Next Phonostage

I'm contemplating a new Phonostage to replace my Rowland Cadence. One of the driving factors is wanting multiple inputs for multiple tonearms.

My system is currently: TW-Acustic Raven AC-1/TW10.5 tonearm/Dynavector XV-1s cart with Rowland Synergy IIi preamp, Rowland 302 power amp and Avalon Acoustics Eidolon Diamond loudspeakers.

My listening tastes are everything except rap/hip-hop. Probably 50% rock/pop, 40% Jazz and 10% Classical.

My audio characteristics preferences I value include really black backgrounds, air around images, extension and musicality. Dynamics are also a plus.

My contenders are currently:

Audio Research Ref 2 SE Phono - rave reviews, most say this gives you best attributes of solid state and tube sound combined, might be a natural transition into tubes for me

Thoress Phono Enhancer - also known as TW Acustic Phonostage; might mate well with my analog front end, flexibility in dialing in bass, mids, highs, customizable sound

Manley Steelhead - heard this in a friend's system, very nice sound, very flexible, did hear a it of tube noise

Can anyone who owns one of these phonostages or has listening experience with them give me some input and advice on what would work best with my system?

Thanks in advance for any recommendations from the audiogon community.
For a dedicated phono stage that is on par with the Steelhead sonically at far less cost, I highly recommend the Manley Chinook. It has dynamics and speed, extension and is VERY QUIET. This is the finest and most satisfying phono stage I have owned to date, including my Aesthetix Rhea.
Thanks for the info Steve. I like the Steelhead flexibility. Does the Chinook have multiple inputs?

I plan on eventually upgrading my preamp from a Rowland Synergy IIi to a Rowland Corus and eventually 302 amp to a Rowland 625 or the 725 monos. I wish Rowland made a stand alone phono stage like they did with the Cadence. Maybe someday, but I have a growing interest for some tubes in the analog chain, but the maintenance and my desire for black backgrounds like solid state make me a bit hesitant.
I also had a Rhea and was considering updating it to the Signature version when the dealer convinced me to spend a little more and get the Steelhead. I am glad he did. This product has a lot of flexibility and you can dial in the gain, input transformer impedance, and capacitance to maximize the sound. I was even able to use it as a preamp while my regular preamp was being repaired. Moreover, you can roll tubes and the unit responds well to different tubes. I hear very little noise so perhaps the one you heard had tube or grounding issues. I am sure there are better phono stages but you will probably have to pay significantly more than the price of the Steelhead to get one.
I would look at an Ayre P5xe and one of the BAT's.
Another vote here for the Steelhead. Got one a couple of weeks ago, and the flexibility is amazing and sound without reproach. Havent got close to reaching its limits yet. No noise.
I have great results with BMC MCCI phonostage.
Thomas Woschnick uses a TRON Seven phono stage in his own personal system. He doesn't use the Thoress any more at home. Read into that what you will.
I will only speak for what I have experience with
Thoress Phono Enhancer - Most flexilble. Can have one input setup for Mono and the rest for stereo. Insanely huge soundstage, but far the biggest and widest I have ever heard. Neutral.

I know you have not asked about the Tron, but I own a Tron Seven Ultimate Phono. Its very musical and highly resolving. It's very inflexible in terms of resistive load and gain, but that simplicity, to my ears, can be heard over other designs.

If you are located in Colorado, you are more than welcome to borrow my Tron and give it a try.

***Manley dealer disclosure***

As a quick FYI, if you heard tube noise in your friends Steelhead, I would think it must have been another issue causing it (tube, grounding, etc). The Steelhead is a very, very quite stage.

The Chinook does sound very good, but you lose the multiple inputs, volume control, line inputs, remote, seperate power supply of the Steelhead.
Unless multiple phono inputs is a must you should look at the 47 Labs phonocube and RCM Sensor Prelude. Both are outstanding phonostages with some of the best dynamics, tone, transparency and soundstage. There is nothing that they really fall short of except that the 47 Labs doesnt have multiple loading impedances, they are great with any low impedance cartridge.
Thanks for responses. Multiple inputs are important as I plan on eventually having more than one tonearm. Loading is too as I want to begin experimenting with multiple carts over the years.

The Thoress is interesting. It's enhancer qualities to adjust bass, mid, treble are interesting and unique.

The Tron Seven Phono gets rave reviews but its single loading in flexibility is something that I'm shying away from.

Thanks for the offer, I live in Tulsa, OK. If I'm ever heading to CO, I may contact you Jarraa.

So far no responses on the Audio Research Ref 2 Phono SE. Interested about this one too, due to its flexibility, low noise floor and combo of best attributes of tubes and SS. Of course, that's in the reviews, so I want to see what owners think of course.

Oklahoma is barren of any high end dealers, especially for two channel. Audiogon and its members are invaluable for input such as this.
The Dynamic Sounds Associates new Phono II has inputs for 3 tonearms and front panel switches to easily change loading. I have the original Phono I and is one of the best phono stages I have heard.
A Steelhead shouldn't be noisy. Probably the tubes.
Yeah, the Steelhead I heard had quite a bit of background hiss compared to other sources in the system. May have been bad tubes. It's one f the inherent problems listening to components in other people's systems - you can only assess so much......
Hi, I recommend the Allnic H3000. I used to use a Tron and now use the 3000. I have heard many others along the way like the Arc ref2, the Whest SE, the Rhea and TE SRX. The allnic is the best i've personally ever heard. I also own a Raven AC.

What were your impressions of the Allnic H3000 compared to the ARC Ref 2 Phono? What is your tonearm and cart on the TW Raven? How is the noisefloor of the H3000 in your set up?

Thanks in advance for any additional info.
Hi Phil, in some ways I found them similar. Both sound natural and liquid but with no compromise on speed, attack or dynamics. The strong suit of the ARC was the width of its soundstage (not that the Allnic is lacking in that area !) but I preferred the Allnic as the sound seemed a lot more holographic and instruments had greater density, fullness and presence... it's a very sumptous seductive sound that you very quickly get lost in and it seems to envelope you from all sides. I preferred the perceived build quality as well. It's very very quiet in my system. The ARC is good too, perhaps more neutral if that's your thing but for me not as enjoyable and not the sort of sound I aim for. I have also heard exceptional things from friends/associates about the Thrax Orpheus, Ypsilon and the TE Mastergroove but the former two are too expensive for me and the latter is solid state.

As for tonearms I use the Reed 3p (used to have the Raven 10.5) and carts XV1-s, Shilabe and Puritas.
Just remember, nothing is easier to adjust than the Steelhead, so even if those others can be adjusted, you may have to open them up, or reach around the back to do it. The Manley has all those controls up front.
Hi Lotus,
How did the Allnic compare with the Tron....particularly in bass slam and density of tone?
The Tron I had was the entry version. It was a little noisy and had no provision for adjustment of any kind but the sound was the right sort of sound. A little soft but definitely musical with good tone, texture and natural dynamics. I know someone who owns the more expensive GT version and is very pleased with it and it's this model which would perhaps be more the equal of stages like the ARC/H3000/Mastergroove etc. The lack of adjustability prevented me pursuing the Tron route any further though.

I have heard a steelhead but in an unknown system so wouldn't want to comment too much. If you search on here however, the whatsbest forum and also audio aficianados there a few people who have put down their thoughts on the manley vs the allnic 1500 and 3000 models.
I own the TW phono stage. It has stayed constant in my system for a while now while other stages have come and gone.

The only phono stage I have heard and contemplated replacing the TW was the ARC ref2 phono.

Lotus is correct, the ARC has such a huge soundstage and an ability for the music to float in 3d. At the time I did not feel the bass weight of the ARC was quite right. I believe the SE revision has solved this shortcoming.The TW has a little more drive. ARC had better blackess .

I am still considering the ref2se, but cannot listen to one first so undecided, as the TW does nothing wrong.

Both have that tube magic once heard is hard to do without.

Steelhead has never done it for me. Perhaps due to the fact the SUTs are a bit coloured.

how did the ref phono 2 compare to the xp-25?
i love tubes to the max, but was thinking, maybe, i could possibly get away with ss as i'm running tubed pre and power? no? i'm dreamin'?
how can one demo a ref2se? a/c don't represent anymore, so i don't know the new guys.

the allnic h3000v sounds like a great unit - do we have a distributor down this way?
I auditioned the Allnic H3000 at home a few years back, when my system was almost entirely different from today. I found it the most 3D and liquid of the several phono stages I brought in, including the Einstein RCA, Rhea Sig, Steelhead RC, ASR Basis, Wavestream. But for some reason, both it and the ASR hummed in my system. I doubt it was endemic to the pieces themselves but I couldn't track down the issue, otherwise I might have kept the Allnic--it was unique and very seductive. It might also have been a little colored but in a glorious way. I ended up with the Steelhead, which I liked the best of the rest. Still, I might audition the Allnic again sometime. I've never heard a phono stage quite like it.
I had a Steelhead (2.0 version, but without remote) that I bought new, and
used for a number of years. I rolled tubes, and settled on NOS Teles, and
NOS Raytheons for 7044 slots. I ran it through the MM, not the step-ups,
with both a Titan i and an Airtight PC-1.
It is extremely flexible, is built well and Manley's support is second to none.
I far prefer the Allnic H3000 in my system. It sounds less compressed and
conveys more spatial information. It is not a question of 3d image- the
Steelhead was able to deliver that as part of the system, but there is far
more separation of instruments and dynamics peculiar to each one that
comes out through the Allnic.
Some folks have used the Allnic and decided to go another route; i think it
is very system dependent.
I also rolled rectifier tubes in the power supply of the Allnic and currently
use a fat base Mullard 34 first series, and it sounds great. (I have a whole
pile of NOS rectifiers, and have played a little but nothing definitive on
comparisons of those tubes). The audio path uses telephony tubes which
are prone to microphony. Allnic uses special gel-sockets to address this.
FWIW, none of the tubes used in the Allnic are terribly pricey, and the
rectifier tubes are used for a lot of other equipment, including guitar amps.
The audio tubes are not as common, but also aren't terribly expensive. The
best of those, according to the importer and the manufacturer, come from
Philips in Holland, and can be marked variously as Mullards or Siemens.
I found the importer and dealer to be very responsive.
Other interesting phono stages might include Doshi. I'm not up on the latest
Tron gear, but everytime I've heard the system Jeff from High Water
demonstrates, it is good, and others have had great experience with that
company's equipment. I think, but am not sure, that you can opt for various
wiring upgrades, and perhaps a separate power supply on the Tron, but I
may be confusing the phono stage with his line stage or full featured
preamp (Syren?) which i gather is also terrific.
PS: I also had zero tube noise with the Steelhead, and I use 104db efficient
horns. Something awry there, and maybe not the Steelhead?
Whart, you're making want to try the Allnic again!
Phil, I have just seen your system and that you use Avalaon (same as me). The Allnic with the avalon is mindboggling, it's like a double dose of holography. My suggestion is for you to demo as many stages as you can but make sure you include the 3000 as it will sing massively in your system.
Wmr57- I always enjoy your posts here.
Lotus- i think we have corresponded here or elsewhere on other gear.
To the OP- good hunting, there are lot's of good phono stages at the higher
end of the scale, but I agree that you should try to audition some of these in
your system- dealers may allow a home loaner if you cover the shipping-
Audio Federation in Denver sells Lamm- also a good phono stage but may
be limited in number of inputs- there
are different gain versions so make sure you try the one best suited to your
system; Albert Porter here, in Tx, is an Allnic dealer, so he's not on the
other side of the world, isn't Oklahoma sorta 'north Tx', etc. You just have to
work with the dealers but the added expense and time of home trial is
worth the trouble- the sound you get is system dependent (and in the case
of tubes, tube dependent for most of them as well).
Note also, one poster mentioned the H3000v, that is the unit with variable
eq curves. It is my impression-and I'm not sure where i got this info- that
the standard H3000 sounds better, but I
can't be sure. Unless you listen to a lot of records that don't follow the RIAA
curve, I wouldn't make the trade-off and would stick with the 'standard'
Thanks guys, you are reading my mind. Not sure how I can audition an ARC Ref 2 Phono SE, but I have access to a friends Steelhead. And you are correct, DFW TX is not far from Tulsa for the Allnic.
PHil i think there are a few ARC dealers in Houston-Dallas as well....
Philb7777, a few years ago I started looking into upgrading my phono stage, at that time an Ayre P5x. I wanted a tube unit and I also wanted true balanced circutry. I had a short list with the Doshi and Atmosphere at the top.

Then ARC released the Ref 2 phono. I ended up getting that and the Ref 5 linestage. Naturally all the ARC stuff plays well together and it mates very well with Vandersteens.

The Ref 2 phono replaced a balanced Einstein TT Choice phono. The differences were not huge but the Ref 2 was better across the board so it added up. I was a bit surprised that the Ref 2 seemed to have a bit more resolution than the solid state Einstein.

I plan to upgrade linestage and phono to the SE next spring.

I don't know if that helps you much since I don't know how the ARC would fit with the rest of your stuff or if you plan on more changes down the road.

There seems to be even more options than a few years ago. Good luck.

A couple other thoughts, which I should have included in my earlier posts
on the subject:
the Steelhead is dramatically affected by the tubes used; if the loaner is the
one that you thought sounded noisy, that raises additional issues about the
tubes; there are a number of threads here about what various tubes sound
like in the Steelhead, but if you were to go out and buy top drawer NOS
tubes for your listening tests, that's going to add to the expense (although
giving it back to your friend with some killer tubes might be a nice gesture
if he is willing to give the unit up for a week to let you play with it- and have
it on hand as needed to compare with others).
The Allnic requires a fair amount of burn-in time- figure at least 100 hours
minimum, and benefits from a better rectifier tube than the one it ships with;
The ARC-- I'm not up on my latest ARC gear ( though I've owned many
pieces of their equipment, starting in around 1974-5) but that may also
require some serious burn-in; I'm not sure about the phono stages, but I
see very high burn in times for the line stages;
You want to pay attention to this, even though the dealer ought to. In some
cases, the dealer should have a 'house loaner' to make available.
I've also heard good things about Paragon in Michigan, which handles the
Doshi equipment.
You can buy an RIAA 'converter/adapter' (for lack of a better word) that
enables you to run a CD into the phono input to accelerate burn-in time
when you are not listening. KAB sells one pretty cheaply, and it works.
A couple of years ago I decided to buy an "end of life" phonostage. I was predisposed to purchase a unit with variable EQ curves because of a large collection of mono LPs and a hankering to get into 78's.

I have heard the ARC Ref 2 in my system. Not my personal taste. The Tron Ref was definitely better in my system. I have heard the Allnic in familiar systems but didn't consider purchase. I have heard the Thoress in a very familiar system and am very impressed but haven't heard it in my system. Would have loved to hear the Zanden with variable EQ in my system but could arrange a demo.

I ended up the an Experience Music LCR phono stage and am very happy with my decision.
Have you thought about FM Acoustics 122 phonostage ?
I have the original Thoress & a Pass XP25. Both excellent. Pass is amazing fr extremely low gain cartridges with exceptional bass (probably the best there is) and detailed natural mids. The highs are warm but maybe lacking the tube magic. A great match for .20mV cartridges that need 72db of gain. The Thoress is something else. An exceptional match for my Titan I. Great detailed bass, just not Solid State bass and not the Pass. But there are no better highs IME. Something magical. Pure, detailed, I wouldn't say holographic as it sounds like music and not musical. There is no phono stage. Just excellent. Tron make several phono stages and I owned the original which didn't match my higher gain art ridge at the time. Cartridge matching is important. Gain especially.

TW uses quite a few phono stages. He tries everything and even solid state and Allnic before anyone in the US heard of it. He also tries many cartridges so finding different pairings is part of bein a designer.

I have had my Thoress for years. I want to sell it to try something else but know it will be a mistake as the cost of anything better will be three times the amount. And will it do the mids and highs as well? So I stay put. The biggest compliment I can give is for equipment to get me off of the merry go round. And I have been with the Thoress for at least five years if I remember right. No problems. Just music. I just need 0.3mV or up cartridges. Deciding what is next for the extra inputs but nothing yet has caught my attention. And I have tried a ton of cartridges with it. I love being able to compare cartridges on the fly and not worry about transformer matching which means you would need a different transformer depending on the cartridges impedance for optimal performance.
I am another very satisfied Allnic H-3000 owner. Mine has a bit of tube rush, but you have to listen very close to the speakers to hear it. In my experience, a minor bit of tube rush is typical and not unusual for tubed components and is not a concern to me. I would like to hear the opinions of the esteemed posters here on whether the typical amount of tube rush that is found in many tubed components would compromise Philb7777's priority of a "really" black background, especially given the fact that he has ultra quiet Rowland components in his system.
I wanted to respond to Wrm57 who said he had a hum problem with his Allnic H-3000. I had the same problem, but I solved it by plugging my preamp into the same zone on my power conditioner that has the H-3000 and my turntable. Before, when I had the hum, I had the preamp plugged into a separate zone.
When I first plugged my Steelhead in, I experienced some hum. Played around with a couple of things, and couldnt really get rid of it. Then I just ended up plugging the turntable into a different power strip, and voila, the hum disappeared completely. Just like that. Now I have dead silent operation, beautiful music and exceptional dynamics.
Note, when I had the hum, the turnable was plugged into the same power strip as when I used my SimAudio Lp5.3 and had no hum. So, I dont know why, but changing worked.
Thaluza- on the question of tube rush/noise, i can hear everything over my Avantgarde Duos at 104db efficiency, funky AC, grounding issues, and neither the Steelhead nor the Allnic gave me a problem with noise, tube, grounding or otherwise. A pretty astute listener came to visit a few weeks ago, and was amazed at how quiet the system is, you have to put your ear to a horn to hear any noise at idle with the gain up. Ambient noise in the room can mask things too. For example, while my central air conditioning is pretty quiet, I can hear it. So, I crank the air con to meat locker levels, then shut off to listen; when the tubes make the room too warm, i'm taking a break, cranking up the air con again.
Hi Thaluza-- Thanks for that info.
Thanks for all the input guys. I have a Steelhead to listen to this weekend. Going to head to DFW soon to listen to the Allnic. Unfortunately no dealers in the Southwest have an ARC Ref Phono 2 SE on their floor. Might have to travel to Denver for this. May approach Highwater Sound to see if a loaner Thoress is a possibility. It's just a long way to ship. I sure hope Jeff and HW Sound are safe and dry - that water surge may have been close to them with Hurricane Sandy.
Yep, lower Manhattan is a mess right now. We are north of the city 25
miles or so, along the Hudson, and the river towns were just devastated.
Just getting in and out of the city is a nightmare, and I know that the utility
companies have been working 24/7 to restore basic service. We were lucky
to get power back last night, but much of the neighboring areas are still
blacked out, gasoline shortages, etc.
I hope he is OK, too, he is a good guy, although I've only spoken to him a
couple times. It's hard to overlook the irony of his company name.
Whart, I hope you're doing well and the region recovers soon. I moved from near you (NJ on the NY border) to the SF Bay Area 30 years ago, never imagining that a move to CA would avoid a natural disaster. Of course, I did have the pleasure of the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Oakland Hills fire. I still have many friends and family in NY and NJ. Best wishes to you all.

Philb7777, please let us know your thoughts on the Steelhead. Have fun!
Wrm- thanks for the good wishes, i sent you a PM.
I don't know if the time has passed to consider others but I think you may also want to think about an ASR Basis Exclusive. I think that unit transcends the whole tubes vs ss argument. In my system, better than the Steelhead although the Steelhead is great.
Anybody running old Quads has my vote (at least in the midrange). Good for you, DHcod.
I used a BAT P10se for a long time and considered upgrading it as I liked it a lot. Could not in the end as there are no dealers anymore in the UK. I now use the ARC Ref 2 which is indeed fairly neutral, dynamic, fluid with a wide sound stage. I am considering getting the SE upgrade for it. Anyone had experience of the the upgrade.
I did consider the Allnic but it had a poor reliability reputation over here. From reading the above it it sounds like it has some of the BAT's lush, deep sound field qualities which I liked.