I have the Herron and yes it will be a huge step up. The Herron gets you pretty close to the very best yet at a price that while not cheap is at least within reach of us normal working folk.
When you get into this range however its only fair to make sure you know about the Soundsmith strain gauge. While a lot more expensive than any of the phono stages you mention its worth considering because it is in effect one of the world’s finest cartridges and phono stages in one. With the additional advantage of offering essentially lifetime use with a stylus that is easily replaced and at minimal cost, as these things go.
So a lot depends on your future plans. If you plan on buying an expensive top tier cartridge to go with the Herron you would probably be ahead of the game to skip straight to the strain gauge. If a new cart will be a while, or less expensive, then the Herron makes total sense.
I never looked too closely at the others you mention but one thing I did find while researching mine, the Herron comes up "looking for" a lot more often than "for sale" and when they do come up for sale they get snatched up fast and for not much less than full retail. Also for what its worth one of the most common comments made about the Herron is its a keeper, a lifetime buy, you can upgrade everything else but not this, and so on. For me, the only thing I could see myself going to from the Herron is the Soundsmith strain gauge.
In that same price range you should also consider the Allnic H-1202 and Modwright PH9.0. Depending on which of these you compare to the Herron (for instance), you may find some use and design features more suited to you - like use of Lundahl SUTs instead of a FET-based MC gain stage, or front-panel, on-the-fly gain and loading controls, a mono switch, or transformer-coupled balanced outputs. In terms of sound, well you just need to listen to see what suits your ears. The competition is fierce at this price point and there are a lot of really nice stages to choose from $3K-$4K.
Of the ones you’ve listed, I use the Herron in one of my systems. I can say this - it sounds far better using the MM inputs connected to a decent SUT if using a LOMC cart than using the internal FET-based MC gain stage. And I wish it had a mono switch and front panel controls. But yes it sounds very good, especially paired with a SUT - although I’d describe the sound as very neutral and clear not unlike a SS phono stage...plus it adds the slightest bit of midrange emphasis to my ears - so not ruler flat. So if you’re looking for a phono stage that delivers classic tubey sonics I wouldn’t say you’ll necessarily get that from the Herron.
Expect to hear more noise from the tubes until you will find some exceptional tubes (NOS). And prepare for tube rolling.
With the caveat that tube rolling is typically an exercise in futility with the Herron. Keith has this unit voiced perfectly to the stock tubes. I have always gone back to the original tubes after trying others. The Manley likely responds to better to rolling.
If you can find a pre-owned Pass Labs XP-15, that's an excellent phono stage. I like it better than my Chinook in some ways. Super quiet with LOMC and has a bit of a "tubey" sound, even though it's solid state.
I use both SS and tubed phono stages. Both types can be great however I don't get the best from my tubed unit until at least an hour of warm up/play. If you are someone who listens to an album or two at a time then I would choose a SS model that can stay on 24/7 and be ready to go whenever you want. Just something else to think about...:)
I have the Simaudio MOON LP 5.3 RS - which was the 310 predecessor and looks to be the same from the internal photos I have seen
I can confirm it is very silent, has amazing dynamics, clarity & detailing, with a huge detailed image. - I did not elect to buy the optional power supply, but instead, treated it to the very best power and interconnect cables, which I believe accounts for the stunning performance I now enjoy.
The only down side: you have to take the cover off to get at the dip switches to setup the gain/capacitance/resistance settings.
No matter which phono stage you select, you will need good cables to allow the unit to perform to its maximum ability, so budget accordingly.
Cables are a tough thing to rationalize, because "it’s just wire" and to get cables that allow components to perform their very best you can end up spending more on the cables than you spent on the component.
My preferred choice of Cable Companies that have products that perform really well, include... - Inakustic, Nordost, KLE Innovations
DIY cables is another option, if you are handy, but most people prefer established brands.
For what it’s worth, the Chinook preamplifier is a hybrid design. It uses both transistors and tubes. Perhaps for this reason it is much less affected by tube rolling than any pure all tube unit would be. I say this from my experience with the Manley steelhead. If anything, the steelhead is as neutral as any solid-state device I have heard. And I have heard some very good ones.
Jay, I think you will notice that the 310 is quieter. I'm not sure how much of an improvement in sound quality you will get otherwise. Noise is a very obvious and annoying problem. I personally lean toward tube units with phono amps and I really like the 6922 tube best but I think the Chinook is getting old in the tooth and is a bit noisier than the other units. The Herron is quieter but 12AX7s have more tube "bloom" than I personally like but a lot of people like this. The Moon 310 is very quiet and I love the balanced output. This allows you to keep your turntable set up further away from your other equipment and takes cable idiosyncrasies out of the equation. But, you do have to have a balanced input for it. I think I would lean towards the Moon here but I would want to hear one first.
Dear Mijo, Are there data to suggest that the Herron is quieter than the Chinook? Great as the Herron apparently is, what with its many admirers hereabouts, I would have thought the Chinook would be quieter, just because of its use of transistors for gain in a cascode with the 6922 on top. Also, I don't think it's quite fair to say the Chinook is "old", if the Herron is not also old. The genius in the Herron is apparently how it is put together; it's design is that of a classic MM stage, where such stages have used the 12AX7 as input gain stage for decades. I'm not judging one vs the other; I just wonder about the accuracy of your statement.