Great vinyl playback isn't always easy to get right. Record players are very much like fine musical instruments, and to get them sounding at their best, your vinyl rig really needs an audiophile-grade phono stage preamp. To disperse the mystery surrounding these highly-specialized pieces of audio gear, we decided to pick the top current examples on the market and go in-depth into what makes a great phono stage, along with what to look for when buying one (in our Buying Advice section below our picks). Phono stages can be tricky - but they’re also essential, and after reading our guide, you’ll know everything there is to know.
When choosing our picks, we’ve looked at phono preamplifiers capable of pairing with a wide variety of cartridges. We also namecheck circuit components and features affecting the all-important signal load, dynamic range and even the voltage currents used by the units’ power supplies - all of these are crucial factors for a great signal-to-noise ratio and correct frequency response.
What may come as a shock to you are some of the price tags. While we do start at the top of market where prices are eye-wateringly high, we descend through all price tiers, and even the cheapest examples on this list (around $60) deliver a real and noticeable improvement to vinyl playback. And while we know a lot of what follows is jargon-heavy, we explain everything in our Buying Advice below.
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 50 - 470 pF
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (90 dB)
Impedance Range: 10Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Fully-balanced performance, superlative sonics.
What We Don't: An external PSU could have improved noise figures further.
We've featured Musical Fidelity in several other shootouts, and with their M6 phono stage, we definitely believe they deserve a place at the very top here. Its substantial size (think a regular hi-fi component), is justified by the fact that the M6 is a three channel affair. This not only means that you could have three turntables connected at once, but also allows for the channels to be set for three different cartridges, or even tone arms. There are plenty of people out there who use their vinyl rigs in a similar way. Of course, all of this is helped by the fact that the M6 accepts both MM and MC carts. Each channel can have a different and completely discrete load and setting. Even better, they can have a separate dedicated PSU and even a separate transformer for each side of the signal.
Setup is really straight forward - options are clear and self explanatory, basically employing several mini buttons to scroll through functions. It is nice that the Power/Standby button also has a Mute option. This really helps if you need to make a cartridge change without having to power down your complete rig in the process. The MM/MC cartridge type selection also includes load options for MM and MC carts. The IRC (rumble on/off) option works as expected, but it's neat to also find a Gain boost option - adding a whopping 6 db to the signal. Each channel remembers its last configuration. So, it's easy to set up for a particular record player or cartridge - set and forget, at least until you need to change the slot/channel settings. The M6 is fully balanced, with both sets of outputs (RCA and XLR) being simultaneously active. Though this offers additional flexibility, we recommend using balanced connections when possible. The Musical Fidelity is a mothership of a phono stage, with a truly unique design and a beautifully grown-up sonic signature. It would make the perfect hub for any vinyl rig requiring versatility.
See the Musical Fidelity M6
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 150, 220, 330 pF.
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (50 - 71.5 dB)
Impedance Range: 10 - 1,200Ω
What We Like: Design, audio quality and user control over impedance and capacitance.
What We Don't: No XLR outs.
SPL is one of the most recognizable names in the audio industry, and they single-handedly revolutionised transient processing (think punch) with their Transient Designer line. We mention that since, for vinyl audio in particular, transient detail is king. A brief glance at the ProFi front shows the two most desired audiophile phono stage requirements - user definable control over input capacitance and impedance (both explained in our Buying Advice below). This, plus the fact that the ProFi can accept signals from both MM and MC type cartridges guarantees that this impressively specced phono stage can handle any vinyl era.
Despite not featuring balanced outputs, there are three user-definable settings for line output gain, including the -10dB and the pro-level +4dB options. The main reason for the ProFi’s incredible gain readings and audio fidelity is SPL’s VOLTAiR technology, employing an unusually high voltage, which brings the benefits of an increased dynamic range. The Phonos ProFi is more pricy than the Pro-Ject RS, at number five on this list, which offers similar impedance/capacitance control. Although this model features fewer settings, SPL have really managed to nail the most useful settings and still win in terms of sonics. This phono stage can become the beating heart of a super-versatile vinyl setup, dragging those vintage records screaming right into the 21st century.
See the SPL Phonos ProFi MM/MC
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 50-400pF selectable.
Input Gain Range: 52 dB
Impedance Range: 20Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Looks expensive, sounds expensive too.
What We Don't: Price tag means a serious investment. Since tube designs are a bit of an acquired taste you should perhaps try and audition one first.
Union Research, an Italian company specialising in high-end tube circuits, have been around for over twenty years. Their all tube phono stage preamplifier, called Simply Phono, is a Class-A, all-tube phono stage featuring four ECC83 / 12AX7 arranged in two pairs - front gain and output stage. Simply Phono's black metal chassis top, adorned with cherry wood base, looks simple and yet classy at the same time. Sporting the usual pair of unbalanced phono ins and outs, this cool phono stage also features several tiny switches, allowing for various input impedance loading - 47k, 100, 50, and 20 ohm. The unit's power supply is housed in a separate chassis connected via a 7-pin umbilical power lead, thus completely eliminating mains pollution hum. You might say that this is all fairly standard stuff for a high-end product, but what can this nearly $3K worth of a phono stage do for your rig's audio performance?
Featuring a completely passive RIAA equalisation curve, the Simply Phono delivers a classic character faithfully recreating the famed frequency response (check our explainer below the picks) within 0.2 of a dB. It's the sheer weight of sonic depth upon the first listen that separates Simply Phono from most other units on this list. It adds an incredibly enlarged sound stage with punchy low mids, while the treble octaves portray the material with fast, yet sweet transients, resulting in utmost intelligibility. So, why is this not at number one if it's so good? It is certainly more expensive than top two picks… The mention of a Class-A tube design immediately makes the spec of anything look great on paper and, although we love tubes, they are perhaps not for everyone - at least not for every occasion. Although Simply Phono displays none of the veiled artefacts typical of cheaper tube designs, it still has a gloriously gooey tube sound character. And, considering its price, this makes it a little less versatile than SPL's ProFi above. That little note aside, the Union Research Simply Phono is simply stunning - its sound, looks and even weight, has that assured quality of a top product that could last you a lifetime.
See the Union Research Simply Phono
MM / MC: MC
Cartridge Capacitance Range: Set at 120 pF.
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (60 dB)
Impedance Range: 10Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Great looks, and we do like the sound of those tubes.
What We Don't: Tube designs are a bit of an acquired taste. Expensive.
The Marchand LN112 MC is a glorious-looking phono pre that proudly displays its real wood casing graced by four glowing Sovtek 12AX7WA preamp tubes - the very type used in high-end instrument amplification. It isn’t easy to come up with a tube-driven phono stage circuit that can handle LOMC (Low Output Moving Cartridges) and still remain relatively noise-free, when compared to a solid-state design such as the SPL ProFi.
Marchand have managed to pull this challenge off by using Jensen MC transformers, supplying an additional 20dB of gain to the RIAA-specced circuit (we explain what this means in the Buying Advice below) . Although the input impedance and capacitance figures are fixed, Marchand are more than happy to tweak things to request - just specify your rig requirements when ordering. This perhaps is not as flexible as having dials as in the above example, but again, this is a handmade tube stage box which is priced very competitively. If you prefer more contemporary high output MM record cartridge, a suitable alternative model (the LN112 MM) is available. The L112 MC pho stage box really shines with its increased dynamic performance - the glowing tubes are not just there to look pretty.
See the Marchand LN112 MC
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 200, 300 pF.
Input Gain Range: Variable (40 - 60 dB)
Impedance Range: 30Ω - 100KΩ
What We Like: Impressive sonics, extensive input signal control via dip switches.
What We Don't: Nothing not to like here.
Musical Surroundings’ Mk II update of the already formidable Nova may have not crashed the internet yet, but it has managed to pick a few tech awards. The fifteen-year-old company takes real pride in offering incredible value-for-money, and that ethos was evident even in their first phono stage design - the aptly named Phonomena. So what do we have in the Nova II?
Firstly, a vastly improved signal-to-noise performance - up to 5dB of clean signal, above what the Mk I offered. If the front looks bare, you will find a wealth of mini dip switches allowing extensive control over input gain, impedance and capacitance. If not as extensive as the settings available on say Pro-ject RS (at number five), there is still a lot of scope available, especially with gain and impedance figures. Secondly, sound is sublime - everything sounds pristine through the Nova II, and if you care about vinyl and can afford it, we say just go for it. Similar to the Merchand L112 MC above, this is a battery powered circuit. This may raise an eyebrow, but take our word, vinyl purists can be very picky about their phono preamp’s power supply. It is the number one culprit for introducing all sorts of unpleasant hum and hiss, and can completely render a highly specced circuit useless. There are many options on how to deal with this and we’ve laid them out in our Phono Stage PSU explainer below the picks. What counts is that Musical Surroundings have dealt with the crucial mains pollution issue by speccing out a high-performance battery solution, featuring two rechargeable NiMH packs with auto (Smart Sensing) recharge mode which also cuts off mains charging when listening on battery mode.
See the Musical Surroundings Nova II
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100, 200, 300, 420, or 520 pF.
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (40 - 66 dB)
Impedance Range: 10Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Infinitely adjustable impedance, XLRs, looks and sound.
What We Don't: The price tag.
If you’re new to the vinyl niche of the A/V market, you might find the Phono Box RS’ $1K price tag as ridiculous. Then again, this is another example of the crème de la crème example of phono stage preamplification. Pro-Ject is a brand well known for their products among vinyl connoisseurs, and the Phono Box RS is a firm favorite among listeners.
Starting with the Pro-Ject RS front, you might easily mistake that big rotary knob as the volume; it is in fact an ‘infinite’ gradual impedance pot, which allows you to fine-tune the input stage impedance during playback - a tremendously useful feature allowing you to use any cartridge (please check our Buying Advice section for more on this, which has an extensive explainer on impedance matching). Pretty much every other important signal parameter is featured in the clever set of mini switches located on the front right hand side - from selecting balanced/unbalanced outputs to applying classic EQ curves to the frequency response. When used with moving coil cartridges, matching the capacitance (another big feature, again explained in Buying Advice) to a particular cartridge model is easily done with a further set of mini switches at the back. The unit features a built-in audiophile rumble filter, and all of the audiophile-grade components inside are powered by an external, high capacity power supply. Can you hear a thousand dollar difference? Yes you will - the Phono Box RS has bags of clarity with ultra low distortion figures and superb signal-to-noise ratio.
See the Pro-Ject Phono Box RS
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: N/A
Input Gain Range: Fixed or Variable (0 - 62 dB)
Impedance Range: 10Ω - 50KΩ
What We Like: This is crazy - it can take levels from MC/MM carts and even Line sources. Incredible A/D conversion spec - even managing native DXD/DSD recordings!
What We Don't: Although incredible, this is not aimed for just vinyl playback, so it may not be suited for everyone
M2Tech's EVO is a phono stage with a twist. A serious one at that, The name phonoDAC probably reveals the reason for that - OK, maybe half of it. Indeed, M2Tech have built a phono stage box aimed at vinyl purists seeking to convert their precious vintage records into digital audio. Don’t start yawning yet: we know phono-to-USB boxes have been around for ages, and are ten-for-a-penny now. The EVO takes their game to a new level. Not only it can accommodate signals from both high and low output record cartridges, but can even handle input gain and impedance levels from line level sources and then acting as a super-high quality DAC (digital to analog converter) digitize vinyl to the highest current audio file formats - namely, 32bit/384kHz PCM and even native DSD formats.
If these figures don’t mean much, it’s worth noting that vinyl playback (being analog) has a very wide frequency range. Being able to capture it in digital in such high resolution qualities, guarantees that all of its sonic glory is preserved. This incredible phono stage / DAC offers up to twenty six user-selectable EQ curves - perfect for those slightly scratched old vinyl records. This phono stage can do what most phono boxes do on a good day. Admittedly it may be not be for everybody, though if you are planning to digitise your vinyl library in super hi-res quality, this really deserves your attention.
See the M2Tech EVO phonoDAC Two
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100 mF
Input Gain Range: 36 dB, 46 dB, 56 dB, 66 dB
Impedance Range: 100Ω, 1KΩ, 100KΩ
What We Like: All about sound quality, killer audio performance.
What We Don't: More capacitance loading options would have been nice.
Our efforts to dig out the best phono stage preamps have been awarded with yet another black box. Or should we say Black Cube, as Lehmann Audio have aptly named it. It might be a bit of a shock to some: the first release of this product was apparently all the way back in 1995. For most audio products, this is practically the equivalent to being born in the dark ages. But the Black Cube remains hugely popular and, in fact, has won many awards - both at its release and after its update in 2006. This makes it a bona fide, classic design!
The Black Cube is small and understated. One of the first things that impressed us is how the unit connects to its dedicated low-noise external DC power supply - a permanently attached power lead ending with a 4-pin Neutrik XLR connector. In the world of PSUs (explained in the Buyer’s Advice below) this means business - and zero noise pollution. The Black Cube is equally at home with MM and MC carts, and the mini gold-plated switches offer adjustments over gain and impedance. The use of aluminum, non-magnetic dampened enclosure, and low-loss precision MKP foil capacitors, offer super low-noise figures. The Black Cube excels at portraying quiet whispers and crescendo dynamics. Last but not least: this preamp can easily be tucked behind your player. Its diminutive size lets you connect your turntable using really short leads, improving signal to noise ratios even further.
See the Lehmann Audio Black Cube
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 47 - 220 mF
Input Gain Range: 60 - 85 dB
Impedance Range: 100KΩ
What We Like: Flexible impedance and capacitance range, low noise figures (for a tube design).
What We Don't: Not a criticism on the unit itself, but it’s worth saying that the JoLida JD9 requires top notch cabling to keep interference at bay.
The JoLida JD9 phono preamplifier has been around for a while now, but some recent upgrades have made it relevant again with the MkII. There’s a new, larger power supply, updated voltage regulator, and new capacitors and resistor arrays. The 17-inch width makes the Jolida larger than most picks on this list, but the classic hi-fi component size (think A/V receiver, or standalone amplifier) also hints that JoLida are aiming at pro audiophile setups. It’s interesting that the two pairs of outputs provide different frequency curves - one, a straight line out, and the second providing the precise classic RIAA equalization (explained in the Buyer’s Advice below).
In terms of audio quality, the JD9 II is an incredibly clean-sounding phono stage, that has a tight bottom end and wide stereo spread. The tubes provide a certain magic - especially in the way they “track” dynamics. You won’t hear any overcooked artefacts (also known as veiling) which are so typical of cheaper tube designs. The featured pair of 12AX7 tubes are an industry standard, and well known to many a vinyl connoisseur. What sets the JD9 II apart from other tube circuits is its ability to handle both MM and MC carts. Most tube phono preamp designs struggle with the low output feeds of MC, which is why this JolIda impresses us. Its gain and signal-to-noise ratio are, frankly, unreal for the price point.
See the JoLida Audio JD9 II
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100 - 1,000 mF
Input Gain Range: 47 - 78 dB
Impedance Range: 33Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Complete control over signal gain, impedance and capacitance, power supply and power cable options.
What We Don't: Barebone looks, not that easy to get hold of in the U.S.
Make a note of the UK’s Trichord Research if you are a budding vinyl connoisseur - they do make some magnificent products, although admittedly at present they do not have an official US distributor, meaning you’ll need to hunt to find their products. The Trichord Dino is in its third generation, and as it stands it easily ticks all the high-end vinyl audiophile specs - impedance and capacitance matching for any cartridge, gain optimisation and so on - all controlled via mini dip switches found at the bottom of the unit.
A special mention is reserved for the three available optional power supplies available for this unit. Trichord’s proprietary power supplies are indeed a marvel among audiophiles: their top option is the ‘Never Connected” Power Supply designed specifically for audiophile equipment, which is as quiet as a passive circuit - hence the name. We talk about the importance of PSUs and the effect they have on sonics in our Buying Advice below the picks, so don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense. The idea of the “Never Connected PSU” is to be as quiet as audiophile battery-powered circuits, such as in the Musical Surroundings Nova II (at number four on this list). No rechargeable batteries needed, and needless to say, there’s zero mains noise.
Try the Trichord Dino Mk3
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100 - 500 pF
Input Gain Range: 36 - 72 dB
Impedance Range: 22Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Incredible versatility and features.
What We Don't: Very little.
We’ve crossed paths with iFi’s products on numerous occasions and they all seem to have something in common - a highly technological vibe, packed to the brim with features, incredible attention to detail and flexibility - even if seemingly small in size...
The vinyl boffins at iFi really know their stuff, and the Phono2 can be tweaked for any occasion - it can work with any ultra-low output ‘vintage spec’ moving coil cartridge all the way up to modern high-output moving magnet examples. The mini dip switches at the bottom of the unit take care of every possible scenario: capacitance, impedance, gain, and one of six classic frequency response curves, all related to releases by Decca, RIAA, Columbia, eRIAA, IEC and the like. We have a full explainer on passive EQ modes further below - a frequently requested feature, but normally preamps feature a couple of options, if that. iFi have taken this further than anyone to our knowledge, including the SPL ProFi at number one and the Pro-Ject RS at number five on this list - the iFi Micro iPhono2 preamp is very special indeed. It may not have the vintage boutique looks of the first top picks, but its diminutive circuit is one of the most versatile among the picks gracing this list - we simply love it.
See the iFi Micro iPhono2
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100/200 pF
Input Gain Range: 40/50/60 dB
Impedance Range: Variable 10Ω - 1000Ω
What We Like: Incredible value for money.
What We Don't: The signal-to-noise performance is not as good as the JoLida JD9 II.
The Pro-ject Tube Box DS offers a big improvement over the Austrian company’s already great-sounding, solid-state Phono Box DS. Designed by Dr. Sykora, the Tube Box DS borrows quite a few features from its more expensive sibling - the flagship Phono Box RS (number 5 on this list). For starters, you will see the same variable impedance dial on the front. You can, in fact, optimise the load of any MC cartridge while playing a record, and that impedance covers anything between 10 - 1000Ω. Where these two phono stages differ - understandably due to the different budget tiers -, is in their user definable capacitance settings. The Tube Box DS has only two options (100/200 pF).
It needs to be said that, although we feature several tube phono stage preamps on this list which work with both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, this is far from normal. As we mentioned before, generally speaking, tube designs struggle with low output MC carts. The Tube Box DS, which features two EC83/12AX7 tubes, thankfully has the ability to handle both types via the mini switches at the back. Its extensive impedance and capacitance loading options represent one of the best tube designs in terms of value. The high voltage (18V) external PSU guarantees good signal-to-noise performance, and the super-accurate RIAA frequency curve offers a familiar classic sonic signature. Despite all of this sonic goodness, when put to the test of high level playback (above three quarters of the volume knob) the Tube Box DS is less transparent than the Phono Box RS, or even JoLida JD9 II. But, to be fair, they are three to four times more expensive.
See the Pro-ject Tube Box DS
MM / MC: MM
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 50pF to 1nF (MC)
Input Gain Range: -4 dB to 74 dB (customisable in 4 dB steps)
Impedance Range: 47KΩ
What We Like: Incredible versatility, you can throw anything at it and it will come back pristinely clean.
What We Don't: Having a AD/DA conversion stage may put off some purists. A digital in/out would have made sense.
Up until recently, we had another Parks Audio phono stage on this list: the hand-wired, open ended Class-A tube phono stage Budgie - which is sadly no longer in production. Enter the Puffin, their newly designed phono stage. As Parks Audio claim, it's far more versatile for the same price. The Puffin is a bit of an odd creature, as it can handle virtually any signal with aplomb - from the lowest output MC cartridge to Line level sources, even claiming to be able to tame super-hot DACs. The secret behind these super powers is explained by its somewhat quirky design. Incoming analog signals are converted (by a state-of-the-art ADC - the Texas Instruments PCM1808 at 24/96kHz no less), processed digitally by the super brainy ARM Cortex chip (M4 80MHz with 32-bit FPU) and then converted back to analog sound by the equally impressive PCM5102A DAC chip. Before we mention all the goodness that this analog-digital-analog design can offer, let us just rant a little - with all of that digital conversion taking place, why didn't Parks include digital ins and outs? This could have been the perfect platform for an amazing DAC/Phono Stage!
Alright, let's puff in, puff out and, after having reclaimed our calm, talk about what the internal DSP engine can do for your prized record collection. Well, pretty much anything under the sun. Just like an advanced, computer-based, digital audio editing program, the Puffin can not only adjust gain, impedance and capacitance, but also offer the user extensive control over stereo imaging and equalisation. We've mentioned the industry standard RIAA curve employed by most manufacturers, but here you'll be spoiled rotten with far more exotic options, such as Teldec, London and Columbia specific curves - the complete list goes on and on. If, even for a moment, you have felt intimidated by the above jargon, relax - the Puffin comes with lots of presets that you can try. OK, but what about the audio quality? Let us just say that, for the price, it's incredible. It may not have the larger-than-life character of the discontinued Budgie, but the Puffin feels a bit more controlled in terms of its soundstage imaging and slightly more transparent. This is one versatile phono preamp and if you have a vast vinyl and/or cartridge collection, you definitely need a Puffin.
See the Parks Audio Puffin
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 120 - 440 mF
Input Gain Range: 30 - 82 dB
Impedance Range: 50Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Musical tonality, flexible impedance and capacitance range.
What We Don't: It would have been nice to have the impedance and capacitance control for both MM and MC carts - impedance adjustment for MM and capacitance for MC.
Arcam, the Cambridge-based A/V pioneers, who have been around since 1976, show no signs of slowing down. Just over a year ago, they came up with this super-specced phono stage - called the rPhono. This little phono preamp is a beautifully designed smart box, with a generous selection of user definable options, ticking all the right boxes. Offering separate MM and MC cartridge inputs, Arcam have also included fully discrete impedance loading for the left and right side of the signal, gain and capacitance adjustment, as well as a rumble filter on/off switch. Compared to many similarly priced stage boxes, this spec sheet is far more than just the usual stuff. Having said that, so many products at the bottom of the price tiers now claim to offer the same features as the big boys. It's become nearly impossible to determine how good a product is based on specs alone.
Thankfully, the rPhono walks the talk and then some. It offers a relatively quiet performance characterised by exceptional sound staging, beautiful sounding treble registers, and a tight, consistent handling of low frequencies. We can go a step further to say that the rPhono would easily stand its ground in double-blind comparison test with either the Pro-ject Tube Box or even the iFi iPhono 2. It definitely deserves your consideration if you're within the $400 budget.
See the Arcam rPhono
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: Set at 120 pF
Input Gain Range: 40 dB (MM) / 60 dB ( MC)
Impedance Range: 100Ω - 47KΩ
What We Like: Great value, well designed, line in option, Burr Brown AD conversion.
What We Don't: Archaic USB (1.1).
This Phono Box USB V, by the well known Austrian vinyl specialist company Pro-Ject, is tiny in size. Using established figures for calibration of cartridge signal impedance and capacitance, the designers have made sure that this preamp can accept most MC carts, and it is of course switchable for MM cartridge input signals as well.
The design combines Pro-Ject’s vinyl hardware credibilities with an up-to-date USB A/D (analog to digital) conversion for vinyl transfer and other sources - it can, in fact, also take line level input signals via a 3.5mm mini-jack at the back. Although the A/D interface uses quite an old USB protocol spec (1.1 - for comparison, many other systems are on version 3.0 now!), this little box has a more than decent Burr Brown converter chip capable of up to 24bit / 48 kHz analog-to-digital audio conversion (Windows and MacOS) and the Gain control knob on the front is reserved purely for the level of the digitized signal reaching your computer. We like the high-voltage (18V) external power supply - a make-or break component as far as phono preamps go. In general, this phono stage is bursting with great spec and sonics, and is pretty much unbeatable for this price.
See the Pro-Ject Phono Box USB V
MM / MC: Both
Cartridge Capacitance Range: N/A
Input Gain Range: 4 switchable gain modes (30, 42, 47, and 59dB)
Impedance Range: 47Ω (MC) / 47KΩ (MM)
What We Like: Famed Schiit build quality and sonic performance.
What We Don't: No complaints for the price.
Schiit’s reputation is pretty much second to none - we’ve reviewed many of their highly desirable audio toys, from headphone amps to DACs, and if you’re unfamiliar with their line of products (all made in the U.S.) just check their current catalog.
The Mani is their take on a specialised phono stage preamp, and it is equally at home with classic moving coils or with high output magnets as far as cartridge signals go. The input impedance that Mani can take is automatically adjusted from 47 Ohm (typical for MC carts) to 47 kOhms (MM carts) and the Mani also allows four user definable input gain settings for boosting those ultra-low moving coil signals. Just like many phono stages, Schiit have deployed the RIAA classic curve tonality and all that of course is achieved with passive equalisation. High voltage PSU keeps mains pollution noise at bay, and the sonic precision of this preamp belies its fairly modest price.
See the Schiit Mani
MM / MC: MM
Cartridge Capacitance Range: 100pF and 200pF (switchable)
Input Gain Range: 45dB
Impedance Range: 47KΩ
What We Like: Cheap, well-designed, great sound for the money
What We Don't: Stereo imaging seems a bit unbalanced.
At some point, the majority of us have come across the ART Pro Audio brand. Their "Applied Research and Technology" has survived many a decade by doing exactly that - creating low cost, but perfectly capable solutions for musicians and music lovers. The DJPREII phono stage is housed in ART's trademark, heavy-duty chassis allowing for multiple units (or various other models) to be stacked on top of each other. Its shape, buttons, LEDs and even graphics are all designed with good taste. The front of the unit features the unit's gain trim knob, with a dedicated signal/peak LED. You will also find two buttons dedicated to capacitance (switchable between 100pF and 200pF) as well as rumble filter on/off. Powered by an external power unit (DC or AC), the DJPREII feels reassuringly simple, yet sturdy and solid to the touch.
If you're new to phono stage preamps, it would be easy to have doubts about the ability of anything so inexpensive to offer any noticeable improvements to vinyl playback. We actually found this little ART box punching well above its weight - it delivered a very clear sonic picture with a substantial weight, authority, and a pleasant mellow character. It takes a little time to dial this fella - especially with the Gain knob potentially sending signals into the clipping zone - but once set, the DJPREII is worth every penny.
See the ART DJPREII
18. Pyle P999 ($15)
MM / MC: MM
Cartridge Capacitance Range: N/A
Input Gain Range: 40 dB (MM)
Impedance Range: MM: 50kΩ
What We Like: Size, features, and most of all - price!
What We Don't: Some MM carts may overload P999's Input Gain.
Welcome to the era of online prices - this little Pyle P999 (with a regular price of $47) graces our list with the price tag of $14.04, at the time of writing. It is important for us to mention the recommended retail price because Pyle are a hugely respected brand, digging away in their research labs to deliver incredible value for money. Then the internet makes it even more incredible. This little phono stage is completely legit, phono in, phono out box converting the signal of any MM cartridge to a line level. That's pretty much all there is to it - apart from the external PSU, of course, which is a standard 12-volt DC adapter.
You may not find user definable bells and whistles at this price, but what you will find is that Pyle have done this right, and as evidenced by thousands of satisfied customers, the P999 works well. This would be the perfect choice for anyone using active speakers and wanting to connect a turntable directly. Or you may even be a musician who wants to sample an old record into your recording rig? Easy - just run your turntable into this little box, connect it to your device, and you're rolling. There are plenty worse ways to spend your fourteen bucks! This sounds really good for the money and if you want to improve audio quality further, check our tips on cartridge upgrade below in our Buyer's Guide section.
See the Pyle P999
|Musical Fidelity M6||$1,799||Both||50-470pF||90dB||10Ω - 47KΩ||
|SPL Phonos ProFi MM/MC||$1,999||Both||150, 220, 330pF||50-71.5dB||10Ω-1,200Ω||Styroflex/Toroidal|
|Union Research Simply Phono||$2,860||Both||50-400pF||52dB||20Ω - 47KΩ||
4 x ECC83 / 12AX7
|Marchand LN112 MC||$1,295||MC||Set at 120pF||60dB||10Ω-47KΩ||12AX7WA/Jensen|
|Musical Surroundings Nova II||$1,200||Both||200, 300pF||40-60dB||30Ω-100KΩ||Dual-Mono/Discrete|
|Pro-Ject Phono Box RS||$999||Both||100-520pF||40-66dB||10Ω-1.2KΩ||SSM2019/LT1010|
|M2Tech EVO phonoDAC Two||$1,500||Both||N/A||0-62dB||10Ω-50KΩ||Unknown|
|Lehmann Audio Black Cube||$629||Both||100mF||36-66dB||100Ω-100KΩ||
|JoLida Audio JD9 II||$685||Both||47-220mF||60-85dB||100KΩ||
2 x ECC83 / 12AX7
|Trichord Dino Mk2||$600||Both||100-1000mF||47-78dB||33Ω-47KΩ||N/A/JFET|
|iFi Micro iPhono2||$549||Both||100-500pF||36-72dB||22Ω-47KΩ||Class A|
|Pro-ject Tube Box DS||$399||Both||100-200pF||40-60dB||10Ω-100KΩ||
2 x ECC83 / 12AX7
|Parks Audio Puffin||$399||MM||50Pf-1nF||-4-74dB||47KΩ||
|Arcam rPhono||$450||Both||120-440mF||30-82dB||50Ω - 47KΩ||
|Pro-Ject Phono Box USB V||$199||Both||Set at 120pF||40/60dB||100Ω-47KΩ||SMD|
|ART DJPREII||$49||MM||100pF / 200pF||45dB||47KΩ||
|Pyle P999||$15||MM||100pF / 200pF||45dB||47KΩ||
*CCR = Cartridge Capacitance Range
**IGR = Input Gain Range
***IR = Impedance Range
****A/B = Amp/Buffer Circuit
- Why Do I Need A Phono Preamp?
- Cartridge Types Explained: MM vs. MC vs. MI
- How Cartridges and Impedance Work Together
- Phono Preamp Circuits Explained
- Passive Equalization Explained
- Input Gain Explained
- Capacitance Explained
- Phono Preamp Power Supplies Explained
- Balanced vs.Unbalanced Connections
Phono stage preamplifiers are standalone analog devices which boost the electromagnetic signals received by the record player’s cartridge to a line level output signal, as necessary for reaching a power amplifier’s input stage. Phono stage preamps require their circuitry to be highly versatile, as they are often tasked with amplifying ultra-low signal levels delivered by cartridges of different design type (MM/MC, which we’ll explain below). These cartridges in turn deliver vastly varying signal gain and impedance results. High-end phono stage units offer extensive control over parameters such as capacitance, impedance and gain, which can prove especially beneficial in setups dealing with large music catalogs covering different eras, vinyl specifications and requiring different cartridges. The more control you have, the better things will sound!
It is important to remember not to connect the output of a turntable with a built-in phono preamp (i.e. newer generation record players featuring line outs) to the input of an external phono stage. Similarly the output of a phono stage preamp is raised to a line level, so when connecting it to the next device in your system chain (i.e. A/V receiver, hi-fi preamp or amplification) the type of input it’s connected to must be line level as well - normally labelled either as Aux or Line In just don’t connect it to the Phono In of your A/V receiver! Once a vinyl ‘rig’ is fine-tuned, simply no CD or any other digital media playback can even come close, on account of audio depth, width, warmth, punch, transient detail and just the sheer musicality emanating from vinyl records. Vinyl enthusiasts trying to improve their audio first reach out for a real good cartridge - the easiest ‘mod’ which delivers an immediate and often tremendous difference in sound quality. Getting the silent-as-a-whisper signal of the cartridge optimised to a healthy level needed by an amp’s input stage is one of the biggest challenges for achieving that coveted sublime vinyl playback. and this is why you need a great phono stage.
As with any A/V related technology, there’s always something else out there that does it better. It is a fact that your regular A/V receiver or hifi preamp probably has a phono input, which means that there is an integrated phono stage present already. It is super rare that these are any good though - they surely will do the job in most cases, but they will sound generic. This of course won’t be evident until you’ve compared them to something really good. The SPL Phonos ProFi MM/MC, for example, will sound leagues away from a stock phono input. As explained already, in the instances of putting together a proper vinyl setup, getting a dedicated phono stage with control over the cartridge signal impedance, capacitance and gain is as vital to record playback quality as the choice of your cartridge.
To deal with the challenge of boosting ultra-low signals, phono preamps often feature advanced features, such as isolated dual-mono inputs (meaning each side of the stereo feed has its own dedicated discreet circuit), input stages with variable impedance and capacitance (via pots or switches), balanced connections and even switchable passive EQ modes (explained below). Many high-end models feature truly esoteric circuit components (precision film capacitors and resistors, and low-noise Class A gain stages) which translate into staggeringly high price-tags, but the sonic results can be often astonishing - with super-low noise/distortion floor, increased resolution and transient response with super natural, life-like portrayal of any frequency spectrum.
We’ve already mentioned that record cartridges are broadly divided by two types - moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). Choosing one over the other often depends on your taste and record collection, as each type has its own sound (as well as its pros and cons) and each is arguably suited for specific purposes.
To outline their differences, let’s start with the stylus (needle) first. When tracking the record groove, the stylus moves vertically as well as horizontally, and these movements are picked and converted to electromagnetic signals and sent through the wire in the tone arm directly to the phono stage preamp. This audio signal has an ultra-low level and is generated by a magnet and/or a coil - not unlike a very primitive microphone. Every phono cartridge features both a magnet and a coil, but they can have a different placement and function in regards to the stylus and this is where cartridge types differ.
Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges are the most common type and are hugely popular with ‘ordinary’ vinyl setups - their high output is well suited to the phono stage preamps found in traditional hi-fi preamps and AV processors. They feature two magnets (one for each stereo channel) at the end of the stylus. If their high output is the big plus, the weight of the magnets is the disadvantage, as it reduces the ‘agility’ of the stylus - tracking is therefore a bit less precise, which of course affects transient detail.
Moving Coil cartridges (MC) are pretty much the reverse of MM carts - instead of two magnets they feature two coils. These smaller and lighter components result in a much more accurate tracking and greater punch detail (transient attack). Unfortunately, moving coils generate a smaller electromagnetic current than magnets, and that’s a huge disadvantage when compared to MM cartridges. Despite their great sonic detail, the output delivered by MC type carts is so low that they are often unusable with generic hifi phono preamps.
This is where a dedicated phono stage preamp well-equipped for MC signals is most needed and this combo (MC cartridge and phono stage) is arguably the first serious step towards an audiophile-grade vinyl setup. Unlike MM cartridges which generally feature replaceable styli, MC carts feature integrated needles, which cannot be replaced - when damaged or worn out you’d need to purchase a new one. While most phono preamps offer both MM and MC functionality, it's not uncommon for a high-end piece of gear (like the Marchand LN112 MC) to be MC only - as you can probably tell from the name.
You may also come across an MI cartridge, which stands for moving iron, this is a variation of the moving magnet type at present, although some vinyl specialist insist that it deserves it own category. Speaking of variations, another one exists - HOMC, which stands for high output moving coil - self explanatory, really. But honestly: MM and MC are the ones you will more likely than not have to worry about.
Cartridge impedances vary from model to model, and to get the best possible audio quality, these values also need to be matched in a specific way at the phono preamp inputs. The vinyl gospel for impedance matching of MC cartridges (the most problematic, due to their extremely low output) is that the impedance value setting of the preamp needs to be roughly 2.5 times higher than the cartridge impedance value.
If, for example, you happen to be using a classic Denon DL103 MC cartridge which has an impedance value of 40 Ohms, the close-to-ideal preamp impedance setting would have to be 100 Ohms. In order to dial in such minute but important settings, audiophiles of the past decades have had to use additional ‘step up’ impedance transformers - just so that the phono stage preamp can receive the correct load, before in turn boosting it to line level. SUPs (step up transformers) are still around, but many of the finest current phono stages now take care of any impedance matching - either with a ‘continuous’ impedance dial or via switches.
If you’ve ever had the time or inclination to hang out on vinyl audiophile forums online, you may have encountered posts of people trying to build their own phono stage preamps. Sure, many designs are simple, if you have a knack for that kind of thing - plenty of schematics can be found online. You can now easily buy any boutique component - from op amps and precious metal film caps to complete DIY preamp kits. Perhaps the best way to understand what makes phono preamps tick is looking into some of the original designs dating many decades back - like the RIAA Stereo Compensated schematic, since its circuitry is still considered a timeless classic. Let’s start with that word - compensated, as it really hits the bullseye from a design perspective and also in explaining why we need phono preamps in the first place. When manufacturing a record, grooves are cut into the vinyl, and the cut of different frequencies varies in width - high frequencies have narrower width than bass frequencies. Historically speaking, this presented an unexpected manufacturing problem, since the narrower grooves of treble frequencies were getting ‘lost’ in the record’s noise floor. To counter this effect manufacturers (well, mastering engineers, actually) had to artificially boost the highs in order to literally enlarge their grooves and lift those high registers above the noise threshold.
This is how the primary purpose of the phono-preamp (other than boosting gain) came about - to compensate for, or to tame, plainly speaking, the boosted tops (as well as sub-bass rumble frequencies) and bring them down to normal levels. The main circuit components achieving this filtering effect are called resistors. They act very much like sentries, only letting certain frequencies through. The cartridge signal passes through a 47K resistor, combined with a 100pF capacitor - these form the correct impedance of the cart while filtering out the nasty shrill boosted top end content above 30 kHz. On the other hand, the classic RIAA way of dealing with subby rumble is employing a 470Ω resistor with a 47uF capacitor. This is a simplified explainer on how a frequency response of a phono preamp circuit is built and needless to say, components with the same readings can come in a huge variety of quality as well as cost. Manufacturers of high-end phono stage preamps rely exclusively on their custom-made or boutique-grade component parts - the stuff that delivers the sweeter treble, cleaner bass and lower noise floor.
The above explainer on circuit components hopefully lifts the lid on the subject of why vinyl records and cartridges from different eras of vinyl manufacturing may require a specific frequency response curve to portray the correct nuance and detail of the release. Many of the phono stage preamps on this list deploy one of several built-in switchable ‘classic equalisation’ modes - just like the RIAA example mentioned, but let us immediately note that their function is quite unlike regular EQs, as found in A/V receivers and/or integrated hi-fi preamps.
In a sense, these modes are very subtle - the passive circuitry simply ‘corrects’ the cartridge signal’s frequency response (and to an extent its signal-to-noise ratio) to match and mimic that of certain LP releases and specific decades from the historic vinyl manufacturing. Think of them as a filter that mimics the sound of a certain era. There are several universally recognised signature EQ curves - those associated with Decca, RIAA, Columbia, eRIAA, IEC, and eRIAA/IEC. If you happen to be using a cartridge with a vintage Decca spec (output, capacitance, impedance), just flip the switch/dial on your phono preamp accordingly - this will be as close as it gets to hearing the music ‘as it was intended’, certainly giving that old spinner an unexpected ‘remastered’ vibe.
We already mentioned the intricate relationship between a record cartridge and the phono preamp. It’s a bit like how in the Batman movies a super small bat symbol (in this case the low level cartridge signal) is magnified by a huge spotlight (the preamp) resulting in Batman’s logo looming over the whole of Gotham city (alright, the metaphor here has to be a superhero-grade vinyl playback level). Indeed it’s all about optimum signal levels - starting at the source and moving along through every part of the signal chain.
How phono preamps manage sufficient gain figures, especially for LOMC (low output moving coil) carts is achieved in different ways and that depends on several factors. Firstly, it matters whether the circuit is solid state or vacuum tube - SS designs are considered easier to achieve high gain and low noise performance than tubes as a rule. Solid state phono stage designs rely on the op amp circuits (operational amplifiers) and resistors used. Just like DAC hardware chipsets are crucial for digital audio, op amps are important for the gain capacity and the overall musical character of a phono stage. In regards to tube circuits, yes, they can sound glorious but gain optimisation in such circuits often require additional gain boosters such as transformers. They work great with MM cartridges, but not having enough gain, they may require a sidekick to help them manage those difficult low output MC cart signals.
Capacitance is a term describing and measuring electromagnetic signal behaviour characteristics like load and resistance, which occur as the signal travels through cable wire, switches and so on. It is measured in picofarads (pF) and…OK, let’s stop right here with the lab jargon and explain why is this so important for cartridges (MC in particular) and phono preamps.
You will have seen by now that when talking of phono stage specs, we mention their ability (or not) to adjust capacitance values, in addition to signal impedance and gain (and all of that when going from the cartridge into the phono preamp). This feature (capacitance adjustment) is most needed with MC cartridges, which produce very low output signals. To deliver the correct frequencies to the phono stage preamp, different MC cartridges have specifically recommended pF values that the preamp needs to match.
This is where we need to note that poor quality (or simply too long) phono cables running between the record player and the phono preamp (as well as pots, switches, and so on) that the signal happens to pass through can increase the pF value of a MC cartridge.This increased pF value (or excessive capacitance) affects the cartridge's inductance. Even if we’re starting to get big jargon-y again, what you need to know is that this is something you can hear. Excessive capacitance makes an audible difference. Simply put, in such instances the sonic character of the record player changes because Incorrect loads act as unwanted filters or equalisers, introducing resonant peaks (a bit like those heard when scrolling through stations on an old fashioned AM radio) and these can ‘rob’ your audio of serious amounts of frequencies - mostly slashing the bell-like clear top end, and making the material sound ‘muffled’, ‘honky’ or ‘hollow’. The general rule is that high capacitance values reaching the inputs of phono stage preamps result in a darker and duller audio signature. Lower values (than recommended for the cartridge) would result in an overbright and distorted signal. The ability to adjust the pF value directly from the phono preamp effectively cures the problem. An example of the process of fine-tuning the cartridge vs preamp capacitance would again start with taking the cartridge’s pF value. Look, stick with us on this. It’s complex, but it’s important, and we think the following example should clear things up.
For instance, a contemporary star performer like the Soundsmith Zephyr cartridge has something like 100 - 200 pF value. A dedicated vinyl enthusiast would also have to take the capacitance specs of their tone arm (and its internal signal cable) - a worthy model such as the SME 309 Tonearm has capacitance values of 15.0 pF per channel. The sum of all of these pF figures needs to be matched at the preamp’s input capacitance settings (where available of course).
One of this article’s top picks - the Pro-Ject Phono Box RS preamp - has several switchable settings - 100, 200, 300, 420, or 520 pF and assuming that the cart+tonearm+earth wire (and the thumb screw of the latter - yep every little thing ups the pF values) come to around 200 pF total. This should be the starting point for setting the Pro-Ject. One might have to flip between that and, say, 300 pF or even 420 pF (in case of a longer wire), and the sonic difference would in most cases be quite noticeable - again, mainly in the resonant character of the high frequencies. The most natural-sounding setting wins! What it comes down to is this: yes, there are some numbers involved, but don’t freak out. A little experimentation, and you’ll have this down pat.
However ‘audiophile’ the circuit components may be, the phono preamplifier won’t do its job unless it has a top-notch power supply. Besides powering the system, there is a secondary role assigned to the PSU unit of a phono stage - one of a hum-destroyer. The noise picked up when amplifying such quiet signals as a cartridge feed is referred to as ‘mains pollution’. This percolates through the circuit, limiting the sonic benefits of high-end components. To minimise these mains pollution effects, manufacturers opt for high quality DC to DC converter chips, external high-voltage PSUs (Power Supply Units) which minimise interference and guarantee plenty of signal headroom. Vinyl connoisseurs can and do spend fortunes on power supplies and it doesn’t stop there - specialised power cables are also an important sonic factor as they affect the frequency response of the cartridge. Battery powered phono stages such as the Musical Surroundings Nova II are also popular with purists, as they solve mains pollution problems by completely removing mains-powered PSUs from their circuit.
Balanced and unbalanced connections are often referred to as pro and semi-pro respectively, and can at times have a dramatic effect to audio performance. Generally speaking, balanced connections on phono preamps are rare and are normally found in the high end market examples (mostly as a three-pin XLR outputs). Are they important? Very much so. To avoid another massive tech jargon tangent let’s just say that balanced outputs offer an impedance balancing between the individual wires within the connected signal cable, resulting in a better transference of the audio signal - better in terms of signal to noise ratio. Balanced circuits may be indicated by a sign: +4dB, unbalanced ones, by: -10dB. In the real world, spaces with lots of wiring and/or light dimmers (commercial buildings, offices and the like) are notorious for causing ground loops and hums to audio equipment. These are the cases where balanced outputs can come handy and act as effective hum-destroyers.