How much difference will a phono stage upgrade make?


For the past couple of years I’ve slowly been upgrading my audio equipment. I currently have a Primaluna Dialogue Premium HP integrated amplifier, an EAT C-Sharp TT with an Ortofon Quintet Black MC cartridge, and Tannoy Revolution XT 8F speakers. The weak link at this point, it would seem, is my phono stage, which is a Pro-Ject Tube Box DS. All things considered, my system sounds really good to my ears, but I can’t help but wonder what a phono stage upgrade would bring to the table. I’m looking at the Manley Chinook Special Edition MK II, which is a big step up in terms of cost, but I wonder how much better it will actually sound. Has anybody made a similar upgrade, and was there a marked uptick in sound quality?
12hz
I've made several phono stage upgrades in the past. The last upgrade was the most difficult to get right. I tried several well reviewed phono stages listing above $2000 and was disappointed in the sound quality for the money spent compared to my previous ~$600 phono stage. Then I acquired an RCM Sensor Prelude and that one knocked it out of the park, exactly the sort of sound quality I wanted. It was a very serious upgrade in fidelity. Vinyl reproduction has more links in the component chain, so it's more likely to take experimentation to get what one seeks in my experience.
Thanks, photon46. I haven't heard of that one--I'll look into it. I quite like the sound of tubes, so I'm trying to keep things aligned with that preference. Is the RCM Sensor Prelude a tube phono stage? (Easy enough to find out, I suppose.)
I think the take home lesson is that if you select the "right" phono stage at the higher price point, you will be very pleased, and the expense will seem worthwhile.  If you make a "bad" choice, then even if you've spent big bucks, you won't necessarily be so happy.  I put the word in quotation marks, because "bad" is to a large degree subjective (although there are some expensive pieces of audio gear that are per se bad).  So, do as much homework as you can before taking the leap.  In my opinion, the Chinook would be a good choice, but that's only my opinion.  People also seem to love the Herron phono stages.  But both of those may be better than your ancillary equipment merits, at this point in time.  Think of a used Chinook or older model Herron, maybe.  And make sure anything you choose is well suited to your cartridge in terms of gain and loading.
A Project DS-2 with Telefunken smooth plate tubes or some other reallygood 12AX7's is a killer .
I owned a Chinook (now a Steelhead) and it was a very good upgrade. I also had an Aesthetix Rhea which I liked except for the low level tube rush. The Chinook is dead quiet if that's important to you and I would say is about 85% of the Steelhead sonically. Haven’t heard the Herron, though I read it gets very good marks from every owner that has one. I don’t think you’d be disappointed with any of these.
Rega Aria is also Excellent .
I started off with the Pro-Ject Tube box as well.  It was pretty decent, especially considering its cost.  Moved on to the iFi iPhono 2, and then a Parasound JC3 JR.

Each was a step up in SQ, but just a little bit each time.

Then I found the Gold Note PH-10.  I bought one last year and it was a game changer.  Stupidly, I sold it, thinking I could do better staying around the same price range. Boy how wrong I was.. A few other phono preamps in between, and lots of money not-so-well-spent..

.....I finally bought another PH-10 , but this time with the PSU, and it's even better than I remembered.  Very flexible, and can accommodate just about any cartridge imaginable. 

Unless your set on a tube phono pre, I would take a hard look!

YMMV
Rob

+ for the Chinook

Also the Gold Note ph10, Allnic audio if you can find a nice used one ( first choice). Another contender you don't hear about much and surprised me was the Audio Note UK phono stages (particularly the stage 2 Audio Note Kit phono stage).

The RCM is not tube based but as is the case with most quality components these days, the sonic differences between tubes vs. solid state is less than in the past. One thing I considered when debating tubes vs. non-tubed phono stages was the necessity for very low noise tubes in phono stages (and the expense of procuring/replacing them.) My experiences with tubes aging and getting noisier with the passage of time led me to prefer using tubes in preamps and amplifiers instead of phono stages. Perhaps those with more experience than I can weigh in on whether they have more noise issues with tubes in their phono stages vs. other components that amplify voltages to a lesser degree.
I too used a Primaluna Integrated with a Tube Box DS.  I made a smaller jump with HUGE results, upgrading to a Musical Fidelity MX-VYNL.  
In the fairly near future, PS Audio will introduce the Stellar Phono stage, targeted for the low $2000s.  It sounds like it might be a real winner, and all PS Audio is easy to audition in home for a month.  Just a thought.
Oh yeah, the Herron gets pretty good marks from everyone who owns one! Had mine since late last year. Easily the best component I've ever had. Or ever will, probably. Turns out there's a reason why they hardly ever come up used, and go in a flash when they do. My search turned up several people who had heard the various Herron versions go head to head with all the much more expensive supposedly best stages- even the earlier 2, even the original Herron, total match for anything out there. I don't want to diss the others, at this level there are no bad choices. But I did come across several people who said the Herron was better than ... fill in the blank.... and then added, and that wasn't even the current one! So you could get a used one (if you can find one, seriously, not easy- Itried!) and be very, very happy. 

But, why buy used? Why not just give Keith a call? I'm sure he'll be happy to build you one. He builds them to last, with fanatical obsession to detail.

How much difference can it make? Might want to check out my review. My wife heard it through a closed door! Cannot recommend enough. 
Before you buy another preamp would you consider rolling tubes? That's another avenue to explore. 
I had a project tube box, I think it was the tube box S. It was okay, but there was a noticeable improvement when I replaced that with a jolida jd9. The musical surroundings Nova phonomena was also an improvement over the tube box. My most dramatic improvement was upgrading from the jd9 to a Manley Chinook. After reading this thread tonight I swapped out the Chinook for my parks puffin just for kicks. The parks puffin compares very nicely to the Chinook and the puffin is only $400.
Save your money and get a Herron Audio VTPH-2a.  No need to upgrade when you have the best.  The Herron is the last stop on the upgrade path.
Anyone compared directly Allnic 1201 or 1202 with the Manley and Sutherland phonos ? Yeah, comparing tube stages with solid state may create additional difficulties, can be just very different.
I am asking because I have Acoustech designed by Sutherland and thinking ahead. Almost certainly will go after tube phono, almost..
If you like the sound of the Pro-ject can I suggest the Pro-ject Phono Box RS with the battery PSU. I use it with a Quintet Black S giving excellent results. Don't hear it with the standard PSU you will be disappointed.
I have a NAD M12 pre/dac, a Technics SL-1200G TT with an Ortofon Quintet Black MC cartridge, and Tannoy Definition 8 dcti speakers.  The sound was quite good using the M12's phono input.  I purchased a Parasound JC3 Jr and the sound is sooo much better.
I think a huge upgrade can be made if you will replace a tube phono stage with some decent new generation SS phono stage. Look for Gold Note PH-10 with external PSU if you want to try the most versatile SS phono stage with two inputs for whatever type of cartridges. The MC is fully adjustable, this is really a new concept, you will not find anything like that from any other manufacturers, and the price is so nice! Gold Note is user friendly like no other phono stage, build quality is superb, design is amazing. Sound quality is very impressive. Simply a must have ! 
+ for the Chinook. Tube upgrade makes it really good. 
As others have already suggested another +1 for the Gold Note PH10
Thanks everyone for your useful comments. Ultimately I wasn’t looking for suggestions as to which phono stage to upgrade to, as I’ve done research ad nauseam and landed on the Manley Chinook Special Edition MK II. The Gold Note seems to have a lot of loyal fans, but I’m pretty firmly committed to the idea of tubes along my entire signal path. (Also, with the external power supply, the Gold Note ends up being substantially more expensive than the Manley.) That being said, the overwhelming enthusiasm expressed by everyone about the upgrades you all have made has me thinking that this would be a good move and money well-spent. Again, thanks for your comments. 
The Chinook will be a nice upgrade over the Tube Box and you should be very happy with it.
bpoletti:
Save your money and get a Herron Audio VTPH-2a. No need to upgrade when you have the best. The Herron is the last stop on the upgrade path.

Back when I was researching phono stages I came across a lot of comments just like this. Also more than a few deriding or mocking for being so up front about it. Now that I have one though I have to say, its basically true.

In fact only reason I can think of to qualify it with "basically" is there are people like the OP who have preferences for things other than pure sonic upgrades. The OP has his mind set on all tubes. Others have their mind set on features. Or whatever.

For those with their mind set on music, and especially for those musically minded listeners willing to listen and decide for themselves (hardly any reviews, Herron doesn't hand them out, you have to BUY one!) there may well be no better choice.
Every move in the phono stage link has made a big difference, positive and/negative. 
I’m currently using a Musical Surroundings Phonomena ii which I like a lot and is VERY flexible for just about any cart you throw at it.  There’s a ii+ out now.  
millercarbon:
The OP has his mind set on all tubes. Others have their mind set on features. Or whatever.

For those with their mind set on music, and especially for those musically minded listeners willing to listen and decide for themselves
I'm actually very much interested in the music above all else. (Aren't we all?) I'm not a gearhead and I have no means of doing comparisons between high-end components, as I live in a small city with no access to the equipment discussed here. I drove 1000 miles to audition my amplifier and speakers and I'm glad I did, but it's not always possible. Hence, I rely on these forums for information, with the understanding that others' opinions may not always mesh with my listening preferences. I'm not stubbornly set on tubes for arbitrary reasons, it's just that my amp is a tube amp and I really love it. (For how it translates the music!) By logical extension I figured a tube phono stage would share the attributes that I like in my amp. Again, I wasn't looking for specific recommendations, I was really just looking for a nudge from this community, some assurance that a big investment in a new phono stage wouldn't simply produce nominal results by comparison to my current, less expensive phono stage. I don't want to be underwhelmed after spending $2500. 

I'm sure the Herron phono stage is great. It's also $1000 more than my already stretched budget will allow. (And as others on this thread have already suggested, even the Manley may be more than I need for my current set-up.)

Anyway, thanks for your input. I hope that asking the question I asked didn't somehow imply that I care more about an allegiance to tubes than to the music. That's not at all the case. I'm trying to build a good system that I can eventually just forget about and enjoy my albums.

@12hz, 

I have the Primaluna and a Manley Chinook.  I've used the Chinook with it, a homemade 300B amp, Creek Evolution 100, NAD M22, and a Schitt Freya.  

The Chinook makes a huge difference.  I still think of it (over speakers, tubes, and amps) as my best piece of kit regardless of price.  I was reluctant to buy an expensive (expensive to me) phono pre but did so at the firm recommendations of several folks who I like and trust on the 'Gon.  They were right. 

I do wish the countless loading options were available via dials on the front of the unit as opposed to dip switches on the rear, but, hey, I'm not moving them often after set up anyway.  

I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Now, that said, the Herron is likely a great phono pre worth looking at too.  I'm not familiar with it other than it's top notch reputation. 

The Chinook has a tubey but accurate sound.  It sounds big, luscious, warm and detailed all at once.  Massive soundstage and palpable realness.  
Here is a factory tour:  Manley Labs' Chino, California headquarters
Thanks, @jbhiller. This is the sort of testimonial I was hoping to hear. I really would like to look into the Herron as well, with so much positive feedback about it, but it's over 1K more than the Manley, so I can't really consider it for that reason. The Manley will be expensive for me, as well. (I may be pulling the trigger soon.)

Allnic H-1201 might be better than Manley, ideally you would want to compare before choosing. Used H-1201 should be $1500 or less. It comes with NOS Mullard tubes and you can get replacement from the factory. Not that some other NOS tubes cannot sound better.
Rogue Ares is no slouch, check it out. 
I started with a Pro-Ject Tube box and was pleasantly surprised at the improvement. Then I replaced that with Simaudio's Moon 310LP and 320S combo. Wow, that was a difference! The staging is incredible and the sound very well rounded. 
@12hz    

That's why I said save your money.  Yes, the Herron is a bit more expensive than the others you mentioned, but getting a VTPH-2a will keep you from losing money on trade-ins for upgrades.  

BTW, even if you CAN find a used early model Herron VTPH-1, it will perform as well or better than any of the non-Herron models being discussed in this thread.  

But it's your money and you should spend it however YOU want.  
@12hz,   Yes you have great options to be excited about.  I really cannot comment on stuff I haven't heard and all of it you are getting recs for is solid by reputation.  

All I can say is my Chinook is superlative.  I adore it.  It sits quietly in the rack doing more work, so to speak, than any other element of my system. Great speakers? Check. Great amps? Check.  The Chinook makes them all shine.  The sound is big and fat, fat, fat, fat.  It's sooo smooth.  

I grew up listening to vinyl through my folks.  They are older now and heard it.  They were floored at how clear it is. The gain is stellar.  You cannot go wrong. 

I often think about upgrading stuff.  I'd be spending $6-$10k on speakers and still not swapping out the Chinook.  You sort of know what you know after doing this awhile.  I know the Chinook might be my strongest link.    

I run MC now, but the Chinook was vintagely (not a word) captivating with the Ortofon 2M Black.  I think the Chinook is out of its league but, still, it was intoxicating. 

I'd love to hear a Herron though.  Can't lie. 
I agree with Stevecham's assessment of the Rhea, concerning low level tube rush. But, after 12 years I upgraded my unit to the signature version. Oh, what a difference. Overall a great improvement and a much lower noise floor. The virtues of the Rhea, flexibility and the ability to adjust load and gain from your listening position, became more evident, as I upgraded other sources in my system. Simply musical in either configuration...
I was using the tube box ds as well and my problem was low output ,rega rp 8 ,alphea mc cart .i purchased a used Mac mc100 and wow that solved my problem! Mac 601 mono’s, focal 1038 be.
I managed to find a Herron VTPH 1, here on Agon, and after hearing so much about it, I picked it up.  It blew away my Fosgate and took its place.  I wrote Keith and asked about trading in the VTPH 1 (mm only) for the 2a; he offered me a credit that was exactly what I paid for the '1' so he built a 2a for me.  With my Rega RP10/Apheta2 connected, the music was glorious.  After about 2 months I notice a static like noise on the right channel.  I contacted Keith after doing as much troubleshooting as possible to isolate it the 2a.  He asked me to send it back, which I did.  He could not hear the same noise after listening for a week.  And this next part is why I will never have another phono stage except a Keith Herron designed one.  Keith, without being able to duplicate the noise, decided to build me another 2a rather than return my original.  Yes, that is correct, Keith Herron built another 2a for me and kept my original.  Further investigation, on my end, found the static noise was caused by an external source (computer power supply).  I have been in audio for 55  years and I have never had any manufacturer treat me so well as Keith Herron.  He not only makes the best phono stage, but he is also one of the true gentlemen in this business and that means quite a lot nowadays.
Well I'll put my experience out there. .I have a cary sli80 and upgraded my turntable to a vpi clasic 3 witch I really enjoy. .tried some expensive tube phono stages like rogers pa1a and don't think it's worth the asking price.I'm currently using a rega aria and getting the results I was looking for. .with that said the jc3 from parasound is really nice and there are some good prices on used ones as well..best of luck. 
Well I'll put my experience out there. .I have a cary sli80 and upgraded my turntable to a vpi clasic 3 witch I really enjoy. .tried some expensive tube phono stages like rogers pa1a and don't think it's worth the asking price.I'm currently using a rega aria and getting the results I was looking for. .with that said the jc3 from parasound is really nice and there are some good prices on used ones as well..best of luck. 
This is a great thread because I have been wrestling with a phono stage upgrade. I have an Aesthetix Janus Eclipse, with has the Rhea phono built in. The tube rush makes me crazy so I’ve considered going SS to take that out of the equation. It’s interesting that other Rhea owners experience the same issue. Misery loves company. I’ve been sort of locked-in on Herron or Sutherland. The comments are really helping me. Great post. Good luck. 
Keep the post coming, I'm getting lots of useful info.  Thinking about an upgrade myself.  Running a Jolida JD9, vpi classic 2 and ortofon quintet black.  Looking the parasound jc3+ or the jr.  Going to research the puffin.  Thanks for all the post so far.  Good luck on you journey.
papafrgog, I’ve been using an Aesthetix Rhea for over a decade and I bought it used.

I initially struggled with tube rush and I guess that’s why the original owner unloaded it.

I’d tried all sorts of 12AX7s to tame the tube rush, but to no avail.

In the meantime, I tried several other phono stages, including ARC PH7, Pass Labs XP-15, BAT VK-P10SE with Super Pak, plus a few others I don’t recall.

Although all of the above phono stages are very reputable and were very quite in comparison, but none had the magic I was looking for in my system. So I was stuck with the Rhea.

Not to give up easily, I contacted Aesthetix and asked to sell me a set of selected tubes for the V1 and V2 positions (in your case, it’d be V1 and V2 for phono). These Sovtek tubes were very quiet in comparison to all previous tubes that I’d tried, although the tube rush was still audible with my ears a few feet from the speakers, but I could live with that.

However, the Sovtek tubes were somewhat lacking in terms of body and dynamic (the magic I was after). After reading so much about the Gold Lion B759, I took a plunge and replaced the Sovteks in V1 and V2.

Now the body and dynamic are restored, although at the expense of very slightly increased tube rush.

I went even further as to replace every 12AX7 with Gold Lion B759.
Tube rush is slightly audible at listening position (~12 feet away from the speaker plane) at quiet nights with the needle lifted, which is much better than before.

I am pretty content now.

YMMV and happy listening!
P.S. My best buddy has a regular Janus and he replaced all 12AX7s with Gold Lion B759s. He is happy.
I have a Primaluna HP Integrated and Revel F208s.  I did a big evaluation of phono stages a year ago (over a period of a year), and ended up with the Chinook.  I had the PhonoBox DS in the house for evaluation, and this is my first-hand experience.

I started years ago with the Jolida JD9, had it for several years, and modded several times.  Then went on the upgrade path.  Listened to these:  Chinook, Project PhonoBox RS, Musical Fidelity Nova II battery, TubeBox DS, plus a few others.  I had the MF for 6 months, and then brought back the DS, RS, and later the Chinook to compare.  I really liked the DS.  It had a nice balanced FR, and easy to listen to, but by comparison (especially to the RS) it was a bit noisy.  Better than the Jolida, but still had tube rush in the background.  The RS was far quieter, and the loading options are fantastic.  Next to the MF, the RS was easier to use,  much more musical and easier to listen to... but somehow it was a bit clinical and dry.  So after all was said and done, we ended up with the Musical Fidelity.  But 6 months in, I wasn't happy with it.

Then comes the Chinook.  It was no comparison.  Yes, double the cost, but wow, the improvement.  Even my GF who thinks I'm crazy completely agreed.  It has a more natural sound, never fatiguing, plenty of detail, fantastic separation of the instruments, great soundstage.  Love it.  When I put NOS tubes into it, it was just the perfect icing on top of an excellent cake.  I have the NOS tubes that now come in the Upscale Audio SE version.

One day, a local guy contacted me and asked me to bring the Chinook over for a comparo.  He had the Allnic, Herron, Sutherland 20/20 in house, and we listened to them compared to the Chinook on a VERY fine system... $25k TT, for example.  My evaluation (blinded as best we could) I liked the Chinook most, then Herron, Allnic and Sutherland.  The Herron was a bit more forward in his setup than the Chinook.  All sounded excellent.  But, I liked the tone and balance of the Chinook best.  Of the 7 or so who voted, Chinook was the winner, but only by one vote.  Herron was second.  

Now, to answer your question, we could probably agree (or not) that Herron could be better in some systems, and Chinook in others.  But, the Herron costs double.  So, for me, moving up from $800 Jolida to $2500 (retail) Chinook, I don't see a reason to go up to almost $4k for the minimal difference in sound quality.  For another $1500, I'd expect to be blown away, and I wasn't.

The difference from the $1k MF or Project RS, or even the $800 TubeBox DS... the step up in sound quality was definitely worth it.  After evaluating and comparing phono stages for a year or more, we've settled on the Chinook and have had it over a year.  

Long answer, but yes I did this same upgrade as you are considering, and yes, it was worth it.
By the way, I don't think Chinook is over the top for your setup.  The Primaluna and the Chinook are a fantastic match, and will support what you have as well as many future upgrades.  IMO, with these two components, you have a long term system.  Tweak tubes or cables, change speakers or turntable, but keep these two components.  They are a good team!
I have both the Manley Chinook and the EAR 834P. FWIW, here are my impressions.
Both are excellent overall. I prefer the Chinook with MM cartridges, and the EAR with low output cartridges. Maybe it’s because the EAR has step ups for mc.  With the Chinook I alway use an outboard step-up for mc cartridges.
I have both the Manley Chinook and the EAR 834P. FWIW, here are my impressions.
Both are excellent overall. I prefer the Chinook with MM cartridges, and the EAR with low output cartridges. Maybe it’s because the EAR has step ups for mc.  With the Chinook I alway use an outboard step-up for mc cartridges.
Back in the day I was blown away by the legendary Magnepan Tympani IVa , when the dealer insisted on showing me the ARC SP8 (phono/pre). The phono made more difference than the best speaker made !!! 

So yes - get the best phono you can stretch to afford and keep it forever. My opinion.
Regarding cwb3rd’s post about Keith Herron above: your customer service from Keith is not unique. I have experienced the same level of above-and-beyond service from him over the years. It started the very first day that I received the VTPH2 (now upgraded to 2A). It was 10 pm, I was trying to connect it to my integrated amp, and having problems. I emailed Keith, expecting to have to wait until at least the next day to get his reply and hear my new preamp. Moments later, he called me and very patiently helped me figure out the problem and walked me through the setup. That was just the first of many times he has provided similarly great service (and NO-that does not mean I’ve had problems with the VTPH, just that I have had many questions and requests as my other components and cartridges have changed, and I’ve upgraded it). This is just how Keith is. One of the true gentlemen (and most definitely a “scholar”—he knows his engineering and music) in the hi fi business.  To be clear: I don’t have any connection to him other than being a happy customer. The VTPH2A is a fantastic piece. I will never sell it! Best of luck to you.
Now, to answer your question, we could probably agree (or not) that Herron could be better in some systems, and Chinook in others.  But, the Herron costs double.  So, for me, moving up from $800 Jolida to $2500 (retail) Chinook, I don't see a reason to go up to almost $4k for the minimal difference in sound quality.  For another $1500, I'd expect to be blown away, and I
wasn't.

@soundermn:
Thanks so much for that detailed input. My thoughts exactly in terms of the jump in price to the Herron. It gets to the heart of my original post—I want to be blown away if I’m spending this much money on a component. I’m feeling more confident now about making this purchase and what it will yield in terms of a step-up in sound quality. 
mmai -  Thanks so much for the info. I talked with Glenn at Aesthetix and he gave some tube ideas so I rolled out of the ElectroHarmonix and Sovteks. Ive got NOS Telefunken in the phono stage now. Lush sound, but alot of rush at my listening levels. But I have no point of reference. So your info is helpful. I could probably live with rush at the level you’re describing. For no particular reason, I haven’t tried Gold Lions but I definitely will. I’m all for a solution under $8,000 - so I can get that Lyra cartridge instead!!