The Best Phono Preamplifiers
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best phono preamplifiers? Really? Do people actually walk into a room where music is playing and say, “Wow, what that’s the best phono preamplifier!”? Let’s clear this up: these are the best phono preamplifiers that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
Soundsmith MMP3 Mk. II ($799.95 USD)
If you’re using a high-output MC or an MM and you still want to use a high-quality phono preamp as opposed to some no-frills box, the Soundsmith MMP3 is what you need. In fact, if you’re using one of Peter Ledermann’s high-output moving iron cartridges, the MMP3 will be one of the best phono preamplifiers for the job. The combination of the MMP3 and a Soundsmith cartridge is one of the quietest combinations you’ll hear at this end of the spectrum—even if you already own something considerably more ambitious.
Heed Audio Quasar ($1,299.99 USD)
This small two-chassis phono stage (the second box is Q-PSU power supply) from Hungary may seem modest, but we’ve placed it in some very impressive systems without once wishing we needed more. This dual-mono gem handles MMs and MCs easily, and the only issue is that adjustments are done internally via jumpers. For this incredibly low price, however, you should just be satisfied with the Quasar’s stunning sound quality.
Bob’s Devices Sky 20 SUT ($1,375 USD)
This tiny step-up transformer—using big, heavy cables may send it flying across your listening room—was “impossible not to like” and that it should “satisfy even the most discriminating vinyl-phile.” Offered by the friendly and extremely knowledgeable Bob Sattin, this SUT can run against the best and “still acquit itself admirably.”
Musical Surroundings Nova III w/Linear Power Supply ($1,500 USD)
The third generation of this popular phono preamp has been designed by analog maven Michael Yee and features a discrete dual-mono circuit, subsonic filters and incredible flexibility when it comes to loading options. The new power supply gets rid of the wall-wart, making the Nova 3 even quieter than before.
Fern & Roby Maverick ($1,950 USD)
A joint effort between Fern & Roby’s Christopher Hildebrand and Linear Tube Audio’s Mark Schneider, the Maverick is a beautifully machined yet straightforward two-box phono stage design that nevertheless convinces you that you’ve spent far more than $2K. Ideal, of course, for the splendid Fern and Roby turntables, but a surprisingly adept all-around performer that kept up with a number of costly analog rigs.
PS Audio Stellar ($2,500 USD)
Very neutral for its modest price, the PS Audio Stellar follows that company’s reputation for solid sound, plenty of features and true value. We also found that it was particular suited for comparing cartridges, and that “It performs its tasks perfectly and consistently, and it’s a joy to be in its presence.”
Lab12 Melto2 ($3,899 USD)
This compact yet beautifully built tube phono stage from Greece is almost impossible to beat at its relatively modest price. You get great sound, trouble-free operation and an amazing set of features—you can even make all your adjustments via remote! The Melto2 is one of those products that will make you ask, “Do I really need anything more than this?” An Editor’s Choice Award winner.
Pass Labs XP-17 ($4,300 USD)
With Pass Labs amplification, you’re generally getting a circuit design that is both innovative and straightforward. The XP-17 is a phono preamp that adheres to the cliché of getting out of the way of the music without adding colorations, or its own idea of what is and isn’t great sound. It’s the rare phono stage that sounds so neutral that you won’t even think about how it contributes to the overall sound, which makes it an easy recommendation.
PureAudio Vinyl ($4,500 USD)
This quiet and flexible phono stage comes from Gary Morrison and Ross Stevens, the men who formed Plinius in New Zealand back in the ‘90s. Featuring pure Class-A operation, dual-mono construction and a stunning industrial design, this phono stage provides the perfect balance between loads of inner detail and a smooth, lush vinyl presentation.
RCM Sensor 2 Mk. II ($4,950 USD)
“Wide, deep imaging. Black backgrounds. Clarity and detail without annoying sharpness. Deep lows and dynamic slam while never sounding messy.” The RCM Sensor 2 gets you very close to the summit as part of that chain of vinyl specific components required for groove-oriented bliss. Your vinyl collection will thank you.
Zesto Audio Andros II ($5,200 USD)
This tubed phono stage, built in Los Angeles, offers an insane number of features for its relatively modest cost. You get dual-mono construction, and all adjustments are easily made from the back panel, even on the fly. It’s sonically neutral, perhaps more so than any other tubed phono stage we can think of under $10K, and it’s a gorgeous and shiny gem that you’ll stare at for hours.
LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 (from $5,247 USD)
We had zero caveats when it comes to the sound (and looks) of the tubed LampizatOr Vinyl Phono MC1 other than a little too much juice for HOMCs with the fixed gain stage. Impressively large for a mere phono preamplifier, the MC1 is designed “for those that are deeply into the joy of experiencing music with a particular love of vinyl as being the medium of choice.”
Modwright PH150 ($7,895 USD)
Dan Wright’s all-tube transformer-coupled phono preamp, the flagship in the line, gives you an amazing amount of headroom (72 dB), plenty of features, an external power supply and fantastic sound. We feel that the PH150 “has no flaws, presenting a seamless top-to-bottom eloquence that is magnetic and alluring.”
McIntosh Labs MP1100 ($8,000 USD)
Rather than focusing on the hi-fi effects of the individual instruments, the MP1100 drew us completely into the flow of the music without dissecting the individual parts. It was, to put it simply, mesmerizing–especially in terms of its “time machine” effect with familiar performances. One of the best phono preamplifiers available to become “totally immersed in the music.”
Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor (starts at $8,500 USD)
Four inputs–three for MC and one for MM–make this superb phono stage perfect for audiophiles who run multiple rigs and/or tonearms. Each input is fully isolated from the others, making the Conductor as clean, quiet and neutral as it gets. Note that the starting price above is for a basic unit with just the MM input, an unlikely configuration–with extra inputs, upgraded input transformers and power supplies and an EQ module, the price goes up substantially. But so does the sound. (Our unit topped out over $14K.)
Audio Research Reference Phono 3 ($15,000 USD)
We felt that this tubed phono stage got us even closer to the sound of the master tape with its improved transparency, holographic soundstaging, dynamics, contrast weight and authority over previous Audio Research units. The six 6H30 tubes inside are regulated so carefully that there’s even a counter to mark off the hours of usage. This is one of the most versatile and best phono preamplifiers money can buy—it’s been generously designed by vinyl lovers for vinyl-lovers.
Dan D’Agostino Momentum Phono ($28,000 USD)
Using just one input stage for both MM and MC, the Momentum achieves sonic purity with integrated passive equalization followed by the output stage. Dan D’Agostino accomplishes this by adding just the right amount of gain without increasing noise, creating a phono pre that digs deep into those grooves, elevating micro-details and dynamics to recreate music that is “breathtaking.” The Momentum Phono has to be part of any discussion about the best phono preamplifiers.
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.