Upgrading phono stage


Hello all,

I have a modest system that I have been adding and changing in small increments. I am using a Rogue Audio Sphinx V2. I love the sound of this integrated especially for the money. I am wondering how much I have to spend on a seperate phono stage to get a marked improvement from the built in. I have read that many think the built in phono stage for the Sphinx is quite good. I have zero experience with outboard phono stages. The prices are all over the place and I would like to spend under a $1000 but if that is not enough to make a big change then I will wait and go bigger in the future. I am using a Ortofon 2M Blue at the moment.

Thank you
cpdkee
I have a 12K top wing Blue Dragon cartridge and at the moment I’m using a iPhono3 Black Label until my next phono stage is built. I am very impressed with the Ifi. I don’t think you can beat it at that price.
@cpdkee, I think at this point you would be better served upgrading your cartridge and maybe turntable. The Rogue is not bad a all. I would save the jump to an outboard phono stage until you are ready to make the jump to separates. For you right now it is all about speakers and turntable systems. Get yourself a Hi Fi account/cookie jar and throw a little in there monthly until you get a sum large enough to make a significant leap. Window shop. What is your ideal system? Know the end game and head in that direction.  Looking back I think I wasted a lot of money going sideways. I certainly wasted a lot of money getting things I was not going to like in the end. My biggest mistake was Apogee Divas. That one cost me $7000 and I wound up with the exact same speakers I had before, Acoustat 2+2s which I still have to this day 30 years later. I am finally getting a new set just now to the tune of $30,000 and It took me that long to save for them. Children put a big dent in my Hi Fi savings.
@lancelock , then why are you having another phono stage built?
@mijostyn I appreciate the feedback. I have been wavering between going to a 2M Bronze or a Nagaoka MP 200. The soundsmith Othello ES is of interest too. I wasn't sure if I will get more bang for my buck with a cartridge or phono stage. Right now I don't have a dedicated room for listening. Due to space and practicality seperates are not an option right now. I could actually do a cartridge and phone stage if it comes in under $2500. Any opinions on those cartridges or any other suggested ones?
"The soundsmith Othello ES is of interest too."

cpdkee-
I am using the SS Otello as a backup for my "proper" $1K+ cart. Good bang for the buck. Phono stage is critical to hear what the fuss is all about. 

Spend as much as you can tolerate on the phono stage. It the piece that's going to stay in the system as you find a cart that suits your ears.

$1K+ new for a keeper. Find something used for half. Check out the Audio Technica or Hana lineup for a good value LOMC also.
Comparing iPhono 2 to JLTi mk4 in my system I ended up using JLTi. 
But it depends what exactly would you like to upgrade? 
Look at the Hagerman Cornet on version III now  great tube phono
https://www.audiogon.com/listings/lisa7659-icon-audio-ps2-mm-tube-phono-amp-best-sound-and-value-xma...

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

1000.00 NEW, 12AX7 x3 point to point, MM or High output MC you can get different configurations.. Stick with your MM for now, little bit at a time..

Your doing just fine, 12k carts.. yea, you might want to say away from that one.. talk about 1000.00 to spend and bring up a 12k cart. I got to laugh.. Excuse please..

Reminds me of the song "I got a brand new pair of roller skates" SO WHAT... 12k carts, 20k cables, 150.00 fuse guy.. I’m impressed.
I just did a whole system for 600. 00. I'm waiting on 110.00 worth of woven and ribbon cables. I think they wanted 6K for them state side or Norway LOL That’s impressive.

Regards
@mijostyn,

I made a commitment to purchase the new Linear Tube Audio phono stage when it starts production in a few months and this was before the Ifi purchase. I expect the LTA will be better.
You really need to state what you are looking for.  So many times people want something "better" but never state what qualities they want that are lacking in their current gear.  So everyone chimes in with suggestions and again state is a given product is "better" but don't qualify their suggestion with useful info.  Sorry, just a pet peeve of mine.

Now with that out of the way, I have a little Bellari VP 129 that shocks me with what can be bought for under $300.  This unit is for MM only.  It is quiet.  The tonal quality is superb.  Rich and golden warm but not at the expense if detail or dynamics which are very good.  It's also super affordable to roll in premium quality tubes to tweak the sound.  I have a current production Mullard tube that is so good and have not yet rolled in the Tung Sol. (You can buy premium tubes that are tested AND listened to for an easy on the wallet price via Upscale)  

Used with Project Xpression table, Ortofon OM 20e Super, Sennheiser HD 660s.  (the headphone section is quite good as well on the Bellari)
So much great info and I appreciate all the responses. It is a little hard for me to say what I am looking for other then "better".

When I upgraded from my Onkyo receiver to the Rogue I was blown away by the sound quality and warmth of the class D compared to the Onkyo.

When I went from the $100 audio techica cartridge to the Ortofon 2M blue I was impressed at the increased Soundstage and "real" life feel comparatively.

When I rebuilt my Epicure M-150's it was like I was hearing a quality in the music I had not heard before.

When I switched in my new to me KEF 104/2's I was hearing instruments and notes I didn't know were on tracks I have been listening to for 20 years.

I dont know if I could have told you what I was looking for other then better and more of a "sitting in front of the band experience". So far all of these changes have been truly moving and I find myself reaching for a record rather then the TV controller more then ever. I am certainly happy with my humble setup. I know there is more out there. I like the idea of experiencing incremental changes. Sure I could spend $20,000 on a set up that should be the "last" set up but..... I am really enjoying slowly evolving. Not sure if that makes sense. 

Rather then asking for specific brands. Will  a outboard phono stage costing $1500 or less be better then the onboard in the Sphinx or should I upgrade the 2M blue to a cartridge in the $500 range. Where will I achieve the more impressive jump?
If you can find a used or demo Gold Note PH10 I think you will be impressed
Doesn't Rogue Audio have an upgrade program for the Sphinx?  Don't hold me to it, but I thought I read that the V3 phono was a good step up from the V2 version.  If you enjoy the Sphinx, I would look at upgrading to V3 as well your cartridge, a 2M Black or a high output MC (Dynavector, Hana, Benz Micro), whatever pairs well with your tonearm.
The Rogue Ares Magnum is a great sounding stage (and far better than any of their built-ins), but for only $1100 the Hagerman Trumpet MC actually beats it. I'd recommend stretching for that; it's possibly the last phono stage you'll ever need or want. 
Man, I can really empathize with all of this. I called it TT Hell. First I had to decide on a TT. Ended up with a Project 2Xperience and AKG Cartridge. Ok, so far, but then, like you, what was going to be the best phono stage for me? I got two in line. First an inexpensive Vincent unit for $250. It is what I will use until I complete my build of a completely different level of phono pre. But will that be decent  when complete? If not what direction to go is not so clear. Too bad you can't try it before you buy it. 
Vertere Phono-1. MKII version.

Around $1000. With so many gain, resistance and capacitance settings. Good power supply.

It hits way above its weight. And I just ordered one.

Get an upgraded power cable with it.

Vertere does not as of yet have a big footprint in The U.S.. In Canada some. Read reviews. Ain't one that isn't glowing.
https://www.vertereacoustics.com/phono-preamps
Buy the MP200 and get the Icon PS2 phono stage.

Done.
I was in this position just recently. I have a Yamaha AS2100 and wanted to upgrade the phono stage. My TT is a VPI Prime with a VDH Special MC cartridge and my budget was $1000. After many suggestions, I purchased a slightly used Musical Fidelity Nu Vinyl phono amp for  $1300. I love it, and it has made a big difference in SQ. My advice is to upgrade the cartridge first, then think about the phono pre amp. When you get the pre amp, look for late model used and buy a versatile unit that will take more than one cartridge.
Not sure about the advice about separates.....you do not need to have a separate power amp and preamp to enjoy the benefit of an outboard phono preamp, I have never before heard that kind of advice.
If I were you, I’d keep your Rogue v2, its very nice. However, I would advise you to go with a tubed phono stage, such as a Tavish design or the pro-ject tube box ds2. As far as cartridges, you mention that you are thinking about the 2m bronze. I say go for it! It is a fantastic cartridge and will pair nicely with either of the phono stages aforementioned. I speak from experience of ownership of all the above. Another great choice would be the Hana EL or EH, if you want to dabble in moving coils. You won’t do much better than the 2m bronze or the Hana’s for the money, no way. Someone also mentioned to upgrade your turntable...but I cannot see how that advice is given if you did not mention what turntable you have.
The PH-16 from Tubes4Hifi is great and, assembled, it is just under $1,000. I would recommend the capacitor upgrades.
IMO I would use that money to upgrade the current product with the phono stage.  Simple upgrade with be caps, resistors and adding an AC filter choke.

Happy Listening.
I use the EAT Petit Glow, maybe a little rich for what you are looking for, $1300. It is hybrid with 2 tubes and all the adjustments you could look for. Works well with MC and MM and can be adjusted on the fly to see what sounds best with your cartridge.
You should be able to find a great phono stage that out does the built in rogue stage for less than 1000 dollars but the rogue triton 2 is an excellent choice at 1400 dollars.
I recommend getting a phono stage for the long haul, like a Sutherland that has good adjustability/flexibility so you can use a wide variety of cartridges. Wait until your cartridge stylus wears out and then get a new one that has styli that can be swapped to keep costs down, unlike Ortofon.

The Sutherland Insight lists for $1750 with a linear power supply (LPS). If you're lucky, you can find a used one and upgrade the LPS board for $350. That's what I did. There are dealers that will discount 15% so you're looking at about $1500. My integrated had a fine phono stage that had a toggle switch inside the box that went back and forth from MM to MC. That MC wasn't nearly as good as the Sutherland. It amazed me with my MC cartridge. I didn't know for 9 years since I got the MC cartridge the difference it could make. The LPS upgrade was a subtle improvement if anything, but Ron Sutherland himself recommended it so highly he said if it was his brother, he'd tell him to do it, so I did. He is a very nice guy and I am sure he didn't care about the $350 LPS board he sold me. If $1000 is a hard limit, just get a used Insight if you can find one. I was luck to find mine for $900 (list is $1400) and then you can always add the LPS. I have built my system incrementally like you say and hesitate to spend more than a net $1000 out of pocket on any individual transaction. They do add up though, and I made one exception recently in 2019....I think it was like $1300.

Ron guided me through the board swap which is easy if you have a steady hand and patience. He offered to do it for free if I paid shipping, but was very willing. It took about 45 minutes, and the second time would take 15 (like everything else). I could not beleive how patient and nice he was. I guess it gets him good word of mouth. All he does is design phono stages from $895 to I think $16-20,000.

If you can't find an Insight used and get antsy, he makes an entry level one called the KC Vibe for like $900 that is a great value. When you come upon some more mad money, you can sell the Vibe with little loss and then get the Insight. If you really go mad, he sells a 2020 which is supposed to be much better that lists for $2650 with the external LPS box. My trusted audio guru told me I would be extremely happy with the Insight or 20/20 and he was right.

Good tube phono stages are much more expensive. And bad ones are noisy. Good luck and have fun!
Any takers for Herron Audio line stage and phono stage?
@still are you selling?

At or about 1k serious consideration should be given to a preowned EAR 834p.


See the point I was trying to make.  All kinds of suggestions with virtually no commentary on how any of these pieces sound.
Go with a 2-M Bronze or even Black. That should kick it up.
I recently was wondering the same thing about the phono stage in my Rogue Pharaoh. I hadn't spun any vinyl for a while when a close friends' stories about his new turntable got me interested again to find out how much sonic benefit there was to be had in going with an external phono stage and at what cost. 4 years ago when I got my used Rega RP6 I had a dealer upgrade the stock cartridge to a Hana EL and asked about a future upgrade of phono stages and they recommended the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ at $750. Fast forward 4 years and another dealer has popped up even closer to where I live and has a unit that I can take home to demo. I instantly heard more detail and nuances - an overall greater sense of "musicality", if you will, coming from the record grooves , than I had before. I should mention that the optional linear power supply ($600) is a big factor here - the phono stage alone gives you sonic benefits , but these are greatly enhanced with a LPS vs the supplied SMPS walwart. I would highly recommend a sBooster LPS  power supply at $400 over the MS unit though - the MS unit has a thin supply power cord to the phono stage that I discovered had an intermittent short in it, whereas the sBooster has a very thick supply cord . Overall the sBooster is bigger, heavier and just feels more robust. I have previous experience with sBooster as I added one to my DAC and it made a huge difference in sound quality over the stock walwart. As with all things audio, whenever possible try before you buy-  if that is not possible read as many reviews as you can and remember that YMMV. Good luck and good travels on your audio journey.
It's been a while since I heard a Rogue built-in stage, and I know they've supposedly improved it in v3, but back in the day the gap from their entry level built-in (e.g. old Cronus) to their top Ares stand-alone stage was massive. The Rogue 99 Magnum had an optional built-in tube-based board (I auditioned one a long while ago) that was a real cut above the cheaper SS built-ins, but still didn't reach the Ares' level of sound quality. There's only so much they can do with a small SS module (almost certainly opamp based) in a $1300 integrated amp, so I'd imagine it still has to be below the level of the 99's tube board. I'd really encourage you to keep considering the dedicated phono stage upgrade; it's one of the higher ROI's in our hobby. 

What you get from a quality dedicated stage in the $1K - $2K range: so much more information, dynamics, expansive soundstage, and the beauty of vinyl truly starts shine through. Phono stage is such a critical component of analog systems, and your results are highly dependent on the quality of its design/implementation/parts AND proper matching to your cartridge. 

I still suggest the Hagerman Trumpet MC at $1100 is worth stretching for. I've used mine on my $30K turntable with a rotation of fine cartridges - Shelter Accord on the low end, Koetsu Coralstone DC on the high end - and really it come surprisingly close to my $14K VAC phono stage. And its loading + gain settings allow it to accommodate a wider range of cartridges than the VAC. I take this same Trumpet over to my girlfriend's home where she has a Fluance RT-85 with Ortofon 2M Blue. And wow, I am truly shocked at how great it sounds. That phono stage elevates the performance of the whole system.

The Trumpet MC is warm, expansive, and romantic sounding. It won't let you shave on the leading edge of notes but I find gear that does this to be annoying and unmusical anyways. I still have my Ares Magnum and I can say that's a great stage too, and more neutral, but at the end of the day I actually prefer the Trumpet MC (and the Ares Magnum lists for $2800 too). I've had other great stages too like the Herron. I have no connection to Hagerman btw - the Trumpet MC is just a bargain. 
I agree with everyone that says an outboard phono stage will make a huge difference. If you have 2500 to spend you can go pretty far actually. You can get a musical surroundings Nova III for 1500 or so new or closer to 1k used. If you really wanna step it up get the linear power supply for 600 or so more. That still leaves you up to 1k for a cartridge and you can get a lot for that. Could try a Hana MC in the 500-1k range. You'd be all in for 2500 and it will blow your mind. More detail, better soundstage. You'll be amazed. 
Yep I agree with @rmdmoore about the MC cartridge too. The Blue 2M is really great for the money but with a dedicated phono stage and (properly matched) low/medium output MC cartridge (shoot for something in the range of 0.3mv - 0.8 mV) you will be in analog hog heaven! What you get with MC is a more vivid, extended sonic picture with gobs of detail (the good kind).

The trick is that lower output MC cartridges have a notable sonic advantage over high output MC’s due to lower mass coils, but once you get too low then you’re going to allow the noise floor of the phono stage to creep into the picture. 0.4mV - 0.6mV is what I would consider the sweet spot until you get into more exotic phono stages and step-up transformers.
Thank you @mulveling I have been waiting for someone I trust to review a Trumpet MC for a while now. I would like to try a tube phono stage at some point just for fun but can not justify shelling out big money on a Herron or Zesto just to match it with my Stanton 981 HZS MM cart.

I would like to know if a linear power supply would upgrade performance of a Trumpet MC and I am not sure if MM signal goes thru j fet or straight to first tube stage?


@cpdkee I was using a Ray Samuels Nighthawk and Dynavector with good results but a switch to Stanton 981 HZS was not a good fit gain wise.
I have been using a Audiokultura Iskra 1 (made with copper Milfex caps as extra option at purchase) for about a year now, I think it is keeper.


I would like to try a tube phono stage at some point just for fun but can not justify shelling out big money on a Herron or Zesto just to match it with my Stanton 981 HZS MM cart.

@jeffrey75

Great cartridge, much better than new MM, all you need is JLTi mk5 phono stage with manufacturer mod to let you run an MM not only with 47k Ohm, but with 100k Ohm.

There is no problem to match an MM cart with any MM phono stage, but not every phono stage will give you 100k Ohm loading for MM.

This JLTi phono stage with RCA plug Load Resistors is the best you can get for the money. You can try whatever loading you want if you will ask for the mod (internal load resistors can be 500k Ohm) and parallel RCA plug-in resistors can be whatever you want for MM or MC.

You can change the capasitance only by phono cable, not by phono stage. This is pure way to enjoy MM.

I’m a huge fan of top Stanton and Pickering cartridges.

** Low impedance models are also great, there was an 980 LZS with .06 mV Output designed for high gain phono stages or for headamp (or SUT).

Not sure why do you thing there could be any problem with gain for standard HZS version?


I had a perfect match with Nighthawk/Dynavector combination combined with input impedance of pre-amp putting volume knob in the sweet spot.
Not so much with Nighthawk/Stanton combination, the output impedance and internal voltage of Nighthawk and Iskra 1 are much different, at 40db the lowest gain setting for Nighthawk is much louder than Iskra 1 at 45db.
I believe the sound engineering term for Nighthawk/Stanton/pre impedance combination would be "to hot".