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Best Tube Phono Preamps (Tube Phonostages)

I am a big fan of using vacuum tubes (valves) in the first amplification stage after the turntable.

Tube phono preamps (or simply tube preamps) definitely provide a richer and livelier sound compared to solid-state transistor based preamps.

After many months of researching tube phono preamps, I finally bought a Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 to use with my turntable, and it has been my reference phono preamp ever since.

So, how much do we need to spend to get a good tube phono preamp? 

The good ones are unfortunately not cheap. Traditionally, good tube phono preamps are quite expensive items. 

In my research, I found that there aren’t easy to find very good tube phono preamps under $400.

There are lots of options in the $50 to $400 range, but with a few exceptions, they all seem a bit compromised when it comes to build-quality and authenticity.  

If you are a passionate audiophile with a decent vinyl setup, I think it is ideal if you save up to you can invest at least $400 or so if you want to be sure that you get a tube preamp that is well-built and sounds authentic out of the box. 

That is what I did. 

I used a cheaper solid-state preamp until I could afford the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. 

$400 or more is however a lot of money to spend on a preamp. 

If you are on a lower budget and want to start out with something less expensive, there are luckily a few options that will do a decent job for far less money. 

The cheap Fosi Audio Box X2 and the affordable Little Bear T11 seem to be very good budget options. More on those later.

Alright, enough intro, here is my complete list of recommended tube phono preamps for those of us that cannot afford the overpriced high-end stuff. 

#1. Best overall: Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 

When I was doing all my research to find a high-quality tube phono preamp that doesn’t cost a fortune, I ended up buying the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2

And I have never looked back. 

I have owned very few home audio products that have impressed me more. It is simply awesome. I love it. 

  • Sounds fantastic out of the box
  • Looks good
  • Feels solid as a rock

In my opinion, it offers the feel of high-quality tube amplification for a fraction of the price of what most high-end tube preamps cost. 

The Tube Box S2 fits perfectly between $50-$300 entry-level (“wannabe”) tube preamps that for the most part feels a bit gimmicky and traditional high-end tube preamps that costs much more than the regular audiophile can justify spending on a preamp. 

It is the perfect choice for dedicated audiophiles on a budget. 

And it doesn’t hurt that it is made by Pro-Ject, one of the most acknowledge turntable and vinyl gear manufacturer on the world. 

You can read my full review of the Tube Box S2 here

When I got the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2, it replaced my Rega Fono Mini A2D which is also a very good phono preamp. 

But I could immediately hear that the Tube Box S2 provided a richness and smoothness to the sound that the Rega could never offer. Without sacrificing speed or precision. 

Exactly what I was looking for in a tube preamp. 

KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 2 x ECC83 (12AX7A)
  • Supports MM and MC
  • Adjustable gain
  • Adjustable load
  • Subsonic filter (20Hz)
  • Available in silver or black
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Rich and smooth sound 
  • Solid built 
  • Versatile 

CONS

  • Cost significantly less than most high-end tube preamps but still a costly preamp for casual vinyl spinners

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

When I bought my Tube Box S2 I believed it was the cheapest tube preamp I could buy that didn’t compromise sound, quality, design, or authenticity. 

And I still think the same today. 

The Tube Box S2 is the best tube phono preamp you can buy if you are looking for a good sounding and authentic tube phono preamp that does not cost a fortune.

#2. Runner-Up: Vincent PHO 701

Another great and relatively affordable tube phono preamp that offers quality and authenticity is the Vincent PHO 701

I spent days researching this preamp when I was deciding which one to buy myself. It is undoubtably loved by both owners and critics. It is hard to find negative reviews.  

One thing the Vincent PHO 701 offers that the Tube Box S2 doesn’t is the option to use it to digitize records. Its USB feature was not important to me, but if this is something you might use, then the Vincent PHO 701 could be the best choice for you. 

I also think its separate chassis design looks really good. They have done a very good job with the design. 

And it appears to be very well built. 

It is known to sound exactly like a good phono preamp should. Rich, warm, dramatic, and smooth. With great dynamics and precision. 

 KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 1 x 12AU7
  • Supports MM and MC
  • Fixed gain
  • Adjustable load
  • USB output (Digitize records) 
  • Available in silver or black
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Well-made 
  • Great sound
  • Great design  

CONS

  • Starts to get expensive 
  • Lacks adjustable gain  

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

In the category of high-quality and authentic tube phono preamps that does not cost a fortune, the Vincent PHO 701 is a product that should be at the top of your short-list. 

It is a highly regarded product that has stood the test of time. 

#3. Most versatile: Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 

The Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 is basically a more elegant and more versatile version of its little brother, the Tube Box S2. 

The DS2 essentially utilize the same signal-path circuitry and has very similar key specifications as the S2. 

The core differences are that the DS2 has all the controls on the front panels and the ability to connect and switch between two turntables.

The impedance, capacitance and gain settings has slightly different steps/intervals between the two so that might be something to study in detail if you have an exact loading that you want to pin-point for your system. 

I personally doubt that most of us will hear a sound difference between the S2 and the DS2, so the main reason to spend more to get the DS2 is to get the additional connectivity and the more elegant front panel controls. Which can be good reasons for sure. 

I actually prefer the look of the S2 where the tubes are more visible, but that might just be me. If you need the extra versatility, the DS2 is definitely worth the premium.

KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 2 x ECC83 (12AX7A)
  • Supports MM and MC
  • Adjustable gain
  • Adjustable load
  • Subsonic filter (20Hz)
  • Available in silver or black
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Great Sound
  • Great Quality
  • Great Design
  • Highly Versatile 

CONS

  • Starts to get expensive 
  • Would look cooler with more of the tubes being visible? 

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

One of the best and most versatile tube phono preamps money can buy for serious audiophiles without an unlimited budget. 

#4. Best Under $100: Fosi Audio Box X2 

I was quite negative towards cheap tube phono preamps in the intro of this article, but if it is a company that seems to have nailed the task of building decent cheap tube phono preamp, it appears to be Fosi.

Their Fosi Audio Box X2 might be a true gem for anyone just starting out. 

The level of positive reviews it has received is simply amazing. Both for how it looks and how it sounds. 

If you want to start out with an affordable tube phono preamp, my top recommendation is to buy the Fosi Audio Box X2 together with the Riverstone tube upgrades that are automatically recommended by Amazon.

I have not tested the Fosi Audio Box X2 myself, but the awesome reviews it gets combined with the mixed feelings I have about my similarly priced Little Bear T7 make me confident that the Fosi Audio Box S2 is the best cheap tube phono preamp to buy today.  

KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 2 x 6J2
  • Supports MM only (not MC) 
  • Adjustable gain
  • Fixed load
  • Available in black
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Good tube sound for very little money
  • Not known to sound mudded as many cheap tube preamps do 
  • Likely the one to get in this price range

CONS

  • None at this price point 

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

If you are a beginner audiophile and want to add an entry-level tube phono preamp to your vinyl setup, the Fosi Audio Box X2 is probably your best bet. 

For seasoned audiophiles that want to take the sound of their setup to the next level, I recommend that you focus on phono preamps in the $400 to $800 range that offers that extra bit of quality and authenticity that you are after.

#5. Under $100 Runner-Up: Little Bear T7

I purchased a Little Bear T7 a while ago to compare against my Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 to see how good the sub $100 tube phono preamp would be compared to the awesome Tube Box S2. 

When I unboxed the Little Bear T7 I was very disappointed with the build quality. The circuit board inside was loose and rattling inside the chassis. The overall build-quality and components used frankly reminded me of the DIY gadgets I used to put together in the electronics lab when I studied electronics engineering at the university. 

When I plugged it into my vinyl setup and put it on sound, I immediately noticed an annoying clipping of the sound.

So, the Little Bear T7 first impressions were not good. To state it softly. 

The clipping did however dissipater after an hour or so (seemed like the tubes needed to break in) and with time I noticed that it actually sounded quite decent for a sub $100 preamp. 

So, my impressions of the Little Bear T7 improved over time. 

I cannot critique the sound it produces for the money too much, but the build quality is far below what I expect when I buy professionally manufacturer audio gear today. 

Due to its poor build quality, I honestly think the Fosi Audio Box X2 is the better buy if have a sub $100 budget and are looking for a tube phono preamp. 

You can read my full review of my Little Bear T7 here

KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 2 x 6J1
  • Supports MM (Not MC) 
  • Adjustable gain (2 steps) 
  • Fixed load
  • Available in black and silver
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Decent sound for the money 

CONS

  • Poor build-quality
  • Feels like a DIY kit 

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

The Little Bear T7 delivers decent sound for the money, but the finish and build-quality might not be up to today’s standards. 

#6. Best under $300: Little Bear T11

I have not tested the Little Bear T11 myself, but from research it seems to be a much better product than its little brother (Little Bear T7) and its predecessor (Little Bear T10). 

The T11 is an upgrade of the T10 and it seems like Nobesound has done a very good job with this version and fixed the commonly reported issues with the T10. 

When I initially researched tube preamps and bought my Pro-Ject Tube Box S2, I frankly dismissed the Nobesound brand all together because I read so many bad reviews of their T7 and T10 that I got unsure about the quality of the T11 as well.

The story might have ended differently if I had started my research from scratch today. From my latest research, the T11 seems to be a genuinely good product. I think I was a bit quick on the trigger when I dismissed it last time.

The Little Bear T11 costs about half of what the Tube Box S2 costs.

It receives very little negative feedback on the major discussion forums online.

And it seems to improve drastically with tube upgrades, which can be a fun project. 

It might actually be a true gem. 

If you want something that is very good and very solid straight out of the box, I still think think it is worth it to spend the premium and get the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. 

But if you are willing to invest a bit of money in better tubes down the line and trust that Nobesound has got their quality control up to speed, the Little Bear T11 might be worth serious consideration. 

KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 6N2 / 12AX7
  • Supports MM only (Not MC)
  • Adjustable gain (volume) 
  • Fixed load
  • Available in black
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Authentic tube phono preamp for a reasonable price 
  • 100% tubes (No solid-state op-amps or transistors)
  • Reported to sound good, especially with tube upgrades 

CONS

  • RCA connectors on the front panel is a bit odd 
  • Quality has been an issue with previous models. Fixed on the T11? 

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

With the Little Bear T11, it seems like Nobesound has developed a tube phono preamp that can satisfy genuine audiophiles for far less than $400.

I still think the Pro-Ject Tube Box is the safest bet for audiophiles on a budget, but the Little Bear T11 with upgraded tubes might be a serious contender. 

#7. Under $300 Runner-Up: Bellari VP130 MK2

The Bellari VP130 is one of the tube phono preamps I seriously considered when I was researching the best tube preamp to buy for my system. 

It didn’t make the top of the list in my research because it seems to receive quite a bit of mixed reviews. 

Lots of people absolutely love this little tube preamp and have used it for years and years without ever looking back. 

While others (you will find many on Steve Hoffman’s music forum) think it sounds muddy and isn’t a real and authentic sounding tube phono preamp. 

Honesty, I am not sure if this product is good value or not, but my research didn’t make me confident that it is. 

Based on its popularity and partly great reviews, I think it is hard to leave it out of this list, but it is not the product I recommend with the highest level of confident.

Personally, I think I would rather go for the Nobesound Little Bear T11 or spend the extra money and get a Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. 

KEY SPECIFICATIONS

  • Tubes: 1 x 12AX7
  • Supports MM and high-output MC
  • Adjustable gain (volume) 
  • Adjustable load (2 steps) 
  • Available in red
  • Tube rolling possible

PROS

  • Tube phono preamp for relatively little money 

CONS

  • The design and color might not be for everyone 
  • Reviews are highly diverse 

PRICE

Click here to check price on Amazon

VERDICT

A popular tube phono preamp that receives mixed reviews. People seem to either love it or hate it. One to test before you buy? 

Conclusion

This article reviews 7 of the most popular tube phono preamps between $50 and $800. 

For seasoned audiophiles, my top pick is the Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. It offers quality, authenticity, and great sound for much less money than traditional high-end tube phono preamps will cost. 

My top pick if you want something more affordable is the Nobesound Little Bear T11. It seems to have matured into something quite good out of the box and furthermore transforms itself into a real good sounding phono preamp if you ditch the stock tubes for something better. 

If you are on a tight budget and want to start out with a tube phono preamp for as little money as possible, then the Fosi Audio Box X2 is my top recommendation. It is the first cheap tube phono preamp I have studied that receives a very high level of favorable reviews. 

My Research 

This article essentially sums up the research and selection process I went through when buying a good tube phono preamp for personal use.

My research includes long-term testing of several phono preamps (including the Project Tube Box S2 and Little Bear T7) as well as comprehensive research online. 

I have also used my experience as electronics engineer and electronics designer to assess the build quality and “authenticity” of the products to the best of my ability.

Sources 

Steve Hoffman’s Music Forum 

Vinyl Engine 

Pro-Ject Audio 

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