Best Phono Preamp under $500

The world of audio is a vast one indeed. One could spend years learning all about the different technical details and pieces of equipment out there and still feel like there is a whole lot to continue to learn. That is because the technical aspect of how sound gets reproduced from records is a fascinating and somewhat complicated affair. If you are into turntables you do not need to be a master at this, but you should have some knowledge of how your sound circuit works to avoid a few deadly mistakes and get the most out of your money and equipment. 

Today we are going to go into the best Phono Preamps we were able to find. Make sure that if you are shopping for one you need one on your setup. Many turntables come with a built-in pre-amp, and that is also the case for a lot of speaker sets. There is a very quick and painless way to find out: Just plug your turntable directly into your speakers and check the sound levels. If what you hear is fine then you should not add a pre-amp to your circuit, it will probably result in ruined speakers. Having gone through the warning, let’s dig in!

Puffin Phono DSP

Puffin Phono DSP in-depth review

Parks Audio’s Puffin pre-amp is a remarkable piece of equipment. It is sure to stun you with the number of options you can set, and this gives you a very high degree of freedom when it comes to setting this up with just about any piece of equipment you may already have. 

This is a slick piece of equipment that has a very particular kind of look. It may not fit with the style of some of the more vintage options out there, but it is small enough that you will be able to sit it just about anywhere and not draw too much attention if that is what you are looking for. The Puffin has all its connectors on its top face, which makes wiring it in or out a bit more comfortable than it can be with the models that have connectors on the back of the device. If you are looking to hide your cables you should consider this, though, cause it makes it a bit harder to hide them while they are sticking out and upwards. 

The Puffin is quite smart when it comes to dealing with the incoming signal and offers quite a few excellent processing options that require little manual setup. The sound quality is quite good and the build quality is top-notch here, too. 

One feature that is not present in this model is the ability to plug it into any digital receiver, such as a USB port to a PC. That is because the Puffin deals only in analog signals, which is a huge plus if you are a sound purist, but a bit of a drawback if you are looking to digitize your collection.

PROS

  • Excellent overall quality.

CONS

  • No digital outputs.

iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp

iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp buying guide review

When it comes to sound quality for your money it is very hard to compete with the iFi Zen. This Pre-amp sounds truly incredible, and can easily hold its own against equipment that is several times more expensive than it. This is a fully analog pre-amp, which means that digitizing your collection will have to be done with an extra piece of equipment, but that is on purpose to maintain sound fidelity as high as it can go. They have done an excellent job at this and the outputs that are present are more than enough to make it fit into any traditional setting. 

There are quite a few options to set on the Zen so that you can shape the sound you get out of them to your heart’s content. This is great news for audio experts out there that have a very refined ear and are looking for nothing but the best. Because of the number of options, you will have no problem whatsoever making the Zen fit into your existing equipment, it will adapt perfectly.

Although the device looks great its style may not be for everyone. Those of you out there going for a vintage look will probably want to search for something else or hide the Zen behind something else because its modern design will stand out a lot in a more traditional setting. It would be a shame to miss out on this piece of equipment for aesthetic reasons, though, so keep it in mind anyway.

PROS

  • Unbeatable in bang for your buck when it comes to sound quality.
  • Fully analog and customizable sound output.

CONS

  • Modern design may not fit your style.

Pro-Ject Tube Box S2

Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 preamp review 2021

If you are looking for an affordable solution perhaps there are better places to find it than here with the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. That is ok, though, cause if you are going for a vacuum tube setup you probably know exactly what you are looking for, and you know that you can’t get it from a transistor-based pre-amp. This is a beautiful machine that, although it is on the expensive side, will be worth every penny for someone that is searching for that warm sound that only tubes can provide. 

The good thing about tubes is that you can replace them to upgrade your sound down the road if you feel you want or need to. They will eventually wear out, so keep that in mind too when deciding. This particular model looks fine and will look great at the side of most equipment. The pre-amp itself is quite small because of a few design decisions, including the fact that the power source is outside of the device to improve sound quality. There are a few sound features such as a filter and the fact that this pre-amp is built to add as little noise as possible to your signal and clean it up quite a bit. The result is a piece of hardware that looks fine and performs remarkably well, but a bit on the expensive side and only for those of you out there that know exactly what you are looking for. There are not many great options out there for vacuum tube pre-amps, at least not at this price range, the Tube Box S2 may be expensive compared to others on this list, but is excellent compared to other tube boxes.

PROS

  • One of the best Vacuum Tube options out there.
  • Discrete design.
  • Excellent sound quality.

CONS

  • A tube pre-amp may not be beginner-friendly.
  • A lot more expensive in terms of initial price and maintenance costs.

Musical Fidelity, Phono preamplifier V90-LPS

Musical Fidelity, Phono preamplifier V90-LPS review

No fancy tubes or striking looks here, but the V90-LPS will surely not disappoint when it comes to sound quality. It is a very good piece of equipment that is a bit more affordable than a lot of its competition in this quality range. You are sure to notice a significant improvement over built-in pre-amps and a lot of other, even more expensive, standalone pre-amps. You can only set the kind of cartridge you are using on the box itself, but it is designed to filter as well as amplify, so your resulting sound will be quite clean. 

You will have no problem keeping this box around for many years since it is specifically designed to last for ages. We have seen several of these out in the wild and we can vouch for their longevity. 

When it comes to looks this pre-amp will fit right in with many other pieces of equipment available in the market today. That is because it does not try to make a strong statement with its looks. Rather it goes for a more subtle approach that makes it blend in better with a wider range of setups.

We are happy to report that this box is surely built to last. You will find excellent materials here, and the build quality is superb. You will have to go out of your way to break this box because a lot of attention to detail has gone into designing it. If you take the usual precautions you will surely have several years to enjoy the beautiful sound that comes out of the V90-LPS.

This is a solid choice all around and will fit any other equipment you may already have, it is a great step up from similar equipment of lower sound quality and will help you on your way to building the perfect sound system for your record collection.

PROS

  • Very good sound quality.
  • The price tag is very reasonable.
  • The design is discrete enough to make it fit into many setups.

CONS

  • The box is bigger than many of its counterparts.

Rega FONO MC Phono Stage

Rega FONO MC Phono Stage preamp review

This is the only item on this list that is specially designed to work only with MC cartridges. That means that you need to pay special attention to the cartridge on your turntable before you make a decision. Only Metal Coil cartridges will work properly with this pre-amp since all of its features are designed with this kind of cartridge in mind. Cartridges are replaceable, so that should not be a deal-breaker here, but you will need to factor it into your decision because it may mean that you have to spend some extra money on replacing a cartridge.

As far as price goes the Rega is reasonably priced for the sound quality you get out of it, but it is not on the cheap side. You can certainly find other options out there that offer better bang for your buck.

The design of this box is a bit on the bulky side and rather heavy and unappealing. It will certainly not go unnoticed, so if that is what you need you should probably look elsewhere. 

Aside from those small drawbacks the box performs very well, you can expect a very high quality of sound coming out of this pre-amp at all times. You can also expect it to last for a very long time because it is built with excellent materials.

If you have a Rega turntable you should have this box on your shortlist of candidates without question, because it is specially designed to work very well with Rega turntables and Rega MC cartridges. If, on the other hand, you have different equipment you may get the same or better results with a box that is a bit less expensive or has a few more features packed into it.

PROS

  • Designed to work very well with your Rega ecosystem.
  • Very good quality of materials and build.

CONS

  • Quite bulky and heavy.
  • Only works properly with MC cartridges.

Leave a Reply