getting back into vinyl

I've long been a lurker on these forums but would like to hear the wisdom of this group. My old table broke years ago and was never worth repair. But I do have a good collection of vinyl I still own. I thought I might want to get back into analog playback so I brought a few recordings which I have in both CD and vinyl and listened at a dealer who seems to know their stuff. They were demoing an SME 20 through all ARC tube gear. The CDs were also played through an ARC unit. No question, the analog setup beat the digital in every regard. I was quite surprised by this - but even in dynamics and bass weight, the vinyl was superior. It was just more enjoyable listening.
The dealer tells me every table really does sound different and that the SME 30 is a big and noticeable upgrade over the 20. He didn't have that for me to listen to. In thinking about this, I can't see how there could possibly be that much difference at the high end? Between SME 20 and a budget table? Perhaps. Surely, the primary differences must really be in the cartridge and phono preamp. Perhaps some is the wiring of the arm.
Regardless, here's my quandary. No matter how much I might like it, I'm not going to spend $15k on a table, and another $6k on a phono preamp. But, I'm willing to spend some money if it gets me close to what I heard today.
Does it make sense to put a better MC cartridge and good phono section together w/ a basic table (ie VPI Scoutmaster) or is that foolish? I've already heard the Marantz w/ Clearaudio Virtuoso, but it didn't sound nearly as good as what I heard today. Was that the cartridge and electronics?...
So, seeking the wisdom of the group. Is it the table, arm, cartridge or phono section that is most noticeable to you? I'll use your suggestions to narrow my focus. Thanks much in advance!
You obviously can afford $20,000+ for a vinyl front end, otherwise I think you wouldn't be talking about it. Maybe if you talked a little about the rest of your system (speakers, amp, pre-amp, cable) we might be able to help you judge whether you'll gain much by going way over the budget for a VPI Scoutmaster or Pro-ject RM10.

Apparently you past TT was not that great, so I suspect that the step up to a Scoutmaster or RM10 will a major step.

Doesn't your dealer have any midpriced players? Sounds to me like he sized you up and aim you at his most expensive gear. Surely he's got a couple of other price points. Have him bring a couple of tables below $5000 into the same room with the SMEs. If he won't do it, walk and find a better dealer. He should be encouraging you to listen for yourself, but guiding you in reaction to your comments and feelings.

You might consider going used, starting at the Scoutmaster level, with a good cartridge and good phono-pre and see how involved you get in vinyl. If you want more later, then you can resale and buy at a higher level with only a nominal cost.

the marantz(clearaudio)table should sound great. i would believe its the it an sme20? no...but its not a world apart either.
Is it the table, arm, cartridge or phono section that is most noticeable to you?

The answer to your question is yes. They all make a difference. Sorry, no easy solution so you need to spread your budget and chose each component wisely. I think this holds true no matter if your budget is $2K or $20K.

Thinking of the cartridge/phonostage match first is a good idea because that synergy will probably have the most impact on the sound potential. Your choice of a cartridge will help narrow down what tonearms would work best. Then you'll have a good idea of what tables you can use. This is just a general suggestion of a possible selection process, but I think it will give you an example of one way to proceed. Still, it can be an iterative process.

IMO, if you want to budget a little less in any one area to start it should be the cartridge.
To clarify on some points raised. My budget isn't $20k though I don't know what it really is. (I'm sure my wife does, but I haven't asked yet...!). Besides being above budget, SME/ARC playback would shoot well above the rest of my current system - though I'm slowly in the process of upgrading there too. I currently have Parasound Halo components and may upgrade the preamp. Amp may be okay. Speakers are Audiopro. No one here will likely be familiar with them - but I anticipate (hope) to get SF Cremonas someday. Cabling is fine but nothing special.
I live in WI where there are too few dealers of anything. I was traveling to Milw had 2 hours of time and walked into a dealer w/ records in hand and basically asked him to show me the superiority of analog. I guess I got what I asked for and can't blame the dealer for demoing the SME/ARC rig. That said, he only had one other table set up in the store (a Project something) but the other items to which it was hooked up were limiting.
So, I know I can't get to what I heard w/in my budget and given the constraints of my current system. My hope was that I could get mostly there w/ judicious selection of parts. The Marantz I've heard in 2 other stores but I didn't have my records and their demos left a lot to be desired. One store was running through an outboard phono preamp and there was a grounding problem. I listened to scratchy records with an undercurrent of buzz. This, BTW, is a dealer who sells some decent HT gear (Classe and B&W) but they clearly just have some analog because they're also a Marantz dealer. I'm sure it'd be much better if I brought it home for a demo - on my list of things to do. I also listened to the Marantz at another dealer in Madison - along side the new McIntosh table w/ running through Mac electronics and the huge Mac speakers (never my cup of tea). Get this - it was in a room with huge pillars in the middle and gear stacked in front of where I would be sitting to listen - if they had chairs in which to sit. Needless to say, it was a comically bad demo (again scratchy records). I could hear differences between the Mac table and Marantz table, but I attributed it all to the cartridge because the primary difference was the presence of surface noise. Everything else was masked.
So, this perhaps explains why I'm intrigued - I've heard one demo where I felt like spending money, and two where I walked away shaking my head that the stores sell any gear whatsoever.
This group is going to be able to help me much more than my experiences so I'm very much appreciating the feedback.
Unfortunately, your original demo has set you up for disappointment at your budget, undefined as it is. There is no question that the table and arm make a huge difference. You will typically hear some variation on this priority: table, arm, phono stage, cartridge. If budgeting over time is helpful, I always recommend stretching for the best table/arm you can get and skimping on the preamp and cartridge with the assumption of upgrading, in that order, as budget allows, making sure that the preamp you upgrade to will accommodate the cart you have your eye on. Agreed that going used will obviously save on resale loss.

BTW, I think you get a lot of argument that the Marantz is not "a world apart" from the SME 20.
You have to establish a budget before anybody here or anywhere else can realistically help you.
Having said that,you can find some really good deals here on Agon, if you don't mind buying used. However,for you to get close to what you heard at the dealer you're going to have to spend at least $5k(that's for TT,phono-pre, cart)
and that's buying used!
Take a look at my system, I have all ARC gear and am getting very good vinyl playback!
I would not 'jump off a cliff' thinking you 'might be interested in getting back into vinyl'....
Fist off, millions of folks happy with vinyl tossed it all for CDs. most never looked back. The romantic resurgence of vinyl playback still has plenty of drawbacks, primarily finding LPs, and CLEANING LPs.
A modest TT with a decent cart, Say a nottingham. and a decent phono pre, and a good LP cleaner.
Then you can see if you really do enjoy messing around with LPs!!
(I have gone back too, after abandoning vinyl, I have amassed a LOT of LPs and have two cheap, decent TTs, a couple of ARC phonos (Audio Research P-1 and a P-2)
I play Cds or LPs when I want. I theoretically go for a better TT if I ever wanted one... but I am satisfied. My only grip is cleaning is a MUST for used LPs!!)
So, my suggestion is, buy a used TT, and see if you actually really want to use it. save your money!! Then, if you LOVE it, go for a $$$ TT.
Since you plan for the Cremonas in the future I'd suggest putting a budget of $4000 to $8000 together for vinyl and leave money for the Sonus and a much better amp (which they DEMAND). ARC stuff is good, but I don't think it's the best value, particularly for the Cremonas. I'd suggest something like:
VPI Scoutmaster or Pro-ject RM10 with a high output MC, like the Sumiko Blackbird $3000
Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum 500 integrated amp with phono stage $9500.
Cremonas $9800.
Cables, Disc Doctor cleaning materials, etc. $2000
I'm assuming that you've got decent digital already.

The Pro-ject and Scoutmaster are consistant with this level of system. If you become "Dr. Vinyl" and want to upgrade, then you can do that later. You'll hear 99% with this set up and you'll probably want to buy some better LPs, if your best stuff is "scratchy".

Thanks much for the input. I am beginning to put together a budget in my mind. VPI Scoutmaster, Rega P5/P3-24 or Clearaudio Performance w/ a good MC. I was thinking the Ayre phono preamp and upgrading the line stage preamp in the future (perhaps an Ayre there too). However, I'll certainly be trying the Marantz at home and my current line stage has a built in phono stage so I wouldn't need a separate unit unless I found the Halo's unsatisfactory. If I upgrade the linestage, I'd also consider a tube unit. With a better preamp, I doubt that I need to upgrade my power amp, even w/ Cremonas. My digital front end is okay, but not great. I don't want to spend there because my intent is to move to a server. I'll have to be able to play SACD - much closer to vinyl IMO when it's good. I intend to buy used for everything.