Is it really worth it to get a phono stage over $10k


Vinyl has been a steep learning curve. I have, I think, a nice John Curl phono boards built into my Audible Illusions M3B. I am considering getting the new AI PH-1 $11.5 phono stage. Art Ferris at AI  says that this two box unit, also designed by John Curl, is no compromise able to match or beat the best available. Curl did design the two Constellation PS-Andromeda and Perseus. I wonder if the $35k Perseus puts a lot of $ into the beautiful chassis and unnecessary bell and whistles? AI does have a long lived reputation for value and quality. In addition to the outboard phono stage I will have to get a really good interconnect which will add a lot. My analog rig is super good. Surely the best I have ever had. Woodsong Garrard 301, Ortophon 309 arm, Myajima Shalabi. It has me going a bit nuts in upgrading. $33k Tetra speakers, $7k Stealth speaker cable, $4k Stealth phono cable, amp-to be decided. The main question is whether an expensive our board phono stage is the way to go.
mglik
your tt, arm and cartridge are very good. and will be able to take advantage of the next level of phone stage beyond where you are.

i’ve had the CTC Blowtorch preamp in my system many years ago, which had Curl’s Vendetta phono circuit. so i know that sound.

yes; there is a ’next’ level of phono stages.

one version of the next level, especially with your beautiful Garrard 301, would be to use a MM 40db output and get a silver wound SUT. i just acquired the silver EMIA 1:10 SUT for my Etsuro Gold cartridge on the Saskia idler turntable and it’s a match made in heaven. not familiar enough with the M3B to know if it has a MM input.

http://myemia.com/SUT.html

a great silver wound SUT brings a level of sexyness that has to be heard to be believed. not cheap, but not crazy expensive either.
I think you can certainly do better than your current AI preamp, and you don’t have to spend $11.5K to achieve that goal.I personally am not a huge fan of John Curl phono stages I have heard, but that doesn’t mean you need to be restrained by my opinion. He is certainly good at what he does. But there are many others who are also very good at designing phono stages.

Mike, what did you think of the CTC blowtorch, when you had it in your system? It would seem that you didn’t fall completely in love, or else you would still own it.
I personally think you are better off sticking with what you have. Using an outboard phono preamp is asking for more noise. You have more connections, redundant power supplies and metal. If John Curl designed your circuits you are indeed blessed. 
 I think Constellation and Boulder are having a competition for who can charge the most for their equipment and who can make the amp with the most CNCed aluminum. At least with Atma-Sphere you get a beautifully point to point, hand wired device so you know a large percentage of the cost is going to American labor not Japanese Robots.
Had to loose my MM stage in the M3B when installing the John Curl gold phono boards. And 2 interconnects is prohibitive. But I well know the value of a silver transformer. I had 2 once in my Music First TVC. Incredible detail and flesh! But I think a great outboard phono stage should be also a major improvement. And I know the legendary John Curl Vendetta Research phono stage. Very rare used. And his Constellation PSs are impressive.
@lewm

Mike, what did you think of the CTC blowtorch, when you had it in your system? It would seem that you didn’t fall completely in love, or else you would still own it.

this was in 2002 when my friend and dear departed Bob Crump (the second ’C’ in CTC) visited me and left me his Blowtorch for a few days to try in my system. at that time i was using a Lamm LP2 phono + a passive Placette RVC. my view was that the Vendetta phono was very dynamic, but also a bit ’hard’ and slightly metallic sounding....not my cup of tea.

so i never owned it or lived with it long term. at that time i had 75 watt Tenor OTL amplifiers, and Kharma Exquisite 1D speakers. this was a year before i moved to my new home with the barn.
I am actually very attracted to the Zesto idea of what music sounds like. I have mentioned this before in threads and don’t want to perseverate. But I did fall for the classic tube sound. Never heard a phono stage that grabbed me like that entry level Zesto. And now they have a Deluxe that uses 4 instead of 2 step up transformers of higher quality and quality and overall better. And I now do know about the benefit of using step up transformers. The Deluxe Zesto is $6900 compared to the Andros 1.2 at $4700. And, even though some question the cosmetics of Zesto Audio, I think they are, by far, the most beautiful components ever! Big WAF...
And, even though some question the cosmetics of Zesto Audio, I think they are, by far, the most beautiful components ever! Big WAF...
George Counnas’s wife Carolyn does the industrial design for Zesto......very nice lady. always enjoy their rooms, and seeing them at shows.

i like their gear too, it’s maybe a bit ’tubey’ sounding for me, if only a bit. that's for my particular system.
Worth, as anything else subjective, is in the eye of the beholder.
I love “tubey”! Think I have answered my own question.I heard the Andros in the Zesto room at RMAF and, to me, it was the best sound at the show. And the system was not expensive. Don’t remember the front end and the amp but the speakers were the $3.5k Fritz with the berillium tweeters. Shout out to Fritz.
The sound was delicious. I went back at the day’s end to have wine and cheese and luxuriate in the sound. Aside from the price difference, I clearly am a SET guy and think I may be able to match a great SS amp with good headroom and still enjoy the joys of tubes with a Zesto! I do so enjoy the wonderfully educational experience of participating in the Forum!
The Soundsmith Strain Gauge should be considered a strong contender in the $10k range. Read the reviews and threads. For $8k you get a cartridge that many say goes head to head with the very finest cartridges- and that is when the $10k+ cartridges are used with $10k+ phono stages. The SG is a complete system that eliminates the need for a phono stage.  

The SG also offers an upgrade path with several different options for aftermarket power supplies. With these the SG is said to perform at the level of some of the worlds finest cost no object phono stages. 

Lastly, unlike all the other options at this level the SG is so far as I know unique in the stylus being very affordable and even user-replaceable if a spare is ordered with the cartridge. Even if ordered later replacements are still very reasonable, you just have to send the cart back as Peter matches the stylus to each individual cartridge.


My analog rig is super good. Surely the best I have ever had. Woodsong Garrard 301, Ortophon 309 arm, Myajima Shalabi.


Why not upgrade your cartridge first ? After Shilabe Miyajima released Kansui and Madake. Before you will change a phono stage you could upgrade your Shilabe at least to Kansui, everyone who owned Shilabe and Kansui quickly realized which one is better. 
I have had many phono stages i am using TW ACUSTIC RPS100 phono stage it is 18K.Built wise and sonically it is the best by far it is tube based (2 6DJ8 2 12AX7).I think it is worth every penny.You can easily switch cartridge loading,record curves.etc.Any great phono stage is worth it if you have the records to go with it i have over 5000 LPs mostly classical,some jazz,blues etc. ENJOY!!!
If you are going to spend that kind of money on a phono stage you might want to talk to Dave Slagle.  He wind his own iron and he knows what music sounds like.  Have him build you a lcr phono with silver wire if you are so inclined.  If you are a SET man he is the guy to talk to.  

You can talk over the sound you are looking for then decide which tubes to use, then custom build the lcr and sut's to match.

Enjoy the ride
Tom
Consider the Doshi Alaap. New price was 14.5K. I purchased mine here for 6K -6.5K,
forgot. I use it with SETs (45 & 300B Wavelength)). Very Nice, EBM!! 👍
+1 for Dave Slagle. He is also a designer of EMIA, mentioned by Mike Lavigne.
Absolutely YES.We build a custom phono stage point to point wired, 30 lb power supply, custom transformers, best capacitors, best resistors to our ears, and it is simply better than anything we have heard or repaired. Tube unit and dead quiet.  Reference sound quality. When we sent to VPI, they told us that they never heard sound like that before.

Happy Listening.
It depends on your income.
Yes.  Better is always good.  I have recently upgraded from Audio Research to van den Hul The Grail SE and the improvement is big.  But not 5x bigger reference the relative prices.  More like a 9.5 against a 7.  I don't say 10 because I haven't heard the $40,000+ units that cost more than 2x the Grail.  There is always an opportunity to spend more dough.  Diminishing returns are alive and thriving in the high-end world and will remain so.
It was worth it to me, in my system.

@mglik,Last fall I was in the same position. Had tried over 10 phono stages (bought and sold, so was able to live with them for a few months) in the 2K to 8K range. Some were better than others, and some were no better than what I was using at the time (hot rodded Manley chinook).
So finally took the plunge. All I can say it there are several out there in that price range. Make sure you get one that has really beefy dual mono transformers.

I have never heard the dynamics and impact like I have now, inner detail and imaging have improved. There is an ease to the sound I have never heard from an LP before. I also have quite a collection of 15 ips half track tapes. have to say LP playback got much closer to tape than I would have envisioned.

so would say if you can work out an extended trial period, def do so.
And like you I was pretty sure the  purchase was not going to be worth the money, and I would hear little or no difference between a five figure phono stage and what I had been using. found out I was wrong in the first 10 seconds of use.

hope this helps.


You’ve wasted that much money on cables and you’re questioning spending money on a better phono stage?
There's a Herron listed here on Agon! Worth acquiring!
I actually owned a Sao Win table and strain gauge decades ago. It never worked. Sent it back to Sao with the preamp and he and it disappeared and never answered my calls... but that is another story. The Soundsmith Strain Gauge seem like a logical solution and a good value. I understand running it directly to the amp is the way to go. I could sell my preamp and cartridge. Big change. Is it really the way to go? Although I am most attracted to the Zesto. Love that sound and the look!
I have a Rogue Audio Ares Magnum phono stage with AMG turntable and AMG 12" turbo arm and Ortofon Cadenza Black cart (preamp and amp are Rogue RP7 and Stereo 100).  The sound is very very good-- call it an 8/10.  But, I want more articulation, more 3-D soundstage, more instrumental separation and more "natural" timbre of the instruments (I listen to classical and jazz). 

Immediately before Covid, I went to SoundSmith in Peeksklll NY and listened (using my LPs) to the strain gauge (SG-6 stylus) on their system which included VPI turntable, their SS electronics and their bookshelf speakers.  The sound can only be described as remarkable--  9/10.  Immense soundstage, superb separation of instruments, remarkable articulation and the instruments sound true.    There was a clarity, immediacy, and character that surpassed my candenza black system.

The strain gauge system does NOT require a phono amp (it comes with its own, so to speak) so the cost is in reality very reasonable.  The stylus/cantilever assembly are user replaceable and the costs is roughly $1000 for the top of the line SG-6 assembly.  So, ongoing costs are much less than MC or MM carts in the same league. Allegedly, the strain gauge also does not wear the vinyl as much as traditional carts which is also a consideration.  The SG6 also tracks better and "deeper" in the groove which helps with older LPs.

Yes, I have ordered my SG-200 with SG6 stylus (along with two replacement assemblies for future use).  Unfortunately for me, there is now a 6-8 week backlog, so it will be a while before I can enjoy the sound in my own home.  But, do consider this "alternative" to upgrading the phono amp.
Yes, most definitely. I have the Pass XP-27 and it out performs most listed here in the thread. 
It can only be justified, though, by how much vinyl you actually listen to.
It depends on how much you value you impart to listening to a diamond scrape on a cheap piece of plastic.
I would audition a Herron Audio VTPH-2A before spending more.
As with all audio components and any other manufactured item for that matter.  The more you spend the less increase in perceived performance. 
Called diminishing returns.  I have always dreamed of getting a Coda phono section but just can't justify the additional expense over a $1000 to $1500 retail piece.
At the end of  the day it is your budget and your wallet.  So blow your money on what makes you happy.
There are only about 3 persons in our forum who are rich. So this
question is not relevant for the rest of us. 
Since people have mentioned the Zesto Andros 1.2 and the Manley Chinook in this thread, I’ll chip in with my two-penneth. I went from Manley Chinook to Zesto 1.2 and I’m currently using the Allnic H-1202 on loan from Hammertone Audio in Canada. [https://www.hammertoneaudio.com]

The progression from Chinook to Zesto was more about personal preference than the superiority of one over the other. The Chinook was warm and musical and instantly identifiable as a tube phono. The Zesto was cleaner, more detailed, more dynamic, more analytical. I chose the Zesto over the Chinook. Thinking I’d probably hit a reasonable point on the scale, where the laws of diminishing returns would kick in and negate the need to rise beyond the Zesto level of performance, the Allnic H-1202 came along. The Allnic set a new benchmark, yet it’s their entry-level unit. It’s neither overly warm nor overly analytical, it kinda pulls the qualities of the Chinook and Zesto together and combines them. It’s a knock-out unit for under $4k. (the Zesto was closer to $5k)
So I think ’yes’, it’s worth trying something different, but ’no’ it doesn’t necessarily mean spending north of $10K to get a substantial improvement. I used even more words to say the same thing here https://audioresurgence.com/2020/03/allnic-audio-h-1202-phono-preamp-review.html

For context, Origin Live Resolution MKIV with all upgrades, OL Illustrious arm with silver hybrid cable, ZYX Ulti 100/z

Rooze
Decided on the $6.9k Zesto Deluxe. Seems other than features, it is very similar to the $12k top line one. Love the sound and the look.
The cosmetic is unique and the wife likes it...