You can find some great preamps under $1000.
You will also find a lot of overpriced ones. Preamps with tons of features no one needs.
You want to avoid those. If you're going to spend up to a thousand dollars, you want to make sure you get your money's worth.
You want your money to pay for quality: sound quality first of all and build quality second. You want a preamp where the designers focused on quality, not on stuffing the unit full of features.
We've sifted through all the preamplifiers in this price range and narrowed it down to just the top 3 (note: these were priced under $1000 at the time of writing and may have suffered a price increase since). We have one that transmits sound faithfully, one that colors it with a beautiful vintage tone and one that offers multiple channels.
All three are great. Which one is right depends on your needs.
Best Preamp For Coloration
Coloration refers to the tendency of a preamp to change, or color, the input sound. Usually, they impart a vintage feel to the sound, which many people treasure. The best microphone preamp for coloration in the under $1000 price range is the Warm Audio TB12 Tonebeast. It lets you select a number of different levels of coloration as well as a transparent sound. It is high-quality and extremely flexible.
Best Preamp For Transparency
Transparency is the opposite of coloration. It refers to a preamp that does not alter the input at all and transmits it as faithfully as possible. No unit does this better than the Grace Design M101. It will transmit your voice or instrument cleanly and faithfully, with no change to the original input.
Best 8-Channel Preamp
The Focusrite OctoPre MkII Dynamic Microphone Preamp is the clear winner among 8-channel models. It gives you incredible transparent sound in a well-constructed package. This is easily the best 8-channel model and it works with vocals as well as any instrument.
The 3 Best Mic Preamps Under $1000
Best For Tranparency: Grace Design M101 Single-Channel Microphone Preamplifier
The Grace Design M101 doesn't look like much, with a simple design and straightforward layout, all in a lightweight chassis. But the sound quality packed into that little box is incredible.
This unit was designed to transmit the character of your voice or your instruments faithfully, exactly as it is received from the microphone. And it does just that. The sound is clean and neutral and pretty much perfect.
The M101 has a Hi-Z instrument input, 48 V phantom power switch, gain knob, trim knob, ribbon mode switch and a high-pass filter. It puts out 10–75 dB of gain with a frequency response of 4.5 Hz–390 kHz at the mic input and 2.5 Hz–195 kHz at the Hi-Z input.
One major drawback for some is the external 6V power adapter. This unit does not have an internal power supply, but we feel that is a reasonable sacrifice to keep the price low.
If you are looking for a preamp that will flatter your voice or instrument and add a magical, vintage character, the Grace Design M101 is not for you. This unit adds nothing to your sound. It transmits everything as cleanly and faithfully as possible. If that's what you're after, the sound quality is incredible. It is easily the best preamp for a transparent sound in the under $1000 price range. Nothing else comes close.
Best For Coloration: Warm Audio TB12 Tonebeast Microphone Preamp
The Warm Audio TB12 Tonebeast is a high-quality and extremely fun single-channel preamp that lets you choose various levels of coloration and transparency. Few units offer this kind of customization and quality and those that do all cost at least 3 times more. Some compromises were made to keep the Tonebeast low cost, but none are serious.
The TB12 has all the standard features like phantom power, 20dB pad, phase-invert and high-pass-filter. What sets it apart are several switches that let you choose through which op-amp, capacitor, impedance and output transformers you want to send the sound signal.
Using those switches, you can get an output ranging from very colored (with a warm, vintage tone) to transparent. Usually, you have to buy several preamps to get these different tone options; here you get them all in one unit. That said, if you are looking for the best transparent sound quality, there are better units out there (like the one reviewed above). This unit shines when it comes to coloration and the fact that it can also deliver a transparent sound that comes close to the best is just a bonus.
Warm Audio did have to make some sacrifices, though, to keep the price this low. The main one is the lack of an internal power supply. Instead, the Tonebeast relies on an external 'wall-wart' type power supply. Another slightly annoying disadvantage is the LED level meter. It uses different colored LED lights, but the blue one is far brighter than the other colors and distracting to look at, especially in a dim room.
The Tonebeast12 from Warm Audio is one of the best preamps you will find for giving you that sought-after warm, vintage sound. The fact that it can also deliver a quality transparent sound makes it even better. The incredibly low price, considering all of the above, makes it a no-brainer. If you don't need multiple channels (see the next model below) or want only a transparent sound (previous model above), get the TB12. You will congratulate yourself on your purchase for many years to come.
Best With Multiple Channels: Focusrite OctoPre MkII Dynamic Microphone Preamplifier
The OctoPre MkII Dynamic Mic Preamp is one of Focusrite's budget preamps, though it still costs quite a bit of money. You definitely get what you pay for though. Sound quality is outstanding, with all eight channels outfitted with a very high-quality preamp and a Focusrite Red 3 derived compressor.
The Octopre Mark 2 is incredibly well constructed, making it sturdy and durable. It is extremely versatile, with both analog and ADAT digital outputs (up to 96 kHz). This microphone preamplifier is strong with all instruments as well as vocals.
The biggest issue we found with this preamp is that phantom power is supplied in banks of four, not to each channel individually. This won't be a problem in most cases, since dynamic mics generally ignore power on the line, but could become an issue when miking a drum kit. Also, the first two inputs are only on the front of the unit, which could lead to some messy cabling. That said, having them there makes it easy to quickly plug in a guitar or bass, but it would be nice if they were mirrored on the rear of the unit as well.
Overall, the Octopre from Focusrite is about as good as it gets, without venturing into stratospheric price ranges. It is the preamp we recommend, if you want multiple channels and have the budget. There is actually a less-expensive version available, the OctoPre MkII (not dynamic), but it does not include compressors. If you don't need those, you can save a few hundred dollars.