Best phono preamps Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?’s round-up of the best phono preamps you can buy in 2020.
A phono preamp (aka phono stage) raises your turntable’s output to make it compatible with modern amps. At the same time, it adds standardised equalisation.
So why do you need one? Your turntable either doesn’t have one, in which case you won’t be able to play records without one. Or maybe you just want to upgrade its sound beyond what’s possible with the built-in preamp.
As with many product categories, models span all kinds of price ranges. But whether you’re looking to pinch pennies or break the bank, we’ve got a phono preamp for you: we’ve drawn on our extensive reviews back catalogue to pick the best around right now, so you can be sure that you’re buying quality.
The Rega Fono MM MK2 was one of the finest phono stages available, so to say expectations were high for its successor is a bit of an understatement. Thankfully, it meets them and then some. The design has been fine-tuned within an inch of its life, making for a much sleeker product that retains the winning simplicity of its predecessor. The Award-winning sound of the MK2 now has a greater dynamic range and greater clarity, making an already fantastic performance even better. The best sound-for-pound phono preamp around.
Read the full review: Rega Fono MM MK3
Well this is certainly a looker. With an offset volume dial, minimalist styling and mirrored rear labelling that’s easy to read even if you’re peering over the top of the unit, it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into this device. And no less attention has been paid to the audio quality. The presentation is very good indeed, being spacious and cohesive, while the sound is dynamic and the timing spot-on. It doesn’t quite match the Rega Fono MM MK2, but it certainly holds its own, which makes it certainly worthy of consideration.
Read the full review: Cambridge Duo MC/MM
Great-sounding sub-£100 phono stages are rarer than hens’ teeth, so it gives us great pleasure to see another entrant in the field. Sure, it’s small and fairly basic looking, but every effort has been made on the innards: they give sufficient body to a song’s vocals without overloading it with bass. It has a great sense of timing, too. One of the best budget phono preamps around.
Read the full review: Edwards Audio Apprentice MM
Over half a decade since its debut, this is still one of the finest sub-£100 phono preamps money can buy. Tracks are served up with lashings of zest and enthusiasm, along with a side serving of musicality and dynamics. And because it has a USB out, you can also use it to digitise your vinyl collection.
Read the full review: Rega Fono Mini A2D
Another oldie but still a goodie, the Gram Amp 2 holds its own a full five years after first coming on the scene. And you can see why – simplicity is the name of the game here, an approach that ages remarkably well. It’s a moving-magnet phono stage with one set of inputs, one output, no bells or whistles. Sound quality is first rate: fantastically detailed, with the upper register particularly impressive. There’s also an optional PSU1 linear audio upgrade, a 24V DC brick that evens out the variations from a household power supply. It will cost you a bit more, but if you want to elevate this already excellent budget model then it’s worth it.
Read the full review: Graham Slee Gram Amp 2 Communicator
With its smart, understated looks, you can tell this will impress before you even plug it in. And once you do you won’t be disappointed: it handles both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, and even comes with a handy tool for adjusting the settings. The sound is superlative, packing plenty of power, with generous scale and pleasing stability. Add in a smooth and refined tonal balance, and you’ve got quite a package on your hands.
Read the full review: Arcam rPhono
Catering for both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges is a rarity at this price, and doing so with such aplomb is even rarer. This has bags of features – some of some might be overkill, but this phono stage still performs with plenty of gusto. Its delivery is impressively spacious and full bodied, with plenty of bass. It’s not quite the best at this price range, but it’s certainly up there.
Read the full review: Musical Fidelity LX2-LPS
File this one under rugged rather than elegant, though it’s well-made and built to last. It handles both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges too, so it’s more versatile than many. The sound is responsive and agile, as you would hope for the price, but it’s the sense of composure that really sets it apart from lesser units. A fine all-rounder that deserves to be paired with a suitably talented turntable.
Read the full review: Rega Aria
This is a very convenient device indeed, with very easy-to-use controls. Thankfully that’s far from its only strength – sound is wonderfully transparent and detailed, digging up low-level instrumental strands and sonic textures with ease. There’s a fluidity to it that makes rivals seem mechanical by comparison. And it doesn’t hold back when it comes to bite and attack. A superb balance of attitude and refinement.
Read the full review: Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL
You couldn’t say the Vertere Acoustics Phono-1 MkII is much to look at, but if you’re in the market for a phono amplifier anywhere near £1000 you need to audition one. It’s a brilliant performer for the money, with a useful selection of features and adjustments, which should help you get the most from any cartridge. Its detailed, musical delivery makes it a joy to listen to.
Read the full review: Vertere Acoustics Phono-1 MkII
A remote control makes fine-tuning the sound as easy as changing the TV channel. Or at least it should – while a welcome innovation, the remote could be more clearly marked, as only a handful of buttons actually operate the phono preamp. Or Cyrus could have made a separate remote altogether for this unit. But there are plenty of inputs, the sound is seriously talented and it comes bursting with texture and insight. Highly recommended.
Read the full review: Cyrus Phono Signature/PSX-R2
Pathos is known for its striking designs, so we were a little disappointed to see its In The Groove. A bit conservative, no? Still, you can’t deny it feels like a premium piece of kit. It sounds great too – there’s a sweetness to the presentation, and the balance is fluid and full-bodied. It all adds up to a versatile phono preamp that will do you proud with lots of different systems.
Read the full review: Pathos In The Groove
£17,000 for a phono preamp? It might be crazy money, but then this is a crazily good unit. The sound is out of this world, providing you pair it with some worthy turntables, that is. The midrange is beautifully layered, the treble full of insight and its ability to convey low-level dynamic shifts is truly mesmerising. If you want one of the very best, this is for you.
Read the full review: Aesthetix Io Eclipse
Switching between moving magnet and moving coil cartridges is as easy as flicking a switch on this, which is welcome, as pricey kit isn’t always so user friendly. It boasts pretty much every feature on our wish list, including a bundled test record to fine-tune the balance. And the sound? It packs plenty of punch, but without compromising the warmth we’ve come to associate with Burmester. It’s every inch as good as you would expect for £9,000.
Read the full review: Burmester 100 Phono Premplifier
Rega as a brand tends to focus on the more affordable end of the hi-fi market, but when it decides to go big the results are usually spectacular, as the Aura phono stage proves. This is no Swiss Army knife device, being devoted to get the most from moving coil cartridges only. Those with moving magnets will have to look elsewhere.
That’s not as much of an issue as it might appear bearing in mind that most cartridges likely to be partnered with the Aura will be of the appropriate type. Once the cartridge is optimised with the correct electrical loading you’ll find that the Aura will allow your record player to sing, delivering a sound fully of excitement and drive. Rarely have we come across such an entertaining performer. The Rega Aura isn’t cheap, but in a suitably talented system it’s worth all that money and then some.
Read the full review: Rega Aura