I would consider the new Fosgate as one option or the new Musical Design form John Hillig.
The Aesthetix, the Thore, and the LAMM are significantly better but .....$$$$
The Aesthetix, the Thore, and the LAMM are significantly better but .....$$$$
Upon rereading my question, let me be more specific. First, apologies for the misspelling.
It appears that K and K has always received favorable comments. I know about the background with Art Audio.
Also, in terms of "value at the price point" there's no arguement about K and K being a no-brainer choice.
But how does it compare to Manley, Lamm, Rhea, etc.?
Does the fact that it's a kit, and Kevin's skill, make up for the thousands of bucks the others cost?
The odds that anyone has heard all of the top phono stages in a system that they are familiar with is small and they certainly did not hear them with YOUR ears. They will all sound different and it is likely that the more expensive ones will sound better but there is no guarantee that they will or that any improvement will be worth the cost. I just changed from a Musical Fidelity Kw phono to a Asr Basis Exclusive, both of which were listed in Stereophile Class A at the same time. The Basis is considerably better to my ears and my friends ears, as it should be at the difference in cost. But I paid less than 30% of current retail for a used one. My advice is to try to listen to as many as you can and when you find one you like get it and don't worry about whether there is a better one or not. And even if they are "better" you may not like them as well.
A year ago, I auditioned the Allnic 3000, ASR Basis Exclusive 2008, and Wavestream Kinetics in my system. The Allnic was very liquid and palpable, but ultimately not realistic in the attack and transcients to my ears. Plus, it hummed slightly, which turns out to be not uncommon with this unit unless the power supply is located very far from the phono stage. The ASR could have been a strong contender but it hummed so loudly in my system that I thought it would damage my speakers. Don't know why. I couldn't track down the source of the hum, and no other component in my system has ever reacted like that. Plus, IMO, it's ridiculously cumbersome, with two huge and weighty pieces connected by a hawser-sized umbilicus that's permanently affixed to one. Others might find its size to be of no consequence. Certainly, it has a great reputation and typically does not hum, according to my dealer and the distributor. The Wavestream was warm, inviting, and palpable but not quite dynamic enough, IMO. Apparently, Brian could include different caps to improve the dynamics, but I wasn't convinced.
The K&K Maxxed Out was, on the whole, better than any of them to my ears, combining the fullness of the Wavestream with excellent transient attack and detail. It didn't offer the most in any one category but offered a surprisingly balanced sound across all categories of evaluation. And it's quiet. And that was before Kevin's most recent upgrades, which are supposed to be a significant improvement. (I've had them installed but I haven't actually heard them yet because I'm waiting for a new turntable to arrive.)
I was quite ready to spend $8K+ on these other phono stages. I'm glad I didn't have to. The K&K is a very good sounding piece, IMO, and a great deal. Kevin will build one for you inexpensively if you'd like; that's the route I took. He'll even customize it. For example, I had him install a dial on the back to adjust capacitance loading so i could play with MM cartridges. And he's a straight shooter.
For reference, my system at the time of audition was comprised of a Reference Line class A SS amp, Bent Audio TAP-X AVC passive, Vandersteen 3A Sig speakers, Michell Orbe SE, Graham 2.2, Shelter 901.
I have the K&K Phono SE, the predessor to the Maxxed out and by chance , have compared with quite a few other phono stages.
Firstly I should saty it is by some margin, the best stage I have had in my system. I have used the Pre stage in a Graaf 13.5 pre, a Tome Evans micro groove+ and lastly, a Clearaudio reference. It was better than all of them, particularly better than the Clearaudio, which is quite a bit more expensive. Much more life and dynamics than the Clearaudio, which is lifeless in comparison.
Since then, I did an A/B comparison with the Whest 20, I believe. A Good stage, but I preferred the K&K. I do'nt know if it is the tubes, but it sounds more natural, analogue like, good soundstage depth and imaging. Mine is'nt going anywhere. Kevin has an upgrade at the moment, a change in some Caps and Jfet I believe. The reports say it is a significant improvement.
Of course there are better phono stages, but at the price, I can'nt think of anything that betters it and for a good bit more.
Hope that is helpful. I have to confess that I had mine built by a friend of Kevin's. I am going to do the upgrade myself though.
Oh yeah, I also auditioned the single-ended Einstein phono stage, which is supposed to be not quite up to the balanced version. In my system, it was so aggressive that it gave me a headache. Other people just love it, and I really wanted to love it because I would have gotten a great deal. Same with the ASR I described above--a dealer demo at 40% off. So you really need to listen to as many as you can in your own system. That being said, I did take a chance on the K&K, buying unheard because of its relatively lower price point and solid resale market. I'm very glad I did. Everything else in my system has changed since but the K&K remains.
Wait until you hear the latest mods in the K&K - frankly, they're amazing, though you'll have to wait 100+ hours of actual playing time for the new JFET to come around and tame itself. If there is any downside, it may be the fact that the unit is now so revealing, immediate and dynamically unleashed, you'll be rechecking and contemplating every weak link in your system; you'll certainly need to revisit some turntable/tonearm settings. Once you get things dialed in however, the real thrills begin. I always felt the K&K was excellent, but it has now become exceptional.
Someone else told me that he had hum problems with the Asr when used in the single ended mode. Mine is the quietest one I have ever had. They have a dip switch which selects balanced or unbalanced operation, I have wondered if it was set in the wrong position, the manual mentions the possibility of this causing hum but is not the clearest written one I have seen and I overlooked it myself and didn't change mine to single ended when I first got it. I still had no hum so whatever the cause it must be system dependent. Cumbersome? Just because it is a 52lb power supply attached to a 20lb phono stage? Remember, this is the company that gave us a 400lb integrated amp in 4 boxes. Makes my MF M3 [95lb in two boxes] seem downright petit.
I adjusted the dip switches. Yes, I believe the hum was system-dependent and know it was mysterious. But it was unique to this component of all components I've ever had in my system, so what am I supposed to think? I went out of my way above to qualify it as uncharacteristic of the ASR as far as I know, as well as to bestow kudos on it by reputation. I have no animus against it. Seems it's size works well for you. It didn't for me. Enjoy!
The only phono pre that I have heard that betters the maxed out is Kevin's 3 stage differential design still in beta release only. For all you maxed out owners there is a mod you can do to the PS that will improve the performance at no cost. Just rewire the PS choke as shown on the Lundahl data sheet for better common mode rejection (diagram at bottom of sheet). This will involve cutting a trace on circuit board and adding a second twisted pair from the choke to the CB. I've done this to both my diff. K&K phono pre and a friend's SE K&K. Quieter backgrounds and better sense of flow.