I do most of my listening through headphones, which even though they're excellent (Sennheiser HD-650), I'm not sure they can reveal the subtle nuances of different esoteric phono pre-amps. I've been using the phono section of a Proton stereo receiver, with generally pleasing results, no real complaints. The Proton has adjustable capacitance loading as a bonus.
On a whim, and while not wanting to risk a whole lot of money, I ordered a couple of very inexpensive separate preamps:
- ART DeeJay Pre II: http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/DeeJayPre/
- TCC TC-750: http://www.phonopreamps.com/tc750pp.html
The bad news is the new one, although it works, just doesn't sound very good to me. Very harsh, not musical. On the positive side, it looks very rugged and I suppose if you're a DJ, you might like it for that reason. Sound-wise though, I think it's lacking.
On to the TCC TC-750. This preamp has excellent paper specs:
- RIAA freq response 20hz-20,000hz +/- 0.5dB
- S/N ratio >85dB
- THD <0.05%, input sensitivity 3.0mV
- Nominal / max output 300mV / 1.8V
- Output impedence 200 ohms, input 47kohm /220 pF
- CE certified
- gold-plated jacks
- black anodized metal casing
- ground wire terminal
- power indicator
I have to say the TC-750 sounds pretty good to me, and superior to the Proton receiver's built-in phono section. It's musical, clean, and it never sounds "strained". Also, the noise floor is *very* low, noticeably lower than the Proton. I like it enough that I'm using it full-time now.
For reference, my humble phono system consists of a Technics SL-1200MK2 with an OL1 Arm and Shure M97xE cartridge. It may not be high-end, but it's definitely capable of making music.
OK, that's my mini-review of a couple of the lowest of low-end phono preamps. If you're looking for something inexpensive that sounds decent, I can recommend the TCC TC-750. It's definitely suitable as a front-end to a consumer-grade PC sound card for digitizing your records, and it might be good enough for general listening too. It is for me anyway.