The primary goal of HiFi & Vinyl Now is to provide information and advice to non-experts shopping for audio gear. The hobbyists and audiophiles – those who get great joy out of building their stereo setups – know far more than I do. Indeed, the fact that I am a neophyte myself is an advantage in researching and writing for non-experts because I have a sense of the questions that a shopper would ask. I have them too.
Shopping for the best phono preamplifier or just tech in general in this context is tricky. Many of the review sites assume knowledge that the casual shopper doesn’t have. Vendor literature is somewhat helpful, but it obviously can’t be fully trusted. Spec sheets also offer some help, but often are unclear.
The goals of this article are to describe what a phono preamp does, provide advice on finding the best phono preamp and 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 are used in a variety of settings. In the phono world, preamps also are called phono stages. The sense I get is that there may be some highly technical differences between phono stages and phono preamps, but nothing for us to worry our pretty little heads over, so to speak. The term are used interchangeably.
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 would then be called an integrated amplifier). It may be that you do not even need to add a phono preamp. It may already be in your system.
The phono preamps that we look at below are of course the the discrete unit configuration. 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 well into their vinyl hobby will do fine with preamps built in to the turntable or integrated amplifiers.
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.
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.
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 at least are in the game and 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 people should be sure that they are getting what they need and not paying for things they 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 vinyl records– you can get by for far less.
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 perfectly (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.