Relax chief, we have twenty thousand years to figure that one out!
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Coincidentally, I started a forum about my EAR834P phono stage just a few days ago, but was taken down after a bed wetting tattletale dropped a dime on me. The post was about using an orange fuse by Synergistic Research and the insane difference it made in this phono stage. Originally designed by Tim de Paravacini, it's definitely a classic endorsed by Fremer and others. Surprisingly affordable, capable of MM & MC cartridges, and interestingly, you can roll other tubes besides the designer's call for (3) 12AX7's. A separate power supply was added later, which was a popular thing to do with them. I'm listening to it right now. VERY pleasing.
My first "real" (stand alone) phono stage was the ARC PH3SE bought in I think 1992 or 3. Back then I was big on home audition. Refused to buy anything not first heard at home. Did not want to spend big money so started with stuff like the Lehman Black Cube. Which was pretty good for what it cost, but nowhere near the level I was looking for.
There were at least a dozen auditioned at home but the only ones that stand out in my mind were the Black Cube, 834P and a Linn. The 834P was quite good if a little dark. Remember this was 92. I have no idea what subsequent iterations are like. Almost kept it, but decided to keep on looking. The Linn, I forget the model but it was solid state, and sounded solid state.
The standout of the time, at least for me and for under $3k, was, is, and always will be the ARC PH3SE. I tried pretty much everything else! The ARC was good enough to keep me happy all through the 90's and right up until it was replaced with a Herron VTPH2A just about 2 years ago.
Phono stages don't change a lot. 07 to 13 is a pretty small slice of time. Probably those same two, PH3 and 834 or their subsequent versions, would still be the standouts, at least in the same under $3k level.
OP- If you're in the market for a new phono stage, I would look for an oldie that has a pedigree, negotiate the best price and bring it straight to a modifier that has a great reputation. Then, you can get great satisfaction by beating the system. The final mod on my EAR834P was by a true genius- and I don't use that word lightly. His work makes the item surpass the specs and aural quality of the original factory product. He even modifies cartridges with a pair of surgeon's magnifying binoculars.
My friend reps a company whose phono stages are in the 16-19K range and are absolutely worth it. One day maybe, but until then...
Overall the time span probably isn’t that tight. Perhaps the better way to phrase the question would have been “older phono stages”. My analog gear is from that era, and it might be cool to find a top notch piece from that time... see how it matches up. Unfortunately, many of the ARC pieces don’t have enough gain for a low MC. So my choices are find a cool piece MM/MC or MM with a SUT. That just adds another cable set etc. in an already challenging ground situation, another set of cables is something I would prefer to avoid. Currently I’m running a Moon 5.3 SS. Not at all unhappy with it. But then, I really haven’t heard many phono stages at this point. Never heard a tube stage though, and I’m thinking about giving one a shot. Thus the question...
A classic that's both highly regarded and affordable is the EAR834p phono stage. I've owned the Deluxe MM/MC version for maybe 12 years.
I replaced it this year with a PS Audio Stellar Phone which is very new and very well reviewed. It's even Stereophile's 2020 Product of the Year.
I like the new one fine, but I've kept the EAR and wonder if I'm getting all that much better sound with the new Stellar.
Before buying the Stellar I posted on the PS Audio forum and Paul (Mr. PS Audio) McGown responded that the EAR was so good that it was his hope his product would be better but even he wasn't sure it would be.
If you do give it a shot (it is definitely worth doing so) and if by chance you plan on using only MM carts, you can consider the less expensive MM only/no MC version. To me, the EAR 834P has an inherently superior sound without the MC transformers in the signal path.
Something else you might consider is one of the older full featured preamps with outstanding phono stages and use only its phono stage. I still have my old Melos 222C preamp that I haven’t used in many years and decided to keep after realizing that to sell it I would have to practically give it away considering its original $3200 price. It has an outstanding and very flexible phono stage that I would put in the same league, or higher, as the EAR.
Some other older “classic” preamps to consider for their phono stages only would be the Quicksilver, Audio Research SP-14, perhaps even a CJ PV5 (I’m showing my age ☺️). All could probably be had for considerably less money than the EAR.