You may have heard the phrase “you get what you pay for” before. Sometimes that’s true, while other times, a more budget-friendly option can serve the same function without breaking the bank. When it comes to phono preamps, many vinyl enthusiasts ask themselves, “is an expensive phono preamp worth it?”
This article aims to show you why there’s such a drastic price range between phono preamps and what you’re getting when you get a cheap vs. expensive one.
So, is an expensive phono preamp worth it?
Yes, expensive phono preamps are worth it because they come with high-quality internals capable of amplifying the audio signal more accurately and at a louder volume without distorting. They also offer better soundstage imaging, low noise levels, and an improved musical experience.
A high-end phono preamp also comes with more versatility. Most phono preamps work with moving magnet cartridges, but you’ll need something that can deliver much more power for moving coil cartridges. An expensive phono preamp tends to work with MM or MC cartridges.
On the other hand, a cheap phono preamp will get the job done for those just getting into vinyl or on a tight budget. While they don’t have all the features of their pricier counterparts, they can still serve their primary function of amplifying the phono signal to line level.
Does the quality of a preamp affect the sound?
The quality of a preamp does indeed affect the sound. A better phono preamp will offer a cleaner, more powerful signal that can be amplified without distortion. This results in a louder, more authentic musical experience.
The quality of components used in a phono preamp also plays a role in its overall sound quality. Higher-end models will use better capacitors, resistors, and other components to produce more accurate signal reproduction. (source)
On the other hand, a cheaper phono preamp will introduce some level of noise and distortion into the audio signal. This can result in muddier frequency response with less definition and detail.
Why cheaper preamps negatively impact sound quality
As we just mentioned, more inexpensive preamps introduce noise and distortion into the audio signal, which negatively impacts sound quality. This is because they often have lower-quality capacitors and other components that can further degrade sound quality.
When a cheap phono stage is made, it’s meant to only complete its core function without adding any enhancements to the signal.
The preamp also needs to work well with your phono cartridge. Cheaper phono preamps tend not to be as refined as expensive ones, so even if you have a costly turntable cartridge, you won’t be taking full advantage of it. This is especially important if you have an MC cartridge, though even MM cartridges will be at the mercy of the preamp they’re hooked up to.
What to look for in a quality phono preamp
Now that we’ve answered the question, “is an expensive phono preamp worth it?” let’s go over what you should be looking for if you’re in the market for one.
As mentioned earlier, check to see if the preamp can accommodate both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. Not everyone needs this feature, but it’s an excellent option if you think you may upgrade your cartridge in the future.
It’s also essential to make sure the gain levels are adjustable. If the preamp doesn’t have adjustable gain, it may not work well with your cartridge. The gain amplifies the phono signal to line signal, and different cartridges require different amounts of amplification.
You’ll also want to make sure the phono preamp has a low noise floor. A low noise floor means less hiss and other background noise coming through your speakers. This is especially important if you have sensitive speakers or are using headphones.
Last but not least, make sure the phono preamp you’re considering has solid build quality. This is important for two reasons. First, it indicates that the manufacturer is confident in their product and stands behind it. Second, the preamp will last longer and perform better over time.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the best phono preamps on the market today. There’s something for every budget.
What’s a reasonable budget for a phono preamp?
We recommend spending at least $200 on a phono preamp. This will give you a preamp with all the features we just mentioned and solid build quality.
For tube phono preamps, you’ll need to spend at least $500 to get a good phono stage, but it’ll be worth it. A tube phono preamp offers a warmer, more musical sound that many audiophiles crave.
The sky is the limit with how much you can spend on a preamp, but we feel $200 is a good amount to start with.
Is a tube phono preamp better than a solid-state?
Solid-state preamps are known for their accurate, detailed sound reproduction. They tend to have a lower noise floor and can offer more power than tube preamps.
On the other hand, Tube preamps are known for their “warmer” sound. They often add a bit of distortion to the signal, which some people believe makes music sound more natural and lifelike.
So, which type of preamp is better? It depends on your personal preferences. If you want an accurate representation of the music, go with a solid-state preamp. If you want a warmer, more musical sound, go with a tube preamp. We have a complete guide on solid-state vs. tube phono preamps if you’re interested in learning more.
Why is a tube phono preamp more expensive than a solid-state preamp?
Tube preamps are more expensive than solid-state preamps for a few reasons. First, they require more power to operate and often have larger power supplies. Second, they generally have more features than solid-state preamps. And lastly, the tubes themselves are more expensive than the solid-state components used in most preamps.
Is a cheap phono preamp about than a built-in phono preamp?
Typically no, a cheap dedicated phono preamp will not make a huge difference compared to a built-in phono preamp because they often use the same or similar internals. Built-in phono preamplifiers are often used as marketable add-ons to entry-level or mid-level turntables.
If you would like to upgrade preamps, it’s best to budget at least $200 and buy something that will make a noticeable difference.
You get what you pay for
We hope this article has helped you understand more about phono preamps and whether or not an expensive one is worth it.
As with most things in audio, you generally get what you pay for. So, if you can afford it, we recommend going with a high-quality phono preamp. It’ll make a big difference in the sound quality of your system. Thanks for reading!
Lead Editor / Owner
After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.