If you are in the tri-state area (NY)....I have an ARC PH3SE. Happy to have you take a listen with your EAR 834P!
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I have owned both units in the past and they have a different sound. I found the EAR darker but more flexable(can switch from MM to MC) than the Audio Research. The PH-3 was more open, better detailed in the mids and top end. If I remember correctly, the EAR has more gain than the PH-3 but if you are using a HO cartridge the PH-3 should work fine. As always, this was in my system, my room ect. and using stock tubes so your experience may be different.
These are two different classes of phono stages and offer the performance on the different levels accordingly. Used price of PH3 is higher than new price for 834P. The medium output for PH3 will be the best match. PH3 is quiet since it's basically minimalistic tube-MOSFET design that provides detailed and open sound that can be compared with even more expencive units. 834P is on the same level with Black Cube and Phonomena providing much more 3d and music than BC and/or Phonomena. 834P'performance is even more depend on tubes than PH3 since PH3 has MOSFET output stage. In 1...10mV input signal levels 6922 tubes are absolutely noiseless. EAR834P has two gain settings MM and MC. MC setting is the same or even less than PH3. EAR produces an excellent step-up transformer that costs approximately the same as phono-stage that boosts-up the gain to 30dB and matches the impedance for the cartridge.
Some comments on the EAR Phono: First, the premium chrome unit is supposed to not only look better, but sound better than the standard black model, due to a heavier chassis. Second, I really like EAR products, but they do obtain their affordable price point by cutting a few corners. The circuit boards that I have seen on a few different models are relatively thin, not what I would want to minimize vibrations and resonance. The EAR Phono has a minor design flaw as well. Without going into design details, the circuit board is not supported properly. The front corners of the board are actually floating free!!! (This may only be on the chrome unit, and not all production years). This is a simple fix, with two plops of BLUE TACK or those little self adhesive rubber feet sold in hardware stores. Put 'em under the front corners of the board, for a solid mate with the bottom of the case. Also, sound damping material mounted under the transformer as well as the bottom case and sides (do not apply to the top...ventilation) These two simple tricks will move the EAR Phono into another class of performance (better soundstage, more "air"). Don't forget that the EAR is a pure tube design, while the AR PH-3 is a hybrid (tubes/solid state), according to Marakanetz description. (I do not have experience with the A.R. unit.) This doesn't make either one "better or worse" just different design philosophies and sonic signatures.
Marakanetz, the EAR 834P has 3 tubes not 4. If memory serves me correctly, they are 12AX7's. Further, the AR website says that the tubes in the PH-3 (6922's) are used for gain (output) and not as input tubes. The input is handled via solid state. This would explain the very quiet operation at high gain that you describe. Also, the price of the EAR Chrome (premium unit) and the basic AR PH-3 have similar list prices ($1295- vs. $1495-). Upgrading the EAR tubes to NOS will make a huge improvement in audio quality, as will using an aftermarket power cord (Custom Power Cord Hi Value is a good choice). Since we are talking about NOS tubes, be VERY CAREFUL about your source! There are so many couterfeit, noisy, and improper (for circuit applications) tubes out there that many "good deals" end up making the equipment sound WORSE than the original crap stock tubes (and don't listen to anyone who says that manufacturers "voice their equipment" for common stock Russian, Chinese, or Yugo small signal tubes, and that NOS are a waste of money...yeah, right!!!) I'll say it again, Andy at Vintage Tube Services is the ONLY place to buy tubes! Not only does his testing and matching assure you of the best possible tubes (check out his test bench!), but there were so many varations on a particular tube, so many years of production, and so much rebranding, that a tube selling as a premium NOS might be crap and an overlooked common tube may be gold! Andy's knowledge about tubes will amaze you. The website is: www.vintagetubeservices.com.