Phono stages belong to which tier?

I feel the phono stage is the most critical component in an analog system since it is an important part of the source. Which phono stages have you heard and in which tier would they fall in 1st 2nd or 3rd?
From reading the threads here: aesthetix, manley, lamm, fm acoustics, einstein would probably fall in the 1st.
Please include stages that have been listened to extensively and those that have been heard breifly.
Right off the bat, this is all HIGHLY subjective, and based solely upon opinion, mine in this case. (So, NO flames please) I highly value deep, dark, black backgrounds, so I tend to like solid state phono stages, (but that does not exclude a well made tube phono stage from making it into the top tiers of my list.)

So, ... First off, to be perfectly honest, I think you should specify which models, for those companies that you have listed, which more than one model.
(As an example, while the Aesthetix IO is a top tier phono stage, the Rhea, IMHO, is not. I would put it in the middle tier, as it was too noisy for my tastes. Nice features though, as I will readily admit.)

In addition, as much as I love Lamm equipment, (I own the M2.1 monoblock amps), I would not put the Lamm LP2 in the top tier either. It is much too limited in its applications, as it does not have much in the way of gain or loading adjustments.

Other top tier phono stages, (for me obviously), would be the ASR Basis Exclusive and I with you agree about The Einstein (the balanced version anyway), and the Manley (Steelhead), and, of course, the aforementioned Aesthetix IO.

Middle Tier phono stages would include the Ayre P-5xe (almost making into the top tier), The Ear 834, The ARC PH-3 (just barely making it), and of course the previously mentioned Aesthetix Rhea and Lamm LP2.

Lower Tier phono stages would be the Bellari, the NAD PP, the Grado PH-1, etc...

My two cents worth anway.
Agree with Kurt Tank,

Highly subjective and debateable. There is some consensus that top tier phono preamps I suggest belong somewhere on the continuum:

a) I use the Aesthetix IO Signature with 2 power supplies and volume controls. Very spacious and wide sound stage almost unmatched in this regard, great bloom. Maybe not the highest of the hyper sonic highs but very natural like Carnegie Hall. Bass is very good.

b) Also have the Klyne 7X3.5 phono and it does the highs and bass but not quite as spacious, if I did not have the Aesthetix I could very very easily live with this. It is a work of art in design and flexibility. I really like this unit and I believe it could hold its own for a top tier component.

I think there is more of a continuum than strict tiers - imo and in no particular order...

upper: ARC PH7, ARC Reference Phono 2, Atma-Sphere MP-1, Lamm LP2, Aesthetix IO Sig

middler: ARC PH5, Artemis Labs PH-1, Pass Labs XONO, ZYX Artisan, Aesthetix Rhea,

I would also add to the top teir the Allnic H 3000, with it's transformer coupled design.

Since I am not a ss guy, i can not comment on these designs, but have heard and am impressed with the Einstein.

I have owned an Aesthetix (IO) Eclipse and Manley Steelhead, currently own a Lamm LP 2 as well as the Allnic and consider them all amoung the best.
Doshi Alaap, tier 1+. Oh! Sorry. The Alaap is not on your list. I've heard it next to Aesthetix, Manley, and Raul's Essential and several others.
Those of you judging the Rhea,are you using the latest "S" version in your comparisons? Just trying to figure how to weigh your opinions ,as the latest version is supposed to be significantly better than the non "S".
I am reluctant to "rate" any particular product -- a lot depends on taste, system matching, etc. So, I will submit some names of phonostages that sounded really good in a particular system I heard.

I own, and really like the Viva Fono. Music through this phono stage is very vivid and harmonically dense. Like most good tube-based phonostages, notes seem to bloom into space and then decay naturally (no artificial and mechanical sounding "edge").

The better Audionote (uk) preamps, like the M-9, and separate phono stages (M-10) are very good. For solid state, I've heard a system with the Connoisseur phono stage that sounded very good -- dynamic and lively without being unduly edgy or grainy sounding.

These are all approaching "crazy" expensive, but they do deliver the goods.
Take a listen to the VAS 1 pre-amp. As all have commented, any evaluation must be done in your system, so get a loaner and check it out before you buy.
I haven't heard what many here would consider "top tier" phonostages but I ran the Whest PS.30 (using a Dynavector 20XM mounted on a VPI Scout) against the EAR 834P, Acoustat PH1 and the ARC PH5 and it was markedly better than all of them. Very three dimensional, quiet, detailed and dynamic. Not sure how it would compete against much pricier models since they were out of my reach. Of course all of this is very subjective and system dependent--not sure a ranking like this is really of much value. You really have to consider the cartridge and the phonostage as a package rather than rate phonostages as a stand alone item.
Thank you for your responses.
One thing I have noticed, that the Aesthetix io consistently is considered as one of the best.
Do any other phono stages receive this recognition????
Can you compare the sonic qualities of the Lamm LP2 and the Allnic?

Since you own both, I'd be very interested in your evaluation. I'm not looking for a ranking (personal tastes et al), but I'm keen on your comparison of sonic characteristics. Thanks, Jeff
Not sure about top tier, but in my system the Manley Steelhead has stood out above the rest. After it, in order, I like the...
Simaudio LP5.3 & PSX5.3 combo
BAT VK-P10se
ASR Basis Exclusive
Ayre P-5XE

A lot of fine phono stages listed here, but, I wouldn't draw any sort of conclusions based on the number of favorable mentions. Some are quite rare, like the FM Acoustics, Connoisseur, and Viva Fono, so I doubt that many have heard them. At audio shows, the Io and the Lamm can be easily found, so some have at least "heard" them, though I don't see how anyone can make a fair evaluation under those circumstances.

I've heard some that have gotten widespread praise that really just did not work well in the particular system I heard them in. The whole matching thing can be quite complex. Even stages that seem so incredibly flexible and adjustable can simply not work well in certain situations.

If you are making a list of contenders to try to audition, then yes, comment here can be useful. But, if you are trying to divine some sort of "consensus" single best, this approach will not yield a useful result. Also, there are some fundamental differences in sound between tube and solid state phonostages and tube stages that use a step up transformer and those that do not. You would need to listen to different types to narrow the focus of your search.


I had a Linn Linto, which I used with a Lyra Helikon. It worked very well with that particular cartridge -- lively and engaging without being unnaturally etched or edgy. I don't know how well it would work with other cartridges, particularly since it does not provide any way to adjust loading (it has a fixed resistor and a case that defies opening). I believe that either the Linn cartridges are made by Lyra or share the same designer, so there may have been a synergy with my Helikon.

Still, if you can audition the Linto with your own cartridge, I think it is a pretty good phonostage for the money.
I owned a manley steelhead until i got my Mcintosh C2300, the phono stage surpassed the manley and I sold it. I bought a TronSeven reference and like it better than the c2300. I also use Tele Ecc803's gold pins, and 1 mullard master series 12au7, probably helps a little....
I would probably suggest adding the Hagerman Trumpet to the list, perhaps as a 1's tier if you don't need a step-up for your cartridge and 2nd tier if you do. It just doesn't have the gain for LOMC's, but otherwise is a superb phono stage.
add a new one to the list
Paul Hynes Phono for those that have heard it's real good
Hmmm Are you splitting between MM & MC phono stages?

With anything the following is based on what I heard in my system with MC cartridges - mainly my dyna XV-1.

I currently own a TW Acustic phono - wonderful phono stage, natural presentation, pure tube gain with little noise, 3 inputs are fantastic to compare tables/carts. No MM, just MC.

I also use the MM & MC inputs of my Mac MC2300 & agree with Tjnif that the MC stage is excellent.

I used a Pass Xono for quite a while and it is a solid performer that does nothing wrong and is flexible - just lacks that magic that tubes give.

EAR 834P is a fantastic little phono stage, as long as you swap the stk tubes out.

Others that I have listened to in my system are

- Aesthetix IO - single power supply - superb sound but a little noisy for me.
- Aesthetix Rhea - too noisy for LOMC
- ARC PH5 - good sounding for its price
- ARC PH7 - great sound, slightly gray thou,not as flowing as the best and low gain can cause issues in some systems
- Einstein MC - vibrant, forward & dymanic - ultimately just too much
- EAR - 88PB - fanatastic sounding phono - almost bought that before TW.
- Sutherland PHD - very pure & quiet but no micro dynamics
- Kondo M7 & KSL-SFZ - good sound but too forward/agressive and in your face. sounds better balanced as a MM without the KSL transformer.
- Ayre P5e - nice sounding but lacks a little life.
- Manly Steelhead - hifi sounding - sounds more like SS than tubes
Add Zanden 1200 Mk 2 (or 3) to the list. In my book surely a top tier contender. Some other very good mentions above
In old phono stages Vendeatta Research was/is also an out standing performer, so much that it could belong in upper tiers.
I have had quite a few phono stages over the years in my systems and in general tube based amps seem to provide the organic texture that dovetails with the vinyl experience. Having said that, more recent design SS stages that I have had really perpetuate the positive aspects of SS:- taught lean base, extended highs, lots of detail etc. etc.. The PS Audio GCPH and Pathos Inthegroove Mk 2and ZYX phono stages are extremely acceptable and competitive - they are also relatively affordable and a great bang for the buck and you could live with any of these IMHO.

On the tube front I am going to be contrary minded to many opinions here and put in a plug for the ARC PH3 SE. Lots of air, some nice bloom, plenty of drive and a very satisfying phono stage. It is not "dry" as some have said, but it is fast and accurate. In the same league is the Sonic Frontiers Phono 1SE (not the earlier SF models).A great phono stage and one of the quietest around for tube designs - I sold it to help pay for my Aesthetix IO and sometimes I wish I had not needed to do that to keep the boss happy.

These days I am very happy with my IO SIg, but the Allnic products have a great reputation and have the Albert Porters of this world signed up. I will try one of these shortly.

I would also like to mention the less discussed topic of pre/head amps.I have selectable impedance transformer based loading into my IO and that can make a much greater impact than most pay attention to as well as reducing noise.

If you like vintage Japanese equipment, their phono loading preamps can be very seductive and provide a lot of sublime texture not always built in to today's modern designs which go for low noise and dynamic headroom first. My current pride and joy is an Accuphase C-17 head amp and my ZYX UNIverse has never sounded better - including loading thru my ZYX pre-pre.

As always in audio, a journey with no absolute correct way forward.


On the tube side
First Tier Class A
ASR Basis Exclusive 2010 or any prior version

No question about it.
One of my audiobuddies owned a ASR Basis Exclusive. He sold it for a Audia Flight phono.

The Audio Flight is superior in every music making aspect. I gotta hear the Audia Flight myself
I tried EAR 324 and Asthetix Rhea with my ASR II Exclusive. Asthetix was terrible. However, without any previous listening test, my Asthetix dealer warned me that he think it would be a poor match to ASR according to input impedance on ASR and output impedance on Rhea. He even told me that I would waste my time trying but I was curious so I tried anyhow. He was right. If his theory was right, in my system, I can also rule out Audio Research, Pass, Lamm, Leben and most other tube phonos that I could find spec as well. EAR 324 was much better match (according to its output impedance and listening test) but when using MC cartridge (Ortofon Jubilee at that time), I much preferred using Ortofon T100 SUT into EAR MM input rather than directly into its MC input. Then I tried ASR Mini Basis with Ortofon SUT and I found that EAR/Ortofon was not any better than ASR Mini Basis/Ortofon in my system. ASR Mini Basis MC input is not bad either. However, it is very likely that ASR phono and amp may have special synergy and in different system, it might not be as close a call. Now I have ASR Basis Exclusive 2010 on order.
Basically it is not enough to just list the best phono as much will also depends on the rest of your system as well.

The Lamm with Westerm Electric NOS 417's is splendid offering resolution and a touch of warmth. Paired with the LL2 it soars and together they make a very listenable top tier combination. The lack of adjustment and limited gain in the MC section, perhaps keep it from being a free standing reference phono stage.

The Allnic's transformer coupling provide intense image density, which excells every other pre-amp I have owned. It's excellent resolution will not have have you looking elsewhere, and it's bass attack is also amoung the best I have heard. The sound stage while large is not enormous like the Aesthetix IO. Very low noise, ultra quiet and low distortion allow you to play music louder when you choose to.

Flexibility is tops, balanced or single ended, multiple loading adjustments, etc. also... allowing 4 turntables switchable from the front panel or remote control, comes with NOS tubes. It is a true reference phono stage.
I have owned the Lamm, Steelhead, ASR, Einstein, Jadis, Thor, Joule, PH7,
Doshi Alaap, BAT (fully loaded)....and find the Wavestream to be the most
musically satisfying.
Tom Evans would probably be here as well like the Groove X or the SRX version.
I'm been running the Wavestream Kinetics phono stage and preamp for over a year and IMHO it is excellent. I ran a latest (at the time) Aesthetix Callisto and Io Signature each with two power supplies, NOS tubes, before changing to the Wavestream. I listen to mainly jazz, classical and a lot of female vocals. The Wavestream and the Aesthetix had more than enough gain for my moving coil. After a week home demo with the Wavestream in my system I like it better. I thought my Aesthetix gear was great but it had a slightly euphoric presentation and was a little plumier in the upper bass than the Wavestream combo. The Wavestream seemed slightly more netural and more like live music I hear on the weekends. There's no question that Jim White's Aesthetix products are wonderfull and you may like these better than Wavestream's combo. You can't go wrong with either. I think that both are in top 5 phono stages.
So would it be safe to say these are in the top tier?
Aesthetix io
Alaap MKII
Allnic h3000
Audio Research Ph7
ASR Exclusive
Atma-sphere mp-1
Essential 3160
Einstein Balanced
Lyra 4.2p se
Manley Steelhead
Wavestream Kinetics
Zanden 1200
Dear Pedrillo: I don't know what precise information you are looking for in your thread and these are my thoughts on your last post.

The units you name it ( in that list ) are good units but totally different between each other as is its each one quality performance level: you have stand alone Phono stages, Phonolinepreamps, tube units, SS units, hybrid units, high gain active units, Low gain+SUT units, fully balanced designs, unbalanced designs even a non discrete design like the ASR that uses IC's(chips/opamps ), etc, etc.

With all these " variety " where each one unit has its own advantages and disadvantages and with other units that are very good but not name it in the thread I wonder: which kind of precise conclusions could you obtain other that put names in a list?

Maybe I'm wrong but, please if you can try to explain your thread thoughts about, maybe I'm missing something.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Thanks for asking.
I am about to make a purchase of a phono stage therefore I am creating a list of what others have considered as the best.
Thank you to all for sharing your experiences.

how many stages do you have in the essential and how much gain and what type of RIAA network do you employ? I didnt see that info on your system.
Dear Perrew: Two independent stages configured as need it: 2MC, 2MM and MC/MM.

For LOMC cartridges: 60 db and 54db in the phono stage and overall you can have what you need: 75-80-90 db. The phono stages gain comes in two gain stages, either MC and MM.

The RIAA is a passive network.

Regards and enjoy the music,

thank you for answering. When you say I can have 80dB and you have 60dB from the phono stage with two stages, I suppose you have the RIAA sandwiched between the two, does that mean you have another stage for the pre or could you bypass this to just have two stages in total. Then max gain would be 60dB.
Also what type of network you use for the RIAA, a regular RC?
Dear Perrew: Remember that the Essential 3160 is a Phonolinepreamp: phono stages + line stage.

The total gain in the Phono stage is 60db in two stages but this Phono stage signal must pass through the line stage where there is the additional gain the amplifier needs.
You can't run the Essential as a stand alone Phono stage.

The RIAA network is a passive RC one on Lipshitz two poles configuration.
If you need more specific info please email me.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Analog setup:
- Dynavector Te Kaitora (not Rua)
- Avid Diva II
- Origin Live Encounter Mk2 arm

Amp: Yamamoto A-08S

Linstage Pre-amp: Canary CA-903

Currently I have a Canary CA-401 phono stage that I enjoy a lot, but I'm looking for a more quiet phono stage. In fact, dead quiet would be great.

Most knowledgeable Agon members suggest matching the phono stage based on components and preferences, so I listed my components hoping you guys can help.

My budget is between $1k-$2k. Because of my amp and line stage being tube based, I'm REALLY needing a dead quiet phono stage without sacrificing performance. I want a little more speed, focus and tightness, without diminishing the soundstage, range or textures of the Canary.

I'm sure there are trade offs, but I'd appreciate some suggestions. I read through all of the phono stages listed in everyone's post so I have some more information. But, synergy is really important when it comes to matching components directly. The Canary is great, but a little too noisy with the rest of my tube gear and I think balancing out my tube gear with a SS phono MAY be the way to go, instead of overemphasizing the "tube" sound with everything being tubes. Make sense?


I have the Whest 30RDT, which I utilize with a VPI Scoutmaster Signature table and a Dynavector Te Kaitora Rua cartridge. I run these into an ARC Ref. 3 and a REf 110. My speakers are Sonus Faber Elipsas. I compared the Whest 30rdt against the ARC ph 7 and the new Esoteric phonostage. The Whest was a better match for my system, the ARC didn't have enough gain and sounded muffled and the Esoteric was very good, but not good enough to justify the high price. The Whest sounds wonderful, very open, dynamic and detailed. There's great synergy with my system. I've definitely turned into an analogue guy. I highly recommend the Whest RDT. It's $3,995 U.S. and can be had for less with a little negotiation.

I was going through a similar search and finally pulled the trigger and bought a Pass XOno. Many say it's over analytical and cold I haven't found this to be true. When the impedance was set correctly for my cartridge the sound became full with timbre, great dynamics, well defined and powerful bass and good inner detail. When the impedance was set to high (incorrectly?) the the sound was very detailed and cooler; I think many may have set and/or kept the impedance to high and never experienced how good this phono can be. The XOno handles a symphony orchestra's timbre diversity with a refined ease.
Another vote for the TRON Seven! Top class sound, great build quality and built to order (can be made bespoke to suit your cart).
I highly recommend the Whest RDT.. (Ebe)

I have the Whest Audio PS30 RDT too.. with TW Acoustic Raven One and Benz Micro LP.
I'm an analog guy and I tried lotsa phono preamp in my life but I strongly suggest to listen this 30RDT before to purchase any other phono preamps.

By the way .. Happy New Year and don't forget .."In Stylus Veritas!"

My cent

Don't agree phono stages are the most critical component
in the anolog song.

I would say IMHO this would be the order for me;

1.)turntable,tonearm wire,

2.)cartridge,phono stage,

3.)motor,tonearm,filters etc...

but really especially with the top four items, your only as good as your weekest link.

Happy new year.
My ranking -

(1) Phono

(2) Cart (3) Tonearm/wire (4) TT

Tough choice but ideally I would actually place the rest of the items at a distant second place behind the phono. Yes, I'm trying to convince myself to get a Audia Flight Phono now....
Has anyone heard the Walker Audio Reference Phono Second Edition or the ASR Basis Exclusive 2010 model? If so, how do they compare. Thanks
Hey Curio,
Thanks for quoting me in your response! I'm sitting here listening to some great jazz right now. The whest is wonderful...and the rest of my system....well it gets me through the cold winters here in Chicago. I'm a big fan of Sonus Faber! Since they're made in your back yard, have you spent any time listening to them? I've owned the Cremonas and now I have the elipsas. Would enjoy hearing from you.

If one is serious about the goal of having a hi fidelity, high performance, transparent system no component or part should be underestimated or given more or less importance in its contribution to the final experience you have at your listening chair.

From the cartridge to the woofer each component is interconnected to the other in a sophisticated cryptic web and chain.

In every system there must be thousands of parts and chemistry is one of many important factors.

How each of these thousands of parts, especially how one component with its thousands of parts, built by a different design circuit topoglogies/ designer , perhaps built on the otherside of the world, how it will interact with another designers design/ parts is extremely difficult to predict. An average system probably has components from more than 5 different companies and when they created their products it was within the context of their own set of contigencies, ie (room, speakers, amp, preamp, wire, cartridge, tonearm, personal tastes) and in isolation from the components you are presently using in your system.

Some people want to say the phonostage is the most important, others the speaker and so on, i say each and every single part is essential to the whole and no component should be overlooked or should be deemed more important than the other.

If you have a 10 link chain and one of the links was extremely expensive and made with state of the art metals and production processes how much will that matter when you begin using all the links to try and lift a very heavy weight when one of the links is make of a inferior metal and with inferior production? How well will the lift be executed? did it matter that the high quality component was in the chain if the weak leak was there as well?
>>02-11-10: Vertigo
......and no component should be overlooked or should be deemed more important than the other<<

Not true.

The amplifier/speaker interface is more important than any component or combination thereof.

That pairing is (or should be) the foundation of a well designed audio system.