I'm sorry, I guess the PH-302 uses 6SL7's instead of 6SN7's. The SLP-05 uses the 6SN7's.
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Try 5751 tubes in the 12AX7 positions. I've rolled such tubes in my VAC Standard LE and am very satisfied with the results. Tried many combinations and witnessed changes in the sonic signature, soundstaging and overall presentation.
Have a look at "Joes tube lore" in the internet. Even your friend could like the 12AX7 type of tubes by choosing the right ones for your VAC. And it is a less costly decision than selling to replace it by another unit.
The VAC Renaissance MK II is a fine machine, with a strong reputation, that deserves to be heard under different tube configurations before beeing replaced by something else.
I agree with the above responses. The VAC is better than the Cary, IMHO. The Cary will sound a little beefier, if your speakers are lightweight, but BAT preamps would surpass the Cary in this region too.
The VAC gear has an 'air' about it, feathery light and great articulation that the Cary or BAT cannot match. The VAC will not 'blow you away' with any one aspect, but will sound more musically natural than Cary.
If you do want a preamp that will give you more than your VAC, you need to check out a ARC Ref 3, a Shindo or a Doshi preamp.
Just another thought. If you like the Vac, the Renaissance is now a mk.3 , which I believe is Vac's newest preamp offering. Perhaps yours can be upgraded. The pricing is 10K line, 12 K w/ phono. I would second John's suggestion on the Shindo and Doshi, although I have not heard the Doshi. It is supposed to be one of the very best though. If you consider the Arc, you would obviously still need a phono stage. It would seem that andr's thoughts on checking out some tubes first may make the most sense. At this level, if you do like the Vac, check out some NOS 12 AX7's.
Do you have the Renaissance SIGNATURE Mk II, where the power supply has 2 dials on it and is the same size as the preamp itself? If so, 1) The new REn Mk 3 is NOT an upgrade and 2) You already have 1 of the best phono stages around in the VAC. You might give Kevin Hayes at VAC a call, tell him what you are trying to achieve, and see what he says. I also don't think an ARC REf 3 is an upgrade at all; haven't heard Shindo or Doshi.
If you have the Ren MkII, then of course the MkIII would be an upgrade.
FYI - If you DO have a REn SIGNATURE Mk II w/phono and decide to sell it, please let me know.