Own a turntable? Then you'll likely need a phono preamp (also called a phono stage), which raises your turntable's audio output to make it compatible with line-level modern amplifiers. At the same time, it also adds standardised equalisation.
That all sounds great, but your stereo amplifier or turntable may not have one, in which case you won't be able to play records without this crucial component. Or you may just want to upgrade its sound beyond what's possible with the built-in phono stage found in amplifiers or some record players, giving you that extra performance kick to give your vinyl another layer of sonic depth.
As with many product categories, phono stages span all price ranges and types, and we've got a phono preamp for you regardless of your budget. Every model on this list has been thoroughly tested by our team of experts in our dedicated listening rooms, so you can trust our advice. From new models to long-standing favourites, we've drawn on our reviews catalogue from recent years to pick the best available options right now, so you can be sure that you're buying the very best quality for your money (and for your turntable).
If you're on the lookout for a new turntable, check out our pick of the best record players. And once you've got your new vinyl set up ready, here are a few tips on how to get the best sound from your turntable, too.
How to choose the best phono preamp for you
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi?
Which phono stage you need is entirely dependent on what your existing vinyl system is, and your budget.
If you have a budget turntable, then an affordable phono stage that's simple to use and is compatible with your (most likely) moving magnet (MM) cartridge is the only parameter you need to consider. If you're a hi-fi enthusiast with a premium turntable and enjoy fine-tuning your system and swapping out different MM and moving coil (MC) cartridges like a mad scientist experimenting for the best sound quality, then you'll want a phono stage with plenty of flexible cartridge loading and gain adjustments to suit your matching high-end system, and more inputs.
Phono stages typically only have one set of inputs (you're usually plugging in just one turntable, after all), and even those on the entry-to-mid-level price range now increasingly let you switch between MM and MC cartridges – although beware that plenty still specialise in one type only. High-end phono stages tend to be larger (separate power supply units and better components all take up space), while budget options have a smaller footprint. Compatibility trumps design here, although it's not hard to find nicely made boxes.
Ultimately, which phono stage you choose will depend on what's best appropriate for the turntable and cartridge you already have, so make sure you've got your deck's specs handy. It's the same case if you're looking to upgrade your current set-up, although it's always worth looking at the next model up for future-proofing.
Of course, sound quality is the final decider: we'd recommend demoing your new phono preamp with your existing deck and system if possible, to ensure you get the best-sounding performance when spinning your vinyl records.
If you're looking for the best budget phono stage currently on the market, Rega's Fono Mini A2D is a top contender. This tiny, plain box was never much of a looker, and the Mk2 version is no different, with a new glossy front panel and a neater appearance simply bringing it up to date with Rega's current amplifier range.
The most important part of this phono stage, the audio circuitry, remains unchanged from the original model we gave five stars to. It features stereo RCA for input and output connections, and a USB (Type B) output with an accompanying level control, for recording your vinyl records to your laptop as a digital file. It's unusual to see this option on a phono stage, let alone at this budget level, but it's a fairly easy process to digitise vinyl provided you have the time and good recording software. We use Audacity and have no problems recording numerous tracks from vinyl to our MacBook Pro. The quality of the recordings mirrors that of the Fono Mini A2D's performance, and that’s a positive thing.
Sonically, it's as frill-free as it looks but gets the basics right. It's a lively presentation, full of convincing and nuanced dynamic contrasts, with power and passion behind vocals. While it's not the most refined or spacious sound, there's ample detail and insight to hold our interest. We use both a Sumiko Rainier MM and Vertere’s Sabre MM cartridges during our testing and the Fono Mini A2D sounds balanced with both. It has Rega's surefooted sense of rhythm and punch, plenty of low-end articulation and its overall composure when the music gets demanding is admirable.
What we find most impressive is the musically cohesive way that Rega organises and delivers all this information – for this price, there's no better alternative. We imagine this phono stage to be an ideal go-between, say, a KEF LSX II LT speaker system and a turntable, or if you wanted to upgrade your existing vinyl system. A talented little device that delivers excellent performance for the money.
Read the full Rega Fono Mini A2D Mk2 review
We've continuously been impressed with Rega's excellent (and rather affordable) Fono MM range, so it was something of a relief that the latest model, which featured a brand-spanking new look, didn't sacrifice style for sound. That same Rega DNA is still in there throughout the latest Fono MM Mk5 phono stage.
No, the changes aren't massive from the previous models, but what remains is the Fono MM's ability to knit music together confidentially and cohesively. When testing the phono preamp out with the Rega Planar 3/Elys record player (it's moving magnet only), we were once again struck by the unit's fast, punchy sound that gives your favourite tracks a real sense of weight and gusto.
Detail is great, too, uncovering new layers of musicality and texture as it goes, especially with regard to vocals. From Beethoven to Bruce Springsteen, the Rega Fono MM is completely at home.
Rega didn't exactly reinvent the wheel with the Mk5 model, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. That new case is certainly attractive enough, while that same agile, punchy performance gives you just the sound you're looking for if you like your music to have a bit of bite.
Read the full Rega Fono MM Mk5 review
It doesn't have the snappiest of names, but the Moon 110LP v2 does a fine job of improving your vinyl performance. The neat aluminium box is finished to Moon's high standards and is switchable, meaning it's capable of handling both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges.
Provided you keep it away from other mains-powered products and power cables, this phono stage will prove suitably quiet and hum-free. Features are basic but it's clear that Moon has focused on the bit that counts – sound quality.
As such, the Moon 110LP v2 is one of the best phono preamps of its kind at this price. It works particularly well with moving magnet cartridges, dishing up a smooth, fluid and refined sound with a satisfying punch. The stereo imaging is accomplished and remains stable even when the music becomes demanding. It has a subtle way with music that's rewarding and easy to listen to for long hours.
With moving coil cartridges, large-scale dynamics are a touch restrained and bass is softer – but you’d have to spend half as much again to get a phono stage that does appreciably better.
If you’re in the market for a quality affordable phono stage, this little Award-winning box is well worth auditioning.
Read the full Moon 110LP v2 review
Well this is certainly a looker. With an offset volume dial, minimalist styling and mirrored rear labelling that's easy to read even if you're peering over the top of the unit, it's clear a lot of thought has gone into the Cambridge Audio Duo phono stage. And no less attention has been paid to the audio quality.
The presentation is very good indeed, being spacious and cohesive, while the sound is dynamic and the timing spot-on. It doesn't quite match the Rega Fono MM MK3 for punch, but it certainly holds its own verve with both MC and MM cartridges.
The bonus here is the inclusion of a built-in headphone amplifier with 6.3mm headphone jack, which is somewhat unusual but entirely welcome in a phono stage at this level. It's a lovely way to upgrade your vinyl system or add a bit of modern flourish.
The smooth, full-bodied performance, coupled with the inclusion of a headphone amp, makes this stylish box certainly worthy of consideration.
Read the full Cambridge Audio Duo MC/MM review
Vertere already had a great phono stage on its hands, but this updated version manages to deliver significant performance gains, thanks to some careful housekeeping and honing of the circuit board and power supply. The tidy little box remains the same; an orange power LED is the only addition to the design.
The new Phono-1 MkII L is a brilliant performer, with a useful selection of features and adjustments that should help you get the most from any cartridge. Its detailed, musical delivery makes it a joy to listen to.
We love the scale of performance and the way the Vertere delivers the seismic dynamic shifts of the recording with so much enthusiasm. As with the previous generation (also an Award-winner), our main takeaway after hearing this phono stage is that it makes listening to music interesting and, where appropriate, fun. There’s not much we can ask of any piece of hi-fi beyond that.
If you’ve got an earlier version of the Phono-1 don’t worry about swapping it out for this new one. For new buyers, don’t hesitate to go for this version as it's a clear step up and worth the price hike (now £1350 / $1895 / AU$2700). Given a source and system of appropriate talent, it remains one of the finest phono stages we’ve heard at the price.
Read the full Vertere Phono-1 MkII L review
Phono stages tend to be, apart from the sleek Cambridge Audio Duo above, rather plain black boxes. Musical Fidelity takes a different approach: this phono preamp is beautifully made, with a smartly machined front panel and nice-to-use controls.
Rather than use a series of dipswitches (as many rivals do), the MX-VYNL has a rather elegant control dial to manage the switch between moving coil and moving magnet inputs and their different loading requirements.
Alongside a standard single-ended phono input – something that will be used by the vast majority of decks around – it can also accept a balanced signal in the form of a mini XLR 5-pin connector.
Thankfully, convenience is far from the MX-VYNL's only strength - sound is wonderfully transparent and detailed, digging up low-level instrumental strands and sonic textures with ease. We love the way it handles vocals. There's a fluidity to it that makes rivals seem mechanical by comparison, although it may not have the outright rhythmic cohesion found in the similarly-priced Rega Aria. But it doesn't exactly hold back when it comes to bite and attack.
It's superb balance of attitude and refinement. If the rest of your system is up to scratch, the MX-VYNL is worth the investment.
Read the full Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL review
The Cyrus Audio brand has been built on a long tradition of excellent CD players and amplifiers. Vinyl replay has never been a major part of its output, and we’ve found past phono stages to be good rather than great. The Cyrus Phono Signature/PSX-R2 combination (originally tested at £1900, now available for £2290) changes that.
This premium phono stage lets the user fine-tune cartridge matching from the comfort of their favourite listening position, thanks to a handy (if poorly marked) remote control – something we haven’t come across before. There is a wide range of adjustments available for gain, resistance and capacitance too.
Sound quality is seriously talented and it comes bursting with texture and insight. It's a wonderfully clean and crisp sound, with more low-end weight and substance sitting alongside Cyrus’s traditional values of precision and speed.
The Phono Signature on its own sounds refined and smooth with plenty of bite when required, but adding the updated PSX-R2 power supply takes sound quality to another plane altogether. The scale is even bigger, bass gains more authority, and the precise positions of the performers and instruments in the beautifully layered sound stage are laid bare. The insightful delivery squeezes the very last drop of emotion from a recording.
If you’ve already got a suitably talented turntable and really want to hear how good it is, this Cyrus combination is a must-buy.
Read the full Cyrus Phono Signature/PSX-R2 review
How we test phono preamps
We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in Reading and London, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and audio kit that passes through our door – including phono preamps (or phono stages).
Sound quality is key in forming our verdicts and star ratings. What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we listen to every phono preamp we review against the current leader in its field and price point to gauge how it compares to the best-in-class competition. We keep What Hi-Fi? Award winners in our stockrooms so we can always pit new products against ones we know and love, and we do our best to review as many new models in as many markets as possible to ensure our contextual knowledge is the best it can be.
We are always impartial in our testing and ensure we hear every phono preamp at its optimum – with the matching turntable and appropriate cartridge(s) of course. We'll use them in their best use case with different partnering source kit and speakers, as well as play plenty of different types of music through them. Naturally, we give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in) too.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
You can read more about how we test and review products on What Hi-Fi? here.
Why do I need a phono stage?
The audio information stored in a record's groove can be in an area as small as a micron (one-thousandth of a millimetre), so the scale of the task to retrieve it and playback through your speakers is immense - one that your standard line-level stereo amplifier isn't able to do on its own.
The physical limitations of vinyl mean that the original audio signal has to be altered before it can be recorded onto its tiny grooves – low frequencies are reduced in level and the highs are boosted. The curve that governs this equalisation standard was set by the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) in 1954.
This is where the phono stage (or phono preamp) comes in. It has two jobs. Firstly, it has the reverse response built into it – one that boosts bass and flattens treble to exactly the right degree, which should result in a tonally even presentation for the audio signal.
Secondly, it acts as an amplifier. The cartridge signals from tracking the groove can be as low as a thousandth of a volt (CD’s output is specified at 2V, for instance) so the signal has to be amplified massively before the line-level stage of a stereo amplifier can take over.
Learn more about how a vinyl record makes a sound