Vinyl is on the rise again, not only with audiophiles but also for the everyday music enthusiasts. Part of the appeal is reverting back to materialism, feeling your music and with that building a great audio setup, a preamp is an important part of this setup.
Now you might already own a record player or you might be looking to buy one. I can tell you now that in every record player setup there is a preamp needed, and it is rather important. If you would like to know in-depth how a record player setup works and how a signal is converted you take a look at our article Does a Record Player need an Amplifier. Or you can read our article on what other accessories you need for your turntable setup.
In short: The preamp transfers the audio coming from the needle into a signal that other audio devices can work with. Some turntables have a preamp built-in and some don’t. Usually, the high-end models don’t have a built-in preamp as audiophiles like to choose their own external ones. It is also the most common upgrade a vinyl beginner can do to bring his vinyl setup to the next level. You can look here for our take on the best beginner turntables to get you started.
So what exactly is a preamp?
Preamp is short for pre-amplifier. A preamp converts and boosts a so-called PHONO signal coming from the needle and records directly to an RIAA signal which is standardized in all modern electronics.
In old receiver and amplifiers, there is a Phono input built-in however since the standard is not used that often any more electronic manufacturers have cut out this feature to cut costs.
And while in many audio setups there is already a preamp either within the turntable or within the (old) amplifier it is always a great idea to upgrade to an external preamp. It can just improve the sound quality a lot as it amplifies the audio source. A bad preamp, usually built-in a cheap turntable, will compress the sound too much to the extent that with dense music you won’t hear all the different instruments well enough. But it will rather sound like a big block of music. An external preamp, even the budget ones described in this article, can therefore improve every record player setups.
According to us, these are some of the best budget preamps [phono] you might want to check out. They are all suitable for every setup but there are differences in specifications and price.
The Best Design and Audio Quality you can find under $100.
U-Turn is another American based brand that makes really amazing turntables we love to recommend. However, the brand also has come out with a great budget preamp called the U-Turn Pluto.
The design is beautiful, a full metal casing with rounded corners give this an Apple-like feel. The casing is made from high-quality and durable steel that is impact resistant and helps reducing resonance. The lightweight design will allow you to easily transport it with other equipment. Its small sizing makes it a great addon next to any turntable.
The simple design is not the only thing that comes across as clean, the sound coming out of this device is transparent and dynamic. I mean the fact that you can’t tell its there, really means that there is no coloring of the sound. It just straight up takes whatever the turntable is playing and passes on a neutral and usable signal. Truly a step up from the compressed sound that comes out of some beginner turntables. The U-turn audio preamp is low noise and features WIMA capacitors that are precision resistant and produce a remarkably clear sound. The subsonic filter will ensure that any low-frequency rumble is removed.
Overall the U-Turn Pluto is an excellent preamp that can be a great upgrade to any built-in preamp and really gives a transparent sound that you can enjoy for years to come.
» Really great modern design.
» A nice transparent sound that works on all genres.
» Made in the United States.
» The design has to fit your turntable and interior.
Music Hall Mini
Premium quality by an established brand for a very affordable price.
The Music Hall brand has a great reputation under audiophiles and for a good reason. The American based company always produces devices made of high-quality materials. The Music Hall Mini is no exception.
The preamp features a magnetic mechanism that boosts the sound. The input capacity of this machine is 120f and its output impedance is 1kOhms, in short, a nice signal boost. Of course, the preamp features standard RCA jacks so you can connect it directly to any analog output system that you might want to use. In addition to that, you will also find a 3.5mm output so you can easily connect your headphones or powered speakers.
The preamp is, as the name implies, rather small but it is also effective and it will work with any turntable connect it to. It has a metal casing that gives a premium feel to the design while remaining relatively light. Ideal for users that want to transport their vinyl or audio setup. It is minimalistic but still gives a sense of cool gadget.
Overall this device offers a premium design and great audio quality for such a small. The sound is best described as deep and rich and totally resonance-free. It can really get the most out of your vinyl collection. The fact that it is an American made product is rather amazing considering the price. If you don’t have an external preamp yet for your audio setup this can be the perfect device to upgrade.
» Deep and rich sound.
» Made product in United States.
» Metal casing that feels premium.
» Design is on the small side
The Best low budget option that produces great sound.
If really want to go low budget the Rolls VP29 is a steal since it costs just $ 50 at the time of writing. It is made in the USA and focuses on the basic functionality, boosting the phono signal to the RIAA standard.
Its design is simple as the box contains no buttons or switches. It really stands out with its bright red color. It is not the most modern or sophisticated look as you will find with other preamps. But rather a more industrial look that a band would take with them on tour.
In terms of functionality besides the RCA output it also contains a 3.5mm output so you can connect your powered speakers directly for example. The led light on the front of the device indicates wheter there is power and a connection is made with amplifier, it is not too bright to be distracting. It also has a ground plug which can help keeping the hum away.
The sound is considered transparent and nice upgrade over most built-in preamps. With little resonance and the possibility to add a ground wire this preamp can perform well with every type of music genre.
» The only decent option in this price range.
» The led light actually is quite handy to know the status.
» Made in the United States.
» You have to like to color red or hide the device.
After having reviewed a lot of preamps and turntables with a built-in preamp we think that in some cases it can be a really good option to buy an external preamp even in this budget price range. Of course in the case, your turntable does not have a built-in preamp but it also is the first step vinyl enthusiast take when upgrading their setup. The top two preamps in this list will be in almost all cases be a nice upgrade for turntables under the $300 dollar mark.
We think the U-Turn Pluto is the best option as it has really transparent sound, all needed ports, and really great aluminum design. It suits all genres and is a nice addition to any setup. The Music Hall Mini is a decent runner up that is more suitable to take on the road. It has a sturdy design and decent audio quality for its price. Lastly, the Rolls VP29 is the only decent low budget option we could find. While it is not the prettiest it functions well converting the sound signal. Also, it is really small and perfect to carry with you.
Of course, the fact that all these models are American made gives a good indication of the quality, you can’t go wrong with any of these three.