An affordable studio-quality preamp. Great noise reduction. 1 channel, solid state.
Price: low cost
Best in the budget category!
Golden Age Project Pre73 JR
Preamp with switchable phantom power and 20–70 dB gain. 1 channel, solid state.
Price: low cost
ART Pro MPAII
Cheap preamp with phantom power and variable input impedance. 2 channel, solid state.
Price: low cost
FMR Audio RNP8380
Nifty 1/3 rack preamp with a wide distortion-free spectrum. 2 channel, solid state.
Best vocal preamp with gain control, good headroom, and flexible outputs. 1 channel, solid state.
Best in the golden middle category!
True Systems P Solo
An all-in-one preamp with high impedance input, phantom power, high pass filter, etc. 1 channel, solid state
Warm Audio TB12
High quality recordings, various tones, phantom power, and capacitor select. 1 channel, solid state
Grace Design m101
Clear sound, 12-position rotary gain switch, 3 outputs, universal compatibility. 1 channel, solid state
Dual mono transformer-based mic preamp, variable impedance selector, high-pass filter. 2 channel, solid state
Pricey, warm and versatile, with a high-voltage dual transformer and 4 band equalizer. 1 channel, tube.
Price: high end
4 dual triode vacuum tubes, outstanding gain range, close-up round sound, and more. 1 channel, tube.
Price: high end
Best in the pricey selection!
What does a preamp do?
Can’t one just neglect a preamplifier and plug a mic, synths, and guitars into an audio interface? What does a preamp do for vocals? When faced with this question, I usually respond: a preamp helps you record a decent vocal recording. The output of a standard microphone is too low to plug it into the recorder directly. Basically, a preamp is a device that makes the mic signal louder, or amplifies low level signals to line level – the operating level of your recording gear.
There are two types of preamps: onboard/stock and outboard. Onboard preamps are built into your audio interface. An outboard preamp is a standalone device; generally it’s less noisy than a stock one. You may need a preamp as just another sound source; it doesn’t have to be external, since most audio interfaces include embedded preamps. The in-built option is just great to get you started. However, external preamps reveal better sound quality, better gain (around 70 dB), lower noise, special sound patterns, and extra features.
Single channel or dual channel? That is the question
Now, what’s the deal with 1 and 2 channels? Let’s imagine a few scenarios. For instance, you could record stereo tracks with two mics, or use two mics for two different sources. Recording two vocalists or two instruments in separate streams is another example. These cases will most likely require a dual channel preamp.
If this rings a bell, then go look for a stereo mic preamp. Otherwise, you should be fine with a plain 1 channel. However, keep in mind that 2 channel mic preamps will always end up cheaper per channel. There is an abundance of 2 channel units under $2K, so just pick your color and design and go for it.
Solid-state or tube?
Great sounding tube gear is a smart pick for its musical quality and sound. However, it’s always crucial to evaluate the gear, since tubes do differ. Although tubes provide greater harmonic response, solid state and pin & hole technology over surface mount may also work great.
Within their operating range, high-gain tube stages, in fact, produce greater distortion than solid-state devices. However, their resulting ‘distortion’ may be rather pleasing to the listener. Most people describe this sound as warm and musical.
With a high-end solid-state preamp you can actually record a more accurate track with more tones preserved from the original source. Budget-wise, two solid-state preamps are cheaper to purchase and maintain than their tube rivals. A low- to mid-range tube preamp is more expensive to buy and operate due to the increased cost of parts. Yet for those who value impeccable quality, tubes are really worth paying for!
1. DBX 286s
A must-have for voice over and podcasts, DBX provides clean gain, excellent limiter, powerful LF and HF options, phantom power, and more.
How does this model stand out?
- Studio quality preamp/channel strip processor
- Classic dbx compression delivers great sound within easy reach
- Reduces sibilance and high frequency distortion
- Program adaptive expander/gate.
This small device adds professional quality to your voice before mixing. With DBX, there’s no need to get extra gain from your mixer even with notoriously ‘hungry’ mics like the Heil PR40. All in all, great value for the money!
Best for: professional studios, high-end vocals and voice overs.
My pick in the affordable category!
2. Golden Age Project Pre73 JR
A beautiful vintage preamp, the Golden Age comes with switchable phantom power, absolute phase, and gain switch range of 20–70 dB.
What’s special about this device?
- High-impedance input
- Discrete signal path with a transformer-balanced input and output
- Combo XLR/TRS input jack as well as separate output XLR and TRS jacks.
A sibling to the best-selling PRE-73 Mk2, this model offers a classic musical sound character at an affordable price. It has all it takes to make great recordings in a smaller format and mount four units in a 19-inch rack kit.
Best for: semi-pro applications, voice recordings
3. ART Pro MPAII
The ART Pro MPAII two-channel mic preamp is next-gen cost-effective technology. Each mic input features variable input impedance, which can dramatically alter the performance of any dynamic or ribbon microphone.
How does this preamp stand out?
- Flexible microphone voicing
- Adjustable plate voltage
- Discrete class-A input mic preamplifier
- Noise reduction at lower gain settings
- Total harmonic distortion close to unnoticeable.
The Pro MPA II is a flexible device that can be tailored to dual mono or stereo operation with selectable mid/side mic support. Reliable, designed for long-term use and suitable for road shows if live reinforcement is required.
Best for: pro and home studios, vocals and voice-overs in a clean audio environment.
4. FMR Audio RNP8380
RNP8380 is a nifty 1/3 rack two-channel mic preamp with an unbelievable distortion-free spectrum.
What’s up with this preamp?
- Sturdy, functional and moderately priced
- Clip point of +27.5dBu (almost 25V peak-to-peak)
- Separate +22dBu unbalanced output and a +28dBu balanced output
- Neutral sonics
- Compatibility with RNC/RNLA
RNP8380 is a real workhorse, it’s minimalistic in design, easy-to-use and powerful. A soft option in the 2-channel category!
Best for: small studios, vocals and acoustic instruments.
5. Focusrite ISA One Single-channel Mic Pre-Amplifier
A transformer-based preamplifier, this ISA model is based on the original ISA 110 and comes as a cost-efficient and flexible package.
Why is this a great option?
- Independent gain control
- Output for routing to an amp, as well as an independent XLR output on the rear
- Optional stereo 192kHz A-D converter
- Switchable impedance
- A standalone insert point that helps you place extra processing between the preamp and the optional converter.
The ISA One provides pleasing sound, decent headroom, low distortion, a DI which is good for bass and electric guitar, balanced in/out, nifty VU meter, and more perks. All in all, a superb affordable choice!
Best for: recording pros, studios, a great fit for grabbing instrumental audio and voice-overs.
My choice in the mid-range category!
6. True Systems P Solo
The P-SOLO is a 1-channel mic or instrument preamp with an appealing design, fantastic sonic detail and neutral character.
How does it stand out from the crowd?
- Natural detailed sound field
- Full support for all types of mics: condenser, dynamic, or ribbon
- Dual servo and high dynamic range
- Internal AC power for perfect transient response.
It’s a Swiss army knife of features and valuable properties: high-impedance instrument input, phantom power, high-pass filter, military-grade, hand-matched components and a stylish durable enclosure. Good bang for the buck!
Best for: small and home recording studios as well as larger stages.
7. Warm Audio TB12
This WA preamp delivers high quality of direct recordings for instruments and voice-overs. It’s versatile and affordable, and a real beast!
What’s the Warm Audio all about?
- Various tones from vintage to modern
- Comes with phantom power
- Capacitor select
- Bypass transformer.
Like its name suggests, this device really manages to warm up pretty much any sound, however harsh or disharmonic. The preamp is, indeed, feature-packed so you have a bunch of opportunities to tweak and tune. Totally worth every penny!
Best for: both amateurs and pros recording vocals and instruments.
8. Grace Design m101
A 1-channel model, the m101 delivers amazing quality and comes with a 12-position rotary gain switch.
How is the m101 different?
- No noises, crisp and detailed
- Clear uncolored sound
- Great compatibility: from low-cost to high-end mics
- 3 outputs (balanced XLR, balanced TRS, and unbalanced TS).
What you can do is shell out for this Grace Design device and plug in any mic you like – it will perform with flying colors. Give it a try and you won’t regret it!
Best for: recording vocals and instruments, great fit for violins and cellos.
9. Focusrite ISA
This Focusrite model is a dual mono transformer-based microphone preamplifier. A smart 2-channel option!
What’s great about this model?
- Best-in-class input transformers
- Variable input impedance that enables you to match the preamp to your microphone
- Front panel instrument and rear panel line inputs
- 18dB/octave high-pass filter that eliminates unwanted low-frequency sounds
- Balanced insert point with ¼-inch TRS.
The Focusrite ISA Two has an unbelievable price-to-performance ratio. It provides sweet sound and knows how to elicit the perfect tone out of pretty much any microphone. Also, big kudos for the variable impedance selector and the independent DI!
Best for: professional studios, music, voice-overs and vocals.
10. PreSonus ADL700
The ADL 700 delivers a single-channel version of the award-winning ADL 600 and comes with a high-voltage dual-transformer – one 12AT7 and two 6922 vacuum tubes.
What are the PreSonus ADL’s benefits?
- Four band semi-parametric equalizer
- High-end 2U rack-mount, three inputs with a source selector: line input, mics, instruments
- Phantom power, a -20 dB pad, and polarity reverse
- Fully variable FET compressor/limiter
This is a real high-end choice, warm and versatile. The ADL700 helps you change the mic’s character easily and has rich, yet transparent functionality.
Best for: general applications for voice-overs and vocals.
11. Avalon VT-737sp
The cream of the crop, this Avalon model has the crystal-clear warm sound that only tubes can deliver.
Here’s more details:
- Four dual triode vacuum tubes, high-voltage discrete Class “A”
- Transformer balanced 850/2500 ohm, 0dB to +58dB
- Maximum input level and connector types
- Microphone 26dB@25Hz, +30dB@1kHz balanced XLR, line +36dB balanced XLR
- Maximum output level +30dB, balanced 600 ohms, DC coupled
- Unbalanced front panel jack socket.
The Avalon VT-737sp tube preamp produces close-up round sound, and superb mid-range presence which is a great fit for voice overs. Professional, “A” class, pricey and worth every penny!
Best for: pro studios, vocals, voice overs, most demanding audio environments.
This is my recommendation in the high-end category!
My top picks
It’s now time to wrap up and summarize my recommendations. All these preamps do a great job, so it’s really hard to tell which one leads the field. In any case, I have my favorites in each category and here they are. The DBX 286s wins the prize in the budget price range for its good gain, low distortion and great bang for the buck. In the golden middle, I’m vouching for the 1-channel Focusrite ISA One with independent D.I. switchable impedance and impressive headroom. My pick among the high-end tube preamps is the Avalon VT-737sp. However sticker-shocking, it’s a killer in terms of sound, mid-range presence, design and usability!