Best Phono Preamps Under $500
Turntables are, paradoxically, both complex and simple at the same time. The components that come in it are generally meant to work well together while also allowing customizability. This customization is what you most likely see when you scroll through audiophile websites. One component that many audiophiles discuss frequently is the phono preamp: if you are looking for information about phono preamps and are looking for what the best phono preamps under $500 are, you have come to the right place. Finding the right preamp can provide you an unparalleled sound experience without needing to buy a whole new turntable: these will get you to that point.
What Is A Phono Preamp?
To understand the role of the phono preamp, you are going to need to know a little about turntables in order to fully comprehend the phono preamp’s role. A turntable is made up of several components whose goal is relatively simple: translate vibrations into audible sounds that can be broadcasted from speakers. Each component works together to broadcast that sound: the better they are at picking up only the proper vibrations and leaving outside noise behind, the better quality sound the turntable and vinyl record will make.
To do this, the turntable starts with an engine and a belt that spins a plate when activated. A stylus (needle) that is attached to a tonearm by a cartridge is placed on top of the vinyl record that is spinning. The needle runs over the grooves placed in the record and the wires in the cartridge and tone arm take those vibrations and communicate them to the inner components of the turntable. Those vibrations are then amplified and sent through wires to whatever speakers are attached, thus effectively changing the vibrations to sound.
That last action, amplifying the sound and sending it to the speakers, is the job of the phono preamp. Essentially, the phono preamp amplifies the signal picked up from the vibrations by the stylus, gets it loud enough to be heard by the human ear, and sends it to the speakers. Yet the phono preamp is not meant to just amplify the noise, but to amplify it while keeping it at the same wavelength that the music engineers and musicians who created the record intended it to be. In technical terms, this means that the phono preamp applies the RIAA equalization curve to the signal, amplifying it at a mathematically precise curve so as not to distort the sound.
Today, many turntables come with a phono preamp installed, though there isn’t really a relation between brand, expense, or type of turntable that will necessarily come with the preamp. You will know if yours comes with it installed simply by reading the product title, which will say that it has a preamp installed. If not, you will want to install one in order to boost the quality of the sound. Even if it has come installed, many audiophiles opt to replace it with a better one in order to have higher quality sound.
Best Phono Preamps Under $500
It should be stated up front that a majority of preamps cost less than $500, but some will involve some costly professional help to have them properly installed. Even so, finding a quality preamp for less than $500 is relatively easy to do, but without further ado, here are the best phono preamps for under $500:
The Cambridge Audio Solo MM Phono Preamplifier is one of the best standalone preamps on the market, largely because the components are extremely good and it is decently affordable, running you less than $200 to get. It comes with a switch-mode power supply specifically engineered by Cambridge Audio to supply fast responsiveness from the communication of vibrations from the stylus. This is in coordination with surface-mount technologies for the PCB board that provides accuracy and short signal paths.
All of that technical jargon that was vomited on you above means that the signal from the vinyl record to the sound will be really top quality because the means of communication are so efficient. Things like fast responsiveness and short signal paths mean that there will not be a delay between the needle hitting the groove and the sound being broadcast from the speaker. Cambridge Audio’s engineering will ultimately provide you a great sound experience that may beat out the preamp you have installed.
There is a lot going on with this preamp that anybody but people with experience with turntables or music engineering will understand. With that in mind, you will want to consult a professional to make sure that it is properly installed and that it works the way it is supposed to. Ultimately though the benefits from the piece will leave you really happy with the sound quality.
The Rega – Fono MM Mk3 Phono Preamplifier is another product on the market that was expertly engineered to produce the best sound quality possible. With a hand-built all analogue MM phonostage, a low noise housing unit, and high accuracy RIAA equalization, this phono preamplifier will boost the sound from any needle to create a really great sound. This isn’t surprising: Rega has continually come out with outstanding phono preamplifiers, updating them and leaving reviewers scratching their heads, wondering how it gets any better from the last.
Taken together, the design and the engineering involved are excellent. Its housing in a small, well-designed unit ensures that it will work well with any turntable. The electrical components within are excellent at translating sounds with very little delay between the vibrations being picked up by the stylus and cartridge and it being amplified out of the speakers. Much of what Rega updated their product for was to work better with specific types of cartridges: as time progresses and new renditions of this product come out, the sound will be even better for each and every type of cartridge on the market.
Honestly, it’s really difficult to find many downsides with this phono preamp. Three phono preamp generations ago Rega was already making really great products and this one is no different. The price will run you close to $400, so if you are looking for something that is a bit cheaper, that could be a downside, but with everything that is included in this unit, $400 is well worth the price.
Though the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM DC Phono Preamp is cheaper than most, running you less than $100, you wouldn’t know this from the quality. It is compatible with moving Magnet phono cartridges (so any cartridges that have the “MM” in the title), has good flip time from vibration to amplification, and doesn’t have that large of a wire travel within it, allowing for minimal delay. Everything that is needed to give your turntable a boost in sound quality is included in this unit.
There are numerous, but we can start with price. While most other good phono preamplifiers are over $100 (but under $500 if they want to end up on this list!), this preamp comes at the low price of $80. Which is surprising, given the quality of the components. While we are not claiming that they are equal in quality to Cambridge Audio or Rega products, they are still really good for their price. Moreover, they come ready to be installed, with input/output ports that make it really easy to connect to speakers.
As we were hinting above, while the components in this phono preamp are really good for their price, they are nowhere near as good as the products that will be higher priced. This preamp seems to be really good for those who don’t have much sound engineering experience, but still want a better sound than what they have available. Yet the most problematic part of this preamp is that it is on all of the time: compared to the other, more expensive preamps that are on this list, this means that it will take up power even when you are not using the turntable.
If you are looking for a phono preamp that is minimally designed but comes with components better than most on the market, the Rolls VP29 Phono Preamp is exactly what you are looking for. It comes with all components that you need to easily install on your own and connect to your speakers and works great with almost all turntables. The sound quality is not as good as the more high-priced preamps, but it does deliver pretty good sound quality that will work well for a lot of turntable owners.
The compactness of this unit makes it a winner for many turntable owners. It is easily operable, can be installed on your own, and will boost your sound better than the pre-installed preamp that came with your turntable. Essentially, all components in a preamps that you absolutely need are included, but the extras are not.
Which is the exact problem with this preamp: whereas other preamps will give you components that really provide a boost to your listening experience, the Rolls VP29 does not. While it is on the cheaper end, it will still work if you are a beginner to the scene, but if you are well-versed and a full-blown audiophile, it is suggested you look elsewhere.
The Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 is a phono preamp with a dual mono configuration and a whole host of audiophile-quality components. Amplification modules, WIMA capacitors, impedance and capacitance switches, and four adjustable gain levels all provide top notch sound quality. What you are buying here is a unit that provide true hi-fidelity signal, providing you a sound experience unequaled on the market.
The components included in this preamp are almost unparalleled on the market, coming slightly behind the sheer magnificence in components and engineering that Cambridge Audio and Rega offer. Even so, the components work great together, providing a sound quality that is excellent for its price–only $159. Moreover, the four adjustable gain levels mentioned in the introduction above and the various switches that make this a great unit are located on the underside of the unit, giving a sleek design that looks really good. To top it off, there is a mini display so that you know what levels you are playing your music at. And if you don’t want to use the attached toggles, you can always use the included remote.
If you’re looking to sit back, put a metal album on, and crank it, this preamp probably isn’t for you. The biggest complaint about the unit is that its volumes don’t go very loud. This can be compensated with extra equipment, but if you’re dropping this much money on a tiny piece of equipment (that is a big deal though) you’d want higher sound levels. Because of this, many people are using the preamp as part of a computer-driven feature, using it with headphones to listen digitally, yet it can still be used with a turntable and traditional sound systems.
As you can see phono preamps come in many sizes, functions, and shapes. Yet the best on the market utilize a fine mixture of electrical engineering and user-friendliness to be included on all types of turntables. If you are looking for the best phono preamp under $500, these are a great place to start, but you may have to look around some to find the one that works best for you. These are only a few, but there are many preamps out there that are excellent additions to your sound system. Simply googling “phono preamps” will take you to dozens of review websites where audiophiles who love what they do will provide reviews on a wide range of products. Any of these can be the one that works best for you!