end cartridges only the coils move. These understandably are short-handed as moving magnet cartridge and moving coil cartridge (MM and MC). It is important to use a preamp that matches your cartridge. Note that some preamps support both.

5 Tips on Finding the Best Phono Preamps
You can buy a discrete preamp, a turntable or integrated amplifier that provides the functionality. A self-contained unit is good for folks looking to upgrade their system over time
— Finding the best phono preamps is subjective. Quality budget phono devices are available
— Look for preamps that enable analog to digital conversion. It’s a great extra feature that can make your vinyl record collection portable
— Determine whether you have an moving coil or moving magnet cartridge and buy the corresponding preamp
— Understand what your needs are. This is a very broad category and you could end up overpaying
A key difference between phono preamps and the other types of preamps is that the former have an extra job. Creating a phonograph record is a physical act, and signals in the lower frequencies (bass guitars, James Earl Jones’ voice) take up more space on a record. The amount of time available for recording would be reduced if these signals they were fully represented on the disc. In the 1940s, the Recording Industry Association of America found a way to avoid pressing those lower frequencies into the vinyl. The preamp’s extra job is to equalize (restore the lower frequencies).

A Crowded Field of Preamp Makers

A quick look at the top sellers at Amazon and surfing some sites on the web suggests two things about the phono preamp market: There are a lot of companies making these widgets and the gulf in prices is great.

Here are some names to keep in mind: Rolls, Schiit, Little Bear, Pyle, Fosi, Pro-Ject, Rega, Turntable Lab, Yamaha, Vincent, Ompait, Cambridge Audio, ARTessories, Mobile Fidelity, Bellari, Art Precision, NAD and Graham Slee.

That’s a lot of companies and, I fear, simply listing them is of marginal use. However, if you are shopping and see any devices from these manufacturers you can be fairly certain that they are not just throwing one or two products into the market to see how they do. This list is not exhaustive. The best advice is to google a name you don’t recognize to see if they are players or wannabes.

The tremendous gulf between the highest and lowest prices – from about $30 to more than $1,000 – suggests that you are are getting what you need and not paying for things you don’t. A $1,000 preamp almost certainly goes way beyond audio to cover the entire home theater waterfront with extra functions and top-shelf elements and construction. If that’s what you need, go for it. If affordable phono equipment is what you want (perhaps all you want to do is revive an old turntable to play your forty year-old vinyl  you can get by for far less.

Key Specs

Following are a brief description of key specs and what Pyle noted for its PP999 phonon preamp. I’m structuring this article around that unit simply because it was the first one that came up when I Googled Amazon’s best sellers.

Output Level: This is the boost provided by the preamp to the signal arriving from the cartridge and delivered to the amplifier. It is measured in volts. The output level of the PP999 is 2 Volts.

Signal to noise ratio: SNR is an important measure that compares the intended, perfect signal against the noise – imperfections and background noise caused by a variety of factors  A-WTD stands for A-weighted. It is a scale of measuring S/R ratio that is most attuned to human hearing. The SNR of the PP999 is 70 dB (A-WTD).

Total harmonic distortion: It’s amazing how quickly these things become difficult to understand. A typical example is this paragraph by David Williams at All About Circuits from a few years ago:

A voltage or current that is purely sinusoidal has no harmonic distortion because it is a signal consisting of a single frequency. A voltage or current that is periodic but not purely sinusoidal will have higher frequency components in it contributing to the harmonic distortion of the signal. In general, the less that a periodic signal looks like a sine wave, the stronger the harmonic components are and the more harmonic distortion it will have.

Got it? The idea seems to be this: There is no harmonic distortion when somebody sings or plays a single note on an instrument. The sine wave (the graph of the waveform over time) created will be perfect (i.e., not harmonically distorted) because it is the only sound being measured. If, however, if a second instrument or singer enters the picture and doesn’t precisely match the first — i.e. provides sound at a different frequency — the curve becomes imperfect. That’s harmonic distortion. THD for the Pyle PP999 is 0.08 for 1 KHz 3 mV Input.

Why We Need Great Gear: SRV

Stevie Ray Vaughan is a legendary blues/rock guitarist from Austin, Texas. Check out an interview about great Vaughan with Craig Hopkins, author of the Vaughan biography”Day by Day, Night After Night.” Vaughan is pictured above flanked by the other members of his most famous band, Double Trouble. Drummer Chris Layton is on the left and bassist Tommy Shannon is on the right.

THD is caused by electronic noise, signal leakage or other defects. This is a golf spec—the lower the score the better. THD for the PP999 is 0.08 for 1 KHz 3 mV Input.

A related spec is total harmonic distortion + noise (THD+N), which is sort of a grand summation of all the imperfections that can hurt the sonic performance of an electronic device, including a preamp.

Frequency Response: Frequency response is the range of sound that the device can reproduce. Human’s ability to hear sound ranges from 20Hz (low frequency sounds) to about 20kHz (high frequency sounds). Those numbers are the norm for women and kids. Middle age and older men struggle (so what else is new?). This post at Alesis says that frequency response is the most important thing about three times. Devices that can’t sustain those numbers don’t reproduce sound accurately. It seems that the PP999 hits the mark precisely.

The PP999 has been around for about a decade, so it’s no spring chicken, as folks in an older generation would say. It also is not an expensive unit – less than $30. According to the company, it features low noise, dedicated left and right audio connectors and is appropriate for turntables, mixers and audio equipment and for on-stage as well as in-studio use. The frequency response for the PP999 is 20-20kHz (+/-2dB).

This chart is an attempt to summarize some of the important specifications. In a way, it’s also a way to show the shortcomings of relying too much of these numbers in an effort to buy the device that will provide the best sound quality.

Key Specifications on Phono Preamps from Pyle, Schiit, Fosi, Little Bear, Pro-Ject and Rega

PyleSchiitFosiLittle BearPro-JectRega
Moving Magnet/Moving CartridgeMMMM/MCMMMMMM/MCMM
Output Level2V2V (P-P) at 100 Ohms
SNR70 dB A-WTD>70dB A-WTD70 dB85 dB
THD0.08 for 1 KHz 3 mV iinput< 0.08% @1kHV and 3mV<0.05%@1kHz0.01% (MM); 0.05% (MC)
Frequency Response20 Hz-20kHz (+/-2dB)20 Hz-20kHz20 Hz-20kHz20 Hz-20kHz, max. 0.5 dB
Vacuum/TransistorTransistorTransistorTransistorVacuum  TubeTransistorTransistor
Dimensions.54” x 2.13” x 1.02”12.4″ x 9.7″ x 6.9″3.94″ x 0.98″x 2.17″3.15# x 4.6″ x 1.1″4.72″ x 1.6″ x 3.9″10″ x 7.2″ x 2.5″
Price (Multiples of about $30)$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
Click on the image for more info at Amazon

The models in addition to the Pyle PP999: Schiit Mani; Fosi Audio Box X1; Little Bear T7 Vacuum Tube Mini Phono Stage; the Pro-Ject Record Box E and the Rega Fono Mini A2D MK2. 

There obviously are several problems (or shall we say challenges) with this chart. It’s not clear that the vendors are making totally direct comparisons. They offer a number or percentage, but add a qualifier that may or may not slightly upset the relevance of one measure to the other. We also are not told to what degree differences between the properties being measured actually impact the sound. 

That doesn’t mean that the specifications are useless to the uneducated or can improve sound quality, however. In general, it’s obviously better to buy the device with the best numbers (including price tag, of course). But those numbers should just be one of many considerations.

At the end of the day, it’s subjective. In 2018, a video blogger who calls himself Audiorpheus did a comparison of several phono preamps that had similar price tags. The PP 999 came in next to last in his assessment. What came through (besides the fact that this fellow has good taste in music) is that the it’s difficult to hear the difference between phono preamps and that which is “better” is highly subjective.

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