What phono stage candidates should I consider?

I will be taking delivery of a new linestage, the Emotive Audio Epifania (tube-based), which will be replacing a Mark Levinson Ref. No. 32 that has a built-in phono stage. I am therefore in the market for a new phono stage. My cartridge is a Lyra Titan, which is mounted on a Basis Vector arm/Basis Debut (vacuum) table combination.

I can, realistically, only review a small number of candidate linestages in my own system, so I need to determine which stages to consider. If I find one that I like, I will go with it and I do not plan on driving myself crazy chasing after the "best."

Some of the relevant details about the Titan are as follows: It is rated at .5mV output and has an internal impedance of 5.5 ohms. Lyra specifies loading of 10 ohms to 47k ohm (they recommend the higher end of the range, i.e, unloaded). If mated to a step up transformer, they recommend 4-6 ohms, not exceeding 10 ohms.

One of the candidates I am looking at is the Artemis PL-1 phono stage. It is a tube-base unit that utilizes a transformer to step up the voltage. I don't know which model of transformer they use, but the brand is a Sowter (my guess is the 1:20 model specified for cartridges with a 3-15 internal impedance).

I can also get in for audition a Ray Samuels Emmeline. I will also be borrowing a friend's phono stage that is made locally, in the Washington D.C. area, by Deja Vu Audio (tube based/Jensen transformer or a more expensive model with Audionote trannies).

I am looking for any comments as to which candidates to consider and any helpful detail of experience mating the Titan with a good phono stage. I do hope to keep cost under $8,000 or so, if that is possible.

Take a look at the ASR Basis Exclusive. It utilizes a battery supply as it's power source and is extremely quiet. I am blown away by how good this thing really is. Plenty of gain options from 32dB to 64dB and lots of loading options as well. I cannot image a better sounding unit in this price range ($6K). It's got all the prat you want.
Dear Larry: By any standards you have a very nice analog rig: congratulations!!!!!!

That means that you really care about music and about music sound reproduction: great!

Now you are looking for the most important and critical link on the analog chain: the Phonopreamp.

This audio device has a paramount job to translate?\ and amplified the beloved signal that comes from the phono cartridge, in your case from a MC cartridge the Titan.
For do those job that Phonopreamp has at least three very dificult tasks to achieve: high gain to handle low output MC cartridges, achieve that high gain with out noise/distortions and mimic with absolute accuracy the RIAA eq standard with which were recorded all the LPs, this has to do it through and inverse RIAA eq where the deviation from that RIAA eq. has to be accurate between +,- 0.05 db from 20Hz to 20kHz.

For you can find this kind of quality, in my opinion, you need to look for an active high gain Phonopreamp: that means that the Phonopreamp don't use any step up transformer ( internal or external ) that could do a heavy degradation to the cartridge signal.

Next are some issues about step-up transformers SUTs:

The SUT is an old patch for bad SS phonopreamps designs and for the inherent limitations on tube phonopreamps for handle low output MC cartridges. It is a " cheap/easy solution to a complex problem ".

Any SUT has many inherent disadvantages like: distortions generated at the core ( it does not matters if is: air core ), heavy phase discharge ( landslide ), high apt to take hum, the wide zone ( band ) can't go down to DC, severe roll-off at high and low frecuencies, the reactive impedance on the SUT is incompatible with the cartridge impedance: this cause that we never could have flat frecuency response when we are using SUT, this mismatch between the impedances promote that the signal that pass through any SUT will be equalized.
There is no single advantage, in any way, using SUT's, any of them at any price. The SUT always be a : wrong patch.

There are some Phonopreamps that could do the right job or near it: Tom Evans, FM Acoustics, Boulder, Rowland, Klyne, Pass,Classe, Burmester, Gryphon, Krell etc, etc.
Your Reference 32 is a very good line stage but the phono section is not up to the task. Well, in my experience the Levinson phono stages never been one of their strong design area.

Now, if the Phonopreamp is so important maybe you could think something for to have a little wide budget about.

Regards and enjoy the music.
Well do report on this stage which I am also oggling. I have his more modest XR-2 which is quite good especially at its price point. XR-10B obviously higher-end design. Also, have his Stealth pre/head-amp and SR-71. Ray is a pleasure to deal with as well. Not that you need to since so far no issues with any of my devices, but Ray will take the time to explain his designs.
You may want to try the lower-gain Artemis PH-1 (52 db) instead of the PL-1 (72 db). The PL-1 is simply the PH-1 with a builtin Sowter 10:1 transformer that provides an additional 20 db gain. The PH-1 would allow you to choose your own MC transformer, and you may even find the 52 db gain is adequate for a medium-output cartridge without a transformer.

I have been using the PH-1 for over a month now with outboard Jensen 10:1 transformers. The resulting 72 db gain is more than my system needs for a low output Benz L2 (.25 mv). But if I bypass the transformers, the 52 db gain is not enough; there is audible tube rush. With your .5 mv cartridge, you may find that you can run it straight in and have adequate gain without any transformers.

If you do audition an Artemis, make sure it has been well broken in with actual signal. I believe the mfr runs them in with signal for a few hours before they get shipped out, but it isn't nearly enough since the sound quality changes rather dramatically over several weeks of use. After two weeks, I was ready to return my unit since it didn't provide the inner detail and microdynamics of my DIY phono stages. However, after another week the Artemis was superior, so I kept it. Unfortunately, it's hard to log these hours of actual use with a phono stage. You need to play a lot of records.

Good luck.

a phono stage in your pre would be the best thing which would cost the least if they offer it.
ARC PH-5, although if you read every review you are bound to find one that will not be flattering, or wait until te PH-7 is out, and a step-up transformer (EAR, Audio Note, used Ortofon with silver wire).
Heres the ones I have used in the past with great success.
Klyne is no doubt the best of the group. Threshold FET 10PC, and a Conrad Johnson EF1. But have to agree with another respondent and have a phono stage installed in the Levinso 32 you have now.Other worthy contenders if you can find them is the Pass Labs XONO. But seeing what your doing I would just call Stan Klyne or Nelson Pass and have them builf you want you really need.
Perhaps another worthy contender would be the Sutherland PhD, which it totally battery powered, is said to be extremely quiet, and you may want to read some reviews of it, which are provided in the Acoustic Sounds Website.

My buddy Thomas Back owns one of these, comments about the Sutherland on the Acoustic Sounds Website, and I believe he himself is using the Claeraudio Master Reference Table-Clearaudio Arm, and also the Lyra Titan with what he claims are absolutely superb, dead quiet results. Mark
The Artemis PL-1 is well respected by the most knowledgeable audio guys I know of and serves as the reference phono section for a number of pretty impressive and well-researched systems.
The distant very best sound reproduction I have ever heard had this phono in the signal chain, with (believe it or not) a very carefully built and researched SUT (Slagle).
I do agree with Raul that these step-up thingies are generally unholy. I have always been taught that active gain is best. Considering the above mentioned experience,I hate to admit, maybe this is not true all the time...
I haven't heard everything, but I personally wouldn't dispute that the Artemis has few peers.
Thanks everyone for your help. I've been going back and forth on the step up transformer issue. One of the best phono stages I heard had a step up transformer, but it is a custom-built unit designed specifically for a very low output Allaerte cartridge and utilized an incredibly expensive Audionote transformer. I don't know if that kind of performance can be obtained, except by chance, when a transformer is involved.

I have heard some of the models mentioned here, such as the Sutherland, the top of the line Boulder and the Klyne, but not in my own system (I could probably borrow the Boulder, but, that is a moot issue since I can't afford it).

I was a bit surprised to find out that the nearest dealer to me (Washington D.C. area) that carries the Pass XONO is in NYC.

Raul mentioned the FM Acoustic. I noticed that their former top-of-the-line phono stage is being sold here on Audiogon, but there is no way for me to hear that model. Still, it is a bit tempting.

This is not so easy a task.
Steelhead? I'm using it right now with an old Parnassus, and the flexibility in settings is quite nice. It also sounds very neutral as far as I can tell- using in an entirely new system so I can't isolate how it is performing, other than to note that I changed the phono tubes to NOS Mullard gold pins, which are a little less sterile than the Sovteks that come with it, and I am also using high efficiency speakers, AG Duos.
Worth a try, anyway and within your budget. Not a 'tubey' lush sounding unit though, but terrific dynamics, and i think the autoformer is built in house by Manley, who could tell you more.
I am using the Artemis PH1 low gain phono with the Bent Audio S&B stepups and that combination works very well for me. It is possible that the gain from the PH1 will be enough for you depending on the rest of your equipment. If not you can always add the step-up of your choosing. This is a very good phono stage which bettered my Hagerman Trumpet by a large margin. If you get one I suggest having an SRA VR base made for it as that took the performance level even higher and was cost effective due to its small size.
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If you can afford the FM Acoustic phono preamp, that will put you in very elite company. Their client list is a virtual whos, who of the music industry. If you can get the serial number, you may find who it was made for. All FM Acoustic pieces are custom made one at a time for the specific client. This is the creme de la creme of all audio gear. While I was at a major record label, we had a few of those. Nothing and I mean nothing is better, it stands alone as the pinnacle of all audio gear.
Well there are a few out there, but when honest, we all have different tastes, means, what I think is good is not right for the next and so on. I tried and listened to a few Phono Stages, I have a Basis rig too and listened to some Lyra's, for me is overall a Klyne 7 Phono hard to beat. It is adjustable and it's sound is like breathing: Natural. I listen to it a few years now, had others here, but the Klyne survived all. The Pass is way too cold sounding, super detail, but after a while I couldn't listen to it anymore. I listened to FM Acoustics, but I heard from one owner that he changed to Klyne, another outstanding one from the sound is the Lamm LP2. I have a friend who uses the big Boulder Phono, but guess what, only with a Step up unit before. I couldn't believe it but: It is endless ....
Another outstanding though little known phonostage is made by Viva. It is a 2 chassis unit with an innovative power supply that uses a 300B tube as a rectifier. The sonics when used with my Duos were addictively fabulous. Excellent top, bottom, and midrange, timbre was very realistic and dynamics were also a strong attribute. The unit works well with low output cartridges (no stepup needed) and runs very quiet.
I second (or is it third) the FM acoustics -- if you want a branded product that is. It's outstanding.
You've noticed that it's also very expensive, of course.
Otherwise, if you're into diy, try conning Raul into giving you the schematics for his phono:)
So many choices, I wish there was a way to listen to all of them. I've had four very different phono stages in my system -- Joule Electra OPS/2, 47 Labs Phono Cube, Dynavector P-75 and Tom Evans Groove Plus. I settled on the Groove Plus. I probably don't need to extoll its virtues since many other owners and reviewers have done so. Suffice it to say, it keeps you on your toes -- meaning immediacy, impact, dynamics and scale are its strengths. It doesn't have the bloom of the Joule Electra, but it makes for very exciting listening. A new phono stage that I'm considering is from Tron -- the UK based manufacturer. It is tube based and it's called "Seven." I always missed the delicacy, warmth (not syrupy),liquidity, openness of the Joule Electra. My ideal would be to have all of that plus the Groove Plus. The answere might be the Seven, for me at least. There is one unit of these in America and its in NYC at Tron's NA distributor, High Water Sound. I've heard it several times, and have been blown away by it. It costs considerably less than the Groove Plus. My analogo set up is a Platine Verdier, DaVinci Grandezza 12" arm, Dynavector XV-1s.
More great ideas thanks! I did not know that Viva makes a phono stage. I've heard their latest amps, which I think sound pretty good, which is an encouraging sign. I think I have a channel to get in the Viva.

The Klyne is also an interesting recommendation. I heard it many years ago in a very nice sounding system. I was also impressed with the impeccable build quality of the unit.
Mr. Terry,

Do you have any idea how much the Tron Seven will be sold for? It is not yet described on any website.
David, the Seven blew me away last night!! I borrowed the demo unit, not knowing much about it except this version is too high gain to use with my MC1BmkIIz, so I promised to use it only with the XV1s. The past couple weeks I was happy using the P75 in DrT mode, transitioning my system from the Steelhead+Janus to this passive.

I knew I had to get another phono eventually but the P75 was getting the job done so at the back of my mind I was getting ready to tell Jeff, "sorry man, I'm happy where I am, price isn't justified," blah, whatever kind of excuse.

It didn't help I hardly know the specs and when I picked it up it felt relatively light. So I was really not prepped. Using the Skipjack, the switcheroo from P75 to Tron 7 isn't difficult. It didn't take a couple minutes before my heart started racing and I called Jeff blabbering like an idiot, ordering one immediately. I've heard a lot, owned a few, but honestly I've never felt this excited with a phono... oh, Jesus, what this will do with the Allaerts...

Check out this bad boy--
I too have auditioned the Tron 7 and, whilst it is extremely quiet (for a tube design) and creates a voluminous soundstage, it just didn't make music in my system. In fact, the music produced by the much cheaper Lector Phonoamp (also a zero feedback valve design) was FAR more engaging in my setup.
I wonder if the difference in experience noted above for the Tron is an issue of compatibility. Anyone care to say what cartridge they were using for their auditions?
If you are shopping in the 4000.00 price range, you should put the K&K phono stage on your list. You just might be able to keep 2K in your pocket for records.


Hi Larryi,
For the record (sorry), I use a MusicMaker moving-iron cartridge.
The dealer to whom I returned the Tron preamp suggested that some sort of system incompatibility was to blame for my dislike of the Seven. To me, that's just hogwash - the degree to which a component gets out of the way of the music is my only measure of its worth and this nebulous quality ultimately relies on its being competently 'voiced'. Test bench results only give you half the story and, unfortunately, I suspect that most audio engineers are engineers first, music lovers second (or seventh).
RJWood, where did you audition a Tron Seven, which version and what cartridge?
RJ, The Tron Seven is Moving Coil only phono stage. It comes either high output (70 dbs for cartridges from 0.05-0.3) or medium output (55dbs 0.3-0.8). There is no way it would work with your Music Maker moving magnet cartridge which has an output of 4mv.
Adog is right. A Music Maker would overload nearly any MC phono stage. I'd expect distorted dynamic peaks, cloudiness from the high noise floor and frequency imbalances from a probable impedance mismatch.

Proper component matching isn't "hogwash". Your dealer was right, though a bit lazy. He could have saved you both some time by asking what cartridge you planned to use with the Tron.
Here in the UK (where Tron is based), a moving magnet version is available.
Actually RJ, you are wrong. There is no Seven phono available in the UK period let alone a MM. The Tron Seven is for export only. I think you are referring to the "Purenote" which was designed by Graham Tricker for NoteWorthy Audio. This is not the Seven, but a totally different design, built at a different price point with a very different intended end use . Even though there are some basic similarities, the Seven is different in design, mechanically, sonically, and aesthetically. There has never been a Seven MM built. Graham and I are planning a MM Seven for the London Ref. cartridge, this will be the first MM Seven. I hope this clears up your misinformation.
I've just visited Graham Tricker's website (gtaudio.com) and, yes, you're right, the "PhoNote" phono preamp that I auditioned is indeed different (but similar), so apologies for suggesting otherwise. However, it does retail for 1500 pounds and you'd expect the Seven to sell for not much more than 2000 pounds if it were available in the UK.
So do us Brits get a significantly inferior sounding product for just a few hundred pounds less? Judging by Mr Tricker's remarks on his website (not to mention the application of common sense), this is certainly not the case.
Anyway, as I've said, the Lector phono preamp (850 pounds) was far more musical to my jaded ears.
Another vote for the K&K phonostage, under $2000 built and the last phonostage i will buy. A hybrid tube/jFet design, its quiet, musical with a great soundstage. It is a very similar design to the Art Audio vinyl reference, designed by the same person. Try and get an audition of one, you won't be disappointed.
The TRON Seven will be available in the UK as well as the USA; the Phonote, which is a cheaper version will be UK only. I have Graham Tricker's personal demo Tron Meteor preamp (predecessor of the Syren, but with v similar circuits etc), as I have been one of Graham's customers in the UK for the last 15 years. The Seven is based on the phono stage of the current Syren preamp, which retails at upwards of 6k GBP depending on spec. It is designed to be a no holds barred unit for MC only. If you want a bespoke unit, Graham will make it for you. Graham said that he could decouple the MC transformers from my phono circuit (v. similar to Syren and Seven), but this is a factory mod, not just the removal of a couple of jumpers.
I'm very pleased that many of you from the US are finding his products thought provoking. Some of us in the UK have been great fans for years. His Syren preamp is stunning. I gather from Graham that his current US distributor, Jeff at Highwater, is providing excellent service.
By the way, my TRON Meteor pre is fed by an Allaerts MC1B/Schroeder Model 2/Platine Verdier front end and drives rebuilt Quad IIs (rebuilt by Graham 15 years ago and serviced by him) an Avantgarde Duos.