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Greetings, all! Sorry in advance if my issue has been covered before countless times; I'm a new member who just discovered this great site today:

My setup is a bit odd: I have two Technics 1200s (one a MK5, and the other a brand new 1210-GR); one has an AT-VM540ML and the other an AT-VM740ML. Both of these are run through my vintage Kenwood KR-5400 (which accommodates two phono inputs), which I listen to either through a pair of Sennheiser headphones or KEF Reference Model Two speakers.

While I admire the empirical ambitions of this site, and its attempts to objectively profile various phono preamps (vs. people just suggesting whichever one they bought), I do not consider myself technically savvy enough to draw conclusions from the SINAD charts.

With a budget of $500 or less, should I get an external phono preamp, or are the ones available not likely to best the built-in one in my vintage Kenwood? If I were to get an external phono preamp, what's the best one to pair with my cartridge(s)? It seems like the Cambridge Duo may be one of the highest regarded preamps here, but am I mistaken (reading the results incorrectly)? This site even makes the ART DJ Pre II seem really compelling, which (to my delight, honestly) runs afoul of the usual audiophile orthodoxy that components need to get more and more expensive (for some reason); would it be an upgrade to the Kenwood? And the Parks Puffin was compelling to me at one time, given the features, but it seems like it didn't score so well on the ASR objective tests.

Anyway, any guidance/thoughtful suggestions would be greatly appreciated!
 

DVDdoug

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;) DISCLAIMER - I kind-of have a bad attitude about vinyl because it's inferior* to digital no matter how much money you spend. I don't play records but occasionally I'll digitize one that's not available digitally. You can get better sound with more money, up to a point so, I wouldn't go too cheap if I was buying a turntable setup but I wouldn't go too crazy either. Personally, I probably wouldn't spend more than $200 on a preamp depending on what I could find.

You probably won't hear an improvement, or at least not a significant improvement. And if you want to use both turntables you'd need two preamps or you'd have to switch the connections or "figure out" something...

If you ever upgrade your receiver, they don't all have phono preamps anymore so you might need an external preamp.

If you have an issue it's usually noise so if you're not hearing noise (or excessive noise) from the preamp you are unlikely to hear an improvement. Noise from the preamp will be hiss (RIAA filtered to boost the low frequencies) or hum. But hum can also be picked-up by the cartridge, or it can be the result of a ground loop.

The other problem is, if you wanted to compare you'd need a noise measurement with the same (or similar) setup that ASR uses because there is more than one way to define and measure noise.

Of course the main source of noise is the records themselves, so usually even if preamp noise is audible when the stylus is out of the groove, it's usually drown-out by record noise (or by the music when you're not between songs). The noise on the record also limits the useable resolution. (A lot of people falsely claim that analog has "infinite" resolution.)

The other issue could be the RIAA equalization (which means the frequency response might not be "flat").

The records and the cartridge also contribute to the frequency response and in any case, the frequency response can be tweaked with EQ. The records I listened to 40 years ago mostly had mediocre frequency response (rolled off highs) with a few exceptions but I was foolishly always upgrading, or wanting to upgrade, my cartridge instead of simply boosting the treble when the records were the biggest problem. (The records I occasionally digitize are usually older also.) I assume that modern records have better and more consistent frequency response... But I think the deepest bass is still rolled-off to help with tracking.

It would be rare to get audible distortion from a preamp so I wouldn't worry about distortion from the preamp. (You can sometimes get "tracking distortion" depending on the record & cartridge.)

This site even makes the ART DJ Pre II seem really compelling,
I've thought about buying the (similar?) ART USB Phono Plus to simplify may occasional digitizing. It has analog outputs so it can double as a preamp.





* Some people prefer vinyl and even the sound of vinyl and it's OK with me if they say it "sounds better'. But technically it's worse. It's less accurate with worse noise, worse frequency response, and sometimes audible distortion.

You can digitize the vinyl and, if done properly, it will sound exactly like the vinyl in a blind ABX test. Ot it can sound better if you can filter-out the clicks and tweak the EQ on those old "dull sounding" records.
 
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OP
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;) DISCLAIMER - I kind-of have a bad attitude about vinyl because it's inferior* to digital no matter how much money you spend. I don't play records but occasionally I'll digitize one that's not available digitally. You can get better sound with more money, up to a point so, I wouldn't go too cheap if I was buying a turntable setup but I wouldn't go too crazy either. Personally, I probably wouldn't spend more than $200 on a preamp depending on what I could find.

You probably won't hear an improvement, or at least not a significant improvement. And if you want to use both turntables you'd need two preamps or you'd have to switch the connections or "figure out" something...

If you ever upgrade your receiver, they don't all have phono preamps anymore so you might need an external preamp.

If you have an issue it's usually noise so if you're not hearing noise (or excessive noise) from the preamp you are unlikely to hear an improvement. Noise from the preamp will be hiss (RIAA filtered to boost the low frequencies) or hum. But hum can also be picked-up by the cartridge, or it can be the result of a ground loop.

The other problem is, if you wanted to compare you'd need a noise measurement with the same (or similar) setup that ASR uses because there is more than one way to define and measure noise.

Of course the main source of noise is the records themselves, so usually even if preamp noise is audible when the stylus is out of the groove, it's usually drown-out by record noise (or by the music when you're not between songs). The noise on the record also limits the useable resolution. (A lot of people falsely claim that analog has "infinite" resolution.)

The other issue could be the RIAA equalization (which means the frequency response might not be "flat").

The records and the cartridge also contribute to the frequency response and in any case, the frequency response can be tweaked with EQ. The records I listened to 40 years ago mostly had mediocre frequency response (rolled off highs) with a few exceptions but I was foolishly always upgrading, or wanting to upgrade, my cartridge instead of simply boosting the treble when the records were the biggest problem. (The records I occasionally digitize are usually older also.) I assume that modern records have better and more consistent frequency response... But I think the deepest bass is still rolled-off to help with tracking.

It would be rare to get audible distortion from a preamp so I wouldn't worry about distortion from the preamp. (You can sometimes get "tracking distortion" depending on the record & cartridge.)


I've thought about buying the (similar?) ART USB Phono Plus to simplify may occasional digitizing. It has analog outputs so it can double as a preamp.





* Some people prefer vinyl and even the sound of vinyl and it's OK with me if they say it "sounds better'. But technically it's worse. It's less accurate with worse noise, worse frequency response, and sometimes audible distortion.

You can digitize the vinyl and, if done properly, it will sound exactly like the vinyl in a blind ABX test. Ot it can sound better if you can filter-out the clicks and tweak the EQ on those old "dull sounding" records.
I really appreciate the thorough and wide-ranging response. You brought up a lot of great points.

I'll just note that I'm definitely not an analog purist or someone who insists that vinyl is the superior format to digital or anything (I'd never make that claim). I simply enjoy collecting records, the rituals of playing music on a turntable, and yes, also the sound of my particular setup (with the full understanding that it's not the "ultimate"/truest reproduction, etc.). I've just had this external phono preamp concept dangled out in front of me enough times (in many cases, likely by the audiophile/analog purist cohort) that I wanted to investigate it further.

In any case, you gave me some food for thought, thanks. I know this is a tricky question to ask, but would you say your perspective is representative of the majority of the population on this forum (i.e. "Vinyl bad. Digital good."), and that I'm not likely to encounter other people who use turntables and would be able to address my question?
 

Chrispy

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I've got several receivers and pre-amps with built in phono stages as well as an ART Phono Plus (bought for digitization). Can't say the separate ART unit, aside from adjustable gain, had any particular advantage. I don't play vinyl much these days but still have my SL1200mk2 (with a Shure M97xE at this time).
 
OP
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I've got several receivers and pre-amps with built in phono stages as well as an ART Phono Plus (bought for digitization). Can't say the separate ART unit, aside from adjustable gain, had any particular advantage. I don't play vinyl much these days but still have my SL1200mk2 (with a Shure M97xE at this time).

Thanks! Good to know!
 

MaxwellsEq

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Some time ago I picked up a Rega Fono Mini A2D. It's nothing special, but does have USB out so you can experiment with that. It's also not expensive, so if it doesn't work for you, you've not spent too much.
 

deniall83

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I (and several others here) own the iFi ZEN Phono. It has very accurate RIAA and subjectively sounds very quiet. It has a few settings for different carts and balanced outputs should that be important to you.

Overall for the price I'd recommend it.
 
OP
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Some time ago I picked up a Rega Fono Mini A2D. It's nothing special, but does have USB out so you can experiment with that. It's also not expensive, so if it doesn't work for you, you've not spent too much.

Thanks! Yeah, it's proving difficult to decide where the value is. I feel like, at minimum, the one I buy should allow for adjustments to capacitance, etc., as the Audio Technica carts I own are supposedly sensitive to that. Is that true of the Rega pre?
 
OP
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I (and several others here) own the iFi ZEN Phono. It has very accurate RIAA and subjectively sounds very quiet. It has a few settings for different carts and balanced outputs should that be important to you.

Overall for the price I'd recommend it.

Thank you. I've heard a lot of positive things about that one. Are there any other options at that level that are favored by ASR folks?
 

cgallery

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Beware the hype surrounding phono preamplifiers.

Probably your vintage receiver has a discrete phono stage running class A and powered by the receiver's power supply. Compare and contrast that to a large number of < $500 phono preamps with op amps running AB, with power supplies likely not as good as your receiver's.

But people buy them because of what they've read and like some sort of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale they go on to talk about veils being lifted.
 
OP
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Beware the hype surrounding phono preamplifiers.

Probably your vintage receiver has a discrete phono stage running class A and powered by the receiver's power supply. Compare and contrast that to a large number of < $500 phono preamps with op amps running AB, with power supplies likely not as good as your receiver's.

But people buy them because of what they've read and like some sort of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale they go on to talk about veils being lifted.
Thank you for this much needed "real talk." I had a feeling diminishing returns would be at play. As my unit is from 1974, I was attempting to find a modern equivalent in case it craps out on me (it has had some L/R channel balance issues, but after cleaning the potentiometers, it works alright). Seems like it's hard to find a affordable integrated amp with a good phono stage that plays nicely with my carts (and maybe that's why I'm seeing phono pre suggestions bandied about). But that doesn't mean I need to buy a new external phono pre amp. Thanks again for your insight.
 

Digby

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Is a unit from 1974 going to be in spec? Maybe it would be fine if serviced, doubt it is as good as the Cambridge units.

The Cambridge Solo sounds, essentially, inaudibly different from the Duo. The ART DJ Pre II found to be slightly less impressive in the bass (has some phase issues going on from measurements) than the Solo.
 

Holmz

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Thank you for this much needed "real talk." I had a feeling diminishing returns would be at play. As my unit is from 1974, I was attempting to find a modern equivalent in case it craps out on me (it has had some L/R channel balance issues, but after cleaning the potentiometers, it works alright).

I have no idea on those AT carts, but I was running an older phono stage and put on a new $500 MM cart and it sounds great.
I also got a new phono stage… and a MC cart is en route.
(The new phono stage is bit of a step up, but was a bit more than $500.)

Personally, I think you should just run what you have and enjoy it as long as it works.
If it craps out then lash out on new gear later.

But I think that a $500 upgrade is not likely to bring the angels into the room singing, and what you have may be just as good or better.
 
OP
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Is a unit from 1974 going to be in spec? Maybe it would be fine if serviced, doubt it is as good as the Cambridge units.

The Cambridge Solo sounds, essentially, inaudibly different from the Duo. The ART DJ Pre II found to be slightly less impressive in the bass (has some phase issues going on from measurements) than the Solo.
Appreciate that. Bear in mind that any external phono pre amp I buy would still be pumped through the Kenwood (at least for the time being--until I can get a new amp).
 
OP
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I have no idea on those AT carts, but I was running an older phono stage and put on a new $500 MM cart and it sounds great.
I also got a new phono stage… and a MC cart is en route.
(The new phono stage is bit of a step up, but was a bit more than $500.)

Personally, I think you should just run what you have and enjoy it as long as it works.
If it craps out then lash out on new gear later.

But I think that a $500 upgrade is not likely to bring the angels into the room singing, and what you have may be just as good or better.
Thank you for the wisdom and pragmatic words!
 

Cwopete5

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Here's my phono preamp history. Take it for what it's worth.
  1. Cambridge Audio Alva Solo and Duo. Both very nice units. Solo was a bit thin sounding and favored the highs; didn't work well with my system which tends to run on the "bright" side. The Duo was very clean sounding to the point of being almost sterile. Sold them both.
  2. Vincent PHO-8. Here's a classic example why a nice flat RIAA response curve is so important. Wish I'd seen the ASR on this before I bought it. Way too focused on the high frequency which hurts my old ears. Sold it.
  3. Schitt Mani (original version). I messed around with this one for the longest time but couldn't get it to sound "just right". It's weakest point was the wall-wart power supply. Too much noise. Also it sounded like Schitt was trying to make it sound "ballsy". Sold it.
  4. Bellari VP549. Hated it from the start. Any click or pop on the record was overly amplified. Sold it.
  5. Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. Used this one for a long time. Rolled all kinds of tubes on it. Really enjoyed it until I started to hear a bit of a channel imbalance which only got worse over time. Swapping tubes between channels or different tubes didn't help. Sold it.
  6. iFi Audio Zen. I really like this one at first. Listened to it for a really long time and wasn't ready to give up on it. But after a while the sound just got boring. Too bland for my taste. Sold it.
  7. Darlington Labs MM-6 then upgraded to MP-7. This was an expensive experiment. ASR on the MM-6 didn't recommend it due to noise issues and the MP-7 didn't really improve on it. While the MP-7 did some things really well, like instrument separation in the sound stage, I just could't get past the high noise floor. Sold it.
  8. Emotiva XSP-1 Gen 2. This has become my cheap go-to unit. It does most everything very well. It's only flaw is it can be a bit too sterile sounding. Regardless, I'm keeping this one because it sounds better than all of the above units.
  9. Parasound Zphono. Traded in some old audio gear I was no longer using to get this one. The jury is still out on it. Pros it has a huge dynamic sound and picks up parts of the music I haven't heard before. Very detailed. Cons that huge dynamic sound comes with 46 dB of gain for MM which overdrives the input stage on my amp. Can't get the volume past 9 o'clock before my ears start to hurt. I should be getting a set of 6 dB RCA attenuators today which hopefully will calm it down a bit. Either that or change the input stage tubes on my amp from ECC83s to 5751s to drop the gain. So far I've been enjoying the Zphono. ASR recommended this one as well as the Emotiva.
  10. TC-750 with upgraded wall-wart. The cheapest unit and also the one I've owned the longest. I keep it on hand as a sort of "battle spare". It doesn't do anything particularly great or bad, nothing offensive. Every now and then I'll drop it in my system and listen to it for a couple of weeks. It has kind of an old-school 70's receiver sound to it. I like it.
 

JeremyFife

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I'd echo the suggestions to stick with your current setup unless you think it's broken or particularly flawed (doesn't sound like it). Your dual input option is particularly handy and difficult to replicate without buying 2 new amps.
Fix it if it breaks?

That itch to upgrade is a beast :) Plenty of other ways to spend the money ... including measuring your current setup and looking at EQ or room treatments.

(I also have the Zen Phono btw, and like it, but there's no way of knowing how it compares to your existing kit which may be just fine. There are other good options too)
 
OP
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Here's my phono preamp history. Take it for what it's worth.
  1. Cambridge Audio Alva Solo and Duo. Both very nice units. Solo was a bit thin sounding and favored the highs; didn't work well with my system which tends to run on the "bright" side. The Duo was very clean sounding to the point of being almost sterile. Sold them both.
  2. Vincent PHO-8. Here's a classic example why a nice flat RIAA response curve is so important. Wish I'd seen the ASR on this before I bought it. Way too focused on the high frequency which hurts my old ears. Sold it.
  3. Schitt Mani (original version). I messed around with this one for the longest time but couldn't get it to sound "just right". It's weakest point was the wall-wart power supply. Too much noise. Also it sounded like Schitt was trying to make it sound "ballsy". Sold it.
  4. Bellari VP549. Hated it from the start. Any click or pop on the record was overly amplified. Sold it.
  5. Pro-Ject Tube Box S2. Used this one for a long time. Rolled all kinds of tubes on it. Really enjoyed it until I started to hear a bit of a channel imbalance which only got worse over time. Swapping tubes between channels or different tubes didn't help. Sold it.
  6. iFi Audio Zen. I really like this one at first. Listened to it for a really long time and wasn't ready to give up on it. But after a while the sound just got boring. Too bland for my taste. Sold it.
  7. Darlington Labs MM-6 then upgraded to MP-7. This was an expensive experiment. ASR on the MM-6 didn't recommend it due to noise issues and the MP-7 didn't really improve on it. While the MP-7 did some things really well, like instrument separation in the sound stage, I just could't get past the high noise floor. Sold it.
  8. Emotiva XSP-1 Gen 2. This has become my cheap go-to unit. It does most everything very well. It's only flaw is it can be a bit too sterile sounding. Regardless, I'm keeping this one because it sounds better than all of the above units.
  9. Parasound Zphono. Traded in some old audio gear I was no longer using to get this one. The jury is still out on it. Pros it has a huge dynamic sound and picks up parts of the music I haven't heard before. Very detailed. Cons that huge dynamic sound comes with 46 dB of gain for MM which overdrives the input stage on my amp. Can't get the volume past 9 o'clock before my ears start to hurt. I should be getting a set of 6 dB RCA attenuators today which hopefully will calm it down a bit. Either that or change the input stage tubes on my amp from ECC83s to 5751s to drop the gain. So far I've been enjoying the Zphono. ASR recommended this one as well as the Emotiva.
  10. TC-750 with upgraded wall-wart. The cheapest unit and also the one I've owned the longest. I keep it on hand as a sort of "battle spare". It doesn't do anything particularly great or bad, nothing offensive. Every now and then I'll drop it in my system and listen to it for a couple of weeks. It has kind of an old-school 70's receiver sound to it. I like it.
This is great! Really appreciate the detailed history. I'll definitely keep the Emotiva and Parasound options in mind (having seen them both described favorably in the past). Have you heard anything about the Parasound integrated amps with built-in phono stages (unless no such products exist and I'm just misremembering)?
 
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