best phono preamp

Finding the Best Phono Preamp for Your Stereo System

Finding the best phono preamp for your music setup is not necessarily difficult. It also doesn’t have to be too expensive.

It’s ironic that one of the trickiest elements of dealing with phono preamps is simply deciding if you need one. The functionality can be located in several places and could simply be an element of something you already own.

Click here to go skip ahead to capsules on potential best phono preamps from Pyle, GOgroove, ART DJPREII, Pro-Ject and Little Bear 

Using amplification to create great sounding music is as much art as science. A hard substance (typically industrial diamond, though sometimes sapphire is used for entry level setups cheaper record players) sits at the end of a stylus that traverses the grooves in a record. This bouncing around creates vibrations that correspond to the data encoded in the grooves. This nudging moves magnets or coils attached to magnets (depending on the type of cartridge) in such a way that tiny electrical currents are produced by the magic of all the stuff I didn’t pay attention to in high school. The currents are sent on their way to the amplifier and eventually to the speakers or headphones.

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The challenge is that the current exiting tonearm is not robust enough to be of processed by the power amp, especially in the case of one type of cartridge, called a moving coil (MC). They first must be boosted. This work is done in a preamplifier, which also is known as the preamp or phono stage. (I guess the word “stage” is suggests that the circuitry is the staging area for the main amplification.) 

 A good primer of pre-amps, though not specific to vinyl, is here).

A second task performed by the preamp is equalization. The encoding of signals in a polyvinyl chloride plastic disc is a physical act. Fully encoding lower frequencies (bass) requires broader grooves than the higher frequencies. Doing so reduces the amount of music (or, I suppose, recitations by James Earl Jones) that can be accommodated.

To address this problem, The Recording Industry Association of America set a standard limiting the lower ranges allowed on a record. Wikipedia explains:

RIAA equalization is a form of pre-emphasis on recording and de-emphasis on playback. A recording is made with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback, the opposite occurs. 

The phono preamp is tasked with restoring the intended levels before sending the signal to the amplifier.

5 Tips on Finding the Best Phono Preamp
– You may already have one in the receiver or turntable. Preamps seem to be the remora fish of audio gear. They just latch on to whatever swims by
– Transistor and tube options available
– Experts say external are the best phono preamps
– Don’t buy more functionality than you need. For you, the best phono stage may be a minimalist endeavor. There is plenty of other stuff on which to spend money
– Ensure compatibility with high end MM or MC cartridges
There also is an ongoing conversation among experts on the virtues of tube preamps. This goes beyond phonographs to include music amplifiers and other sectors in which sound quality is vital. The feeling among the people who are paid to listen, so to speak, is that tubes provide a fuller, warmer and all-around better sound. This is an important consideration in the world of preamps, the first element of the system the signal encounters when it leaves the cartridge. Check out this story comparing the two types of preamps at Vinyl Restart.

Phono preamps tend be a relatively inexpensive element of a stereo system. A key to finding potential best phono preamps is to determine whether one is needed, since this circuitry may already be present.

It’s also important to determine if a preamp works with moving magnet or moving coil (MM, which are considered high end, or MC) cartridges. Audiophiles tend to use MC cartridges while the rest of us focus on MM devices.

5 Best Phono Preamps: Units from Pyle, GOgroove, ART DJPREII, Pro-Ject and Little Bear

Note: All images are courtesy of the manufacturer. Hover over images for a closer view (in most cases). Vendors have unique short hands for specifications. I’ve more or less left these unchanged, so the capsules are a bit inconsistent.  The paraphrased comments are subjective (and, indeed, sometimes contradictory). Folks sometimes use equipment incorrectly and then complain. Problems mentioned may have been addressed by the manufacturer. Amazon has a tremendous amount of information and feedback on the what it sells and is a recommended element of your shopping research. If you do shop and potentially buy from Amazon, please link to there from HiFi and Vinyl Now. If you are kind enough to do so we’ll get a small commission. The price you pay will remain the same. (Thanks!)

Pyle Phono Turntable Preamp


One candidate on the best phono preamps list is the Pyle “mini.” It has an input sensitivity of 3mV at 50K ohms for the phono channel. Pyle says that it is a low-noise unit and that it is better played near the source in order to reduce noise and interference. The unit converts phono signals to line level signals with low noise operation designed to heighten performance. There are dedicated RCA and 1/4” output connectors. The output level is 2V max (P-P) at 10K ohms. A 12-volt DC power adapter is included. The frequency response is 20 Hz ~ 20 KHz ±2dB, S/N Ratio (A-WTD) is 70 dB and the output level is 2V. The load impedance is 10K ohms  with a reference voltage of 1V d. The unit is 3.54″ (W) x 2.13″ (H) x 1.02″ (D).
What People are Saying about the Pyle PP444 Mini Phono Preamp
Pros
+ Good choice for vinyl
+ Good sound and build quality
+ Easily to set up, uncomplicated
Cons
– Intermittent hum
– Poor sound and volume
– Poor craftsmanship

GOgroove Mini Phono Turntable Preamp


The GOgroove Mini Phono Turntable Preamp, another potential best phono preamp, is an AC-powered device is compact design and has a plug for directly listening to audio, though there is no volume control. It has a 12 volt AC Adapter, RCA input for vinyl  and is compatible with Audio Technica, Crosley, Jensen, Pioneer, 1byone and other brand turntables.

What People are Saying about the GoGrove Mini
Pros
+ Good sound quality
+ Good unit for digitizing albums
+ Flat balance doesn’t “color” sound
Cons
– No on/off switch
– Can’t adjust output levels up or down
– Cuts bass and much of middle

ART DJPREII

The analog input capacitance of the ART DJPREII (formerly named the “Phono MicroPRE”) can be switched between 100pF and 200pF to optimize phono cartridge response. A switchable low cut filter removes turntable rumble while leaving the audio pristine. The front gain trim control and signal/clip LED allow optimization of the preamp’s gain for a wide range of input sources. The built-in low noise phono preamp circuitry is highly accurate and precisely conforms to the RIAA standard. The line output jacks are low impedance and can be used with any sound card. It is housed in an all-aluminum black anodized case, The device features variable preamp gain and offers a signal present/clip indicator, selectable cartridge loading, RCA preamp outputs and a heavy duty extruded chassis. The unit features dual RCA-type inputs and outputs.

 

What People are Saying about the ART DJPREII Preamp
Pros
+ No hum
+ Gain matches other equipment
+ Clean with broad/dynamic range
Cons
– Very bright LED may be disconcerting
– Poor sound quality
– Hiss

Little Bear T7 Vacuum Tube Mini Phono Stage

The Little Bear T7 Vacuum Tube Mini Phono Stage preamp/phono stage is a phono preamp that can be used a moving magnet preamp or tube pre-amplifier is not recommended for use with Class D amplifiers and is not for turntables with  a built-in phono preamp. It is RIAA compliance, has a frequency response of 20hz-20kHz +/- 0.5dB, S/N ratio of > than 85dB, a THD <0.05%, input sensitivity 3.0mV, gain of 40dB and nominal/max output 300mV / 1.8V. The output impedance is 200 ohms.  The Little Bear measures 80x116x28mm and weighs 24Kg. It comes with 2 6J1 tubes.

What People are Saying about the Little Bear T7
Pros
+ Great value for at the price point
+ Simple setup
+ Newly added external gain switch
Cons
– 10 minute warmup to full effectiveness
– Lacks onboard controls
– Tubes must be replaced for best performance

Pro-Ject Phono Box MM DC

The Pro-Ject Phono Box MM DC preamp is compatible with moving magnet and high output MC phono cartridges. It features dual-mono circuitry for optimized channel separation, low-noise integrated circuits and gold-plated RCA inputs and outputs. It comes in a metal case that protects against vibrations and electromagnetic interference. The unit is shielded from vibration and electromagnetic interference by a metal case and offers channel separation through dual-mono circuitry. It had gold-plated RCA connection sockets and a DC power supply with less than 1 watt standby power.

What People are Saying about The Pro-Ject Phono Box MM DC
Pros
+ Small footprint, no frills
+ Well grounded, no noise
+ Simple setup, use
Cons
– Significant step down from more expensive units
– No on/off switch
– Poor signal to noise ratio

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