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8 Best Mic Preamps under $500 – Budget Buying Guide 2022

Mic preamps are one of the most important pieces of gear in the music studio. These pieces of equipment have a large effect on the sound of a microphone and are at the heart of the recording process. This review highlights the best mic preamps under $500, exploring their features, strengths, and weaknesses. I’ll give you some background information about mic preamps, their uses, and why they are so important. 

The purpose of this review is to help you identify the best mic preamp for your setup! 

Table of Contents

What is a Mic Preamp?

8 Best Mic Preamps under 500

A piece of audio equipment used to amplify the signal of a microphone, mic preamps come in many shapes, sizes and formats. 

The main purpose of a mic preamp is to boost the quiet audio signal of a microphone, to a suitable level for consequent pieces of audio gear. These originally used vacuum tubes as part of the amplification process, although now they mostly use discrete circuitry. (Although tube mic preamps are still very popular!)

Because microphones only produce a low voltage electronic signal, they require relatively significant amounts of signal gain to amplify the level to a suitable value. Preamps may also add coloration to a signal, changing the characteristics and sonic character of a microphone. Mic preamps can be used both technically and creatively. Understanding how they work, and what you can do with them is an essential skill for any audio engineer or music producer. 
Mic preamps also help to power condenser microphones, which require a +48v power source to work.

Also read: Top 6 Best Headphone Amp

How do mic preamps work?

Electronic currents are used to increase the gain of the input signal. The exact electronic method varies from brand to brand, but it typically involves the use of a series of transistors and/or tubes to boost the current of the signal. Some mic preamps even use digital technology to provide more flexibility and customization. 

They take an input signal from a microphone, typically in an XLR format, then run the signal through the processing circuits. The boosted signal is then sent to an output connection, which is plugged into further gear. Typically a mic preamp is plugged into a mixing desk or audio interface for recording, or to be sent to a PA system. 

See the end of this article for more information on choosing mic preamps. I’ll highlight some key areas and features to look at when choosing a mic pre. 

8 Best Mic Preamps under $500

1. ART ProMPAII

ART ProMPAII

The Art Pro MPA II is a high-quality studio-grade mic preamp. This amplifier features two independent channels of amplification, making it perfect for any stereo recording. 

The level of quality in this amp is extremely high, which is matched with the flexible functionality and dynamic range. As far as mic preamps go, this is one of the best in the price range. Not much comes close in terms of features and sound quality at this price. 

This is designed to have all the features a studio engineer could ever need in a mic pre. With inputs for either XLR or ¼” jacks, you can plug pretty much any microphone or instrument into this beast. It also offers a range of pro features like phase inversion, phantom power, and variable impedance. It also features a high pass filter which is useful for controlling excessive bass frequencies and managing the proximity effect of microphones. It even has a mid/side matrix which lets you create fantastic, extra-wide recordings. 

It can achieve a wide range of tones and has a lovely analog sound thanks to the tubes it uses.  This hardware is suitable for a range of genres and uses. It works well no matter what you throw at it. Another great feature of this is the metering, as it provides both VU style meters and LEDs, giving you a super accurate measurement of your audio level. 

Product Specification

  • Class-A Discrete Amplifier
  • 2 x independent XLR Mic inputs
  • 2 x ¼”  TRS instrument inputs
  • XLR and TRS outputs – balanced
  • Switchable =48v phantom power
  • 2 Large format backlit VU meters
  • High Pass filter
  • Mid/Side decoding
  • Format: 19″ – 2U rack mount
  • Dimensions (mm): H 88 x W 482 x D 222
  • Weight: 4.7 kg

Pros and Cons

  • High quality, tube sound.
  • Two separate channels for stereo recordings.
  • A wide range of professional features. 
  • Fantastic metering
  • Very flexible controls, great dynamic range
  • All the inputs and outputs you need.
  • Would be nice to see a boosting EQ.

Conclusion

Overall the Art Pro MPA II is a fantastic mic preamp that offers as much sound quality as it does functionality. If you require a stereo mic preamp, you won’t find much better than this under $500. It has an authentic vintage appeal in terms of sound, controls, and visuals. I highly recommend this for any music studio, although it might be a little overkill for smaller studios. It comes in a large 19” rack mount format, so it will slot right into most gear racks. 

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Next we have a super simple, super clean preamp from renowned manufacturers Warm Audio.

The WA12 has been a mainstay in recording studios across the world for many years. These small, but effective amplifiers provide superb sound quality, and a robust set of features, providing a huge amount of value at a reasonable price. 

Whilst small in size, these are not to be underestimated, they are known as one of those golden mic preamps that brings a magical touch to your recording. It has a range of useful functions, including a HI-Z mode, gain reducing pad, and phase inversion.

Whilst the metering is a relatively basic LED strip, it’s highly responsive and gives you enough information to accurately gain stage your settings. These things really sound fantastic too. They have a faithful, rich analog sound, with minimal noise and brilliant harmonics. 

It’s a mono unit but offers either XLR or ¼” inputs, so you can connect it to pretty much any studio device, mic, or instrument. It also features XLR and ¼” outputs The unit itself comes as a smaller rack mount design, favoring the 9.5” style rather than 19”. This might make it a little awkward to fit into some gear racks, but it should be easy enough. 

Product Specification

  • + 71 dB gain control.
  • American Made transformers
  • X731 Vintage Discrete OpAmp
  • Tone Switch
  • Switchable input impedance
  • XLR Microphone Input
  • 1 x ¼” TRS Instrument Input
  • XLR and ¼” outputs
  • Switchable +48V phantom power
  • -20 dB gain reduction pad
  • Phase invert button
  • LED Level Metering
  • Sartution with level control
  • Format: 9.5″ – 1U Rackmount

Pros and Cons

  • Brilliant sound
  • A range of useful pro features
  • Small format
  • Basic metering and controls

Conclusion

If you’re a stickler for sound quality, the Warm WA12 is the perfect companion for your microphone. It’s a smaller unit that doesn’t offer a huge amount of extra features, although the core of this device is very well made. This is one of the best-sounding preamps on this list by far. It sounds similar to the older Neve 1073 pre’s but with a slightly different tone. 

Whether you’re going to use this with microphones or instruments, you can rest assured that this device is adding a great amount of value and quality to your recordings. 

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This Preamp from Rockville is a basic workhorse. It certainly isn’t anything fancy and doesn’t offer a vintage tube-style sound, although it gets the job done, and has a good range of controls. 

This is a highly affordable mic preamp, coming in the familiar 19” rackmount format. It features an excellent amount of connectivity, with a huge range of RCA Aux inputs, and a ¼” instrument jack. It offers stereo outputs, with additional aux and recording outputs for splitting the signal path. It also features a ¼” headphone output for monitoring. 

Whilst the raw sound of this amp isn’t much to write home about, it does come with a 3 band equalizer, each with its own control knob for boosting or cutting. It has controls for Bass, Mid, Treble, Mic gain, and stereo balance. 

Product Specification

  • X731 Vintage Discrete OpAmp
  • Low Cut Switch
  • 3-band equalizer
  • ¼’ input, multiple RCA Aux inputs
  • 2 x Stereo XLR Output
  • Switchable +48V phantom power
  • Format: 19” – 1U Rack

Pros and Cons

  • A range of Aux connections
  • Optional Bluetooth and USB enabled model available 
  • Decent equalization controls
  • No XLR Input
  • Average sound quality. 

Conclusion

If you’re looking for an affordable, simplistic mic preamp, this is a pretty good choice. I think the main attraction is the price, as this does lack an XLR input which makes it a bit awkward to use> It also doesn’t sound as good as the other models on this list. 

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4. ART Tube MP USB Microphone Preamp

ART Tube MP USB Microphone Preamp

This is a small format mic preamp from ART electronics. This single-channel mic preamp is a great choice for those in need of a small but effective pre. This also doubles up as a USB audio interface, so you can use this to record directly to your PC. 

Product Specification

  • +70 dB Gain boosting
  • Built-in Limiter
  • Switchable input impedance
  • Simple LED Metering
  • +48V phantom power
  • XLR and ¼” inputs and outputs
  • Switchable phase reversal
  • Low Cut Filter
  • Variable In and Out level controls
  • USB Connection
  • Dimensions (MM): 44.5 x 150 x 165 
  • Weight: 1.14 kg
  • Format: Standalone 

Pros and Cons

  • Works as an audio interface. 
  • Limiter to prevent clipping.
  • Pro features and sound in a small package.
  • Small and relatively limited

Conclusion

The Art Tube MP is a handy mic preamp and USB interface in one. It’s affordable, portable, and has a good range of features. I highly recommend this if you need a simple but high-quality mic pre. 

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5. Focusrite Scarlett Solo

Focusrite Scarlett Solo

An absolute classic of the amature production scene. Evey home producer owns one of these at some point. The Scarlett solo is a decent mic pre/USB audio interface with modern features and easy functionality. 

These have a separate channel for XLR mics and ¼” instruments, so you can record two sources at once. These are made by Focusrite, which is a subsidiary of Neve, so you know the quality is going to be great. 

Product Specification

  • 1 x Focusrite microphone preamp
  • Phantom power +48 V
  • Switchable air boost 
  • 1 x XLR Mic Input
  • 1 x ¼” Instrument Input
  • 2 x ¼” Stereo Output
  • Headphone Output
  • USB-C 
  • Dimensions (mm): 143.5 x 43.5 x 95.8
  • Weight: 320g
  • Format: Standalone 

Pros and Cons

  • Reputable Focusrite quality
  • Works as an audio interface
  • Air boost adds detail to top end of recordings
  • Relatively limited

Conclusion

I highly recommend the Focusrite Scarlette Solo as an entry-level mic preamp and USB interface. If you need a mic recording solution, this is one of the better affordable devices on the market. This was actually my first preamp, and it served me well for my first few years of production. 

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6. PreSonus STUDIOCHANNEL Vacuum

PreSonus STUDIOCHANNEL Vacuum

The Studio Channel from PreSonus is a high-quality, 19” rackmount mic preamp. This impressive unit offers a broad range of features and creates a clean, high-fidelity sound. 

This amp used tube circuitry for maximum analog tone. It also boasts a parametric equalizer and a fully configurable compressor. This is more than just a mic preamp, this is a full studio channel, letting you sculpt your recordings to a fine degree. 

Product Specification

  • 12AX7 vacuum-tube Preamplifier
  • Tube drive control
  • High Pass Filter
  • -20 dB gain reduction pad,
  • +48v Phantom power,
  • Phase reverse
  • 3-band EQ with variable-resonance and shelving 
  • Variable built-in VCA compressor 
  • 1x XLR Input
  • 1 x ¼” Instrument Input
  • Format – 19” – 1U rackmount

Pros and Cons

  • High fidelity tube sound. 
  • Built-in EQ and compressor
  • Superb functionality

Conclusion

The PreSonus Studio Channel is a cracking vacuum mic preamp. This features a huge range of features, providing you with more options than anything on this list. 

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7. Presonus TubePre v2

Presonus TubePre v2

This is a basic mic pre. There’s not much to say here, other than this provides everything you need to boost and color a microphone. It sounds good, it feels good, and the price is even better. 

Product Specification

  • 12AX7 tube-powered amplification
  • 1 x XLR Microphone input
  • +48V phantom power
  • 1 x ¼” Instrument input
  • XLR and ¼’ Outputs 
  • -20 dB Pad
  • high pass filter 
  • Phase inversion
  • VU meter with backlight
  • Adjustable tube saturation

Pros and Cons

  • Adjustable gain and saturation
  • Small format
  • Limited features

Conclusion

The PreSonus TubePre is a simple, minimalistic mic pre, recommended for beginners, or those who only need a basic solution. 

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8. Golden Age Project Pre-73

Golden Age Project Pre-73

This is a modern (and affordable) version of the classic Neve 1073 preamp. These were known to be one of the nicest preamps on the market, and are sought across the industry. They have a super clean sound, with delightful analog saturation. The features are limited, but the sound is superb.

Product Specification

  • + 80 dB gain control
  • High pass filter
  • Air EQ with high-end boost
  • Switchable impedance 
  • +48 V Phantom power
  • High-quality components
  • LED-lit meter
  • Combined XLR/14” connections
  • Hi-Z input for instruments
  • XLR and ¼” output
  • Format: 9.5″ / 1 RU

Pros and Cons

  • Modeled on the classic Neve 1073 preamp. 
  • Classic high-quality sound
  • Iconic saturation
  • Limited features

Conclusion

These are truly collector’s items. If you’re on the hunt for that classic 1073 mic pre sound, but don’t have the budget for an original, these are the best replicas on the market. 

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What to consider when buying a mic preamps under $500

This section explains some features to look for in Mic Preamps under $500, based on your needs. 

Amplification type

The type of circuit used in the mic preamp has a large effect on the resulting sound. This is a rather detailed nuance, and it takes a fair amount of comparative listening to be able to hear the difference. It takes even longer to work out what kind of sound you prefer. 

The main difference is Tube vs Discrete. Tube amps use little vacuum tubes, which have a more old-school sound, with more analog-sounding distortion. Discrete amps use modern components. They have a different type of sound, which is often described as being cleaner but having less character, and sounding almost artificial when distorted. 

Tube amps are also less stable, meaning they are less consistent but more characterful. Discrete amps are the reverse, with much higher consistency but less character. Tube amps also take a little while to heat up which is another consideration. 

Formats

You can find mic preamps in a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes. The best type for you really depends on how you plan on using the preamp, and whether you own much gear already. 

The 500 series is a popular semi-portable format, you can find many mic preamps in this size. These can either be fitted into a special rackmount unit or in a more portable ‘lunchbox’ case. 

You’ll also see quite a few amps in a standalone format. These use a proprietary design and generally are not mountable in standard shelving units. The most common types are probably rack mounts, which are found in most music studios. 

For most people, a standalone format will do the trick. If you’re running a larger recording studio then it would be wiser to go for a stackable, solvable format like the 500 series. 

Equalization

Some preamps have additional equalization circuits and control to sculpt the microphone’s frequencies. In some amp models, the equalization sounds really nice and adds to the recording. Other times it can sound cheap. It depends on how you plan on using the mic pre, but there are definitely some equalization elements that are nearly essential. 

For most mic recording situations, having some kind of High Pass Filter (HPF) is useful. This lets you cut out some of the low end, which opens up the highs and mids. With certain mics and positions, you get an excess of low frequencies in the spectrum, so an HPF can help to give extra clarity. 

Active EQ circuits can be nice. These give users the ability to cut or boost a signal. Many mic preamps have a variable EQ setting, although some don’t. They usually add a little more to the price, but some engineers won’t use anything without one. 

Modern or vintage

Most of the amp models on this list is modern builds. Vintage microphone preamps are renowned in the audio engineering scene for their character and unique voices. When buying preamps, you have the choice of going for classic original vintage models like a Neve 1073, or something more modern.

Many of the early classics have also been reissued in recent years, where manufacturers have taken inspiration from old models to create contemporary versions. 

Typically an original vintage mic preamp will set you back a fair amount of extra cash. Newer builds can be cheaper but lack some of the arbitrary mojo and character. 

Additional Features

Depending on your needs it could be wise to look for an amp with some extra features. Quite a few modern preamps come with a USB connection which lets you record them directly to a PC. This is useful for some people, though it’s unnecessary if you already have an audio interface.

Sometimes you’ll see extra circuits like compressors, expanders, and gates. These can be very useful in some situations and will help you to achieve a cleaner recording. 

You should also think about the input and output connections you’ll need. Some mic preamps have the option of switching between XLR and ¼” inputs, whereas others are limited to one. Typically mic preamps use a ¼” output too, so factor this in before you go shopping. 

Quick Tips on How to Use Your New Mic Preamp Effectively

Correctly using a mic preamp is almost an art form in itself. There are several important techniques and considerations to make when setting up your mic pre to get the best results. 

Gain Staging – you want to make sure you set the gain to a suitable level. Set it too high and you risk distorting the signal, creating a harsh and fuzzy sound. Too low and the signal will be too weak, losing volume, character, resulting in an unacceptable signal to noise ratio.

The most important tip is to always check and calibrate the input and output values before recording or going live. Make sure it’s not clipping the input (unless you’re going for a drive), and sculpt the sound with any EQ.

FAQ

Are Mic Preamps Worth It?

It depends on your situation, but I would say yes for the most part. Mic preamps can help to make a vast improvement over sound quality when recording or performing live. 

Other than the sound they offer, preamps also make recording sessions easier and more efficient by providing an extra layer of control and customization. They can help to correct any issues with a sound before recording, and they give engineers creative dimensions to color and stylize their recordings. 

Why Do You Need a Mic Preamp?

Mic preamps help to get a cleaner, more accurate, and intentional sound when using a microphone. If you’re somebody who takes sound quality and recording seriously, a mic preamp is an essential piece of gear.  

The main reasons mic preamps are needed are to amplify the output signal of a microphone to a higher level, suitable for recording, or further amplification for speakers. If you use condenser microphones, then a mic preamp is essential because it requires a +48v phantom power boost to function correctly. 

Does Preamp Improve Sound?

This depends on the overall setup, and what you are comparing it to. 

For the most part, yes, mic preamps have the potential to vastly improve the sound quality of a microphone. Although it is also reliant on other factors in the signal chain. 

Using a good mic preamp will definitely improve the sound – in comparison to a cheap preamp, or not using one at all. In other scenarios, using a low-quality preamp can actually degrade the sound, and in some cases may be worth avoiding. At the same time, if you use a top-end preamp, but record it with a low-quality audio interface, the increase in sound quality will be lost because the interface won’t capture it.

Wrapping Up

Thanks for reading! Good luck choosing your new mic preamp. If you’re in the market for mics and recording gear, check out these posts!