Help Picking a turntable

Hi Everyone,

Rod at my local store here where I buy my gear (unless I buy here at Audiogon) was at my house doing a master set for my speakers (they sound much better) and he suggested I consider getting a turntable and switching to records from cds to get better sound.  I am considering his suggestion but my biggest problem is that I don't know anything about turntables.  Rod recommended a turntable package from EAT that includes the arm, cartridge etc. for about $6,500, which is more than I want to spend.  He said he would look into turntables that are a bit less that would still sound good but I thought I would also check with everyone here to see if anyone had ideas also that I could discuss with Rod when I meet with him.  I'd like to stay under $3000 for the turntable package (turntable, arm, cartridge etc.). 

My current system is: Thiel 3.7 speakers; ARC REF 75 SE amp; ARC LS-17 SE pre-amp (I will also need a phono stage which I know will be in addition to the $3,000 I am willing to spend on the turntable package); analysis plus solo crystal oval speaker wire and interconnects.  Lastly, all of my music now is played through my Simaudio 280d DSD DAC (my cd player, computer etc are all hooked into the dac directly -- no wi fi). 

I'd appreciate any advice and suggestions to help educate me before I go down to Rod's store again and listen and meet with him.  As I said, I know nothing about turntables so any advice, suggestions etc. are very welcome.  Thank you all again in advance for your responses.     
Ag insider logo xs@2xgasherbaum
You really need to spend a bunch of time reading archived posts and talking with those with some analog experience. Since you don't have a collection of LPs and haven't mentioned anything about the issues you'll run into with vinyl (e.g. cleaning LPs, used LP hunting, high prices on reissues, RFI & noise challenges, etc. ) you really need to read up on a bunch of subtopics or you might be disappointed. It can be a blast, but it's not for everyone. Cheers,
As SBank said, there's a lot of cost involved in a complete turntable setup.

Have you thought about upgrading your 280D and seeing what's to be had as you climb up the digital ladder?  

If you bought the Simaudio from your dealer, how about auditioning a 380D just to see.  I bought my Simaudio 600i integrated amp from my local dealer, and Simaudio has an upgrade option where I can trade it in for a 700i.

..anything with a VPI logo.  Their products are always above their price point, and their great support is always there.
Technics SP-10 -- $1000...1500 with SME3009 arm $5...700. I'd personally prefer linear arm such as MG 1.2, but to the beginner working with linear arms might not be a very good idea.

The cartridge I'd pick is Goldring Eroica $500. Very easy to setup and maintain. They come as H (2.5mv) and LX (0.5mv). This cartridge opens lots of ways to choose best phonostage that will be in synergy with your preamp and your cartridge.

Please note, if you're getting to analogue playback with no knowledge how to operate and service, you'd better do your homework prior. Dealers can milk you for labor that worth really nothing and doable by anyone. 

First records to purchase is best by going to local used record store that will also most-likely sell new sealed records as well(hey like in good old days in 70's..80's). Carefully examine condition of each used record you purchase -- this way you save LOTS of money vs. new sealed re-issues.
I just like any audiophile here, like to have in my shelves records in new condition to the point of not having even a single fingerprint on vinyl surface and that's the way I shop.

I agree that VPI seems to produce the best tables at their price points.  They are VERY hard to beat.  As a suggestion, a used early VPI table can generally / often be upgraded with one of their 2 inch aluminum platters / bearings and motor system.  That will raise the performance of the older table significantly. 

As for a phono stage, IMO, you only need to know the Herron Audio brand.  Pick either an updated VTPH-1 (if you're lucky enough to find one) or the VTPH-2.  Though the -2 is a big step up over the -1, both are in the top drawer for performance.  And both cost MUCH less than the much more expensive phono stages that they better.  At least that has been my experience and the experience of others.
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I just switched from VPI prime to Rega RP10 with alpheta 2. I am so much happier.
Rega never disappoint.
Good luck.
If it sounds good to your ear I would go with the dealer recommendation. You trust him and you will get support from him that you might need. Do not spend less than needed, especially on analog.
No VPI or Rega for me, I use Nottingham Analogue. Some direct drive vintage Technics with SME arm would be excellent if in top condition. Cheaper ones would sound 'stupid' but with great dynamics.
All this talk about hardware. First educate yourself about the world of vinyl and all that comes with it; inconsistencies of recordings, needing a Cleaning machine and devoting the time to record care, getting up to flip the record.

To most analogue lovers it's a labor of love, but they grew up in an analogue world.
It's good you are seeking advice. My advice is don't be forced into buying a top of the line system by your dealer.
You didn't say whether you're getting "back" into vinyl or vinyl for the first time?

There are ads on AudiogoN everyday from people who try vinyl and it just isn't for them as stated above by lowrider.  These people usually lose a lot of money selling their now used vinyl rig after only a few months.

My advice is to start with a lower priced rig and see if you really like it.  I had a friend of mine in that exact same boat.  I recommended the new, reintroduced Rega Planar 3 ($945) with a Ortofon 2M Black ($755) cartridge.  I just set it up for him and I was flabbergasted at how good it sounded.  He is mighty impressed also.  He bought the combo from the same dealer and paid around $1500.  Great place to start.
Very solid advice by mofi, lowrider & sbank above.  With hardware, I prefer Sota and Rega along with Ortofon & Dynavector, but hardware suggestions are irrelevant at this point.  You have a tasty ARC rig that is capable of revealing very minute detail.  Instead of getting on a merry-go-round of empirical testing and upgrades, do your homework and understand what you're getting into first.  The table, arm and cartridge are just the beginning, as others have noted above.  Source material, surface cleaning, storage, position in your rack, phono stage, interconnects, all must be considered.

$3K will buy a very nice vinyl set from any one of a number of companies, but because of the rest of your system, deferring gratification toward a larger investment made later could be a more prudent course of action.  Your system would definitely reveal the improvement possible going from a $3K level to a $4K level.  Many of us who've been spinning vinyl for years will swear that digital simply can't compare.  I am one of them.  The best way to discover if this might be true for you, of course, is to take the time to do some auditions.  There really is no substitute for this step.  Yours are the ears that must be satisfied, and this stuff is way too much $$$ to guess about, even at the entry level.

Since we all have the vinyl disease (otherwise, why would we post here), you can ask for input whenever you need it and we'll happily tell you what we think.  With that in mind, keep us up-to-date on your journey.  Enjoy your exploration of vinyl and happy listening whatever you decide!

Get your hands on a VPI Classic 1, 2 or 3 before they discontinue them......
I have a dealer who will give you a very competitive discount.......

I suggest this over the prime, as the heft of the non suspended table,
will give you a solid foundation for any cartridge you ever want to throw at it,
without compromise......

I'd suggest starting with an Ortofon 2M Black and move up from there......
Another vote for Nottingham Analogue. Not well known, perhaps, but the quality is superb. I have used their equipment for 19 years now, and built  my all-ESL system around it. 
Amen to the VPI Classic.  Very good table at its original price.  Discounted, its a great deal.  That VPI arm mates very well with an AT OC9/II.  Hard to beat at twice the price.
I agree with many of the guys on here about researching what your getting into.  I would pick up a older vintage table for under $1k and try it out get a few records and play them see how you like it. then if you fall in love with it like most of us here have then sell the vintage table for pretty much what you paid for it and get a nice set up to take advantage of your system. it'd be a shame to spend thousands on a set up and find its not for you. To be honest there are some nice vintage tables that will give you good results for cheep and give you the taste of things to come.

I run vintage as well. Garrard 301 grease bearing, Jelco 750l, Van Den Hul MC10  cart and a Denon 103 MC (that Denon is a great cart for under $500) and custom plinth.
VPI offers many excellent designs that will not disappoint.  The Prime and Classic designs are hard to beat at their price points.
This common phrase - hard to beat - has no real meaning, it's BS and nothing else.
I answer because I recently got a modest vinyl setup.

My recommendation is to go with a late 70’s higher end Japanese mass produced DD turntable like Pioneer PL-550 (manual with heavy plinth and platter) or similar (Technics, Denin and others were good too). These are often available refurbished. You are looking at $500 for a restored one (new veneer and caps and serviced parts). These have the S arm which is medium to heavy weight for cartridge compliance and a very heavy base/platter and with quartz lock. The wow and flutter and rumble are good enough considering the quality of vinyl you will be buying (mostly used).

I got into TT in the early 80’s and at that time light plastic TT had become very popular (I had a mid level Denon back then). Same movement towards super light graphite arms. I don’t like the light plastic acrylic design. I don’t like superlight arms. I don’t believe the marketing. My experience is that the best designs were mid to late 70’s. Heavier plinth and platter is better IMHO. Medium weight arm is best for all round performance and allows use of lower compliance cartridge. Of course you can get super heavy fantastic modern TT for 10K and up but the next best thing is a heavy audiophile quality vintage TT mass produced at the peak of vinyl’s popularity in the late 70’s (well refurbished).

So save your money to buy Japanese vinyl pressings of rare or interesting stuff. You get more bang for buck in terms of audio quality buying Japanese Vinyl than spending 10K on a TT. Frankly, most vinyl (US and UK) is garbage and mass produced Vinyl after the mid 70’s was and remains garbage. Earlier vinyl can be good. German pressings are often better but Japan quality is overall on average head and shoulders above the rest.

You also need a cartridge. This is as important as the pressings. You need something that suits your taste. For starter you cannot go wrong with a Denon DL-110 - this is one of the few MC cartridges that works with the more common MM phono preamp. It was used in broadcast for years and gives you that classic sound (which should be one of the reasons you go for vinyl as well as ability or fun to find rare vintage stuff).

Even in the 80’s, as a student, I bought exclusively Japanese pressings over US garbage - despite the much higher cost. They are more expensive but SO worth it if you have an audiophile ear. Recently I buy from Japanese sellers on eBay with excellent results. I have only been duped by a Western seller on a Dire Straits boxed set that was ostensibly fron Pallas Germany pressing but turned out to be a cheap garbage pressing from gzvinyl (largest mass producer of garbage) - so beware - vinyl quality is terrible.

This is just an opinion - two cents - many experts will vehemently disagree - just offering you some food for thought.

There's a VPI Classic 1 on gon now for 1700 or so......
That combined with an Ortofon 2M Black would be absolutely
fantastic and well below your 3K budget.....
I would go with VPI as well. For cartridges, I would go with Ortofon or Soundsmith.   The VPI dealer I work with is fantastic and will work with you on pricing, discounts, etc.  He would be a great resource as well just to get his feedback.  Feel free to message me if you want to connect with him.  Best of luck.  
Like every other topic put on the forum, there are as many opinions as there are people to make them, and the opinion can be based upon bias and any of a number of other reasons besides “your needs”. I would take advice with a grain of salt, but use the suggestions to do my own research . . . unfortunately, even among the experts, you are going to get varying opinions, especially if they have any profit to gain from your decision. Also there are a lot of people, who just like to argue . . . don't waste your breathe on them.

There are some reviewers that may be of assistance, but always remember, even if their opinions are based upon experience and education . . . the way any product sounds is their impression, and again, an opinion. What you can do is check for reviews on thing like build quality and reliability. Some specifications can be generated by the manufacturers to make themselves look good; after all, that this the point of marketing isn’t it . . . to convince you, the consumer, to buy.

Another thing you can do is listen to all the opinions, and when you see a pattern occurring in a goodly number of these opinions, then you can start searching in that arena and narrow down your choices. Ultimately it is you that will choose, not the salesman (unless you are a pushover). What works for one person in their environment and room acoustics, plus all the other influences that can affect a turntable, including tonearm choices (if the turntable does not come with one), and a cartridge. Oh, and I would also do some research on maintenance and installation of those costly items, if you are going to install it yourself. Hopefully the dealer will “expertly” do it for you as part of the service. Check with the retailer on your option to return the turntable, should it not work well in your application, and also you should checkout the warranty on each of the products you buy. Remember, the records need to be keep pristine and free of fingerprints and dust, as well as the stylus of your cartridge; otherwise, they won’t last very long and will also cause premature wear and even damage to your record collection. I have some records that still sound very good and are in excellent shape . . . and many are over 66 years old. One of the successes in this hobby is know what you are getting into . . . and then be prepared to “pay the price” and pay your dues . . . otherwise, you will be setting yourself up for failure.

One other thing to consider are vintage turntables. There are some very good turntables that have been reconditioned and have reputations for accuracy in speed, and isolating vibration and noise away from the tonearm and especially the cartridge. Remember, there is always foot falls, and vibrations that can be transferred and amplified to your speakers via your cartridge, which will pickup feedback of all types, including subsonics from your woofers, which sometimes need a rumble filter to suppress. In any case, a study on isolation feet and platforms will also be of help.

Do your homework and don’t be totally influenced by appearance, personalities (no matter what their credentials), nor gimmicks, cause like has been said, by P.T. Barnum, there is a sucker born every minute . . . don’t you be one of them. An educated buyer is also a shrewd buyer, and one that isn’t so easily taken to the cleaner -- even by good-intentional friends . . . or opinionated forum readers and writers. Remember anyone can be a “expert” coach from the sidelines and have all the answers, until you find out the hard way -- they don’t . . . and you will be the one stuck with a bad purchase and also wasted money. IF the coach gives you bad advice and information . . . smile politely, then walk away. Tomorrow is another day to decide, don’t be pressurized by a great deal that is only for today -- there are always deals and sales out there. Best to you.

I would research what goes into analog front end and ask yourself do you want to make the commitment.  At your price point you will be getting something that will compete with very good digital sources. 

Factor in. 

1. You will need more space (rack space and record shelf space)
2. You will need a phono preamp 
3. You will need a budget for a cartridge 
4. You really will need a record cleaner 
5. You must clean records and cartridge 
6. You will need more time than digital to enjoy analog
7. Unless your going all new and trust your dealer you
will have to learn to setup a TT. It can be done but requires 
reading and trial and error. 

Wow, first let me start of by thanking each and everyone for your thoughtful suggestions.  I really appreciate all the advice and thought that went into your posts.  I love Audiogon and the forums, especially because there are so many with such a wealth of knowledge like all the people who responded to this post.  To answer some of the questions, I am just starting out in vinyl, not getting back into it, so all the suggestions on research are helpful.   I have thought about the issues, such as finding good recordings, cleaning, getting up to flip the record, and also that its not easy to skip a song you don't like.  I'm going to one of the better used stores this afternoon to check out their selection and buy a few records to test out at the store where I buy my gear, which is called Soundings.  The owner of Soundings says the store has a vacuum cleaner for the records that I can use anytime, which was nice.  I do have a top spot on my rack that would be perfect for a turntable, and have plenty of good storage for the records. I don't mind getting up to change the record if the sounds is that much better.  I know whether it sounds better is to some extent a matter of taste, so  I am going to Soundings on Friday to listen to their set up -- Soundings has a good relationship with Boulder Amps and has a lot of high res digital recordings that the guys at Boulder Amps have given to Soundings so I can listen to those and the vinyl and compare and see what I think is better.  
I appreciate that I know virtually nothing right now and appreciate everyone's suggestions that I need to do more research and go out and listen.  Unfortunately, we don't have many good hi-fi stores here in Denver, Colorado, but I'm starting on Friday at Soundings and hope to listen to some more vinyl systems next week at a few of the other shops in town that I know have some higher end systems.  I'll keep you all posted. 
I also greatly appreciate the suggestions you have all made on hardware if I do decide after the research to go this route -- you have given me some great suggestions to research and look into.  I also thought that the suggestions that I start with an inexpensive rig and then if I like it sell the inexpensive rig and only then buy a high-end rig might be a great way to try this. 

I also appreciated the comment about upgrading my digital if I find that vinyl is not the right fit for me.  I am always looking at that and considering ways to upgrade my system.  If I don't end up with vinyl, I will definitely be upgrading my cd player and I appreciate the suggestion of upgrading my dac through the dealer that I bought the 280d from. 

Again, thank you all so much for the advice and some great ideas to start my research and learning process.  From someone who knows nothing about vinyl, I feel like I have a good starting point to begin researching and try and discover if vinyl is right for me and if so how I should go about adding vinyl to my system.  Thank you all very much. 
gasherbaum...actually Denver and the surrounding areas, (Boulder/Colo Springs) have a few excellent high-end dealers:

Audio Federation
Sounds Real
The Sound Room
Apex Audio

And if you don’t mind an hour or so drive, the Audio Alternative in Fort Collins has LOTS of cool stuff. Rick has been in business for almost 40 years now and carries some top notch gear.
Mofimadness, thanks so much.  I knew of Soundings, its where I get most my gear now that I know about it and I really like Rod, the owner (I got my ARC gear and analysis plus wires there).  I knew of Listen-Up, but didn't know of any of the others, including the one in Fort Collins, so thanks so much for sending me the names of the other places.  I will definitely stop by the other places now that I know about them.  Again thank you for the info and taking the time to send it to me. are quite welcome.  I actually missed a few.  A lot of these are run out of the owner's homes, so not really a store front.  Some might require you to make an appointment:

Audio House
Crescendo Audio
Sound Science
Gold Sound

@gasherbaum Since you are in Denver, please note that you are local to the best annual audio show in the country RMAF, Rocky Mtn Audio Fest held each autumn(Oct?). You REALLY should go before deciding anything on any expensive setup. 
Perhaps, going with a cheap Technics, etc. as suggested above, living with and learning a few months, then attend RMAF, then decide about a fancier rig. Cheers,
Thanks mofimadness -- I had not heard of audio house, cresecndo or sound science so i will check those out.  Sbank i did discover RMAF last fall -- wish I had known about it earlier.  I went all three days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) last year and enjoyed it and learned a ton.  I did find that Friday was the best day because it was not as crowded and people had a lot more time to talk and help me out.  I am going again this year, I think it is October 7 through October 9.  If you are there, stop by the Soundings room -- they usually have a party back at their store on Friday night after RMAF closes for the night and it is a pretty good chance to meet the owner and see some nice gear.  I went last year before I really knew the guys and am looking forward to it more this year as I now have a good relationship with the people at Soundings. 

Thanks again for the suggestions and all the help.   
Wow!  I briefed through the prior responses.  These guys are really into vinyl.  I myself am just getting back into it after about 30 years.  (I can now afford the ridiculous prices for hifi equipment.)  I settled on the Music Hall mmf 7.3 which has a Ortofon bronze cartridge, which at $1,595 sounds outrageous to me for something that probably cost around $250 to manufacture, including R&D costs.  Caring for vinyl definitely is not as easy as a CD, but it really is not that bad.  And I remember when I first heard a CD and compared it to an LP.  It sounded great, but the more I heard CDs the more I did not care to listen to them anymore.  That never happened with an LP.  Back to buying: There is absolutely no reason to pay more than what I paid $1,600 for turntable, including cartridge.  Anything beyond that is for cosmetics and bragging rights.
Another tack... I upgraded my Cocktail Audio X40 digital front end with Dave Sculte at The Upgrade Company in Michigan and have significantly improved audio quality and noise floor in this unit. These upgrades fully shield all internal board components cabling and wiring from EMI RFI . I can highly recommend Dave, his customer service and free appraisals are very helpful.

Gosh , Lots of well thought-out information & suggestions. 50 yrs + of turntable usage has educated me to carefully spend resources regardless of new or used. Materals, design & age are some of the factors that need your consideration. Many turntables of the 70's are nearing the end of useful resister & cap life as are speed controls. Age related issues may also apply to tonearm bearings.  Be awaire that todays used bargin could fail or not be as sonicaly rewarding due to age related issues.
 Keeping in mind my biases I recommend the following. Both the GEM (George Merill) Turntable & the Pioneer PLX- 1000 offer considerable value for new to vinyl folks. External speed controllers are a near-must & Schitts Mani phono amp is a terrific value. Darkstar1 made some excellent suggestions that all vinyl-heads should consider. Becoming a in-house expert for turntable set up & vinyl cleaning is important. Best of luck
Hello everyone,
I was able to go to Soundings and audition the turntable Rod (the owner of Soundings) thought would be the best one: it was a Dr. Feickert Woodpecker (I don't remember the type of arm or cartridge).  He was using a Boulder phono stage, Boulder pre-amp and Boulder amp with Rockport Avior speakers.  While this is all above my price point, I must say it was by far and away the best music I have ever heard -- it was simply an amazing experience to hear.  If anyone is going to RMAF, I think Soundings is working in conjunction with Boulder Amps and will have the Rockports and the turntable there with the Boulder amp/pre-amp.  IF so, it is definitely worth stopping by that room, or if you are in Denver stopping by Soundings and listening.  I just have never in my life heard anything that even comes close to how amazing that system sounded.  The first album we played was Paul Simon's Graceland and I have never heard it sound anywhere near that good; then we moved on to Keb Mo and then a little John Lee Hooker.  There was a huge difference between the vinyl and cd --I was shocked by how huge the difference was.  The biggest downside was that it made my system at home sound kind of crappy in comparison.  This was my first listening test of vinyl and if this is how good it can sound I think I will be getting a turntable and some LP's in the near future.  I still have to look around a bit: as much as I loved the system that Soundings had, it is  quite a bit more than I wanted to spend.  For all of those out there that say vinyl is the best, I now understand where you are coming from.  Im still not sure what I am going to do, and need to do some more research because of the cost, but listening to the vinyl on that system was truly amazing. 

Again, thanks to everyone for all of their helpful and thoughtful input.    
It is great you got to experience give you a reference as you move forward.......

I have heard the Woodpecker........and have found it to be a versatile table, but a fairly old design......
In my opinion, I think you could do a lot better.....
The problem is the Woodpecker is 6500 with no arm and there is no way an arm will do that table justice under the 2K mark, then you get to add a cartridge......and you're looking at a grand not to embarass the 8500.00 table you just invested in.....

Alternatively, although you'd have to go away from Sounding's could do a new VPI Prime turntable, which includes the 3D tonearm and get something very much on par with that 8500.00 setup for a fraction of the price (mid 3K)....

The trick is getting VPI's opinion on which cartridges that 3D arm bring out the best in.....(I believe anything from Ortofon in the low to mid price ranges really love the 3D tonearm)

This would give you some $$ left over to do a phono stage up right and not as an afterthought........

It seems like the Gem Dandy Polytable would be a good fit in the $1500-2000 range, especially with the Jelco 750D tonearm featuring fluid damping and detachable headshell. Fluid damping elevates the tracking ability and interchangeable headshells makes swapping between different cartridges (e.g., MM, MC, and mono) quick and easy. Good review from Absolute Sound. It's called the Polytable because designer George E. Merrill (i.e., GEM) uses several patented polymer formulas in the turntable materials. Looks really promising. 
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Thanks for the heads up on the GEM Polytable and the link to the web page -- I'll look into it. 
The Absolute Sound reviews the GEM Dandy Polytable with a Shelter 201 MM cartridge. This cartridge might prove to be a good  match for the Polytable. The 201 is $310 from authorized US dealers, but I just got mine from a Japanese storefront on eBay for $167. It is easiy worth it at that price. It's also inexpensive to own as the replacement stylus (from authorized dealers) is only $100. I really need to let mine break in more, but I like what I hear so far with a full-bodied sound, real-sounding midrange, good imaging, excellent dynamics, and a surprising level of detail when it comes to ambience and decaying room reverberation.

you might also look into a table that won't be out for a month or two, the upcoming Oracle Origine.  It's on their site and has been seen at a show or two.......comes with a really great arm and an Ortofon 2M Blue for 2K Retail.......I am a longtime fan of Oracle and will possibly be trying this turntable with my desktop headphone system.......
Thanks for the info on the Oracle: I will definitely look into that.  So much great information and help from everyone on the turntable.  As an update, I took your advice and have gone to a few other stores here in town to listen to other turntables.  I have heard a couple other systems at some of the other stores here in town: a Pro-Ject Extension 10, a few other Pro-Jects that were less expensive, 2 VPI's and 2 Regas.  However, the systems I was able to hear them on were all different (the speakers, amps, preamps, phono stages, cartrdiges etc differed)  so it was hard to compare.  However, they all were an improvement over what I was hearing with digital.  I think the system at Soundings sounded the best, but that may be because the rest of the system they are using costs in excess of $150,000 and was better than the other systems and it may not be because  the turntable there (the Woodpecker) was better.  Hard to know, but I'm having a lot of fun researching it and also looking for LP's at my local stores and online.  I really like for finding out of print and hard to find LP's.   I've already bought about 20 LP's. 

As I've been researching this and going to the various stores, I've also been learning more about cartridges and phone stages.  I didn't realize that different cartridges have different gain levels and some cartridges won't work well with some phono stages.   Yikes, I am a definite novice :)!!!     In addition to the Boulder phono stage at $13,000, Rod at Soundings thinks a ARC PH9 would fit nicely and costs $7,500.  But I can find an ARC 2SE on audiogon for a few thousand less,but have no idea which might sound better (Rod doesn't have a PH9 or a 2SE for me to try).  Rod hasn't heard either of them but says he spoke to Dave at ARC who says the PH9 would be better, but its hard to know as the PH9 just came out and the 2SE was just replaced by the Ref 3.  I've also heard a Lohman (not sure if i spelled it right) that sounded pretty good for $2000.  I may make another post just about phono stages to get some more ideas on what I need to be researching and looking for because I know so little. 

Thanks everyone for all the help.  I am very much enjoying the journey into vinyl and all the posts here have been tremendously helpful.  I greatly appreciate every one taking the time to help me out with all the amazing insight and advice.

The combinations are endless......musical phono stages are a black art compared to the tables........

The highest value per dollar phono pre in my experience  is the Parasound JC3+ @ around 3K retail.......the combo I heard it on was a Michell Orbe SE with an Ortofon Quintet Blue cartridge.......the sound was absolutely magnificent, even though the cartridge was modest....

beyond that:

You're getting into stratospheric range when it comes to phono pres in comparison with a turntable in the 3k range........the mix doesn't make sense, versus say a 7K table combo and a 2K phono pre.....

Actually, if you move up in the Oracle line to the Paris MK V, you'd be at 3200 retail on the table/arm and then could do a PH200 phono pre which
cosmetically matches the table, so it could sit next to it and not
have to be hidden 1600 retail......the corinth low output MC cartridge retails @ 2250  The transfiguration Axia is about the same....

Total for entire setup and one of the sexiest tt's around:  7K estimated...
There's no reason you should not be able to buy this brand new
for mid 5K's total, arm, cartridge, table and phonostage....maybe mix 6s if you go up to the Parasound instead of the Oracle......

Stewart0722, thanks for the suggestions.  You are definitely right when you say its a black art :).  I've spent so much time researching and listening over the last few weeks and feel like I still know so very little, but I'm having a great time learning and every time I listen to a nice set up of vinyl and then go home I find my system lacking, so hopefully I will figure it out soon.  I would have been totally lost without all the help from this forum, so thanks to everyone that has posted and helped me out so much.  
gasherbaum (the OP) wrote:
...I didn’t realize that different cartridges have different gain levels and some cartridges won’t work well with some phono stages. Yikes, I am a definite novice :)!!! In addition to the Boulder phono stage at $13,000, Rod at Soundings thinks a ARC PH9 would fit nicely and costs $7,500....

It can be overwhelming when getting iinto vinyl playback for the first time (or first time in a long time). So many ’tables, tonearms, cartridges, and phono stages. So many interdependencies complicating the quest for an ideal system match.

But you’ll make your situation much more difficult if you try to achieve a really high end playback rig on your first try. Most people who get to a $10-20K turntable, $1500-7500 cartridge, and $3500-10k phono stage didn’t do it on their first purchase; it came as the result of years (probably decades) of purchases, living with the rig for awhile, and then incrementally upgrading.

You’ll be much happier purchasing an affordable overachieving rig that gives you much if not most of the satisfaction you seek using components that are affordable and easy to live with.

That’s why I recommended the GEM Dandy Polytable and Shelter 201. Both are highly affordable overachievers. I’m particularly enamored with the Shelter 201 now that I’ve had a week to play with mine. It has no noticeable flaws, no peaky highs or murky mids or flubby bass. It has a surprising amount of dynamic range; it never feels polite or compressed. Best of all, and this makes finding a phono stage easier, it has a claimed 4 mV output but I think it may be higher. I had been using a high output moving coil cart (2.2 mV) and I had to turn the gain way down to match the output to the cartridge’s input. This in turn lowered the noise floor significantly, which may account for such a large dynamic range. A lower noise floor is always a good thing.

So far I have played *a lot* of records on this cart in a week, covering bombastic orchestral spectaculars, solo piano, direct-to-disk big band, chamber music, small combo jazz, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Dire Straits, Boz Scaggs doing Great American Songbook standards, nylon string guitar-driven Latin jazz, acoustic bluegrass, ’60s instrumental pop with subtle background vocals, Miles Davis, etc., etc. The cart always sounds like it was designed for whatever music it’s playing at the moment.

A high output cartridge will simplify selection of your first phono stage. you can get a really good phono stage for high output cartridges for a lot less than one of the same quality level made to handle 0.2mV cartridge output.
I agree that most people don't "start" with a megabuck tt   or phono stage for that matter.....

I got the audio bug in the 1980s hearing a first generation Oracle Delphi in an audio shop, combined with ARC gear and Acoustic 2x2 used loudspeakers........on a classical piece of which I'll never know what it actually was, I felt I could just about crawl inside the was that pivotal moment all audiophiles can recall......and their wallets regret....

My turntables in succession:
Dual CS5000
Rega 1
Linn Axis
Acoustic Research ES1
Ariston RD11

Then I got out of vinyl for about 15 years

Upon returning to Vinyl, several years ago I got:

VPI Classic 1 w/ Benz Ace SL
VPI Classic 3 w/ Lyra Kleos
Merrill 101.2 w/ Ortofon 12" arm, Arche headshell and Ortofon Cadenza Black as well as Ortofon Maestro Silver SPU
Finally, I went back to VPI and got an HR-X which I am currently on.....
I have a 12.7 metal arm (yes I do think it's better than 3d, which I've also had) and I've ended my cartridge search for the moment with
the Transfiguration Proteus......

The delight in VPI tables is their lack of finickiness......versus suspended tables.......the mass of the platter combined with a non suspended design creates what I'll call a large majestic sound.......

but it hasn't ended:

Based on an experience at the Chicago show listening to a suspended table......I just ordered:

Oracle Delphi MK VI Second Generation
Oracle SME V Tonearm
will stay with Transfig Proteus.....

I will be selling my 1 year old VPI HR-X soon to try the suspended flavor of Oracle and if it isn't to my liking, I'll probably just buy yet another HR-X......or I may just buy a wider rack and keep both......LOL

As to phono stage, going all the way back to the Classic 1, I've used the phono section in my Convergent Audio Technologies SL1 Renaissance Preamp........this is one of two components I'm absolutely sure will be my last in the category......the other is my Magnepan 3.7s  I added a Hashimoto HM7 based stepup for the extremely low output Proteus and it absolutely brought everything to that's staying as well.....

As to HO MC, my experience has been the added coil weight isn't worth it, I would go to the king of the MM's the Ortofon 2M black, or a Grado statement..........if you opt for an MM phono stage.......
Boy oh boy - have you started a hornets nest with a hundred and one opinions. 
The Lenco boys will quote Arthur Salvatores article unti lthey are blue in their face.
The DD boys likewise with the SP10's - although I reckon the new SL1200 might be the best buy of the lot (meaning DD).
Try what I did and listen to as many decks as you possibly can - for a start it is really good fun - all have pro's and cons. Trust YOUR EARS and not others - not even reviews - just use them to identify potential products.
IMHO amongst those you ought to listen to, if only for mental notes - and in no order of preference:
1. Rega RP8, or RP10;
2. Linn Sondek (I wanted to dislike them unti l heard one with Funk Firm mods)
3. Project RP9
4. Townshend Rock (if you like them - you need to spend silly money to better its' particular blend of virtues)
5. Nottingham Analogue (very musical)
6. DPS (great timing)
7. Modified Lenco (great fun)
8. Garrard 301/401
9. Technics 1200 (new design)

Well here’s a suggestion out of left field. As it seems you’re not averse to purchasing something inexpensive to test the waters, why not something used. These are kind of rare so demand decent money but are well worth the asking price, and then some. These tables are so good you just might decide not to go any higher up the food chain.

The later top tier Kenwoods are something special, and look it too. Something like the KD770D, KD750, KD990, all are easily within budget and will leave money for a great cartridge.

No personal experience with any but the 770D, but all are similar enough I feel safe in recommending any one of them. Then there’s the legendary Kenwood L-07D, if you can find one, but most likely not within budget.

Below is a link to a picture of the 770D, I think you will like what you see. Then check vinylengine for the specs, again I think you will like what you see.

This is a big table, notice the platter compared to the rubber mat.