This will not be what you want to hear, but: If you like the sound you're hearing in your new room, live with everything for a while longer, save some more money and then buy in the $2-3,000 range. In that price range you'll be able to substantially improve on your Music Hall and have a front end that will satisfy you for a good bit longer than making the small interim upgrade now.
Whatever way you go, glad to hear you'll be purchasing more vinyl!
I second the advice above: Wait & meanwhile play with yr present rig. Improvements are plentiful when you optimise the cartridge loading and the signal transimission from TT to pre.
THEN, go for upgrades (that will invariably include a phono stage -- maybe Krell has s/thing on offer?).
I started out with a Music Hall MMF-5 and compared it (side by side) with a friend's Rega P-25, RB-900 tonearm, and Grado Platinum cartridge. While his setup did some things better, they both displayed many of the same limitations (and the Rega / Grado combination was worse in 2 distinct areas - pitch and hum). It wasn't until I got my Teres 255 / OL Silver / Shelter 501 mk II that I thought "Wow...this is *really* significant."
Like others have said, you'd be better off waiting.
Ok, I'll buck the trend here.
You should get quite a bump in performance by upgrading to something like used VPI HW, especially if you can get the Mk 4 version. You should be able to get one with arm within your budget.
Your budget does not allow a nice upgrade of both TT and phono, but you can at least do one and I would suggest the TT first.
If you can swing a soldering iron you could consider building a phono kit. The bottlehead Seduction is good value. You can also look at the Hagerman kits and my all time fav, the Audionote phono kit. They will cost a fraction of the commercially available phonos and IMHO leave them for dead.
Stapimp, It's great to see another one finding the sound value in analog reproduction. The Music Hall is a fine start, enjoy it and start saving. I would side with the majority in this case to recommend for a more substantial turntable. It's very important in time for you to hear for yourself the difference a better table could bring. If you can seek out an A/B comparison great, all other things being equal you will hear the better table for its musicality. I realize today that might be tough and you may do your research on the web only to buy based on others review or opinion. That's fine too. The inherent problem with upgrading cartridges, arms, and phono amps is that without a substantial table you cannot support these upgrades and will not hear the greatest bang for your buck. Fact is you may create more problems in the sound than you fix IMHO. In 83 I went the extra mile and bought the better table and although all the other components in the system have been upgraded a couple of times the original turntable has supported quite adeptly these changes all for the betterment in sound quality. Keep buying those records and happy listening!
It sounds like your immediate plans are to buy a lot of vinyl (which shows you have your priorities straight). Perhaps you should invest your budget in a good record cleaning machine, cleaing fluids, new inner sleeves, and storage for your collection. This is an investment that will have an immediate pay off and will continue to pay off if and when you get a nicer table and cart. Have fun record shopping!
Yeah keep the music hall for now and get a VPI 16.5 cleaner, that will be a far bigger improvement to the music than dropping anything less than probably like stated above about 3000.00 into a new table and cart. Also, the Mobil fidelity inner sleves are the best anti static(rice paper type) poly whatever sleeves I have used after cleaning, they keep the vinyl sounding excellent for about a year till the next cleaning, those two non stereo components made the largest immediate strides in my case. I have a MMF7 with a Benz micro type cartridge, excellent... maybe I would buy a nottingham but really find this with silent cleaned albums much more than I needed to be happy.
A record cleaning machine is important and you can save money purchasing a manual unit as opposed to an automatic. Your records will not be any cleaner with an automatic. However, a good turntable, arm, and cartridge upgrades your analog system significantly more than a record cleaning machine. That is irrefutable.
Judy426 is right. The extra money you spend on a RCM is for convenience. As long as it sucks, it's as good as the rest. Unless you get into the freaky expensive stuff.
You could really improve things for very little money by building your own RCM. It will be every bit as good as a 16.5 and probably won't set you back more than $50 bucks. IMHO, once you decide on which cleaning solutions and brushes work best for you it is the vacuuming that makes the difference with record cleaning. At least until you get to the level of a Loricraft.
Based on my experience I would have to agree with others that your best move right now is to buy vinyl and develop a cleaning method that works well for you. But if you develop an itch that you just can't scratch then look for a tubed phono stage first. Something like used EAR 834P, Hagerman, etc. You'll be amazed how much your Music Hall will like tubes and you should be able to sell it for about what you paid for it. Anything more and you will get into that space where you would be better off just plunking down the bucks and upgrading on more of a major scale. But this is a hobby and so it is up to you to decide if you want to make a big jump or perhaps pay a bit more of a price in time and money to enjoy the journey by learning what each little change can make. (Here I will say that the 2.1 is limiting what you can do/learn with TT/tonearm/cartridge setup.) There are pluses and minuses to both paths, it's up to you. Have fun and enjoy!
Thank you all for your responses...definetely will take your advice and chill on purchasing new equipment for awhile.
as for the DIY projects where can I find plans to build my own phonostage and RCM? I can hold my own with a soldering iron and have access to high precision machining facilites (the benefits of being an MIT student)
For the RCM, just google "DIY record cleaning machine". You'll get several good hits. You will see that you can go mild to wild. I have a picture posted of my own under my system. It was made with an old Hoover vacuum and I spin the MDF platter by hand. I based it on the RCM shown on the teres audio site. Nuthin' fancy but it gets the records clean. But I would advise just buying cleaning solution. There are some pretty good home brews, but I believe that the Record Research Labs products are the best, easiest and safest to use. AIVS also makes a great product for really grundgy records.
If you are interested in phono kits try http://audionotekits.espyderweb.net/, http://www.bottlehead.com/ and http://www.hagtech.com/. There are a few others around, but I have personal experience with these companies and their kits and customer service are first rate.
For scratch building best is just to do a google search.