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Phono stages up to £2K.


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Some years ago a hifi friend of mine asked a dealer 'what is the single, most recent, development in hifi systems?' The dealer replied to the effect that the separation of the phono stage from the pre amp was an important step forward (..and that's what you should pursue...).

Persons with more knowledge of electronics than I posess should feel free to explain to we 'social studies layabouts' why this should be so. Thankyou in advance..

Its no secret that there has been considerable interest in a home-grown unit that first came to our attention in the form of the 'Bigbottle' phono stage. You only have to look at the Owners' thread to see that it has impressed a number of members; also, Barrington's caused a stir at a well known South Coast bake off (though I wasnt present at that one (or wasnt paying attention)).

Since then, hereabouts, there has been a snowball effect with three close Wammers choosing the Bigbottle, and as there is no smoke without fire (I love a mixed metaphor), it is probable there is something very good about it.

The Bigbottle (now in its 3rd iteration) is coming to town at the forthcoming pair of Lurch BOs and that will position it in relation to some notable 'rivals' including an Ayre P-5xe, a Tron Ultimate (if still available), a PS Audio stage that someone is bringing (more details please Sir Julian) and Jessica's PS1 and PS2.

I am hoping everyone at that BO will post here specifically on their impressions of these phono stages. The BB3, correct me if I am wrong, has not been reviewed by any hifi publication (though I read one is doing the rounds) and according to one contributor on Pink Fish media (who has a vested interest in the matter) is still a unit 'under developement' .

The BO will be a group test in reasonably controlled conditions and could find itself in 2-3 different systems on the day. This is a step up from evaluations that have been published on the Wam by its growing band of 'supporters'.

I envisage a number of contributions to this thread outlining candidates for the title of 'best phono stage under £2K' based on reviews and, better, personal experience.

Let's keep it clean and argue your case well everyone..

Jack NSM

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I should add that's £2K list price. But also we should have a loose sub category pricewise that includes used buys up to, say £1.2K that may have been, say, £2.5K list (given most of us buy pre-owned kit (of necessity!).

I have never heard this one, and they are likely to be scarce, but I read good things of the K&K SE Maxxed Out hybrid phono stage. Anyone know of it? It has balanced outs - quite rare in a phono stage with valves..(It scrapes in at £2K...coincidentally...)

Jack

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I think the benefits of a separate phono are multiple.

Firstly having it integral demotes the amount of the design budget that actually gets spent on the phono section. Often a good amplifier has a mediocre phono stage.

Power supplies can be designed specifically for a low signal environment.

Casework and circuit design can be tailored to specific requirements, MM, MC or both. However many units are based on very average circuit design.

Designing a quality phono stage is a complex balancing act of the many compromises that have to be taken into account, a number of which are not compatible.

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Welcome, Alan - great stuff; hope to hear from you later on in this thread.

(Are you preparing to take off in your photo? Hanglider? :o)

Jack

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I have owned a EE Minimax phonostage for many years now (10+), and the biggest compliment I can pay it, is that i have never felt the need to change it. Retail today is £1495, I bought mine second hand for £450!. It has SUT's for MC  and responds well to Tube rolling. The fact that it is still in production, 16 years after its introduction, says it all IMO. 

Small and great looking

minimxph1.jpg

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3 minutes ago, greybeard said:

I have owned a EE Minimax phonostage for many years now (10+), and the biggest compliment I can pay it, is that i have never felt the need to change it. Retail today is £1495, I bought mine second hand for £450!. It has SUT's for MC  and responds well to Tube rolling. The fact that it is still in production, 16 years after its introduction, says it all IMO. 

Small and great looking

minimxph1.jpg

Colin, when you say small and great looking, are you talking about the phonostage? 😊

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Thankyou Colin.

The Minimax is an all valve design; what are the pros and cons of hybrid designs, combining ss and valves (and which way round should that be re input and out put)?

Over to you (and anyone else) Alan?

Jack

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31 minutes ago, Non-Smoking Man said:

Welcome, Alan - great stuff; hope to hear from you later on in this thread.

(Are you preparing to take off in your photo? Hanglider? :o)

Jack

Paramotor, just landed there from a flight in Cornwall last year.

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I'm not sure about the idea that separating the phono stage from integrated amps was one of the biggest advances, but then to be fair I'm not that convinced about any real advances. Slightly off topic, but as it was in your first post, I suggest the biggest advance has been through the application of CAD to speaker design. Separating out phono stages was more a byproduct. With CDs on the scene, most buyers didn't need or want a phono stage.

Anyway, on topic. The principles of a phono stage are easy, it's the implementation that's fun. Electricity is a noisy bugger and noise is the last thing you want when you've got the lowest signal levels. For my latest build (all valve phono stage), about four times the component count, cost and time went on the power supply than on the gain and RIAA bit. The other issue is that what works superbly for one cartridge may be not quite as perfect for another, but a phono stage has to be made suitable for a range of cartridges if it's going to be any use commercially.

I haven't heard a BB yet, but looking at the design and the pictures I've seen, it seems extremely competent and well thought out. I'm not a 'sand' person, so I enjoy the perverse fun of getting lots of gain using valves and all the pain that brings with it. The BB circuit is an eminently sensible way to do it without needing to spend countless hours getting rid of bloody hum.

Value? Looks far better than a lot of alternatives, but we're into the region where most things are way above 'adequate', so it's shades of grey.

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All valve design generally leaves the inherent limitations of valve characteristics in the subsequent performance.

Limitations include noise, non linear transfer characteristic with variable signal levels and changing characteristics with valve aging.

Hybrid design is a wonderful bonus as SS devices can be used to improve the valve operating characteristics, even eliminating some deficiencies. Using SS on input or output is oversimplifying the choice/approach. Combining SS and valve in a stage, be it input or output, can bring large improvements in performance.

I have designed a unique input stage that has many benefits.

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I don't know what the original retail price of my Tube Technology M.A.C. was but given that I paid around £500 for it second hand about 7 years ago, I presume it was under the £2k limit. Another tube design, it might lose out a little to the "big boys" you've already mentioned but on a brief comparison with a Tron Seven Ultimate, it acquitted itself pretty well.

IMG_9368.jpeg.6bf09f1f1975d6bc6a5fa43df3a127ff.jpeg

The only other "serious" phono stages I've ever heard are the Alchemist Bragi and a Whest (can't remember the model). Thought the Whest was awful - bland and uninvolving.

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Hi everyone,

Starting with the first point, that separate phono stages are a big advancement in the reproduction of vinyl recording, is like saying that pre-amps were a big advancement when broken away from integrated amps. Very few if any would say that an integrated amp is better than separate pre and power. The requirements of a phono stage are unique, extreme gain, very low noise,  a bonkers frequency response and demanding input loading. Getting these features away from the pre-amp or integrated allows high quality components and specific (ie not a standard opamp with a feedback filter) designs to be made with dedicated supplies. Using some high quality caps alone requires huge real-estate that could not be fitted in a pre box. Going further, power supplies can be separately boxed to further increase the separation of signal and sources of noise.

So I would say separate phono stages are a leap forward.

I have developed over many years now the Alpha2delta range of phono stages with the following criteria, that it should be all valve*, that 12AX7 or any high mu valves will not be used, the circuit to be very low distortion with high PSRR and the best components used. After a number of false starts the PS1 was born, a two box phono, MM and MC with adjustable loads and gain.

I could have gone for the hybrid approach and there are some gains to be had doing this (I have a hybrid design up my sleeve) but there are some down sides too, many of the best FETs are no longer available and manufactures can drop them at a whim. Valves are here to stay with both Russia, China and some Eastern Europe countries eager to keep manufacturing and a huge stock of US JAN NOS still available, and choosing the right valve and design overcomes many of the issues the standard valve designs have.

The PS1 however has started to become very expensive to manufacture and will never be a compromise, hence the PS2 was made. This is a compromised PS1, same design but in a single box, parts chosen to a quality/price with the money spent where it is the most important, using Mundorf EVO oil signal caps, polystyrene RIAA caps and same valve set (less matched) and at a very low price considering what goes in. The power supply is the same as used in the PS1 but without the polypropylene caps. The whole difference between the PS1 and PS2 is what you get with better components.

The PS1 was reviewed in the HiFi pig by Ian McIntosh that gave it a thumbs up (go to hifi pig to read) 

*The power supply is not valve

Jessica

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I don;t think you can automatically assume that going from an integrated amplifier to an pre/power setup to a pre/power with separate phono stage will automatically bring about guaranteed improvements. It's all down to the quality of the integrated amplifier and also the internal phono stage fitted to it, or the preamp in question. I have an integrated amp at home that I've heard show a clean pair of heels to several pre/power combos and its internal phono stage is also absolutely superb.

Again, as with so many things in hi-fi, it's about how well it's done, not how it's done.

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I think the phono stage is as important as the TT/arm/cart.

I use a bland and uninvolving Whest phono stage.

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There is a decent argument to be had for both @Jessica_k and @Beobloke because it’s all in the execution and design. As a phono signal is the most likely source to pick up unwanted noise etc, I agree, I want this to be as good as possible at the given budget. It does beg the question why separate phonostages didn’t become more popular years ago but anyway....💭

I’ve owned a BB3 and if it hadn’t been for the inbound Sugden PA-4, I would still have it. So, before we talk valve rolling, the BB3 was an instant and massive improvement over the previous stage I had. But, and this is the but, it was a massive improvement every time I put it on, never got use to it and always seemed to make me smile with everything it did so what I’m saying is that it never failed to impress on every drop of the stylus. I’d have another one any day. 
The Sugden is a different beast at twice the price but not twice as good, it has more of the Sugden signature which I like and has three inputs for three arms or decks which I like for tinkering. In all, either stage I would and have been happy with but I can’t tube roll with the Sugden. Both stages could easily justify a 2k price for different reasons. I have never heard a stage as good as a BB3 at 1k and I’ve heard and owned a few and many costing a lot more and not as good.

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