Buy the PH3 on audiogon for $995 if you are considering 500-1000 price range -- better sound in every aspect. In the "new today" ads. I do not have any affiliation with the seller or ARC in any way.
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I've got AR PH3(6692 output) used for $900. It is very hard for anyone to say what is better in this price range than AR PH3. There is a large possibility to upgrade it to PH3SE by buying just only parts and requesting an upgrade sketch and sequence. PH3SE will mate with some $4k phonos like BAT or Herron.
PH-2 is by all means the worst sounding phono amp ever produced by anyone despite its original high price tag ($2450). It has only 48dB gain and you cannot adjust the load. It only supports XLR in/out. Worst of all, it sounds rather poorly. Edgy high and exaggerated bass and mid-bass. I unfortunately owned one for a brief moment and got rid off it after losing 40% of what I paid which is quite significant in the used market. For under $1K, PH3 is a far better choice choice although it also has relatively low gain.
I have to say I have an entirely different experience
with the PH2 than Rdr4b. I have had the PH2 since early
1995 and would consider it perhaps the most neutral product
in my system (ARC LS5II, DAC3II, VT130, driving Maggie3.3).
My phono is Clearaudio Ref with Koetsu Rosewood signature.
Cabling is NBS Statement pre-amp, amp-spkrs, and SilverAudio
elsewhere. So to say the PH2 sounds rather poorly is a huge
conflict with my experience.
A couple notes here: because the PH2 is truly balanced and
so few components with XLR connectors really are, you need
to use a balanced cable....not RCA-XLR adaptors. The ARC
balanced phono cable is not very good. I used it for 4
years until I realized what I was truly missing. When I
bought the SilverAudio SilverBreeze balanced phono cable,
I was amazed at the resolution and detail never heard
before. I highly recommend anybody to try out this cable
on a trial basis and see for yourself what a phono cable
can do that perhaps many of us never knew possible. At
$400, it is pretty much the best upgrade for the $$ I have
made in along long time.
As far as gain, even my Koetsu works fine with the PH2
but for sure, more gain like 56db would be nicer. Having
a higher gain Line Stage helps a lot. But the PH2 is a
better match with something like a Benz Glider (my prev
cartridge) with a 1mv output. With this, I had all the
gain I could ever ask for.
I tried the PH3 back in 97. With this I used a Straightwire
phono cable and the combination was very good. But it did
not take long for me to feel fatigued by the forwardness
of the PH3. Initially I was impressed. But a return to
the PH2 brought everything back into balance ... and the
lower level detail was improved as well. In a solid-state
system, the PH3's forwardness may be a good match. It is
afterall, all about system synergy and for me, the PH3 did
not work well at all. As you can tell, I am a big fan of
ARC tube products, but the solid state PH2 holds its own
in my system.
Hope this helps with your quest for a phono stage.
I agree with Jafox. I have been using the PH2 since I purchased it new from Woodbridge Stereo about 6 years ago. In my opinon the PH2 is a superb phono preamp. In fact, it surpasses the PH3 (in my system) in virtually every musical category. I find it difficult to understand how the PH2 can be given such a poor review. Presumably, in order to fully appreciate the performance of the PH2, it must be utilized with components that are "truly" balanced. However, I was able to extract excellent perfomance with my LS2B MKII which I still own, in addition to my LS25.
Incidentally, I am using an Oracle Delphi MK5 SE/Graham 2.2/Helikon/ARC PH2/ARC LS25/ARC VT100 MKII/MG 3.5/subwoofer etc.
The PH2 is very dynamic and extended in the frequency extremes. In addition, with 100 ohm loading the midrange is
full and rich without excessive thickness. Tones ae pure against a very quiet background. I have no intention of ever buying another phono stage!
Once again, Jafox's comment of PH2 proves one person's poison could be another's roses.
I do, however, agree with Jafox's impression on PH3's forwardness. PH3 is by no means a very spacious sounding phono-stage versus, say, the Reference Phono or Aesthetix Io. However, for small scale works, PH3 can truely bring intimacy to your system.
I owned PH2, tried PH3 and Reference Phono extensively but now stick with Nagra PL-P for its simplicity and overall tonal balance. Nonetheless, I do feel PH3 holds good value in sub-$1000 catagory.
My strategy is simple - buy used gear, try it, decide if I like it and sell it quickly if I don't. When it comes to sonic preference, no one can give you any advice.
It is very difficult to match the capacitors in the RIAA stage in order to achieve a fully differential and balanced configuration.
Also, the cartridge loading will be a pain, as it would need 2 resistors to load each side, also, theorectically, it will have double the noise compared to single-ended design.
If the Linestage is a true balanced, it should see no difference whether the phono stage is balanced or not.
As I understood it, the PH-2 was built to be matched with their current (at that time) linestage, the LS-5. The LS-5, in hindsight can be considered a bit rich/lush compared ot other designs (although it is a personal flavour thing), but since the LS-5 gave such magnificent air, soundstage, etc, matching it up with a neutral, quiet and extended at both ends, phono stage made sense for system synergy. I have had mine for years, going into a Reference 1 (and now a Reference 5) preamp, and have always loved its revealing and dynamic sound. (I do use a single ended MCP-2 head amp in front of it, for my Shelter 901). As for the merits of being balanced, a phono cartridge, by design is balanced, you have a hot and a cold for left and right, and then your (common) ground, so in the end, which is better (rca or XLR), comes down to design execution, which includes carefully matching parts. Blah, blah, blah. :D
My take on the PH-2, was that it was revealing and dynamic, which is just what I wanted in a phono stage when I bought it.
Rdr4b has it right, study the prices of the usedd gear you want, play with it, and if it is not your thing, flip it. If you look at the quest for your perfect sound as a journey (to be enjoyed along the way), and not just a destination, flipping the odd piece of gear here and there is part of the fun.
Please let us know what you get and how it works.