Does my setup need a phono stage?


Tt: Marantz tt15s1, pre/pro: Marantz av8802a (phono built in) Amps: Mcintosh. Speakers: ML ESL-X. Subs: REL T7i. Power: 20a Furman elite. IC’s: Tempo Electric pure silver. A ridiculous amount of other tweaks. 

I love my new ( and my first) turntable. I love putting on a record, the tactile and ceremonial feel of it. I love reading the notes and looking at the art. Don’t get me wrong, streaming MQA on my SimAudio is great, but I feel like I’m finally listening to the music and not just playing with my roon; searching for the next recoding that’s gonna really show off those synergistic blue fuses and ps audio noise harvesters. Y’all know what I mean? It’s more relaxed. It feels good. 

I’m glad I got that out. So..... here is the question, Will a dedicated phono stage make an audible improvement over the one in my Marantz 8802a, which already sounds awesome, or should I just stick with what I have? I’d like to spend less than $1200, I’d love to spend less than $700. Low noise is important to me (I spent the good part of a year chasing noise out of my system). I want the output of my cartridge (Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood) to match the gain of the phono stage, so it’ll need to be close to 48.8dB. New or used, tube or SS. I’d like suggestions, Id love to research them. And let’s be honest, y’all know that in this hobby (affliction) even if 98% of you say “just use the built in phono in your Marantz” I’m probably still gonna chase the dragon. So bring it on, and thanks in advance. 

Andrew 


andrewkelley
Here's what I'd buy: Lehmann Black Cube Statement - $459 and free shipping from NJ. Seller is "riotsound" on EBay. They are an authorized Lehmann dealer. This is an outstanding phono stage with four gain settings (can handle MC's) and separate power supply! The Black Cube is certainly competitive with four-figure phono stages!
I like this guy's reviews. I'd be tempted to try the Schiit Mani at $129 from Amazon and return it if not impressed.
https://youtu.be/TaARB28ZHkw
Your Marantz is designed for home theater, and while including a phono stage is a nice feature, it's probably an afterthought and not very high quality.  I owned an AV8801 and currently have an AV7704 and must admit that I've never even bothered to try the phono section in either.  They might be better than I think, but I doubt it. 

You have a nice turntable and cartridge, nice enough that you should be able to extract more from it by adding a phono stage.  There are a lot of nice choices within your budget.  The Parks Audio Puffin is really nice for $400.  I've heard good things about the Black Cube also, but have not heard one.  Another favorite of mine in your price range is the Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena.  A quick search showed a used one currently for sale at a reasonable price.  Both the Puffin and Phonomena have a ton of gain settings and both will also work with MC carts if you decide to get one in the future.

At the end of the day, your Marantz may be a weak link in your audio enjoyment.  Consider an upgrade to a separate preamp at some point, something with home theater bypass that will allow you to use the preamp for 2 channel listening and the Marantz for home theater using the same speakers and amp.
Get a used PS Audio GCPH for about $500. Great phono preamp!
I tried a few 500 - 1000 dollar phono stages when my Aesthetix Io was away for longtime repair. Ended up with a used ASR mini basis mk 2 for ca 500. Nice and flexible, mostly "sins of omission" in terms of sound, compared to the others I tried. 
"need" a phono stage?

yes, an outboard unit will make noticeable improvement but, all relative to the entire setup.

I would consider a used piece. For your amount,plenty of choices. That amount is equal to half the retail of a quite good unit. I would negotiate with a seller for even less.

The suggestion of the Schiit Mani is solid. It likely would be the best $129 spent. I had one while waiting for my proper phono amp was being repaired.
I agree that an outboard phono stage can result in improvement. I also agree that you'd get the most bang for your buck shopping for a used or demo unit, given your budget.

Some models I would recommend researching are the Bryston BP-2 MM, Gold Note PH-1, Simaudio 310LP (there is also the 110LP v2), Pro-Ject Phono Box RS, and Rega Fono MM.
You will probably find it impossible to buy a stand alone phono stage that doesn't sound a lot better than what you have now. That said, you mentioned budget, and you already know the value of tweaks, so you ought to know where this is going. You're not talking about buying a phono stage. You're talking about buying a phono stage, power cord, interconnect, and fuse. At the very least. Cones. Shelf. Whatever you put the phono stage on, or put on the phono stage- or both.

Also with regard to phono stages, there is probably nothing else other than maybe speakers where there is such a huge range of not only performance but sound. What I mean is that unlike say a CDP or DAC, or two amps, all of which sound so much alike that a lot of people can't even hear any differences at all, with a phono stage they are all very different, a lot of them dramatically so. 

What this means is its really important to audition. I had to drag about a dozen of the darn things home before the Audio Research PH3SE that I could actually live with. It wasn't dark like the EAR, nor hyped and etched like the Linn. It was a lot of work but worth it because it wound up making me very happy for the next 20 years. After which time as testament to its value it was sold for $1k, from $2500 new, pretty darn good after 20 years.

The other interesting thing about phono stages, unlike other components where you can spend to infinity and always find better with phono stages you can spend to $3k and find the Herron and be done. So keep that in mind.

My first suggestion would be you spend a few hours poring over reviews. Six Moons, Stereophile, like that. Not here. "The $649 Symphonic Bombast is great!" means nothing. You need to read, and read carefully. Pay attention to what cartridge is used and what that reviewer says about that cartridge. All analog positively slays digital but some its not even funny how good it is and there is even some that can be flat out magic, and I'm not talking for a fortune either. The challenge is figuring out what and how to put it together.

Then the next suggestion is you be willing to stretch a little. With CD this isn't worth it at all, they're crap from the get-go and all come with built-in obsolescence. With analog, well my phono stage was 20 years, my turntable is now 15, etc. But then I followed my own advice and put in the hours finding the right stuff. 

So you stretch and then even with crap power cord and interconnect it will still be magic compared to what you have. Then later when you can you "upgrade" it with a much better interconnect. Power cord. By stretching with the stage you got something that really good wire will reveal even more its strengths, instead of the weaknesses you would hear with a lesser stage. Or worse, you would be tempted to follow the self-defeating advice everyone else gives and "system match" which really boils down to using wire as band-aids and make-up to correct faults in one area by adding faults in another.

Yeah. I know. But people actually do this.

Good work with the tweaks. The BQ Fuse is awesome. Keep it up.
Clearaudio Nano would definitely upgrade your sound for $450!
@big_greg

I have been looking for a phenomena 2+ as well, but they are pretty pricy. can you explain home theatre bypass ? Why is it different than pure direct? I have been wondering about my preamp. I love the home theater, but I mainly listen to 2 channels. The way I have it set up now is kind of unique. I have a six channel amp just for my home theater which is a Mcintosh Mc7106 and I have a two channel Mcintosh ma5200 integrated amp (for my two channel set up. When I press the pure direct button on my Marantz, it’s only sending 2 channels to my Ma5200 preamp in. Marantz states “This mode is for playback with higher sound quality than in Direct playback mode.

This mode turns off the main unit display and analog video circuit. Doing so suppresses noise sources that affect sound quality.”

When I’m eating a movie , I put it in Dolby atmos and it sends out the remaining six channels to my Mc7106 amp. I’ve been happy with the Marantz, but i definitely want to know if I’m missing out on something. It was my understanding that it’s basically the same as using a Mcintosh mx160 but thousands less and without the sexy McLogo.

Thoughts?

@big_greg

Andrew,

A good preamp or linestage is going to have a less negative impact on sound quality than a home theater receiver or processor. There are a lot of electronics packed into your Marantz and it can’t help but degrade some of the signal being fed to it, even in Direct mode.

The way a home theater bypass works is that instead of connecting your amp to your Marantz, you connect it to the preamp. For a preamp that has a home theater bypass feature, you run an interconnect from the bypass outputs on the preamp to the left and right inputs on your processor where you currently have the amp connecting to the processor.

You connect your turntable and any other sources you have (CD player, streamer, etc.) to the preamp. When you’re listening to music, the preamp controls the volume and selects the source. When you want to watch a movie, you engage home theater bypass on the preamp and the signal bypasses the preamp and volume is controlled by the Marantz.

In my case I use a Modwright LS-100. It sounds much better than the Marantz. It has a built in phono stage (which is an add on option), but I use an external phono stage that is even better, a Manley Chinook. You might consider saving up and looking for a preamp with a decent phono stage and home theater bypass and you could kill two birds with one stone.

Having said all that, it looks like the Mac has a phono stage, although after a quick look at the six moons review, it doesn't get high marks.  There's more than one way to skin a cat.  Perhaps a separate two channel amp or two monoblocks and a decent preamp with HTBP would take you further in your quest for better sound quality.  I'm not that familiar with the Mac and am not sure if there's a way you could leverage it better than you currently are.  Maybe someone who owns one could comment on your current setup.

Some integrateds also have HTBP (my Peachtree Nova 300 for example) so if you like the idea of an integrated you could move to one with HTBP and use it much the same as I described above - use the integrated's amp and preamp for 2 channel listening and also drive your main speakers with it for home theater.
@big_greg 
i wonder if I can use my mc5200  integrated in home theatre bypass and use two empty channels I have on my Mc7106 for the front speakers....  it does preamp out and power amp in rca jacks on the back. Maybe I can hook everything to the ma5200 and use the Marantz just for theatre.... I’m gonna call Mcintosh!  
I also run a dual purpose AV system but have found that there is no way an AV preamp sounds as good as a dedicated audio preamp. 

I have listened to my system both ways, using my video amp - Marantz AV7702 Mk 2 (the last unit they had that allows proper setup for a really good home theatre - your 8802a is a more expensive unit of the same generation) into a Roland 5 power amp.

I switch the speaker cables over to my audio pre/power to do serous listening to music and the sound is significantly better. You might consider trying out a different preamp with your existing power amp and see what you think.

I'd agree with the Black Cube as an affordable phono stage that is priced very reasonably.  If you do that, do report back on how it compared with the Marantz (maybe you can borrow a demo to try before you buy).
So I actually Rewired everything and I am now using my Mcintosh MA5200 integrated as my preamp! It has “pass through” aka home theatre bypass. I had no idea that was even a thing until this thread. Now when I listen to my Dac or my tuner or my turntable (yes it has a phono input!!!) it goes through the Mcintosh, but as soon as I touch a button on my appletv remote, the Marantz sends a signal to the Mcintosh and it enters pass through and becomes slave to the Marantz. Everything sounds way better. @w
It's always nice when you can improve sound quality without having to go buy something new :)
I always run an external Phono.I have a Clearaudio Emotion SE, CMB bearing,Carbon Satisfy Arm the last 5 years
Highly recommend a Rogue Audio Triton "2" Phono Pre.Over the years I have had them all. MS, Jasmine, Heed Quasar, lots more.
This is better than all of them. Has all the setting you will ever need (MC>70db gain adjustable, Sub filter etc)  very quiet and dynamic.I was shocked how nice it performs,AT33PTG II Cart.
@bacobits1 that setup is niiiiice! I’ll be dining more research on rogue for sure. The phenomena ii+ with external linear power supply is creeping up the list as well. 

@big_greg thanks for all the advice! I’ve read that 6moons review, and all I can say is the Mcintosh phono stage is better than the Marantz’, which although I was able to achieve better sound, only temps me to dig deeper with a killer pre. But you should have heard how good Duran Duran’s “The Chauffeur” just sounded. The music was all around coming from everywhere, it was rad. 


@andrewkelley 

You will usually be better off with a good quality standalone phonostage pre for your turntable. There are countless options out there. Cary and Rogue make pretty good phonostage pre for the money.