Vinyl Front End Upgrade

I've been sitting on the sidelines without vinyl playback for far too long and am looking to get back in the game. I've got a VPI Scout/JMW 9/Dynavector 20XM (1mv version). I've got no phonostage since I sold my ARC SP16 and bought an LS26. The rest of the system is an ARC SD135 driving Daedalus Audio DA-1.1's through Empirical Design cables. I've spent the last few months listening to digital source material through my Esoteric X-03SE, saving my pennies toward a vinyl upgrade. My plan is to keep the Scout and work on a cartridge and phonostage pairing that will give me vinyl playback as good or better than what I'm getting on the digital side. I've got $3K to spend on new or used components. I'd appreciate some suggestions.
arc phono
I second the ARC phono stages.
ARC PH7 used or Nagra BPS new. The latter is cheaper and might surprise you!
I havce a ARC REF II Pre and considered a ARC phono stage. I have a solid state AMP and wanted to limit my exposure to tubes due to the ongoing support of tubes versus solid state. With that in mind I settle on a Pass Labs Xono which is solid state and mated very well with my ARC Ref II. You set it up plug it in and forget about as there is no off and on switch. They are availble on Audiogon for $2K not a bad price for a reference phono stage, you may want to ask around about them IMHO.
I almost bought a Xono before I became a dealer again. I ended up with Dynavector , their 75 is a very good phono stage and exceptional for $750. There is an upgraded one on here for $525. Blue Circle also makes some very good ones. I have the 707, they make a version of it in a very cheap case for under $1000. Very good company to deal with. I have heard good things about the Asr basic stage from Germany, they show up used for around $1000. Change the standard feet of the Scout for Star Sound brass ones, you will be amazed at the difference; it is a screw off screw on operation.
Thanks everyone so far. While the phonostage recommendations are helpful I'm really trying to think of this as a phono playback system and purchase a cartridge and phonostage that are particularly well suited together. I'd really be interested in hearing from Scout owners who have played around with different cartridges and phonostages until the found an exceptional combination--ideally in my price range. On the other hand I'm happy to continue using my 20XM since it has less than 100 hours on it so recommendations for a phonostage which mates well with this cartridge would be fine too. I'm leaning toward solid state and would like a unit that provides some adjustability of load etc so in case I change cartridges later I can continue to use the same phonostage.
I can highly recommend the Aqvox 2CI MKII phonostage.Have heard it with the Allaetrs,Benz and Koetsu.Each had its' own signature.Adjustable gain on front panel allows for fine-tuning:very helpful.Thinking of pairing mine with a Dyna XX-2 for my next go-round.
Dear Dodgealum,

$3K as you know is not a lot to spend in high end audio. You clearly have one of the best CD players in the market. You do not mention if you have tricked out your Scout to its fullest potential? Do you have the VPI Motor Controller? On what kind of platform does it sit? What phono cables connect the Scout to your preamp? Have you set up your cartridge with a WallyTractor or a Mint or a Feickert? Do you own a record cleaning machine? All of these things are very important to maximizing your analog system and can often mean more to the outcome than new equipment. I don't see the cartridge/phono pre as being an issue if you buy a phono pre that has sufficient gain for your cartridge and a few loading options. There are many choices out there. If you don't understand gain and loading, read up on it or ask your local dealer for some info. Just be sure the dealer you ask understands what they mean. Many dealers today don't have a clue about analog even if they have a TT or two in stock. Go see a few local dealers to get some ideas or read some reviews from TAS or Stereophile on their websites.
Elinor: I agree that $3K is not a lot of money when we're talking cartridge and phonostage combined--even used. But I'm hesitant to spend much more given the fact that all would be preceded by a Scout/JMW9, which is stock except for the 300rpm motor. I had one dealer tell me that in a set up like mine the cartridge would be the determining factor and that I could "comfortably" spend up to $4K on a cartridge alone. While I'm not thoroughly swayed by the notion of a "Linn Hierarchy" it doesn't appear to make much sense to throw $4K at a cartridge for an $1800 turntable/arm combination. My goal here is to simply bring my analogue rig up to the sonic standard set by my digital front end. In fact, purchasing the Esoteric X-03SE is what started this "whole thing" since it so handily smoked my turntable run through the phonostage on my ARC SP16 I couldn't stand listening to records anymore. Thus the sale of the SP16, which was replaced by an LS26 leaving me "phonoless" for the past 6 months. Having said that, I think I can get some pretty good results from the Scout if I get the "right" cartridge/phonostage combination. I've got the table mounted on a Target PS-1 shelf which is bolted to 5/8 birch ply that itself is bolted to the wall studs. Then our whole entertainment center slides over the entire assembly leaving the table suspended in a safe and (largely) vibration free environment. (Check out my system photos) I've replaced the MDF shelf on the Target stand with a Simposium Svelt Shelf and am running VPI's own IC (2 meters worth) down to where the phonostage will be. I did the table and cartridge set up using VPI's jig but would be open to suggestions as to how I might get the set up tolerances even tighter. No SDS or record cleaning machine (my Nitty Gritty blew up a number of years ago but my vinyl is very, very clean). Anyway, that's the deal. One last thing--if I were to say what my primary sonic goals are for my vinyl front end it would be: dynamics, PRAT, low noise (leaning toward solid state) and speed/articulation across the frequency spectrum. Hopefully some of you can offer some suggestions. You've never let me down before! Oh, one last thing. Under one scenario I keep the Dyna 20XM and throw the whole $3K at a phonostage, upgrading the cartridge later. Two under consideration: the new Pass XP15 and the new Whest PS30.RDT. Thoughts?

I am actually advocating spending much less than $3K on your current analog particularly considering your goals many or all of which can be better realized simply through better cartridge alignment. Alignment by two null points is effective and quick but it will not give you everything of which your cartridge is capable. A Feickert or Mint Protractor which enables you to make alignment along a full arc from the leading edge of an LP to the inside grooves plus the null points will be an enlightening experience to you. The VPI Motor Controller will also be a big step forward. Your shelf is fine. A record cleaning machine and effective cleaning fluid and brush are equally important. I don't know much about your VPI RCA cables but there are endless numbers out there made by companies specializing in that field. I suggest you use The Cable Company as your source to try these at very little or no cost to you. Only after you have optimized your current system would I advocate spending more on a cartridge or a new phono section.
I get the feeling that you should slow down, but then I'm not without analog. I was able to solve my problem for under a grand, but I knew what I wanted. Is there no site for VPI users? You, obviously, need something better than the ARC SP16's phono stage. I can't see giving up a brand-new Dynavector, and would concentrate on a phono stage.
All: Thanks for the suggestions. I've emailed for further information on the Best Tractor. I've always felt uneasy about the VPI jig's reliance on the cartridge body as a visual reference and the Best Tractor appears to correct this by allowing alignment by the cantilever along multiple points on the arc. This should help me get the best out of my current setup without a lot of money invested. Any thoughts on the Whest PS30/PS30RDT or the new Pass? BTW, the VPI cable is specially made for them by one of the leading cable manufacturers (cannot remember which) and came highly recommended by several VPI owners.
I ended up buying a Whest PS30R so we will see what that does. I'll check back in once I get it inserted into my system and then again after I check the cartridge using the Best Tractor. Thanks everyone (again!).
So how is the Whest phono mating with your Dyna20XM cart? Have you been able to match/better your Esoteric digital front end?
Cmalak: So far I'm very impressed. I'm still playing with gain and loading options and will check back in after I've had some time with the unit.
Im curious, how does the VPI scout with Whest stack up against the ESO Digital player ? Is it close ? Or the vinyl rules ? thanks.
I've got the Whest dialed in at 65db of gain and a 100ohm load and it sounds phenomenal. I wasn't sure how big a role the phonostage plays in vinyl reproduction but now I'm a believer. The Whest is very, very dynamic, detailed and has fantastic PRaT. Tonal balance is very neutral. Voices and instruments have appropriate warmth and body and there is good dimensionality. Comparing my Scout/JMW9/Dyna 20XM with the same recordings played through my Esoteric X-03SE is interesting. With my old phonostage (built into the ARC SP-16) there was NO CONTEST--the Esoteric killed it. Now my vinyl and CD/SACD playback are on par. The vinyl is a bit more three dimensional, layered and organic while the digital has rock solid bass and dynamics. It's a toss up which I prefer, which is exactly where I hoped I would end up. Of course, comparing the Whest to the ARC SP16 isn't entirely fair. Since I sold the SP16 I've upgraded to an LS26 and an SD135 so the Whest is feeding better components down the chain. Regardless, I am very pleased with the Whest and would recommend it highly. It performed better in my system than the EAR 834P, ARC PH5 and the Acoustic Sounds PH-1. Really a super phonostage for the money.
If you're using a cartridge that produces 1mv output, 65dB of gain sounds to me to be about 10dB too high. At 65dB I would imagine that you aren't able to turn the volume very high on your pre-amp. I have a Bryston BP-20 preamplifier, which has an input sensitivity of 0.5v. I have a Lyra Delos cartridge, which outputs 0.6mv, so I use a gain setting of 60dB to send a 0.6v input to the pre-amplifier.
I have A Super Scoutmaster, originally came with a Dynavector cartridge (high output moving coil)installed by VPI. I got a Graham Slee ERA Gold phono pre-amp which I have been very happy with and a great match for the Dynavector. I have since upgraded to a Lyra Titan-i, and had to get a Graham Slee Elevator due to the lower output of the Lyra. Excellent combo the ERA Gold and Elevator.