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Last updated: June 26, 2021
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Unlike most media players, which can easily connect and play through pretty much any stereo system, vinyl turntables require some additional pieces to produce the desired sound quality. One of these pieces is a phono preamp. These devices take the signal from the vinyl record and boost it so that it can be played through your sound system. If you want to get a good sound coming out of your new or vintage turntable, then you need to be sure that you have the best phono preamp under $500.
Now, there is a lot that you need to take into account with these systems. There are several different types of phono preamps, and these will only work if they are compatible with the cartridges that you wish to play. Depending on what you intend to play, you will also have to take the amount of THD (total harmonic distortion) of the preamp into account, as well as the gain range that you need to produce your desired sound quality.
While this all might sound daunting, don’t worry! We have done all of the hard work for you. We have spent hundreds of hours reading through thousands of customer reviews, to put together a comprehensive buying guide of the very best phono preamps under $500. In this article, we will cover everything you need to know, to find the perfect device for your needs, as well as an in-depth analysis of some of the best models on the market today.
If you are looking to find the best phono preamp under $500, then this just might be the one for you. It is extremely versatile and easy to use. It has three different gain levels, which will allow you to adjust the sound quality based on what your personal needs and preferences might be when it comes to your music. It is an especially compact preamp, and while it does emit a low humming sound when you are not listening to music, it is easy to forget that it is there at all.
The design of this model is especially sleek. It is designed so that it will match whatever type of turntable you decide to match it with, no matter if it is a vintage or modern model. The valves (tubes) for this phono stage can be replaced. This is a nice touch, as these components do tend to age rather quickly if you use the preamp all of the time.
The controls for this preamp are second to none. They are extremely easy to adjust to get the right sound quality for your records. It is also nice and easy to hook this model up, since everything is clearly labeled. This preamp can also be used with either MM or MC cartridges, so there truly is no limit to what types of music you can listen to, with it hooked up to your turntable.
While this is one of the most expensive preamps on this list, it is well worth the money. This is especially true if you are someone who utilizes lots of different turntables and audio systems. What makes this preamp so good for lots of different systems is the large gain range. This versatile system can be easily adjusted to fit pretty much any type of system, including MM or MC cartridges.
The adjustment system is also nice and simple to use. Unlike many other preamps out there, this one has a digital display and a simple to use toggle switch. This makes it quick and easy to find the gain level that your system requires to create the sound quality that you desire. This preamp is also super simple to hookup correctly, thanks to the clearly labeled ports right on the front of the device.
Another key feature of this system is that it can be used with more than just vinyl turntables. While most phono preamps can only be used with turntables, this model can actually be used with CDs. This is pretty much the only preamp at this price level that can handle amplifying the signals created by a CD player, without risking any damage to the preamp.
If you are looking for a budget pick phono preamp, Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box MM/MC has got you covered. Apart from being affordable, it provides many features. First of all, the manufacture and quality of the design are excellent. The equipment is made with high-quality materials that make it somehow solid. Although it is a small size, it is very dense, and this density adds to its solidity.
However, what we love more is the fact that it works with just about any cartridge. This means less spending for you, and more opportunity to benefit from all your phono preamp’s features. This phono preamp improves sound quality. The latter is much clearer, fuller, and even sounds superior when the volumes are low.
The Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box MM/MC is also user-friendly. It comes with RCA cables and is easy to set up. Making use of the user manual, you will be able to plug and pair your equipment with your other devices, and benefit from a nearly flawless sound.
Furthermore, it delivers high fidelity performance for both moving coil cartridges and moving magnet. This is possible with its low noise, distortion, and flat RIAA equalization curve. For more power, it is capable of a maximum output of 9.5V RMS / 1 kHz.
Unfortunately, we deplore the fact that there are no LED lights to show that the equipment is functioning.
This little phono stage is designed and produced by one of the most premier audio companies in the game today – Emotiva. They have a reputation for making high-quality, but affordable, audio equipment, and this phono stage is no exception. It is an extremely small preamp. The compact design and easy-to-hookup ports make it great for pretty much any audio system that you might have set up.
Even though it is a relatively small preamp, it can still produce great sounds. The preamp itself is nice and quiet, so you won’t need to worry about a bothersome humming sound with this model. It can also be used with either type of cartridge, which only adds to its versatility. Finally, even though this is a smaller size preamp, that doesn’t mean that it is flimsy. It is built to last and has a durable and sleek case, which will help to keep it from suffering any damage if you were to accidentally drop it.
The controls on this preamp are second to none. They are simple to use and allow for a high level of control over the sound quality that will be produced. No matter what you intend to listen to, you will be able to achieve your desired results with some slight adjustments. The THD is also really low for this model, regardless of the cartridge type you want to use.
What are our favorite features?
Easy to hookup
Can be used with MM or MC cartridges
Easy to adjust
What could be better?
Doesn’t work as well for MM cartridges as other units
If you are in the market for a phono preamp for a more permanent setup, then this might be a good option for you. It is a bit on the bulky side, and the tubes that are sticking out of the top would raise some serious portability issues. It would be basically impossible to take this preamp with you from place to place without risking damage to the device.
If, however, you are going to be keeping this phono stage in a permanent position, this is a wonderful device. It has a small amount of TDH to go along with a lot of signal-boosting power. It has a gain range of 48 dB, which is one of the highest on the market. Of course, it can only be used with MM cartridges, which will limit the types of turntable systems you can use it with.
This is one of the easiest preamps to setup, thanks to the clearly labeled ports right on the front of the preamp. You will just need to make sure that you have the proper red and white RCA cables, and you will be good to go, as far as setting up your permanent preamp setup goes.
One of the biggest issues with a lot of preamps, even the most expensive models on the market, is that they are sometimes quite noisy. This is especially true when you are not using your turntable to listen to music. If you are looking for one of, if not the, quietest phono stages on the market today, then this might be the right model for you. Even when you are not using your turntable, this preamp is extremely quiet. This is because this system has an AC polarity switch that helps to eliminate that annoying hum.
This model can be used with either MM or MC cartridges. It is very simple to switch between the two – all that you have to do is flip a switch on the back of the preamp. Depending on what type of cartridge you are using, this model can provide you with a wide range of gain.
This would also be a great option for a more portable preamp option. It is nice and thin and doesn’t have any protruding tubes to worry about while you travel. This makes it a great option for someone who is going to be going from place to place and setting up a wide variety of turntables.
What makes it stand out?
Easy to hookup
Works for both MC and MM cartridges
Low noise level
Can be used for recording
Which disadvantages must you keep in mind?
Limited gain range
Things to Consider
In this section, we will go over everything you need to know to find the best phono preamp under $500 to meet your auditory needs.
What is a phono preamp and how do you use one?
A phono preamp is a device that acts as a translator between your turntable and your speakers. The signal that comes out of the cartridge on any turntable is about 1000x lower than the signal that you would get from a CD player or streaming device.
Since this signal is so low, you need something to boost it so that you can hear it through your speakers. A phono preamp, or phono stage, amplifies the signal from your turntable to a level that allows you to connect it to your stereo system, in much the same way that you would connect with any other audio source.
Features to consider before buying
There are several key features that you need to take into account when you are looking for a great phono preamp. In this section, we will cover everything you need to know to make sure you are getting the perfect model for your needs.
Type and functionality
There are two different types of phono preamps on the market, and each one is designed to work with the two different types of cartridges that are found inside of turntables. Before you purchase your phono preamp, you need to make sure you look carefully at your turntable, so that you are sure that you get the right phono stage for your needs.
MM (Moving Magnet) – Most of the newer style turntables utilize this type of cartridge. It does not require as much amplification as an MC cartridge. If you were to hook an MC phono to an MM cartridge, the sound would most likely be distorted.
MC (Moving Coil) – This style of cartridge has less output than an MM cartridge, which means that it requires more amplification. While you most certainly could hook up an MC cartridge to an MM phono, it probably wouldn’t be loud enough for you to hear it.
Thankfully, most single phono stages on the market can be used with both of these cartridge types. This will give you the ability to connect the right phono stage to either of these cartridges and get the quality of sound you desire. These models will usually have a small switch that allows you to switch between the two modes, based on the type of cartridge you are using.
The gain range of a phono stage describes the amount of amplification that it can create. Depending on the type of cartridge that you are going to be using, i.e., either MC or MM, you will need a different level of gain.
Thankfully, most phono preamps spell it out for you quite simply. Pretty much all of them will provide you with a minimum of 40dB of gain, which is usually plenty. Of course, if you are looking for an even bigger boost, you can always go for a model that gets you up to 45-50 dB of gain. This would probably only be for a turntable that uses an MC cartridge, as these require a bit more amplification than an MM one.
THD stands for Total Harmonic Distortion. This is a measurement system that is used to estimate the degree to which a system is nonlinear. A THD measurement is made by applying a sine wave as an input to a system, and measuring the total energy that appears at the output of the system, in comparison to the input frequency.
In more basic terms, the THD that is produced by a phono stage will help to predict how clear the sound quality is. The closer the THD measurement is to zero, the “truer” the sound is going to be, since there will be less distortion than if the THD measure was higher.
Phono preamps are rather complicated devices that are extremely easy to set up. All you need to get the job done with a phono stage are a few different cables and adapters, which will allow you to connect to both your turntable and a sound system.
You will need two sets of audio cables, so be sure that you look for a preamp that comes with them. These will allow you to connect your turntable to your phono stage, and your phono stage to your sound system of choice. You should also be sure to keep your cable length as short as possible and go no longer than five feet. The longer the cables, the more likely you are to encounter a loss of signal or sound distortion.
While it might be tempting to stick with as basic of a model as possible, there are lots of extra features to consider when you are looking at a preamp. As you have already read, some models can switch between MM and MC amplifying modes, which is quite handy if you have some turntables.
You should also look for a model that allows you to adjust the level of gain that the preamp will provide. That way, you will be able to create the exact sound that you desire, depending on what you are listening to.
There are some turntables out there that already have a preamp built into their system. If you are using one with a digital interface, then, odds are, that there is already a preamp built into the table.
If you are using your turntable with a mixer, then you will not need an additional preamp, as mixers function as a preamp.
If your system has a preamp built into it, there are a few ways to tell. If you have an older system, there should be an input port that says PHONO. Conversely, if you have a newer system that has a USB port, it has a built-in preamp.
It is not recommended to connect a media player, iPod, or a smartphone to a preamp. These devices do not require their signal to be amplified in the same manner as a turntable. While it is possible to hook up these devices to a preamp, it will not help the sound quality at all. In fact, it will sound distorted and could cause damage to the preamp.
If your turntable does require an external preamp, then you will need several cables to connect it to your sound system. The preamp should come with the necessary power adapter, so that is taken care of right off the bat.
You will also need two sets of RCA cables. One set will be used to connect your turntable to your preamp, and the other set will be used to connect your preamp to your sound system. This is relatively easy to do, since they are color-coded as red and white. You should also make sure that you get a cable under five feet. Anything longer than this, and you run the risk of the sound being distorted or interrupted.
Of all the different models on the market, the best phono preamp under $500 overall has to be the Pro-Ject Tube Box S. It is one of the easiest phono stages to set up and utilize. This model has three different gain stages, to quickly and easily amplify either MM or MC cartridges to the sound level that your system needs. To put it simply, if you want to get a great phono preamp under $500, then this is a hard model to pass up.
If you are operating on a tighter budget, then you might want to check out the Pro-Ject Audio Phono Box MM/MC. It is simple to set up, can be used with both MM or MC cartridges, and, best of all, can be used to rip your vinyl records onto your computer to save your records digitally. For the price, this is a great option.
On the other hand, if money isn’t an issue and you are seeking the most versatile phono preamp out there, then you need to check out the Puffin Phono DSP phono preamp. It is simple to hook up and has, by far, the widest and most sensitive gain range on the market. This is the perfect choice for someone who is going to be hooking up to lots of different turntables and sound systems.