Welcome to the Phono Pres section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2023.
The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank].” This collection represents our enthusiasm. Every product listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — this is it.
Schiit Audio Mani ($149)
Owned by a few PTA staffers as a budget reference, or as we like to say, “If it’s not at least better than a Mani, don’t bother.” This could be every audiophiles’ first upgrade to dedicated outboard phono pres, and it’s so cheap you’ll never have buyers’ remorse.
Smooth, with good imaging, the Phonomena can tame a hot treble while preserving air and soundstaging. Soon to be upgraded with a linear power supply in the future, the stock Phonomena still sounds is excellent right out of the box. Review forthcoming.
Clearaudio smart phono V2 ($775)
Clearaudio is famous for its upmarket turntables and cartridges, but they also offer this affordable pint-sized powerhouse for a very reasonable amount of money. The Smart Phono V2 packs a punch adding slam, tempo, and energy to your LPs. Excitement never came in such a tiny package. A Reviewers Choice Award winner.
Hagerman Audio Labs Trumpet MC ($1,289 USD)
From the land of “we put the good stuff on the inside, where it counts” school comes this classic tube preamplifier from Jim Hagerman in its latest version, a simple almost kit-like phono stage that nevertheless sounds way more accomplished than its price suggests. We found the overall balance of the Hagerman to be truthful and direct and honest with the listener–the list for best phono pres with tubes for around a grand begins with the Trumpet.
Vertere Acoustics Phono-1 Mk. II ($1,599 USD)
Used in an all-Vertere Acoustics analog rig (Mystic cartridge, SG-1 tonearm and MG-1 turntable), the affordable Phono-1 was “extraordinary for the price…any price.” This modest unit excelled at “subtle, slight dynamic contrasts, tonal shadings, and imaging effects” and we always enjoyed a satisfying level of detail with all of our favorite recordings.
Parasound JC3 Jr. ($1,699 USD)
The JC stands for John Curl, and that’s really all you need to know. The little brother to the JC3+, Junior just sounds right striking a balance of doing everything well, making it a strong “all-arounder” at a very appealing price. This is a phono stage that just sounds right and true to all types of music. Review forthcoming.
Audio Note UK R/Zero II ($2,036 USD)
At first we were concerned about an MM-only phono preamplifier for over two grand, but this is Audio Note UK–the land of step-up transformers and MM cartridges that can actually sound great. Within the context of an all-Audio Note system, the R/Zero maintains that smooth, open sound that focuses on tonality first. Review forthcoming.
Fern & Roby Maverick ($2,250 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 a tad over $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.
Distinctly American in design, the ModWright Instruments PH 9.0 “dispenses with everything but the essentials in a way that is elegantly functional.” We found that it combines the clarity of an excellent solid state design and a warm tube sound without the drawbacks, eventually appearing as if it’s completely invisible in the context of the system. The 9.0X upgrade, which costs an extra $995, adds a pair of Lundahl gapped output transformers that simplifies the signal path for more dynamics and deeper low frequencies.
Parasound Halo JC 3+ ($3,199 USD)
Is this the spiritual successor to John Curl’s famous Vendetta phono pres of the ’90s? Also designed by Curl, the JC 3+ is indeed Parasound’s flagship phono stage and offers a very neutral sound overall with just a hint of sweetness and light that we usually find with five-figure products. We concluded that “you have to treat the JC 3+ as something of a gift, a product from a great engineering mind produced by a company that keeps impressing.” A Reviewer’s Choice award winner.
Lab12 Melto2 ($4,450 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 Lab12 Melto2 is one of those phono pres that will make you ask, “Do I really need anything more than this?” An Editor’s Choice Award winner.
Pass Labs XP-17 ($4,500 USD)
With Pass Labs amplification, you’re generally getting a circuit design that is both innovative and straightforward. The XP-17 phono pres adhere 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 flavor, which makes it an easy recommendation.
Allnic Audio H-5500 ($4,500 USD)
One of the finest examples of a tube phono stage that can create analog magic, even in an all solid-state system, the Allnic Audio H5500 has an extraordinarily musical demeanor that’s about purity first and foremost. Beautifully made in Korea, the H-5500 is the replacement for the highly popular and well-respected H1202, but it still uses those wonderful Permalloy transformers. It’s also versatile among phono pres, providing the user with two MM and two MC inputs. Lush, romantic and sexy.
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.
Koetsu Step-Up Transformer ($4,995 USD)
It might seem a little crazy to spend $5000 on a metal box that fits in the palm of your hand and weighs about two pounds, but this is Koetsu, where the coils in this SUT are painstakingly measured and wound to work with your Koetsu phono cartridge so that its performance will reach new heights. While this product is so specialized that it won’t convince you to choose an SUT over an MC input–results with other cartridges were mixed due to the varying impedances–this is an almost mandatory upgrade for any Koetsu owner. Reviewer’s Choice, along with the Koetsu Urushi Black cartridge.
Luminous Audio Technology Arion Mk. II ($7,999 USD)
From the mind of Michael Bettinger comes this heavy and substantial phono preamplifier, which is a “highly refined version of the original Arion.” That means better parts, more effective grounding, PCB routing and, of course, spectacular sound. We felt the sound wasn’t different, there was just more of everything, including “outstanding dynamics and plenty of gain.” A Reviewer’s Choice award winner.
Jeff Rowland Design Group Conductor (starting at $8,500 USD)
Four inputs–three for MC and one for MM–make this superb Jeff Rowland 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 and the flexibility. (Our unit topped out over $14K.)
Van den Hul The Grail ($8,995 USD)
AJ van den Hul’s entry level phono pres are still awesome beasts with plenty of energy and dynamics that’s consistent with the European analog sound and yet still suggests the quiet mystique of the Japanese counterparts. The Grail, fitted with two MC inputs, “sounded completely natural and real, qualities I’ve generally ascribed to vinyl and tubes and Class A and whatever else you got.” Reviewers Choice Award.
Allnic Audio H-6500 ($10,000 USD)
The next step up from the superb Allnic H-5500, the H-6500 features and outboard power supply that contains a user-replaceable rectifier tube. Slightly quieter than the 5500, with an incredibly low noise floor for tubed phono pres, the Allnic is supremely listenable without leaning too warm. In many ways, this is one of the finest phono pres we’ve tested at this somewhat lofty price point, so we decided to keep it around to use as our reference. A Reviewer’s Choice Award winner.
Pass Labs XP-27 ($12,075 USD)
The two-chassis XP-27 includes an outboard power supply, and uses the input and gain circuitry of the flagship XS Phono. Everything new in the XP-27 is designed for lower distortion and noise suppression, resulting in one of the quietest phono pres we have heard. It’s a Pass Labs through and through–neutral sound, tons of usable features and settings and incredible reliability.
Brinkmann Edison Mk. 2 ($14,490 USD)
The Edison, made in Germany, is both stunningly beautiful and full of features, but you’ll quickly be won over by its stable, solid imaging as well as its stunning ability to eliminate noise and other artifacts. Hooked up to the Brinkmann Taurus direct-drive turntable, the Edison became an intrinsic part of an analog rig that was accomplished and rare in its ability to show the true potential in every LP. A Reviewer’s Choice.
Dan D’Agostino Momentum Phono ($32,500 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 phono pres that dig 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 pres in the world.