A Musical Boost: 5 Phono Pre-Amplifiers That Will Make Listening to Vinyl Better When Working Remotely

The Schiit Mani (pictured above) is an excellent choice for an inexpensive phono pre-amplifier. 

Buyer’s remorse is a terrible feeling. There is nothing worse than taking the plunge on an expensive component like a turntable and discovering that the fancy cartridge installed on the tonearm sounds dreadful. The feeling of superiority that you felt investing in a format left for dead in the digital age is a fleeting one as you reach for your smartphone to start streaming from your Tidal or Qobuz account to make it all better. The reality is that your turntable isn’t broken and the cartridge that you painstakingly installed is capable of so much more. The weakest link in your playback chain is the little black box that you plug your turntable into and pray that when it amplifies the minuscule output that your phono cartridge produces, it doesn’t screw it up.

A phono pre-amplifier isn’t supposed to look nice. In a perfect world, it should sit all alone on your rack and not make your phono cartridge sound like dreck. A phono preamp is also asked to apply the RIAA equalization curve to the signal, reverting it back to the shape it was on the original recording. No pressure there. The problem is that phono cartridges don’t play well together in the sandbox. They don’t have the same output level and require relatively precise loading (impedance) to sound their best. Everything about their performance changes if you don’t select the right phono pre-amplifier; color, pace, transparency, detail, soundstage, dynamics, and degree of immediacy.

We’re all looking for an escape right now and vinyl is a fabulous drug when done properly.

So what should you buy?

If your cartridge buying options lean towards high-output moving magnet cartridges from brands like Grado Labs, Ortofon, Audio-Technica, Hana or Nagaoka – all of our suggestions will work rather well.

Low-output moving coil cartridges from Denon, Audio-Technica, Dynavector, Ortofon, Hana, and Grado Labs require more gain (50dB or more) and the ability to adjust their load settings. The more expensive options on our list offer greater set-up flexibility and enough gain for these types of cartridges.

Schiit Audio Mani ($129.00)

Inexpensive phono pre-amplifiers like the Schiit Mani are very rare. Not only does this tiny metal box sound like a far more expensive unit, but it’s manufactured and assembled in California. The adjustability of the Mani makes it versatile and opens the door to a wider range of cartridges that users may want to try.

  • Inexpensive and very quiet performance
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Decent pacing
  • Warm midrange
  • Not the deepest sounding soundstage
  • Can sound slightly restrained or polite depending on the cartridge

More at Schiit Audio

Cambridge Audio Duo ($299.00)

The Duo is very similar to the Schiit Mani from the perspective that it delivers a warm sounding midrange and a very low noise floor. It offers both MM and MC inputs and a rather propulsive presentation. Some may find the inclusion of a dedicated headphone amplifier strange, but it delivers a lot of power and makes listening to vinyl with a pair of headphones very enjoyable.

  • Zero noise. Deep space nobody can hear you scream level of quiet
  • Works with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Very little adjustability with MC cartridges
  • Solid pacing
  • Warm tonal balance
  • Headphone amplifier has engaging sound and a lot of power

More at Cambridge Audio

Moon by SimAudio LP110 V2 ($399.00)

This very solid piece of engineering offers adjustability for almost every cartridge on the market and is dead quiet in its operation. The neutral tonal balance makes the LP110 V2 ideal for warmer sounding cartridges like the Grado Timbre Series or low-output MCs from Hana. Music moves with a sense of purpose and the level of detail retrieval is superb for the asking price.

  • Built like tank
  • Works well with both MM and MC cartridges
  • Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
  • Zero noise
  • Neutral sounding tonal balance that makes a lot of cartridges sound their best
  • Excellent sense of pace
  • Borscht for the asking price

More at SimAudio

Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 ($699.00)

From the manufacturer that sells the most audiophile-grade turntables in the world comes one of the most versatile phono pre-amplifiers available below $2,000. Music flows out of the Tube Box DS2 with excellent pace and sense of immediacy. The adjustability of the unit makes it ideal for users who like to swap out cartridges and prefer a warmer tonal balance.

  • Excellent build quality
  • Tubes give both MM and MC carts fleshed out presentation
  • Multiple loading options for both types of cartridges
  • Sound excellent with wide range of cartridges
  • Warmer tonal balance
  • Excellent soundstage depth
  • Music moves with solid pace
  • Underrated product that more should try

More at Pro-Ject

Tavish Design Adagio Vacuum Tube Phono Stage ($1,890.00)

This handmade hybrid phono stage manufactured north of New York City doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media, but it does sell out very quickly when the manufacturer finishes a production run. Don’t let its industrial design fool you – this two-box unit can play with the most expensive phono cartridges in the world and compete with far more expensive units. The inclusion of a step-up transformer makes it compatible with low-output moving coil cartridges that need more amplification and the wide range of load settings only broaden what users can try.

  • Solid build quality
  • Neutral tonal balance
  • Wide range of adjustments and load settings
  • Excellent pace
  • Brilliant sounding with a wide range of cartridges
  • Internal step-up transformer for low-output MCs

More at Tavish Design

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