You are going to get Sooo many different answers...
@thecarpathian Actually, I don't think so. While there are quite a few top tier linestages with internal DACs, phonostages not so much. Particularly full-function phonostages that allow MM and MC (with plenty of adjustment for load, etc.) that are not compromised add-ons that perform as well as separates.
However, to narrow the list a bit further, remote control is a must.
Typically a really high quality preamp will not have a Phonostage. My favorite preamp in your price range is an Audio Research Reference 6SE… at $17K. Their equivalent Phonostage is $17K.
Separating the Phonostage completely from the preamp has the advantage of separating the very low signal amplification of the phono signal from the noisy environment of the preamp. The Audio research products are uniquely musical and detailed, with excellent mid-range bloom. This combination makes them extremely good to center your system around. You get the best of both worlds: musicality and detail.
I would always concentrate on the very best preamp I could get, then the very best Phonostage. So, my strategy given your budget would look for a used Audio Research Reference 5SE preamp and a used Audio Research Reference 3 phonostage (or Ref 2). I would adjust the exact preamp and Phonostage to match your budget. The sequence for rhe Reference products is, for instance Ref 5, Ref 5SE, Ref 6, Ref 6SE. Same for the Phonostage.
You gotsta pay for top echelon sound. I would listen to a number of different preamps and a bunch of external phone stages along with....
I owned a Zesto Leto preamp. It was great , their latest Ultra II is even better. But what they really specialize in are phono stages.
Audio Research, also makes great gear ... Pass, many others.
I would want separate components in every situation, in every price range...a great phono stage is almost NEVER included in state of the art preamps... maybe a very good one, but not a reference one
McIntosh C2700 or one of the other many they have, make sure it has the DAC2 board and your good to go. excellent DAC with multiple in-outs for digital, ARC for TV integration, the C2700 is a Tube preamp with dual phono stages MM and MC, then there is many RCA and balanced in and outs. Tone controls if you need them, switchable of course. so many features i don't know of another preamp that can match it for features.
There is only one preamp with built-in phono that I would consider, Atma-Sphere MP-1, in the no compromise category you’re looking for. I was on the phone with the owner, Ralph Karsten, just last week, he normally picks up, trouble shooting some tubes. You’d be hard pressed to find a better company, products or person to deal with. I own two of their components and about to buy a third. Highly recommended.
Its getting a bit old, but it is still in production and a great sounding Preamp...
SST Ambrosia 2000..... Is full function... True Balanced, single ended, world class phono and headphone stage, tone controls to boot. Yes, I’ve sat in front of it many times, it competes with the best. May not be your cup of tea, but anyone who has spent real time with it will tell you that its quality.
It sounds like you are talking about the Classe Delta PRE. It sounds amazing and has the perfect complement of features including a great phono stage. I love mine and I threw the HDMI card in there to get ARC from my TV. No complaints. I’ve also had the Hattor passive line stage with tube buffer, the flagship Parasound, and the list goes on. It’s no MSB, for example but what is?
How many turntables/tonearms will be used? Is one phono input acceptable or are 2 phono inputs required? What kind of cartridge? Mm/Mi or Mc?
Is adjustable gain per input required?
How many outputs are required? What kind of outputs, single ended or balanced?
More information would be required to provide reasonably accurate recommendations.
dodgealum Look up Radu Tarta he is considered one of the very best Vacuum tube engineers in North America 40 years in the trade.he builds only no compromise DHT Preamplifiers most name brands as I stated many times being a ex audio dealer only 25% goes into the electronics ,the rest R&D overhead and markup with these custom
builds it’s like building a Bentley to whatever standard of parts quality you want . My friend has one of his deluxe 2 box DHT preamps for sale like New ,retail this would be well over $15k only 2 years old Like New.
You say "full function" but does that include a tape monitor? That is going to narrow your choices considerably. Even if you don't have a tape deck a tape loop is very useful if you have any sort of processor or might in the future.
The other thing is how important your vinyl rig is to you. If you have a nice turntable and cartridge and you've got a $20K budget it would make sense to get a separate phono stage and spend a little less on the preamp. There are incredible bargains on used Pass preamps and there are lots of used high quality phono stages as well. You could have a killer rig if you could stomach separates.
I'm a vintage guy, the result of my Uncle's involvement, I guess. I happen to like my ancient SAE 2100L (I have the add on EQ and Parametric boxes all standing by and ready to go back in the game). I had everything recapped, cleaned, and tested about 10 yrs ago by retired SAE Tech. Now it's time to go record shopping.
I know,, as usual, of absolutely no help at all 🙄
Dear @dodgealum : Essential 3180 that’s a true challenge for over 120K separates units like FM Acoustics or CH and better than Boulder or Dartzeel and the like. It's an active high gain balanced dual mono non-feedback fully discrete overall design with 2 totally separates phono stages : MM/MC and second to none line stage.
@lewm that I think you know as a very well regarded Agoner owns the Essential 3160 and I hope he could chime here about and the interesting main issue behind the 3180 is that is a full-function design with the stages facilities you are looking for that comes with external power supply.
You can contact email@example.com
Regards and enjoy the MUSIC NOT DISTORTIONS,
Hello, I agree with a few above about Audio Research Ref 6se. The preamp is the soul of your system. It is on my wishlist. I have the Ref 5se. It’s amazing! The Ref 3se phono stage is also on my wishlist. Right now I am using the Hegel v10. I believe you could have both for your price range. The amazing thing about the Hegel is it has a separate linear power supply built into the wall plug. It has balanced outputs and of course a lot of gain if you need it. For $1650 it is a steal. Please make sure your cartridge is set up properly otherwise not much else matters.
VAC preamps have (optional) onboard phono stages that are fully "separates" quality, plus some. Only caveat is they use Lundahl SUT’s for MC gain, which is not my preference. So I patch in my own external SUT boxes and use VAC’s MM mode (all tube). Vinyl is 99% of my played source material, so I care about this a lot lol.
I use what I consider to be not just a preamp with a phono stage but a “vinyl playback machine” the Atma-Sphere MP-1. A tube device, it has 6 tubes for the preamp line stage and 10 tubes for the phono.
However, currently a fully loaded MP-1 sells for $33,500 not $20,000.
Best to roll with NOS tubes. I got very lucky and got Mil Spec Mullard 12AT7s for the phono. Rare as hen’s teeth.
I second @mulveling’s rec for a used VAC. The higher-end models have excellent phone stages using 6 x 12ax7 tubes. As for Lundahl transformers, many people find them a feature, not a bug, although they can certainly be bettered by some separate SUTs.
I’ve been running a Phi Beta preamp for 12 years with dual MC phono. Built for longevity as well as great sound, it goes all day like a lumberjack, usually for 12 hours each day, since I work at home. The phono, while not quite as refined as my Allnic H3000, is robust, natural, tonally rich and throws a massive soundstage. I could easily live with it as my only phono if I cut down to just two tonearms active (from 5). I also have a Modwright PH9.0 that I never use because the internal VAC is better IMO. The Phi Beta, TOL in 2011, has been superseded by models including the 2a Signature, Master, and Statement, which employ a very similar circuit but are no doubt even better. Great stuff.
I have a good friend with a Phi Beta, recently refreshed by VAC with new 6-tube phono - I think it's the Master phono board! It's a fantastic, top-class VAC, and definitely one to look out for on the used market. It clobbered the Ren V haha.
@mulveling , yes, Kevin got this phono circuit right. Mine is also kind of a one-off now, having been upgraded with Statement transformers (pre and phono), and slide-in screw terminals on both MCs that let me swap in any value of transistor for loading. I use nude Vishays. Brent did it for me. Those guys can do anything!
I seriously disagree with those who suggest one is best off with separate phono and linestages. (And by the way, the term "preamplifier" historically assumed a linestage and phono stage on one chassis.) Here are the advantages of an all in one unit: (1) The signal runs through one fewer pair of inputs and outputs and one fewer (often very expensive and always SQ affeccting) IC is required. This point alone is nothing to toss aside as not only do ICs add flavoring, at best, but also the connectors are a source of subtle alterations in SQ. (2) Just because the phono and linestages are on one chassis does not necessarily mandate a single power supply. The best all in one units have a massive power supply on a separate chassis and often that box incorporates separate supplies for phono and linestage, respectively, and (3) having the phono and linestage on one chassis also gets rid of an output coupling stage entirely or at least permits the use of a much lower value capacitor in a capacitor coupling between phono and linestage. Also, in a tube unit, no need for a cathode-follower at the output or and a solid state unit, no need for the analogous solid state topology. As for separates, one advantage (to the manufacturers) is cost. If you really want to spend money and pay for the same thing twice (chassis's and PSs), go for it.
I own both an Atma-sphere MP1 (albeit a fairly ancient one with some updates) and an Essential 3160. Both of these units are fully balanced, inputs to output, and both have outboard PSs with separate supplies for the phono and linestages. I can only imagine the sound of an up to date MP1, but it is somewhat restricted with only one pair of balanced phono inputs, designed for high gain but can be reconfigured for low gain. For flexibility and amazing transparency, I would highly recommend the 3160 or the latest greatest iteration, the 3180, which I have not heard, in that both of these have entirely separate circuits for MM vs MC cartridges. My 3160 has an exceptionally lucid linestage which was a hard sell to me, because I am at heart a tube guy. I can only imagine how great the 3180 is going to be.
@lewm you bring up many very good points regarding SQ that should be considered when looking at full function vs. separate line and phono stages. I went through several iterations of “separates“ before finally settling on a full function preamp for spinning records. Why, because for the same dollars it just sounded better. I have since decided, primarily because I’m old and lazy, to go with strictly a digital source. Particularity when considering the OP’s budget (if you have enough money in this hobby you can pretty much do anything) looking at a full function preamp like Vac or Atma-Sphere or I’m sure there are a couple of others that don’t come to mind, will give him the biggest bang for his bucks in his quest for SOTA.
When the phono section is built in the designer has better control of the impedances involved and certainly the interconnect- since that's been eliminated. You also reduce the possibility of ground loops, something that's always out there, in particular with single-ended stuff, grounding being what it is.
Phono cartridges are a balanced source, so if you really want to do things right the phono section will have a balanced input. One of the goals of balance line operation besides eliminating ground loops is to also eliminate interconnect cable artifact. If there's any place in the system to get that right, its between the tonearm and preamp, since any losses there cannot be corrected downstream regardless of how good your equipment is.
Ticks and pops are a common complaint that digiphiles often cite and for good reason. But most people are not aware that certain phono preamp issues can generate ticks and pops that sound for all the world as if they are on the surface of the LP. They are caused by high frequency overload of the input circuit. That might be a topic for another thread; I can explain more if anyone is interested- I've done that on this site a number of times in the past.
This is an interesting subject - how to get maximum performance for $20k buying new preamp and phono stage. Just because integrating separates is more difficult doesn't mean that the result cannot be better. But maybe within this price level it would be at least not worse to get, as suggested, full function preamp from VAC, Atma-Sphere or CAT. I am not sure what I myself would do.
It depends on whether you're looking for a fancy piece of gear so you can impress people, or just want a good preamp so you can listen to the music. I say don't waste your money. Find an Apt Holman preamp, have it gone over and then enjoy the music for around $1k. Two phono inputs, both MM, one with adjustable capacative loading. Tuner input plus two Aux; two tape monitors plus External Processing Loop and two outputs. Not beautiful but, in my opinion, an exceptional piece of gear.
@vinylshadow re:Townshend Allegri Reference Passive Preamp
Do you have experience with that or have you owned it? I am very intrigued by it. I have a good passive line stage that I used for years up until about 6 years ago. I still own it and it’s a backup. What can you tell me about the Townshend? I was interested in the Tortuga passives but they apparently have stopped selling them assembled and only sell some kits.
I've recently purchased it after reading several reviews and talking to John Hannant at Townshend.
I am still in the middle of a big system upgrade including the ASR Basis phono pre and many Townshend cables and Seismic Isolation devices so unfortunately I have not utilized the Allegri yet.
The Passive nature was a big selling point but the reviews that I continue to read are Stellar. I guess I projected my anticipation in my OP....