Phono Pre-Amplifiers for Vinyl Lovers on a Budget

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Pro_Ject Tube Box DS2

Audiophiles start looking at the ceiling or mumbling about $300 cable cradles when you bring up the idea of affordable phono pre-amplifiers – because G-d forbid you connect your turntable to an external box that doesn’t cost as much as your entire system. Manufacturers have taken the guesswork out of the equation for people who are new to the world of record playback by integrating phono pre-amplifiers inside their amplifier offerings with a focus on high-output moving magnet cartridges.

NAD, Cambridge Audio, Naim, Yamaha, Audiolab, Marantz, and Pro-Ject have all wisely taken this approach making their integrated amplifiers more appealing to a wider audience. Consumers want simplicity; and the least number of cables behind their rack/media unit as possible.

But what about those people who don’t care about an extra set of interconnects, or want to hear just how good their overpriced audiophile 200 gram reissues sound?

What about them?

It’s actually easy in 2019 to spend $89,000 on a phono pre-amplifier. Let that percolate.

Back to reality and the spice mines of Kessel for the rest of us.

There are dozens of phono pre-amplifiers priced between $129 – $995 USD that constitute the majority of sales in that category. I have no empirical data to back that up, but it’s a hunch that I am willing to run with.

Schiit Audio Sol

The problem with choice (somebody shoot me if I start to sound like a Communist) is that people stare at a wall filled with options and either pick none of them because they can’t decide which one is right for them, or they pick the one that looks the nicest.

A phono pre-amplifier isn’t supposed to look nice. In a perfect world, it should sit all alone on your rack and not make your phono cartridge sound like dreck. A phono preamp is also asked to apply the RIAA equalization curve to the signal, reverting it back to the shape it was on the original recording. No pressure there.

The problem is that phono cartridges don’t play well together in the sandbox. They don’t have the same output level, and require relatively precise loading (impedance) to sound their best.

Pro tip: Never plug a high-output source like a CD player into a phono stage (external or the internal one on your amplifier). Bad things will happen.

So what should you buy?

If your cartridge buying options lean towards high-output moving magnet cartridges like the 2M series from Ortofon, Grado Labs Prestige or Reference models, Nagaoka MP-series, Audio-Technica VM7** models, or a high-output moving coil like the Dynavector 10×5 MK II – this guide will offer a number of worthwhile options that won’t break the bank and sound excellent with the aforementioned options.

Schiit Audio Mani ($129.00)

Schiit Audio Mani

• Inexpensive and very quiet performance
• Works with both MM and MC cartridges
• Decent pacing
• Warm midrange
• Not the deepest sounding soundstage
• Can sound slightly restrained or polite depending on the cartridge

Cambridge Audio Duo ($299.00 on Amazon)

Cambridge Audio Duo

• Zero noise. Deep space nobody can hear you scream level of quiet
• Works with both MM and MC cartridges
• Very little adjustability with MC cartridges
• Solid pacing
• Warm tonal balance
• Headphone amplifier has engaging sound and a lot of power

Moon by SimAudio 110LP v2 ($399.00 on Amazon)

• Built like tank
• Works well with both MM and MC cartridges
• Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
• Zero noise
• Neutral sounding tonal balance that makes a lot of cartridges sound their best
• Excellent sense of pace
• Borscht for the asking price

iFi Micro Phono 2 ($549.00 on Amazon)

iFi Micro Phono 2

• Compact design can fit almost anywhere
• Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
• Sounds better with warmer sounding cartridges
• Very neutral sounding – perhaps a shade too cool with analytical carts
• Solid pacing
• Built like tank and will survive Zombie apocalypse

Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 ($699.00 on Amazon)

• Excellent build quality
• Tubes give both MM and MC carts fleshed out presentation
• Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
• Sound excellent with wide range of cartridges
• Warmer tonal balance
• Excellent soundstage depth
• Music moves with solid pace
• Underrated product that more should try

Croft Acoustics RIAA Phono ($995.00)

Croft Acoustics RIAA

• Minimalist design
• Utilizes tubes but doesn’t have stereotypical lush sounding presentation
• Slightly noisy
• MM only (but will work with low-output MCs with Step-up transformer)
• Brilliant pacing
• Music just sounds alive with this
• Human voice with a warm sounding cartridge is superbly engaging in a way other phono pre-amplifiers struggle to achieve

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