It seems like you have a very nice system and are making some good choices along the way. What analog setup do you have? Making some changes to my front end significantly improved my system.
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" So now my point. While there were real audible differences between the Creek and Primaluna, the Manley Chinook may be more of a game changer."
Assuming everything else is equal, the weaker the signal, the larger the effect outside forces have on it. A low output phono cart is more sensitive than a high output one. A phono preamp is more sensitive than a line stage. A line stage is more sensitive than a power amp. This is the main reason why many people don't see the value in preamps and phono stages. To them, a preamp is just a box with knobs, and can't figure out why they cost so much. To make a preamp perform at the same overall level of sound quality as an amp, more has to go in it. Same thing for a phono stage and a line stage.
Its not that the Clinhook is a game changer. It just has more of an effect on the signal than an amp or line stage. There are plenty of other phono preamps in the same league as the Manley, and would yeild the same type of results.
you now have a great foundation for AMAZING record listening sessions.
Step up your table and a LOMC.Not knowing what you have now, if you have a 1-2 K Project/Rega & MM type setup, time to consider a 4-5K rig. That figure can be HALF with used. Unless you REALLY trust the seller, I would go new on the cart.
Once in place, THEN drive yourself mad determining what cable needs upgrading.
Dont forget clean wall power feeding everything AND proper setup/room treatment.
I auditioned the Chinook head to head with my tubed unit. The Manly is very quiet and
dynamic. Not enough to justify a lateral swap in my case though.
It makes sense that the preamplifier is so important and how it is so overlooked. Damn this hobby! It sucks you in further and further.
I'm going to circle back and try the Primaluna with the Manley when I get the new one on shipment.
I wanted to note something that may deserve its own review--the NAD M51 DAC v. the Creek Ruby DAC. The NAD is a fantastic DAC, but I was surprised to hear how the Creek Ruby was on footing with it. And, there's one area the Creek Ruby bests the NAD M51--the Creek has more defined bass. The Creek Ruby set me back $600 so by price alone it's really not that far from the NAD in that the NAD is $2k and is its own self contained box, whereas the Creek is a drop in board for its integrated. I'm not suggesting cost is indicative of quality, but if it is a possible component of quality potential.
I think an upgrade to your cartridge would be the next step. Roksan makes a MC cartridge (Shiraz) or maybe an Ortofon MC cartridge if you like the Ortofon sound.
If you are buying local maybe your dealer will have a recommendation and let you demo a cartridge.
If you have the extra cash to spend a turntable/tonearm upgrade is also a consideration. A used SME 10 would be a significant upgrade.
If it fits in your budget, this is a very good deal. No relationship with seller, but I do own one.
With the Manely into the PL HP AND a LOMC, your search should be over. Of course, subjective. IMO, the Orto Black is a great cart, but it's a great MM cart. It may just have some traits of a MC.
Many times I've suggested the Audio Technica ART 9 as the cart to get in the 1K range
Once again, speaker setup and room are almost no cost(except wifey factor)
Your turntable is fine.
Your cartridge is excellent. You won't find an MC in that price range that can compete with it.
You observed that you like the Manley Chinook better than the other choices before you, so it seems self-evident that you might keep the Chinook. (You did not say whether you actually bought the Chinook or borrowed it.)
When you receive the new Primaluna, compare it to the Creek, using the Chinook for phono (if it is indeed your favorite phono stage still). Pick between the Primaluna and the Creek on that basis.
Then take a deep breath.
I recommend cognac, and stay away from politics.