Preamp predicament

First, the system:
Arcam Alpha 9 integrated with add-in phono stage
NHT Super Zero speakers
Yamaha sub SW 120
Technics 1200 MK2 with fluid damper and Cardas arm rewire
AT 150 MLX
Sumiko headshell
Interconnects are whatever they are. I listen to rock mostly with a smattering of jazz and classical.

Second, the problem:
I don't much like the sound, but I can't put my finger on why. There's nothing particularly glaringly wrong with it, but it just doesn't make me want to throw around a bunch of audiophilic adjectives when describing it. And let it be understood that I'm not really an audiophile, I just want to listen to music reproduced in a way that... *takes me there*, for lack of a better description.

So, in looking for possible ways to improve things, I've started to focus on the Arcam's add-in phono stage. I've found next to nothing written about it, which means it must be pretty unremarkable. This has me thinking an upgrade in this department might pay dividends.

Looking at reviews, I've settled (today, for now) on the Cambridge 640p, more or less. My budget limit ~$300-ish. I'd like to buy new from a dealer that will let me return the unit if I find out it's not for me.

Other preamps that have tickled my fancy are ones from Bellari, Pro-Ject, Creek, Graham Slee and a handful of others, all of which have proponents and detractors. The more I read the less sure I seem to be.

Just curious, given my current system, if I can solicit some guidance regarding a preamp that just might uncork it.

I think I'd work on the speakers before I worried too much about a preamp. The super zero's are ok, but the low end isn't there and your yamaha Sub really isn't up to the task of even keeping up with the super zeros.
I agree with Ghstudio about the speakers. The Super Zeros are a little on the bright side.

If your budget for whatever is around $300, look for a pair of Spica TC-50 speakers and really enjoy...
Your sub is not going to work well with the Zero,s. The Arcam has plenty of drive for the Zero,s and I have NHT speakers in all my systems. I still own the super Zero,s and I personally disagree that they are bright. The have no bass but when mated with a quality sub and correctly set up sound quite good. They like current which the arcam has. Stick to copper speaker wire and the Arcam which I have also owned could sound unruly with some cables. I had good results with Vanden Hull D103 mkii cables. Another pre amp won,t change your outcome with your current speaker set up. I personally would look for a better sub that is more musical bass or just get another set of speakers that reach a little lower. If you listen to mostly rock music you really don,t need to be trying to get in the lower 20 hz. The zero,s can sound quite good but a quality sub set up and crossedover properly is a must. The Spica TC-50's or even a pair of studio 20 paradigms and quite a few other monitor,s would be cheaper and easier to set up. Cheers.
Having owned an Alpha, I'm fairly certain your not hearing your AT's full potential. The amp. has a honest sound and really enjoyed it. But, the phono is so-so, heard a lot worse though. I also have owned a 640p for a brief time and found it a value for what it was, but not the answer for me. I had to go further up the foodchain. Consider what you have invested in front of the phonostage.
as an owner and big fan of the alpha 9, i concur with the change the speakers and sub posters. i really don't think your preamp is holding you back.
Well, the NHTs pretty much have to stay. If they get replaced, it will have to be with something nearly identical in size.

As far as the sub, I admit its shortcomings freely (it was a gift, so I kept it). For $300, can I do significantly better?
I have to agree with the rest ... I just read the Steroephile review on the NHT Super Zero. For their size, they do very well but they are so tiny it's hard to find anything to compete. They pretty much have to run with a sub and I have had pretty good luck with the old school Yamaha YST line although NHT makes a sub that goes with the Super Zero's. If you could step up just a bit in size there are several monitors that I believe will fill out much better. I have had really good luck with the Paradigm Studio 20's .... the little Proac monitors are very nice and quite small but are probably out of your price range. Any chance you could spring for the Proacs and get them to fit? You will still need that sub but you might get them to blend a bit better with the Yamaha sub. The other monitor that just blew me away for rock music is the Dynaudio Audience 42's. The bass is unreal for such a small monitor, They image very well and really surprised me. Still a little out of your price range and might still be a bit large compared to the Super Zeros.

Has2be is right on. The Super Zeros have some nice qualities (I had them in the past, they are not bright), especially how they image and render the human voice. But they have no bass. I too believe your problem is the Yamaha sub, which is not able to integrate well with the quick midbass of the Super Zeros.
For $300 I would recommend looking into used HSU subs with the smaller drivers (ST 2), or better yet, Gallo subs that occasionally come up on the used market. There are, of course, many good choices out there that I'm omitting, but all things being equal, I would try to stick with smaller drivers 6 1/2 - 8 inch when matching subs with speakers that barely go below 100hz.
The second issue, and perhaps the larger one, is successfully integrating the sub with the speakers. Do a search, there are many threads on the issue here on Audiogon.
Is your vinyl playback experience disappointing compared to CD, or are both disappointing? If both are disappointing, I wouldn't be looking at the phono stage as a culprit.

Of the albums that I have on both vinyl and CD, I tend to prefer the vinyl. I always assumed that this is because my CD player is a 300 disc Sony jukebox and not anything special.
Dear Ho72: Unfortunately I don't have experience with any of the audio products you own other than your cartridge that IMHO is a good one.

+++++ " And let it be understood that I'm not really an audiophile, I just want to listen to music reproduced in a way that... *takes me there*, for lack of a better description. " +++++

no any analog rig I know is a " plug and play " rig. There are some critical factors to achieve a decent quality performance with an analog source ( cartridge. ): cartridge pin connectors perfectly clean, hedashell pin connectors prefectly clean, the best headshell wires you can afford ( Ikeda S-50 are great ones. ), " perfect cartridge set up: overhang, VTA/SRA, Azymuth and VTF; you have to " play with these last three parameters till you achieve the best performance from that cartridge, LP's with good cleaning as the cartridge stylus and now that we are talking of " cleaning " you need an electrical clean audio system supply.

In the other side almost any home audio system romm needs some kind of treatment for a better integration ( better quality sound reproduction. ) between the room and the audio system.
Here I'm talking of room treatment and speakers/sub " right/precise " position/place in that room. Many times a change in the speakers/sub position makes and help to attain better performance as happen with cartridges when we made a change on VTA/SRA/Azymuth.

The right and precise whole audio system set up is always critical to " takes me there " and who cares about always receive great rewards!!

regards and enjoy the music,
Ho72 , I think keeping the Zero,s is a good idea.. Try and get yourself a used NHT sub from the same line meant for use with them. You will really hear some of the great potential from such a small monitor . They do image well and voices are wonderfull with them. After reading this thread and posting to it earlier I brought my Zeros into the livingroom . I hooked up a set of Bryston Powerpack 120.s(3b monos basically) I used for hometheater a while back to my Cary SLP 98 pre and the zeros to the brystons. Played some Vynil and they sound amazing. I then used the bass drivers in my NHT 3.3,s biwired with the zeros to confirm how well they would sound with good musical bass. When the time comes to move into smaller digs I would have no qualms whatsoever of the Zeros with a used NHT Sub or some thing simular. I,m quite enjoying how well they do sound and hearing them again. Look at a sub then after you have a chance to hear how well they sound maybe later a graham slee phono section added to your aux, inputs and your good to enjoy with minimal cost. The Arcam is a nice piece and would cost you more than 300 to beat it. Cheers.
Dear Ho72: Other important factor is cartridge the load
impedance/capacitance, different impedance/capacitance
values affect/tame the " flavor " of the sound
reproduction, you can try changes here. Even you can try
that cartridge with a different headshell, this could
improve what you are hearing today.

regards and enjoy the music,
Long ago I had a Sony 400 disc changer. The sound is truly awful. Get an outboard DAC, even a cheap one, and you'll be amazed by the improvement.

As for your vinyl, I doubt that anything in the $300 range is going to be a drastic improvement over the Arcam phono stage. So I would recommend that you try to optimize the setup of your current table (VTF, VTA, etc.) and maybe work with speaker placement if that's an option.

I searched Vinyl Asylum and found some generally good comments about the Alpha 9's phono stage, so I'm leaning toward other upgrades. In no particular order...

The Zero's will stay until I get a proper sub, hopefully an NHT that will blend well with my setup. If I can't find a NHT sub, perhaps I'll look at a Hsu.

I have not experimented at all with cart loading, and I probably won't until the new sub is in place.

I will revisit the turntable setup. The current alignment took me the better part of one evening, but since it was my first time it would not hurt to recheck everything.

As far as speaker placement goes, I have some latitude with the sub but virtually none with the Zeros, which I have placed at about ear level (when seated), about 10 feet in front of me and about 6 feet apart.

Thanks for all the suggestions and insights. That's why I posted here.
I would also consider the Dayton audio subs from parts express. They give a lot of bang for the buck and for $300 you could get one that would slaughter your Yamaha.