Having gone the path of similar considerations, I'd opt for long term happiness and buy as good a phono stage as I'd feel comfortable buying. Then I'd settle for a lesser cartridge at first, knowing I'll upgrade in the future. After all, the stylus does wear out. Rather than any of your fist choices, I'd buy a used/demo Parasound JC-3 or a RCM Sensor Prelude. Mehran at Sorasound might have a demo RCM Sensor available sometimes at your price point. A lower priced phono stage I'd also check out is the Heed Quasar @ $1100.
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There is a Conrad-Johnson Motif 7 that is a solid state preamp with phono for both MC and MM. You should check it out in the archives. It is listed for $1,100.00 or make offer. My son has one of the Motif's, forget which, a two box system, that has a very good sound if a bit to forward for my tastes. I prefer a sitting in the 6th to 10 row center aisle, others want a more forward presentation. Given that I am familiar with the Ortofon Kontropunts A, B, and C, they also have a bit of a laid back not in your face presentation and should be within your budget. Hope that helps, I am not familiar with enough of your selections to give a valid opinion on them, hence my suggestions.
In general I would say get a better phono stage and I think you know I think v highly of the ZYX Artisan. Photon46 maks a very good point about the cart being a wear item and so will be replaced in the normal course of events anyways. One other thought about the cart is that you do not want to get too far ahead of the tonearm quality-wise since the arm and cart form a mechanical system that converts the physical groove modulations into voltage modulations. The two parts of that system has to be compatible for it to function properly. I am not familiar w that arm so I can't comment on the cart.
The rest of my equipment is:
Naim CD5X CD player
Naim Flatcap2X power supply for CDP
Naim Nait 5i2 amplifier
Tannoy Turnberry SE speakers
While I listen to a wide variety of music I am a lot into Classic Rock (Fleetwood mac types), Swing Jazz and Blues.
Tone and Timing are the first two things I look for in a system, followed by Dynamics and then resolution. Other audiophile attributes like soundstage, extreme transparency, focus etc are not something I look for, if it is there it is a bonus. If you are familiar with the Naims or the Tannoy prestige line, you can see what I mean better.
$300 for a Denon 103r, and the remainder on a Parasound JC3 phono pre... That's the way I would go.
I currently use a Denon 103Pro, I dont find the resolution good enough. My CD player beats it.
There seems to be multiple recommendations of Parasound JC3 phonostage. I never thought about that phonostage it is hardly discussed.
Really? It's been widely reviewed and in glowing terms in both the online and paper mags.
It would certainly be top of my list in that price bracket.
Get the GCPH and Cadenza Red. Both sound extremely good; I've had both the GCPH and the predecessor Ortofon Kontrapunkt ("a" and "c") in my system, and have fond memories of them. I've also extensively heard the 2M Black, which is an awesome cart - but the Cadenza/Kontrapunkt is better if your phono stage can handle a low-MC, and the GCPH surely can. The Kontrapunkt/Cadenza line is fantastically musical; my hangup on the higher-end Jubilee/Windfeld is that they're too analytical...and kinda bright.
I'm also a tube fanatic, and I'm not sure you're going to significantly outperform the GCPH without spending much more money OR stepping up to tubes.
As someone who appreciates the timing, tone, & timbre virtues of Naim, I suspect you'd greatly appreciate the same virtues evident in the RCM Sensor. The Parasound and RCM both operate in that category of (sorry for the overused, tired phrase) "punching above their weight class." The Parasound offers much higher name recognition, more handsome casework, and convenience of a single chassis. The RCM offers many more adjustments of impedance and gain, a separate power supply, and less appealing looks to my eye. In the end, I chose function over form and went with the RCM.
But photon46 isnt the RCM much more expensive (somewhere around $3k) ? I have heard the RCM in an Avid + ZYX setup and liked it quite a lot. I am considering it pretty seriously now. It has great drive and timing, very airy and clean as well. Tonally it could have been a touch warmer but I am not sure, the rest of the setup also contributes to the tone so who knows. Have you heard the Naim Superline by any chance ?
Regarding the cartridge, will a ZYX R50 bloom be an upgrade over Denon 103pro ?
Yes the retail price is $3k, but if you call Mehran at Sorasound in San Francisco, Ca., he might be able to help you with a demo piece. Sometimes, depending on circumstances, some latitude in pricing might be possible. He's a very nice guy and is a great resource for vinyl hardware. I've only seen one for sale used over the years here on Audiogon, so it seems most folks who buy them hang on to them. If the RCM proves not to be option, I'm sure a demo/used Parasound phono stage will pop up for sale and make you very happy.
I've not heard the Naim Superline. As to the ZYX R50 vs. Denon, I can't help you. I'll confess that I'm not that much of a fan of the Denon cartridges I've heard. Right now, the main cartridge I'm using is an Ortofon Kontrapunkt H and will upgrade to a Cadenza black in the future. I could see how someone might prefer a slight bit of additional warmth in the RCM if the rest of the vinyl chain, audio system, or room had any tendency to brightness. I find the RCM a quite neutral conduit. I like the idea of a transparent phono stage and adding needed warmth though your choice of cartridge.
Photon46, I contacted Mehran for the RCM phonostage. He indeed has one demo set for sale. But he is reluctant to sell it to me because he says there is already an RCM dealer in Singapore so I should buy from him. I would like to talk to you over email regarding this, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss a little more on this.