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I can't tell a difference between 4 phono preamps

d3miller

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I'm new to the vinyl world. I just picked up a Pro-ject Debut Carbon Evo. I initially ordered the Emotiva XPS-1, but they were a bit behind on shipping and I didn't have the patience so I went to my local Hifi shop and ended up with a used Graham Slee Era Gold V (with PSU1 power supply) for $500 (original retail I think was $900 or so). I don't know how old it is, but those were released in the early 2000s I think. My signal chain is: phono preamp --> Schiit Sys --> Genelec G Four.

I was curious if I actually needed a $500 preamp, to pair with my $599 turntable, so I ordered the following from Crutchfield:
  • Project Phono Box Ultra 500 for $~250 ("scratch & dent" but arrived like new). Limited edition of 500, with "audiophile" componentry. It's an interesting look with the blinged out chrome, and it is surprisingly heavy for its size.
  • Project Phono Box MM for $89. Wanted to throw a cheap one in the mix...
  • Parasound Zphono XRM for $499. Primarily got this one for the XLR out, as that gives me a bit of flexibility with my Genelecs that have XLR and RCA inputs. Down the road I'm thinking I could hook it up to a MiniDSP SHD or something. Also, my cable runs from source to speaker are going to be about 40', so figured it might be good to have XLRs.
I didn't spend a ton of time switching between each of these, and will probably continue comparing, but is it me or is there really not much of a sonic difference between a $100 phono preamp and a $500+ one?

If anything, what makes a difference for me here are the features. That being said, I'm probably mostly leaning towards the Phono Box MM, and putting that $400 elsewhere (like my pocket), but I do like the flexibility of the Zphono. It has a stereo/mono switch, which had a MASSIVE impact on the sound. Vocals got huge, maybe too much, but it was a marked difference and was somewhat fun to play with. I don't think I have many records in mono though. It also support MM and MC, has a rumble switch, and all via simple switches on the front (no jumpers to fiddle with). But at this price, if features/fun is mostly what I care about, then I'm thinking why not just a Parks Puffin with optical out? This way I can play with all those interesting features, and it would also let me send it to my MiniDSP DDRC-24 (Dirac) or Martin Logan Unison (ARC) for room correction as well.

Any thoughts/recommendations? I think I'm beyond testing more phonos. I don't think I can return the Graham Slee as there's nothing wrong with it, but looks like I can break even selling it elsewhere. So I'm currently stack ranking it as:

1. Pro-ject Phono Box MM, going into my MiniDSP DDRC-24 via analog. This just means I'll pipe my Bluesound into the Unison via optical for room correction. Both eventually hitting my Schiit Sys for switching & volume control.
2. Parks Puffin w/optical out
3. Parasound Zphono XRM

-Daniel
 

BDWoody

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But at this price, if features/fun is mostly what I care about, then I'm thinking why not just a Parks Puffin with optical out?

If you want fun and versatile, that's a good one. I think we still have a wandering puffin being passed around between members for kicks and giggles. Not sure where it's nesting these days, but I do like mine.
 

Bob from Florida

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I'm new to the vinyl world. I just picked up a Pro-ject Debut Carbon Evo. I initially ordered the Emotiva XPS-1, but they were a bit behind on shipping and I didn't have the patience so I went to my local Hifi shop and ended up with a used Graham Slee Era Gold V (with PSU1 power supply) for $500 (original retail I think was $900 or so). I don't know how old it is, but those were released in the early 2000s I think. My signal chain is: phono preamp --> Schiit Sys --> Genelec G Four.

I was curious if I actually needed a $500 preamp, to pair with my $599 turntable, so I ordered the following from Crutchfield:
  • Project Phono Box Ultra 500 for $~250 ("scratch & dent" but arrived like new). Limited edition of 500, with "audiophile" componentry. It's an interesting look with the blinged out chrome, and it is surprisingly heavy for its size.
  • Project Phono Box MM for $89. Wanted to throw a cheap one in the mix...
  • Parasound Zphono XRM for $499. Primarily got this one for the XLR out, as that gives me a bit of flexibility with my Genelecs that have XLR and RCA inputs. Down the road I'm thinking I could hook it up to a MiniDSP SHD or something. Also, my cable runs from source to speaker are going to be about 40', so figured it might be good to have XLRs.
I didn't spend a ton of time switching between each of these, and will probably continue comparing, but is it me or is there really not much of a sonic difference between a $100 phono preamp and a $500+ one?

If anything, what makes a difference for me here are the features. That being said, I'm probably mostly leaning towards the Phono Box MM, and putting that $400 elsewhere (like my pocket), but I do like the flexibility of the Zphono. It has a stereo/mono switch, which had a MASSIVE impact on the sound. Vocals got huge, maybe too much, but it was a marked difference and was somewhat fun to play with. I don't think I have many records in mono though. It also support MM and MC, has a rumble switch, and all via simple switches on the front (no jumpers to fiddle with). But at this price, if features/fun is mostly what I care about, then I'm thinking why not just a Parks Puffin with optical out? This way I can play with all those interesting features, and it would also let me send it to my MiniDSP DDRC-24 (Dirac) or Martin Logan Unison (ARC) for room correction as well.

Any thoughts/recommendations? I think I'm beyond testing more phonos. I don't think I can return the Graham Slee as there's nothing wrong with it, but looks like I can break even selling it elsewhere. So I'm currently stack ranking it as:

1. Pro-ject Phono Box MM, going into my MiniDSP DDRC-24 via analog. This just means I'll pipe my Bluesound into the Unison via optical for room correction. Both eventually hitting my Schiit Sys for switching & volume control.
2. Parks Puffin w/optical out
3. Parasound Zphono XRM

-Daniel
Depends on the matching needs for your cartridge. If I were buying new I would order an iFi Zen Phono- as it seems to have all the bases covered. List price of $199 - includes balanced and unbalanced outputs.
 
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d3miller

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Ahhh, yes, forgot about that iFi Zen Phono. That might be the winner!
 
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d3miller

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If you want fun and versatile, that's a good one. I think we still have a wandering puffin being passed around between members for kicks and giggles. Not sure where it's nesting these days, but I do like mine.
Nice. How good is the "magic" feature that reduces pops & clicks? You recall playing around with that much?
 

DVDdoug

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But is it me or is there really not much of a sonic difference between a $100 phono preamp and a $500+ one?
If you hear a difference it would most likely be noise (hum and/or hiss). But that's tricky because it's the signal-to-noise ratio that's important, and higher gain means more noise and more signal, so if you're just listening to noise higher gain is going to be more noticeable and "worse". So, you have to match the listening volume before comparing noise.

If you do hear noise, the record's surface noise is usually worse anyway. But, it's kinda' nice if you don't hear any noise with the stylus out of the groove. (I don't think I've ever had a phono preamp that didn't have audible noise with headphones, but I'm not 100% sure I don't "play records" anymore.)

There could also be differences in RIAA equalization, but if none of them are terrible you might not notice any difference without careful (level-matched) A/B listening, and that's not easy unless you have two turntables with identical cartridges and two copies of the record... (Or you could make digital recordings to compare.) And if you do hear a difference in EQ you probably won't know which one is right... I once built a phono preamp and it had "enhanced bass" but I didn't know until I compared it to a "proper" phono preamp, and to me mine sounded better!!! (My speakers were probably a little wimpy in the bass.)

But if you are listening to older records their EQ/frequency varies a lot. As with everything else vinyl, the record is the weak link. So if the RIAA EQ (or cartridge frequency response) is not as important as you might think. I assume newer records are better and more consistent but I haven't bought a record since I got my 1st CD player. ;)

It very unlikely that you'd have any audible distortion from the preamp. Again, the record is the weak link.
 

sq225917

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I'd say that there's quite a bit of potential difference between phonostages, but you may have a selection that are much of a muchness.

I've just build an Emerald, mm/mc stage and it's very different to my Paradise. On simple stuff there's not much between them, but once the music gets busy, rhythmically complex and more dynamic the Emerald gets all congested and seems to run out of steam, the Paradise is utterly unfazed and just keeps on trucking.
 

BDWoody

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Nice. How good is the "magic" feature that reduces pops & clicks? You recall playing around with that much?

I have a few noisy records that it did seem to help with, but honestly I haven't *really* played with that feature much.
 
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d3miller

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All that money would pay for decades of streaming from any of the major streaming services that all provide better sound quality than vinyl and have virtually all (relevant) recorded music.
Yeah, for sure. 100% agree with you, but I don't feel like anyone these days listens to vinyl for the sound quality over digital. I do subscribe to Apple Music, and stream lossless in various places in my home and have a desktop Schiit DAC/AMP + Audeze headphone setup (getting me up to 24-bit/192 kHz) for while I'm working.

I'm trying out vinyl because I'm sick of being tied to screens. I work in tech and basically staring at a screen all day, and am really trying to limit my screen time outside of work. But I love music and this hobby brings me happiness.

It's all new to me, but I love the whole process of vinyl. I love going to my local neighborhood record shop and discovering new music, cheap finds, and even things that I already stream digitally. It forces me to tune in, pay attention to the music, the artist, and their story. Flipping a record, turning a physical volume knob, reading the album booklets as I listen--it's so much more enjoyable to me.

I'm also trialing (Tidal + Qobuz) --> Roon because I feel like it gets me a little closer to that experience with their interface. I'm not sure if I'll keep it though, as that's basically 4 music subscriptions in total, plus the cost of a Roon Core (I'm running from my laptop for now but that's super inconvenient).

-Daniel
 
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d3miller

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The differences in cartridges are probably 2 orders of magnitude greater than the differences in electronics.
Interesting. I think you've sent me down another rabbit hole... This TT came with the Sumiko Rainier, which seems to be decent. I hear the Ortofon 2M Black is one of the better MM cartridges you can get, but not sure yet if I'm ready to go down that route yet.
 

MRC01

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If you can't hear a difference between phono head amps, another import factor to consider is configurability. Different phono cartridges sound much more different than head amps. So you may try different cartridges over the years. And each cartridge needs a different amount of gain, and responds differently to loading: the capacitance & resistance in the phono head amp. So a phono head amp that can set these 3 parameters (gain, impedance, capacitance) can serve you better. Also, having a high pass / subsonic / rumble filter is a plus, even more if it's adjustable.
 

DSJR

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Umm - Remember the HiFi Hierarchy message? It's still valuable and was provable by demonstration in a vinyl player system even if you can bend the rules in a digital one.

The deck quality and isolation comes first, then the arm and then the cartridge (the cartridge can only be as good as the arm it's fitted to and the arm is limited by the deck it's mounted to). The phono stage is the slave of all upstream and if these aren't so hot, all it can do is reproduce it!

You bought the Slee? The brand is a 'forum favourite' so maybe ok at least. No reason to send back even if you could, although the Cambridge Duo sets a very high general standard and will also be the slave of the deck 'system' feeding it.

I'd send the others back, keep the Slee, isolate the deck as much as possible and use without the lid fitted. A stylus upgrade once the deck is properly set up (if it isn't already) will make a FAR better sonic upgrade (I'm a huge fan of the 2M Bronze if not so much the Blue).

P.S. Digital today is a totally different kettle of fish and no reason why say, an inexpensive Topping E30 couldn't be used with a high end monitoring system if it'll take RCA style connections and has gain adjustments for level. You CAN'T do this with vinyl I promise you (hell, I spent forty years nearly demming why!)
 

DSJR

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Interesting. I think you've sent me down another rabbit hole... This TT came with the Sumiko Rainier, which seems to be decent. I hear the Ortofon 2M Black is one of the better MM cartridges you can get, but not sure yet if I'm ready to go down that route yet.
Dull response old fashioned cartridge despite the fancy styling! 2M Black needs a better deck to fully realise its potential!

I'd replace the cartridge with an AT 540 or better for the arm tonally, the related 740 model (I cite the Lowbeats measurements as why, as the slightly more laid back 740 balance should partly offset the tonearm slight 'zing' in the midrange and should give a great 'tone' to records played on it... if that's too much, an AT VM95SH should do nicely :)

Don't get any of this sh*t these days with digital, thank goodness :D
 
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d3miller

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OK, this is all amazing information! Super insightful. So basically, at this point, don't waste money on the phono stage as it's not the bottleneck/limiting factor. Money would be better spent more upstream... If I can recoup my money on the Slee, sounds like an iFi Zen Phono + AT 740 would be a better way to spend $500.
 

tonycollinet

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I have a project box MM

It works. Records sound great as far as I can expect vinyl to. More in fact - I am continuously amazed at how good vinyl sounds considering how the music is stored.

I can't imagine that even low cost modern electronics can't do at least as well as the recorded medium.
 
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