An external phono preamp is the most upgradable component in any entry-level turntable system. It’s small and relatively affordable, and it’s flexible enough to work in most systems. The job of the phono preamp is to take the weak signal from the phono cartridge and amplify it so your speakers can play it at a reasonable volume. The best phono preamps not only amplify this signal but equalize it — staying true to the RIAA playback equalization curve — so that it sounds as true to the original recording as possible.
Many entry-level turntables have integrated phono preamps, which allows you to hook the speaker directly up to powered speakers, a receiver or a powered amplifier. The problem is that these phono preamps are often cheap and more susceptible to vibrations and distortions since they’re close to the turntable’s other components. The good news that most of these built-in phono preamps can be turned off or bypassed, which allows you to upgrade to an external phono preamp.
An “entry-level” phono preamp is going to cost between $50 and $100. According to Charlie Randall, the co-CEO of the McIntosh Group, the phono preamp should take up about 20-percent of your system’s entire budget, meaning that if you’re buying a phono preamp that costs around $100, the rest of your turntable system shouldn’t cost much more than $500. If you have a higher-end system, you should upgrade to a higher-quality phono preamp.
Higher-quality phono preamps are better at equalizing the audio, boosting the lowest frequencies and attenuating the higher ones, but they also come with more advanced features, like having built-in DACs or inputs, and being compatible with turntables that use either a MM or MC cartridge. An entry-level phono preamp isn’t going to have those features, but your entry-level system doesn’t it to. It just needs it to make your records sound better. (It doesn’t hurt if it looks pretty next to your turntable, either.)
Pro-Ject Phono Box DC
You can think of Pro-Ject’s Phono Box DC a higher-end version of the company’s Phono Box E. It’s still a fairly simple entry-level phono preamp, but it’s compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, meaning it’ll work with basically any turntable.
Compatibility: MM and MC
Gain: 40dB (MM) or 60dB (MC)
Schiit Audio is one of our favorite makers of cheap-but-good audio equipment and even though the Mani doesn’t fall under the $100 limit — consider this the upgrade pick. It’s compatible with MM and MC cartridges, has four switchable gain modes, and is designed and built in California. You can also choose the finish: silver or black.
Compatibility: MM, MC
Gain: (30, 42, 47 and 59dB)
ART DJPRE II
This phono preamp gives listeners a surprising amount of control over their sound. It has a gain control knob with a dedicated signal/peak LED, so it can work with a wide range of amplifiers. The capacitance can be switched between 100pF and 200pF, which you can fine-tune depending on your phono cartridge response. And there’s a low cut rumble filter that you can turn on or off, too. This customizability is great for tinkerers, but maybe not for somebody who wants a simple plug-and-play option.
Gain: 45dB (max)
Rolls VP29 (Turntable Lab Edition)
The Rolls VP29 is one of the most popular entry-level options you can buy. It’s a small, easy-to-use phono preamp that’s made in the USA. A neat feature is that it has a 3.5mm jack so you can easily connect it to any pair of powered speakers. The VP29 can be purchased in fire truck red for around $49 — here — or you can opt for a special edition version, which is a collaboration between Rolls and Turntable Lab, an New York City hi-fi shop, for a little more but it’s a more elegant phono preamp (in my opinion).
Pro-Ject Phono Box E
The Phono Box E is a bespoke entry-level phono preamp that pushes well above its weight. It has a number of features to minimize external distortion, such as an SMD construction and built-in internal shielding, which means that it can sit right next to the turntable. This is an excellent plug-and-play phono preamp that’s compatible with MM cartridges. It works well with Pro-Ject’s vast lineup of affordable turntables.
This is the only phono preamp that the Fluance makes and it’s optimized to be paired with the company’s reference line (RT82-RT85) of turntables. It can work really any turntable that features an MM cartridge. It’s also a good option to pair with a receiver or AV receiver that doesn’t a built-in phono preamp.
Music Hall Mini
Music Hall is one of the most well-known names in American hi-fi. Its Mini phono preamp is compatible with both MM and MC cartridges. It’s a solid plug-and-play option for most entry-level systems, and it also has a 3.5mm jack so you can simply connect to a pair of powered bookshelf speakers.
Compatibility: MM and MC
U-Turn Pluto 2
The Pluto has been one of the best plug-and-play phono preamps for years. It combines high-end circuitry with components to deliver a warm, balanced sound. And it’s compatible with MM cartridges, so it’ll work with the most affordable turntables. This is that second-generation of the original Pluto. It has a more compact design, yet has a higher gain (41dB from the 36dB of the Pluto), active filtering and an updated power supply. It's also available in two finishes: black or silver.