My analog journey - time for a new phono stage or?

With help from members of the forum, several years ago I upgraded the cartridge on my then primary turntable. A year later I purchased a Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono stage after demoing it at my house against a comparably priced Soundsmith unit. Last year I took the plunge and purchased from Upscale Audio a Rega P6 with a Sumiko Songbird low output MC cartridge. I purchased after demoing a Clearaudio Concept and the Rega locally, deciding Upscale was more knowledgeable than that dealer.

My virtual system can be viewed for all the details, but key components are the downstream Ayre Acoustics K-5xe preamplifier, Proceed HPA-2 amplifier and Aerial Acoustics Model 8b speakers. 

My issue is that I find that while the new turntable and cartridge definitely improved the detail/clarity of the sound reproduction, both the low and high ends seems to be missing complete extension and the soundstage is rather two dimensional, although instrument and vocalist placement and separation are very good and there is a seemingly clean background with no noticeable noise. I make these judgements compared to my digital front end, listening to the same albums/tracks on both. I don't necessarily expect to match the sonics of my digital gear, as I realize analog can be far more costly. FYI, I listen primarily to classical and jazz, some vintage rock, but typically acoustic music. My wife and I both play musical instruments and we attend live concerts, so we have a good handle on how instruments, bands, orchestras should sound and realize it is a fool's errand to seek to match the live performance.

I've read several threads on this forum and a number of review articles. A better phono stage may be an answer, emphasis on may. I experimented with loading and found the 121 or 150 ohm settings on my current phono stage work best. Below that and I lose high frequency detail. Above that and I end up with unacceptable sibilance on some recordings. FYI, the cartridge manufacturer calls for loading of >100 ohms, so my findings make sense. As a sidebar, I have come to realize how variable the quality of recordings and pressings are. The better TT and cartridge only emphasized this. 

So looking for more extension, deeper soundstage and a fuller, more natural sound lead me to a preliminary list of phono stages, with the goal of keeping within a budget of $2,500 or less. (I am agnostic as to solid state vs. tubes and will consider used gear from a good dealer or individual with happy customers.)

Pass XP-15

Whest Two.two or higher end model 

PS Audio Stellar Phono

Parasound JC Jr. or JC+

Allnic Audio H-1201

Aesthetix Rhea or Rhea Signature

Rogue Ares or Ares Magnum

Manley Labs Chinook - Upscale Audio's favorite around my budget

The list is long because there are thankfully many seemingly suitable options. I am open to others that would meet my goals and budget. I am hoping to hear from those of you who have auditioned or owned one or more of the above.

A few technical questions:

I have been sensitized to the need to match phono stage output to my pre-amplifier's input. One article I read suggested a rule of thumb that the input impedance of the pre-amp should be at least 10X the output impedance of the source. Is this accurate? FYI, my pre-amp has an input impedance of 20k Ohms on the unbalanced and 40k Ohms on the balanced inputs. So if the rule of thumb were correct, I need a phono stage with an output impedance of 1,000-2,000 Ohms or less.

The pre-amp, amp, my DAC and CD player are all balanced. While the Rega TT dos not have balanced outputs, I noticed that many of the phono stages have them. Is there a benefit to using the balanced outputs from the phono stage e.g. lower noise and greater gain?

Last question is whether my cartridge or cables from phono stage to pre-amp are a potential cause of the limitations I'm hearing. The cables are Transparent Music Link Plus 1.5m. I presume a more costly cartridge, particularly one with a line contact stylus could make a difference.

Where to invest the dollars??? Thanks for reading this long, detailed post.




If I were going to go back before I built my present system, which is only one year ago, I would have sold my record collection and put money into the digital end. My analog sounds great to my ears. For most of my listening where I have the record, the analog delivers a bit more in every way, but I’ve put way more money into the analog. If my digital already sounded better than my analog and I wasn’t going for a $40K analog expenditure, I would just sell my analog equipment and records and invest in the digital. You are free to ignore my opinion and the fact that I still sometimes shoot film cameras makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

I heard the Manleys at my audio local store, and they were stunning. I also love the design (that you don't care about)

I read Southerland reviews, never heard them. 

Right at your budget is the Sutherland 20/20 with the PSU.

Works great for me with Hana ML at loading of 100, gain 64.

@vonhelmholtz Your admission of hypocrisy is refreshing and I did laugh. The reasons for maintaining an analog front end are three - I own about 300-400 LPs, some my Dad's dating back to the early days of LPs. Second, some of the things I have on LP are not available in digital format because of their age, but the performances are excellent, some of them classics. This is especially true of old classical recordings by artists long gone. Finally, I'm not expecting my analog rig to match the quality of my already quite good digital front end. I'm just looking to make what I view as a modest improvement, and based on my reading and limited auditioning a quality phono stage may provide that improvement. As the saying goes, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Not looking for perfect, just better, which based on hearing some gear at dealers, is reasonably possible.

@grislybutter Thx for the response and the tongue in cheek about my lack of concern regarding aesthetics. What about the Manley units was stunning? Can you be more specific about the sound signature? And what TT/cartridge was delivering the signal to the Manleys, if you can recall? Which model(s) of the Manleys did you hear? Chinook? Steelhead, which is way out of my budget? Thx in advance for your response.

I appreciate all the input, particularly from people who own or have auditioned the gear on my list. As you well know getting to dealers who carry this stuff is very difficult, much less getting units to try at home with my gear and in my listening room.

@sameyers1 so I have zero feelings/critique against audiophiles who don’t care about design. In fact you have probably more options since many great sounding brands are not about the design. My sense is that design is representative of culture and culture affects sound. For this reason, I am most comfortable with brands between boutique and mainstream - they have a mix of quality and design (and reliability/track record/customer service)
It’s kind of like going on a date, it could be the most charming and beautiful lady, if she is wearing a trash bag, you may be into it.

I heard the Chinook and the Jumbo Shrimp. Forgot the amp. Switching between a Rega P2 and a MoFi TT.