The best one I have had is the one built into my Lamm LP2, which gives me 57db of dead-quiet gain and is sufficient to handle a Koetsu Rosewood Platinum Signature, which is pretty low output. In the past I've had both a Koetsu, which is well-regarded but in my case I could not eliminate hum problems and could not use, and the Expressive (Expensive, too!) Technologies, which worked well for me but has its own problems and quirks and is not the best performer in every application--there is a recent thread about that unit here on the A-goN, with varying opinions about it, check it out. My belief is that it takes a lot of work to get the things to work right, there are many underperformers in the area, it does add coloration to the signal path and that in the majority of cases you're better off getting a phono stage with sufficient gain to handle your low-output cartridge rather than using one. Just my $.02.
I've had good results with inexpensive Ortofon, expensive Ortofon, Denon AU320, Fidelity Research, and Cotter. No hum problems with any of them. Their fidelity is relative, but even the cheap Ortofon was more acceptable than some noisy active step-ups. Really isolates the phono stage...
Try a Cotter; many say it is one of the best available. First choice would be a classic Kondo Audio Note tranformer but, as you said, they are not cheap. My recollection is Bryston also sold one that was simply a rebadged Cotter.
Ortofon still makes two transformer models, also (or maybe it is Dynavector). One is reasonably priced and the other is a couple of grand and goes the full silver wire route.
M.A. Cotter is a very good one. Also RWD, and Verion. Jensen are commonly used as built-in to many higher end preamps. Bent Audio sells the Stephens and Billington kits and assembled units. Ortofon, Denon, Shelter, all have outboard units. Lundahl is a common brand of raw transformer for DIY use.
Not "everyone" says that moving coils are necessarily superior. An alternative solution toward the goal of a low moving mass MC cartridge, while combining the benefit of high MM output voltages (no transformer or gainstage required) is the Grado cartridge line. These are hybrids, a variable reluctance design. Very low moving mass + higher output are available in certain Grado models. I favor the woodbody designs, but they also offer some economy models.
I'd seriously suggest giving John Chapman at Bent Audio a jingle and ask about the TX-103 unit, based on the Stevens and Billington product that Twl mentions.
I have one of his TX-102 passive volume control units(preamp). It is EXCELLENT.
There is also one available from ZYX.
A very interesting design.
You might want to try K+K audio's kit. It only requires a couple of solder joints and you can set it up for 5/10/20 times the gain. It only 199.00 and it uses lundal transformers. It sounds great.
How much is the unit by Cotter? Where can I find out more information about the Cotter unit? I couldn't find the company's website.
I have seen a couple of Cotters for sale and they are around a grand. You can buy a new Audio Note for less than a grand (not silver, of course). There is a Kondo S9 Transformer on Audiogon now at 1700/bo; if you can afford it you could probably pick it up for a price that would allow you to use it and then sell it for not much less than what you paid for it as the major depreciation has taken place at the prior owner's expense.
EAR also makes a nice transformer you can buy new but it somewhere between 500 and a grand is my recollection.
There is an Audio Innovations transformer for 200/offer. That is the company where Peter Qvortrup worked at prior to doing the Audio Note UK business. Might be worth checking into.
Frank, Cotter has been out of business since the 80's. You can only get used or NOS units. They do typically go for about a grand, as stated above. They are very good sounding units, though. However, they are difficult to change cartridge loads on, and you have to perform some surgery, and have the correct jumper diagram. I have the diagram if you need it.
While not strictly a step up transformer, the Dynavector PHA-100 head amp is very good. It also has a cartridge impedance matching switch. Wally of Wally tractor fame put me onto it.
It is transparent to the source and adds a degree of bass slam compared to just using my premier 15.
Check out Jensen...it makes high quality transformers, too
I just saw that audiocubes started carrying the top of the line Denon AU-S1 step up transformer.
This transformer was available only in Japan. From what I've read, it is very good.
Stephens and Billington TX-103--very good.