Marakanetz...many audiophiles spend the majority of their time listening critically to their systems, rolling tubes, changing cables, and making other frequent changes to their gear. How can they become really involved in the music if they're never satisfied with the way their system sounds, and always looking for what's wrong? I too have exhibited this behavior as it's hard not to when your hobby is audio, but I always come back to the music. If it were not for my love of music I would never have gotten into this silly hobby in the first place. I'm glad to hear that you listen to so much music in the course of a year, even while you're at work.
The art of component design is generally an art of compromise, where cost and the financial resources of the intended audience is of greatest concern. Cost no object designs are always easier than those limited by budget. Audible Illusions has excelled at what they do for a very long time; building affordable not cost no object high-end preamps. They have received nothing but praise from audio reviewers since J. Gordon Holt first reviewed them back in the 1980s. You say that their phono stage cannot handle a 2.5mV cartridge. I disagree. The 3A can easily drive a 2.5mV cartridge and is very quiet. Perhaps there was something wrong with the cartridge or the tubes in the phono stage needed replacing. Currently I own 3A and am using a Well Tempered Reference table with a low output (1mV) Grado Reference cartridge. The sound is excellent, and I know good sound. My only complaint with this cartridge is there is a bit of noise, but in all fairness to the 3A 1mV is not enough gain. Still it sounds excellent and with most music it is hardly noticed. I also own an EAR 834P which is better suited to that cartridge and very quiet. It too has received rave reviews and having lived with one for a long time I can see why. Neither the EAR or the 3A are without their weaknesses, but what they do well they do very well. Certainly the PH3 is an improvement, but they are all very musical. If you have only listened to the 3A once I would suggest you are not really qualified to comment, other than to say you heard it once and it was not to your liking, that you prefered the PH3 and felt it was worth the extra investment. That is very different than saying it is terrible, which it clearly is not. That is the point I wish to make here. All of this equipment is good. Some of it just may not be the sound you prefer. Enjoy the music!