Vinyl System Upgrade Path Recommendations

Hey gang! New to the forum but I’ve been really enjoying reading through old threads. I would be interested in the community’s thoughts on a natural upgrade path for my system.

Current System:

  • Pioneer PL-530 w/ Audio Technica AT 13 Ea
  • Apt Holman Preamplifier
  • Eico ST-70 (using as a power amp, line in)
  • Totem Arros

I listen to a wide variety of genres but with an emphasis on jazz and more recently classical. Overall the system performs well. I’m getting a good warmth for my taste and decent detail.

Moving forward I’d like to pull a little more clarity and separation out, but not create a clinical reproduction. I do dig the warmer sound. I’m also interested in trying to reduce background noise and pops/clicks. I’m already big on cleaning my LPs which has helped a ton, but I’m curious where to invest next.

I’ve also started listing more on headphones (Schiit Jotunheim + Hifiman HE400i) where I notice even more background noise.

So what do think? Better stylus / cartridge? Different TT? Alternative phono stage? Cables… ?

I try to be conservative with my spend (everything I own was purchased used), but I’m not afraid to shell out where appropriate.

Any suggestions? Thanks!

You don't mention your LP cleaning method. Without getting into what equipment you should/could upgrade (there's an endless list of what's available, for me, it's impossible to arrive at the just-right combination for you).

My recommendation is to avail yourself to an ultrasonic RCM. That will allow you to better enjoy what you have now, with quieter surfaces in playback. I built my own, for under $200. Google bbTX's DIY design on DIY Audio. Once you're listening to clean records, you'll better know how you stand. It won't make for silent surfaces, but you will notice a significant improvement.

I would suggest going to a few live concerts of the music you like to listen to.....if you can determine how important  sound that sounds like the concert........enlarge your sound budget if you think the effort is worth it.

I would say other then clean records your next step may be a better cart, the AT isn't bad for a starter cart (sub $100) but moving up to a better fixed styli's cart will open up your musical enjoyment, also try to find a tip profile that like a mico line, shibata etc will give you more detail but ellipticals are not bad either.  there is some very good AT carts that wont hurt your budget if your enjoying the AT sound. Then of course there is a huge amount of good carts for the budget minded audiophile. I'd look in the $150-$500 range as there is some very good MM carts in there that will be a huge step up from your cart. if you have a MC stage maybe an entry level MC cart but min there would be something like the Denon DL 301 at $250 new. I'd probably stick with MM for now until / unless you wanted to try a high output MC as I believe your pre has some loading selections not 100% sure there though.

thinking MM carts like the Otofon blue's, red's and bronzs. AT OC 9's very good cart for the money. there are so many I'd go on a site like needledoctor and take a look and then google search for reviews.

Agree with good record hygiene. Another thing to look at would be the Apt Holman's phono stage. While certainly good in it's day, I would believe a bit better outboard phono stage would be in order. IMO.
I believe in reducing the noise from your AC line before adding upgrades to your analogue.
   Are you using any power conditioning? Lowering the noise from your mains will help reveal more detail in your music.

And yes, get a record cleaner. This will result in lower noise and more detail from each record.

@islandmandan  - thanks for your note. You make a good point that to really know where there's room for improvements ruling out the media is a great first step. I use the groovewasher system on a daily basis and the Spin-Clean for more problematic LPs. 

@glennewdick - yeah, I've been interested in trying a new cart to see how it alters the sound, @Otofon blue has been recommended numerous times as a quilty, but not crazy spendy, option. s

@mr_m  - seems like an outboard phono stage would also be fun to mess around with. I've been shopping those as well from the very direct Rega Phono Mini or Schiit Mani, to more complex and configurable things like the Puffin Phono DSP. 

@lowrider57 - I don't know anything about power conditioning. I'll have to get up to speed on that. 
It’s time to replace that 40 year old cartridge. Are you using the original stylus?
@yogiboy - I believe it was swapped by the original owner, but not sure how much time it's done. That's a few votes for a cart upgrade. 
You should start with the stylus replacement. The stylus life on cartridges is at most about one to two thousand hours! Here ya go!

I think honestly power conditioning as lowrider mentions is not going to be your best budget spending option and you should really focus on the bigger improvements for your system at the level you are now. before spending $1000's on power conditioning. mind you, you should have some basic filter and surge protection. but that's easily done for under $100.

 you'd have to invest $500 and up to get into vacuum / sonic cleaner and still need to buy the towels or vacuum (if sonic) to dry them after. the spin clean is actually very good start I use one myself for quick cleaning.

really you have a $89 cart that's your weakest point IMO then phono stage and pre-power. A better cart will track better, give you more detail give you better pop and tick smoothing and better over all musicality.

 I recently looked for a temporary phono stage in the $500 range and found the ifi iphono2 to be one of the best for the money, good place to start looking anyway $499ish. if your thinking of replacing your pre-power then don't spend the money on a separate phono stage now and get one built in to the preamp- integrated- etc.

I mean we can talk room treatments, power conditioning, etc. but you need to work on the basics first then move into the finer details as experience and funds come available. That said there are a few room treatment things you can do for next to no money. for headphones room treatment is a non issue of course unless you can treat your ear canals but I digress.

@glennewdick - Great feedback! Really appreciate the guidance and prioritization. The dollars per result tradeoffs are tricky (and I'm sure personal taste factors in), but your points are well taken. 

I'll probably start with cart, seems like one of the more obvious weak links. The phono stage in the Apt Holman seems to be well regarded by some and certainly made a huge improvement over the integrated one in my Eico, but I'm very curious to hear what an alternative sounds like. 

Better cleaning equipment and basic power management after that. Down the line, new TT, amp, speaker, cables, etc. ;) Rinse and repete. 
Start with improving your source. I would dump your front end altogether. If you don’t, noise and clicks and pops will always be an issue.
@noromance - by *Front End* I'm guessing you mean the TT as a whole? Or is the phono stage included in that?

I don't want to throw good money after bad buying fancy carts for a problematic TT, but I'm also not sure I'm ready to upgrade it (which I'm guessing would still have me purchasing a new cart as well?).

Other folks I've talked to have said that even an entry level pro-ject, u-turn, or rega would run circles around my old Pioneer but I'm somewhat skeptical since my previous table was a modern Audio-Technica AT-LP120 (I know, I know, not the same class) and my vintage Pioneer outperforms that thing on every level. 
+1 yogiboy
Replace that old worn stylus. You will be surprised with the improvement a new stylus will make. BTW, you will damage your vinyl with a damaged stylus!

You have a budget system, nothing wrong with that. Other owners of the Pioneer seem to like this TT so keep it for now and upgrade the cartridge/stylus. Definitely the first move to make.

Here's a good place to familiarise yourself with cartridges from entry-level to high-end...

If you don’t want to spend too much, look at an Ortofon Red at $100.00. 
@designtaylor A Nagaoka MP110 would be suitable especially as it is kinder with noisy vinyl.
On the front end question, yes a new table/arm like a Pioneer PLX1000 with a Nagaoka or Ortofon 2M Blue would be a good place to start.
I’d go with the Nagaoka MP110 then see where you’re at. That will probably be enough. If not, check back.
The Audio-Technica VM540ML at around $240 made a world of difference with my vintage Technics SL-1700mk2 that I recently restored. The micro-line contact nude mount stylus has class-leading wear rating that doubles most elliptical profiles, while bringing the music to life on a whole new level. 
@noromance @stereo5 @kommanderkurt - thanks for the advice guys! I'll take a look at the Ortofon and Nagaoka stuff. 

Does anyone else have experience with the Apt Holman Preamp? The improvement I got from the built-in photo stage over the one in my Eico was great but the mid tones (vocals especially) still seem muddy. I'm thinking it might be worth trying an external phono stage to see of there is a difference. Maybe it's better to start a new thread on that topic specificly. 
I also have a Pioneer PL-530 table. Bought it in the 70's new and haven't had the choice or finances to upgrade to something "much" better. Besides whatever treatments and cleaning you do to your records there are a couple of things you should consider about the Pioneer.....
First...have you investigated whether the tonearm support may have cracked due to age? This is a common problem for this table.
Is your current cartridge set up correctly? That is, other than using the crude overhang gauge that came with the table and other mounting parameters. When I first bought the table I used the supplied AT cartridge and was satisfied with the performance for a long time. I have tried a few different cartridges over the years with different results. Whatever cartridge you decide on is your choice. Tryouts for those is mostly limited.
One thing to remember if you buy a new cartridge is to set the correct tracking weight in accordance to the specified value.....This is a direct drive turntable. The most sensible thing to do is to set all the weight values to zero, set the tonearm so it is level, and then dial in the tracking weight. This is correct except for one step.....the auto mechanism must be eliminated to perform this correctly. There is an online manual that explains how to do that.
My Pioneer currently uses a Grado Gold cartridge. I feed it into a Graham Slee phono stage. I am happy with the sound. Your Pioneer is a good table. Sure, there are many more out there that perform better and with more expensive cartridges. But, it is a good table. Stay with it if you're happy.

@jrpnde - thanks for the notes! That's awesome that you've owned your PL350 since new! I did see some notes about the weak tonearm before picking mine up so I checked and it's all good. The table was serviced by a local shop (Austin Stereo) before I snagged it but probably worth double checking the cart set up. I mean overall the system sounds good, I'm just looking for great, on a budget. 

Have you tried other phono stages? How would you describe the sound of the Grahm Slee?  
+2 on the Nagaoka MP110. Great cartridge and value, very smooth and balanced. I have that one plus the MP150 and MP200. All are superb.
Thanks @stevecham the Nagaoka will be high on my list. At that price point it and with all the positive reviews I've read it seems like a nobrainer. 
Also very important... religiously clean your stylus per your cartridge manufacturers recommendation. Long story short, I ran out of mine and started using distilled water, which was not up to the task. I tried many time consuming and expensive things to get my sound quality back, all because of a little bottle of fluid. Sigh...

You reaped A Lot of good suggestions, advice and recommendations.

You sound Happy with your system. No need to go down the  "Rabbit Hole"

Take your time before your make this Leap. SOURCE is # 1.

Source means records. Take care of your source.

DIY ultrasonic record cleaner for $200.00 is a steal, your best buy and investment. Will make your source the best it can be. Look up Rushton's thread on cleaning. Develop Your regime and USE IT. Make it a Habit.

First upgrade; A  cartridge compatible with your TT and tonearm. Visit dealers and audio shows. It is impossible to get cartridge auditions. You will need to satisfy your self with a House Sound for now. Any of the brand names in your price range will do.

Preparing yourself for REAL Upgrades and the "Leap"

Save your nickels, Save your nickels, Save your nickels. Visit dealers, even a weekend trip to audition equipment and to Learn, is worthwhile. Try to attend one of the major shows while saving your nickels.

Continue to dream and Save your nickels. Do not waste money on small Sideway moves and upgrades. Build your Source collection and take care of it. You have a nice starter system.

Second upgrade. There are a lot of great used TTs on the market. Do your research and dreaming. Maybe a phono stage too. When you are ready to make this "Leap" , use the nickels that you have saved and find a great deal and negotiate for a steal of a deal.

You will be amazed at what a great TT rig (Source Component) will do for a starter system.

You have now taken the Leap;  Down the Rabbit Hole. Unless you are of strong character. You are in grave danger at every twist and turn. Prepare to start saving A Lot of Dollars. Nickels will not do it anymore.

Check back with us, to receive the next "Map"

Best on your Journey


Thanks @nkonor & @rockrider for more solid advice. Cleaning and maintaining my "source" was a consistent theme. I'll look into building or buying a good cleaning solution. 

I appreciate the note about avoiding too many lateral moves in favor of saving up for bigger and better upgrades. As I'm still gaining knowledge about how equipment impacts things and still developing a better understanding of my personal preferences, I will likely want to experiment a bit with similar level options before moving up to the big time. I really enjoy that you can buy and sell used gear and get to try a lot of things. For instance, before I settled on the Eico I had a Fisher KX-200 and a Dynaco SCA-35. Before the Totems, it was JBL L40s. 

Next moves are clean, clean, clean... and probably the Nagaoka MP110, and possibly a new phonostage. 

Any recommendations on good shows to keep an eye out for? I'm in Austin TX. We've got a few vintage and high-end audio shops but it's pretty limited. 
I built a dyna-kit ST-70 back in the 70’s. I still have it, but retired it long ago and moved on. Don’t know much about the Eico, but I’m guessing it is a somewhat earlier vintage. If you have kept it up (tubes, sockets caps, driver board, etc.) it still may be viable, but if it is in original condition it will need help. If you like vintage tube equipment, it may be a fun project, but you will likely get more bang for your buck with a modern amp. Same with the Apt.

Your turntable is fine, as long as it is good working order. A new cartridge is in order, any of the major brands have good carts that will work fine with your table. I wouldn’t go much higher than an Ortofon 2M blue, Grado Prestige gold, or an AT VM540ML. The Nag MP110 and the less expensive MoFi carts would be good choices too. Anything more expensive will be overkill for your system, and you will probably not reap any further sonic benefits. The good news is you can try out these carts and rotate them in your system; they will all sound different.

When you are ready to upgrade your turntable and phono pre, you will want to look into MC carts and the more expensive MMs that are out there. Last year a bought a Technics SL1200 GR and experimented with different phono pres and carts. The Technics is similar to what you have, but more refined and will squeeze that extra detail out of more expensive carts (and you will be pleasantly surprised how it will make your less expensive carts sound). I am currently rotating an old Grado, a Mofi Master Tracker, and a Hana SL. I can get it to work with a Denon 103 and an old Share V-15, but those carts are not really a good match for the arm - fun to play with but not recommended. If all you want to do is upgrade your front end, I would stay with your Pioneer for a while and get a new cart.

As far as phono pres - lot’s of good choices out there. On a budget, I would recommend the Schiit Mani. Try it, and return it if it doesn’t float your boat. I finally settled on an Odyssey Suspiro, but a Sutherland KC Vibe I had in my system was a close contender. My next purchase will be a PS for the Suspiro.

I lived in Juneau, AK. Talk about Limited amount of shops available. You have some shops. Get to know them, What gear they carry, What services they can provide and get a feel as to whether you can trust and work with them. Brick & Mortar shops are getting scarce. I live in Chicago now. Have 5 High End shops within an hour drive, more if I am willing to drive 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I do not like every shop and their owners. Music Direct is about 40-45 minute drive. Still with all these resources, there is a lot of gear that none of them carry. Service and gear they carry has been on a downward spiral for years. Axpona is held in April. 

While surfing thur the threads this morning, I spotted mention of the "Lone Star Audio Fest". You live in Austin, TX. The Fest is held in Dallas, TX. Will be held May 3,4 and 5, 2019. My mapping says it is a 197 mi drive, 2hr 49 min - Tolls required.

One last thought about your Source / Records. Whether it is your current TT rig or a 20,30,40 K rig, You will use the same records.

@kahlenz - I've been looking at th4 Mani. I'm very happy with the headphone amp I have from Schiit and the reviews on the Mani are outstanding. At $130, gotta be worth a try. 

@nkonor - Thanks for the info on possible events to attend. I will get those on the calendar. Used to live in Chicago myself. Winter is coming ;) 
Record cleaning should be the last thing you think about.  The difference between a clean record with just a wipe from a  microfiber cloth and a fancy vacuum system is minimal.
A good headphone with a dedicated amp offers sound that rivals multi-thousand dollar speakers.  ...a great way to get excellent sound on the cheap.
@stringreen - I've been really enjoying my Hifiman HE400i with Schiit Jotunheim amp. The sound is strong, acurate, and exciting. But I still enjoy listening to speakers a little more. 
You can only go so far with your equipment. A New cart will help tremendously. Playing clean records help.I was using Dishwasher brushes and fluid since 1973.I have always kept them clean .Now in poly bags .Years ago they said plastic on albums was no good it would shrink and warp your lps. There were times you bought a new record and it had pops and clicks. Which really sucked.I have never washed a record in the sink ,or bought a $1,000 cleaning machine.I had sold off my records and bought collections...One guys daughter sold off his collect I bought 300 lps in plastic covers in mint condition. She told me he played them once just to record them on cassette.Another Lady sold me her boyfriend's collection  60 lps all imports in mint for $300 but I had to have them....but I have been taken to bought collections at nite ,only to find them all and learn...i sold off1,500 and bought back like 800....I now have plenty to play....
Old thread but since limomangus decided to breathe some life into it I thought I would give an update on how my system has evolved in case anyone finds it useful. 

After lots and lots of component switching (amps, phonos, carts, speakers, cables) this is where I've ended up:
  • Pioneer PL-530 (The only piece that remains the same. I keep looking at upgraded tables but never pull the trigger. The Pioneer is so convenient and now that has an upgraded cart sound great.)
  • Denon DL-301ii 
  • Cinemag based SUT
  • Bottlehead Eros
  • Schiit Freya S
  • Decware Torii MKII
  • Klipsch Heresy III
I got very interested in tubes, SET in particular with high-efficiency speakers. I had another iteration of the system with loaded horn speakers and a Bottlehead Stereomour but ultimately decided I wanted more drivers. I've purchased nearly everything second hand or b-stock to reduce the overall spend. I can't say I'm done tinkering but this set up seems to be holding strong for now.