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Best Phono: Denon PMA-60 at Amazon
"It's no surprise that they're at the top of our home audio list."
Best Budget Phono: U-Turn Pluto at Amazon
"Has one basic goal: to make high quality, no-frills record players without the bloated price tag."
Best Splurge Phono Preamp: Pro-Ject Phono Box at Amazon
"Audiophile cred that will give you genuinely amazing sound."
Best Vocal Studio Preamp: Chandler Abbey Road at guitarcenter.com
"If you’re after legendary in-studio microphone sound, look no further."
Best Vocal for Mid-Range Budgets: Focusrite ISA One at guitarcenter.com
"A truly great dedicated mic preamp at a middle-of-the-road price."
Best Budget Vocal Studio Preamp: Presonus TubePre V2 at guitarcenter.com
"Delivers true, warm, tube preamp sound."
Best Instrument Studio Preamp: Focusrite Scarlet OctaPre at Amazon
"Takes the preamp sound of the standard OctaPre and layers in some nice on-board analog compressors."
Best for Portability: Grace Design m101 at Amazon
"One of the best preamps on the market."
Denon is a great brand, so it's no surprise that they're at the top of our home audio list. What makes the PMA-60 our top choice, though, is its price-to-features ratio. This thing sits right in the middle of the pricing road for DACs, so while it isn't exactly a budget buy, it also isn't in the $1,000–2,000 stratosphere. And the PMA-60 isn’t just a preamp. It also bundles in DAC technology via Denon’s Advanced AL32 protocol, which means it can be an all-in-one piece of gear for those who want preamp quality (rich, analog response) with the ability to play via computer or record player. It offers USB connectivity for ultra-high-resolution audio, and you can even operate it via Bluetooth, which makes it a great addition to your living room record player setup. There are two 50W channels of output that’ll work with a wide range of speakers, too, so it can fit into almost any audio situation, and the whole thing is super compact with options to orient it either vertically or horizontally.
U-Turn Audio has one basic goal: to make high quality, no-frills record players without the bloated price tag. The result is a phono with a set of specs that seems much more expensive than it is. The U-Turn Pluto is an ultra-simple aluminum chassis preamp that is meant to dovetail nicely with their back-to-basics turntables. There are WIMA film capacitors and precision resistors, which U-Turn promises will offer an accurate amplification of the full spectrum coming out of your record player. The subsonic filter removes the low-frequency noise often inherent in vinyl mixes, and they've even built in a highly efficient single gain stage that will give your amp or speakers enough juice without any distortion. In short, the Pluto will accurately support a mix without coloring it at all.
Considering that the preamp is only one piece of your home audio puzzle, the stratospheric price point of some of these vintage-facing, tube-based phono preamps can seem a little steep. But if you want something with audiophile cred that will give you genuinely amazing sound, check out Pro-Ject’s classic Phono Box RS. A favorite among gear reviewers, this preamp is a true dual-mono design. They haven’t paired up the outputs but rather packed in a set of two components, meaning each channel has a dedicated output. It has balanced XLR ins/outs and unbalanced RCA ins/outs for the best of both worlds, plus an intelligent impedance loading that is variable in response to whatever record player console you’re using. Pro-Ject’s award-winning low-noise, low-distortion operation gives you great sound, and the metal casing protects against vibration to ensure unfetter, long-lasting performance. Not to mention it looks great.
If you’re after legendary in-studio microphone sound, look no further than the TG-2. The original circuitry (on which the modern TG-2s are based) was the same sound character used at Abbey Road studios during the Beatles' recording — even if you get the non-Abbey Road edition, you’ll get a similar character. This limited-edition version takes that same circuitry and doubles it to give you two channels worth of high caliber mic performance. The transformer-balanced input gain control offers a range from 5–75 dB, and there's a separate, pre-output gain stage that lets you pad the first. This means you can flood the first gain stage with nice, full distortion without totally clipping the record-side output. The TG-2 Abbey Road Edition also features an unbalanced high-input direct in for guitar or bass, a 48V phantom power for more demanding mics, and a phase reverse to subvert some of those pesky studio artifacts. It even has a feature that allows you to combine the inputs from the first two channels to limit the need for post-unit mixing, making your whole setup more efficient. But the proof is in the production value — the sound, especially in that sweet spot of warm analog distortion, is unmatched.
The ISA One is Focusrite’s attempt to stay true to their classic studio heritage while offering a truly great dedicated mic preamp at a middle-of-the-road price. For starters, the ISA One is a transformer-based preamp (a Lundahl LL1538 to be precise), making it a solid state option, not a tube one. It won’t give you a ton of analog tube warmth as a result, but it will be a bit more rugged. There’s an adjustable impedance level to make sure you’re recording at the right sensitivity, and it has an optional 192 kHz stereo A-D converter on-board too, in case you want to put the DAC burden onto this unit instead of a more traditional recording interface. Focusrite has also thrown in a two-year warranty which is actually a bit more forgiving than many of the other name-brand options on the list.
For a budget price, the Presonus TubePre V2 delivers true, warm, tube preamp sound thanks to the dual 12AX7 tube output stage. On the input side, they’ve packed it with Presonus’s surprisingly capable XMAX preamp stage, which gives an even, accurate representation of the recorded subject. It has 48v phantom power for condenser mics, and 80Hz high-pass filter to help cut out some of the muddy low-end inherent in tube preamps. Presonus has even thrown in cool, vintage-looking backlit VU meters for monitoring. For your money, you really are only getting one true channel (though there is a secondary unbalanced input), but that isn’t surprising considering the price your pay.
If you need to record more than voices —including multiple instruments at a time, or even a drum set — you’ll need an outboard preamp that is better suited for a bunch of inputs. This is where Focusrite’s Scarlet OctaPre system becomes a great option. This Dynamic version takes the preamp sound of the standard OctaPre and layers in some nice on-board analog compressors, which will be extra important when recording dynamic-sounding instruments. As the name implies, there are eight inputs, but they’re all at the balanced line level and equipped with Focusrite’s natural second-gen Scarlett mic preamps. The DAC capabilities spit out high res audio at 192 kHz, which will be plenty of resolution for anyone’s needs. The OctaPre Dynamic even includes some software plugins to further enhance the sound, meaning no matter the instrument source, you’ll have usable results at the end.
If you want studio-quality mic performance outside of the studio, the Grace Design m101 isn’t just one of the best compact preamps on the market — it’s one the best, period. It's a single-channel preamp, but the super-responsive circuitry (they’re calling it a transimpedance architecture) and extra-precise metal film transistors make for a beautifully clean and natural signal path for your recordings. The gold-plated rotary gain switch has 12 steps so you’ll always know 100% where your levels are set, though you might sacrifice a bit of precise control. There’s 48v on-board for condensers, and for ribbon and dynamic mic users, it offers a reactive bypass option that completely takes the 48v out of the equation. The whole thing amounts to beautiful microphone recreation and noiseless sound quality, all encased in a super-durable housing that can withstand a toss into your production bag. That being said, the m101 is sure to become your sidekick for any remote session.