Whether it is built into your turntable, amp or receiver, or a separate device in its own right the phono preamp remains the unsung hero of your vinyl replay. I have mentioned before that the job a phono preamp is asked to perform is simple enough in description but the mechanics of doing so are amongst the more demanding challenges asked of any piece of audio equipment.
As such, it pays not to dismiss the difference a good preamp can make to your system. In order for your system to be truly involving you need enough gain to hit the volume levels you need. This is best achieved without introducing unwelcome noise into the gain because once it is there, it is going to be present in ever increasing amounts as you increase the volume. A poor preamp will be a little noise factory and if you have a preamp that is doing this, no other part of the replay chain, no matter how good it might be in theory is going to deliver its best.
Before we go any further, I might as well admit, I have a real hang-up about noise induced by phono preamps. I have a stack of units in a bedroom upstairs that chart my journey to finding the amount of gain I need at the noise levels I demand. I'm afraid I've never been one for this 'romantic' sound theory that seems to be the thinking in a few people I've spoken to. In a perfect world, the level of background noise generated by my preamp at idle should be no higher than my digital source- that is to say effectively nothing. I'm pleased to say I'm the proud owner of a preamp that can do just this and I'll probably be buried with it.
As such, my recommendations are driven by my own personal beliefs and for this reason as we are discussing affordable models- and having read some of the comments on what constitutes affordable, I really am going to try and keep the budget right down on this one- there are no valve based models being discussed. Affordable valve preamps are interesting and periodically fun devices but they are rarely quiet in their operation- although more expensive models can sound breathtakingly good.
So, other than plenty of noise free gain, what else do you need? This will depend on you own equipment, but affordable preamps have a few differentiations, and some of them might be useful:
Moving Coil Cartridge Support- More commonly encountered at higher price points, moving coil cartridges have a much lower output than moving magnet designs so a phono stage that supports them needs even more gain. Having moving coil support keeps your options open for future upgrades but if you don't plan on using a moving coil design, it is circuitry you don't need.
Adjustable gain; Some preamps have the ability to offer different levels of gain to better match the amount of gain and headroom your amplification has. This is potentially very useful either if you have a system that doesn't have much gain or as a way of keeping noise levels down to a minimum.
USB output. This allows a phono preamp to create a digital signal that can be used for ripping to a computer. This makes archiving your vinyl easier but again, if you have no need for it, it is functionality you don't want to be paying for.
With this in mind, here is a shortlist of strong performers at sensible money:
Behringer PP400 $50
Behringer produces a range of pro and semi pro audio equipment that is designed to do exactly what is says it is supposed to with a minimum of fuss or frippery. The PP400 is designed to receive the signal from a moving magnet cartridge and at gain- that's it. You get a little grey box with an external PSU and the ability to output either to stereo RCA connections or a quarter inch jack. This is not a pretty preamp and it doesn't have huge amounts of gain but it sounds more than respectable for the sensible asking price. You also get an impressive three year warranty too.
Pro-Ject Phono Box MM $79
Pro-Ject makes turntables for every occasion and their preamp range is barely less well stocked. The Phono Box MM is the most affordable model they make and offers support for moving magnet cartridges. It is also a pretty simple looking device but offers reasonable levels of gain and usefully low noise levels. The Phono Box is closely related to the preamp that Pro-Ject fits to some of their turntables and as a result of this, it is designed to be resistant to noise induced from other components that is potentially useful if you have to place it very near a turntable.
Like the Orbit turntable, the Pluto has been designed offer maximum bang for your buck at sensible price points. It supports moving magnet cartridges and makes use of some extremely good quality internal components given the asking price. U-Turn has developed a strong reputation with their equipment and the Pluto is an example of a preamp that avoids unnecessary frills to offer very good performance without breaking the bank.
Schiit Mani $129
The name is a little on the odd side but Schiit audio has been carving out a great reputation for high value products, and the Mani is no exception. Where the Mani offers a useful step forward over the sub $100 models is the addition of moving coil cartridge support which may or may not be useful and variable gain settings which will allow you to set the Mani up to work most effectively in your own system. Throw in the sturdy metal casework and you have a bit of a star.
Cambridge Audio CP1 $159
The CP1 is an evolution of a design that dates back to 2003. The reason why it has continued for as long as it has is that the circuit it uses is truly exceptional and the man who designed it has gone on to use variations of it in rather more expensive designs for other companies. This is a model that starts to show that preamps have effects beyond simple gain when implemented properly. The specification is comparatively simple- moving magnet only, with fixed gain and no other features but if you can stretch to it, the CP1 will start to really show what is in the grooves of those records.
There are, of course, many other models not covered here and happiness might be lurking in any one of them but these are five designs at a few price points that stand out from the pack because they combine solid engineering with useful functionality. More money will of course buy more performance but these preamps can deliver serious sounds for reasonable outlay.