I'm going to toss in a phono preamp that's so inexpensive that you'll probably dismiss it, but that'd be a mistake.
Heed Audio Quasar. $995 new.
I auditioned this against a Pass Labs Xono (another possibility in your price range), and preferred the modest Quasar.
Email me if you want the name of a dealer who will offer a home trial on the Heed or the Pass Labs.
BTW, I use a Dynavector XX MK II.
Before you toss tubes to the wolves, have you tried the Wright Sound WPP-200C? Gain is adjustable on the preamp and works very nicely with medium output MC. You can get one for under 1K new and save your change towards some good vinyl instead.
I currently have it set up with my Scout and a Benz Wood M2. The VPI Scout is a killer table and I am not sure why you would want to upgrade it. Maybe the arm and cart if anything.
I also have heard nothing but good things on the ARC PH-5.
The Pass Labs Aleph Ono is about 3 inches tall and is solid state... some of them even have adjustable gain. An old Threshold FET-10pc or FET-10pe would be great (if you can find one) and they're less then 3 inches tall. A new or used Primare R-20 would be an excellent choice also... this one should take you a few years down the road for sure.
The Pass Labs Aleph Ono is about 3 inches tall<<
Actually the Pass Aleph Ono is almost 5 inches tall.
One of the best - Transistor - sounding Phonostages available is Klyne 7 series.
Or - when available - Vendetta Research.
Try the new Nagra BPS. It is in your price range. It is very compact, solid state, battery operated and very quiet. Loading is by moduals.
I have thier VPS and it is better than the BPS but at more than twice the price.
I listened to the BPS at Goodwin's in Waltham MA.. Very nice sound.
I personally favor tube phonostages (most are dead quiet, so noise is not an issue), though I can understand the need for convenience and something that fits available space.
I've only heard briefly the Sutherland phonostages (battery powered, low profile). They sounded quite good -- smooth and natural, without a pronounced solid state sound (artificially sharp "edge" to the attack of notes and mechanical sound). Perhaps they were a bit bland or polite, but, I heard it in an unfamiliar system.
I've also heard a Tom Evans phonostage that sounded pretty decent, but again, it was in an unfamiliar system.
I've owned, and liked, the Linn Linto. This is a fairly dynamic and exciting phonostage that somehow avoids being edgy or dry sounding. For some reason, this reasonably priced phonostage is overlooked, though it is quite decent. Perhaps, its lack of adjustability is the reason it is not favored, though it worked well with my Lyra Titan.
As someone else mentioned, the Klyne is a really fine phonostage. The internal build on a Klyne is quite impressive too. A used Klyne (not easy to find) might be in your price range.
Since you have a Dynavector cartridge and prefer solidstate I would look at the Dyna P75 MKII first. A friend and I preferred the Dyna unit to the Wright using a 20XM on a Scoutmaster.
Otherwise, the Pass XOno or the Vacuumstate JLTI go in the same direction as the P75 sonically (fast, dynamic, detailed, controlled) and are worthwhile improvement over the P75MKII. I compared the JLTI in detail to the Wright and Ear units and preferred the JLTI but a huge margin. Both the EAR and Wright lack detail, nuance, and definition and only have average soundstage and instrument separation IMO.
Other interesting units are the Herron, Art Audio, and K&K tube phonostages.
Also, going to a better cartridge like the Dyna XX-2 is a huge step-up. My friend with the Scoutmaster first went from the P75 to the XOno and then from the 20XM to the XX-2 and the cartridge made a bigger difference.
Dodgealum...see if you can audition a Vacuum State JLTI stage. It sells with an external powers upply for additional moneys. Thats if you dont want to use a walwort transfomer. It is THE only mm/mc phono that can compete with my ASR Basis Exclusive. IMHO anyways. Plenty of setting for adjusting to your cartridge. I use a .18mv ZYX...and have the gainmaxed on the JLTI....silent...dead quiet. Talk to Jay at Audio Revelation. He can arrange to send one to you for auditioning. You will be amazed at what this 1600 dollar unit (2600 with external power)can achieve.
Yes, you are right the Aleph Ono is almost 5 inches tall... My mistake.
But, it is a good choice, don't you think?
I owned the Pass Aleph Ono and upgraded it to the Xono. The latter is quieter (seperate power supply) with deeper, tighter bass and can resolve details slightly better. It is very neutral and has huge gain and very adjustable loading. It is also less tall than the Ono. Maybe 4 inches. It can be found for about $2000 used and is an excellent value.
Perhaps Audiofeil can tell you about the new Pass XP15 which will be less expensive than the now discontinued Xono was when new and perhaps even better.
As for solidstate, I would vote for Sutherland PhD. Really dead quiet and detailed. But, I would like to recommend you a well-made very musical phono section within a tube preamplifier like CAT UL-1 mk2. Then I believe you can invest more on catridges which are the key for capturing extremely small signals from vinyl surfaces and building pleasure of analogs.
Thanks everyone for the suggestions so far. While the Heed Audio unit looks interesting, in this economy I am going to lean toward established manufacturers who will (hopefully) still be around five years from now. I probably should have included this preference in my original post. With this in mind the new Pass Labs unit looks interesting--anyone know what the retail will be on XP15?
What are some key design elements common to all really good phonostages that I should look out for? It is interesting that some models look like toys (Dynavector, JLTI) compared to others which are more substantially built (Pass, ARC). The idea of using a Wallwort seems rather bush league on a fairly pricy piece of high end audio gear. Am I off base here?
Again, thanks for the advice.
...in this economy I am going to lean toward established manufacturers who will (hopefully) still be around five years from now.
Based on that criteria, the only units on your list that I would consider would be the products from Pass Labs and Audio Research.
They are the safest choices.
The new Pass will be around $3800.
Don't be fooled by the size of some of the units. I preferred the JLTI to some much bigger units (Aesthetix Rhea, Sutherland Ph.D., EAR834, Wright WPL200CC) and it did offer a head to head race with the Pass XOno.
If you like built quality the XOno won't disappoint.
Doc Bottlehead has a new one on the way...
Anyone have experience with the AcousTech PH-1P? Seems to meet all my criteria and has gotten some favorable reviews. Also, I'd be interested in hearing more about the Dynavector XX-2MkII. How much gain do you need since the output is fairly low (.28mv)? Is this cartridge "overkill" for my Scout? In other words will the Scout be able to extract whatever benefits are derived from changing from the 20XM to the XX2MkII?