Help.... I'm scared to 'upgrade'!

Help…. I’m scared to ‘upgrade’!

I’m an unrepentant audiophile. I love equipment; buttons, knobs, dials, beautiful design, meters. Of course, I’m enthralled by music. It’s a deeply enriching and important part of my life. This makes me the perfect mark for spending way too much money on gear. I know that, oh well. So I want to upgrade from my cheap phono-stage but I’m full of doubt and hesitation. Let me explain….

I have what I consider a pretty great system, the heart of which is an Accuphase E-470. My speakers are a pair of ATC HTS-40’s (same drivers and specs as the SCM 40’s), and a pair of JL Audio D-110’s. Streaming is through a Bluesound NODE and an RME ADI DAC 2 fs. Mostly that great digital front end is used for TV and podcasts. When I settle down to really listen to music it’s through my analog front-end. That’s what this post is about.

I’ve had four or five phono-stages over the years and in fact I just sold a very nice all-tube one for $4,200. It simply wasn’t as quiet as the AD-50 input board installed in my E-470. I want all of those ‘audiophiley’ qualities like a holographic soundstage, magical midrange etc., but those have to emerge from an extremely quiet background and with extra high resolution. That’s why I sold a Parasound JC 3+ years ago because of too much hiss. And it was easy to sell a Rega Aria because that thing was great at generating it’s OWN noise. Yes, I’m picky. The AD-50 in my Accuphase is nice but the allure of ‘the next level’ is always tugging.

Then I accidentally bought an iFi Zen Phono! I was helping my son-in-law with his first TT and found a great used one here on Audiogon. He lives far away and I wanted to install a nice cart I had and dial it in pretty close before sending it on to him. I recommended one of those based on ‘buzz’ and he ordered one immediately. I did too, thinking I’d send it along with his TT. Anyway, for less than $200 I decided to keep it for a nice back-up. The thing is, it sounds absolutely phenomenal in my system. It’s paired with an extremely customized and modded Rega deck with an Hana Umami Red. I also have a Luxman PD-171A with an Ortofon Cadenza Black. That combo generates some great sound too.

So here it is…. The iFi Zen Phono is just crazy good. I think it’s better than the JC+, the Rega Aria that I had, and even the Luxman EQ-500 that I recently let go. Has anyone upgraded from the Zen Phono and to what? My short list includes the Whest Audio PS.40RDT, the new Accuphase C-47 (which would mean selling as much gear from my stash as possible), or an FM Acoustics FM 122-MKII. What else should I consider? I’m very intrigued by the Thoress Parametric Phono Equalizer too. What scares me is that might spend 6 to 12 grand on a unit that barely outperforms the ‘lowly’ Zen Phono.

Thanks for Reading!



I think what separates some from the others here is quite simple. My journey is now and alway has been about the music. All to often people get sidetracked and the music takes a back seat to their new love “system”. Trouble is that system is an affair you can never satisfy or make happy. She is a very demanding one that is never content and always checking out the new contender. Music is a loyal partner that can always change and keep satisfying year in and year out. Yes their is a price point that can add or detract from the joy of music and if someone can and wants to spend $700,000 on their system or $50,000 on a dac it is not my place to criticize. IMO everyone needs to first love music and do what they feel is right to nurture that love. If the first love is “system” you will never truly love music as “system” will always want you to doubt her from only reading a review or a post. Trust your ears and love the music!


Yes, we all (almost) love music here. We also all (almost) love gear too. One need not degrade the other - they can boost each other if done right. There are plenty of audio groups out there with the goal posts set towards "whomever spends the LEAST on their turntable / cables / speakers / amp / system WINS", and their expensive gear bashing tropes are incredibly repetitive and boring (like a toddler so so smug that he learned the F word). THIS is not one of those groups, which I am thankful for.

The oft used “all about the music” serves music lovers and gear heads alike. Using the phrase to support individual thresholds for spending more or spending less has little utility on audio forums.

Some might love the sound on a carefully curated $500K system. Some might tap their foot while listening to a favorite song played on a 1977 Ford Pinto AM radio.

The great thing about audio is the infinite variety of choices, combinations and price points for a lifetime of listening enjoyment…

Some good points, for sure. I certainly didn't intend to bash the Parasound JC3+. In his August 2014 review of the Parasound, Neil Gader states, "Backgrounds are still eerily quiet" when comparing it to the original JC3. I guess I interpreted that to mean actually very, even eerily, quiet. That simply wasn't the case. It really sounded fantastic but compared to the self generated noise (or the absence of) of my DAC, it was much more pronounced. I'm sure I was naive, it was my first (relatively, of course) expensive phono preamp and I didn't realize that "black backround", "eerily quiet", "silent", etc. implies that those mean ....for a phonostage. An issue for me might be the fact that at times I just can't resist listening to music loudly through my very enthusiastic ATC's which would bring that noise well into audibility. I have a ton of experience listening to noise of all sorts through my sensitive amateur radio gear and the causes and remedies of all sorts of RFI, tube rush, ground loops, etc., was part of the knowledge base required in testing for my Extra Class ticket. So I'm fairly certain that the hiss present in my system was in fact generated by the JC3+. No, it wasn't terrible. I bought it smartly used and resold it to one who reported no issues at all. I always offer to buy back anything I sell for any reason within a period of time. The Rega Aria, on the other hand, was much worse. I bought it from a local dealer, from an actual shop. The dealer  concurred that it wasn't exactly possessing inky black backrounds. 

    More generally, I have no apologies for allocating whatever funds I want in pursuit of great sound. And I really like the gear, that's why I love radio too. And that's why occasionally post here on Audiogon. This is a community for all types of music lovers and stereo lovers. @sgreg1 So please don't be too concerned with my financial priorities. 

@aberyclark I'm wondering if I give too much subjective weight to that single variable which is a component's S/N ratio. I sat down to listen to a few LP's while writing here and am still astounded at just how squeaky clean the little Zen Phono is. The Umami Red is new to my system (I lucked out on a used one which still looked new under a microscope), and if I had a JC3+ here on hand to compare my opinion could change, for sure. 



Please understand that I am not trying to be critical of your finances or do I care. I was trying to make a point that people who love music can and should enjoy it anyway they can. By any way I mean anyway and while we can offer our opinions they are only opinions and their can be a fine line between critiquing and being critical.