Best Phono preamp 2023 • 6 Phono preamps Reviews
Maybe some of you who still use a record player for good old music know it. The music it plays seems to be much too quiet. That is why a preamplifier is useful. To ensure that you’re buying the best phono preamp, we’ve spent a good amount of time testing each of the items in the product table below making a comparison.
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What is a phono preamp and how does it work?
A phono preamp (also known as a phono stage, RIAA preamp or turntable preamp) is an audio component that amplifies the signal from a turntable up to line level. This allows you to connect it to a modern sound system, in the same way as you would with any other type of audio device, such as an .mp3 or CD player. Most record players (especially older models) cannot be used without one.
The audio signal that is emitted from a turntable is very low (up to 1000 times weaker than that of a CD player). This means that it must be boosted to reach the standard line level (also known as AUX) that modern amplifiers require. In basic terms, it connects a record player to an amplifier, by converting the phono signal to a line level signal.
A phono preamp applies the RIAA equalization curve to the signal emitted from a turntable, returning it to its original shape. We will not go into too much technical detail about this topic in this guide. However, it is important to know that you must buy a phono preamp that has the RIAA standard, so that you can enjoy your music with the best possible sound quality.
What are the types of phono preamps?
Phono preamps are divided into two main types, each of which are designed for using with one the two types of cartridges used by record players. They are called MM preamps and MC preamps. If you don’t know what type of cartridge your record player uses, look up the manufacturer’s specifications, or check if there is a label somewhere on the turntable.
MM (moving magnet) cartridges use a needle and a pair of magnets, which send the signal to the coil. Most turntables use MM cartridges because they are much cheaper, however, according to tests an MC cartridge with an external phono preamp will give the best audio quality.
In the case of MC (moving coil) cartridges, tests have shown that the needle works directly with the coil. This system is much more precise at collecting information than an MM cartridge. However, it has a much lower output level.
Advantages and disadvantages of a phono preamp
In expert opinion, this is the most frequently asked question about phono preamps, especially from people who are just starting to get serious about building the best high-fidelity sound system. It is true that nowadays many manufacturers sell receivers that are capable of receiving a phono signal, or else they integrate a phono preamp into their turntables. In terms of practicality, this is definitely more convenient and allows you to listen to records with the least number of devices in your chain. However, tests have shown that there are some advantages of having an external preamplifier that is dedicated to boosting the phono signal from your record player.
- You can upgrade them whenever you want.
- There is a wider selection range.
- They allow much better control of EQ.
- They give you the freedom to choose your desired sound settings.
- They must be purchased separately.
Shopping Criteria for a Phono Preamp
As the majority of phono preamps offer the same basic functionality, there are not too many complicated criteria you need to understand. In this article, we will not go into overly technical aspects that can get a little confusing. In order to find the option that is best for you, from the wide range of products available on the market, just keep the following factors in mind when making your purchase:
- Signal to Noise Ratio
- Total Harmonic Distortion
- Frequency Response
- Speaker Output
The unit of measure for rating power in the world of audio is measured in watts (W). However, you need to be very careful when considering this rating, as many manufacturers exaggerate the specifications of their products to try and boost sales. As a general rule, a higher power rating will give better results, as long as your speakers and amplifier are capable of utilizing it.
When buying products online, it’s not possible to test them for yourself. However, even if you were to purchase a phono preamp in a physical store, you still wouldn’t be able to try it out, since it would be impractical to take all your audio gear into the shop. That’s why following recommendations from other buyers, or reading guides such as this one, is the best way to be confident you are purchasing a quality device.
Signal to Noise Ratio
The signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) compares the signal power level to the noise power level. Most commonly, it is measured in decibels (dB). Tests have shown that a higher signal-to-noise ratio will generally mean better sound quality, since there is more useful information (signal) than unwanted information (noise).
As long as the signal level is strong, and well above the noise level, you can expect high-quality audio that is clear and precise. You should definitely avoid buying any audio equipment with a low SNR.
Total Harmonic Distortion
The total harmonic distortion specification compares the input and output audio signals, with the difference between the two measured in percentage. This type of calculation requires a little math, but all you need to know is that the percentage represents the deviation of the output signal. A lower percentage is always better.
Tests have shown that a certain amount of harmonic distortion is inevitable, but in reality, it is barely noticeable because these days manufacturers create devices with distortion specifications that are in small fractions of a percentage.
Frequency response is often shown on a graph as a curve. It describes how a device responds to sound within a frequency range, and is measured in hertz (Hz) along the “x” axis of a graph, with the sound pressure level (SPL) measured in decibels (dB) along the “y” axis of a graph.
Most manufacturers list specifications on their products that cover a minimum of 20 Hz to a maximum of 20 kHz, which is within the frequency range humans are capable of hearing. The frequency response, together with the signal-to-noise ratio and total harmonic distortion, will largely influence the stability and overall quality of the sound.
Many phono preamps include an output for connecting directly to speakers or headphones. This is typically an audio jack port that is clearly labelled “output”. However, some models, especially more expensive ones, do not include this type of output, as they focus solely on preamplification.
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What are phono preamps used for?
There are no less than four sound configurations that require the use of a phono preamp. Tests have shown that each one is suitable for being used with specific types of audio systems. More expensive units are capable of producing more professional configurations, so your budget will best come into play here. In this section we break each of them down, to make the different options easier for you to understand: (1) Common record player and amplifier configuration: The turntable is connected to a preamp (either integrated or external), which is then connected to an amplifier or receiver that powers either headphones or speakers. This is the most common configuration for using a record player. (2) Simplified configuration of a turntable and amplified speakers: The turntable is connected to a preamp (either integrated or external), which is connected directly to amplified speakers. This configuration can only be used with powered speakers. (3) Record player and computer configuration: The turntable is connected to the preamp (integrated or external), which is connected to your computer with an audio cable. If your turntable has an integrated preamp with a USB port, you can connect it directly to the computer using a USB cable. (4) Old stereo system configuration: This is the method that was used when turntables were first manufactured. The record player was connected directly to a stereo system with an existing phono input. From there the audio would be played on connected speakers or headphones. Audiophiles always choose the first system, as this setting allows greater control over the sound and equalization. This audio configuration requires four separate devices, working in a chain as follows: Turntable → Phono Preamp → Amplifier → Speakers or Headphones
Who should buy a phono preamp?
Phono preamps are recommended for anyone who wants to build the best high-fidelity sound system that incorporates a turntable. If you are just starting out, and building your first audio system, in expert opinion this type of device may not be necessary. Instead you might be better advised to invest in a receiver that is capable of boosting a phono signal, or a turntable with an integrated preamp. However, if you want the best possible audio quality, an external phono preamp is definitely the best option. Investing in a quality phono preamp is key to getting the best sound quality in your audio chain. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, in order to get a great product. All the options we reviewed earlier in this article offer great value for money.
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