Can an Expensive Phono Preamp Sound Better?

When the grandson of a famous audiophile wanted to get into vinyl recording, he got frustrated with his turntable. He was used to the low quality sound that came from digital media.

If only he had a better turntable! There must be one out there that can offer him good quality audio at good price point, right? Wrong! Searching for an inexpensive phono preamp proved to be fruitless, so he did what many enthusiasts do when they get frustrated – buy nothing but gear.

While assembling his own rig might have been more fun than getting stuck in traffic on Christmas Eve, it made even less sense. Even if he saved few bucks, what was the point in owning a turntable if the sound coming from it was so-so?

By this time, I had the opportunity to work with many clients and friends and did some extensive listening and evaluation. With great enthusiasm and reckless abandon, we bought something because we wanted to get into vinyl recording.

We bought preamps that cost thousands of dollars. What we did not realize until too late is that high quality audio equipment is like exquisite artwork. Starting off with anything less than your best will not get you very far (the bottom line).

How does Average Phono Preamp Sound?

It does not matter how expensive your gear is, you are not going to sound good with it unless you have the most basic of abilities.

It is true that some people might be able buy an affordable phono preamp, but chances are they will never succeed in getting great sounding 180 gram vinyl out of cheap media like records and cassette tapes.

If you think about it, there is no reason for an average phono preamp to sound better than an average turntable. It might help some people get by with moderate results, but chances are high they will give up before they find their groove (and even then, the result may only be modest).

The sad part about it is that everyone can find a decent preamp for less than $500. If you have a good turntable, you do not need anything else.

Does an Expensive Phono Preamp makes difference?

This is not the common perception. Many people do not give a second thought about spending $5,000 more on a phono preamp than the same piece of equipment would sell for $500.

Some may be more willing than others to spend hard earned money on their audio gear, but those who do are often those dedicated music lovers who can put up with all kinds of frustration and pain to get great sound out of their gear.

This is different from those who just want to pick up an inexpensive phono preamp and then never return to the analog domain (yes, I am talking about you).

I have an acquaintance who built a fancy rack for his turntable and installed a tube phono preamp for Ortofon 2M. He tells me how nice the sound is, but the truth is he has not gotten over his digital addiction yet.

He wants to listen to records, so I take him a few of mine and time after time he ends up going back to his iPod because those vinyl records remind him of those days when he wanted to get into analog recording as a hobby. He feels that vinyl takes too long and it is uncomfortable sitting there with vinyl on the platter.

Features of Expensive Phono Preamp:

Usually the more expensive phono preamp has more features to make you feel good about it. Some of these features are not necessary for vinyl listening, but they sure make the owner feel like they got their money’s worth.

1. Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR)

This is probably the most important feature because this is what translates into dynamics and presence. If you want full rich sound that is lifelike, then SNR is a very important spec on the spec sheet.

2. Dynamic Range:

This is critical for audio transients, ambience, and bass lines. It provides all that ensures that the audio signal will not be lost in an over-saturated audio signal.

3. Frequency Response:

This specification will tell you how well the phono preamp reproduces music: low to high frequencies.

4. Limiting:

This is like safety net, but sometimes it can get in the way of good sound. If the limiter kicks in constantly, then chances are your signal is constantly clipping.

Conclusion:

If you are building a rig from scratch, then it is only natural to want the best of the best. It does not make sense to make compromises when your goal is to listen to vinyl records. However, if you already have a good turntable, there is no reason to spend more money on phono preamp unless you are looking for some other features, like USB connectivity or extra inputs.

You want the best audio fidelity and your goal is not to listen to vinyl record, but to digitize it. In this case, you can afford to save a few bucks and buy the cheapest phono preamp you can find so you can save money for other things like computer and sound card.

FAQ:

Q: Why does a more expensive preamp sound better?

A: Another main reason why a more expensive preamp sounds better than a cheap one is the quality of the electronic components used in the design. Even though the task of a solid-state phono preamp is relatively simple, the quality of the components and design will have some level of impact on the sound quality.

Q: How much should I spend on a phono preamp?

A: A phono preamp is essentially a quite simple electronic circuit, and can be made with quality components for that price. In my opinion, it make little sense to spend much more than $200 on a phono preamp until the other components in your home stereo is of very high quality.

Q: What is the difference between a preamp and a phono preamp?

A: In a wider context, a preamp can be something different than a phono stage. A preamp can for example be a preamplifier for a microphone. To be exact, we could say that a phono preamp are the same as a phono stage. You can read more about this in our Is a Phono Stage the Same as a Preamp article. Do an expensive phono preamp sound better?

Q: Is a cheap phono preamp bad for vinyl?

A: The cheaper the phono preamp, the less accurate it corrects for the RIAA curve and the worse the record will sound. “Cheap, poor-performing phono preamps don’t convey the magic of music on vinyl,” says Randall.