Anyone who is serious about their music and wants to be able to really listen to their records knows that they need a good phono preamp. Unlike playing a CD or music from your computer, it can be tricky to get the best possible sound from your record players, especially if you have made a mistake and invested in lower-quality equipment in the past. Vinyl playback can really vary, but investing in a high-quality phono preamp is the best way to ensure that you get the sound that you want and to be able to control this sound easily.
Unfortunately, buying a phono preamp is tricky, no matter how experienced you think that you are and how often you listen to your records. Because great phono preamps can be expensive, it’s important that you spend time choosing the right one for your needs so that you don’t accidentally overspend and so that you’re not disappointed with your overall sound quality. If you’re ready to choose the best phono preamp under $500 so that you can really get the most out of your vinyl, then it’s time to consider one of these great options.
Here is a quick summary of our recommendations for those who are in a rush.
1. Rega Fono MM MK3
- The new Fono MM phono stage has been designed to be effective, easy to use, and above all, to reproduce music. The Fono MM uses a fully discrete, cascaded, complementary amplifier input stage, a configuration designed to optimise the performance of your moving magnet cartridge. Now housed in a brand new redesigned case to match the new Fono MC and Rega's latest range of electronic components offering a modern and sleek look guranteed to integrate in to any hi-fi system.
- The new MK3 Fono MM replaces the multi award winning MK2 model which won WHAT HI-FI? Best Phono stage in its price category 2014,2015 & 2016.
- The RIAA equalization has been split into two stages to minimise interaction. Polyester capacitors have been used in the signal path and polypropylene capacitors are used in the RIAA equalization circuits.
- The aesthetic design of the Fono MM was as important as the quality of its electrical capabilities, so it benefits from the same aluminium case as the Rega TTPSU and Fono MC amplifier, giving it a design which offers a familiar feel and moreover brings it in line with its illustrious bigger brothers.
- Input sensitivity = 1.7mV for 200mV output Input loading = 47KΩ in parallel with 100pF Maximum input level = 60mV at 1KHz Gain = 41.4dB at 1KHz Output impedance = 200Ω Recommended minimum output load resistance = 5KΩ Frequency response (50KΩ output load) = 15Hz (-3dB) to 100KHz (-0.2dB) RIAA accuracy (50KΩ output load) = better than +/-0.2dB 100Hz to 100KHz Power requirements = 24V AC at 80mA maximum. Only to be used with Rega PS1.
This is Rega’s third generation phono amp for moving magnet (MM) cartridges and is, somehow, an improvement on their past products. While the main focus of any phono preamp is going to be the sound quality that it can produce, the Rega Fono MM MK3 is designed to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing options on the market. It has an attractive chassis that is modern and updated and has been slightly tweaked over past models to ensure that there aren’t any issues with noise levels while playing music.
The front power button is the only interruption of the smooth front of this phono preamp, but on the back, there is a set of inputs. While the appearance of the Rega Fono MM MK3 is impressive, such as with any phono preamp, it’s what is inside that really counts, as you want to be sure that you can enjoy great sound quality and control when using this equipment.
While many phono preamps suffer from a lack of sound quality at higher and lower ends, the Rega Fono MM MK3 powers through, offering unparalleled sound no matter what you are listening to. This means that you can easily change the music at the drop of a hat without having to worry about adjusting settings or suffering through a sound quality change.
Because the Rega Fono MM MK3 has been optimized to produce the best possible sound from moving magnet cartridges, it is easily able to reproduce sound that is clear and true to life. The Rega Fono MM MK3 produces 41.4dB of gain at 1KHz while not drawing very much power. While it doesn’t have the power saving features of some other phono preamps, this does not in any way hinder its performance.
Enjoy learning about the improved listening you’ll enjoy here and you’ll be able to easily see if the Rega Fono MM MK3 is the right choice for you. Thanks to the updated circuitry and improved components that are used in its construction, it’s easily one of the most powerful and durable options on the market today. The aesthetics of its design and appearance are just one of the impressive features of this powerful phono preamp, but the real power and impressive capabilities lie in its design and construction.
Anyone who has used the MK2 before and loves the power that it offers will appreciate the Rega Fono MM MK3 even more, as it is designed to provide the same high-quality listening experience without any noise to disturb you.
What We Liked
- Sleek design looks great and feels updated and powerful
- Offers great handling in terms of dynamics and timing
- Split stage RIAA equalization reduces interaction and ensures that you enjoy the great sound quality
- High-quality polyester and polypropylene capacitors are used in the signal path and circuits, respectively
What We Didn’t Like
- Designed to be used with Rega’s PS1 mains plug, which is a little pricey to replace
2. Parasound Zphono MM/MC
- Dual transformers and analog power supplies - AC polarity switch to help eliminate hum
- RIAA defeat switch allows for post recording digital RIAA equalization - Settings for MM-47 kΩ, MC-47 kΩ or MC-100 Ω cartridges
- 2 additional inputs for recording line level audio (Tape, Tuner, Sat Radio, etc.) - Headphone output for monitoring recording
If you have been frustrated in the past with a lot of noise when playing your records, then you may want to consider the Parasound Zphono MM/MC. This is one of the quietest phono preamps available on the market today, which makes it perfect not only for listening to music but also for recording it. Unlike some phono preamps that hum even when you’re not listening to a record, the Parasound Zphono MM/MC remains completely quiet, thanks to the AC polarity switch. This switch eliminates the hum that so many people suffer through hearing with other phono preamps.
Not only will you enjoy incredibly quiet operation when you opt for this phono preamp, but you can also use it to record your music. If you are looking to archive your vinyl, this powerful piece of equipment makes that possible. It comes with both a USB output and an A-D converter, making it easy to create impressive digital recordings of all of your vinyl. Additionally, it features impressive control via the USB gain control panel and clipping indicator, ensuring optimized sound transfer at all times.
Even though this is an incredibly compact unit, it still boasts plenty of features that really set it apart from other options. One of the most useful features for audiophiles is that it contains plenty of input jacks for recording. If you want to record from a tape deck, AM/FM tuner, or even satellite radio, you can do so with the Parasound Zphono MM/MC. It features two pairs of input jacks which are designed to make it easy for users to enjoy digital records from additional sources.
If you are going to be making dubs, then you are sure to enjoy that this phono preamp comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack. This makes it easy to monitor your sound quality, although some users may be frustrated because there isn’t a level control for this output.
As expected from Parasound, setting up their Zphono MM/MC is fast and easy. It connects quickly to the preamp and the USB output connects easily to the computer for use with recording software. Since there are a few different software options available on the market, it’s easy for each user to choose the one that is the right choice for them. You can learn more about this great phono preamp here.
It is surprising to some users that the Zphono MM/MC doesn’t use a wall wart. It actually has a built-in power supply, which is surprising for lower-priced phono preamps.
What We Liked
- Produces very low-level noise
- Can be used for recording, making this great for musicians
- Works with MM and MC cartridges
- Rumble filter button does a great job removing low-frequency vibrations from the sound
- Incredibly easy to set up and results in fast music right away
What We Didn’t Like
- Limited gain range prevents this phono preamp from reaching its full capabilities
- Comes with extra features that some users simply don’t need from their equipment
3. Vincent PHO 701
- Two chassis mm/mc phono stage
- Hybrid tube/solid state design
- Highly regulated power supply in separate chassis
- Inputs: 1x rca stereo, 1x din (dc in pho 700)
While the Vincent PHO 700 was a very popular phono preamp that a lot of people enjoyed using, the PHO 701 has a few new features that really set it apart and make it an obvious choice for many audiophiles. Now you won’t just be able to listen to your music and enjoy the clear and bright sound with minimal distortion, but you can also quickly and easily archive your music onto your computer. This is great for anyone who has a large collection of vinyl and takes their music collecting very seriously.
Because there are some great software options available online, finding the right software to use with this equipment is easier than ever. Additionally, there are now included switches on the Vincent PHO 701 that make it easy to adjust the input impedance and the input capacitance. Thanks to these switches, as well as the high-quality components used in its construction, the PHO 701 offers a pristine sound that is hard to beat.
One great design feature of the PHO 701 that really sets it apart from other options on the market is that there are separate cases for the power supply and audio circuitry. While this may not seem like a big deal, it helps to prevent any problems with interference or distortion that can occur when this circuitry is too close together. Hear more about this phono preamp when you click here.
Additionally, the PHO 701 offers an incredibly smooth and luxurious sound. This is thanks in part to the vacuum tube equipment used in its construction, as well as the power that it offers. The combination of raw power and exceptional components and materials used in construction result in a powerful and lively phono preamp. It’s the 12AU7 vacuum tube that gives the PHO 701 its impressive sound quality and makes it sound so true to life.
It can be really challenging to build a phono preamp that is the perfect combination of great transmission, as well as low-noise production, but that’s exactly what the PHO 701 is. Because it boasts the inclusion of high-quality components from Wima, Nichicon, and other companies, it’s easy to see the attention to detail in this product and the unwillingness to compromise on build quality and production.
By using the same power supply that is used in the Vincent PHO 8, the PHO 701 enjoys uncompromised power that makes it really stand out from other options. This filtered and regulated voltage results in the PHO 701 only using clean power without any humming or rippling that can be found and heard in some other equipment.
What We Liked
- Doesn’t produce the same humming noise as some other phono preamps tend to do
- USB output makes it easy for users to quickly archive their vinyl collection on their computer
- Can be fine tuned with many phono cartridges using dip switches on the bottom of the unit
- Separate chassis for power supply ensures that there is little distortion or interference and keeps the sound bright and crisp
- Single phono input can be used with MM or MC cartridges
What We Didn’t Like
- Doesn’t always have the proper separation between L and R stereo channels when connected to a computer via USB
4. Cambridge Duo MC/MM
- ✓ DESIGNED FOR VINYL – Cambridge Audio’s Alva Duo was designed to give you a superb sonic experience from your favorite record collection using its state-of-the-art switch mode power supply and a new surface mounted circuit board.
- ✓ ATTENTION TO DETAIL – The Alva Duo's switch mode power supply and surface mount technology delivers short signal paths and a faster response with precision and lower background noise so you don't hear a hum over the vinyl's low-level signals.
- ✓ SUBSONIC FILTER & BALANCE CONTROL – The Alva Duo will even work if your vinyls are a little worse for wear. The subsonic filter and balance control eliminate low frequency rumbles from imperfections in your vinyl for an accurate soundstage.
- ✓ HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER – Cambridge added a unique 6.35mm headphone jack directly into the phono stage so you can listen in private. The integrated headphone output also means no need to turn on your amplifier just to power your headphones.
- ✓ TECH SPECS - MAX POWER CONSUMPTION 10W, CARTRIDGE SUPPORT Moving Magnet | Moving Coil, GAIN @ 1KHZ MM: 39dB | MC: 60dB, NOMINAL OUTPUT 300mV, SENSITIVITY FOR NOMINAL OUTPUT MM: 3.35mV | MC: 305uV, DIMENSIONS 1.9" x 8.5" x 6.2", WEIGHT 2.1lbs
This is an incredibly advanced phono preamp that relies on the inclusion of incredible components to create a rich and detailed sound. It’s perfect for use with any vinyl players and is ideal for individuals who want to be able to enjoy fast response, low-noise, high output, and some of the most precise listening possible. Additionally, thanks to the low background noise levels that it produces, the Cambridge Duo MC/MM is great for listening to all kinds of music without suffering from a loss in sound quality.
The first thing that most people notice about the Cambridge Duo MC/MM is its striking appearance. The chassis is very sophisticated and made from aluminum and steel. It’s incredibly compact and designed to fit easily on your desk, table, or shelf without either taking up too much room or being a distraction, as it is neutral in appearance, sleek, and advanced. Even though you may first notice the way that it looks, you are sure to quickly fall in love with the Duo MC/MM thanks to its impressive features and connections.
The Cambridge Duo MC/MM features a 6.3mm headphone jack, as well as controls for cartridge options and power. The large dial makes it easy to control and power the Duo MC/MM, and there is even a balance level located on the back. In addition to looking great and being packed with features, the Cambridge Duo MC/MM includes a subsonic filter. This does a great job at removing any low-frequency sounds and rumbles from your music.
In addition, this powerful phono preamp features an auto power down, which will shut it down when it’s been inactive for 20 minutes. Since it only needs 0.5W of power when holding on standby, you can see that the Duo MC/MM doesn’t take a lot of power, making its power consumption incredibly reasonable. You can learn more here about the great features offered by this powerful piece of equipment.
The sound is just as important as the design and the features of the Cambridge Duo MC/MM, and it’s perfectly designed to offer a honed and impressive performance. No matter what type of music you are going to be listening to, the sound is clear and bright, the notes are all full and rich, and you can enjoy full dimensionality from your music. This results in an incredible listening experience for all users.
Because it can easily handle MC and MM cartridges without any problems, the Cambridge Duo MC/MM is designed for easy use by any listener. It’s incredibly compatible and shockingly powerful and easy to use, making it a great piece of equipment for most any vinyl lover. Thanks to the full-bodied music it creates and the gorgeous appearance that it has, it’s a clear choice for a lot of people to consider.
What We Liked
- Provides a full and warm sound that is deep and rich
- Can handle both MM and MC cartridges
- Built-in headphone amp makes it easy to monitor sound quality
- Sleek appearance is attractive and comfortable to hold
What We Didn’t Like
- Doesn’t offer all of the punch and loud sound that some people want from their preamps
5. Bellari VP130
- Compact phono stage
- RIAA Equalization
- Output tube: 12AX7
- For Moving Magnetic and high output cartridges.
- Headphone Output with variable Level control
While there are a number of modern options available on the market that appeal to some vinyl lovers, purists who are interested in finding a phono preamp that looks and feels a little more retro will want to consider the Bellari VP130. This is an incredibly well-designed preamp that is perfect for use with magnetic pickups, although it also does a great job equalizing phono signal.
Thanks to the tube circuitry of the VP130, users can enjoy an output that is much warmer and richer than they would enjoy from solid-state preamps. The tube circuitry produces a sound that is very unique and full, resulting in a wonderful sound that most people will easily recognize as being high quality and designed to improve overall listening. Not only doe the VP130 look and sound great, but it has a very low signal to noise ratio. At just 80dB, users won’t have to suffer through a lot of additional noise when using this phono preamp.
There are some additional features of this preamp that help to make it even more enjoyable to use and more powerful for certain users. One great feature is the ¼” headphone jack that has its own output controls. Not all phono preamps offer headphone volume controls, which means that users can struggle with direct listening, but the VP130 makes it not only possible but easy. Because the volume controls are separate and so easy to use, you can easily listen to music at a higher volume without having to worry about bothering any other family members when you do so.
With 24k gold plated transformers, the VP 130 ensures great sound quality. You never have to worry about having any interference in your sound when using this phono preamp. While this feature may seem excessive to some people, if you have ever struggled with interference when listening to your vinyl, then you understand the importance of this gold plating and how it can completely change and improve your sound quality. You can hear the Bellari VP130 in action here.
While some people may pick up the VP130 because of the way that it looks, they are likely to keep using it thanks to its sound quality, impressive build, and the rich and full output that it offers. Because it’s so compact, it is perfect for use in any location and with any situation, but its improved circuitry and design ensures that you enjoy the unparalleled sound quality. Additional features that users love when using the VP130 include a mute switch, impressive rumble filter, and separate volume controls for the main output.
What We Liked
- Designed to be used with both MM and MC cartridges
- Built-in headphone makes this phono preamp really flexible and easy to use
- Attractive red design helps it to stand out and offers plenty of protection
- Includes a vacuum tube preamp, resulting in warm and rich sounds
What We Didn’t Like
- Can tend to hum more than other phono preamps on the market
- Doesn’t offer the best sound quality in higher frequencies
Final Verdict – What to Do Next
The Rega Fono MM MK3 is, obviously, the best phono preamp under $500 on this list. It’s packed with great features that really set it apart from the competition, but the most obvious benefit that you’ll enjoy when you invest in this high-quality piece of equipment is the great sound that it offers. While it is a pleasure to look at, it is even more enjoyable to operate. Thanks to the impressive polyester capacitors and the high-quality polypropylene capacitors, the Rega Fono MM MK3 is able to offer some of the best sound quality on the market.
If the Rega Fono MM MK3 is a little too expensive for you, you may want to consider the Parasound Zphono MM/MC. While this is a less expensive option, making it perfect for people who are on a budget, you won’t have to worry about a decrease in sound quality. Additionally, it offers the ability for users to connect their equipment to their computer for fast and easy recording. This feature is not available in a lot of phono preamps, making the Zphono MM/MC unique and powerful.
Depending on your needs, either of these two great phono preamps is perfect for your daily use. They offer impeccable sound quality and control and are both great options for anyone looking to fully enjoy their vinyl records like never before. Since they are very difficult aesthetically and offer different features, most people will be able to easily choose the one that is the best option for their personal needs.