I'm going to state the obvious.
When you get a budget microphone preamplifier that costs under $200 (and actually, all the models on this page are often sold for under $100), you have to make some sacrifices.
The key is: finding a model that sacrifices features you can live without.
Most of the more affordable mic preamps are cheaply made and do not last. Those are the ones you want to avoid.
We've gone through all the choices in the budget range and found the ones that deliver the most bang for your buck (note: these were priced under $200 at the time of writing and may have suffered a price increase since).
The models below might not match the highest-quality preamps on the market, but they do the job (as long as you're not outfitting a professional-level sound studio) and cost a fraction of the price.
Best Budget Mic Preamp
The best mic preamp if you're on a budget is the Mackie 402VLZ4. It's actually a 4-channel mixer with two built-in Onyx preamps that deliver crystal-clear sound. It's also built like a tank. Find out more in our brief review below.
Best If You Need More Channels
If 4 channels aren't enough, the 8-channel Behringer XENYX 1202FX is a great choice. At times, it even sells for the same price as the Mackie, despite having twice as many channels. The Mackie is more solidly built though and it sounds a bit better, too, especially with vocals.
The 3 Best Affordable Mic Preamps
Best Mic Preamp Under $100: Mackie 402VLZ4
The Mackie 402VLZ4 4-channel Mixer features a high-headroom/low-noise design. It has two high-quality Onyx preamps with a 128.5 dB dynamic range. They deliver a crystal-clear sound, no matter the input and have phantom power for condenser microphones.
Mackie products are famously "built like a tank" and this model is no exception, despite the ultra-low price. In addition to the solid build, the rotary controls are sealed to prevent dust and grime from getting inside.
If 4 channels is not enough, Mackie make this same model in variations with 8, 12, 14 and 16 channels. The three largest are rack mountable, but this one and the 8 and 12-channel versions are not.
At such a low price, you expect there to be some drawbacks and there are a few. Luckily, none of them involve quality. The main trade-offs are: a lack of direct preamp outputs for the two microphone channels, no solo button, no pan knobs and no balanced RCA outs. It also does not come with a standard power cable; instead you get one using a pin system, which is not as durable, because the pins can be bent fairly easily. Another annoyance is the lack of an on/off switch, so you have to unplug the unit or connect it to a power strip and use the switch on that.
For us, none of those trade-offs are deal-breakers, since they make the low price possible, without sacrificing quality. If you're looking for a solid preamp on a strict budget, the Mackie 402VLZ4 is your best bet. If you want professional-quality sound, you're simply not going to find it in this price range or anywhere close to it. The 402VLZ4 is as close as you can get.
Best Mic Preamp Under $200: Behringer XENYX 1202FX
The Behringer XENYX 1202FX is a 12-Input 2-Bus Mixer with XENYX mic preamps. It is incredibly affordable considering the versatility and the sound quality you get.
The 4 XENYX mic preamps included in the 1202FX are state-of-the-art units that match all but the best standalone preamps. They have48V phantom power, an incredible 130 dB of dynamic range and a bandwidth that extends from below 10 Hz to well above 200 kHz. They give you a beautifully transparent and perfectly clear sound.
If you prefer a more colored sound each mic preamp has a neo-classic "British" 3-band EQ that is based on the same circuitry as the British consoles of the 1960s and ‘70s. They lend your music a classical, warm tone with tons of character. The EQs are only on the 4 mic channels, though.
The 1202FX is further quipped with Behringer's studio-grade 24-bit multi-FX processor. It features 100 different digital effect presets like delay, chorus, reverb and so many more. You can apply the effects to any channel, to the monitor or to the the main output. And if you already have your own external unit, you can easily just bypass the internal FX processor.
The Behringer XENYX 1202FX offers tons of value (and fun!) at an incredibly low price. Naturally, they had to make some cuts to keep the price this low. The unit only has external power via a "wall wart" adapter and there is no button to turn the power on or off (you just have to unplug it). Apart from those minor annoyances, you're getting an incredible value here.
Best Cheap Mic Preamp With Multiple Channels: Alto Professional ZMX862
The Alto Professional ZMX862 is a cheap peamp in price only. It is actually well-constructed and delivers a much better sound that you would expect for a preamp that costs less than $100. It is actually not just a mic preamp, but a mixer.
It comes in three different versions: a 5-channel one, a 6-channel one and an 8-channel one. The 5-channel version has one microphone preamplifier with 18V phantom power, the 6-channel version has 2 and the 8-channel version has 4. These are ultra-low noise preamps that work with both condenser mics and dynamic mics.
In addition to the gold-plated XLR inputs for microphones, you can plug in virtually anything else: keyboards, drum machines, MP3 or CD players, even audio from a DVD player. It has a 3-band EQ
on every channel and built in FX settings like room and space delays, small and large hall acoustics, plate and spring reverbs, flangers, chorus effects and much more.
Obviously, the Alto Professional ZMX862 won't be able to compete with preamps in the under $500 and under $1000 categories and especially not with the Avalon on this page, but as long as you don't push it too hard, it will deliver. Considering the price, sound and build quality are great. Plus, it is a mixer, not just a microphone preamp, making it much more versatile than much of the competition.