I have no idea if it's the "best"(such a subjective word)but the ProJect Phono Box II should work quite nicely.
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I recently acquired a Pro-ject Phono Box S for a secondary system. I installed it in my main system first to see how it would play with my Pro-ject RM5.1 SE/Sumiko Blue Point No. 2. I was blown away by how it performed compared to the phono stage built into my Parasound 2 channel preamp. Neddless to say the Phono Box S is now a permanent addition to my main system.
At $200, this little box allows for full cartridge loading of gain/capacitance/impedence so you can dial in your cartridge, either MC/MM, exactly for your system. In my case I gained much lower noise, better gain, and a wider and deeper soundstage. I should have bought one years ago, its that good and its under your stated budget.
Thanks for the recommendation. You're right, "best" probably isn't the 'best' choice of words since it's just a matter of personal preference. I'm just looking to find the best bang for my buck, basically something that has a good enough rep to stand its ground and not be a weak link in my system to where I'll just have to upgrade 2 years down the road. If I need to save a little longer and up my price to $300-ish range that's fine too!
All suggestions are welcome!! Thanks in advance!
For reference, I'll be hooking it up to these items:
Pro-ject Debut Carbon (and Denon DP-31L) --->Phono preamp?--->AES AE-3 tube pre---> McIntosh 2125 amp---> Klipsch RP-5 towers (selling these in the near future to replace with PSB Imagine T2's or some used Revels)
I have owned lots of them.
The ones I liked (in no particular order):
Musical Fidelity X-LP
Gram Slee Gram Amp 2SE
Musical Surroundings Phonomena
The ones I really didn't like (in order of worst to best):
Lehmann Black Cube
Creek OBH8 (non se)
Good luck with the quest!