I need help regarding tube phono preamplifiers

To the Audiogon community. I am currently considering one of three possible all tube phono preamps to incorporate in my two channel system. The three phono stages are 1.Aesthetix Rhea phono preamp 2.Zesto Andros Deluxe II phono stage and 3. Vac Renaissance phono preamp. I will incorporate the stand alone phono preamp into my McIntosh C48 preamp and utilize a Clearaudio Performance DC turntable with a Clearaudio Universal tonearm and Kiseki Purple Heart phono cartridge. If anyone has experience to help me compare the differences between these phono stages I would greatly appreciate the input. Thanks.


I have a Herron, i don’t agree with the above “ we “ opinion. Any of the 3 phono preamps you are considering can best in certain areas the excellent all around performance and neutrality of the ( unfortunately ) out of production Herron. The Aesthetix has no FET front end and is a tube rollers delight. Jim White also offers an extensive upgrade path without throwing away the chassis, etc… 

This passion and hobby, especially the analog front end is full of nuance…

Enjoy the music.


Having heard and owning Rhea Signature, I completely agree with Jim. I have to warn you that Rhea is very very sensitive to tube quality (noise and microphony). 

the CS Port C3EQM2 is outstanding in that price range. battery powered, and superb with an SUT. it’s got three inputs, two of them MM for SUT’s. i run 2 SUT’s with mine.


i’ve owned this phono stage for 3 years and it’s a giant killer. the USA importer is on Long Island, NY. 

I prefer phonostages with balanced output - typically has a lower noise floor. The Aesthetix seems to have the highest gain of 75 dB which gives you flexibility to try a wider range of low output mc cartridges.  

If you are committed to going with a tube unit I would urge you to focus your attention on noise and reliability. A big reason the Herron is so well loved is because it is insanely quiet and bulletproof. See what you can find out among users of the units you are considering. 

"We here have heard that Herron and DecWare are way better."

fuzztone in for comedy relief in these troubled times. Left out is Tekton Moabs will be the cherry on top.

All 3 are good at what they do. You would need all 3 in your setup for the "Goldilocks" decision on what to keep. I've demoed a Zesto  in it's earlier incarnation-very nice.

If you're open to other options, this listing could be a good deal since used is always negotiable. Made in USA and tube rectified like the Aesthetix


@andyhifiman you might also consider the NVO all tubed phono stage. Do a search on Agon, a few yrs back it was considered a wonderful phono stage that competed with units 2 - 5 times it price. 

You are considering some very good phono stages… but if you want great sound from a turntable you should. I have owned Audio Research Phono stages for over thirty years… each time I upgraded researching intensely… but still staying with Audio Research, I currently own a ARC Reference 3 phono stage. I would have a look, although ARC and MAC tend to be in different camps with different priorities. Zesto gets fantastic reviews and VAC is no slouch. You are definitely choosing from some great equipment.

I would take the specific advice of folks that own Mac equipment. MAC is very good at midrange and bass, but is very light on details, so pairing is important. I would pose this question to the Audio Aficionados forum. There are lots of folks there with high end MAC gear that could help.

+1 on the audio research reference phono stage. I have not heard any of the ones you are considering but by the sound of they thread they are all top end ones. I have personal experience with both a Krell KPS and an audio research reference phono stage first gen.one. the audio research just kills the krell.in.my system. 

VAC is not a commonly met brand in the UK and neither is Modwright.

I have very recently heard a VAC integrated Amp Phi Beta 110i, with ESL Speakers, the inbuilt Phonostage was used with a AudioNote IO and the replay was quite impressive.

I would think that a Standalone Phonostage from VAC can be even more impressive, I would consider auditioning one if it was an easy to achieve experience.

A few years ago I was at a Enthusiasts Phonostage Bake Off, with Soulution Amps and Maxonic Speakers.

A Modwright 9.0 SE was introduced in the latter stages of the event when the higher price devices were being entered for their demonstrations.

The 9.0SE was given a Three Track Demonstration Period, and proved to be noticeably more attractive in its performance over Phonostages of a much lesser purchase value used prior to the 9,0SE being entered.

It was a mixed result when compared to devices that were closer to the value, and there were a variety of comments made about the preferred Phon's, already used, and the comments were not always favourable for the 9.0SE. My recollection of a description given and the content shared was in keeping with what I was aware of,  was that there was a Voluminous Room Filling Presentation, that was coupled with a very perceivable Bass Bloom with a very smeared decay, the Bass was pointed out as not being as attractive most of the previous used phon's and much better Bass Performance had been heard from earlier demonstrations.

When the 9.0SE was compared to Phonostages that followed it in the line up that had increased purchase price values, the 9.0 SE was noticeably not a competitor to these levels of replay being produced, the detractors from these follow up Phon's were not able to be defined during the short demonstration periods, and from recollection any model will have been worthy of a home audition.  

It will be hard to determine how a Phonostage will work within a system through pre-empting the performance on offer, being offered descriptions is only a small proportion of what is valuable to make a choice.

Most Source Owners that take LP replays seriously, do not share the same TT > Tonearm > Cartridge and Phonostage, each has their own unique preferences. 

If an extension of time can be allowed for to prepare for a purchase, the arrangement of Demonstrations within a System will go along way, these will help understand a trait offered by the Phon' and see it there is a attraction or detraction.  A home demonstration is very important to finalise an assessment, as this is where the living with the choice made will take place. 

Perhaps you should consider changing your Preamp from SS to Tube type.

You have a SS Preamp with both MM and fully adjustable MC phono stages within.

I presume you must not like it’s phono sound.

I had McIntosh C28 Preamp, did not like it’s phono sound, actually preferred the sound of a dinky phono built into an inexpensive AT120 TT.

I sold my McIntosh SS Amp and SS Preamp, went to Vintage McIntosh full tube preamp, with wonderful sounding tube MM phono, and added a SUT with PASS to boost MC enough to continue to use the mx110z’s tube MM Phono.

All other sources now thru tube preamp on to modern tube amp with remote volume. All sound terrific thru the tube preamp.

I would like to thank all of the forum members who responded to my posting.

I appreciate the feedback and will do some additional research. Hopefully I will be able to demo some products prior to making the final choice.

Best regards to everyone.

The OP asks for a comparison among 3 choices of phono and got almost nothing but suggestions that he consider a 4th, and there’s virtually no consistency regarding a putative 4th alternative. I’ve owned the Rhea which I converted to Signature status. The Rhea Signature version was way better than the base version. Otherwise I advise the OP to choose on the basis of features, because all 3 on his list are very good, provided that you sub in the Sig version of the Rhea. I have a slight bias in favor of the VAC Ren, but it’s not well founded.


The Hegel V10 is not tubed, but it’s warm sounding and detailed. Used with a tube line preamp (Cary SLP05) the combination has that tube “magic” yet is detailed with a focused soundstage.

I've always lusted after Vac phonostages, but haven't made the leap. Same with Aesthetix. Aesthetix worried me to have to always be chasing tubes and noise. Went Allnic and I could not be happier. Possibly last phonostage I'll need. But you are in a very good spot and really are going to have a hard time going with the wrong phono. 

I own the Zesto Andros Deluxe II phono stage. It's the best phono stage I've ever owned. I have not compared it to the two other phono stages you're considering.

Best of luck. It appears you won't go wrong with any of those choices.

@andyhifiman A few demo's will be very advantageous to your investigation.

Do try and achieve a Home Demo' if one is discovered that is attractive and felt worthy of further pursuit.   

Seems like the OP did a bit of shopping before compiling his list of 3.  Evidently the Herron did not make the cut, possibly because it is out of production, or possibly for other good reasons.  But let's not get crazy about the Herron; it most certainly is not the best phono stage ever made. For one reason because no two of us could agree on any one single "best".  By all accounts, it is excellent.  That's a nice category to be in.

I'm watching this thread closely as well. I'm not trying to sidetrack either, but wouldn't it be ideal to run a tube rectified solid state Phone stage? Or just go SS phono like the Pearl 2 into a tube PRE. Just playing  a bit of devils advocate here.

I personally have had a lot of issues running down microphonic problems with tubes. Cost me hours of troubleshooting to find out it's the new gold lions I purchased. Vinyl is hard enough to get right.

We like tubes for the H2 harmonics. On occasion our systems with these harmonics run them at the negative and positive phase depending on our setup. 

My point is to explore and see if you like +/- phase H2 harmonics or more 3rd order in your gear. It will help eliminate a lot of guess work. Have you tried another full tube phono stage or added tubes anywhere else in the system? It can change your negative phase to positive phase harmonics.

I'm not trying to open some crazy can of worms either....

I run a Klyne Audio Arts phono/pre btw.


"The OP asks for a comparison among 3 choices of phono and got almost nothing but suggestions that he consider a 4th, and there’s virtually no consistency regarding a putative 4th alternative."

It's the Agon way...

Address the question with something completely different. 

Just look at the previous post above.

I almost bought the Zesto Andros Deluxe II. I heard the original Andros at RMAF.

Even in a modest system it was my favorite sound at the show. I kept going back to that room and ended the show there.

I would definitely go for the Deluxe II. It has all the features of the twice expensive top line Zesto two box phono just only in one chassis and only able to take two cartridges not four. They both use very high end SUTs built in.

My ultimate decision was to buy the great Atma-Sphere MP 1. It is an amazing full function preamp that was designed with a built in phono stage that bests very pricy outboard phono stages including the ones you are considering and those twice the price. It is also a big one plus that I now don’t need another pricy IC and PC. Its line stage is also much more transparent than your Mac. But you may like the Mac house sound.


Dear @andyhifiman : " one of three possible all tube phono preamps..."

well, only the Rea and VAC are all tube phono stages. Been all tube designs means too that the cartridge signal must pass through many gain stages, around 4-5 in the REA and at least 6 stages in the VAC. At each stage the cartridge siggnal is degraded.


Both tube designs looks as good designs and good quality execution with good choice in passive parts. Btw, I don’t like tubes running a cartridge signal but this is me.


Now, you already own an average digital/analog control center that has as a " side line " facilities to handled cartridges. It does not matters which stand alone unit you will buy ( tube, hybrid or SS. ) the cartridge signal must goes through the C48 line stage and the quality level of the cartridge signal certainly will not be of the higher level of the stand alone phono stage but nothing more than the quality level in that C48 that ( sorry to say it. ) is just average. So do it you a favor and don’t " spend " good money where that money will be a " spend " and not a true quality level investment for your cartridge signal reproduction. Is up to you, it’s your money.


Regards and enjoy the MUSIC NOT DISTORTIONS,





Have had for some time a Tavish Design Adagio. Very flexible in it’s design and what you want at purchase. Can even choose your step up transformer and power supply. Mostly everything mentioned here is off the shelf stuff with a big price tag. Easy for tube rolling also which adds to it’s flexability. Good folks at Tavish. You actually can talk with them. Treated me well. Thus the plug.

I’ve run the VAC Renaissance SE phono stage for 4 years. It’s wonderful. And VERY quiet. But it’s most certainly not "all tube", in that (like the Zesto) it relies on a SUT for MC gain. It has built-in Lundahl LL1931 - which to me sound very fast, crystalline, and slightly lean (I attribute this to the amorphous core material?) compared to most other popular SUTs, which are more full bodied. I would guess the LL1931 was chosen because the VAC’s MM tube stage is very lush, romantic, and full bodied - together the combination is more neutral, but still leaning toward the latter. That said, I found I personally preferred the "full boat" full bodied romantic sound gained by pairing the VAC MM stage with an outboard SUT box other than Lundahl (Quadratic, EAR, Koetsu, CineMag).

I bought a Herron VTPH-2A for a high end Stax/electrostatic headphone system, where it did very well (beat the pants off a Rogue Ares Magnum). It’s a great stage - very neutral and very quiet. It performed well enough there I wondered if it could replace the VAC in my main 2ch. But when I tried this, it didn’t last very long before the VAC went back in. I just enjoyed music more on the VAC.

I originally had a Renaissance non-SE before I exchanged it for an SE. The SE uses much higher end caps & resistors - it sounds a bit more detailed and neutral. But the non-SE is no slouch. You definitely don’t HAVE TO get the SE upgrade; its effect is incremental. Sometimes I wondered if I might even have enjoyed the slightly warmer, relaxed nature of the non-SE more in the long run.

Of course, I just received an Audio Research Reference 3SE phono this weekend. It does what the Herron was doing (and trying to do), but better. It absolutely competes with the VAC. It clearly betters the VAC at conveying spatial information. Instruments and vocals magically emerge and hang in space with more air around them - even when the music gets busy. It’s exceedingly fast and detailed. It lacks a bit of the body and romance of the VAC, but hits a beautiful neutral tone without acting the least bit sterile, thin, or lifeless. NOT analytical, which I can’t stand. It’s every bit as vivid and magical as the VAC, just in a different way. Favored cartridge pairings are aligning with one stage or the other, but a lot is going the Ref 3’s way right now. I’d given up on my rebuilt Coralstone with the VAC (it was TOO warm for that pairing), and it’s now STUNNING on the Ref 3. After 4 years of the VAC, this is a new perspective on my music collection, and at such a high-quality level, that I can’t wait to listen to more.

Still highly recommend the VAC too, if you decide to go that way! A used Renaissance phono stage goes for a LOT less than a 3SE!

I haven’t heard these but personally wouldn’t use tubes in a phono pre-amp as a pre-requisite as the risk of extra noise is considerable. Instead, use tubes in your main pre-amp and roll those as you like. This will keep system noice quiter and provide consistency across phono and DAC in the main system.

I left my tube phone pre--amp (Project DS Tube - just above entry level) for the Gold Note PH-10 with PS. I couldn’t be happier with this pre-amp - versatile mico controller settings for the cartridges and the killer feature of matching equalization to the record manufacturer. I didn’t really consider how much this equalization would matter - it is genuinely a huge difference between RIAA, Columbia, and DECCA.

I purchased the Rhea signature after purchasing a demo turntable, tonearm, cartridge.  The phono stage in my preamp, though excellent was t enough for the .25 mv lomc t purchased the aesthetix for the extra gain, and in the open showroom sounded excellent.   I’m my listening room the tube rush over 54 db gain was clearly evident.  I found a private party that had nos Hammond organ 12au tubes and lived happily with them for years. Actually bought a second set for future.    The extra tubes were an unfortunate loss over two moves and the replacements were sold out.  I sold the unit, and enjoy the phono stage in my integrated.    
Elevating the voltage and riaa correction can be well designed with Evan an ic. 

High quality tubed phono stages are not remotely noisy and are exceptionally musical. I have used tubed phono stages (Audio Research) for the last thirty years. I would listen to a solid state contender, but my experience has show that only good quality tubed preamps and phono stages rise above the competition. 

The more high quality tubed equipment I have incorporated in my system the more realistic, compelling my system has sounded, without a loss of detail. You can see a couple of my system under my UserID. I have owned and auditioned hundreds of pieces over the last fifty years.

I haven’t heard these but personally wouldn’t use tubes in a phono pre-amp as a pre-requisite as the risk of extra noise is considerable. Instead, use tubes in your main pre-amp and roll those as you like. This will keep system noice quiter and provide consistency across phono and DAC in the main system.

I left my tube phone pre--amp (Project DS Tube - just above entry level)

You need to venture beyond entry level before making such pronouncements.  My Herron VTPH-2A tubed phono stage is dead quiet.

I have struggled with noisy phono preamps when it comes to MC carts.

I recently purchased a Hagerman Trumpet MC. It is outstanding for a little bit over $1000 ($1090 I think).

Can’t afford or find a Heron VTPH-2A? The Hagerman, I’m hearing, can more than hang with this great phono preamp.

Main drawback is that it isn’t so flexible with MM but if you’re committed to MC carts, give this a try. Very quiet, organic and beautiful sounding no negative feedback design.


Yep, the Hagerman is crazy good for the money. I think it can hang with the Herron too. It does have a little bit more noise floor, and a warmer sound. The Herron is more neutral. But I love that lush sound quality about it. I've used it on my girlfriend's Fluance RT85, which it elevates to beyond what I though it was capable of. And I've used it for fun in my main rig, where I usually run vastly more expensive (15x more) phono stages. It's such musical and fun sound it never gives me a reason to "yank it out"! Even the accessories in the big 2ch rig cost more than the Trumpet MC lol. I don't normally like budget pieces or "giant killers" but I like that one. 

The Herron VTPH-2A is a special phono preamp.  I found nothing less than twice it's price that could compare, and to me it wasn't worth spending 10K+ to try and chase something that might be marginally better.  It totally changes the diminishing returns equation.

The problem will be finding one.  The rare times they do come up on the used market, they sell in a day or two max.  That alone should tell you something.

A VTPH-2A appeared on USAM a day or two ago at a price of $2900, and sold in a matter of hours. Guess whose it was? Hint: his location was listed as a city in northern Washington State. ;-)

I have owned an Aesthetix Rhea Signature, Aesthetix IO Signature and an ARC SP-10 mkll among others.  I currently use a Herron VTPH-2A.  I will preface my comments by stating that I think any of these could sound “the best” depending on ancillary equipment- System Synergy is really critical.  That said, I thought the IO had the largest soundstage and organic live quality that I like.  However, I just couldn’t keep it quiet with my .2mv cartridge.  So in came the Herron which was pretty close but dead quiet.  I then took a step that, I feel, puts the Herron on par and may even surpass the IO. In addition to tube rolling, I purchased a ZYX CPP-1 pre-preamp and then used the MM section of the Herron.  In my system, a hearty step forward on an already fine phono amp.

Per Mike recommendation, aka @mulveling I rolled some Mazda France production silver / Mica tubes into the front end of the Herron….it’s better but it’s no ARC Reference, nor should it be. Keith does an amazing job with the stock tubes. I hope he can find a way to license production to another respected audio firm so this great design and very well executed product can live on. 


@koetsu13 I certainly think that is an avenue worth exploring, the MM input on the Herron bypass the FET front end ( i will ask Keith ). One of my Winter projects is to tune up my venerable Roger Modjeski RM-4 pre preamp….might have to put that between Delos and Herron for grins….

thanks for lighting a fire



Hi Jim-

yea, I believe it bypasses the Herron’s fet stage.  The zyx is battery driven which helps on positioning with noise/ hum.  I’m also going to A/B a Klyne pre-pre in front of the Herron  to see how that impacts the tone. Never heard an RGR preamp, although I still have some of Roger’s RAM tubes.  Best of luck.

Yes, I do have some knowledge, experience on the subject.  While not the lowest output MC cartridge, .48 mV output is pretty low, and the likelihood hood of hiss will creep into your listening pleasure.  I use cartridges typically around .2 mV and there is no quiet tube phono stage out there, period.  If the hiss doesn't bother you, fine.  But I don't hear any advantage of a tube preamp over a solid-state phono.  For the most part, a solid-state phono preamp will be operating in the most linear part of the output of a transistor; class A if you will, and dead quiet.  Makes for more detail, a clearer soundstage, all the audiophile buzz words that could apply to better sound.  

I have had a Linn Linto in my system for the last 15 years. Loved it. But always wondered if tubes could add more midrange warmth and give those saxes more body and real world sexiness.following the reviews of @mulveling I ventured forth with the Hagerman Trumpet MC a year ago. After 3 weeks it went back as it made music as sweet and musical as my linto but was only marginally different and certainly the midrange was not improved.

One year later a friend of a friend brought a modified EAR834p into my system and WOW! all my dreams were answered. Saxes were sexy. I heard deeper into the grand piano and Tom Waits was in my living room. I found a Scott Frankland modded EAR834p with Telefunken tubes and I can't imagine changing this. The only thing I'm trying now is SUT's. An Ortofon ST-7 was not an improvement so I wait for a SKY 20 to see what that brings.

Amazing that a design as old as an EAR834 can deliver so powerfully!