I would go for 4 & 1, because:
*I like the Io & the Steelhead riaa's, obviously. I liked these better than the ARC. Of course, all are exquisite sounding.
*I like to drive the amp directly, and don't feel the need for the extra db the line part will give (my amps have over 47kOhm input impedance -- so a sort of OK load).
*If I felt the need for extra amplification (a line), I would stick with either Aesthetix or Manley -- probably the latter (there's slightly less tube maintenance required and I'm getting older & poorer)
The Wavac phono could also be considered (with passive riaa equalisation & transformer coupled attenuators). It's astronomically priced, as you can imagine...
I dared listen to one recently (I mean, it was free to listen to... you never know at these prices:)). Well, superlatives don't serve anymore, and since I will never be able to buy such a product, I thought I'd just mention it for academic reasons...
I have a great deal of experience with all of the pieces you mention. I am also a dealer for a few. The Colibri is my favorite cartridge...fantastic!
My favorite on your list would be the Manley Steelhead for a number of reasons.
1. On-the-fly adjustments for extreme flexibility.
2. Great customer service and loyalty from one of the best audio companies around.
3. Extremely solid and reliable product.
4. Tubes that are easy to roll for tailoring to a particular sound.
5. Ability to run without an additional linestage.
6. Solid bass and phenominal detail with a very linear sound.
I've used my VDH black beauty ( 0.5 mV at 500 Ohm) with ARC SP-11 MKII, counterpoint SA-5000, Marantz 7C with counterpoint SA-2 active step up, HK Citation I with Music Reference RM-4 step up. All sound different. Not sure what you're looking to get out of the Colibri. You need an extremely quiet and black background phono playback for the VDH cartridge.
The ARC SP-11 was a bit underpower for my setup but it sounds big but lack of punch. The Counterpoint is nice and sweet with slower rhythum. Smaller, and more conerntrated mid range. One of the most articulate vocal you'll ever hear. The Marantz 7C is nice and warm but lack of fullness of the Counterpoint SA-5000 and lack of cleaness of the ARC SP-11. When combined with Counterpoint head amp, it is a bit softer but not as sweet tone. Sound stage is slightly bigger than counterpoint SA-5000. The HK Citation I is also one of the great vintage preamp for MM. Using it with Music reference RM-4 head amp, the unit is very close to ARC sound with more authority. smoother and warmer sounding than SP-11 MKII.
Aside from my own setup (with my limited budget), I prefer 2,3 and 5 choices. The line stage is quite important too. It helps balance the signal before it gets to the amplifier stage. Ineed a bad line stage can introduce color into the sound.
Zender, you haven't described the rest of your system or your tastes so everything I say will have to be taken in context. First, I have to say that as a former owner of three different Colibris, I know it's sound and strengths fairly well. When properly set-up and mated, it can be devastatingly fast, detailed and can lay it all out there for you to hear. However, in MY experience, it can also sound sibilant, a bit thin and tilted up if everything else in the chain is not either set up properly or compatible with or complimentary of the Colibri's strengths.
Next, I have owned the the Lamm LP2, the original Io, the Io Signature (both with and without dual power supplies) and the latest Manley Steelhead.
From the standpoint of easy adjustability, obviously the Manley is the best option. Personally, I much prefer the Io Signature for a couple of reasons -- for MY tastes, the Io Sig has a bigger presentation, better dynamics, increased separation of instruments and voices and a better ease of presentation (effortlessness, if you will). I am not saying the Manley is a slouch, but for me and 4 of my analog buddies, we all agreed, the Io Sig brought new life to my analog rig. My comparisons are based on STOCK tubes in both.
I must also admit that I did NOT tube roll with the Manley (which I understand can improve it noticably per my friends) and that I NOW have tube rolled with my Io and it can truly be tailored to suit your needs with tube changes. Tube rolling will be more costly with the Io as you know, so if funds or hassling with many tubes ain't yer cuppa tea, again the Manley is the better choice. Tube rolling can also make the Io MUCH quieter (which has been a knock against it vis a vis the Manley by some).
Next, if you are NOT doing analog, I wouldn't bother even considering a line stage and the attendant cost (e.g., not just the line stage but the additional power cord and interconnect) or placing another component in the chain. So, if you are JUST doing analog, go with the Io or Manley with volume controls (I am NOT saying that some do not prefer running the phono stage through a good line stage). I use a line stage for my digital and phono so I do not need the volume control.
On the issue of reliability, I previously reviewed the original Io for Ultimate Audio Magazine way back in 2000. At that time, after my review, I and some of my friends experienced some problems with our Ios. Jim White always fixed them quickly and without charge but I was losing faith in the unit. Since then, I learend that there were defective Mills resistors in the units (in fact, I was informed that Jim White won a lawsuit against Mills) and Jim has replaced or offered to replace all Mills resistors in existing units (with Roedersteins) for free. Since I got my Io Signature, it has been totally problem free and Jim White is a pleasure to deal with and his customer service is great!
Finally, the Io has easily adjustible gain (even without the volume controls) and loading.
In this league of phono stages, it really comes down to personal preferences. Since I like the lifelike presentation and since I value effortlessness and great macro and microdynamics, I sold my Manley for the Io Sig. But, as always, your mileage may vary (particularly if your table/arm and system synergy dictate otherwise).
I hope this helps
THANKS A LOT.
You all were very helpful.
Fmpnd, could you also point out any possible upgrade for the stock tubes of the Signature IO?
Which one could you suggest to have it quieter?
And more, do you suggest the second power supply or not?
Is the io easly convertible to 220 volts or does it need to be factory changed?
And, moreover, how do you consider the choice of Aesthetix in making the balanced circuit beginning from the second stage and leaving the first unbalanced?
Could it be considered a minus?
I've heard the Colibri on a Rockport System III through an updated Vendetta and it just about cracked the slab compared to the tube unit the customer had been using......These aren't easy to find used and my partner takes his time with the updates, but it works really well with the Colibri.....The Generation II Vendetta will be out the end of the year........
There are a number of posts on tube rolling for the Io here on A-Gon and many by Albert Porter who has a TON of experience with this unit. A search on "Aesthetix Io" would likely reveal them. There are a number of different tubes to suit different tastes.
For lower noise, I use, as recommended by Albert and others, Telefunken 12AX7s. You can start in the first gain stage (most important) and then experiment from there. They can also be used in the power supply. Many replace the stock 6SN7s with RCA Red base 5692s (I currently have these but am going to try Brinmars and Ken Rads) and replace the stock 6922s with various 6DJ8/6922/7308s. My friend Kevin Tellecamp at Silent Running Audio and I bought and REALLY like the tubes and great customer service we get from Bruce Winger at BWS Consulting (www.bws-tube.com) who provided all the NOS tubes we needed and guarantees satisfaction.
I am using NOS Amperex EL-34s in the power supply where Albert likes Mullards. I also use a Russian 6922 alternative where Albert like Mullards (I usually like Amperex 7308s but didn't like them in this unit for some reason).
As for the second power supply, it really is a cost/benefit analysis based on your own finances and preferences. FOR me, it added a bit (not a ton) of slam, transparency and slightly improved dynamics. If your funds allow it, go for it. If not, you probably won't be unhappy with one.
As for the 220 conversion, I doubt it would be difficult but I would call Jim White for the real answer.
I posted a similar question here last year. I recall that Albert Porter and another member here, both with phenomenol systems, preferred their systems with a line stage rather than using the Io straight into their amps. They both claimed there was more dynamics to the sound perhaps due to the additional headroom of the line stage. You may want to do a search here for that discussion as it could prove to be valuable for you. Ultimately I went with the Aesthetix IO and BAT 31SE combo.
Jafox, your post made me want to slightly clarify my previous post. I may have been the other person you are referring to (maybe not) so I do not want to seem to be contradicting myself. My advice to Zender about going with the phono stage with volume controls is more a theoretical suggestion as I have always used a line stage. As you know, conventional wisdom would dictate that less in the signal path is better. However, my own personal tastes would probably also weigh on the side of using the line stage for the reasons you mentioned. Since I need a line stage for digital, I haven't had to really face the issue.
However, I CAN say this -- when I had the Manley Steelehead, I tried bypassing my line stage and ran my CDP without a line stage using the Manley's "line in" option and I MUCH preferred using my line stage. I also made one short comparison where I ran my analog rig through my Steelhead AND my linestage (my normal set-up) versus using the Manley's volume control. In that situation I preferred running the Manley through the line stage but I didn't verify this with any long term listening.
Just a thought on running digital through the Io with volume control... With the volume control option, Jim includes a single switched high level input. So, the design accomodates an additional high level source, whether CD, tuner or other. To accomodate multiple additonal sources, one is faced with inserting a separate switch box or with swapping the interconnect among sources. I've chosen to do the latter in switching between CD or Tuner. Inelegant, but effective. And it may work for me only because I listen to vinyl 95% of the time anyway.
Also, keep in mind that the Io's second input inserts ahead of the last active gain stage. This means it avoids the issues that exist with a purely passive volume control set-up. I don't know if the Manley does this as well, or whether the Manley inserts directly ahead of the volume control in a purely passive arrangement. And, keep in mind that the volume control used in the Io is the same incredibly high quality volume control used in the Callisto line stage. Perhaps Fmpnd can shed some light on whether the Steelhead's design is similar or different. If different, that might account for his strong preference for the linestage with the Steelhead.
At the same time, I've also read Albert Porter's comments about preferring the Io and Callisto in combination to the Io solo. All I will add is that I'm using the Io Signature alone with a 0.4mv output cartridge, and the dynamics seem without limit. (Using the dual power supplies option does have an impact on dynamics.) If the addition of a Callisto linestage is even better, wonderful! But, the Io Signature with volume control and dual power supplies is pretty doggone incredible, too. I don't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who listens primarily to vinyl and who is willing to take a minimalist approach to inputs, outputs and other switchable features.
One more vote for Bruce Wenger at BWS consulting. Great guy. Like Frank said, Bruce re-tubed his IO, my brother Kevin, and mine as well. Frank, that's like 50K in tubes, LOL!!
Chris, I actually had to sell my dentures and put my wife out on the street to afford those tubes but, hey, it was worth it! LOL ~!!!!!!
I have an Io signature w/ volume controls. I run cartridges with lower output than the Colibri with no sense of loss in dynamics...but then I have never tried , in my system, a comparable line stage to run through. Some with more sophisticated systems do run a line stage as well.
My decision to run Io alone was for simplicity and cost as I play mostly vinyl. The efficiency of the system further down plays a roll in the virtues of a line stage with the Io. I have tried the Steelhead and the Io was more to my liking in my system...but at it's price vs. the Io the Steelhead is a "bargain". There are some here with the Io and big Sound Labs etc. that abide by the line stage approach. The drive to get those beasts going starts with the phono and line stage so the extra swing may be beneficial in these state of the art systems. For my more moderate tastes the Io alone does not leave much to be desired...presently I'm content....but I'd like to hear more on the +'s and -'s of line stage vs. no line stage Good Luck, AJ