To "Step up", or not?

I have a general question(s) about the use of step up transformers; Am I better off buying a cartridge that may be higher output and that matches my current phono stage, or buying a lower output cartridge and introducing a step up transformer into the system? Are lower output cartridges generally speaking, better than higher output? For example, I have read in this forum, and others, about the Denon DL103R, and Shelter 501. I would purchase one of these in the future. However, my phono stage only has a gain of 53db, which is not enough for these cartridges. To include one of these fine cartridges in my system, I would need a step up transformer. I am wondering if I would get better sound with a medium output cartridge and not have the step up.
I was in a similar position and opted for the higher output moving coil. Even though, I had read a lot about step-ups (Stevens & Billington diy or Audio Note) most of the good ones were more than I had budgeted for the cartridge, which was about $500. The cheaper step-ups that I heard were a tad noisy with tonal colorations that weren't to my liking. However, if I were to go "all out" I would go the step-up route with the Helikon or Shelter 901. The low output mcs that I have heard do sound better, but you have to justify the extra expense of optimizing them. Oh, also, I would have to upgrade my Linn Lp12 and arm to accomodate (Shelter might be low compliance) and/or optimize the better cartridge.

Would it be worth it, IYO, to purchase a new phono preamp that has enough gain to begin with to get the benefits of the LO MCs?
As Ultrakaz stated above, it depends upon just what level of performance you are after, and how much you are willing to spend to get it. The lower ouput cartridges generally are better, and also require more gain. You can do it with a higher gain phono section, or get a step up transformer. Either way will require some investment, as well as the additional cost for the cartridges under consideration. This is a very important area of the analog playback system, and should receive close attention if you are to get the best results.

Getting a preamp with enough gain in the phono stage to handle the low output cartridges may be similar or even cheaper than getting a step up transformer, depending on what model you choose. However, many tube phono sections are too low gain for these cartridges, and would require a step up anyway. Most high gain phono sections are solid state, or hybrid. I feel you would be sonically better off to use a tube phono stage for many reasons, particularly the overload margins. There are some all tube phono sections that have enough gain, but they can be expensive. Again, we come down to the budget.
I am dealing with the same issue. I Just got a Michell Gyro SE which I am outfitting with an Origen Live Silver rb250 arm and the Shelter 501 cartridge. (.4MV output)
My preamp is a Conrad Johnson PV10 tube unit. It has 48.5 dB gain in the Phono (which is MM or high output MC compatible) but 35dB linestage which is pretty high. I'm going to try the cartridge initially without anything and then I have arranged to try on loan a few alternatives:
1) E.A.R. 834P Phono stage (cost around 1000 new but this one is used $670)
2) New Ortofon step-up transformer (not sure of the model but it is $450 new)
3) S&B Transformer ($300)

I will let you know what my listening test shows but in the final analysis I am thinking I will sell the PV10 and upgrade to the PV14 and then get a separate phonostage like the Acoustech or Conrad Johnson EV1. (all a BIG leap in cost and sound)
Rmueller01, I predict that with the gain you have in the phono stage and line stage, that the output will be sufficient for the Shelter 501.

Load the cartridge at 100 ohms.
Twl and Rmueller01:

Thanks for the input.

Rmueller01 -- I am interested to hear what results you obtain from your existing system. Please let me know either by posting here or offline.

Tom -- If my phono preamp has 53dB gain max, and my preamp has 16dB max, can I get satisfactory results from a medium output cartridge? Or, am I stuck with high output?

If I decide to replace my existing preamp, what are some good tube preamps with high gain phono stages?

Thanks for you advise.

Mike, it's hard to say with certainty what output level from the cartridge will be enough. There are other factors, such as the amp input sensitivity level, that could play into this equation.

The problem with trying a cartidge that is on the low end of possiblity for your phono stage, is that if it is not quite enough, you're out of luck. If the cartridge is a little too high, you can always pick a lower setting of gain on the phono stage, or just don't turn up the volume as much.

I think if you want to use the Shelter, you'll need an additional 15db of gain, over what you presently have.
With the denon you need more gain. The shelter is borderline, depending on the gain on your preamp. I would go with the Shelter, a better cartridge with higher gain.

You might not need to change your phono preamp. At a latter date you can upgrade for a little more gain, and better sound.

My $0.02

Good luck
The very best analog systems I have heard used a low output MC with step-up into a tube phono stage. However, both components togther were over 5K not including the cartridge.

Using a solid state (usually op-amps) high gain phono stage (Tom Evan's the Groove or 47 Labs) with a low output MC sounded very close and was a tad quieter, but lacked the last ounce of air and sparkle, in my opinion. Unfortunately, these phono stages are over 3K. Like TWL said it's about your budget.

For the moment, I'm running a Dynavector 20XH, high output 2.5mv, straight into a Music Reference preamp with tube phono stage and I am quite satisfied.
For what it is worth, I have a Kora Eclipse preamp. It is a hybrid. The MC phono stage is reated at 55db gain, the line stage output at 25db. I was, at first, hesitant about whether I would have enough gain for the Shelter 501 Mk11 I bought. Suffieicnt gain is not an issue. I have yet to have the volume pot past the 9:00 position.