Valve phono stage

I’m considering switching to valves for my phono stage... can any of you guys recommend any with balanced outs for around $3800?

Current phono stage is Whest PS.30RDT.

I’m currently using a Roksan Xerxes 20Plus with Origin Live Encounter arm & upgraded Lyra Skala.

Or would I reap great rewards from an arm upgrade...?


Do you want balanced inputs as well?
Phono cartridges are a balanced source...
I think you are lookin’ for a needle in a hay stack. You be best off getting a tube phono with unbalanced connections !
The issue is balanced outputs.  There are some spectacular performing phono stages that are single ended.  My personal experienced opinion is that the Herron Audio VTPH-2a cannot be bettered at any price, but it has only single-ended outputs.  It fits your price target.  It fits your desire to use tubes.  It works very nicely with Lyra carts.  It is very flexible.  It comes with Keith Herron's unmatched customer service.

But you need balanced outputs.  
If you can find one, the Modwright SWP 9.0 SE phono stage is what I've been using for many years now. My purchase price (used) was $1650. I'll never need or want better.


Thanks for your replies. 

@yogiboy  I have considered this!

@bpoletti I've already contacted Keith inquiring about his VTPH-2A. This is a serious contender...

@islandmandan I'll have a look at that. 

Valve preamplifiers with true balanced outputs are in short supply. Certainly some of the best ones are made by atma-sphere. If you go that route you also have the benefit of true balanced phono inputs, which gives you all the benefits of balanced operation.Atmosphere preamplifiers are also full function preamplifiers, so you get a line stage for free and the bargain. I own an MP1 myself and I have been very happy with it for more than a decade. In fact more than 20 years.
I would not say that Herron’s customer service is “unmatched”. Atmasphere’s customer service is equally as stellar. And there are many users who would agree with this sentiment. With true balance inputs and true balanced outputs. The only other balanced phono stage that uses tubes for gain that I can think of is the Einstein, and then you need to buy two SE modules to achieve the balanced configuration. Aesthetix Io may also have balanced out. But I am not certain that the circuit itself is balanced.
Allnic h-3000 has balanced output. I don’t know if it is a true balance or it is there just for convenience.
@donvito101 - thanks but Upscale do not ship tube components outside the U.S. Although I have contacted a Manley dealer in NY who does...

@lewm - I appreciate your suggestion but I want a dedicated PS.

@dangcaonguyen - the problem is it's nearly $9k 
Call Kevin at K+K audio.  This is one sharp, honest guy.  This is a guy who can discuss the balanced issue and to the sound of the caps resistors tubes etc...

You will not get Marketing hype and maybe the best deal on a musical phono stage.

Keep the arm the phono stage is alot more important.  Tubes are a great way to get real sounding music in your home.

Enjoy the ride
Infection, **If** the balanced inputs of your fully balanced Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE Stage 2 preamp provide significantly better sonics than its unbalanced inputs (and I doubt that anyone not having experience with that particular design can do more than speculate about that), and if you want to consider the Herron or some other phono stage providing only unbalanced outputs, you may want to consider the possibility of converting those unbalanced outputs to a true balanced pair of signals using a Jensen transformer.

Although I have not used Jensen transformers myself, based on a number of experiences with them that have been reported here by highly experienced audiophiles my impression is that they are quite good. And for that matter, the excellent Allnic phono stage that was suggested earlier uses a transformer to drive its outputs, although it apparently has a fully balanced internal signal path and provides a lower output impedance than the Herron would in combination with a transformer. (The output impedance difference would most likely not matter in your case, though, given the 60K input impedance of your preamp, and assuming that interconnect lengths would not be particularly long).

The Jensen PI-2RX listed on this page ($250) would be a suitable transformer, IMO. An additional benefit it would provide is that it would eliminate the possibility of any ground loop issues between the phono stage and the preamp.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al
Forget the above. Buy a Precision Fidelity C7. A great cascode tube phono stage with level controls and source selection designed by Bruce Moore (Paragon, MFA, Audible Illusions). Available on the used market for around $500!
I’m too am looking specifically for a phono pre with a proper balanced output for use with a *differential* bipolar headphone amp/pre-amp. I have the digital end covered with a fully internally balanced R-2R ladder DAC that has a wonderful output stage. Now it’s time for my turntable to get the same treatment.

Note: I have listened to many sources both balanced and single ended with this particular bipolar head/pre and the ones that provide the true differential balanced signal sound like absolute magic. The SE ones converted to “balanced”, not so much.

I’m not as married to tubes, but prefer them as early as possible in the signal path when looking for that sound signature. So I’m eagerly watching the results of this thread!
You might consider the LUXMAN EQ-500. A beautiful piece of engineering and valve to boot for a lovely sound.
Dear Infection, I saw your response to me, which I assume relates to my recommendation of an Atma-sphere full function preamplifier, like the MP1 or the MP3 (for much less money) or their third option, for even less money.  You say you want a "dedicated PS".  I am not sure what that even means in this context.  All the Atma-sphere preamplifiers have dedicated PSs.  The MP1 PS is a separate outboard box connected to the audio chassis by an umbilical, if that's what you mean you want.  Otherwise, I think the other units are one-box types with built-in PSs.

It's interesting to me that each of us has his or her own favored products, and, by George, those products will inevitably be recommended, regardless of what the OP says he wants or needs.  The Herron lovers will always come forward when the words "phono stage" are written into the OP.  Great though it may be, it is not balanced.  I do also agree that Jensen transformers are excellent on any level, even though they are realistically priced.  And the guys who build them in SoCal are very smart.
@lewm Have you ever had any dealings with Keith Herron?  Ever owned Herron Audio equipment?  Just curious.
@tomwh - thanks but they're not offering the Maxxed Out although the site states they're working on something superior. 

@almarg - thanks not considered one of them...interesting option. 

@amg56- it's too expensive; as I mentioned my budget is $3800

@lewm - by PS i mean phono stage! I did think it could be misconstrued for power supply. 

I'm certainly considering the Manley Chinook with upgraded valves from Doug's Tubes in NY & the Herron VTPH-2A.
Additionally I'm very interested to see what K+K Audio have to offer...

You cannot do better than a Herron at your price range. Actually I am not certain you can do better up to $10,000. His equipment is simply outstanding. I would find a way for the Herron to work with your system.
K&K makes a great phono stage which can be custom built for your needs.

A used Aesthetix Rhea is in your price range if you shop and has balanced outputs as well as three inputs.
+1 for the Aesthetix Rhea. Very versatile, fully balanced outputs, many impedance and gain selections and has a built in demagnetizer for MC cartridges.  I absolutely love mine.  

@browndt - it is of consideration...

@jperry - thanks for the suggestion. After a bit of research I have included it in my shortlist!

@richopp - as I mentioned Upscale will not ship valve components outside the US.

It looks like I may be able to get a Rhea for $3300...or less...

Another vote for the Herron.  I bought a pre-loved VTPH-1a MC from Keith.  I loved it so much I sold all my gear and went to a  Herron VTSP-3a and the Herron M-1a monos.  I also had money left over which helped pay the tax man.  
Infection, Sorry for the misunderstanding, but "PS" is most commonly used as an abbreviation for Power Supply.  Since you've apparently relaxed your yen for balanced outputs, all the other phono stages mentioned are superb. In my second system, I use a Manley Steelhead, the big brother to the Chinook.  I like it very much.

I once looked long and hard at the K&K preamp (which is also full function but can be used as a phono stage, like the Atma-sphere units), because I wanted a balanced circuit and I like building stuff.  (You can buy it as a very flexible "kit".) It has a good reputation, but I've never heard one. But if you choose among Herron, Manley Chinook, and Aesthetix Rhea Signature (see below), you cannot go "wrong". 

I briefly owned an Aesthetix Janus, their version of a full function preamplifier that contains, essentially, the Rhea phono stage inside. From that experience, I strongly recommend that you look at the Signature version of the Rhea, not the less expensive non-Sig version.  The capacitors of the non-Sig Janus were of a quality level not commensurate with what that circuit can do.  (Dare I say they are crappy?) Upgrading the capacitors in the non-Sig Janus resulted in a huge improvement in sound, really improved it from unacceptable in my opinion, to very good.  The Signature versions of both the Janus and the Rhea come already done with much better capacitors, among other improvements to the non-Sig versions.
I appreciate your suggestion but I want a dedicated PS.

FWIW, an outboard phono section has some problems to overcome. The main one is connectivity- if you have ever had to audition interconnect cables then you know what I'm talking about.
When the phono section is hard wired into the preamp this problem is avoided. In addition the input and output impedances are controlled- so the phono section can perform as the designer intended.
Not considered that... would you say I should?

Since the cartridge is a balanced source, the advantage of having a balanced input is once again that of the connection- balanced lines exist for the sole purpose of minimizing sonic artifacts that can otherwise occur in the cable. Again, if you've ever had to audition cables you know what I'm talking about.
This should be a boon to audiophiles- it means that an inexpensive cable can perform as well as the most expensive cost no object!
Since all low output moving coil cartridges have a very low impedance, the result can be that you don't have to have an expensive cable to make it work in your system and have the tone are cable be absolutely transparent- which is the most important place for transparency to happen- no matter how good your gear is, it can't make up downstream for losses upstream!

So there is a pretty potent argument for running a balanced input, otherwise you are leaving performance on the table.
@steveyork - what was your previous equipment?

@lewm - thanks for the info... I'd like to hear the Steelhead.

@atmasphere - so why do top phono stage designers use RCA inputs?
Infection.  My previous gear included an ARC LS-27 preamp; VTL TP 2.0 II phono stage; and VTL ST 150 amp.  

I’m extremely happy with my Herron set up.  Somewhat reminds me of my Naim set up from 10 years ago with a tube flair.  
Infection,  You asked Atma-sphere why "top" phono stage designers use RCA inputs.  Here's a list of reasons:
(1) It's been the industry standard for so long that nearly all tonearm cables are built for SE inputs, and "top" designers do not want to scare away any would-be customers for their megabuck products by offering XLR inputs, regardless of whether the internal circuit is balanced or not. Conversely, cable makers seem to shy away from creating true balanced phono cables with XLR termination, again because buyers are used to RCAs and because of the above, there are few phono stages that fully benefit from a balanced cable. (Although it's a good idea to use a balanced cable, even if you do terminate it with a male RCA plug, so that ground is carried on a conductor exactly like the "hot" signal conductor.)
(2) It's much more expensive to build a balanced phono circuit than it is to build an SE one, nearly twice the parts count.
(3) There is a legitimate debate as regards the advantages of a balanced phono circuit over an SE one, and some designers honestly stand by the SE type.  But anyone WILL tell you that a phono cartridge (with some oddball exceptions where the two grounds are common) offers a balanced output.  I can tell you from my years with the MP1; I NEVER have hum or noise problems with any cartridge.
(4) It's not quite true that all "top" designers used SE phono circuits.  If you want to bring solid state devices into the discussion, there are a few very expensive SS designs that are balanced; most significant are those from Nelson Pass, who I consider tops among SS designers.  We've also named some other tube phono stages that are balanced; they are not to be sneezed at either.  (I can add to the list the late Allen Wright whose all out tube phono stage, the RTP3C, is balanced input to output.)

So, for balanced tubes, we have Atma-sphere, Allnic, Aesthetix, Allen Wright, K&K, Einstein, and I am sure others.
so why do top phono stage designers use RCA inputs?
I’ll give that a shot, pending Ralph’s response.

Turntables came into being before low output moving coil cartridges became popular among audiophiles, and perhaps before any even existed. Moving magnet and other high output cartridges have much higher impedances than LOMCs, and consequently will exhibit cable sensitivity even if the interconnection is balanced. For example, as you are probably aware manufacturers of moving magnet cartridges typically provide a recommended range of load capacitance, to which the cable is usually a major contributor.

Also, when turntables came into being RCA connectors and unbalanced interconnections had become the norm on consumer electronics equipment, for a variety of reasons. So putting XLR connectors on turntables and/or phono stages or preamps would have resulted in a non-standard interface that would have ruled out the use of the RCA-to-RCA cables most people had. The additional physical space required by XLR connectors might also have been problematical in the design of some turntables and/or phono stages or preamps.

So for various reasons a tradition arose in the early days of LP playback, and traditions are often self-reinforcing.

-- Al

Edit: This was composed before I saw Lew’s well stated response above.
What does anyone think about the Tavish Design Adagio tube phono stage?  $1790.
A few years ago  people raved about the 22 tubed NVO. Might be worth looking into.
The Tavish is awesome is as good as the LKV 2SB I compared it to,  very neutral I sent it back I wanted something more tubey if you will. I have the Rogue Ares Magnum which is very good also uses 12ax7 with 12au7 tubes excellent dynamics, warmth and sound stage
@lewm - thank you, appreciate your explanation. 

@almarg - & thanks also, informative. 

Keith told me -

 "A good fully shielded RCA to RCA interconnect from the turntable can give great sound with no hum and noise. It is the quality of the electronics makes a huge difference in the sound."

@rsf507 - funny you should mention that as a dealer offered me a used one!

The rogue ares magnum is excellent and if you can pick one up on the used 😀
What about a BAT VK-P6, standard or SE. It uses tubes, and has balanced outputs. I picked up a VK-51 preamp recently, and am stunned by it.
I bought a used Aesthetix Io mk2 for about $3800 years ago, and later upgraded. To my ears it sounds better than e g the Steelhead, ARC PH6 and others I've heard. Especially after I upgraded to dual power supplies and partial eclipse status. You have to accept some tube noise, but with the latest quiet stock tubes recommended by Aesthetix it runs more quiet than before and it is not much of a problem with a cartridge giving 0.3 or more mV output. The main issue is to get ultra-quiet tubes in the very demanding first gain stage. Maybe, it can tackle 0.2 SL types of carts also. A step-up transformer is not recommended. It only has MC inputs (one XLR, one RCA). It is not fully balanced, but the balanced output is clearly better than the single ended output. So to get the best of it, you need a balanced preamp (and - ideally - amp).  Regarding the input, from the cartridge, Aesthetix tells me opinions vary, but often, customers prefer single-ended (RCA) input. I use a DIN-RCA Kimber KCAG cable, and have never had hum problems. If you go the Io route, eventually starting with a Rhea, I don't think you'll regret it. But be prepared, this is a "purist" solution.
Amen to the BAT. I have the VK-P6SE and it is fully balanced all the way through, except for RCA inputs. You can hang some XLRs on the input to be converted to RCA at the chassis. BAT knows balanced, it’s their name. I don’t think anybody else takes "Balanced" more seriously. And the tube sound is as sweet and soft as cotton candy.
oholter, you have an advantage on me, because you have owned and aesthetics Io and I have not. However everything I can find on the Internet about it suggests that the phono circuit is balanced, contrary to what you say above. Do you know differently?
i know you wanted balanced but If you don't mind going single ended Tom Tutay can Build you a Tube Phono Preamp for less than your budget.

@o_holter  - thanks. I've decided against the Rhea now...

@steveyork - yeah I saw that, thanks. I'm still deciding what to choose...

@mds  -  I've never heard of him... do you have a link to his site?
@lewm Take a very close look at phono cart signal generators. Doesn’t matter if the cart is MI, MM or MC. They are NOT balanced, they are single-ended with a + and - pole. One strand of wire that runs from the hot side of the connector to the ground side. No neutral.

... Take a very close look at phono cart signal generators. Doesn’t matter if the cart is MI, MM or MC. They are NOT balanced, they are single-ended with a + and - pole ...
Huh? A stereo phono cartridge is inherently balanced; there is a separate hot and ground for each channel.
so why do top phono stage designers use RCA inputs?
Tradition- rather than performance.
Take a very close look at phono cart signal generators. Doesn’t matter if the cart is MI, MM or MC. They are NOT balanced, they are single-ended with a + and - pole. One strand of wire that runs from the hot side of the connector to the ground side. No neutral.
This statement is false.
bpoletti, it seems to me that your misunderstanding is the idea that in balanced operation there has to be a ’neutral’ connection- like a center tap on a transformer or the like. IOW, are you expecting that if a cartridge is balanced, it would have six connections? It really doesn’t work that way! How it *does* work is that the winding of the cartridge floats with respect to ground, IOW neither side is tied to ground, instead the arm tube is the ground (its a shield) and other than shielding, the arm tube is not involved with the signal in any way. That is how a balanced system is supposed to work.

If there was a center tap on the cartridge winding, and if it were tied to ground, performance would be reduced because the center tap could never be perfectly placed. That is why balanced systems don't have a center tap- the coil always floats whether its a cartridge, microphone or transformer.

When you run the cartridge single ended, you wind up with the weird ground wire that no other single-ended source seems to need. That is because you are taking a balanced source and running it single ended- and you wind up with a ground wire.

So when we run the cartridge signal into our MP-1 (which in 1989 was the world’s first balanced line preamp), the tone arm ground wire is tied to pin 1 of the XLR, which is ground. The ’+’ output of the cartridge is tied to pin 2 and the minus to pin 3 (pin 2 being either the red or white wire of the tone arm, depending on which channel). This is why a 5-pin DIN tone arm connector is a true balanced connection, since neither channel is tied to the ground and the ground is thus the shield of the interconnect cable.

The advantage of this system is you simply don’t have to have an expensive cable to get it to sound right, a low capacitance cable that is constructed properly is all that is needed, and it will easily keep up with any exotic tone arm cable made, cost no object. Its a pretty clear (if you will pardon the expression) advantage.

Dear @infection: No single tube audio item ( everything the same ) can compete with SS designs as your Whest in some critical issues when we are talking of LOMC cartridges: noise levels, distortions levels, frequency response bandwindth, RIAA eq. deviation levels, output impedance level, etc etc.

I think that a better way to go for you for less money is to buy a Lyra Kleos that's is superior to your Scala and comes with the same main design motor than the Atlas/Etna that the Scala has not.

What and why do you are not satisfied with the Whest? it's the Whest the culprit you are not satisfied or other audio items in your audio system chain?

Don't make the same " mistakes " that all those gentlemans that here recomend this or that tube phono stage because is the WORST place to use a single tube.

Regards and enjoy the MUSIC NOT DISTORTIONS,
@infection: You can choose for the Kleos SL that's even better than the Kleos, your Whest can handle its lower output with no problem.