From whom did you order the VPI Prime and what was their recommendation?
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For the kind of money you are budgeting, I would consider a moving magnet cartridge, although there are some MC cartridges available for under $1000 that are quite nice. You can see though that this does not leave you with much of a budget for a preamp if you spent $1K on a cartridge!
The Denon 103r or variants are relatively affordable and actually have stellar performance. That would allow you to spend about $2500 or slightly more on a preamp.
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FWIW we just introduced a LOMC capable preamp in this price range.
If you want expansive musicality and imaging an EAR 834P - some people even keep them in high end systems as they may be the best at these things.
If you have a lot of pre RIAA records check out a Graham Slee Era Gold V (they have varying EQ)
If you want neutrality check out the Whest 2 (I have the the PS 0.2 and the 2 uses the same internals. I preffered it to an original Tom Evans the Groove
If you want MM get a cartidgeman conductor. If you want an MC get a Shelter 501 mk2 (I think they are now mark 3)
Has anyone over that side of the pond heard the new Mk2 phono amps from Tom Evans Audio ?
The specs are truly world class, even on the modestly priced Mk2 Groove A, it's signal to noise ratio ( noise and distortion ) is an amazing -114 db @ 68 db of gain !
I am told that further up the range you go the lower the distortion and noise, 50% per model. I just read this recent review (below), from what Jason Kennedy (the editor) said about the way it performs it looks like it's the real deal and he gave it 'best buy' award.
as for Tom being untrustworty he has always helped and if you require an upgrade he will help with that too ,