recommendation for a high end analog system


I never had an analog system until last month. I bought a 1989 SOTA TT with vacuum/Sumiko MMT arm/Dennon 103R retyped with elliptical/sapphire cantilever. My phono is Kitsune MK5 WBT that is amplified by Don Sach 2 tube preamp and Pass X350.5. My speaker are Sound Lab M545 ESL. The TT has been very   well maintained despite its age. It sounded very good until I heard my friend's system which has the same TT but with Lyra Skala cartridge and first generation Triplanar arm (Spectral pre/amp). His sounded noticeably clearer and fuller. What is the best way to get a noticeable improvement in my system without breaking the bank (or before I have to squint to hear the improvement). I would love to hear some wisdom from analog-philes.
chungjh
Look into older MM cartridges.  You may be surprised as to how close they can come to MC cartridges.  Try the older Pickering or Stanton MM cartridges.  If you are looking for a fuller sound they may have what you are looking for and may be surprising close to what you hear in the Lyra, for a lot less money.  Its not going to be a Lyra but MM cartridges have their own virtues.


agree wholeheartedly w this - love my timeless grace f9's and with peter l's modern shibata tips they give both the luscious warmth and the 'see-thru' resolution and brilliance so valued nowadays
@chungjh

@bkeske, How old is your SOTA? Dit you get it refurbished?

It is a 1980's Sapphire, non-vacuum, Series III. Actually purchased it off a gentleman here on Audiogon, it was his original table. He then bought the Star (vacuum), and finally decided to sell the Sapphire.

No, not refurbished, but eventually want to get that done, at a minimum install a new and up-to-date motor, but while doing that, I would probably have the whole thing looked-over, springs replaced (regardless) etc. Right now, I'm just enjoying it every day, and it would be hard to part with it during a refurb right now. But will do it.....some day....
Not yet mentioned: the Eclipse motor upgrade from SOTA. Will make a huge improvement even against the limiting background of what you already are using. Go to their website and read about it. Bonus: if you send your unit to SOTA for Eclipse upgrade, you can also have them fit a new arm board to suit your new tonearm, whatever that may be. I don’t presently own a SOTA, but I did own and use a Star Sapphire III for about a decade. Based on that sonic signature, I would not have a SOTA without the Eclipse. You won’t appreciate what I’m saying until you experience it for yourself.
Chakster

You don’t need any lubricants for any records, this is snakeoil! The market is crazy crazy for useless stuff.
 So true!  A competently designed record cleaner, record brush and clean record sleeves should suffice.  Disc Doctor makes a good & safe stylus cleaner solution.   
Late to the party here, and I agree with the general thrust that your table is capable of delivering far better results than you're getting out of it with the arm and cartridge you presently have.  The 103 is a good cartridge, but not a great one and the Sumiko arm is in the same class.  Your friend's arm and cart are truly major league.  

Further, @mijostyn and @bkeske are correct.  I have a 1984 Sapphire purchased new off the dealer floor and have found it to be a very easy table to work on that is superbly reliable.  I did have it updated by Sota about 10 years ago with a Series V platter, new springs and composite armboard to fit a Graham Phantom.  I'd looked at the TriPlanar and even spoke to Tri Ma about a Series III he'd posted here.  I'd also considered SME, Reed, Kuzma, JMW and even attempted a rebuild of my original Magnepan Unitrac 1 that didn't work out.  For my needs, the Graham was the best compromise.  I'd sold SME for a few years and really liked them, but strongly preferred VTA on-the-fly.  The JMW and TriPlanar wouldn't fit without modification, and I frankly felt the JMW was not made to a standard I found acceptable.  The 9" sized Graham, SME, Reed and Kuzma are all essentially drop-in replacements if you purchase a new armboard from Sota for the tonearm you choose.  Sota can guide you very effectively there and they've been doing it for a long time.

For a cartridge, there are dozens of higher performance choices that a better arm can really take advantage of.  I personally have a preference for Dynavector, and have also experienced stellar results with Ortofon, Koetsu and Lyra.

Because there are so many alternatives, the best thing you can do is be patient and research what's available.  Once you feel comfortable with your knowledge base, pick a budget and build in a bit of wiggle room. World-class arms can often be had for ~$2K second-hand and half that for a brand-new superior cartridge.  As some have mentioned, you can also look into a more capable pre if you wish.  No matter what you do, just remember that you are into this to please yourself and time is your friend in that quest.  Keep that in mind and you'll do fine.

Happy listening!