3K to 4K Phono Pre-Amp

Background: I am trying to upgrade to my ultimate analog set-up. I think the first step should be an new Phono pre-amp capable of supporting high-end MC eventually. I have read the controversy of step-up vs new phono preamp, but I am leaning to the new phono preamp. I have a Cary SLP-98P and love it.

Question: In the $3K to $4K range, what is the best match to a Cary AMP/Pre-AMP/Horn system that would provide good versatility as I later upgrade my cartridge and TT. I have read about the Aesthetic Rhea, AcousTech PhD, and several others but I simply don't have the experience or access to this equipment to help decide.

Cartridges that I may eventually purchase include Koetsu, Shelter, Transfiguration, or comparable. It depends on the tonearm I end up with.

Thank You
I'd keep my eye open for reviews on the PhD as they come out.
Used Aesthetix IO or used Manley Steelhead.
Both rare birds TWL. I will keep my eyes open. Txs.
Just purchased the Hagerman Trumpet. Unbelievable sound. Must use a step up with low output cartridges. Check out the website www.hagtech.com; Fremer also speaks highly of this unit in a capsule review in Stereophile.
Without a doubt, I would definitely try to hear the Tom Evens "The Groove".
I'd go for the Herron VTSP-1mc. The musical involvement, sense of scale, dynamics, and flexibility with cart matching is excellent. I'm currently using it with the Dyna Te Kaitora with excellent results at 47k ohm. I've also heard it with the Koetsu Urushi, Jan Allaerts MC-1B at 47k and they are NOT bright. Loading down to 100ohms can constipate the music.

It can only be used for low output MCs, though with your selection of carts, that should not pose any problems.
Yes, I've heard and read good things about "The Groove" also. Jonathan, how does that compare with my ARC PH 3se and Helikon (reg) and Benz M2?
Check this out......completely versatile, and meets your target price:

Thank you Alanmkafton. Very interesting.

I'll look into the EAR 324 as well. It reminds me of the Steelhead in some ways except solid state. I like the input for two turntables because I want to keep my VPI MKIV/SME309/Grado Reference for comparisons and later, with a change in cartridges, dedicated to mono.
Rwd: The Groove is much quieter, faster and more dynamic.

Alan has made a very good suggestion. The Ear is really one of the best values in audio.
I second the Trumpet, I am using with the Shelter 901 and it is a truely unbelievable phono preamp. It is also half of what you are prepared to spend.. You will need a step-up for a low output MC. I would go with the S&B tranies from either Hagerman or Bent Audio.
Thank you Dmailer for the recommendation. I have also noted others who are very supportive of the Hagerman technology.
Try the New Sutherland PHd Phono. Runs on Batteries. No AC noise and it sounds great.
Not to be simple, but are you asking about a phono stage or a step-up transformer/pre pre-amp? If you are really looking for versatility and the best sound, you have to consider these items seperately. And you don't have to spend more than $300 for a passive step-up and around the same amount for a tube-based phono with power supply that will sound as good as anything else out there, even price no object. That will let you spend more money on the TT itself. Keep visiting DIY horn/tube guys in whatever town you are in, or whenever you travel. You'll find the best stuff with these guys.

Thanks for the feedback RonyW.

I have a Cary SLP-98P and I have considered a step-up for it, but I was told by several audiophiles that this approach would not be ideal in comparison with a new, high quality phono preamp like a Rhea, Hagerman (plus step-up), the Ear suggested above or idealy a used Manley or Aesthetix IO.

As soon as I can get through remodeling in my house, now extending through Sept according to the contractor, I plan on stepping up my efforts to investigate and purchase a State-of-the-art Turntable (VPI HR-X, SME20/2A performance package, or the like (Maybe even a Teres is in the running with a Graham Arm).

I would like a top end cartridge like a transfiguration or a maybe even a Koetsu if the sound is right, but I will try to be open-minded, recognizing the great sound of Shelter and many others.

I am trying to get all I can from my records without busting my budget. Currently my VPI/MKIV/SME309/Grado Ref sound better than CDs on my Nuvista to me (which I think is a killer CD player). I can only imagine how much better vinyl could be. I feel that I am limited by my current set-up against using very high-end MC cartridges or low output MI Grados. I plan to dedicate the VPI to mono in the expanded system.

Obviously, I will spend a long time making these decisions. But, that will be at least half of the fun - both listening and learning.

By the way, I have tried to get a local, retired RF engineer to help me build a new pre-amp but he said it was too complicated a task. If my Cary is not limiting, maybe he would help me build a step-up with some Jensens. Again, I am open.

It is quite complex question. I am quite familiar with the majority of the phonostages was proposed here and unfortunately I personally do not find them all worth to peruse. Those phonostages are just plane bad phonostages and they MUST NOT COST as much as they do. In fact, there IS NO commercially available phonostage that performs well. If you want to get ANY phonostage then do not go for what commonly consider “good” because it is just waste of money. The 3K-12K phonostages DO NOT SOUND better then 1K phonostages. If you can’t build your own phonostages or to commission somebody to build it for you then get for $400 (direct from UK) EAR 834P and update it according to Torthen specification (+$120). This unit with a good step-up will waste ANY high price phonostages. Unfortunately, as I said, there is no good MC phonocorrector out there. Good luck in your search for a good step-up.

Romy the Cat
VeryBigAmp, I am curious. You say you are quite familiar with all of the above mentioned stages. Are you saying you have personally auditioned all of them?


certainly, although I never had you’re your phonostage. (This is why I said “majority” but not the “all”).

Instead of asking me the questions that have the obvious answers (I do not thinks anyone hear me taking about something that I have no familiarity) it would be nice if you (as a designer) would explain to me how came that we today, after so many years of “ our progress”, have completely screwed-up our analog culture. He have NO SERIOUSLY PERFORMING contemporary TT, no good modern arms, not good contemporary magnetics for out MC stages, no good contemporary vinyl pressing…. and yes, no good park of the currently manufactured phonostages. Unfortunately looking at the variety of contemporary elements in the today’s system the phonocorrectors are the MOST under-performing elements in a chain of reproduction.

Romy the Cat
BTW, to add to the what I said: I never pursued you phonocorrector because it has 2 more tube/stages that I feel is necessary for a “correct“ MM corrector.

The Cat

Thank you for your answer. It's a very bold statement that there are no good phono stages being made today. Same with turntables, arms, and magnetics.

As a designer, I'd be happy to explain why our analog culture is screwed up and that products have digressed over time - if I actually believed it. And I don't. So we differ on opinion here.

Perhaps you could suggest a few examples of vintage products that are better than anything sold today?

Hi Romy, you should try the local guy I find in Paris. He will make you a passive step-up for around Euro 200 that will raise all the hairs on the cat's back, he also makes a tube phono stage which is terribly simple, very cheap and won't confuse the Prelude to Lohnegrin with Gorecki.

*** It's a very bold statement that there are no good phono stages being made today.

Yes, it is unfortunat it is a sad fact. I have tried the majority of them and can testify that none of them can do what I consider accentual. That is why, I am being very much not DIY person, run all my 3 phonostages that are NOT commercial phonostages. Whatever I have seen/heard heard commercially available was good enough only for TT with 3 ponds acrylic platter TT, plastic tonearms with coca-cola needles, little ported fart-machine speakers and Patrica Barber screaming from a “wide soundstage”.

Romy the Cat
Thank you all - very interesting discourse. Clearly there is a lot of controversy surrounding phonostage preamplification and the current state of the analog art.

Regardless of whether one considers a commerical or DIY endeavor, what are the key design decisions that impact on phono preamp sound.

Secondly, how closely matched or restricted must the cartridge selection be to given a specific phono preamp selection.

A very low output cartridge needs 60 or more dB of amplification. How does one assess how much strain on the preamp this entails, how does that strain affect speed, resolution, transparency, and noise?.

Basically, how does one objectively break down the merits of a phono preamp design or upgrade and select candidates to listen to and purchase?
I have few different phono setups in the past and I have heard over a dozen. I have not heard anything over $5K on phono preamp since no one I know is that crazy.

Three setups with same table setup.
TT setup: VPI HW19MKIV/graham 1.5T/VDH Bk Beauty

Marantz 7c/Counterpoint SA-2
Counterpoint SA-5000

Out of all, ARC SP-11 is most dynamic/punch
Marantz 7c/Counterpoint SA-2 is nice and bold and smooth
Counterpoint SA-5000 is elegant and evolving
It's really depends on what you like.
For large critical listening ( orchestra ),
I would choose ARC because it seems to have better resolution.
For everyday listening, Marantz 7c/Counterpoint SA-2 is produces and fuzz and relax sound.
For a more elegant female voice, string instruments, and jazz, I would pick SA-5000.

I have not found a clear winner in all catagory but I enjoy them all.

I really think the phono stage requires your own judgement rather than other's opinion. However, the gain and noise level requirement has to meet. That part is very critical.

Just my 2 cents
Thanks s23chang.

I am simply trying to learn as much as I can inorder to select a few preamps to audition. Your input is appreciated very much. The SA-5000 sounds very interesting and will require further investigation on my part!

why spend 3-4K?

Audio Research PH-2

really nice tonal balance
I always spend the least I can, but I am willing to spend up to 4K. Thanks for the suggestions.