If you don't already have a phono preamp, the Roksan Kandy K2, or the older L.III for that matter, comes with a good MM phono stage built-in.
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Many will think this a shill due to the fact that I have one posted for sale, but I'm going to post it anyway.
The best integrated phono preamp I've ever heard is in the Denom PMA-2000IVR. It's fantastic to say the least. I've replaced if with a NAD M3 Integrated and a PS Audio GCPH which is much better but should be at 5x the price.
I don't care if you buy mine or not - it should be on your short list.
Name your price range. I have a Cambridge 640P feeding an Onkyo A-9555 integrated and like it a lot. I prefer its balls and bass extension over the sub $1K British integrateds. It sounds like a much bigger amp while retaining the speed and transparency.
But that's not to say it's better than a SimAudio. I just think it should be on the short list of sub $1K candidates.
02-11-09: DlclevoI had the 640P before I got the Onkyo, so when I first set up the Onkyo I started using the 640P with it from the beginning. After a few weeks I decided to try out the Onkyo's phono stage. It sounded pretty good, and its tonal balance was about the same as the Cambridge, but I didn't want to go through yet another component evaluation so I simply switched back to the Cambridge.
I don't know if the Onkyo phono stage has its own need to break in by running signal through it, so I may never have heard the Onkyo phono stage at its ideal. Worst case, the Onkyo seems to be pretty close, but I think over time the Cambridge would prove itself to be the more resolving.
02-11-09: DlclevoAs my previous post mentioned, since I already had the 640P, I just set up my Onkyo with the 640P from the beginning, and never really gave serious consideration to the Onkyo's phono stage until tonight.
Your question continued to stick in my craw, so tonight I bypassed the 640P and plugged my Technics SL1210 M5G with fluid damper directly into the Onkyo. All I can say is YOWZAH! In my setup the built-in Onkyo phono stage is better than the outboard 640P in every way.
I suppose it could be a capacitive loading issue. The direct plug-in to the Onkyo sounded more relaxed, more delineated, and especially had much more ambient detail retrieval. It also lost some midrange glare and hardness that I'd been hearing through the 640P that I'd been attributing to other factors up to now--a direct drive TT, an Audio Technica cartridge, a switching amp, etc. But it was the Cambridge and it alone.
Even if it's a capacitive loading issue, it tells me that in this case the Cambridge is more trouble than it would be worth. I had connected the Cambridge to a line level input on the Onkyo with a pair of AudioQuests made of single crystal six-nines copper, and AQ is well known for musicality and low capacitance in their interconnects. One meter of AQ shouldn't have made that much difference in the capacitance anyway.
So save your money and enjoy your system!
02-20-09: MapmanI had a Musical Fidelity integrated, and have heard several of their integrateds at the local high end store, and I like the Onkyo better. Personally I hear a little bit of midrange glare in MF amps and most Cambridge components as well, which is completely absent in the Onkyo, while the Onkyo matches or beats them in low noise floor, transparency, and low level detail.
I heard a PeachTree recently and was very impressed, both for its linestage and its built-in DAC. I think the PeachTree is a great choice for a small digital-based system. Teamed with a Wadia iTransport, it can make an iPod sound breathtaking when playing lossless files.
The OP, however, was looking for a good amp for a vinyl-based system. For under $800, you can't do better than the Onkyo, Another alternative would be the Denon PMA 2000IVR. Some owners swear it has one of the best phono stages they've ever heard, certainly in an affordable integrated amp. The Denon is certainly a different beast, weighing over 50 lbs. and needing about 4" of cooling clearance on top and sides. It also has a big footprint and won't fit on every rack out there. Still, I bet it sounds sumptuous.
Even if you got a Cambridge, you'd have to get an outboard phono stage, and when it comes to that, the one built into the Onkyo is better. I find Cambridge integrateds to have a bit of glare like the 640P does.