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I use the Ayre K-1xe, (and have for about five or six years now), and it has an excellent phono stage. I use it with my Dynavector XV-1S cartridge, and I have no noise issues, even though the cartridge only has 0.3 mv output.
The phono stage is near reference IMHO. (Not quite reference, but close.) FYI, I consider the ASR Basis Exclusive, that my friend uses, as my yard stick, along with the Einstein Turntables Choice, (balanced version), and the Manley Steelhead, that I have heard before as well.
Overall, I am very happy with the K-1xe, and except for the inevitable occasional bout of Audiophile Nervosa that wants an upgrade for no apparent reason, I have no desire to upgrade beyond it. (And especially not given the cost of what I would want to upgrade to!)
However, a couple of points about the K-1xe though:
1. It is no longer in production, although Ayre does support and maintain them, should they need repairs. This is resource that I have only used once, and that was not for a repair, but for an upgrade, (to the "e" (evolution) version).
(However, this is something that the Hovland preamps do not have available, as Hovland has gone out of business a couple of years ago. Which is too bad, as they too were reputed to have an excellent phono stage).
So, if you want a K-1xe, you'll have to buy a used one, (which probably will save you some money though). Used they run about $4-5K.
2. The Ayre is a very transparent and well thought out preamp, and sonically, it is a reference preamp. But it does lack some features that some people like, such as a balance control and a mono switch.
3. The phono stage is setup to be run balanced, rather than single ended, as a cartridge is basically a balanced source. (FYI, I run mine balanced.) One can use XLR -> RCA adapters, as I used to do, in order to use standard connections, however, it does sound a little bit better if run balanced.
(In fact, Ayre's products tend to sound best if run balanced throughout the entire system.)
If your budget is a bit more than mine was, two more excellent preamps, (based upon my research, and not my actual auditioning, unfortunately), are the Atma-sphere MP-1. mk 3.1, and the Halcro DM-10, both of which reputedly have reference phono stages built-in, (albeit for twice the price though!).
Good Luck in your search.
The CAT preamps are very, very good tube units.
Sound quality aside, downsides are excessively high output, which reduces the range on the volume control with sensitive amps (e.g., 9 O'Clock position is already loud and 11 O'Clock is super loud), no remote, and a hard-wired power supply connected by a stiff, thick umbilical cord that is unwieldy.
Th phono stage works with MC's down to 0.4 mv. output without problem - MC's with lower outputs require especially low-noise tubes.
Only the very top tube preamps are better.
This is simple. Just have Stan Klyne build a preamp for you to your specifications with an on board phono section. This is all Klyne does is build world class preamps and his over thirty years in doing this has set him apart from other manufacturers. There is nothing like a Klyne preamp. Seldom seed for resale, speaks volumes about his preamps and their ability to reproduce music.