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Adding a tube preamp to your setup is the fastest way to add color, warmth, and richness to your sound. Apart from boosting the signal quality and strength, the gooeyness of analog tubes creates a world of difference to your listening experience. In this guide, we'll look at the best tube preamps to buy for serious audiophiles.
Pro-Ject Tube Box S
- Great build quality
- Value for money pricing
- Warm, wide sound
Little Dot MK2
- Small footprint
- Affordably priced
- Great for headphones
- Extremely affordable
- Adds color to sound
- Entry-level preamp
Warm, rich, gooey, woolly.
These are just some of the words you'll see people use to describe tube preamps.
Modern audio is entirely digital which, while clear and pristine, suffers from a lack of warmth. Even if you have great headphones and amps, the final sound can feel cold and distant – all because of the hard “clarity” of digital audio.
Tube preamps bring in much-needed analog complexity to your audio chain. Throw it onto your setup and the final sound will feel warmer, richer, and more sugary – something only analog equipment can accomplish.
Buying the right tube preamp can be a challenge, simply because of the subjectivity of analog sound. Tube preamps use vacuum tubes which don't behave as predictably as digital audio signal processing. This means that no two tube preamps will sound precisely the same, and performance can vary greatly across makes and models.
To help you make the right decision, I'll take a closer look at the best tube preamps on the market right now. I've sorted my top choices based on different needs and budgets.
Jump to the section below to see my top choice for tube preamps.
The Best Tube Preamp
A good tube preamp is often the crowning jewel of any audio setup. Yet picking the right one isn't easy.
Which is why I've done the hard work and selected the five best tube preamps for every need below:
Pro-Ject Tube Box S
The Pro-Ject Tube Box S from Pro-Ject – one of our favorite turntable makers – has a warm, rich, gooey sound that perfectly complements analog media sources. Pair it up with your turntable and you'll get a deliciously classic sound.
The Pro-Ject Tube Box S is the best overall product on this roundup. It is an excellent product that delivers excellent sound performance. Your regular turntables come with a phono cartridge that will enhance the audio signal. However, this is usually too weak to get a standard sound. That is why you need a tube preamp. A preamp is a good tool that can improve sound.
Furthermore, it comes at a lower price compared to other tools that can help to amplify the sound.
There is not much going for the unit when it comes to the physical appearance and design. It comes in a simple and discrete design that will not particularly draw attention to it. It comes with FET transistors as the input and a pair of ECC83 interchangeable tubes which serve to amplify the sound. The front panel of this unit comes with only one switch which powers the unit On or Off. There are no knobs or dials.
Now, these tubes are made of impressive quality. The rear panel of the unit comes with several adjusters which feel good to hold and use as they come with tiny bridging bars. Additionally, you will find a subsonic filter on the unit. The aim of adding this is to jettison rumble and other frequencies that can affect sound quality.
The performance of this unit is impressive, as well. During my testing, I observed that it delivers a wide soundstage that utilizes stereo imaging and provides incredible detail. Playing on this unit, I loved the open nature of the sound produced. As for the midrange, it is sweet and fluid. The dynamics feel great and delicate, which I really like.
Remember that tube preamps work best with amplifiers, external speakers and the turntable. Therefore the performance will not be too impressive if these parts are of low quality.
Overall, this unit offer great performance and comes with a simple design. Additionally, it doesn’t cost as much as several other options on the market. All the parts work in sync to give you a warm, rich sound.
What I don’t like:
This unit is truly incredible, but it comes with its drawbacks. For one, it might sound great, but it doesn’t ‘wow’ my senses. It is safe but doesn’t blow the mind. Furthermore, setting it up can be a hassle because the instructions on it are not very clear.
- Small and portable build
- Broad and smooth audio delivery
- Replaceable valves
- Limited controls
- Short power cord
Best Tube Preamp for Headphones: Little Dot MK2
- Headphone Impedance: 32 ~600 ohms
- 50K Ohms input impedance
- Unbalanced jacks output
- 20 Hz – 50Kz frequency response
To some audiophiles, vacuum tubes relics of past technology. These tubes came before the modern transistor; however, many audiophiles view them as the best options to create incredible sounds. These tube amps usually come at a high price, and the cheap ones deliver sub-par quality. The Little DotMK2 comes at a low price, and this makes many view it as a low quality option. I got a hold of this unit while compiling this roundup, and the overall performance makes it a worthy contender as one of the best tube preamps on the market right now.
This unit comes with a quartet of vacuum tubes for a relatively low price.
Unboxing this unit was a delight. It comes in a plain package; without any designs whatsoever. This is the first sign that this isn’t your average tube preamp. Instead of spending money on fancy packaging, funds were diverted into producing a top-notch, yet affordable unit. Tubes preamps are notoriously fragile, and I was very pleased to see that the manufacturer carefully packaged the product to prevent any damage.
It comes with several accessories; something not usually found in units in this price range. In the box, you will find the amplifier, a pair of Power tubes, Driver tubes, a trio of Jumper caps, one RCA-RCA audio cable and a 3.5mm-6.3mm adaptor. All of these accessories come in super useful during the course of using the product.
The build of the unit itself is quite impressive. It comes in a durably constructed form with a black frame and white lines. It is not exactly lightweight and has a certain heft. The front panel features one volume knob and a blue LED indicator. It also comes with a 6.3mm port in front. The rear panel comes with I/O RCA ports and the power switch.
When buying the unit, you must ensure that you buy that which will suit your power supply. You can choose between the 110v and 220v versions.
Set up is very easy with this unit. In setting up, you need to note certain things. First of all, the power tubes are probably larger than what you are normally used to. After you plug in the quartet of tubes, all you require is to plug the power cord and switch the unit on.
This tube preamp is primarily designed for headphones, and you will get the best audio performance by pairing it with a headphone. Regardless of the power of the headphones, you can rest assured that they will be compatible with this unit.
During testing, I observed that this unit is much better than my former preamp. The bass sounds much deeper, and the rolling highs are stunning. On my digital amp, sounds sound average, but when paired with this unit, I got sound I never knew my unit could produce. Movies, music, and instrument sounds simply come off better than ever expected.
What I don't like
Overall, there is no better tube preamp for your headphones than this unit. However, it comes with its fair share of issues. I noticed that during testing, the volume knob made a channel to be muted.
- Excellent value for price
- Supports a wide variety of headphones
- Comes with four tubes
- Tricky knobs
- Poor aesthetics
Best Budget Tube Preamp: SUCA-AUDIO Tube-T1
- Replaceable tubes
- RCA I/O
- Gold plated interface
- DC 12V/2A power supply
Anyone that is serious about their sound needs a great preamp, and that is what this product brings to the table.
The SUCA-Audio Tube is designed to be used with several appliances and is great for studio work. It comes at a low price, which makes it a very attractive option to interested folks.
It is made from several durable materials, although the quality cannot be compared to more expensive options on this roundup. It is designed to deliver natural sound. It feels so lightweight and is portable. It can be carried around with you without plenty of hassle. Therefore, if you are often on the go, you will find it great to use.
From my testing, this unit gets most of the fundamental things right. It enhances tonal accuracy without exaggerating sounds. I love the soundstage and impressive bandwidth. The rear panel of this model comes with input jacks that let you connect it to devices without any issues.
It is so easy to use. Even users that do not have any prior experience in using preamps will have a swell time using it.
What I don't like
It is a budget unit. Thus, it doesn’t have the same capabilities as more expensive counterparts. For one, it isn’t as power efficient as the contemporaries. While the sound is decent, it lacks warmth and clarity that is found on more expensive models.
- Brighter sound
- Low hissing sound
- Not recommended for turntables
Best Tube Preamp for Audiophiles: YAQIN MC-13S
- Yaquina 6CA7T tubes
- Analog VU meter
- Push-pull power amp
The next option on this roundup is an impressive preamp that comes with internal parts, unlike what is found in other products on this roundup. It is the best preamp for audiophiles, and this is largely down to the push-pull technology that it has.
Yaqin is a relatively new company founded in 1994. It specializes in house products which are some of the best on the market right now.
Push-pull amplifiers are the amalgamation of a pair of bipolar junction transistors. One pushes, while the other pulls. Hence, it delivers impressive efficiency. Also known as a class B amplifier, it offers several advantages. The Yaqin MC-13S comes with all of these advantages.
Aside from the push-pull technology, this unit comes with a quartet of EL34B tubes. Therefore, you get a warm sound that you will be hard pressed to hear using other tube preamps.
One advantage of the technology is that it greatly eliminates any distortion in the circuit. It gives really high gains and enhances the overall efficiency of the unit. All these advantages and more are what you get when you use this model.
It costs more than others on this roundup, but the performance it delivers is far more than its price. In fact, the sound it gives rivals even that offered by more expensive options.
The unit is sturdily constructed, with its parts made from high quality materials. It weighs 22 Kg, which is heavy, but ensures that it seats solidly with your turntable. All the knobs and parts are made from high quality materials and fit well into the body of the unit.
Internally, the circuit is minimalist. Instead of the fancy features found in more expensive models on the market, it simplifies everything to focus on what is truly important. Therefore, if you are looking for stuff like an auto-mute circuit, remote control, or even a cover, you will have to look at more expensive products. While some might find this disappointing, the high quality sound quality more than makes up for these perceived deficiencies. As I earlier pointed out, it comes with a push-pull circuit which ensures incredible sound. Furthermore, although it doesn’t come in a fancy casing, the high quality of the parts means that it is optimized to deliver the best sound possible.
One of the components that caught my attention is the MC13S. This part is made with high grade iron. Furthermore, the I/O transformers are created with incredible quality, featuring enamelled copper and Japanese steel.
The performance is simply stunning. This unit can comfortably be one of the foundational pieces of your studio setup. The clarity of the sound is unbeatable. With this unit, individual instrument sounds are isolated and mashed together to form an incredible listening experience. Even when at low volume, you will not hear the hiss common with other units on the market.
The SRPP preamp circuit enhances the signals to help the amplification via the tube. Setup is straightforward and easy, and you can get down to listening to sounds as soon as possible.
What I don't like
Is it possible to have an issue with such an incredible piece of technology? Well, yes. It is incredible, but it isn’t perfect. One major issue I had with this unit is that it doesn’t have an auto bias. Therefore, I had to change y tubes manually. When manually changed, chances are high that an incorrect replacement affects the overall quality of the
- Push-pull power amplifier
- No hissing even at lower volumes
- Sturdy construction
- No auto-bias
- Availability is sketchy
Best DIY Tube Preamp Kit: AOSHIKE 6J1
- Stereo 2.0 channel
- 0.8A working voltage
- 12V AC input
I love the AOSHIKE brand for several reasons, chief among them being that many folks, including myself, have used some of the units and have been left with nothing but stunning faces. This particular amp has a high place among the DIY or Build-It-Yourself preamp kits on the market today. The unit, like so many other units from the brand, are made to impact value and come at a very low cost.
The packaging when this kit arrived indicated just how much care and detail the manufacturer put into making the product. Everything is neatly packed and inspires loads of confidence. I noticed that the chassis and boards are made from high quality and feel super durable. The R-core transformer that comes in the package feels sturdy, and all other components look and feel great.
As this is a Build-It-Yourself kit, instructions must be followed to the latter when putting it together. Unfortunately, there are no instructions, and you will need to have prior experience. However, due to my experience, I was able to complete setup in about a week.
Performance is quite pleasing, all things considered. It sounds really good, and I will describe the sound as being balanced. While it doesn’t sound like the other amps on this roundup, for a DIY amp, it is impressive and is arguably the best you can find on the market right now. Soundstage is great, and if you are pressed for cash, the unit can serve as the core of your rig. Although gain is noticeable, it doesn’t sound as bad I thought a Build-It-Yourself preamp would sound. When it is properly set up, operation is quite straightforward and so easy.
Phono quality is unrivalled among DIY preamps of this price.
What I don't like
While the instructions are quite straight to the point, I have to admit that it wasn’t easy putting everything together. It comes with really small PCB’s which come in a tight package. Furthermore, although the phono board is of high quality construction, there are so many parts on it. Therefore, if you have failing eyesight or you do not have steady hands, you are liable to make mistakes when soldering.
- Relatively easy to build
- Excellent sound
- Low voltage
- Disappointing power output
- Needs 12V AC adapter
Over to You
Finding the best tube preamp can be a tough, especially given the subjective nature of tube preamps. Hopefully, this article will help you make the right decision.
For more recommendations and advice, don't hesitate to reach out to me here.
- Our pick of the best turntables for audiophiles
- The best budget DACs you can buy right now
- Building a Stereo Tube Amp (Instructables.com)
- What's the Difference Between Tube and Solid-State Guitar Amps? (Musicians's Friend)
- Beginner Introduction Guide to Tubes & Valves in Amps & Audio (Spartan Music)
- June 17, 2020: Article first published
- September 18, 2020: Minor article updates