People will tell you it's impossible to get a quality preamp under $500.
While there are a lot of worthless models in this price range, there are some really good ones, too.
If you're outfitting a professional-level studio, then I'd look in the under $1000 range. But if you're getting a preamp for home recording of vocals or instruments, you can certainly find what you need for under five-hundred dollars.
There are a lot of different options to research, though. You need to find the good values among all the bad units that sound terrible and probably won't last more than a month past the warranty.
That's why we wrote this article: to save you from having to do all that research. We've narrowed the options down to the top three (note: these were priced under $500 at the time of writing and may have suffered a price increase since). Which one is right for you depends on whether you want transparency or coloration and whether you need multiple channels.
Best Preamp For Coloration
Coloration refers to the tendency of a preamplifier to change, or color, the input sound. Usually, they impart a vintage feel to the sound, which many people treasure. Without a doubt, the best mic preamp under $500 to get this classic sound is the Golden Age Project Pre73. It perfectly recreates the sound of the famous Neve 1073 preamp and does it at a much lower price.
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. Our choice here is the DBX 286. It does everything well and sells at a low price.
Best 8-Channel Preamplifier
The ART TubeOpto 8 Tube Microphone Preamp is the clear winner among 8-channel models. It features great sound quality at a very good price. The build quality on some of the controls could be better, but it's the sound that matters and in this price range, you won't get better sound from a multi-channel amp.
The 3 Best Mic Preamps Under $500
Best For Tranparency: DBX 286s Microphone Pre-amp Processor
The DBX 286 is a solid state, single channel pre and the lowest priced unit on our list. Despite the price, it delivers a high-quality, faithful sound that does not alter the input at all.
It has an enhancer that gives you control over the high and low frequencies separately, allowing you to add definition and gain to really crisp up your live tracks and add fullness to the vocals. A gate cuts down on headphone leakage and interference from noisy guitar amps.
The DBX 286 is outfitted with a tunable de-esser that gets rid of vocal sibilance and distortion from high instruments like cymbals. A built-in compressor lends more power to vocals and gives smoother acoustics by preventing accidental clipping and distortion.
This is a rack-mount unit, but you can just as easily use it on its own. In addition to the above, it has all the standard features, like switchable +48V phantom power, a 80Hz high-pass filter (to remove low frequency hum, rumble or wind) and a floating balanced XLR mic input that can take both balanced or unbalanced inputs.
Best For Coloration: Golden Age Project Pre73 JR
The PRE-73 Jr from Golden Age Project is a pared-down version of the PRE-73, which was designed to emulate the classic sound of the Neve 1073. This Jr version delivers that same incredible sound at a fraction of the price. It is able to do that, because the designers saved on features. Luckily, few of us actually need the features that were left out.
Since it is meant to sound like the Neve 1073, this is not a neutral preamp. It will definitely color your vocals, though most would say this is a good thing. It imparts a big, warm, vintage sound to your vocals, a sound for which people pay tons of money. The fact that you get this classic sound for such a low price is what puts this unit on our list.
Sound quality is top notch and the same goes for build quality. Seeing how well-made every single component is makes you wonder how Golden Age Project can keep the price so low. But, as mentioned, the answer is the lack of features. They've only included the bare essentials, though, for most purposes, you really don't need anything else.
The Golden Age Project Pre73 JR Compact Vintage Style Microphone Preamplifier is a low-cost way to enjoy the classic Neve 1073 sound. This preamp is low on features and only has one channel, but the sound quality and build quality are far above other units in this price range. If you want transparency, this is the wrong model for you. If you want a preamp that improves your vocals with a large, warm, vintage sound, this is the best value you will find.
Best Multi-Channel: ART TubeOpto 8 Tube Microphone Preamp
The ART TubeOpto is a well-designed and solidly built 8-channel rackmount preamp. It offers great sound quality and good build quality (some of the controls don't feel as solid as comparable units). Each channel is outfitted with a fully-featured class-A tube mic preamp that offers incredible sonic transparency.
Each preamp has both an XLR and a quarter-inch jack input and up to 64dB of gain, plus controls for input gain and output level and switches for input pad, phase flip and low frequency roll off. The first two channels also have additional front-mounted high-impedance instrument line inputs, so you can easily plug in a bass or a guitar.
The TubeOpto has two phantom power switches: one for channels 1 to 4 and one for channels 5 to 8. We always prefer to have control of phantom power to each channel individually, but that is not a common feature in this price range.
The strength of this unit is obviously the multiple channels. If you only need only one, the other two amps on this list are a better value. But as an 8-channel preamp, the ART TubeOpto performs incredibly well. It does a great job with any type of input, from high-frequency instruments to low frequency ones. It is great with vocals as well. This is easily the best 8-channel mic preamp under $500.