I have the Herron VTPH 2 and it outperforms the built in phono stage in my VAC Ren Mk III pre. Lower noise, better resolving and transparency etc. i had tube rush and noise in vac phono and a new tube fixed it so you should try that for sure. While the phono section was beat by the Herron i have yet to hear a linestage better than what VAC makes. It competes and beats preamps i have heard at twice the price. And Kevin and crew give best customer service you could hope for (as does Keith Herron who is as incredible as his products) .
117 responses Add your response
VAC makes sweet sounding gear.
I'll probably be in a similar situation in the future. I've got the three 12AX7 + transformer MC phono in my VAC Renaissance III - it's an awesome phono stage; a solid link in my system right now. I think you're going to experience at least a bit of hiss with any tube MC phono stage, even with a step-up. Better tubes can help; obviously phono tubes must be critically selected.
In my system I'd used Sonic Frontiers Phono 1, Benz PP-1, PS Audio GCPH, and Rogue Stealth & Ares. Nice stages all, but the VAC's stage beats most of them handily, with the only real competition coming from the Ares after heavy tube rolling; the VAC sounded great with just its stock cheapo (but presumably well selected) chinese tubes. Gut feeling is that I'll certainly have to go beyond a $2K retail to match or possibly eclipse the VAC's phono, and perhaps a good bit further to make it worthwhile.
Wish they'd make their own outboard stage. That might be fun.
I spoke with Keith and he actually wrote to Kevin to make sure the VTPH2 would be a good fit for my pre and cartridge! And Kevin wrote him back saying it would be great. Are these guys amazing, or what? True gentlemen (and geniuses).
I know what you mean about making it a worthwhile upgrade. I figure with power cord, IC and the unit itself, I'm looking at over $5000 (with no way to sell what I'm replacing since it's built-in). Not a decision I will make lightly!
I spoke with someone (I'll keep their name to myself as a courtesy) at the VACtory who hinted that they are working on an outboard phono stage, but that it won't be coming out anytime soon and it'll probably cost around $12,000. No doubt it will be world class.
These new kids on the block, Zesto, which I heard at the California Audio Show, and it was superb... and the Manley Chinook, seem like viable options, but until I hear them in my system, it's hard to know if they can beat my current VAC sound by a wide enough margin to make it worthwhile.
Looking forward to more opinions and experiences from VAC owners.
Kevin told me at the 2011 RMAF that he was working on an all-out outboard phono. It didn't sound like it was going to be released in the very near future, but if you are patient that might be worth waiting for.
I take exception to Mulveling's comment that "you're going to experience at least a bit of hiss with any tube MC phono stage, even with a step-up." My own tube phono which uses a stepup feeding a D3a pentode and 5687 phono preamp is a very quiet phono preamp, considerably more so than the 5 or so solid state MC phonos I've tried. It all depends on the design and type of tube. You're not going to get that kind of black background with a 12AX7 for instance.
Those two are true gentlemen. I am grateful that we have hi end brands in the US led by amazing audio entrepranuers who are also first class people. The VAC phono is first rate and in my system it easily beat 1-2k phono stages (eg, Simaudio lp5.3, psaudio gcph, etc). But the Herron is in a different league (to my ears). The Herron has NO noise (quieter than SS phono pres i tried) and its timing and transparency are superb. One unit i was very impressed with was the Fosgate Signature phono. A little tube noise but worth it for the beautiful sound. My cartridge was a liitle too low mc so Herron sounded better with it (benz lp-s).
From what Brent at VAC told me, their stand-alone phonostage will be a two-box, four-input affair retailing for around the price of a current Sig mk IIa preamp without the phono option, so it'll be pricey. It will integrate into the Sig mk IIa as a three-box preamp with the PS driving both linestage and phonostage. Target date is maybe next summer but that could easily change and probably will. I have a MC/MC phono in my Phi Beta preamp and it is wonderful. I've come to prefer it to my Steelhead II. The new VAC phono is supposed to be essentially the same circuit.
Yeah, the Fosgate is also on my list. Very cool looking, like the Zesto. That unit uses half of each tube for each channel, right?
Good to hear (so to speak) that the Herron is dead quiet. I believe that the lower the noise floor, the better the unit will retrieve and present what's in the grooves! Thanks for your input.
Did you build your phono stage or buy one? Seems that many manufacturers use 12AX7s in thier units. Is noise inherent in the design in your opinion?
I've heard good things about the BAT. I'm purely single ended right now, and I'm a sucker for a lush, gorgeous midrange, which I experienced with the Zesto. Glad you're enjoying your new upgrade. Just don't tell me you got it Free!
As a VAC and Zesto dealer who works with people all over the country I don't understand why you can't demo the Zesto in your own home. We certainly can arrange it if the situation makes sense.
Kevin has been threatening a phono stage for at least the 5 years I've been a dealer. I pushed like crazy for it for a good two years and eventually gave up.
Alonski, Yes I built my phono stage. You can read some of the details on my system page. I am not aware of a commercial product very similar to it, but there could be. Many mfrs use the 12AX7 because it is readily available and it is certainly capable of decent sound. However, when you want the best sound and the quietest noise level, you have to look beyond the 12AX7.
Hello J from Audiorevelation,
Kevin never seems to be in a hurry. His built-in phono stages are so good that his outboard has to be a game changer. I wouldn't be surprised if he's been quietly experimenting for years.
What is your opinion J? Is the Zesto better than VAC's built-in? I assume you've AB'd them at your store... Have you compared any other phono stage with the VAC?
I've already decided not to wait for VAC's pricey phono stage.
Thanks for sharing your preference of VAC over the Steelhead in your system, that seems significant to me, as the Steelhead usually gets very high marks. Since the new Chinook is based on the same circuitry, I can deduce that in your system, the Chinook would not stand a chance.
Silly to make decisions this way, but I need to arrive at a short list so I don't drive myself and dealers crazy. If I could only find a local source to audition the Zesto and Herron and (dare I dream?) the Fosgate... Doing this by UPS is a lot of work and I would need to cover return shipping.
We used the Zesto phonostage in our room at THE SHOW Las Vegas this year and will most likely have it in Newport. I think if you are looking for an external phonostage and the price is in your budget, this one has to be on your audition list. It is an outstanding unit and while I did not do a side by side comparison, I certainly preferred it over the Fosgate. Then again, in a side by side comparison the Fosgate was inferior to a newly designed Music Reference phonostage.
If that Hagerman Trumpet is still advertised on here you might want to take a look at it. A real giant killer. Also, another of my favorite phonostages is the one from K&K Audio.
All that being said, if the internal VAC phonostages are that good, why complicate things with another box and set of cables?
I've come to prefer the VAC phono but it's really a matter of splitting hairs and I wouldn't say the VAC is "better" than the Manley. In some ways, like dynamics, the Manley brings more. The VAC is a little more organic. Different presentations, different tubes. So I wouldn't be too quick to dismiss the Chinook. I haven't heard it but reliable ears tell me it's remarkably close to the Steelhead, which means it must be very good. And the price is sweet.
As Clio09 said, the K&K Maxxed Out is terrific, especially at its price point. I owned one before I got the Manley. It's a little leaner but does everything well and is very flexible. Kevin Carter is a prince. The Zesto is also supposed to be excellent if a little richer sounding--probably closer to the VAC sound than the Manley. You have some great choices in the $2-3K range.
I should probably add that my VAC phono is different than stock because it has interior screw terminals that allow me to slide in resistors of any value (I use nude Vishays) to fine-tune loading. So cartridges that have odd loading requirements sound better into it than the Manley, which is versatile but limited in loading choices.
My medium output MC (0.4MV) cartridge (Ortofon Cadenza Bronze) has what seems like a pretty wide load impedance range of 50-200 Ohm. Do you think that within that range there is a sweet spot that can only be discovered by tweaking? I understand that this is more an issue for MM carts, but would getting a phono stage with adjustable load settings be a benefit for my MC and therefore part of this discussion?
Did you mod the VAC stage yourself?
Thanks for your impressions on the Fosgate and the Hagerman Trumpet. I believe I'm leaning toward the Zesto because it's the only one I have heard. I love its rich, full-bodied and warm presentation with a surprising ability to find low level detail.
What room did you run in Newport? I'll probably be there this year... Might be my best bet in hearing both the Herron and Zesto.
Loading varies with the phono stage, the overall system, and one's taste, of course. And like anything in vinyl, it can always be optimized by fine changes, IMO. Whether one really needs to is another question. Playing with this VAC, I find changes of 15 ohms to make worthwhile differences so I've blown a load of cash on Vishays from Michael Percy, mainly because it's so easy to experiment. but I could have gotten by with fewer options.
I'd guess your Ortofon would be quite happy at 100 ohms. Would it be happier at 125? Maybe but it might very well not matter. I have two Ortofons and I like them both at 25 x DCR.
BTW, how do you like the Bronze? I've been interested in that cartridge--seems like it would be very meaty and musical with good detail.
VAC did the mod. It was Brent's clever idea and he did a beautiful job. Resistor value x 10 gives me loading value, so it's a breeze.
I was not doing my own thing at Newport last year, but assisting Concert Fidelity. This year I will be exhibiting with Fritz Speakers and WyWires. As I indicated we plan on using the Zesto again. We'll be using a Concert Fidelity refurbished Denon DP-3000 with Denon arm and B&O MMC-2 cartridge for the rest of the analog set up. By all means look us up and stop in for a listen.
To those of you who have experience with VAC phono stage and comparing it to others: I am considering moving to a VAC preamp with phono, and I am looking for some kind of gauge as to how good the phono is. Are the phono stages the same in VAC's Renaissance III and Signature IIa? Most of the comments above compare the VAC phono with units around $4K, which seems reasonable from a comparative pricing perspective. But I had come to think that the benefits of using the on-board phono in the Signature IIa placed its competitors in a more expensive category (like Allnic H3000 or Pass XP-25)? I would appreciate any comments. I received a recent suggestion to consider the Renaissance pre without phono and using a separate phono preamp. The idea was that the Renaissance is 90% as good as the Signature IIa, and an improved separate phono would more than offset the 10% differential in preamps, while not breaking the bank in the process.
I recommend calling VAC to find out about the differences between the RenIII and SigIIa phono stages. I might be wrong, but I think the line stages themselves are pretty different, with the SigIIa being lower gain. Another question for VAC.
And as I said above, I find the phono in my Phi Beta, which is the SigIIa circuit, to easily compete with my Manley Steelhead II. Don't know about the Pass. I did audition the Allnic at home a few years ago, although my system was quite different then, and I passed on it. I found it extremely liquid but ultimately somewhat colored and it hummed like mad. I preferred the Steelhead anyway. YMMV.
You are certainly inspiring, but I think I'll hold off on contacting Mr. Percy... that sounds dangerous!
I am very fussy about cartridges. The Ortofon Cadenza Bronze thoroughly exceeded my expectations and compels me to say that it does not belong in the $2000 price point, but much higher. It is silky smooth, rich and meaty with micro detail to die for. It creates a believable deep and wide soundstage and has what I love the most... a lot of Slam! I could go on and on... When I play my original early 70's pressing of Jeff Beck's Wired LP (esp. the cut Goodbye Pork Pie Hat) it practically knocks me off my seat, without being at all too forward or aggressive. It has replaced my previously favorite cart of all time, the Carnegie One by Madrigal as my reference.
It did need to break in for about 90 hours, but when it reached its potential it was breathtaking! I believe it to be one of the best MC bargains out there.
And you know who gets the credit for introducing me to the Bronze? None other than Kevin himself! Really, who would know better?
I have the VAC phono stage in my VAC Ren III as mentioned -- super handing with variable loading, one MC and one MM input. It is well worth the price of admission for convenience (even as a back up to a stand alone pre). It has a meaty, substantial sound to it. Not as fast and transparent as $4-6+k stages like the Herron, but easily beats 1-3k stages. I will say the performance of the VAC linestage is incredible, but the phono section is not as incredible. No matter how you go (phono or no phono), I highly recommend the VAC preamp. In my system it EASILY competes with preamps that cost twice as much. It is holographic, open, detailed, extended, natural, harmonically accurate....a guitar sounds like a guitar....a voice sounds like a voice. Very round and dimensional presentation -- not flat at all.
I had the Ortofon Kontrapunkt c which was the predecessor to your Bronze. Agree with your assessments of its qualities. Such a beautifully clean midrange, with non-abrasive top end and lots of slam on the bottom! Lovely balance. Took me a while to find an appropriate upgrade from that cart - I ended up at the Koetsu Plantinums. I easily preferred the Kontra c to the Benz Ref 3, Benz Wood M2, and Ortofon Jubilee. The Jubilee was brighter and lacked that lovely slam you mention - plus, I didn't find it to be any more resolving (unless you're one of those that equates brightness with detail). That lineup of Benzes (1 series old) has a nice musical balance, but loses out badly versus the Ortofons on technical merits (noise floor, graininess, resolution). The treble & upper mids seemed splashy/grainy versus the Ortofons.
It's harder to pick sides versus the MC Windfeld; the latter is easily more resolving, has tighter/faster bass, and a better noise floor. Still, the Windfeld just had too much energy up top for me, and was harder sounding and less musical than the Kontra c (and presumably the Bronze). You could say "analytical". I ended up unsatisfied, and that's when a went to Koetsu - which I feel offers the best of both worlds. Still, I'm sorry that I ever sold my Kontra c - awesome cart, and I'm sure the Bronze is even better. Might be tempted to try one someday!
Also, I liked the Kontras loaded at around 50 ohms (this was in the days before my VAC Ren III; had the Sonic Frontiers Phono 1). 100 ohms will certainly sound great, but 50 worked better for me.
Mulveling and Alonski,
Have you guys checked out the Miyajima Kansui? Like the Bronze and Kontra C, it uses an aluminum cantilever with an advanced stylus shape, in this case Shibata. The Kansui has great slam and a liquid, dimensional midrange you can walk through.HF extension and is very good if not state of the art. It's extremely natural sounding and reminds me of a more refined version of the SPU Royal GMII, which also uses the Replicant 100 (very similar to the FG 80 of the C) on aluminum. Something about that combo is very satisfying. I actually prefer the Kansui to the A90, which is itself terrific but has a very different presentation. Might be up your allies....
I've read a lot on the Miyajima and have been looking forward to hearing it somewhere... I'm a big fan of tiny well-shaped styli that track the grooves at a much deeper level than most and extract information from LPs very familiar to us that we never knew was there! My Carneigie One does that, as does the Cadenza Bronze, but the reports about the Kansui are so positive and compelling... This hobby of ours seems insane to others, and it's conversations like these that makes me think they may be right! What can I say? Does a 5% improvement in sound merit spending thousands of bucks? It does if it makes me happy... and it does.
I've not compared tons of phono stages but I will say that when I owned a Ren Mk2, the internal MC phono easily beat the Rhea and Rhea Sig and was very similar to the Steelhead. However, you may want to consider an active gain stage phono or head amp, instead of an SUT. IME, SUTs are VERY sensitive to loading and cables. I found that the ZYX Artisan phono stage was VERY close to a Doshi Alaap phono stage and that the ZYX head amp also did a fantastic job, both w ZYX carts. FWIW, I've always thought that loading was more an issue w MC carts, and that for MMs, 47K was a de-facto standard. I could be wrong; its happened once or twice ;-)
Mulveling and Swampwalker,
Thank you both for sharing your experiences and impressions.
So many cartridge loading possibilities and tweaks... and, of course, all the sincere recommendations we get from fellow audiophiles are great but will ultimately be subject to the reality of hearing the difference in our own systems. Which once again, makes the Steelhead appealing because of the handy remote control which offers us immediate A/B comparisons from our sweet spot!
Alas, as we go up the ladder of phono stages (a ladder that seems covered in oil at times), some really cool features do emerge, making a remote control even more appealing. Like the new ARC that has a number of RIAA curves to choose from when listening to DG, Columbia and Decca classical recordings of yesteryear, before universal adherence to the RIAA standard was fully adopted. It seems like all the early DG albums I have that never sounded quite right just need the correct RIAA curve applied to them and they spring to life!
Has anyone on this thread experienced that?
I agree about the VAC line stage being amazing. I found your impressions of the phono stage helpful, especially the price point references, which align with the units I've chosen to compare to VAC's built in stage. I think I'm on the right track. Now it's just a matter of auditioning the units at home.
Your recommendations are always good. I'll look into the K&K Maxed Out as well...
Alonski- One of the advantages (or not) of the ZYX units is that there are no buttons or dials or loading choices. I think it was A. Salvatore who first brought it to the attention of U.S. 'philes and called it a very zen kind of product. No flash, a small plain, exquisitely finished wooden box w 2 dip switches in back- one for mm/mc and one for charge or operate. Oh, yeah, that is an advantage it runs off batteries which I think is probably a real advantage when dealing w these very small signals. Likely outside of your price range, but I replaced my VAC w a Doshi Alaap. Nick does make separate phono stages but they are rarely seen for sale here. Lots of choices on loading and multiple phono inputs and he will gladly customize one for your choice of carts. I recently had my full-featured Alaap pre upgraded to nearly full monty status and I have been very very impressed. Not nearly the ergonomics, flexibility or fit;n;finish of the VAC Ren units, but the upgraded sound really is quite remarkable.
Podeschi, et al,
I had a thought... and naturally, it throws another wrench into the works. Here goes:
What if I find a phono pre that is significantly better than the one built-in to my wonderful VAC pre (which seems possible from all the great feedback on this thread)... And what if that phono pre has a excellent volume control AND a line level input for my CD player, AND a Variable output from the phono stage DIRECTLY to my VAC Phi 200 amp that drives my main speakers, AND a Fixed output to feed my Ray Samuels Raptor headphone amp... Theoretically, I could (gasp!) replace my VAC pre completely!
I know, it's heresy, but it may make sense: Replacing an amazing preamp that has a really good built-in phono stage, with an OUTSTANDING phono stage that allows me to go direct to my VAC amp for best LP sound (which is what I care about most) and would accommodate my CD player with what would probably be a very decent line stage input. So in essence, it's a preamp with its main focus on vinyl.
One more benefit to this is that I could sell my VAC pre to offset some of the cost of the new phono stage.
So far, the only phono pre I've come across that meets these requirements is the Manley Steelhead at $8000. Do any of you know of other phono stages that have these features? If I go in this direction, it'll sure narrow down the list of candidates...
And, when Kevin does build an outboard phono stage, I'd probably get it.
Allot of different opinions as the norm, I see mention of different models etc.
Doshi pre-amp, it's a fine pre but in my opinion the line stage is not in the same league as the Sig. MK2a, phono really did not do allot of comparisons so I can't comment.
I was really disapointed at the price point of the Doshi and when I got mine, garage type fit and finish left me scratching my head.
As the norm there are going to be preferences and what one likes and or prefers, the rest of the set-up is very important also.
Vac will be coming out with a Reference phono, only time will tell. There are lots of great phono's out there to try but again it's all relative and subjective.
Hi, so have you ever though about keeping your VAC pre/phono and trying a high quality step up transformer? depending on the cartridge you are using which is the best match.
I am running a E.A.R. MC4 into my Nagra VPS, it's pretty impressive. My issue started when I bought a 2nd cartridge with .18mv output vs my regular cartridge with .5mv output..
This might be a different, but rewarding path...
Alon, re the question you posed just above, I think that the Coincident Statement Phono Preamp, with the apparently optional line-level input, is one to consider. I have no experience with it, but I have seen its sonics praised highly by other members.
It meets all of the requirements you specified in your post with the exception that it does not have a fixed output. Obviously, though, you could determine a setting of its volume controls that would be optimal for use with your headphone amp, perhaps even the max setting that would essentially remove its volume controls from the signal path. It does provide two sets of output jacks, btw.
There is no remote, though, and the separate dual mono volume controls may or may not be to your liking.
Its 66 db overall gain seems to me to be a good match for your 0.4 mv cartridge and the relatively high 36 db gain of your amplifier.
Good luck on your quest!
I agree the VAC adds something special, raising the sound to the level as if everything was in a $100,000 reference system. The best description I can add to the sound that VAC preamps give is the phrase used before "lit within"....there is a sense of something being alive and vibrant....nothing "flat" about the sound. Not sure if it is the silver wiring, the tubes, or what, but the VAC preamp (I have the lower priced one...the Ren Mk III) is special as a linestage. If they built a phono stage at a reasonable cost that had that same magic....wow, get in line.
Jeff Dorgay at TONEAudio I think wrote some reviews on the NAGRA preamp which has a phono pre built in if I'm not mistaken. That's one I would look at if you are seeking a stand alone unit. You may want to play around with the tubes in the VAC phono section too,....I'm curious if that raises the level of the VAC phono section part of preamp.
One final idea based on what you are trying to accomplish. I recently heard the EAR 912. My dealer uses it as his reference phono/linestage preamp in his megabuck system (Magico speakers, $150k Clearaudio table, top of line synergistic research cabling, etc.). It was stunning. Clear as a crystal brook and very very dynamic. Probably the most dynamic punchy sound I've heard through a preamp. I'm sure the Magico speakers, the reference table etc had something to do with it, but the 912 sounded amazing. If I hadn't just purchased TWO reference preamps (need to unload one of them), I would have bought the 912 having heard it. I was afraid to buy it before because I read some reviews that said the top end was rolled off. Couldn't be further from the truth.
I believe you and others who have experienced the same, even Jeff I think it was, who reviewed the Steelhead for 6 Moons and said the same: going direct did not sound as good! I don't understand how can the VAC pre being in the signal path sound better than not having it there and going direct? Is the VAC adding a pleasant coloration to the overall sound, or is it just Kevin's quiet magic? Your thoughts?
I know some very high end phono stages are quietly using SUTs (why they went out of favor in the industry I don't know). I looked at the very reasonable K&K, all the way to the Audio Note S8, a tiny box of silver wire for $10,000. But I still have not heard any of them in a system.
Podeschi, JWM, Almarg,
Nagra, EAR, Aesthetix, Coincident... added to the research list. Thanks. The way this process seems to be doing the opposite of shortening my list, I'll probably by able to make my decision at THE Show in Newport Beach in June. Maybe Kevin will surprise us there with a debut phono stage he's been secretly building! (I can dream, can't I?)
Coincidentally, today I received two new phono tubes tested by Brent. I'll report back soon.
Thank you all for your input. I've got a lot to work with, but I'm certainly open to more.
Well, to use the Steelhead as a linestage through its variable outputs sends the signal through additional internal circuitry, volume control, a series of other switches, and different outputs. So it's not as direct as you might think. And it does not add gain, according to the manual, so that's quite different than running the phono stage through fixed outputs into a preamp that provides pure class A gain executed to an extremely high standard. The VAC does not add coloration, at least I don't hear any in mine; it's very neutral. But it does provide far more body and dimensionality, power and extension to the sound, filling out soundstage in all directions. The sound blooms. My first impression upon hearing the VAC was that a light had been turned on inside the music, illuminating it from within like a magic lantern, casting the illusion of live music into the room. That was going from the Steelhead as a line stage--which was quite good itself. The VAC is just better than the Steelhead as a linestage in all the ways you look for, so much better that an additional set of good ICs doesn't reduce the performance gap.
Totally agree with wrm57's comments about vac linestage causing music to be lit within and increasing soundstage in all directions..more body and dimensionality. Perfect description. Plus it delivers alot of resolution but detail from the inside-out (lit within) so it isnt analytical resolution but harmonic detail.