Equal $$ for Phono OR Streaming?

Consider the following situation. A friend who's watched me put together my system has decided to follow suit. He's inherited some very good speakers and amplification (no DAC) from a relative and has about wants to finish out the main elements of the system with the best possible source. He has about $4-6k to spend and wishes to spend it on either a phono stage/TT combo OR a DAC/streamer combo. (For content, he is willing to spend either on vinyl or streaming services to fulfill whichever path he chooses above.)

Focusing simply on the potential for sonic quality (rather than, say, the variety of music one can stream), where do you think his money would best be spent and why? Could he reach the same outcomes after spending on a TT, cartridge, phono stage, record cleaner, isolation table and all the other accoutrements necessary for a good phono set up as he could if he bought a good DAC, streamer, etc.?

If your tastes weigh so heavily toward analog or digital that you can simply decide this without considering the details of the comparison, please try to set those aside and answer based on what he might be able to get for $4-6k.

He should buy a $600 Bluesound Node 2i, subscribe to streaming service and live with that combo while he contemplates his next move.  
@testpilot Good answer to the question, "What should he do while waiting for answers on the forum."
“Focusing simply on the potential for sonic quality....Could he reach the same outcomes after spending on a TT, cartridge, phono stage, record cleaner, isolation table and all the other accoutrements necessary for a good phono set up as he could if he bought a good DAC, streamer, etc.?”

Great question @hilde45. The answer is YES! On a good setup, the streaming is equally satisfying if not better as Vinyl is on a good TT / phonostage.

Couple of things to keep in mind before investing into Analog. The cost of ownership far exceeds of any music formats (CD, Vinyl, Streaming). Analog requires ongoing commitment, one needs to be ready to spend money on maintenance and software (LP’s).

Aside from initial investment on Analog hardware, I have spent over $3500 in 115 LP’s in last 5 months. The cost of streaming in comparison - $62.45. A $12.49 monthly fee of streaming opens door to unlimited music, whereas one need to spend thousands to build a decent physical music library. 
Then there is simplicity factor, a one box streamer / DAC / Pre straight to amp. And you’re done! 

As to which format I prefer....I say no preference. Each format has its strength and weaknesses. I equally enjoy streaming, spinning a CD or Vinyl.
Does he want to spend his life perfecting playback and repetitive tasks?  
Or does he want to listen to music?  
As lalitik notes: There are huge differences in cost of media. Does he want to become a collector or an enjoyer?

Listening to discussion now (Thanks). Your friend is in great shape having acquired good speakers and amp. I know we are in preliminary stage of the discussion but if I were in his shoes and lean towards streaming, following players offers a simple setup and good sound to boot.

Aurender A100 - $3900
Lumin T2 - $4500
Auralic Vega G1 - $4289

Or he can take your route of Node 2i + Orchid DAC :-) And remaining dollars should go towards on room acoustics, tweaks and cables.

Regarding discussion, the best part was at 53 minute mark...measurements :-)

+1, @fuzztone
Questions for you , does your friend have a specific music genre and particular artists he/she primarily enjoys, and are they available on vinyl and broadly so?
Its a personal choice. Either way done right will sound great and need not cost a fortune.

If you are a music lover and do not already have a record collection, its a no brainer...go streaming.

IF you have a lot of records you want to play or just the idea of buying and playing records is the appeal.....do it.

You could even go totally nuts and do some of both...

My friend inclines towards pop, rock, classical, and jazz.

I’m hoping to keep some factors outside the core question -- excluding cost, availability of content, fussiness or convenience, etc. He has funds for those things and has time. He considers this a hobby and does not demand it necessarily be as easy as possible. So, this is a question about what-it-would-take to reach a roughly equivalent sonic outcome using the competing hardware. Sorry I didn't make that clear.
“this is a question about what-it-would-take to reach a roughly equivalent sonic outcome using the competing hardware.”


It would be helpful to know what speaker / amp your friend currently owns. As you know, system synergy plays an important role in component selection. 
In the OP your friend had $4k to $6k to spend. Now it changes to "excluding cost" which is fine. Either way, even at the original $4 to 6k if what he wants is sound quality this is easy. 

Buy the Decware ZP3, fabulous phono stage for $1300. Buy something like a Benz Glider with .7mV output so you don't need the SUT. This brings him to about $2k.

At this point he has a cart and phono stage that will make just about any turntable sound great. All he needs is a table with arm and built-in phono lead. To avoid having to spend money on a phono interconnect. He can spend the rest of his budget, $2k, $4k or whatever, on a great turntable. All kinds of options there. 

And there you go. Done. Not hard at all.   

Only problem, it will not be "roughly equivalent." It will be "vastly superior." I hope your friend will be okay with that?
@millercarbon No change of meaning. I said he "wants to finish out the main elements of the system" and has "$4-6k to spend...on either a phono stage/TT combo OR a DAC/streamer combo." The qualifier "excluding" was meant to convey that the core of the decision for him excludes the other elements -- records, streaming services, etc. I'm glad you grasped that because your suggestion is specific and useful. And "vastly superior" sounds, um, vastly superior.
Oh well then my suggestion will totally do it.  

When it comes to "equivalent" the problem there is the meaning of "equivalent". A road well-traveled. If equivalent means sounds the same, then you would try and find a cartridge/phono stage combination with edge, grain, glare, hyped top end sterile midrange and anemic bass that sounds the same as streaming. This believe it or not can be done! Start with a Rega, add AudioTechnica, throw in a solid state phono stage. 

You see where this is going? It is not so much "equivalent" as "what you like". The stuff I recommended, it will draw you in, enthrall, mesmerize. But it will in no way, shape or form be "equivalent" to digital. Not if equivalent means sounds the same. 

Sorry to have to explain but the quality of analog is so off the charts compared to streaming that to even ask about "equivalent" calls for a whole lot of clarification. Its like asking, what would be the equivalent car to a motorcycle? What do you mean? 0-60? Top speed? Bugs on the face vs the windshield? See what I mean?
“If equivalent means sounds the same, then you would try and find a cartridge/phono stage combination with edge, grain, glare, hyped top end sterile midrange and anemic bass that sounds the same as streaming. ”

I needed a good laugh, thanks for your post 😂

35:30, "You're going to have to spend more $$$ to get great analog". But @ 34:25 he says that in the tests done most all liked analog better. This has been my experience also. The analog chain consists of the turntable, arm, cartridge & phono preamp. Each one is important. IMO, the phono preamp is as important as the TT & arm. I've heard others say that a good arm will make a less expensive cartridge sound better. I can understand that. But that is still 3 major influences you have to purchase along with the IC's to connect them. It will eat up $6k pretty quickly IMO.

Then there is the vinyl ritual. It used to be said that if you don't like this ritual,  you should not get into vinyl. Cleaning machine & fluids, plus sleeves have not been addressed. Again, I prefer the vinyl sound but it is not as convenient nor as inexpensive. As he said in the podcast, buy both if you can. That's what I did and I would not change that.
I need to double check models, but he has, I think, MA352 Integrated and Spendor D7s.
As others said, $6k on analogue is not much, especially considering cost of records, cleaning machine etc., though one can get an excellent sound within this price range. How many records would he buy and where ? Cost of them will vary from $1 to...sky is the limit. Let's say, $25 on average unless you want best pressings.
Analogue world is quite expensive and you have to be part of it if you go into this. It is not push the button double click and listen thing.
I would suggest starting with digital. I can't believe I said it because I hate digital and use only when there is no other way.
Streaming is going to catch up to analog in the near future.- Just like photography 20 years ago when digital started. Now we have 100mp cameras that out-resolve even large format film.
Add to that, having a complete music library at your fingertips, and not having to change sides every 30 minutes or so. And, no pops and ticks.

I do not denigrate vinyl lovers, I do think vinyl has a number of desirable characteristics, but I think technology will ultimately render this form of playback less relevant.
He could have both. Get a digital front end and run it through a vinyl effects plugin when he's feeling nostalgic. 
“I hate digital and use only when there is no other way.”


I respect your choice but don’t you think ‘hate’ is a strong word or did you just get carried away? 
Right, I heard him make that comment about the superiority (to him) of analog, and I know there are people on both sides of this question.

To avoid the which is better debate, I am trying to delimit it to his price range for the central gear. As I said, he's open to buying records, the rituals, etc. He wants to know what core gear is capable of within the $4-6k limits.
If you got the amp model right it already contains a MM phono section (is it any good?).

He could easily do both with a budget of $4-$6K if streaming is not high ticket for decent/good quality (know ZIP about streaming).

My vintage TT/arm isn't crap and cost around $200/used 20 years ago (might sell for 5+ times that now).

Gobs of new/highly reviewed TT's available (Technics, Rega et cetera) well within the stated budget.

Hopefully he will not require an "isolation table" for the deck, LOL.

Streaming could be used for convenience and for finding new hard copy source material (AKA music).

To avoid the which is better debate, I am trying to delimit it to his price range for the central gear. As I said, he's open to buying records, the rituals, etc. He wants to know what core gear is capable of within the $4-6k limits.

Well then give him the info: Decware ZP3, Benz Glider (medium output), any $3k turntable. Any. Grand total under $6k. Done.
The guy has a pretty nice amp and speakers. If he gets digital he will think it sounds pretty good. With Decware and Glider he will think why did I wait so long this is incredible where can I find more records???!

That’s what it is capable of. $6k worth of analog like is a game changer. Oh, and one other thing you might want to mention to your friend. Five years from now, when he gets the urge to upgrade, depending on what analog gear he got it will be worth about what he paid for it. But if he buys digital, sorry, does not matter what he bought, darn near worthless at that point.

A sad reality we all know, but he more than likely does not. Every five or ten years digital becomes worthless, probably because that is how long it takes people to get over the cognitive dissonance of having spent six large on crap. Hold onto a turntable long enough, darn thing may actually go up. Some people hate to even acknowledge this, but it is true. You want to be a real friend, you will warn him off crap and into quality.

It is a strong word, I have no regrets of having used it. But this thread is not about this debate.
If the man wants to embark on the analogue journey he will have my full support. But it must be done right or there will be more disappointment than satisfaction. Digital has been improving so perhaps it will do in this case, I can’t know. I play analogue whenever I can, the rest has to be digital. So yes, having both is best.
I'd add, if it hasn't been added already, that listening habits have a big impact on what will be a satisfying listening experience for a given individual.

You cannot approach analog sound with streaming if you play music at a volume and with a level of attention that I would characterize as "true audiophile." But if you want to play music at lower volumes while you're involved in other, perhaps more engaging (for your friend) activities, then I'd say spend a few hundred on a decent DAC and use the rest on something more important.

IOW - analog is really for people who are pretty serious about the hobby. If you're friend is serious that's absolutely the way to go. If he decides ultimately he's not all that serious then he's probably more mentally healthy than the rest of us and might find that the money is better spent on something that brings him more joy.
I’ve been an audiophile since about 1972, with a Dual 1215S/Shure M91E/Sansui 2000x/Advents and went up the chain to Audio Research, C-J, Dahlquists, etc. Vinyl all the way, until the last 15 months or so. Aurender N100H+ Schiit Yggdrasil GS for about $4300 new blows away my vinyl, sorry. And, I am easily able to discover new music and remasters of the music I know. I am working my way through the marvelous Betty Boards recordings of the Grateful Dead on high res Tidal, no way I could do that with vinyl. Starting with the Bluesound Node is not a bad idea, especially as the controlling software is so bulletproof 
Lol, you can be both a collector (of lp’s) and enjoy! Analog is well worth the effort and expense.
However, digital also must be done right, it is just much easier. Streamer should be first rate, you won't find serious dac for a few hundred dollars, cables are also important, as are power cords. 

I’m a vinyl guy, and I happen to think the very highest levels of check-the-box / by-the-book sound quality, plus enchantment, plus wow factor, are monopolized by vinyl.  But I enjoy digital 20% of the time and I’ve spent time and money going through several DACs.  With that backdrop, if I were your friend, I would buy a PS Audio Directstream, or a HoloAudio May, and assign himself the vinyl path as the step after that.  I just think it’s very hard to beat those DACs with vinyl for under $10-15k.  Cart + tonearm + table + phonostage + LPs is expensive all at once, and better approached iteratively.  And, that’s part of the charm of the analog hobby.  In contrast, you can jump straight to excellent sound with a DAC.  Once his vinyl side betters his digital (and that may take some trial and error, and it may be a few cartridges down the road), he’ll know he’s successfully gotten to the next ladder rung.  I’m jealous of him, in the same way I’m jealous that my wife hasn’t started The Wire yet.   

in my experience i have come to believe excellent streaming can be achieved at about 50-60% of the cost of a phono front end of equivalent quality (including the critical phono stages, cost are as paid, generally bought second hand)

i will use my own case in the front ends of my 2 systems (which i built for performance but with attention to value as well) to illustrate...

streaming 1: bluesound node 2i to sonnet morpheus dac or audio mirror tubador ($3500 cost including cables)
phono 1: well tempered labs amadeus/ps/dynavector tkr to ayre p5xe on townshend platform (~$6500 cost)

streaming 2: bluesound node 2i or w4s-modded sonos port to mhdt orchid w nos tube/adapter (~$2100 including cables)
phono 2: oracle delphi 2 tt/ps/origin live silver/benz glider to lehmann decade on townshend platform (~$4300)

key points:

1) phono front end does not include add’l paraphenalia like tt cover, stylus force gauge, feikert/mint alignment tools, strobe, anti static/zerostat, onbow, okki nokki cleaner etc etc... at least $1500 more there...

2) then, the record collection, if you don’t already have one will cost thousands to build!!! .... versus $200-300 a year for a lossless streaming service (or 2), a mere pittance...

3) while playing records is fun and a lovely ritual, i honestly enjoy streaming at least as much as playing records... and i enjoy the sound quality equally

4) note for $6 grand in second examples... you can have BOTH streaming and phono front ends...

hope this helps

I recently made the decision to say goodbye to my vinyl. I have over 1000 lp’s and will keep about 75. If your friend has made the decision to go analog I have an interesting collection that will soon be sold.
$6K on analog is a HUGE, HUGE amount for me!!

 I spent $70 on a vintage table which I refurbished. I spent $270 on a package of 26 vintage cartridges. After research, I spent $200 on styli for the best cartridges of the lot. 

I have a very nice 1980 integrated with MM and MC phono pre’s.

Thats about $600 on a very competent phono setup. No one “needs” a RCM! Records can be expertly cleaned in any kitchen sink for 5 minutes and a penny each. Great records can be had at thrift stores and online. 

I would consider $1K extravagant for a very, very good phono system. 
If he isn't sure if he should go vinyl or streaming he should probably go with the streamer. I am a vinyl guy but also have a streaming rig. I prefer vinyl and have put more funds into my vinyl rig. That siad, I would agree it is more expensive comparatively. Also, your vinyl collection effectively becomes a walled garden. I can't imagine not having both options at this point. $4k to $6k would buy a very nice streamer and DAC or an all in one unit. If he is having trouble deciding then I say get rolling with a streaming rig and do some long term research to piece together a solid vinyl rig over time if he still has the interest after the streamer. 
Really good topic. Both my vinyl and digital set ups are right at the upper end of that $ ballpark. I know you’ve asked us to separate initial component costs from enduring software / accessory costs but when you include a cost ceiling it’s sort of disingenuous (maybe that’s too strong a word) to tell us to make that separation when the ramifications (e.g. future costs) are so so significantly different. Honestly, I love listening to both my rigs - to have $4-6 K to spend on either option is a luxury I’m glad he has.

If you have a lot of vinyl already, spending on a good phono preamp is wise.

Otherwise, the future is digital, spend it on a good streamer.

R-pi plus Allo hat for £150. Khadas DAC for £90. Roon plus Qobuz for £25 a month. Less without Roon if you can bear it. 
My Bricasti M5 streamer with ENO filter on the Ethernet input, way outperforms my MoFi UltraDeck, which now never gets used.
As others have noted, that is a decent budget.  He should be able to get both decent analog and digital.  If after a few years he develops a clear preference for one over the other, he can upgrade, but even if he doesn’t he should have decent enough equipment for a lifetime of enjoyment 
Thanks for the input, all. I will pass it along.

Amazing diversity of opinion. I will share this whole thread with him so he can learn. Thank you!

Analog fans such as @millercarbon say analog "is off the charts" better and @robertbrook says that digital is for people listening at lower volumes or not really paying attention; if you the music gets the attention and volume level characteristic of (his phrase) a "true audiophile," analog is a necessity. Several here list ways to do analog well within the price parameters.

Others, including long time vinyl fans, see digital as better, just as good, or nearly as good, especially with the price constraints. E.g., @jrw1971 estimates at least $10-15k for analogy to beat great Dacs. (I also haven’t started the Wire. But I know, I know: probably the best show, really, ever!) Several see digital catching up in the next few years.

A bunch of great ideas in the "both category." @jjss49’s amazing setups pose a serious challenge, as they contain excellent gear within the limits described (closer to $6k). He doesn’t weigh in on which is sonically better, but he calls digital "excellent" so that seems to imply that it’s at least close enough.

As @feldmen4 (Matt) points out, the limits of the question are hard to abide, as many point out the additional costs to analog are magnitudes greater (for content acquisition, primarily) and I like guy-incognito’s description that a vinyl collection can become a "walled garden." In some ways, I attribute my own ability to listen to music in a focused and deep way to the limits placed on me by by record collection growing up -- hard to get new albums, as a kid (expense, someone had to drive me to a store, I didn’t even know what was available until I got to the store). As a result, I listened over and over to what I had and learned to listen in a way different than many do now, with the ability to skip from tune or artist to artist. That said, if I was growing up today, I don’t think I’d be able to stand being walled in that way. Once you’ve travelled...

P.S. A third option is CD’s, which as the Audiophilac points out, can sound quite amazing with a good DAC and transport and CD’s are often very very inexpensive. I suppose CD’s don’t compete, sonically, for most here advocating streaming, but my guess is that a great transport/DAC combo is very easily available for well under $6k.

As someone who streams, plays CDs and LPs (I also have a cassette deck but don't use it much), I have periods where I listen to each exclusively for a while and then switch to the other when the mood strikes.  Agree with the idea that your friend can do both, and both formats have their converts, but I would also agree that if he's not into analog right now there's no sense in spending all of that on vinyl gear, because it's definitely more labor intensive and tweak-centric than a DAC and streamer are, and you can easily blow through $6k on a turntable/preamp/cartridge/cables with little effort and feel like you didn't get the very best you could.  No one here can say which format your friend will prefer, but having $4-$6k to spend between the two is an awesome amount.  I find streaming very convenient as I can bring up my old favorites and endlessly sample new music (as well as listening to internet radio from stations all over the globe), but there's something very familiar about spinning a record when I'm in the mood, and it has nothing to do with sound quality.
Sounds like your buddy is just starting out as he has no vinyl or CDs.

Streaming done right can sound excellent.  So, my vote goes to a
Bryston BDA-3.14  Streamer DAC.  List is about $4k.
The Bryston will play PCM up to 384K as well as DSD4.  
Stereophile Class A DAC (same DAC as BDA-3).

Add some cables and power cords and you're rollin'.

As others have said its a personal choice he has to make.

@ hilde45I've been watching this thread with some amusement. Being in software for almost 40 years (Cripes I'm old!) I can tell you that unless one has complete requirements, including details on what the current environment is, ANY solution will be less than optimal. Audio is no different IMHO... People, as usual, are making all sorts of specific favored equipment referrals not knowing what amp and speakers your friend has! (I looked, did I miss that somewhere?) So I will necessarily speak in general terms.
Unless your friend has inherited some over the top equipment, I would think that for $4-6Kilobucks they could actually get BOTH a nice analog and digital front end. Some folks HAVE been asking the right questions: Would he go in for the gestalt that is vinyl? Would he want to collect LPs and fiddle about with a turntable? Or do you think he'd prefer the convenience and flexibility of a digital source? Or does he only want to do one type?
One thing is certain that the $4-6K budget would seem to be quite fortunate for your friend. The trick would be to maximize it to make the right choices.
Happy listening.

I don’t stream, I play CDs via a Mojo Audio EVO DAC and SimAudio 260D CD Transport in my main system, and a Modwright Elyse DAC and Cambridge Audio CXC Transport in my second system ; also use an IPOD Classic with WAV files via a Wadia 171i Transport in both . The narrative that you can’t sit back and be engaged in the music if it is digital sourced is just an opinion that some have, nothing more. Do I like vinyl , yes I have a phono preamp and ClearAudio rig which sit idle; the problem for me is the lack of available vinyl for the music genre and artists that I listen to mostly. That said, I’m not missing the enjoyment of the music , my digital gear doesn’t come up short.Your friend’s musical enjoyment will not be compromised if he chooses a digital format and good equipment; it isn’t simply there for background music
Lots more good replies. Thank you. Many here want to help him with the decision, overall, but because he's indicated a willingness to go in either direction (knowing full well what that implies) the core question -- about the sonic quality achievable with *either* $4-6k for streaming/dac vs. phono -- really is *the* question. And yes, other "requirements" are helpful to know, but it does not seem like the core question is unanswerable without the bigger picture, and many here seem to agree.
Sonic quality is a totally subjective thing. That budget buys you a lot of it whichever way you slice it. Many good choices.
Practically, If he does not know what to do but likes your sound then he should shoot to emulate that.

@hilde45 - Great summary of the conversation. Very interesting take on how those of us of a certain age learned to listen differently because of the circumstances. Never heard it described in those terms but couldn’t agree more based on my experiences and what I see with my boys. 
I will put in a quick plug for my Mytek Manhattan II DAC w/ network card. List is a little over $6k - I got mine last April for ~$5.5K but not sure if such a deal is still available. Orders of magnitude better than the Node 2 I was using. 
@feldmen4  Glad you liked the description. Not only do I see this in my kids, I see it competing within me. Warring impulses -- slow vs. quick. I have a Node 2i. Because I'm on the verge on spending on room treatment stuff, I'm a bit shy about upgrading but I've taken note of your experience!

@mapman  Sonic quality is somewhat subjective but not totally, right? I mean, if you did a poll asking people if they liked articulate bass vs. boomy/fuzzy bass, or blurry, narrow sound stage vs. clear and wide sound stage, etc. we'd see huge majorities voting for the same thing. We share biological and cultural habits (growing up together, interacting, social) so subjectivity is always there but it's typically much less dramatic than supposed.

as you know, when it is about ’sound quality’ of various choices in high end hifi, it is a subjective question for each person and their sensibilities -- for anyone who really cares about it there is simply no substitute for personal experience and extensive audition, in your own surroundings

that been said, unless this friend of yours has prior experience with higher end analog (doesn’t sound like it), he also needs to understand there is a substantial learning curve to the endeavor of getting a tt/arm/cart/phono stage setup working really well... much much more involved than streamer/ethernet/cable/dac plug n play pretty much - for many of us on this board, at this stage of our lives we arguably have more money than time and energy, and i always tell someone who is about to embark on ’doing a record player right’ that they need to be really ’into it’, need to have patience, perseverance, a ’tinkerer’s mentality’, a level of fine motor skills, and a decent size wallet -- to get to a point where one can really extract and appreciate what the format can offer

to some this is a good thing, to many others, it is a deterrent

It’s subjective enough that chances are no two people will agree on what is best at any cost.   That is why dealers sell different product options.  
I can offer an opinion as easily as the next guy on what is best but  it’s only an opinion.    Plenty of those out there to choose from.  
But the sound of you system that is the model for what is desired is not subjective. Your friend knows he likes that.  So best to just follow that model.