MoFi Studio Phono Pre-Amp Review. Best Starter Phono Pre?? Yes, and then some!
By Steve Huff
Since getting back into Vinyl fully just recently with a beautiful Dr. Feickert Volare turntable (walnut) and a Koetsu Black Cartridge I knew I would need a nice phono pre amp to go along with this $6,700.00 retail table, arm and cart combo. I was not sure which direction I would head but figured I would want a Pass Labs XP-17 since I love and adore my Pass Labs amplification.
My Turntable Setup as of June 2021
I searched reviews of “starter” phono pre amps and the usual suspects were there. The Shiit Mani (owned in the past and enjoyed but not for lower output moving coils such as my Koetsu), Cambridge offerings (decent for the $$ but leans bright and best for MM carts), the Project Tube Box (a decent phono pre) and the usual $200-$500 suspects.
For those who are new to middle and higher end turntable systems there are five things required for quality playback.
- The Turntable with Arm – Some High end tables come without an arm, and one must be purchased and installed. This allows you to pick the arm that will be best for the cartridges you want to use. Once you hit the $3k and up mark in Cartridges the arm becomes very important and not all cartridges are compatible with all arms. Midrane tables will come with an arm, and this is what I would recommend for 99.9% of people. Something easy to setup and enjoy.
- The Cartridge – While some tables come with a cartridge installed for ease of setup and enjoyment most middle end and high end tables require you to buy a cartridge and install it yourself. This requires patience and to be done correctly using protractors, etc. It’s not hard, but takes about an hour to set up a cartridge the right way on a table. Some can do it in less time but to really dial it in for the best performance set up is key. Overhang, azimuth, tracking force…sounds more tricky than it is but once set up properly your vinyl can truly sing.
- The Phono Pre-Amp – Some tables come with a built in pre amp but these are usually low quality and sound below average. An external phono pre amp will raise your investment in cost but will also raise your enjoyment as your music will sound better, richer, deeper, and have more depth and nuance with a nice external phono stage. Even a low cost $129 Shiit Mani will perform much better than a turntables built in phono stage.
- The Amplifier – You will finally need an integrated amp or pre amp and power amp. Some integrated amps have nice phono preamps in them which can be used over an external.
- The Speakers – This is obvious : )
I have owned MANY phono pre-amps in my life ranging from $100-$500 and a couple that were above $1,000. I never wanted to spend more as I always had this kind of inner doubt that told me they should all sound the same, as they are all doing the same thing. Amplifying the teeny tiny signal coming from the cartridge and as long as the gain is there, it should do the job, right? Well, not so.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNED OVER THE YEARS: It will always make an improvement to go with as much cartridge and pre amp as you can afford as these two things make the most difference when it comes to the sound quality of your vinyl playback. The better the table/arm you can buy the better the cartridge that can be attached to the arm but I have found the cartridge and pre amp make most of the sound difference. Better pre amps do bring better fidelity and sound qualities.
In the past I have never been happy with my analog (vinyl) front end when I would compare it to my digital as even when I had a $2000 digital front end (a DAC and Streamer/Server) it would easily beat my $5000 vinyl front end. I recently figured out why this was the case, and it was because I always skimped on the cartridge and phono pre amp! I blew my wad on the table thinking that was the most important and then I skimped on the cart which was a mistake. If you buy a high end table, that table deserves a great cartridge to truly perform to its absolute best. If you buy a $1500 table that also deserves a good cartridge. If you buy a $150 table then you will just use the cartridge the table came with as those arms are not really good for placing $500 and up cartridges on.
The higher up the chain you go with table and cartridge then the higher up the chain you will need to go with the pre-amp but there can be exceptions to that rule, especially when there is a quality high bang for the buck phono pre-amp available. Today there is and while it will not approach a $2000 pre amp, for $349 it beats everything I have heard under $1000 for giving me quality playback from my records.
As I sit down to write this I am playing a Moody Blues album on my new setup and while I now am listening to a pretty incredible Icon Audio PS1 MKII phono pre amp ($2200) over the last two weeks I was listening to the MoFi Studio Phono which comes in at $349 with my $6700 table and cart setup.
While the Icon PS1 MKII has now made my analog sound better than my $3700 digital front end (Chord Qutest or iFI Neo IDSD with Lumin U1 Mini) for the first time in my life, it should as my analog system with this new preamp has now reach around $9,000! I never thought I would spend so much on vinyl but this was my last hurrah, to do it right and see if I would enjoy it this time.
Even so the $349 MoFi Studio Phono surprised me as it beat all other lower cost phono pre amps that I have tried or owned. It beat them by a large margin as well.
I have lived most of my life running lower end tables and carts and yes, we can get very good sound out something like a Project Debut table as long as we pick a nice cart that mates well with the table, and a decent phono stage. A setup like this could come in at just over $1000 and provide beautiful analog sound. The key to getting a great sound from a moderately priced vinyl system is synergy. I used to buy the expensive tables and plop an average cart on it, using a cheap phono stage. I wasted my money as I could have had the same sound from a much less expensive table.
Something like this $699 Project Table that comes with an all around nice cartridge, one I used to own years ago. It is nice to look at and well regarded. That table with the MoFi Studio Phono at $349 would bring quality vinyl sound, and for me, is about the least one should spend when wanting a nice turntable system. This system is one I can highly recommend for that $1000 price point.
Been there and done that.
I have owned 15 turntables throughput my 51 years of life on this earth. I have owned VPI, Clearaudio, Rega, Michell, Technics, Project and many $200-$600 tables as well as a couple of vintage tables. By far, my fave is the Feickert Volare with the Koetsu Black. It just exudes quality and while it is not cheap, it is what I would call a high end table and analog experience without creeping into the $20k and up range (I know a guy with a $100k turntable). The Feickert is not cheap but from what I have seen over the years, it’s well worth the cost if you are looking for a high quality endgame piece.
Even so, you can spend much less and get beautiful music from an analog setup.
The key is the cart and the phono pre-amp and even cables to some extent. To see how much of an effect a phono pre amp has on a system I have been listening to these two phono stages, the MoFi at $350 and the Icon at $2200. There are differences but are these differences important to YOU?
So how did the MoFi Studio Phono pre amp do with my Volare setup? Very good indeed. In fact, this is by far the best phono pre amp you can get under $500 IMO, maybe even $1000. It easily bested the Shiit Mani I used to own, as well as a Parks Puffin ($500). I thought the Puffin was cool but it also cooled off the sound of my vinyl as it digitizes it. It’s a DSP unit which IMO takes away some of the Analog Magic of Vinyl.
But the MoFi Studio Phono Pre?
Not only is is super configurable with loading and gain, it can run almost any cartridge (even the crazy high end $10k carts) as it has settings for MM and MC cartridges, even low output MC.
With my setup I set the loading too 100 ohms and maximum gain which is 66db of gain, plenty even for low output MC cartridges.
Before the all tubed Icon PS1 MKII arrived I was enjoying vinyl through this setup every day and it did very well. The sound was smooth, with detail and plenty of warmth in the midband. In fact, in my system it leaned to the warmer fuller side of neutral. Pleasing as this is how I remember vinyl sounding as a kid/teen. It was fat, fluid and smooth. None of that thin sound I used to hear with lesser phono stages. It was not the most “wow” nor dynamic sound I have heard but it was far better than the $350 price suggests. You can still get one at $299 at Dedicated Audio HERE.
One negative was that since I was using max gain there was some hiss coming from my speakers if music wasn’t playing but this is to be expected at this price point, and the fact that I was pushing this phono pre to its limits with its highest gain setting. The hiss didn’t bother me as when music played the hiss vanished of course. At $350 this is not an audiophile kind of phono pre amp that will bring you silky black backgrounds, rather it is one designed to bring musicality and pleasing sounds from your vinyl without any muss or fuss. Fluid rhythmic music above all else.
I found no fault with the StudoPhono at it’s price point of $350. It easily bested my old Vincent PHO ($500) as well as the Shiit Mani I used to enjoy. It had more of a musical flow and grip going on and seemed to bring out details without doing so in a harsh way. I remember I once auditioned a Lehman Black Cube SE V2 phono preamp and found it bright and harsh in the top end without much bass. The same with a few other solid state phono pre’s. The Studio Phono did not do this, and in fact it brought some body to the music for $700 less than that Lehman. The Lehman was quieter though and had no discernible noise.
In comparison to the pricey $2200 Icon PS1 MKII which is an all tube design with 72DB Gain for MC carts the Studio Phono does show its limits.
The Icon PS1 MKII is an All Tube Class A Phono Pre-Amp and it’s pretty remarkable if you are looking for the best vinyl playback. It’s silent, it’s rich and offers up tremendous clarity, bass, soundstage, etc. It’s above the MoFi but even so, the little MoFi can rock and roll and would be my pick for a phono pre under $1000. For under $3000, it may be hard to beat the PS1 MKII.
In comparison to the $2200 phono preamp the MoFi has a smaller soundstage, a duller sound and had less dynamics. This is to be expected but it also doesn’t mean the MoFi is bad. In fact it is spectacular for the price point it sits at. As I said, I have not really heard better for under $1000 and the MoFi can still be found for $299 (the old price).
Compared to the Icon, it’s noisier (hiss from speakers if using high gain) and doesn’t have the refinement of the Icon. It’s smoother with less of the all out detail retrieval thing going on. Without a side by side though I bet that 99% of us would be happy with the StudioPhono. For the cash outlay of $350 it’s the one to beat for sure. That is the danger in HiFi….when you hear better you want it. The solution? Never do that! Enjoy what you have ; )
Also, while I said the MoFi was dull when compared to the Icon, well, it is a little but this should be the case as the Icon is about $1800 more expensive! The little Icon may be a giant killer as I also find it better sounding than a $3k phono pre I once auditioned. (Review on the Icon soon).
I also should have a Pass Labs XP-17 here soon to evaluate. I expect that will be a step above the Icon but at the end of the day, where does the madness end? Can we be happy with a cheaper $350 phono preamp for life? I think YES, but this depends on your overall system and synergy. As I stated above a combo of this MoFo pre amp with a Project Debut table and included cart can make some beautiful music from your vinyl. Stepping up to what I have will not yield $8k worth of improvements, just more refinement, solidity, clarity, soundstage width and depth as well as less noise/hiss. You will still have these things with the lower cost options, just not as much.
I have made the choice to invest in an end game vinyl setup for ME. I splurged on the table and cartridge and knew I would have to splurge more for a nice phono pre amp to complete the package and get all of the performance I was paying for.
If I had a table and cart that came in under $2000 I would 100% be happy with the MoFi Studio Phono for my pre amp as it would be about right for that class of table and cartridge. This means if your table when brand new cost under $2k for the table, arm and cartridge then the MoFi will bring the goods. If you have a $10k vinyl rig you will want something nicer for your preamp but heck, I could have lived with the StudioPhono with my setup for a while as all I was missing was those things that get “extra” when you climb the price ladder. Soundstage expansion, details, bass performance, etc. Not that the MoFi was bad at any of these, it wasn’t. But when you spend more these things tend to get better and better.
I would not recommend any other phono stage under $500 (maybe even $1000) other than the MoFi Studio. You can jump up to the Ultra but all you will get for the extra dough is a headphone output. The phono stage is the same.
The MoFi Studio also has a mono switch for listening to mono records and a button to press if you hear some bass rumble. Overall a very impressive package for 99.9% of us who want to improve our vinyl playback.