I use an Atma-Sphere MP-1 and the idea of seeking better performance with a different preamp NEVER enters my mind.
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You are correct that the Aesthetix is higher maintenance but is a wonderful unit. It is also a little noisy but beautiful sounding. The Manley is wonderful, reliable, flexible, and like many tube units, improved with NOS tubes. I have not seriously listened to the others that you mentioned, but I think the Manley is a serious bang for the buck unit. I personally like the Helikon more than the Benz through the Manley, but I am using a different table system than you. For the Helikon, I would try 200 ohms with the gain at 60db (the second to highest). Quite magical!
I may as well confuse things by suggesting a fourth option.
Aesthetix has three new offerings, the Rhea, Calypso and Janus. The Janus is preamp and phono combined with remote control, selectable loading for MC and MM cartridges and a de mag built in.
I had all these units here for the manufacturers advertising photo needs and compared to the big Signature Aesthetix units (which I own). All these new reasonably priced series are remarkable performers and the Janus at $6500 (retail), is stunning.
An Audiogon member who is part of my listening group compared this Aesthetix to his BAT VK50 SE and BAT VK75se. He was surprised that the Aesthetix was superior in virtually every way. When the audition was made, the Aesthetix had less than six hours on it and the audition lasted only one evening.
As for the Manley, another member of my group just sold his Steelhead, replacing it with Aesthetix. Test was made using his Walker Turntable, Koetsu cartridge and ARC Ref 2 Mk 2 pre.
I think this new line from Aesthetix is worthy of your audition.
Agree Brunogolf! I own a SL1 Mk 3 with a phono stage & it is magical for my analog front-end as well!!
FYI for the others: TAS has an extensive review of the Io phono & the Calisto line stage in the present issue. These units are ludicrously expensive & the reviewer seemed to really like them.
Is it a true statement to say that Musical Surroundings makes Aesthethix? or do they just import them? Import them from where? Thanks!
Bombaywalla, Musical Surroundings is a marketing and importing company. They bring in Benz (Switzerland), Koetsu (Japan) and Clear Audio (Germany). They represent several US products such as Graham, Basis, Aesthetix, Record Research, Cable Research and others .
Aesthetix is manufactured in Tujunga, California by Jim White (ex Theta designer). Musical Surroundings represents the line and (possibly) exports Aesthetix to other parts of the world.
You are correct that the Aesthetix Io and Callisto Signature series (with dual supplies) are very expensive. Retail is $25,000.00 without the available remote control. The new Saturn series including the Janus (which I suggested), is an evolution of the more expensive pieces. Granted there are fewer tubes and a less ambitious power supply, but the results are a stunning achievement, especially at the price.
As for the review from TAS. I am happy for Jim and Musical Surroundings, but I decided this was a very important product in 1998 when I negotiated the purchase of mine. My only disappointment is that it took TAS and Stereophile so long to decide they were the best.
Just one point to add to Albert's comments and related to Nkj's original post about cost... The Aesthetix Io phonostage Mk II is available with volume controls and a single additional switched line level input for $9,000. It is designed to be able to drive an amplifier to full output directly, and it works quite well this way. One can upgrade from there at any later date. For complete pricing, see http://www.musicalsurroundings.com/aesthmkII.html.