Phono Input or new Phono preamp?

Some of you may have been following my recent post regarding my foray into Analog. After much consideration and loads of helpful advice, I have decided to purchase my first Turntable setup.

The turntable is going to be a VPI Classic I and I am seriously considering the Dynavector 20XH Cartridge. My current Amp/Pre is a Musical Fidelity KW-500 Integrated and a pair of Focal/JMLab 1027be speakers.

The Phono input on the KW-500 is MM (2.5mV - can't seem to find the gain figure published anywhere). From what people have advised so far, this input should be able to handle either a MM or a MCHO cartridge. With the Dynavector 20XH rated at 2.8mV, it seems like a good match but again, I'm completely new to this.

Because the KW-500 was such a limited production piece (500 units), there is very little mention of it's performance as a phono preamp anywhere else on the net. My concern is that I don't want my existing phono input on the KW to be the weakest link in the analog chain right out of the gate. If this is the case, I'd really like to consider the possibility of a dedicated Phono preamp.

I'm looking for opinions on whether you all think I could get a better preamp for somewhere in the $500-$800 range than what I can currently get out of my KW-500 phono input. If I WAS to go with a dedicated phono pre, I would likely also then have the option of going with a MCLO cartridge (ie. Dynavector 20X 1mv Special). Does the 20x 1mV tend to fare more favorably than the 20XH (2.8mV)? In what ways does it's sound vary (for anyone with first hand knowledge of the two)?

Any advice is greatly appreciated!

Sounds like you are getting down the road with vinyl. I started out using the MM section of my integrated first with a HOMC benz glider then a clearaudio maestro MM. This was certainly excellent for getting going, getting used to my turntable, and learning again about vinyl. I cannot speak to the kW's phono but we all know that MF makes some great gear. I am sure it will be very good to get going with and then you can figure out the landscape better and make a move. I did end up with a good stand alone phono and a MC cart which I love but I am glad that I took my time along the way. At this point, spend as much as you can on VINYL LPs!!
For what it's worth, here is the product detail (PDF format) for the KW-500. Page 10 has the specs for the phono input. No gain mentioned, but it does have the 'Overload Margin'. Not sure what that is...

This is none of my business but I am starting to be concerned about your expenses. It can get out of hand very fast. Careful.
The overload margin is the amount of voltage the phono input can take from the cartridge before it overloads (saturates). The 29 db. reported in the owner's manual is an excellent figure - 20 db. is common with high-end phono stages (the higher, the better).

However, it does not appear that the phono stage in your integrated allows you to vary the load to accommodate the varying electrical parameters of different cartridges (it's set for 47 kOhms, which usually works with MM cartridges, but not always). This is a serious handicap and reason alone for you to look at stand-alone phono stages.

The Dynavector 20X 1mv Special is not a low-output MC. Low output is typically defined as less than 0.5 mv., with 0.3 mv. being considered a typical low-output MC. It's easy to understand why low-output is in theory better - the lower the mass of the coils or magnets, the lower it's output, and the more easily the stylus can move and track the grooves - it's got less mass to move. So, ironically, the lower the output of the cartridge, the more dynamic and "fast" it is. The problem is that the lower the output, the better the phono stage needs to be to prevent noise from contaminating the very low-voltage, delicate signal coming from the cartridge.

A judiciously chosen stand-alone phono stage will almost certainly improve the performance of your analog rig. My advice to you (and to anyone going down this path) is to avoid phono stages that use tubes in the INPUT STAGE. This is the place where the phono stage amplifies and processes the signal from the phono cartridge - even carefully chosen tubes tend to be too noisy for use as the amplification device of a very low-level signal. For this reason, a lot of phono stages (most Audio Research designs, for example) use a hybrid circuit, with transistors (MOS-FET's, typically) on the input and tubes in the output stage.
My system includes two elements that are close to yours. The first is a VPI scout and the second are JM Focal Electra 936s. I can only tell you that I own bought the table and the Dynevector 20XH. I put it thru a Graham Slee Graham Amp 2SE made for MM. It has more than adequate gain for this cartridge. I can't imagine a phono input on an integrated that doesn't specify if the phono input is for MC or MM. If you choose the dedicated Phono stage the Graham Slee is wonderful but believe it or not there is a ton ofcompetition.
Since I am so happy with the set up that I recommend that you actually consider trying a tube power amp and a tube preamp. Note the Graham is all SS BTW.
Almost everyone who hears this set up finds it as good as I do. I also owned MF and using Chinese Monobloc tube amps Consonance Cyber 800s and a cheap little AES AE-3 with great 6SN7s. Turned my system in an unmitigated pleasure and I found my nirvana.
To answer your question however I recommend the 20 X HO and the MF's phono input first and take it from there.
I can speak from experience to one aspect of you post, having gone from a 20XH to a 20XM (1mv) Dynavector on my Scout some time ago. Sonically, the two cartridges are very, very similar. The XM may be a bit quicker and more detailed. The XM also comes with threaded screw holes that obviate the need for nuts on the underside of the cartridge, which makes installation a bit easier--particularly for a new vinyl adherent. Personally, I would not buy a separate phonostage JUST to go from the XH to the XM. I would, however, consider a separate phonostage to allow the use of a LOMC cartridge--one that will outperform either Dyna on your table. Though I have no experience with you MF integrated, I have heard the phonostage in the A5 and, while decent, can certainly be bettered by a good quality outboard unit. One thing you might consider is selling the MF, purchasing a very good quality integrated without phono on the used market for less than you sold the MF for and combining the proceeds with your $5-8 hundred dollars to purchase a good quality used dedicated phonostage. Though I have not heard the Classic, word on the street suggests it is a very good quality table and, it seems to me that the phonostage in your MF integrated will in fact become the limiting factor in your system. BTW, you could also raise additional funds by spending less on the cartridge--for example, the ATOC9MLII I'm using in my Scout is, IMHO, far superior to either Dyna you are looking at and can be had new or nearly new for $200-250. This would free up still more dollars for your phonostage and leave you with a fine turntable, good quality outboard phonostage and good quality integrated for about what you are planning to spend. It is really about finding the right balance and synergy in your system and connecting a VPI Classic/Dyna MC to your MF will probably provide suboptimal performance from your vinyl source. Just my two cents.
Generally MMs are considered about 5-7mV. The 20XH is about half the output of a 'normal' MM with just 2.8mV
A good example is the Goldring 1042 at 6.5mV.

My son uses the 20XH into a Whest Audio whestTWO phonostage and produces a far better sound than the setup going into an MM stage. He tried the Graham Slee Amp 2SE which the dealer recommended and although good, the extra gain which the 20XH needs (12-14dB) means you are not cranking up the volume on the amplifier. Someone on Audiogon recommended the whestTWO so we gave that a try. It is FAR better.
The 20XH like many high output MCs needs about 53dB to work properly. Also, if you want to transfer to your computer the extra gain is required for lower noise.

Personally I would go for the whestTWO and this from experience as a starting block for the VPI Classic/ 20XH combination as it far outperforms any MM stage and can be switched to match the 20XH.
It doesn't cost anything to start with the built-in phono of the MF integrated amp. Musical Fidelity has had a long appreciation for and relationship with vinyl playback. If it turns out that the phono stage is as good as I think it'll be, then for LOMCs you may want to get an optimized transformer instead of a whole new phono stage.

I also agree that there are some excellent carts for less money from the likes of Audio Technica and Denon. Get the capacitive load right, and the AT150MLX mm cart may make you forget all about high priced MCs and phono stages, at least for now. I'm astounded nightly by the music this cart pulls out of a vinyl groove.
Dear Fatgh0st: IMHO your KW500 is a lot better that what the people here seems to me they are thinking.

I agree with Johnnyb53, IMHO the best you can do is to work/test your MF KW500 with a good MM cartridge ( as a fact your unit was designed for use with with MM cartridges. ).

His advise on that Audio Technica cartridge is a good one and you have other nice alternatives too like Nagaoka MP-50 or MP-500 ( you can buy from LPgear. ) or the Garrot Optim from Garrot brothers.
IMHO any of these MM/MI cartridges outperforms the Dynas named here and could compete with LOMC ones.

Btw, the HOMC cartridges normally represents the worst of MM and LOMC worlds. I can't recommend a HOMC as a good alternative for you.

Regards and enjoy the music,
The KW500 spec sheet says: Phono Input sensitivity 2.5mV. If you take that number over to KAB's phono preamp calculator, you'll see that it translates into 40dB gain.
So I think I'm just going to roll with the 20XH and my KW500 Phono input for now and see how things go. If it doesn't work out, I can always upgrade the phone stage later.

Using that same calculator on the KAB page, It claims that the ideal gain for my cartridge (based on 2.8mV output) is actually 41dB. Since my Phono stage in the KW is rated at 40dB (2.5mV input sens.), it seems like a good match. Or am I mis-reading/mis-understanding something here???

Thanks again for all your advice and feedback!

A 2.8mV cartridge will work fine with your Musical Fidelity integrated. I agree with others that you should listen to the built-in phono stage before you start upgrading. At the very least, it will give you a reference point to move forward.

The Dyna 20XH is a very nice cartridge. There's no doubt about that. I haven't heard the AT150MLX, but it gets high praise from owners. So does the Nagaoka MP-50 that Raul mentioned.
I would advise you to stay away from MC carts. Your phono amp was made for MM or MI carts. So before you buy anything take a look at Grado, Clearaudio and Soundsmith MM/MI carts.

To me HOMC carts don't make any sense.
02-07-11: Mordante
I would advise you to stay away from MC carts. Your phono amp was made for MM or MI carts. So before you buy anything take a look at Grado, Clearaudio and Soundsmith MM/MI carts.
Also Goldring, Audio Technica, and Ortofon 2M Black, depending on compliance match with your tonearm effective mass.