Separates are nice...I mean Phonostage & Preamp. The choice is yours, or U can go Preamp w/ intergrated phono stage. Decide this issue firstly.
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Based on your budget, I suggest you consider the Lehmann Black Cube, and maybe one of Graham Slee's units. Prior to buying my current phono pre, I owned the Black Cube with the upgraded power supply, and was very pleased with its performance for the price. If you have about $750 to spend, there is also an Acoustech PH-P1 currently for sale here on A-gon, and it is a lot more unit for the extra $50.
I would strongly recommend considering a Heed Quasar. At $995 new it's
severly underpriced. I suspect when you hear it, the extra $300 over your
stated budget will not be an issue.
I recently compared the Quasar to a Pass Labs Xono ($2995), and while the
Xono is the better phono pre because of it's accuracy, transparency and
flexibility, I ultimately found it rather boring.
The Heed is a very close second in the cerebral qualities, but it is head and
shoulders above the Xono in the emotional qualities (at least it was in my
The Heed gets my head bobbing and my toes tapping.
I purchased mine from Blackbird Audio Gallery, who offered a two week
Thanks to everyone for all the imput and time!! Lots of great ideas. I think I am going to just PICK one unit and see where I go. I don't think there is another way to do this. I have gone through this process with other pieces of equipment and have found there is no short cut, but that's what keeps it fun and interesting. Thanks again to everyone for there insight.