I owned the Whest and I don't think it was balanced, mine only had single ended connections. It was also like a Ferrari, ran great when it worked, but was a bit temperamental. The Whest replaced a Cary PH-301, which I thought was excellent )and regretted selling) for the price. You may want to check out the K&K Audio and Hagerman Trumpet phono stages as well. I know the Hagerman is available as balanced in your price range and I believe the K&K is as well.
Check the current thread What's the Best Phono PreampYou Have Heard, it's got a post from today so you'll see it. A wealth of information for you there. From your list, I don't think the Lamm has balanced circuitry; also, as good as I think it is, its gain might not be enough for some cartridges. You should take that into account when choosing your personal "best".
If having balanced circuitry is really important to you then you can scratch most of the ones you listed off your list. I owned the Groove, for a year, I demoed the Rhea for 2 weeks, I owned the ARC PH-5 for about 6 months, I demoed the ARC PH-7 for one week, the Steelhead for 2 weeks.
I liked the PH-5 the best but, that's just me. And you can get it new for way under what you are willing to spend. It is better sounding than their preveious Ref (which sold for what? $10,000?) and I think it is as good as the new PH-7 which is their new Ref.
I would suggest checking out the Artemis phono stage. It is not avalable balanced but is a great sounding phono stage. In my system it was a significant upgrade from the Hagerman Trumpet which it replaced.
I have answered a few such threads as this and so here I go again. As many have already commented, if you want balanced, most of your list is not going to work. The BAT and the two Aesthetix models are the balanced units here.
Yes, the Io has many tubes but it does not run hot. Small signal tubes generate very little heat....even 16 of them. And the two EL34's in the PS are not a heat issue. If the Io Sig is too costly, then consider the Std Io.
A real sleeper that no one has really heard but will compete with anything you mentioned is the Electron Images MCP-1. Great with carts as low as .3mv. I have tried alot of what you mentioned in the sub $5-6K range and the Electron was far and away the better phono stage. I see there is one for sale on Agon (no relationship). This is what has so far replaced my beloved Counterpoint SA-9 (Magnum Opus).
The Artemis Labs PL-1 is another for your list.
After all the years, the Klyne 7 Phono is among the very best sounding ones ever made. I really listened to a lot, not all, but a lot, it's naturalness is a class of it's own.
"You may want to check out the K&K Audio and Hagerman Trumpet phono stages as well. I know the Hagerman is available as balanced in your price range and I believe the K&K is as well".
The K&K does have balanced and single ended outputs. I use the single ended, so can't comment on the balanced output, but it is a great choice. It may not look exciting, but it sounds detailed, dynamic, with a wide, deep soundstage. You can have one made at minimal cost, for $1950
Second the K&K recommendation. You won't be disappointed.
As to my direct experiences with top notch phonostages that I've heard extensively within my system, please see the following link regarding the Wavestream Kinetics phonostage relative to all the other units I've used:
Along with the Wavestream, you owe it to yourslef to hear the Herron phonostage. It is outstanding and if I have not already purchased the Wavestream, I would be looking as this unit very seriously.
I also have a modded Electron Images MCP-1 that was my reference before I heard the Wavestream and the Herron. Here is a link concerning how it compares to other notable phonostages:
As to your request for a sub $3k phonostage, here is a link regarding a not-so-well-known, but trully superb SS phonostage from Australia called the JLTI (Just Listen To It):
For those who are not familiar with my analog sonic preferences, I really like what tube phonostages do in my system. Yet this SS unit is one that I would gladly live with. There is a newer, Swiss made version that costs a lot more (with or without the PS upgrade). But my local audio club members and I unanimously agree that the Aussie version is the one we like better (more musical and more engaging). It will make believers out of many and will surely embarass a few. Get them while they last!
Finally, you will want to add the Connoisseur, FM Acoustics, Tron and Zanden phonostages to you list. Please note that these recommendations are only based on hearing them at shows (CES, RMAF, etc.) so I have not had the chance to hear them in my system. It would also be great to hear in my system the following: Nick Doshi unit (phonostage or full func pre) or the one made by Raul. As to the Io, it may not have enough gain for a good number of superb MC cartridges. It may be outstanding tonally, but be prepared to hear lots of tube related noise when using low output transducers below 0.5 or 0.6 mV. The Lamm is just not flexible enough as far as cartridge loading is concerned.
As an fyi and as a point of reference, my system's static FR (using uncorrelated pink noise on both CD and LP sources) from the LISTENING position (not on axis) measures -3dB at 20Hz and -3dB at 16.5kHz (-6dB at 20kHz) and is virtually flat elsewhere in between. This was done by using the Phonic PAA2 (and later the PAA3) hand held analyzer. [IMPORTANT NOTE: We really should start demanding that reviewers also publish their static FR from the listening position.]
My system's sonics strengths are tonality and soundstaging. Depending on the recording, it can be deeper than wide with very nice layering and delineation. Left and right imaging extends well beyond the speakers. It also has outstanding resolving ability. Although fairly dynamic, it can be a bit more so as we more often than not can benefit from having more of this very desireable attribute.
As a follow-up...
A few local audio club members heard in my system the Artemis PL-1 against the Wavestream and Herron. We all preferred both these other tube phonostages to the Artemis.
We listened to a number of our reference lps and made sure the cartridge loading was consistent from one unit to another and that listening levels were adjusted as much as possible (to within < or = 1dB) using uncorrelated pink noise from a test lp.
The artemis was good, but we concluded that it may be worthwhile to revisit the Artemis, but next time use the PH-1 (without the internal step up transformers). There was no bypass switch on the PL-1 that allos us to hear the unit without its internal 1:10 step up devices.
The highs tended to be less smooth on the PL-1 even after tube rolling using 7044 tubes (which we preferred over the Tung-Sol 5687, Amperex 7119 and Bendix 6900 tubes). The music had more finesse and was more refined while also having more immediacy and presence through the Wavestream and Herron. Overall, lp playback was more engaging though these latter two phonostages.
I have not heard the Wavestream or Herron so cannot comment on how they may compare with the Artemis. My version of the Artemis is the PH-1. I am using external S&B transformers with nude Vishay load resistors. This setup really shines whith the ZYX Universe/ Schroeder reference combination. There is a lot of immediacy and presence with great dynamics. Much more so than the Hagerman Trumpet (with the same transformers) which was im my system previously. The take I am getting from others is that the internal step-up on the PL-1 is Ok but that there are much better transformers out there which can obviously make a huge difference in the outcome.
An extraordinary design by Scott Frankland. Battery operated phono stage. Eight tubes; 4 6dJ8/6922 type, 2 12AX7 type, 2 12AU7 type. I've not heard a lot of different preamps, but I can tell you that this MFA was in a different league in terms of performance when up against an Audio Research Reference (no slouch either) in a recent listening session conducted at my friends house. This MC Reference prototype is hard-wired throughout with no circuit boards and is actually housed in a Luminescence chassis (actually two chassis). Every time I lift the lid I marvel at what can only be described as a work of art. In phono operation it is extraordinarily quiet which makes for a very low noise floor. Every aspect of performance is superb. My turntable rig is fairly modest and yet this MFA can create a very convincing impression of live music. As a certain chap named CJ would say, I didn't get where I am today without knowing a great preamp when I hear one.
Dear Oshag: +++++ " . This MC Reference prototype is hard-wired throughout with no circuit boards and " +++++
This characteristic is not a design advantage as a fact is a severe disadvantage.
Regards and enjoy the music.
For fully balanced for even less than $3000 look at the Aqvox. Just got a rave review.
Have to agree with the K&K Audio for $2,000. I've compared it to some of the best and come away laughing. Outstanding.
I will go with the following combinations.
The Whest and Transfiguration TemperV with Moerch DP6.
47 lab Phonocube (dual power supply) and Koetsu Urushi with Graham 2.2
ASR Basis Exclusive and Koetsu Coral with Triplanar7 (65 ohm loading)
TomEvan The Groove and Miyabi 47lab with Triplanar7, or
ASR Basis Exclusive and Miyabi 47lab with Triplanar7 (95 ohm loading) and it is the hardest to beat as far as my system is concerned.
Not well known in the U.S. but beautiful neutral sound and very well made is the Clearaudio Balanced Reference phono stage. It has both balanced and unbalanced. Top notch construction. Check it out
I used the Clearaudio reference, the immediate predecessor to the current Balanced reference and was quite disappointed, very polite, no real dynamics and quite expensive too, even 2nd hand. I have heard the balanced reference is a step up on the earlier unit, but it needs to be.
I have heard the Whest and prefer it to the more expensive Tom Evans groove, though both were good units. Whest have a new reference MC only phono stage at nearly double the cost, no reviews and I have'nt heard it yet. Neither the Whest or Tom Evans matched my K&K phono stage, but that just matches my preferences of course