Are you looking for the best phono preamp to enhance your vinyl listening experience?
With so many options available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right one. That’s why we’ve done the research and compiled a list of some of the top contenders in the market.
From the MOON by Simaudio 110LP V2 to the Rega Fono MM MK III and the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp, we’ll break down the features, pros, and cons of each to help you make an informed decision.
Whether you’re a seasoned audiophile or just starting out, read on to find out which phono preamp is the best fit for you.
What Is The Best Phono Preamp
After thorough research and analysis, we have determined that the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp is the best option for most vinyl enthusiasts.
This entry-level preamp boasts a feature set that exceeds what most competitors offer, including selectable gain, a smart subsonic filter, and even an additional 4.4mm balanced out. Its sound quality is excellent, with great depth and nuance, and it delivers a lower-than-average noise floor.
One of the standout features of the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp is its smart bass roll-off switch, which uses AI to dictate bass roll-off and eliminates low flutter and drive rumble without cutting out the juicy low end of your track. It also handles MC capabilities with four switchable gain levels on the rear.
Compared to other popular options like the Schitt Mani 2 and Pro-Ject Audio – Phono Box DC, the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp offers a more open sonic profile with greater depth and more robust mids.
While it may not give perfect performance with MC cartridges, for most vinyl enthusiasts using MM cartridges, the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp is a remarkably capable entry-level preamp that impresses with both its innate sound and its feature set.
Introduction To Phono Preamps
For those new to the world of vinyl, a phono preamp may not be a familiar term. However, for those who want to get the most out of their turntable, a phono preamp is an essential piece of equipment.
Simply put, a phono preamp is a device that amplifies the low-level signal produced by a turntable’s cartridge and prepares it to be sent to a receiver or amplifier. Without a phono preamp, the signal produced by a turntable would be too weak to be heard through speakers.
Phono preamps come in two types: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). MM cartridges are more common and less expensive than MC cartridges, making MM phono preamps more popular. However, some high-end turntables use MC cartridges and require an MC phono preamp.
When shopping for a phono preamp, there are several factors to consider. The gain control should allow you to adjust the volume of the output signal. A low-cut filter can reduce unwanted noise such as rumble from the turntable’s motor or surface noise from old records. Adjustable capacitance can help fine-tune the sound quality of your setup.
It’s also important to consider the size and weight of the phono preamp, as well as its compatibility with your turntable and other audio equipment.
What Is A Phono Preamp?
A phono preamp, also known as a phono stage, is an essential component in any vinyl playback system. Its primary function is to amplify the low-level signal produced by a turntable’s cartridge and apply an equalization curve to restore the original signal that was cut into the vinyl. Without a phono preamp, the signal produced by a turntable would be too weak to be properly amplified by a standard amplifier or receiver.
Phono preamps come in two basic types: built-in and external. Built-in phono preamps are included in some amplifiers and receivers, but they are often of lower quality than external preamps. External phono preamps are standalone devices that connect between the turntable and amplifier or receiver. They offer better shielding from interference and their own power supply, which can improve sound quality.
Phono preamps can also be classified based on the type of cartridge they are designed to work with. Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges produce a higher output voltage than Moving Coil (MC) cartridges, so MM phono preamps require less amplification than MC phono preamps. Some phono preamps can handle both MM and MC cartridges, while others are designed specifically for one type.
Why Do You Need A Phono Preamp?
If you’re a vinyl enthusiast and want to enjoy the best possible sound quality from your records, a phono preamp is an essential component to have in your audio setup. The main purpose of a phono preamp is to amplify the tiny signal generated by your turntable’s stylus and to apply an equalization curve that inverse the standard frequency adjustment made during the record cutting process. Without this equalization, your records will sound flat and lifeless.
Additionally, a phono preamp will boost the signal level up to a level suitable for the standard AUX input on your stereo. This means that without a phono preamp, you won’t be able to properly play your vinyl records through your sound system.
It’s important to note that not all amplifiers have a built-in phono preamp, so it may be necessary to purchase one separately. While some turntables come with a built-in phono preamp, external preamps are generally considered to be the best option for sound quality as they have better shielding from interference and their own power supply.
Top Contenders In The Market
In addition to the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp, there are several other contenders in the market worth considering.
For seasoned audiophiles, the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 is a top pick. It offers quality, authenticity, and great sound for much less money than traditional high-end tube phono preamps. The Nobesound Little Bear T11 is another great option for those on a budget. While it may require upgrading the stock tubes for optimal sound quality, it has matured into a good sounding phono preamp with a high level of favorable reviews.
If you’re looking for a versatile and customizable option, the Parks Audio Puffin preamp is a remarkable piece of equipment. It offers a high degree of freedom when it comes to setting it up with just about any piece of equipment you may already have. While it may not fit with the style of some of the more vintage options out there, its smart processing options and excellent overall quality make it a top contender.
For those seeking warmth and liquid sound, the Rega Fono MM MK III is the best overall option. Its sound quality is excellent and it offers great dynamics and presence. Additionally, it is well below the $2k budget leaving plenty of room for tweaks like the Synergistic Research PHT Green Dream on your cartridge or a set of BDR Cones.
MOON By Simaudio 110LP V2
Another great option for vinyl enthusiasts looking for an affordable phono preamp is the MOON By Simaudio 110LP V2. This preamp is well-built and offers exceptional sound quality, making it a fantastic choice for those who want to get the most out of their vinyl collection.
One of the most impressive things about the MOON 110LP V2 is how involving it is. The organic clarity of its tone is mightily impressive at this price point, and it integrates easily and efficiently into any balanced hi-fi system. The build quality is rock-solid and the design is simple, with straight inline horizontal connectors input/output that many users prefer.
This phono preamp is also very flexible and clever, allowing for the widest range of cartridges and listening tastes to be catered for. It features dip switches on the underside that allow you to tailor the box to your preferences, including impedance loadings, capacitance loadings, and gain for both moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). You can even select the playback curve you prefer (IEC/RIAA).
While some users may find it tricky to set up due to the dip switches being on the underside, this preamp is certainly worth auditioning if you’re in the market for a quality affordable phono stage. The MOON 110LP V2 manages to make vinyl collections even more involving, with powerful bass, clear highs, and mids projected without any feeling of anything being added or altered.
Rega Fono MM MK III
The Rega Fono MM MK III is a phono stage that delivers clear, detailed, and spacious performance. It comes in an aluminum case and supports only Moving Magnet cartridges. The power supply is not universal, so it is important to ensure that it is rated for your voltage or to pick up your own 24-volt supply if you are importing it.
In terms of measurements, the Fono MM MK III performs well. It has faithful RIAA equalization to give a flat response, and a rumble filter. However, it would have been better if it had a more flat response above 20 Hz. The distortion is quite good on the left (equivalent to 17-bit digital audio), and the noise is also good. The Fono MM MK III has good headroom with respect to overload.
While the Fono MM MK III’s performance is fine, it is relatively expensive at $400, and the brand name may be a significant factor in the price. It lacks some features and looks compared to other options like the iFi Audio Zen Phono Preamp. However, if you are a Moving Magnet cartridge user and prioritize clear and spacious performance over features and looks, the Rega Fono MM MK III may be worth considering.