Help with picking the right phono pre for the rest of my system please!

I'll try to make this short yet detailed enough for folks to weigh in properly.  This group is honestly the most knowledgeable and helpful I've found anywhere, so I really wanted to get this out there and see what people here recommend before I spend more cash!

I need advice on a phono pre, please!  The local shop (I bought local brick/mortar as I am trying to support that whenever I can) is super knowledgeable about analog so I trust their judgement, but my choices on phono pre's from them is quite limited, in particular with Audio Research in a model cross-over point with the PH6 and PH8 discontinued, which they no longer have in stock for me to demo.

Here's what I currently have in the rest of my system:

I just ordered a VPI Signature (Black Friday) deal which comes with the 3D printed tone arm and the SDS speed control module.  It's my very first turntable and foray into vinyl, and I didn't want to start small as I knew I would just want something better if I started with a $1000 table.  My research and a few buddies tell me this VPI is a very good start and could theoretically be my last turntable/tone arm. 

As a cart, the shop recommended and has on hand (important so I can listen to vinyl soon!) a Dynavector 20x2 MEDIUM, which I guess is not very common, and kind of sits in a weird spot given it's output.  But the recommendations of it being very musical seem to be a good place for me to start at $1k (and upgrade from later if desired).  I heard the combo at the shop and it sounded fantastic, albeit going through a higher-end Audio Research pre-/phono stage, and with my PrimaLuna HP amp driving top-end B&W 803 diamonds.

In my system I'm feeding a recently purchased (same) PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium HP integrated, which I've upgraded all tubes on to KT120s and upgraded 12AU7s.  It is absolutely stunning driving my Zu Soul Supremes.  I mean the best my system has ever sounded.  To add to my love of the amp, it has a built-in headphone amp running off the same tube stages that is driving my Audeze LCD-3s unbelievably well--so well that I'm going to sell my Auralic Taurus Mk II headphone amp.  Because I listen to headphones quite a bit, and I'm so happy with my speaker output to boot, I want to make sure I put the right investment into the vinyl side up front.

My digital front end is an Aurender N100 feeding a Schiit Yggy, which I can't recommend enough.  That combo smokes everything else I've had in my system, and there have been some decent to great DACs over the years.  The combination is causing me to spend more on my analog front end because I know if the vinyl doesn't beat it regularly, I will spin less vinyl in lieu of the more convenient and excellent sounding digital.

So, here's what I have as options for immediate demo and purchase from a phono pre perspective:
  • used Audio Research PH3SE for $1250, which has already been input matched (soldered!) to the cartridge I'm buying--I'm expecting to like it as I've heard it kind of gives a "vintage" sound which I think might sound great with my Zu's, but obviously worried it might not be enough performance in relative terms
  • SimAudio Moon 5.3 with external power supply (guessing around $2K)--I'm expecting it to be great given the reviews, but I have found SimAudio stuff a little dry and down-the-middle for my tastes in the past (I ran an I7 integrated for a couple of years and never totally fell in love with it in spite of it's tremendous performance)
  • crap, that's it!
I can get a Audio Research PH6 for about $2500 new, and a PH8 for about $4500, but I won't be able to demo them.  A PH7 can be had used for $3200.  Between those I feel like the PH7/PH8 would be a better step up from something like the PH3SE.  Don't know how those would do against the SimAudio 5.3.

As I think ahead to a lower output MC cartridge in the next couple of years, I'm nervous about getting too invested in a phono pre that doesn't have enough gain for the rest of my system and a low output MC cart.  As I understand it, the PH line may limit me there and require I get a really expensive preamp with more gain at that point?

So, what other phono pre's should I consider in the $2-5K range (preferably used prices for a better value) that won't be a gamble with my system synergy, and best case also help future proof me?

BTW, I love musical and big sound stage with tonal midrange bloom over detail and "hi-fi" sound and/or insane bass.  I would definitely say I'm a "tube guy" over SS in amps, but I've also read that maybe a solid state phono pre is better match with a tube amp to maximize the benefit of great vinyl.

Help please!

Thank you, Jay

OK, spent about 6 additional hours in these forums.  There are clearly a million views on great phono pre's in various price ranges and I know much of this is both highly subjective and system-synergy specific.

From the hours of research it seems I should be looking to demo a Herron and perhaps a Zesto.  I will also see if I can demo an ARC PH-8 to compare to the ARC PH-3se.

Any others based on this?  thx...
I cut/paste some notes from some of the other longer threads on the topic...for anyone that's interested, here are the notes, and apologies for the poor organization and formatting (these are in somewhat chronological order with oldest first, following the longer thread on this forum and I added the greater-than signs to indicate the posters' preferences):

  • ASR Basis Exclusive (battery) > Audia Flight
  • Audio Flight > ASR Basis > Pass Xono (opposite the first)
  • Doshi Alaap Mk II > Essential 3160 > Essential 3150
  • ESE Nibiru—super silent
  • Einstein phonostage is silly good and shows up on Audiogon used for a really low price. It comes with a varirty of loading resistors and can be improved by using HiFi Tuning fuses and the right power cord. > EAR 324
  • whest PS.30RDT
  • Tron Seven Reference is my holy grail > FM 222 mk3, CAT Legend, Lamm, EAR 324P, Einstein, AQVOX, Herron, Karan, Cary, Artemis; TRON Seven lots of votes … built to order
  • "THE GRAIL" by Van Den Hul.
  • Whest PS.30RDT Special Edition. > Audio Research PH7   killed it! No contest.
  • Herron VTPH-2 with vintage Telefunken tubes…multiple votes
  • Accuphase C-27 > Aesthetix IO-Sig
  • ARC ref2 > AMR PH-77  Only thing lacking for me was a slight tonal weight in the bass - however the unit I listened to at home only had 150-200 hours on it. supposed to get more weight at 300-400 hours.
  • Air tight was more natural and 3d sounding > The AMR
  • Klyne was excellent back then but now has easily surpassed by the much cheaper Einstein
  • Whest Audio MC REF V MK4 > Allnic H-3000  ALLIC H3000 and new H3000V even better  Adjustable for all cartridges MM or MC.
  • Ypsilon step up transformer and phono stage  > Einstein (in another class) > hotrodded Vendetta SCP2T and the Blowtorch;  Ypsilon is the best I've heard of the 25 or 30 I've had through. Forces you to a transformer though. Choise of that is a whole additional peeing contest (hilarious comment)
  • ASR Mini Basis Exclusive > PS Audio GCPH  night & day so much better that I bought one.
  • Manley Steelhead > EAR, Tom Evans, Conrad Johnson Another vote for the steelhead, vastly improved by installation of a pair of siements CCa 6922 tubes, It creams everything else I have tried > an early Sim stage, a VAT BK 10 and a joule lap 150
  • PS Audio GCPH > Manley Steelhead
  • Experience Music Kahn LCR phono stage
  • BMC MCCI > ASR mini Exclusive (runner up on my list) > PS Audio, the Audio Analogue Aria (junk for MC carts) and the RCM;  Moreover you need a cart with low internal impedance. For example my Denon DL103 with an impedance of 40 Ohms was a disaster. The ZYX at 8 Ohms really sings.
  • Musical Surroundings Nova Phonomena. Unbelievable for the price. > EAR834p with premium Amperex Bugle Boys.
  • ESE Lab Nibiru v3.0
  • Pass XP-25, XP-15 or Xono
  • Bellari130  — Is there a better buy in hifi?
  • Tom Evans MASTERGROOVE and the Allnic H3000V— The mastergroove is the most accurate, neutral, distortion free phono I have ever witnessed but I use and prefer the H3000V
  • Ypsilon, Like the Mastergroove and Allnic, in a different league to most mentioned > The Whests, rhea, steelhead, asr, art audio etc
  • The Einstein Turntable's Choice has been all I had expected and more. It is the only piece I have that is solid state, but the sound and construction is superb. AND, at only $5,500 new for single-ended, it is pretty competitively priced. 68 db fixed works extremely well with MCs that are in the .24 to .32 mv output
  • Audio Research REF PH2SE > Night and day difference from my previous best, the Aesthetix Rhea.
  • NVO PSA-One — Jeff Day has said it's the best he has ever heard in his own Blog;  a guy somewhere on these forums that had some very highly regarded phono units like the ypsilon and zanden and sold them for the NVO, do a search but it was a year or so ago. The importer will tell you of another guy who sells hi-end gear that had the ypsilon and also thought the NVO was better in most regards, not a small feat!
  • Ayre P5xe-mp phono preamp
  • NVO SPA-II Special Edition
  • AMR PH77 with Bendix Red Bank 6900 > iFi iPhono, but when really run in the iFi sitting on the right vibrational isolation can be stunning and I mean "keep up with my former Graaf GM70 (which had a $1K worth of Amperex/Mullard/Siemens tubes installed)
  • Naim Superline w/ Supercap PSU > Allnic H3000, Avid Audio Pulsare II, 47 Labs phonocube, Shindo Masseto (Internal phono stage), Einstein Turntable's choice
  • Audio Research SP20: $9000 is a full-function, line-plus-phono preamp
  • Audio Research PH-8. Prior phono stages were ARC PH-5 and PH-7se. The PH-8 Makes the other's sound broken.
  • TRON Convergence phone stage at USD 1.5k GBP 1k is unbelievably good at the money - nearly as good as my USD 7k (£4.5k) TRON Seven Reference
  • B.M.C. MCCI is at least second best, with only the Ypsilon perhaps better.

As you realize, the shop’s recommendation of the medium output (1 mv) version of the 20x2 will significantly constrain your choice of a phono stage. I would urge patience, to the extent of resisting the urge to go with what the dealer happens to have on hand, and perhaps letting them order the low output or high output version of that cartridge. (And between those two my instinct would be to go with the low output version).

Also, the fairly standard gain choices of 40 and 60 db provided by the SimAudio LP5.3 would, on at least some recordings, probably make it unsuitable for use with a 1 mv cartridge in conjunction with the 360 mv sensitivity of your amp. And I likewise suspect that the ~58 db gains of the ARC PH 6, 7, and 8 would be too high for use with that cartridge, again considering the sensitivity of your amp. Also, given your stated desire for future-proofing I would be hesitant to go with any of the ARC phono stages, due to the single fixed gain they provide.

So where does that leave you? As you apparently have already seen in researching past threads, if you want a phono stage providing the flexibility to support both low output and high output cartridges (but perhaps not a 1 mv cartridge), and you want sonics that are arguably unexcelled in its price class, and that would be a perfect match for your integrated amp in terms of impedance compatibility and with respect to being limited to single-ended interconnections, and you want to buy from a designer/manufacturer who is a treasure to deal with, and you are willing to wait perhaps 2 weeks for delivery, I would suggest that you consider the lower gain version of the Herron VTPH-2 ($3650). And for that matter it may be worthwhile giving Keith Herron a call and seeing what he has to say about the suitability of using that phono stage with a 1 mv cartridge. You can be assured of getting an unbiased and very knowledgeable answer.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al

You could of course consider the Liberty B2B-1 - can be configured for any gain you'd like, standard is 45/MM and 65/MC. Easily switchable by a internal jumper accessible through a hatch cover on top.   Suggesting that maybe leave the MC setting stock then goose up the MM setting to 52 db or so.   Should you decide to try out MM later on its easily revertible to the stock 45dB by changing a pair of internal resistors.

Theres plenty of press on this little gem

And yes I do make them

Good Listening

Even though not on your list, i would add the RCM sensor II to the list. Fully adjustable gain and load to fit a variety of cartridges. I had been using a zyx artisan and needed a little more gain. 
Based on head to head session:
Doshi Alaap>Manley Steelhead=ZYX Artisan>>Aesthetix Rhea. 
Not based on any electrical compatibility issues, but based on somewhat theoretical sound advantages, if you are going MC I would urge an LO MC.  All of the phono stages noted above can handle an LO MC w/o an outboard step-up.  Never heard the Herron but Al's suggestion is square to all I've read about that line.  I'd also suggest talking to Mehran at Sorasound regarding the right combo of cart and phono stage.  He's not a designer/builder but his customer service is outstanding and he has knowledge of a wide range of phono gear. 
All--hugely insightful and very helpful feedback--exactly what I was hoping to get from here...with the additional wrinkle of causing me to rethink the cartridge selection...and perhaps select a Low MC now since that's the path I'll probably head down eventually anyway.

I will give Keith Herron a call since that pre was on my short list already and get his thoughts.

I'll read up on the Liberty and RCMs a bit and call Mehran as well.

I'll report back with info I get.

Thanks a million folks...
I have experience with the ZYX Artisan  RCM SENSOR and now the AMAZON B-LAB all three worked well with  low output ZYX CARTS
The Artisan is a smooth pre with  fine detail and very low noise floor, rca out only
The RCM has a large soundstage with a very robust engaging sound both rca and xlr out
The Amazon is the smoothest and digs the deepest of all three, rca out only
I have owned all the above and enjoyed the differences in the way they present  music, they are all worth investigating.
OK, still in research mode, but now with your good advice, I need to come up with a LOMC cartridge.  I'm going to pass on the medium output Dynavector at your suggestions.

I'd like to keep the cartridge in the $1-2K range, but would go to $3K for the right one if the value and improvement would be there in my system.

  • I'm interested in LO version of the Dynavector 20x2, but would like impressions from folks on that, plus the two up their line, the 17D3, and the XX-2
  • My buddy has the Lyra Kleos and loves it, but the price just went up, even further outside of what I want to spend, I think;  I've heard and read that the Delos (their least expensive at $2Kish) might be a little thin--any experience here?
I need something that will pair well with the VPI Signature and the VPI 3-D printed arm, and lean toward "musical and big sound stage with tonal midrange bloom" vs. "super detail and hi-fi sound and/or insane bass."

Other suggestions for cartridges that meet those 2 criteria?

On the phono stage front, I've bought an iFi phono to ensure I have a phono pre to use while I determine my permanent solution there, and will likely keep that for a second system when I get ambitious for a second table for my other 2 systems.  I should have a Herron in a few weeks for a 2 week demo, and you all were right, Keith is awesome.  I will continue my research on the others above, and may shoot for 1-2 more to demo at the same time.

But need to pick a cartridge first, or there will be nothing to hear!

Any suggestions?
These are some I have been reading good things about, but haven't read enough to determine any possible synergy issues w/ my VPI table/tone arm or rest of my system/preferences.  Prices are directional.  They are "relatively" in my target price range.  Also in no particular order.

Shelter 501Mk II ($1200)?  

Shelter 901 ($2600)?

Dynavector 20X2 ($950)?

Dynavector 17D3 Karat Diamond ($1250)?

Dynavector XX-2 ($2000)?

ZYX Airy 3 ($3000)?

ZYX R100 Fuji ($2400)

Lyra Delos ($1650)?

Lyra Kleos ($3000ish but may have gone up)?

Transfiguration Axis ($2450)?
For phonostage I used for 2 years the BMC MCCI which is on your list. It's very good and had great synergy with the Lyra Delos which is a very good cart with great VFM. 
I bought also the NVA SPA-2 SE phonostage which is tube mc/mm and it is smoking good. Very much recommended but with its 22 tubes it generates quite a bit of heat. 
I bought recently from Mehran of sora sound ( a class act guy) the zyx uni2 which is very pricy but will probably be my last cart - it is pure music...
On my iPhone so will be brief. Consider an AT ART 9 to acquire a $3K sound for $1K. Take what you saved on the cart and invest in a Herron Vtph-2. I think you will be VERY pleased.

I used to have a Arc ph-5 and I upgraded to the Zesto. I demoed the ph-6 and the 7. I also demoed the Whest. I found the Zesto to be the most musical out of the one's I mentioned. Plus the Zesto will give you the extra gain if you want to run a LOMC.

OK, back at the desktop....I ran the Dyna 20XM for a while. It would be a good match for your VPI and would work well with the ARC phonostages you are exploring. (I also ran the Dyna 20XL and 20XH and found very little difference between the three. With the right phonostage (i.e. one with sufficient gain) the 20XL was slightly more detailed than the higher output versions but whether the difference was due to the superiority of the lower output version or that I had just done a slightly better job setting up the 20XL is an open question. On my JMW-9 the best "budget" cartridge I ran was the AT OC9MLII. It was better than any of the Dyna's (except the XX2MKII which I also had for several months). I recently swapped out the OC9 for an ART 9 and the performance gains were significant across the board. If you can swing it, it would be an excellent match for your VPI and may be the best you can do without spending a LOT more money. There is a thread currently going on the ART 9 so if you are interested take a look at what others are hearing. There are no published reviews and little else on the web so you will have to take a leap of faith on the ART 9. I did and have NO regrets. If you go with the ART 9 you will need more gain than the ARC phonostages. I REALLY like the Herron--it is my end of days stage--and it sounds like you will get to try one out before purchasing. Great. I doubt you will be sending it back. My suggestion would be to try to pick up either a Dyna and/or OC9 cheap on the A'gon and buy an ART 9 new and try them with your Herron while you have it in your system. Either of the cheaper carts can be sold for essentially no loss and the only one you would take a hit on is the ART 9 since you would be paying retail. I do think though that you will find the ART 9 so vastly superior to the other carts that you will end up keeping it and selling off the used carts. BTW: I found it interesting that Harry Weisfeld of VPI chimed in on the ART 9 thread and encouraged the OP to buy THAT cartridge instead of the other dozens that I'm sure he has heard with his gear. I don't know if there is a stronger recommendation for a cartridge than to have someone with his vast experience with running countless different carts on his tables endorse a particular transducer.
Apologies, this may be a double post...

Parsons, I have the PL HP and  a  VPI Classic /Audio Technica ART9.

You have plenty of fodder to digest here. As long as you get a phono stage with 60 db's of gain, you're good with most LOMC@ .5mv.
One model I'm surprised not mentioned-Manely Chinook. Users and reviews seem to agree it's one of the best value/performance tubed models right now. Essentially a toned down SteelHead that's affordable(relatively speaking,all this stuff is overpriced)

One thing you may already be aware of-tubed equipment, even the BEST, will have some degree of noise compared to SS.

If you're one of those who puts their ear next to the speaker and complains about noise with the volume turned up, get a nice SS unit. IMO, a tubed unit simply sounds more realistic/natural and you won't hear noise from the listening position with proper selection/setup. "Best"is subjective like choosing your amp/speakers.

FWIW, I have a now discontinued Fosgate Signature V2 tubed phono. NOS tubed, Nordost plumbed. While I HAVENT had a phono stage twice the retail cost(5k) in my system, I believe I'm at the diminishing returns point. 
My PL HP is currently fitted with 50's RCA 6L6G Coke bottles along with same vintage RCA preamp tubes. 
Very nice sound on a budget! Until I hit the lottery or something dies, I'm done.

IMHO if its tubes you like check out the TRON Seven - in fact one on sale on this website somewhere. Very musical and neutral at the same time - really captures musical flow. The EAR phono stages are very good too - they are exceptionally musical with a great big soundstage. Likewise try and find an Audio Innovations P2. Given that your amplifier is tubed don't be too put off with solid state - they are often the way to go with low output MC's
Folks, love the feedback, thank you, and please keep it coming.

For carts, I've reconsidered my budget and looking at ZYX Fuji and 4D, the Lyra Kleo, and the Art9 (seems that might be a good gamble at ~1/3 the cost of the others).  The Kleo is the only one I will be able to hear before making a final purchase decision unfortunately.  I think I'm going to pass over the Dynavector line at this point from further reading, although I know they are very musical carts.

Feels like I might not go wrong with any of those, really, so I have less anxiety getting to a decision on those.

As for the phono stage, still leaning toward tubes, and still noodling quite a bit and reading a lot.  A used Tron Seven (standard) or a new Herron peak my interest the most so far, but we'll see.

Keep the feedback coming if you have it--these recommendations are very helpful...
I should have added, Lohanimal's point about solid state phono pre in front of my existing tube pre/amp stages is a great one, and part of what has made me think about that side of the investment further.  My digital front-end is all SS and I LOVE it feeding my PrimaLuna, so that integrated is doing what I need there for the soundstage and "meat-on-the-bone" sound.
The AT ART9 is up there with most of the $5k carts. The ZYX line of carts have a magical soundstage but they always sacrifice midrange palpability in their presentation. Lyra is good but Kleos is the minimum candidate to compare with a ART9. I will personally prefer the ART9 over kleos for its utmost honesty to the recordings. It is the only cart I have heard that disappears. 
If you are seriously considering a ZYX, Mehran may have a demo available.
Mehran was great and gave me some super prices on the Zyx's, but I wasn't ready to (yet) pull the trigger without trying to hear a few more for reference.

Pani, thx for the input--I read your other threads on the Art9 and it certainly sounds like a fantastic cart with an incredible value.
As an aside, you should consider swapping the KT120 for KT150 tubes.
I know, I wish I had read more on the 150s before just buying the 120s a few months ago.  I have to buy 8 for the HP, but I suspect worth the investment, huh?

I suppose I could sell the 120s since they are just over their burn in period and recoup some of the 150 costs.

What are you running for the 12AU7s with them, out of curiosity?
If this is your first foray with high end vinyl a good record cleaning machine such as a Loricraft or a Keith Monks will help out any vinyl rig. Using good fluids for at least 2 minutes per side and a good distilled water rinse afterwards will bring life to your system. Good sleeves such as Mobile Fidelities are a must. You are willing to spend money on the hardware. The software is the most important part. A clean record played on a good system will trounce a dirty record played on a great system.
Kevin Carter of K&K Audio is a regular concert goer. His first priority is designing and producing products that are "musical". Each of his "Maxed Out" phono pre.s are custom made to order and he now has a home audition program. It is now possible to demo one at home before making a final purchase decision.


Tron Seven Reference is my holy grail > FM 222 mk3, CAT Legend, Lamm, EAR 324P, Einstein, AQVOX, Herron, Karan, Cary, Artemis; TRON Seven lots of votes … built to order

Now you can try the new TRON Convergence tube phono stage - available either in MC (GBP 1k = USD 1400 new) or MM (GBP 900 =  USD 1260). Almost as good as a TRON Seven, but a fraction of the price.
There is a very good phono stage sold by the people that make Ming Da - it uses the nuvista tube (like Musical Fidelity) I thought it sounded great at the High End hifi show in Windsor. Can I also add that Soundfoundations in the UK make a superb JFet phono stage.
Doh forgot to add - got a Vendetta SCP2a recently - I have stopped my search...
Thanks for all the advice--appreciate the continued feedback.

I have decided on a Lyra Kleos for the cart.  Unfortunately my table seems to be backordered, so I've got a loaner HW-19 mk4 with a retipped Grace cart for now.  It still sounds fantastic, but I'm anxiously awaiting my gear so I can get a good idea of the possible improvements which I'm told I'll get over this table/cart combo.

With this MM Grace cart, I've been running 3 phono pre's as of ARC SE3 with some Telefunkens, an iPhono, and as of today a SimAudio 5.3 with the external power supply.  While the iPhono is far from burned in, the other 2 are (I think), and while I wanted to like the SE3 the best, I'm really enjoying the SimAudio tonight.  It seems to have a little more bass control and upper end to boot.  Cymbals and stand-up bass just sound a bit more there and real with the 5.3.

I am all over the map about how much to spend on the phono pre to maximize the value of the rest of my investment.  I can probably go to near my end-game with used prices if I really choose to ($7.5k), but not sure I'd get the value of that with my current integrated and speakers, despite being super happy with them.

I'll have to get the new VPI and Kleos in the system with these phonos and see how that moves me before locking in on a phono pre.
Oh, I should have added, I bought an Audio Desk Systeme ultrasonic cleaner yesterday, and I'm really pleased with the improvements I'm hearing on almost every piece of vinyl I'm running through it.  Even on my loaner rig the differences are very noticeable.  Removes a bit of "smear" on the vocals--very noticeable, especially when you are familiar with the material, and really listen before and after.  Amazing.
Check out the David Berning phonostage or something like the Doshi Alaap.
If you are going to spend that much more than you stated in your OP, then I'd strongly recommend you consider the Doshi. 
OK, so here’s the lineup, with an X where the phono needs picked:

VPI Signature--Lyra Kleos-- X --Primaluna Dialogue Integrated HP (with KT120s or 150s)--Zu Soul Supremes. Must also sound great with LCD-3f headphones and potentially an end-game headphone amp like an Apex.

X can equal $8k in a used phono pre. What is the best match for an end-game phono pre, assuming my front end is as near end-game as I will go for a long time (ever), and the amp and speakers have a few more years in them (and I absolutely love them). My room is too small for bigger Zu’s I’m afraid, so I maxed out the small room ones. Pretend some day I will have Jeff Josephs--the big ones.

I place tremendous value on huge soundstage (side-to-side, top-to-bottom, front-to-back) with a shedload of air between instruments (with the black background) and "space" with that 3D sound, vs. uber detail to the gnat’s ass’ detail (although all of the above is acceptable). Clarinet New Orleans jazz, Radiohead, Iron & Wine, the National, the Police, Sufjan Stevens, old U2, Crowded House all have to blow my mind. Guitars need to have that beautiful, liquid meat-on-the-bone sound that you know when you hear it you can’t live without (and wish you had learned to play). I love a good stand up bass pluck, piano key percussion and decay, and cymbal hit. You know, the magic that a $10K new piece of gear should have, especially paired with other near-top-end gear. You’ve all heard it, and most people who listen to 3 hours of music a night know it when you hear it, and you crave it. The addictive kind where you drag your ass to bed but really want to listen to a few more songs. Easier typed than found, I know.

Allnic 3000v?
ARC Ref 2SE?
Tron Seven?
Steelhead (only 4K used)?

A week ago I would have said tubes only, but I’ve heard some great SS stuff and I no longer care as long as the phono pre blows my mind as stated above.

I know I probably can’t go wrong with any of it, but is there one that is absolutely the most "right"?
If you haven't read Marshall Nack's review of the K&K Maxed Out you should. To quote his conclusion:
"It is not the sound of modern analog, which tries to incorporate the best aspects of digital playback. (And has come increasingly to resemble it.) It recalls the analog we grew up with (those of us of a certain age). The K&K is like going home again to a comfortable, familiar sound.

This little chassis with its little price pushes all the right buttons, from timbre and tone to dynamics and soundstaging and is delightfully ingratiating, satisfying all listeners. At this price point, I can guarantee you won't find better. And, based on a lot of experience, I can tell you it won't be easy to match even for $10K. The K&K Audio Premium Maxxed-Out Phono Preamp is a stealth product hovering under the radar and a true High End bargain. Marshall Nack"

Yes, an oversight on my part...I didn't intend to dismiss the K&K off of that list...I will investigate that one further as well.  thanks...
I wanted to send a thank you and follow-up to the folks that provided feedback to me here.  It was extremely valuable and I'm very pleased with the system I've ended up with (so far!).  Here's where I landed for those interested (or making similar decisions)...

First, I upgraded the tubes in my PrimaLuna HP integrated to KT-150s as suggested here (and elsewhere) and I can wholeheartedly back the recommendation.  Smoother than the KT-120s with an even better soundstage and air between instruments.  I get double benefit as the headphone output (which does a superb job driving my Hifiman HE-1000 headphones) uses the tubes too, and now that the tubes and headphones are burned in, the headphones have helped be do a little more critical listening on the cartridge and phono stages on top of the Zu Soul Supreme speakers.

My VPI Signature with 3D tonearm turns out to be a nice match with the Lyra Kleos.  The Kleos is very sensitive (in a good way) to the details in the recording, and I should not be surprised that a well-manufactured album is easy to tell vs. one that was not well-pressed.  The Kleos has not once sounded analytical to me, however, regardless of the pressing, and so while I'm getting tons of detail, it's as musical as I hoped/wanted by a long-shot.  I'm very pleased with this choice.  I know this is not super useful beyond suggesting that this table/arm/cart combo appear to mate well together, but there you go.  

I had a loaner Ortofon 2M Red cart while I waited for the Lyra and I was shocked at how well this meager cart sounded on the VPI Signature table and the 3D tonearm, and I can only assume it would have sounded even better with further burn in (I only put about 15 hours on it).  There is, of course, a big upgrade in the Kleos, and I'm not suggesting that the Red would have been a logical stop for anyone on this overall rig.  It does, however, have me looking hard at a 2m Black for my second table using the phono input on my vintage Marantz 2265B integrated.

I have been doing an extended listen with two particular phono pre's, the SimAudio 5.3 with external PS, and the Herron VTPH2 (which I have installed and burned in some decent NOS tubes despite Keith's written recommendation suggesting NOT doing this, as the supplied ones are matched excellently already).  

Both are excellent, and I can say that I could easily live with either for a very, very long time.  Sorry if that sounds like a cop out, but I really can't verbalize a difference worth stating here.

If you are a tube guy, get the Herron.  If you are not, get the SimAudio with the external PS.  I am keeping the Herron, only because I found one used and already bought it, and the price for this SimAudio with PS is a little more than the used Herron and not discernibly better in my system (but certainly as good).  I wanted to hear more differences between them (either way), but without a clean way to switch back and forth quickly, I went with the "listen to 1 for a week then switch to the other for a week" for 2 cycles.  I didn't take enough notes nor listen critically with enough records I'm familiar with, so I'm not going to type any perceived differences.  Both, as I said, are excellent and I don't think you can go wrong with either at this price level.  Both the Herron and the SimAudio were better IMO than the used Audio Research 3SE I had on loan (which was really good for the $1200 used price and MM output), but that only covered the MM output of the Ortofon Red, so again, not a critical review I would want to back up in a real comparative argument...just my quick opinion.  

As a tube guy, but owner of other SimAudio products, I will admit that I wanted to believe I would NOT like the SimAudio as well given it's solid state.  However, this was not the case--I loved it.  It's just not providing me any noticeable SQ improvement over the Herron, as I said, I already paid for the Herron.

I wanted to get my hands on a Chinook as a 3rd well-recommended phono pre in this price range, but I no longer feel motivated to go through the effort of trying to track down a demo or buying one and returning it if it's not better than the Herron.  I suspect it to be on par with the other two, and maybe only sound slightly different if at all.

Next year I will likely buy a used phono pre in what I consider to be the next price tier up, like the Audio Research Ref 2 SE or the Allnic 3000 (or others), and see if I can justify one costing 3-4x the used cost of the Herron, but that will be a different thread at a different time, and I may never feel motivated to do that either.

Oh, I should also add that I got the periphery ring for the VPI table and I can highly recommend that seems to have lowered the noise floor further and you can physically see that the arm and cart are not moving up and down at all per rotation, like I often saw easily from my listening chair without the ring on most records.  I have to imagine that makes the sound more consistent on any albums that had any warp at all, even if not very visible.  Worth the extra money and extra step per album side IMO.

As a first-time vinyl guy, has it been worth it so far?  By almost all standards, I spent a big sum of money (over $10K) on a vinyl front-end, and another $5K on cleaners and vinyl itself, so it should sound insanely good IMO.  And in most cases it comes very close to sounding insanely good.  My only hesitation is that I was surprised that some vinyl--even brand new--is not to audiophile standards, and might not sound any better than it's digital counterparts, in particular on a great digital front-end like I think I have.  YMMV.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed feedback.  Happy listening!
I think that even at any price you won't better the herron. 
Thanks for taking the time to share your findings.  This was a very informative post!
After my exhaustive research I settled on a Manley Chinook SE from Upscale Audio.  A hard-to-beat phono stage under $4K.  My turntable is a VPI Aries 3, 3D arm, Ortofon Cadenza Black MC cartridge.
I recently purchased the Primaluna Dialogue Premium Integrated and I am using the RCM Sensor II phono preamp.  Currently I am not sure if the RCM Sensor II is an ideal fit for the Primaluna.  I am using the ZYX LOMC Yatra.  

Should I bump the gain on the RCM Sensor II a little.  Seems like I lost a little something.
Open for suggestions.