What’s the best moving coil phono preamplifier?

Either a good step-up transformer or an exceptional active MC gain stage.

Almost nothing does a better job of taking extraordinarily small signals from a moving coil cartridge and amplifying them than a step-up transformer, with maybe one exception, which we will get to.

A Perfect Match

Technically there’s a bit to know, but step-up transformers are great because they are completely passive, require no power and have no electronic or moving parts to degrade sonics or add noise. They match the impedance of the cartridge to the input impedance of the next stage almost perfectly. They can also be chosen to provide a precise level of gain to suit the cartridge and following electronics.

These virtues combine to reveal a level of micro-dynamic detail and resolution you may have thought didn’t exist until auditioning a good step-up transformer in a high-resolution system. When I got my first transformer, a Fidelity Research FRT-3, in 2005, I was amazed. Moving to an end-game Fidelity Research XF-1 after some very good advice from a friend and colleague was the game changer for me, and I’ve used, recommended and supplied many transformers since.

Fidelity Research XF-1
I own two pristine examples of the XF-1.

Some of the best phono preamplifiers, such as my Cayin Phono 1, use transformers for their moving coil gain stages because they offer the best performance and lowest noise for sensible money.


Whilst good step-up transformers are ideal for most people in most cases, there are a few cases where alternatives should be considered. If you have or have access to an ‘S-tier’ all-active phono preamp, it’s worth comparing it to the best transformers. I recently acquired an S-tier Accuphase preamplifier containing a phono preamplifier so good, that it’s better than a really good step-up transformer.

Mind you, my Accuphase preamp cost as much as a car when it was new and many thousands of dollars even now, 30 years later. I had to find it and then import it from Japan, there were many risks and costs involved and that’s way too hard for most people. That’s why in most systems, and for most people, a really good step-up transformer is the best option. But if you can afford an Accuphase C-47 phono preamplifier, this will be the best way forward.

Accuphase C-47
Nothing else is built like or sounds like Accuphase gear. You pay for it though.

Lost Knowledge

Knowledge and hands-on experience with step-up transformers is something of a lost art. Most people have never even seen a step-up transformer, let alone owned a few of them. They were common in high-end systems in the ’70s and ’80s though.

These days, many discover the almost mythic status of these devices, only to hit their favourite hi-fi store to ask about them and be met with blank stares! Many are left to find someone they can perhaps borrow a transformer from, before placing an order.

I offer this service to my customers who are looking to purchase something through me. The customer who purchased this beautiful Ortofon ST-70 step-up transformer did so before ordering. I had to order the SUT directly from Ortofon and the lead time was months. There wasn’t even one in Australia.

Pros & Cons

The pros:

  • Lowest noise, typically the best impedance matching
  • Greatest resolution and micro-dynamic detail, except for premium all-active stages
  • No parts to wear out, near 100% reliability

The cons:

  • More expensive to manufacture than cheap consumer-grade gear
  • Requires careful matching and should involve a specialist
  • Still needs an excellent MM phono preamp

Bottom Line

As mentioned, you’ll still need a really good MM/EQ pre, so you cannot get away from this completely. The first part of the chain is what the transformer replaces, doing at least 30dB of heavy lifting.

The very best MC step-up transformers are expensive, but once you’ve heard what one can do, it’s almost impossible to use anything else, other than the very best all-active electronic MC gain stages.

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