Vac Phono sections are usually considered one of the best. Mine, when I played records, was very good and Kevin still listens to records last time I talked with him.
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I love VAC products and have no doubt that the phono stage in your pre would be great. There is a lot of value in the optionality, if you go outboard, $4K new will get you in the upper end of the stand alone stages while used you will be very close to the top. The flexibility to change the phono and pre independently is worth something.
The biggest advantage to getting the separate phonostage is that it will have its own power supply. That could, probably would considering VAC's reputation, give you more of everything from vinyl playback. I'm sure Kevin could tell you what the differences will be. Of course it is still up to you to decide if it is worth the extra money. But if that isn't a big issue, I'd say go for the separate unit. Also, a small benefit is that if you do listen to digital for any length of time you can leave the phonostage off and save the tubes.
I've heard this phonostage((in pre)and was lucky to compare to the VTL,and Zanden seperate units...
IMO,the VAC was absolutely(and surprisingly)"easily" competitive to the other fine units.Others present felt the same way.
One small advantage of a "high quality" built in phonostage is the extra set of cables,and connections are eliminated.
Dan ed makes a good point about saving the tubes, when
listening to your digital source. Gee, never thought of
that one when I bought my FF Preamp. I would think if the
phono section is that good though, your digital source will
not be your primary one. The points JTinn and Sirspeedy make
with regard to the shorter signal paths, less connections... are excellent. I heard the Vac Ren Sig 2 w/ digital and phono recently, and was greatly impressed. This was in an extremely revealing system. I have not been in the market for a while, so take this with a grain of salt, but the elite phono units are around 5K +. Add a good IC on that, and you would clearly be spending more than the Ren Sig 2 w/ phono.
It depends. I've got a Ren Mk2 (not Sig) which I used with the a ZYX Airy2 0.24 mv. The built-in phono w/step ups IS very good but it does not have adjustable loading. If your LO cart is sensitive to loading, you might not be getting the best out of it. I found the ZYX headamp into the MM phono was a little better; very very good, IMO. Held its own with a Doshi full function pre. Then I traded it in for the ZYX Artisan full phono stage, which I found to be remarkable. Just lets the music flow, good definition and thunderous bass. Neither has adjustable loading either, so I would recommend trying it with the specific cart you are going to use if you do not have a ZYX. As far as cost goes, an Artisan is about that same # you are talking about, maybe a little less but you will need cables.
Bill- generally good advice from Bill. However, neither the VAC internal, nor the ZYX Artisan are adjustable so that makes them equivalent in some way (although the VAC can be modified/pre-set at the factory). In my case, the VAC was pretty darn good and I assumed that the ZYX would be optimized for their cart. From what I heard, I was correct with respect to the ZYX for sure.