Cambridge 540p or 640p. Both are under $200 and both "punch above their weight class". The Bellari is another option though I had hum issues that I could never solve.
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I had a Rotel 970 hooked up in MM to a stepup tranny and prefered it to my ex ARC PH3se. Go figure it out. It's a solidly built piece. You'll be very surprised what you find uder the hood. Lots of Black Gate caps and a Tamura power tranny inside.
Pls avoid the MC section. Very grainy sound. Not very usable in a high end system.
I have spent the last month listening to some inexpensive phono-stages. I recently bought a REGA P5 with a Benz-Micro Glider. After I bought my self the TT and cartridge, I only had a few hundred to play around for a phono-stage until I can afford a phono-stage I really want. So, I auditioned the Rotel, Rega Phono, NAD PP2, and finally the Pro-Ject audio Tube Box II.
For the money I would recommend the NAD PP2! I have recently upgraded from the NAD PP2 to the Pro-ject Tube Box II (stretched the budget), and I must say that the PP2 holds it own quite well. The soundstage of the NAD is not quite as wide as the Pro-Ject Audio Tube Box , but its not bad. Before I bought the Tube Box II, I borrowed the Rotel once more to see if I would like it better than the NAD PP2, or Tube Box II, and I found that it was not very involving compared to the NAD PP2 or the Tube Box II. The NAD PP2 to my ear was more dynamic and provided a little more bass extension than the Rotel. The Rotel is a great phono-stage, but for $130 bucks I don't think you will be disappointed with the NAD PP2.
The Rega phono-stage sounded kind of muddy and too bass heavy for my liking. If you can swing $449 dollars the Pro-Ject Tube Box II is really good! The best thing to do is demo the phono stages in your system. That is the only way you will really know if it works well with the rest of your gear.
Good Luck and Happy Listening!
Thanks everyone,for your responses.It has been a long,long time since I was looking for a product in this price category.It needs to be small,similar to the NAD units.Has anybody heard the small Soundsmith phono,with 34db gain??It looks small enough,but wondered about the "sound" and wall-wart.
The Rotel is a little larger than needed.My friend has one and it is respectable enough.The NAD was also pretty good,but still wondered if it could be bettered.
Here's another +1 for the Cambridge 640P. Very small with low height, and obscenely quiet, making for delicious dynamics. Fast and neutral. I've been living with mine for nearly a year and have no urge to swap it out.
I'm only guessing here, but I suspect a reason that the NAD, Music Hall, and Cambridge 640P all attain such high performance at such a small price in such a small package is related to the improvements in quietness, speed, and linearity of the latest op-amps.
Having owned a Rotel 970, I really didn't think it was that diffucult to best it without spending much more money (like a Musical Fidelity x-lps - *way* better in every aspect). I would rather risk buying the Soundsmith $199 phono stage unheard than the Rotel. Peter knows his stuff. That's just me, though.