In a recent piece for the blog, I tried to explain a few of the reasons why the Phono preamp is a seriously important part of your vinyl replay. A poor preamp will be introducing noise and hum into your system that might sound terribly nostalgic but doesn't need to be part of your listening experience. To mangle the John Peel quote, life may indeed have surface noise but it doesn't need to be the loudest sound in it.
A quick note before the list kicks off. Some inbuilt phono stages- especially on older products where a turntable would have been the primary source- are extremely good and it may be that there is nothing to be gained from changing for an external model unless you plan on spending a significant chunk of cash. Equally, some phono preamps, even when located in rather pricey products can be beaten by some fairly affordable rivals. As ever, there is no substitute for getting to have a listen to the product in question and making up your own mind.
Schiit Mani $130
You might have thought that when setting up an audio company, choosing a name that instilled a bit of confidence in the product- or at the very least wasn't the main focus of attention-- would be a good start. Schiit Audio on the other hand decided that this was too simple and has instead rejoiced in their moniker that is pronounced exactly how it is said. This unorthodox approach has undoubtedly been helped by them turning out some truly excellent products.
The Mani is the only phono preamp that the company makes and, considering that it supports moving magnet and moving coil models, it has to be seen as a bit of a bargain. By using chassis components shared with the company's headphone amps, the costs can be kept down while still allowing the Mani to be all metal and to feature a passive RIAA stage- this should help keep noise at a minimum and help the Mani perform to spec.
What this translates to in practice is a phono stage that has low levels of noise and the ability to sound powerful, refined and detailed. The Mani has adjustable gain settings which should allow you to get the required levels out of your system. Schiit operates a 15 day return on their products as well which would allow you to listen to it in your own system and make an objective judgement on it.
Graham Slee Communicator $300
Graham Slee is a UK based manufacturer of phono stages and accessories. The company has a reputation for no- nonsense engineering and has established a strong following for their products. The Communicator is the smallest and simplest phono preamp that the company makes and indeed it is by far the most basic phono preamp in this list. The Communicator has no facilities for handling a moving coil cartridge, no adjustments for resistance or loading and it comes in a sparse grey box. On the face of it, the omens don't look good.
The reason for the outside of the Communicator looking pretty basic and the spec being limited to moving magnet is that the lion's share of the budget has gone on the internal circuit. The result is a phono preamp that delivers your vinyl with weight, detail and a sense of realism that is rare to find at the price point and is something I've never found for less. Simply put, the Communicator sounds more vivid, more immediate and more exciting than anything else at this price point. As it is MM only, the lack of adjustment isn't really an issue as it complies to the RIAA standard and should work with any cartridge that does too.
The other piece of good news is that while it is fairly simple in design terms, it does have some scope for upgrade. As sold at $300, the Communicator comes with a standard wall wart power supply. Graham Slee also makes an upgraded PSU1 supply that improves performance even further. As such, the Communicator is great out of the box but can be pushed even further if you need.
Alpha Design Labs GT40a $529
The Communicator is sufficiently good in performance terms that the next price increment to cover doesn't really have a product that is a meaningful step forward in simple performance terms. As such, here is something a little different that may be of use. If you have any interest in the business of ripping vinyl, you will have noted that a number of turntables exist for this purpose but if you already own a turntable, that isn't too useful. Enter the GT40a.
The Alpha Design Labs is a moving magnet and moving coil phono preamp (and it counts as a true preamp thanks to having a volume control) that has some unexpected extra features. It can work as a USB DAC, a headphone amp and even as a single input line level preamp. What is also allows you to do is output a turntable signal played through it as a high resolution digital file from the USB output. Where the GT40a comes into its own is that the headphone output makes for easy mastering and monitoring.
All this would be slightly pointless if the GT40a didn't sound any good. But this is a powerful, punchy and fun sounding phono preamp that works consistently well across moving magnet and moving coil carts and does have the advantage of truly epic levels of gain if you want. Despite this, it has low noise levels and plenty of refinement. Throw in solid build and you have a very clever little phono preamp.
Pro-Ject Phono Box RS $999
Are you the sort of person that can't relax when listening to vinyl unless you know everything is set just right? This is one of the many symptoms of Audiophilia nervosa and it can become a work of obsessive compulsive madness in the pursuit of better equipment and more accurate setups. Happily, as well as making some excellent turntables, Pro-ject Audio makes a simple remedy in the form of the Phono Box RS.
Put simply, this preamp is a tweaker's delight. You have ability to set impedance and capacitance exactly to the requirements of your cartridge and you can do this in real time. Not enough? OK, how about being able use it fully balanced with XLR input and output connections? (and vinyl is perhaps the best source in home audio to actually use balanced connections). Still not satisfied? OK, how about being able to change the whole EQ curve? As well as the universal RIAA settings, the Phono Box RS can also be switched to the older Decca curve which could be truly useful if your collection features older material.
All this is wrapped in casework that can fend off small arms fire, and the Pro-Ject also has the option of an external power supply if you want it. More importantly than any of these things, the Phono Box RS is a truly outstanding phono preamp. It is quiet even with high gain settings selected, and will find detail in recording which is simply lost in the mix with some rivals. Pro-Ject set out to build a device that redefined what a $1,000 preamp should be able to and they've pretty much succeeded.
Cyrus Phono Signature $2,300
If you've just read the entry for the Pro-Ject and seen that I clearly state that it redefines what a $1,000 phono preamp can do, you might ask- not unreasonably- what spending more than double that can achieve. The answer is that you can buy a phono preamp that redefines what is possible in engineering terms as well as offering facilities that make it unique as an offering in the market.
So what does the Cyrus do that other preamps don't? Well, for starters, the Phono Signature will allow for no less than four cartridges at once. This means you can support multiple turntables and tonearms. Each input can be set up independently of the others with adjustable loading. All adjustments are made with vacuum operated relays for the best measured performance. Just to add a spot of luxury to this, the Phono Signature comes with a remote control so you can make these loading adjustments on the fly.
Supporting four inputs would be pointless if none of them sounded any good but the Cyrus is a truly outstanding performer. It can lay claim to having some of the best measured performance of any phono preamp and it is also supernaturally quiet at the same time. What you get out of you turntable is simply what's on the record and the personality traits that the deck, arm and cartridge produces- it adds nothing of itself to the performance. It's a whole hill of money (and Cyrus 'recommends' you use the Phono Signature with an external PSU for an extra $1,400) but this is the last phono preamp you'll ever need to buy.
As with all these articles, selecting five phono preamps between $100 and $2,500 is not going to generate an exhaustive list but at their respective price points, this quintet of preamps will see you right and ensure that your turntable gives its absolute best.