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Best Budget Mic Preamp Hardware ($100 to $1000)

mic preamps

Microphone preamplifiers, commonly known as mic preamps, are the unsung heroes of recording studios. These unassuming devices, which have been a staple in the recording industry since the 1940s, play a crucial role in shaping the sound quality of your recordings. But what exactly are mic preamps, and why should you consider adding one to your setup?

  1. The Basics: Mic preamps serve two primary purposes. First, they provide the correct load impedance for a microphone’s output. Second, they take the incoming signal from the microphone and boost it to a usable level. Without a preamp, the raw signal from a microphone like a Shure SM7b would be too weak to work with effectively.
  2. Choosing Your Sound: Not all mic preamps are created equal. Some offer pristine transparency, while others add color and character to your recordings. The key is to choose the preamp that aligns with your artistic vision, a decision that can significantly impact your sound, whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out.
  3. Warmth and Clarity: A well-chosen mic preamp can add warmth, richness, and depth to vocals, instruments, and audio sources. It’s like adding a secret ingredient to your sonic recipe.
  4. Unleashing Potential: While upgrading your microphone or mixing board can make a difference, it’s the high-quality mic preamp that can truly maximize your gears’ potential. The right preamp can make all the difference, whether you’re tracking vocals, guitars, or drums.

In this guide, we’ll explore the best mic preamps available in 2024, discuss their features, and help you find the perfect match for your studio. Get ready to unleash the power of mic preamps and take your recordings from good to extraordinary.

The Best Mic Preamps – 2024

Author & Contributors

without Phantom Power

Cloudlifter CL-1 Single-Channel Mic Activator

95 out of 100. Incorporating 4250+ ratings and reviews.
Cloud Microphones
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Dynamic Microphone Preamp Under $200.


  • Needs an additional XLR cable. Other inline preamps plug directly into the mic.
  • Does not work with condensers (and it shouldn't)


  • An essential addition to drive hungry mics like the Shure SM7b
  • Pairs well with low output ribbon mics
  • +25dB of transparent gain gives great signal to noise ratio

The Cloudlifter CL-1 is an active inline microphone preamp that uses +48v phantom power.

It features a specially designed active circuitry that adds +25dB of transparent gain, resulting in better capture of sonic detail, and making any built-in mixer or interface preamp compatible with Ribbon Mics and gain demanding dynamic mics like the SM7b.

Since it utilizes phantom power, it can only be used with passive dynamic and ribbon mics.

Although it is a preamp, the Cloudlifter CL-1 is often described as a mic boost, and rightly so because it does boost both the volume and sound quality of many mics. The resulting sound is quieter and cleaner with a lower noise floor. When paired with ribbon mics, particularly more quiet ones, the gain on interfaces no longer needs to be cranked, avoiding self-noise buildup.

It's important to note that this does NOT boost mics that already need phantom power. It is not for use with condenser microphones.

If you're not too keen on replacing your preamp and just want a way to improve the sound quality of your dynamic and ribbon mics, then the Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic activator is the way to go. It can also be used to help with long cable runs and if you're looking for an easy to implement clean mic boost.


  • Channels: 1
  • Input Connectors: 1 x XLR
  • Output Connectors: 1 x XLR
  • Dimensions: 2" x 4.5" x 2"
  • Weight: 0.85 lbs.

Rating Source Highlights

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
Sound On SoundPaul White96/100
Recording HacksMatthew McGlynn99/100
TapeOpMike Jasper94/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Under $200 - With Phantom Power

Under $300 - No Phantom Power

Cloud Microphones CL-2

94 out of 100. Incorporating 350+ ratings and reviews.
Cloud Microphones
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Dynamic Microphone Preamp Under from $200 to $300.


  • Not as good value if you're only going to use 1 channel most of the time.


  • Two matched channels
  • Solves potential mismatch issues of using two separate units per mic
  • Perfect for stereo ribbon or dynamic mics

The Cloud Microphones CL-2 takes the concept of the inline, phantom power fed microphone preamplifier and doubles it for two independent channels ideal for stereo mic setups.

This dual mono version is ideal for matched stereo pairs and enables the use of dynamic microphones as overhead mics without added noise from pushing the mixer or interface preamps.

If you're fan of the original CL-1 single inline mic pre amp from Cloud Microphones but wished for another channel, the CL-2 is the logical choice. The dual mono setup of the CL-2 ensures that the two channels are matched rather than using two separate inline preamps which may have some component tolerance differences. For ribbon and dynamic mics, the CL-2 gives a great clean boost which helps relieve mixer and interface gain stages for a more optimal gain level.

Much like other inline preamps, phantom power needs to be turned on. This also makes it unusable with condenser mics.

If you're looking to augment your matched ribbon or dynamic mic pair and make it work more efficiently, with a lower noise floor and less stress on the preamps of your interface or mixer, the CL-2 by Cloud Microphones is a great pick.


  • Channels: 2
  • Mic Preamps: 2
  • Input Connectors: 2 x XLR
  • Output Connectors: 2 x XLR
  • Dimensions: 4.5" x 5.75" x 3.75"
  • Weight: 1.19 lbs.

Rating Source Highlight

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
Sound On SoundPaul White96/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Best Budget Mic Preamp Hardware Under $300 - With Phantom Power

dbx 286s Single-Channel Mic Preamp

91 out of 100. Incorporating 1650+ ratings and reviews.


  • Simplified controls limit tweakability


  • Great sounding preamp
  • Gate/expander one of the best I've tried
  • Dynamics and EQ well thought out

I chose the dbx 286s among many others because it's the only channel strip in the price point (even the entire category!) that has a noise gate. More expensive offerings provide better preamps, more robust equalization and compression controls and other features that make them popular but sometimes, one key feature is all it takes to secure the purchase.

When I first started using it for voiceovers, many people complimented the cleaner and smoother sound of my production with it. Up until that point, I've only been recording straight to DAW and adding plugins to address things like sibilance, noise and dynamics. The dbx 286s does everything better and allows me to have zero latency on my processed sound when monitoring. Using outboard gear has a neat effect of feeling more "connected" with your performance compared to having that small bit of latency around 4ms when using plugins. Sometimes it's that psychological boost that's needed to elevate performances and as the first piece of outboard gear I've gotten for my current small project studio, it's been a great tool that brings me back to my days working with analog gear in a larger recording studio.

dbx 286s expander/gate and output
The expander/gate section ensures noise like AC hum and other low-level noise get filtered out.

The great price point and feature set make it great value for any studio. Even comparing it with more expensive channel strips, it packs enough of a punch to hang with the big boys, especially with how well the dynamics are handled.

One thing that might sway people away from it would be the simplified controls for each segment following the preamp. Tweakers that rely on minute adjustments of various parameters might find the controls a bit too limited. Even so, I actually preferred this simplicity because it didn't keep me fixated on getting everything right.

Voiceover example recorded with the dbx 286s*

*Audio recorded with a Lewitt LCT 440 Pure condenser microphone.

The dbx 286s is a great addition to any studio, big or small. As a vocal chain, it adds a professional sheen to singing and great dynamic control for spoken word and voice overs. While the simplified controls may not be to everyone's liking, each module is cleverly engineered to have a useful setting no matter what the input. If you're looking for your first channel strip or preamp, the dbx 286s is a great choice at a great price.

If you'd like a detailed explanation of all its functionality, then take a look at my extended dbx 286s review.


  • Channels: 1 (some people mistake the Insert for a second channel)
  • Inputs: XLR (mic), 1/4" TRS (line), 1/4" TRS (insert)
  • Outputs: 1/4" TRS - 100Ω balanced / 200Ω unbalanced
  • Preamp: 0dB to +60dB gain with phantom power on XLR pins 2 and 3
  • Compressor: ratio 4:1 with a threshold range of -40dBu to +20dBu
  • De-Esser: frequency range 800Hz to 10kHz High Pass, 12dB/octave
  • Enhancer: with high frequency program-controlled shelving equalizer, approximately 15dB maximum HF boost, and low frequency bell-shaped boost @ 80Hz, bell-shaped cut @250Hz, ratio is approximately 2:1
  • Expander/Gate: with an adjustable expansion ratio from 1.5:1 to 10:1
  • Rackmountable: Yes - 1U

Rating Source Highlights

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
GearankRaphael Pulgar95/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Under $500 without Phantom Power

Cloud Microphones CL-4 Cloudlifter Rackmount

95 out of 100. Incorporating 30+ ratings and reviews.
Cloud Microphones
At publication time this was the Highest Rated Dynamic Microphone Preamp from $300 to $500.


  • Rackmount design might not be for everyone


  • Great for drum mic groups or multiple singers
  • Matched circuits ensure phase coherence
  • More convenient than using multiple single preamps

The Cloud Microphones CL-4 expands on the CL-1 inline preamp; this time with 4 independent channels in a rackmount unit.

Discrete JFET circuitry and a transformerless design keeps the signal path clean and clear.

For live use, the added gain from the CL-4 enables you to cut through a live mix with full dynamics without increasing the risk of feedback.

The rackmount chassis is a standard 19" rack unit and manufactured in the USA.

Adding gain without raising the noise floor is always a welcome improvement. With the CL-4, an ensemble of singers can benefit from feedback-free clean gain will result in better live presentation. In the studio, a collection of dynamic drum mics benefits from having a lower noise floor in post as gating them isn't as difficult.

Since it's a rackmount unit, it might be an inconvenience to those that don't have a rack yet. Desktop operation is fine but it's far more convenient to have a case ready.

Cloud Microphones have done it again with the CL-4 Rackmount. For those that need the added gain without noise or feedback risk in live situations, the CL-4 rackmount is an excellent addition to your rig.


  • Channels: 4
  • Mic Preamp: 1 Vintage Style Preamp with Tantalum Capacitors
  • Input Connectors: 4 x XLR
  • Output Connectors: 4 x XLR
  • Dimensions: 19" x 1.75"
  • Weight: 1.19 lbs.

Rating Source Highlights

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
YouTubePerformer Magazine90/100
Sound On SoundPaul White96/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Under $500 With Phantom Power

Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre

91 out of 100. Incorporating 175+ ratings and reviews.


  • Some plastic parts may become faulty from mishandling


  • Great way to expand inputs on select Focusrite interfaces
  • Upper frequency harmonics give smoothness and shimmer to tracks
  • 8 channels is enough to record drums
  • Excellent gain and dynamic range

The Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre is an 8 channel preamp that allows the expansion of the inputs of select Scarlett audio interfaces. The preamp enables additional input and output options for use with multiple microphones; especially when recording setups like drums and orchestration.

With a whopping 109dB dynamic range, the OctoPre is a great choice for the aforementioned setups as well as recording dynamic singers and spoken word.

Recording quality is consistent with Focusrite's top-tier audio interfaces. So purchasing an affordable interface that has ADAT out and pairing it with the OctoPre is a great combo for small studios. The sound is transparent with just a little crispness at the highest end of the spectrum, perfect for giving life to vocals and smoothing out brittle sounding cymbals with rich harmonics.

Do note however that the cover for the ADAT port can break if mishandled.

If you're looking to add more inputs to your existing audio interface with great sounding Focusrite preamps, the Scarlett OctoPre is the obvious choice in this price range.


  • Channels: 8
  • Mic Preamps: 8
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz - 20kHz
  • Input Connectors: 8 x XLR-1/4" combo, 2 x Optical Toslink (ADAT)
  • Output Connectors: 8 x 1/4"
  • Controls:Gain, Phantom Power, Sync, Sample Rate, Mic/Line, Pads, Output
  • Weight: 7.1 lbs.

Rating Source Highlight

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
Bonedo (German)Alexander Berger90/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

JHS Colour Box V2

95 out of 100. Incorporating 175+ ratings and reviews.


  • Stompbox form factor not for everybody


  • Versatile Neve style preamp in a box
  • Compact form factor
  • Doubles as an overdrive pedal
  • Great for stage and studio

You're probably wondering what a stompbox is doing in a mic pre amp guide. JHS has thrown conventions aside and put a Neve-style console preamp and EQ circuit into a stompbox format. This was borne from JHS founder Josh Scott's goal of replicating guitar tones recorded direct to console with the strip hitting saturation similar to The Rolling Stones and The Beatles to name a few.

This V2 iteration takes that concept further by adding more console-like features to the stompbox, enabling it to be used as a true mic preamp and more.

It features a fully analog signal path with a newly added output transformer in this V2 iteration. It also includes a phantom power pass-thru which lets your interface or mixer's phantom power go through the preamp and into your condenser mic. Hi/Lo input adjusts headroom according to the input needs.

The input is a combo TRS/XLR jack so you can use microphones as well as guitars with it. Outputs are covered by separate XLR and 1/4" jacks.

The pedal is literally a "Neve in a box" which has never been heard of before. Aside from being a preamp, there are many different uses for the Colour Box V2 such as using it as an overdrive pedal or even a bass D.I.

Not exactly a downside but it being in pedal form might not be to everyone's liking.

The JHS Colour Box V2 demands to be taken seriously as both a studio and stage tool. Even if you are only getting it as a preamp, you are bound to find a dozen or more uses for it just like many others have.


  • Channels: 1
  • Mic Preamp: 1 Vintage Style Preamp with Tantalum Capacitors
  • Input Connectors: 1 XLR/TRS Combo, 1 x Hi-Z
  • Output Connectors: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4"
  • Controls: 80dB Gain, Output, Phantom Power, Phase, Input Impedance, Highpass filter
  • Dimensions: 1.75" x 9.5"
  • Weight: 6.8 lbs.

Rating Source Highlights

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
TapeOpChris Koltay96/100
Premier GuitarJoe Gore80/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Best Mic Preamp Under $1000 With Phantom Power

Grace Design m101 Single Channel Mic Preamp

95 out of 100. Incorporating 100+ ratings and reviews.


  • Priced high for a "budget offering"


  • Excellent harmonic content without affecting frequency response
  • Compact, high-quality enclosure
  • High grade components and circuit
  • Ribbon mic mode complements the microphone type well

Compared to many offerings at this price point the Grace Design m101 looks minimal, even underfeatured. But what it lacks in features, it makes up for in sound and simplicity.

It is a mic and instrument preamp that utilizes premium components like 0.5% precision metal film resistors for signal clarity and a 12-position gold-plated rotary gain switch.

It also features improved RFI suppression for studio quality clear and quiet performance.

It has a ribbon mode that applies more gain and phantom power protection for working with ribbon mics.

Most of what the Grace Design m101 brings to the table are on the component and circuitry level rather than with controls. That being said, it's an amazing sounding preamp that doesn't necessarily change the frequency response of your mics, but rather, it gives your recordings a sense of depth and clarity that is usually lost with cheaper preamps.

The wide 75dB gain range is also a boon for dynamic mic users as it's capable of driving even the most power-hungry broadcast dynamic mics.

Given the sound, build and circuit quality, there isn't much to fault about it. You get a preamp at this price point for specific tonal or harmonic characteristics. The law of diminishing returns starts to matter more at this price point as well so the Grace Design m101 is a great value offering.

While it doesn't score points for heritage, it does rank high for top-tier componentry, circuit design, noise floor and clarity; all in a simple-to use half-rack format. If you're looking for a straightforward, studio quiet, and transparent sounding mic preamp, then check out the Grace Design m101.


  • Channels: 1
  • Mic Preamps: Grace Design preamp with Ribbon Mic mode
  • Input Connectors: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4" (Hi-Z)
  • Output Connectors: 1 x XLR, 1 x 1/4" (Balanced), 1 x 1/4" (Unbalanced)
  • Controls: Knobs: Gain, Trim | Buttons: 48V Phantom Power, Ribbon Mode, HPF, Power
  • Dimensions: 1.7" x 9" x 8.5"
  • Weight: 2.4 lbs.

Rating Source Highlights

WebsiteSource*Rating Value
GearspaceFly Soulo95/100
*Displayed values are prior to the Gearank Algorithm's adjustments it makes when evaluating the source.

Things To Consider When Buying a Mic Preamp for Vocals or Instrument Recording

Transparency vs Coloration

Many of today's audio interfaces come with built-in preamps but, and most of them lean towards transparency, which is all good - until you itch for more. Most Solid State Mic Preamps are made to scratch this itch for better quality, offering improved transparency and more control over the sound. They are also usually transformerless to reduce sound coloration.

When you find yourself looking for vintage-style warmth and coloration, you'll want to go for Tube Mic Preamps that mimic old recording equipment. These mic pres mimic old school circuitry and components, using actual vacuum tubes and even customized transformers to get as close as possible to the sound of the preamp they are reproducing. While modern production techniques have made these units more reliable, it is still safer to handle these units with care, because of their tube component.

Note that coloration and transparency is not limited to the type of circuitry used. There are solid state Preamps that are designed to provide vintage style voicings, and there are tube preamps that can be transparent. If you're not sure what you want, you can use the age and style of your favorite tracks as your starting point. Some FET Mic Preamps are designed to mimic some tube saturation by clever circuit design. These are generally more durable and consistent than their tube counterparts but can get harsher when pushed.

Sound Source

Mic preamps are designed to increase gain without compromising on the noise floor. Aside from vocals, mic preamps are also useful for augmenting instruments like drums, acoustic guitars and amplifiers, some even come with Hi-Z inputs for electric guitars and basses. Transparent preamps are more versatile and are designed with clean headroom in mind. Some designs color the sound in pleasing ways with harmonics or some equalization.

Number of Channels

Many of the recommendations in this edition of the guide are single channel preamps and are suited to augment built-in preamps for single-source recordings. 2 channel preamps are usually made with matched componentry, ensuring better consistency versus using two single-channel preamps. While there are multi-channel preamps in the market today, they mostly function as additional inputs for audio interfaces. Most Mixing Boards and audio interfaces already have decent preamps for recording and the market has shifted in favor of preamps with fewer channels that are definite upgrades over many built-in preamps.

Input and Output Ports

Aside from the basic XLR input to TRS line level output that characterizes mic preamps, many offer a range of other I/O options. Other input ports include 1/4" Hi-Z inputs for instruments like electric guitars, 1/4" TRS line level inputs and 1/4" Return inputs. On the output side the options include XLR and ADAT. If you are looking to expand the capabilities of your ADAT compatible console or audio interface, then you'll want preamps with ADAT output.

Form Factor

You'll want a preamp that fits in well with your other gear, and form factor plays an important role. This guide features inline, rackmount and desktop preamps.

Inline preamps usually have a cylindrical form factor and mount directly into the output of your mic. They are also usually phantom powered. other inline preamps, come in a D.I. box type format.

Rackmount preamps occupy either a full horizontal rack or in some cases like the Grace Design m101, are half-racks.

Desktop preamps are exactly what they are and are usually non-rackmountable.

The JHS Colour Box V2 is an exception to these as it comes in a stompbox format.

It is also important to know where the ports are placed so you know how to position them. We've included the dimensions and weight (where available) in this list so you can know before purchasing if they will fit into your available space.

Extra Features

Important features that you should look out for include phantom power and an input pad. Other features that can be practical include EQ and/or high-pass/low-pass filters, noise gates, metering and power switching.

Best Microphone Preamps Selection Methodology

The first edition was published in 2017.

We began by looking at all widely available standalone preamps at US based retailers that are intended for use with microphones, except that we excluded 500 series modules.

We short-listed 41 sub $1000 mic preamps to rate for this guide and then collated a total of over 13,400 ratings, reviews and forum discussions about each preamp and processed those data with the Gearank Algorithm to produce a rating score out of 100 for each one. We processed 19.6% more ratings sources for this edition than the previous one.

We then used these ratings to select the highest rated in each of the categories above to recommend. For more information about our methods see How Gearank Works.

About the Author and Contributors

Here are the key people and sources involved in this guide's production - click on linked names for information about their music industry backgrounds.

Lead Author & Researcher

A cool piece of trivia about this guide: I bought the dbx 286s because of the previous edition. At the time I wrote the previous edition I didn't feel like I needed an external preamp in my project studio. But as time went by, I slowly realized the limitations of my interface's built-in preamps. I chose it for reasons I outlined in my extended dbx 286s review. It's a great addition to my studio gear. Informed decisions go a long way!


Jason Horton: Editing and Illustrating.


Main/Top Image: By using photographs of the Grace Design m101, Behringer MIC500USB. Cloud Microphones CL-2, Golden Age Pre-73 MKIII, Golden Age Project Pre-73 Jr, DBX 286s and Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre.

The individual product images were sourced from websites, promotional materials or supporting documentation provided by their respective manufacturers except for the dbx 286s expander/gate which was photographed by the author.

11 thoughts on “Best Budget Mic Preamp Hardware ($100 to $1000)”

  1. Can any of your rack units convert the processed analog input to MIDI for output? If not, does any manufacturer rack have this capability?

  2. Surprised the Millennia HV-35P wasn’t included in the “under $1000” class. HV-3 is used in film scoring and classical music recording everywhere (and in my home studio!)

  3. I need a preamp mainly for the phantom power source for my blue encore 300 condenser mic, for my vocal performances. I don’t need multi channel. As the venues I am performing have serious power issues,is there any preamp that runs on rechargeable batteries without depending on the power at the venues?

    1. Avatar
      Alexander Briones

      Vocal Effect Pedals like the TC-Helicon Mic Mechanic 2 can give you what you need. It comes with a built-in mic preamp, it can supply phantom power, and it can run on four AA batteries.

      Still, no portable mic preamp can help you if the power issues affect the venue’s PA system. It also can’t save you from the dangers that electrical issues pose, so it would be best to let the venue administration know of any power related problem.

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