Stand out phono stages

This topic has been started before by others and myself as well, maybe too many times, but it is worth revisiting since the source is so very important!
So far I have had the pleasure to enjoy two worthy phono stages: the EAR 834p and the JLTI.
I have to admit they are spectacular. Obviously the record and all the equipment downstream play a role in the sound heard. In some cases I prefer the JLTI and in other cases the EAR. But neither out do the other dramatically.
What phono preamps outshine others by a big margin, those that can be considered the last phono preamp ever needed.
The new battery-powered Nova Phonomena is a very good performer by any yardstick and it is much more adjustable than most. I like it a lot.
I have heard my buddy's Sutherland PHD, battery powered phono pre amp and was very favorably impressed. Its one of the quietest phono pre's avail, and that makes a very big difference IMO. If I wasn't keeping my CJ PV-5, which has a superb phono in it...I'd have the Sutherland.
A bit pricy but for me the Thor Cantatus or even in its formrer incarnation the Thor 3000, prior to being redone, works well for me
What phono preamps outshine others by a big margin, those that can be considered the last phono preamp ever needed.

Here are 'last I'll ever buy' phono stages to consider, in no particular order...

* Atma-Sphere MP-1
* Audio Research Corp PH7
* Aesthetix IO
* Lamm LP2
* Conrad-Johnson TEA-1
* CAT SL-1
CAT Legend pre-amp with phono #1, $18,000
In addition to the ones mentioned above, and in no particular order:

-Manley Steelhead
-BAT VK-P10SE w/ Super-Pak
-Walker Audio Reference
-Aesthetix Io Signature
-ASR Basis Exclusive
-Einstein- The Turntable's Choice
-Air Tight ATE-2
-Boulder 2008
George Wright units not included? Shame!
Simaudio LP 5.3
K&K Audio SE, especially the latest version.
Another vote for the Aesthetix, both the IO pair and the single box version.

I presently own an EAR 834p, largely due to financial considerations, and I have to admit that I really prefer the Conrad-Johnson Premier-15 that preceded it.

I haven't seriously auditioned the Manley, but when I've heard it seems very nice.
No Pass Labs Xono?
add Lyra Connosuer, Wavestream Kinetics, VivA, and if you're on a budget, Artemis Labs and Hagerman Trumpet.
oh, and at the same price as the Nova Phonomenon, the Heed, although it would be silly to consider either of those as a contender for best at any price.

dealer disclaimer, although not necessarily for all of my above suggestions.
Any opinions here on the Graham Slee Era Gold V? I have the baby Slee and love it, but wonder what/how much I'm missing...
The Era Gold V, used for around $625, is a great bargain but it doesn't belong in a select group of "stand out" phono stages.

Neither, however, do the JLTI or Ear 834 that the thread originator discusses. Or for that matter, many of the others mentioned.
You can definitely spend more money and maybe exceed the performance slightly in one or two areas, but the Einstein phonostage is quite good. It is quiet, dynamic, transparent and very detailed with very good bass. It also embodies a nice combination of tube and solid state virtues and is reliable and very listenable. Ultimately, what you choose will depend on the money which you have to spend, your sonic priorities and the remainder of your system.
THank you all for your enthusiastic responses!!!
I take all your responses serious. But want to reiterate that I was hoping to see more of a one prize-winner that outshone all others. HERE is an example: mbl 101es. They by far sound more life-like than any other speaker at the shows I visited. If consumer grade stereo electronics score a 60 and high end audio spoken of here on audiogon score a 90 than mbl scores a 110 IMHO. Forgive me if I praise the mbl's without mentioning the other topguns that deserve to be mentioned. I am sure there are others which I am not aware of that approach the caliber of mbl but that can be saved for another thread. Thanks again.
Pedrillo, you will never find any one item, be it preamp, amp, speaker, cables, whatever that will outshine all others. Everything has it's plusses and minuses, that's just the way it is. If one item was all things to all people, then all the other companies would go out of business. So obviously there is no one superior product.....sorry.

Zanden 1200. Vendeatta Research
I have to agree with Pedrillo, when it comes to speakers there are the MBL 101Es and then there is everything else. I haven't found this to be the case with any other component, however; just speakers.
If you want to get way beyond an EAR and JTLI, I agree with Piedpiper on Lyra Connoisseur, Wavestream Kinetics, but would add Aesthetix Io Signature as top for me in no particular order. I've owned all three and could have lived with any one of those three- right now the Wavestream Pre-amp and Phono stages are providing beautiful music my system.

Also the other recommendations will improve your music system. Most (all) are so expensive. Did you have a price range in mind?
You mention the Atma-Sphere MP-1 and the Aesthetix IO.
Have you had a chance to compare the two in your system?
I'm sure the MBLs are wonderful, but so are a dozen others.
Exlibris - hi, I've heard the IO (non-Sig) a few years ago in a system somewhat different from mine, but have not had the opportunity to hear it in my own system to compare with the MP-1 mk.III. I think its fair to say both are 'stand out phono stages'.
I guess it all depends on what each of us is looking for.
I've never heard a full-range box speaker that didn't sound like I was listening to a stereo. To me, some sound like incredibly fantastic stereos and some sound like bad stereos but they all sound like stereos.
That said, the 101Es are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I think we all end up picking the flaws that we can live with.
Sorry to have derailed this phono stage thread with speaker talk. I'm more interested in hearing about the Io and other stand out phono stages than in talking about MBLs anyway.
Don't know if its distributed Stateside but the ClearAudio Balance and Balance Reference Phono stages are worth a listen, especially if you like solid state phono's and ClearAudio cartridges.
IMO The next phono stage upgrade after the Balance Ref with duel power supplies would be a Boulder 2008 with triple power.
"I guess it all depends on what each of us is looking for."

well said. I used to think there was "an" answer. Perhaps I have grown up a bit afterall. ;-)

...and then there's the amp speaker relationship, and the cartridge phono stage relationship, etc..

Yes, Clearaudio , along with its phono stages is distributed here by Musical Surroundings and their dealers. They are also the distributors for Aesthetix.
I can't believe no one has mentioned the K& I will...

I mentioned it early on in the thread, but it certainly deserves a second mention.
Shsohis: sshhh! :)
I have my eye on one such. Prices on them con=me and go in cycles it seems, and Smurf's Up. I'm waiting patiently for one with two full chassis at a good price. A month ago someone dumped one for $1500. I missed it by MINUTES!!
cheers apo
Pedrillo, the closest I've heard (of) as the be-all, end-all phono stage would be the Boulder 2008. Better hock the Bugatti though.
Vendetta Research ( of CTC Blowtorch fame) have received rave reviews.
cheers apo
I have to second the Aesthetix IO Signature, I have one with only one power supply but I have compared it to both a Pass Xono and a top ASR phono stage, and the IO is just much better than both. Of course this is on my system, my ears and my house, YMMV.
If your looking for something in the same price range as the EAR and JLTI, the Sim Audio LP5.3 has worked really wel for me in my system. I prefer over the Ayre P-5XE it replaced.
Aporigine wrote:
the closest I've heard (of) as the be-all, end-all phono stage would be the Boulder 2008. Better hock the Bugatti though.
I would agree with the latter remark. However, with only a 46 dB signal to noise ratio the Boulder's noise level would be 8 times that of a quiet phono stage such as the Einstein (dealer disclaimer) with a 76 dB figure and 15 times that of the Vendetta SCP-2T (85 dB; dealer disclaimer) as the human ear perceives it. Of course measurements are one thing; the proof is in the listening.
Essential, Are you quoting the phono gain of the Boulder or its true S/N ratio? 46db S/N sounds impossibly bad for any commercial product, let alone one that costs as much as the Boulder.
walker referance, enough said
I'm kind of amazed not to see any Shindo mentioned here... perhaps because there is no standalone phonostage in the line (though one is rumored to be in production).

Shindo's phono sections are built into his full-function preamps, old-style, and are stunning. Kill 2 birds with 1 stone.
There has been no mention of Tron, Klyne, and Wavac either.
Fortunately, or not, I have had some of the finest phono stages available in my system over the past few years. Here is a snapshot of my perceptions of each phono stage.

Nagra PL-P
build quality 9/10
useability/flexibility 8/10
sound 8/10 fast, clean, no-glare. however, to my ears, the sound was a bit too thin and not enough dynamic weight for my taste. that said, when I had the Nagra, my system was not as advanced as it is has been recently. So, a re-listening of the Nagra would be a more fair treatment.

Aesthetix IO
build quality 8/10
usability/flexibility 7/10
sound 8/10 extremenly dynamic, very full lifelike dynamic swings, very convincing dynamics. georgeous tonality, although a bit warm, but certainly welcomed to my ears. Downside is the noise, as this tube-heavy phono stage is too noisy. After talking with a few IO owners, I understand that the noise can be significantly reduced by using better tubes and by using Albert Porters cables that connect the power supply to the main unit. I have not had a chance to validate this information, just passing along. All this said, the finest system I have heard to date was driven by an IO and a Callisto.

ASR Basis Exclusive
Build Quality 8/10 (I dont care for the plastic-like body, as I prefer metal. Just a personal preference)
usability/flexibility 10/10
sound 9/10 Excellent dynamics, transparency, no glare, easy to listen to, nice soundstage and imaging. Really, no complaints at all. This is my 2nd favorite phono stage to date. And for the price and EXCELLENT support you get from ASR, it is a bargain.

Boulder 2008
build quality 10/10
flexibility 11/10
sound 9/10 Its hard to really criticize this unit, albiet a very expensive unit, with the exception of noise. The stated and measure S/N ration was about 46-48db, which for $32k USD, unacceptable. I really could never come to grips with the high noise issue. Otherwise, its wonderful.

Lyra Connoisseur 4.2P SE
build quality 11/10
flexibility 0/10
sound 11/10 By far and away, the Connoisseur phono and line stages are THE BEST I have had in my system. Hand down, the best in all categories. I could go on and on, but there is no need. Compared to all the excellent phono stages I have listed above, the Connoisseur is just plain and simple, the best. My only misgiving is the lack of flexibility with regards to changing cartidge load. You get only 1 choice which is hard wired resistor installed at the factory. That said, my Connoisseur came with a 10k load. My cartidge called for a 100 ohm load. I thought this would be a problem. Not at all. Still the best phono and line stages available. Hands down.

If you want more specific info, please don't hesitate to email me at
Banpuku,thanks for the insightful info.I really enjoyed your experiences,as you relay it.
Frm my little friend's group I hear that the Zanden phonostage is amazing!Of course these guys are rabid vinyl collectors,and the ability to use different "select" curves for specific labels really turns them on.
Have you got this on your radar?
What are some of the strengths of the Zanden in comparison to other top phonostages, other than the fact that you can select various equalization curves?
The Zanden is set with a gain of about 34dB. It was designed for the higher output of mm cartridges. Mike Fremer used it to good effect with low-output mc units by adding a step-up transformer. IIRC
cheers apo
Banpuku, Maybe you ought to re-evaluate the other preamps with a 10K load on your cartridge. Perhaps it is the cartridge that is working optimally into the Lyra piece but not so well with the 100-ohm load afforded by the other gear you tested.

Altho I know that it is a relative rarity, I wonder why no one has mentioned Raul's Phonolinepreamp in this thread. Earlier comments led me to believe it is a contender, but I've never heard it myself.
Lew, Pat: In my view (and experience), the issue of cartridge loading primarily concerns what the phono stage can tolerate, and then as a lower priority what the cartridge would be most happy with. Put another way, what is commonly talked about as "cartridge loading" should probably more usefully thought of as "phono stage input termination."

To cut to the chase, the Connoisseur has been designed so that it is quite tolerant of loading across a broad range of cartridges - but the same is not necessarily true for other phono stages. With the Connoisseur, I happily run any of my own cartridge designs at 10kohm (used to be 47kohm) without feeling the slightest desire for heavier loading, but with most other phono stages, I find that something between 330~120ohms sounds better.

For a technical writeup as to why this can be so, please see Jim Hagerman's article at Some time back I wrote a much more detailed post on this same topic on Audiogon, and I wish that I could simply link to that, but I don't know how to find my own post! (^o^;)

cheers and hth, jonathan carr
Perhaps I was misunderstood.I personally never heard the Zanden.Some of my friends are high on this design,due to different selectable RIAA curves,that one can play with.
Supposedly "fantastic" if you have a large Columbia/Decca collection of vinyl,amongst other labels."They" have this LP wealth,so are very interested.One of them heard the demo,given by Hi Fi Plus(where the unit got a rave review some time ago)at RMAF,and was extremely impressed.The various RIAA curves were utilized,from what I was told(this is only second hand,mind you)and it appeared that the Zanden was "fantastic".Especially if you have a wealth of Decca,Columbia etc classical discs.
From the input I got,the "thinning" we hear on many Columbia lp's is "dramatically" improved through the Zanden.I trust the info,since these guys are quite reliable.
Bad news....Incredibly expensive!!! No surprise there.
Sirspeedy - on that note, if someone wants to experiment with a high-quality tubed phonostage with adjustable EQ (and more flexibility than the Zanden), have a look at the Sentec EQ-10.

I just got one of these and have been having a blast playing around with it. Many of the curve possibilites are applicable mainly to 78s of course, but many are for early mono LPs. And yes, it does transform early Columbias! We're talking EARLY Columbias though... the blue-label ones. By the time you get to six-eye, they were using RIAA.

I'm very curious about the small European labels though... early Discophiles Francais, Erato, Hispa Vox etc. There is very little info online about what curves these labels used. I'd be very interested if anyone here could fill me in.
Patrick,interesting,and thanks for the info.The Erato label,I believe,is the Euro RCA.Not too great,but I DO have a few which are quite good.
The really early Columbia stuff is not easy to find,I think.If it's not in the stereo era,I usually don't kill my back(most of the LP's are now on the floor sections,where I get my vinyl)looking for mono stuff,though I don't rule mono out.Of course "any" good jazz lp's in mono are very desirable to me.Just the classical mono stuff does not turn me on.
BTW,Hi Fi Plus,about a year ago,actually did a very complete comparison of phono stages,where the Zanden went head to head with the Lyra.BOTH came out as the two best Roy Gregory had stated(for what it's worth).
I Do know R.G. likes the Zanden,ALOT!!!
This is just "hobbyspeak",by me,for anyone interested in hashing around this kind of stuff.Other than my own,built in,re-built/extensively modded phonostage,and the few my friends have,I cannot give accurate input on this particular subject.I Do know tube rolling with top NOS tubes made a huge improvement in the stages I have access to.No new news there,I am sure.
What we all try to get,"whether we think so or not",is the "actual sound of our cartridge"!THE most important component in the system,to my way of thinking!All other componentry should just "get out of the way".To my way of thinking(only opinion)once we get really familiar with a well voiced system,which has been carefully considered,and lived with, you kind of get a REAL sensation that the sound you are hearing is "that" of the actual cartridge!!Assuming we know what neutral componentry is!
Of course,this is taking into account we know these LP's VERY well too,which can mean we bring them to other friend's homes,as well as dealer/show set-ups to gain interesting insight.Vinylistas really have too much fun,for one lifetime!! No?
Sorry for my typical rant.I'm working on "that".Not too successfully -:)

I have the Zanden 1200 phonostage and yes , like Roy Gregory says it is one of the great phono stages I have owned. The manual has table to set appropriate RIAA curve selection for many labels. You can clearly listen the sound snap in place(tonally- Thin and excessively body becomes natural respectively)when a right curve is chosen. Like all the other Zanden components, this one is no exception: it performs at whole another unthinkable level.
Have you ever compared the Zanden phono and linestages to the Aesthetix Io and Callisto in your system?
Exlibris, No I have not.
Although at one time Aesthetix Io was on my short list for potential phonostage prior to my ownership of Vendetta and the Zanden 1200.