Best budget phono preamp for Unison Unico?


I was fortunate enough to buy a Unison Unico hybrid integrated amp here on Audiogon at a great price ($800). :-)

I'm driving a set of Totem Arro speakers. And I have a SOTA Sapphire TT currently being refurbished at the SOTA factory.

Since this Unico doesn't have the built in phono stage, I need an outboard unit. When I say "budget," I mean $250 or less, ideally. I was considering the Cambridge unit that goes for $169... the reviews look good. Any other suggestions? I'm not sure whether I'll be using MM or MC in in the tone arm. All I know is that the 20-year-old Audioquest cartridge needs replacing! ;-)

Used Parasound Zphono for about $100.00

Haven't heard of that one... I'll have to keep an eye out for it.
Musical Surroundings Phonomena can be had used at your budget and will load virtually any cart you ever may want to run. I run one with my SOTA.

Wow, another model I've never heard of. Thanks! :-)
Why don't you see if you can have the optional phono stage installed in the Unico? I think you could have bought one with the phono stage for an additional cost of what you're going to spend on an outboard phono stage.
In lieu of that, you ought to stick with tubes. The Bellari is a tube phono that retails for $250. There's one up on audiogon for $185.
The Antique Sound Labs Mini Phono is an overachiever. There's one on audiogon for $300. There's one listed on The Canuck Audio Mart for $160:
I'm using a cambridge 640 with my sota. Sounds great. Much better than the 540.
Parasound, NAD, Bellari and Goldring are all OK but I prefer the 640.
I second the Musical Surroundings Phonomena. Great open warm sound from an ss phono. Better than you would expect!
Try to stretch your budget and look towards a used Wright phono pre. They appear here now and then. Unlike anything for 250.00, It is good enough that you won't feel the need to upgrade in the future.

Yes, I think I'd like a tube phono-stage if I can get one in my price range. The only other one I'm really considering, because the reviews are so good, is the Cambridge 640, as Elevick suggests.

Chashmal... great nick name (kol tuv)! ;-)
According to this review, the Parasound ZPhono isn't in the same league with the Cambridge 640P. I have the 640P, and for $169, it's phenomenal. It also keeps your options open, as it does both MM and MC. In the TNT review, the reviewer used an Audio Technica OC9 II LOMC. I use the Cambridge with an Audio Technica AT150MLX II MM (5mV output), and can confirm that it's MM stage is also excellent. I think the AT150MLX and 640P are an excellent match.
Reb Audiophile: Aryeh Kaplan translates chashmal as 'speaking silence'. In other words, a totally transparent yet ultimately dynamic soundstage. Ha ha! I wonder with you moniker what type of Chasidut you are into?

I wasn't thinking of anything that esoteric, just that Chashmal in modern Hebrew means "electricity." Oh well... :-)
There are Pro-ject's that are in your price range for a seond hand price.. But the sound is just really mediocre at best, I really wasn't too impressed.

As for the Musical surroundings Phonomena, it is a decent phono stage that I run in my system too with a lot of flexibility for MMs and MCs carts. It is a lil bit on the dry side though but the detail is fairly clear on it. I'm running my dynavector cart on it. It'll run from about 3-350 or so second hand.

The other good thing too is that apparently the 9V power supply that goes with it too is supposedly be a drastic improvement compared to the AC adapter. But I haven't had the money to buy that one yet or maybe even sell off mine to someone that has it.

I've seen the Phonomena for around $300, used (the one with the original power supply).

What about the Jolida JD 9 phono stage? It's a little pricey for my budget (I've seen it for around $375).
Rebbi: the Unison Unico is my absolute favorite small integrated. Roll those tubes and you will be in HaShemiam!

It sounds very nice and the build quality is unbelievably beautiful. (And it's amazingly HEAVY!) It'll clearly drive the Arro much louder than I'd ever listen to music, too.
This is my first tubed gear and I really know nothing about the ins and outs of tubes. But the seller was kind enough to include two sets of "alternative" tubes to try.

Any know of a good online tutorial on tube gear?
I think that trial and error is the only way to get to know tubes. Eventually one is going to blow, and you will replace it. Rolling tubes will change the sound dramatically. With such a nice piece as the Unico it will be easy to find a sound you like. I know of no tutorial, but audiogon itself is almost as good. There is so much one can learn just reading what people have to say. Eventually (if you are like most audiophiles) you will want to upgrade and try different things. One I have noticed is that tube gear really responds to different cables. It seems to the the easiest and cheapest upgrade one can do.
I will have a Phonomena for sale in near future if you are still looking at that time, my dads upgrading to the Nova DC model and his can be had for $250 but again its gonna be a few more weeks.
Rebbi: buy Chadnliz' phenomena. There is nothing that compares for that money. I will be selling one also, but in about 6 months when I get the cash together for an Art Audio Vinyl reference (tube phono stage).

Yeah, I'd be interested, for sure. There's another Phenomena on sale on A'gon right now for $300, but the power cord got cut and had to be spliced back together, so if you're really going to put it up at $250, give me fair warning! :-) (Still waiting to hear back from SOTA...)
Rebbi: you wont regret it. I have been using it with an all tube rig costing thousands and that little thing for $600 new has held its own.
I will email you if everything works out with my dad and his upgrade but I dont want to get locked into a firm promise so I dont let you down ok?


It me again. I lifted this from another thread I wrote a while ago. I am shopping for a budget phono pre as well - and these are the models I intend to give a listen. If your sweetheart deal on the phenomena falls through, I would look at these - conditioned by the advice already offered above:

Phono preamps less than or equal $250:

1. Rega Fono mini

2. Cambridge Audio 640P**

3. Pro-Ject Phono Box

4. Creek OBH-18

5. Bellari VP129 Tube**

**units I have heard especially good things about recently, including on this thread!
Somebody's got an Antique Sound Labs phono mini up for grabs here for $250 obo... a 2-tube unit. Anybody familiar with it?

Thanks for the list! :-)

HCM has a limited supply of those Creek units on sale for $320. I need to do some research on those.

Check that... it's the OBH-15 that HCM has on sale.
08-01-08: Rebbi
Somebody's got an Antique Sound Labs phono mini up for grabs here for $250 obo... a 2-tube unit. Anybody familiar with it?
Grab it. You can't go wrong for $250. I haven't heard it, but in my experience, inexpensive tube phono preamps always outperform similarly priced SS designs. They tend to sound more realistic and spacious. Cheap SS designs may be quieter, but they're also lifeless and flat. I've owned the Phonomena, Musical Fidelity X-LPS, Parasound zPhono. If you don't like the ASL, you can easily sell it for the same price you paid. What do you have to lose?
Two things:


Have you ever actually looked into purchasing the phono card for your integrated amp? That might be a very viable option for you if available. I have no idea on price or anything though.

Also, Mingles, I would honestly put my Phonomena against Tube Phono under $400 Used and I think it'll give any one of the a run for it's money. Between the convenience in adjusting settings and the clarity and detail that it is.. You'd be hard pressed to find another one so accommodating to so many cartridges at that price point.

I asked that question already! According to Walter of Underwood HiFi (who sells a lot here on Audiogon and carries Unison stuff) the Unicos without the phono card cannot be retrofitted with one. Doesn't quite make sense to me, but that's what he said.
Hmmm... the plot thickens. I wrote to Unison's US distributor and asked if the Unico could be retrofitted with the phono section PCB. He said "yes, but" it's a matter of getting the part. Unsion's on vacation now but somebody's supposed to be getting back to me to let me know what would be involved in getting the phono board installed. May or may not be worth the trouble, we'll see.
Don't know if someone already mentioned it but. For $250 you should be able to buy a 2nd hand Clearaudio Basic.
No, the Clearaudio hasn't been mentioned up until now. Good reputation?

It turns out that I can order the phono preamp plugin (it comes on a single circuit board) from the US distributor for $250, which is certainly reasonable. Question is, does anybody know how good the Unico phono stage is?
Stand alone phono stages are almost always better than built ins.
Paying 250 for built in is money wasted.
Buy stand alone phono stage. I use Rotel RQ-970BX
and very satisfied with the sound.
I was wondering about that, but since this unit would be feeding through the Unico's tubed front end, anyway, I thought it might be okay.


In reference to earlier posts, I just replaced the stock tubes in my Unico with Mazda chrome plates (platinum) from upscale audio. They recommended two different ones based on my desire for a bit more openness and high frequency extension. The other was the radio technique. The Mazda's have made a stunning change in the sound of the Unico compared to my expectations. So much more detail and HF extension. I was wondering how a manufacturer could ever voice an amp at the design stage with this much variability available with different tubes? I guess manufacturers may use what is readily available and have to hit a price point. The Mazda's were $80 for the pair. I guess that would significantly have changed the selling price etc, etc. Anyway, I am super happy and can't wait to get home to listen to my new amp!

That cool to know... I'm a tube noob, myself, so the information is valuable.

You don't happen to be using the Unico phono stage, do you?
Rebbi, in my experience, tubes offer more realism and three dimensional spaciousness than transistors. I find this to be especially true with phono stages.

In my opinion, the Bottlehead Seduction is the best bang for the buck you can get for less than $300. It has a stellar reputation, but it only has 36 dB gain. You'll need to match it with a high output cartridge (2.5mV or more) or a step up device if you use LOMC.

Well,the consensus here seems to be, "Get your hands on a good tube preamp and don't even mess with the Unico board."

The bottlehead seduction looks cool, but I've never soldered anything in my life, so I'm a little intimidated.
Hi Rebbi, I understand the intimidation, but it's an easy kit to build - some would call it fun. You'll need a 40 watt soldering iron and some silver-bearing solder. You can get both of these from Radio Shack for less than $15. You'll also need a pair of wire cutters. Pliers will be handy to bend the leads.

From the Bottlehead site:

Assembly is a one or two evening affair, designed for the builder with minimal level soldering experience in mind... A very thorough assembly manual is included, containing step by step printed instructions you check off as you go, detailed photos of the chassis underside and components. All the builder needs to supply is solder. As with our other kits the Bottlehead Forum serves as the builders online tech support resource, with literally hundreds of experienced builders participating to help you with your questions.
Here's an excellent option that doesn't require building anything:
Jolida JD9 Mullard Tubes

Yes, I've seen that option. Thing is, opinion on the JD-9 here on Audiogon seems to a little mixed.
opinion on the JD-9 here on Audiogon seems to a little mixed.
I've read more positive comments about the JD-9 than negative. It has a solid reputation. So does the Pro-Ject Tube Box II. You can't go wrong with either. Both accommodate LOMC, but the JD-9 has more flexibility with loading and MC output gain. This may not be a deal breaker, but it's something to consider if you go with MC. I've heard several people say they preferred the Tube Box SE II over the JD-9. The SE II is a step up from the Tube Box. It has flexible loading and a lower noise floor.

Hmmm..... there's a Jolida JD-9A with Underwood Level 1 mods for sale right now on A'Gon for an asking price of $495. I wonder how that compares to the Seduction (given the fact that the Jolida will accommodate a a wider range of cartridges?
I don't know anything about the Underwood mods. You might want to contact this person:
11-22-06: Dsremer
I am listening to a Jolida JD 9 with level 1 mods from Underwood HIFI which is suprisingly good for the money. I would look in that direction
Dsremer (Threads | Answers)
From Need an Entry Level Phono Preamp

I contacted the folks at Bottlehead. I was very impressed by their friendly, helpful attitude. I'm thinking more and more that I may get the Seduction and just take my time building it. It seems I'd be well rewarded for the effort.
Thought I'd report back here...

I just finished building the Bottlehead Seduction phono preamp! I haven't even had the chance to try it out yet (need to buy some interconnects) but I had a lot of fun putting it together. I'll report back with a fuller account when I've had the chance to test it out in the system.
Hey Rebbi,

That's great! When you report back on the Bottlehead, interested to hear how you like your "new" system at this point in its life???

PS - I am intrigued by these interconnects:

Haven't heard 'em, but want to try them myself.
I just finished building the Bottlehead Seduction phono preamp! I haven't even had the chance to try it out yet (need to buy some interconnects) but I had a lot of fun putting it together. I'll report back with a fuller account when I've had the chance to test it out in the system.
Rebbi (Threads | Answers)
I'd love to hear your impressions. Please report back.