The Gruvy Awards Phono Preamps

Phono Preamps Under $500
Ifi iPhono
This tiny $399 wonder does MM and MC, features three equalization curves and has sufficient loading options to satisfy the most picky vinyl fanatic. Plus it sounds amazingly good. Excellent rhythm'n'pacing, punchy bass and extended if somewhat clinical top end make this an amazing value that nothing at or near the price so far comes close to beating—at least that I've heard.

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Phono Preamps $500-$2000
Lehmann Black Cube SE II
This $1099 two box MM/MC phono preamp from Germany offers unusual flexibility and immediately obvious soundstage depth that sets it apart from most of the competition at or near its price. It was sweet and supple yet detailed. In's phono preamp shootout, readers could hear and choose from among four similarly priced contenders. It won in a landslide and I agree with the readers.

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Audreal LP-2 (MM)
This $1295 vacuum tube base MM phono preamp was a quiet, smooth operator and exceedingly well-built with a particularly robust power supply. Mate it to a slightly aggressive high output MC cartridge and I bet they make beautiful music together, though even a warmish sounding MM cartridge sounded great.

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Rega Aria
Like Rega's turntables, the Aria excels at rhythm'n'pacing. It features high build quality with separate MM and MC section under one roof and sufficient MC gain to handle any cartridge known to vinyl man. I wouldn't recommend using it with bright and/or analytical cartridges unless you really like a musical wake up call.

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Liberty Audio B2B-1
This all FET based American made $1749 MM/MC phono preamp does everything really well and has no weak suits. It was fast, quiet and ultradynamic without sounding overly analytical. I described it as a "mini-Boulder 1008" and I can't think of a higher compliment. It so intrigued Stereophile editor John Atkinson that he requested the review sample for measurement and it measured as well as it sounded. I think he's kept it around for vinyl archiving. Way recommended.

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Phono Preamps $2000+
LKV Research Phono 2-SB
This $2500 solid-state two-box overachiever, also made in America, offers both fully balanced and single-ended operation. The designers saves money on the less than elegant looking chassis and puts all of the money into the circuitry and parts quality. A great deal of jumper-based configurability makes it highly adjustable but definitely for the nimble-fingered, though the designers sends it to you configured for your current needs. Offers unusually flexible grounding options. Definitely worth checking out.

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Daniel Emerson's picture

This is the only Gruvy-winner I actually own (sounds great, too!), and I would be interested in Mikey's opinion of the 3-point Rega mounting. Is it "good enough" or does using the traditional 2 bolts and doing a really meticulous set-up make a big enough difference for it to be worth the effort?

I enjoy the 3-bolt mounted sound of this cartridge on my modified NAD 533 and the lack of need for neurotic checking and re-checking. This is especially the case for those of us who are nervous about fiddling with delicate things like cartridge setup. But every now and then, I do wonder...

gbougard's picture

I havent found a way to PM you, so please excuse this comment.
I run a small label called TABOU1 and would like to send you our productions.
can you email me your mailing address

Michael Fremer's picture

Rega's 3 Bolt mount uses what I believe ends up being the Stephenson alignment. While it is commonly considered to be one that minimizes distortion at the inner groove area for classical music crescendos, in fact it is more complicated than that but I prefer Löfgren "A" generally. "B" produces lower distortion over the central portion of the record but produces higher distortion closer to the inner and outer groove area. 

 This article will give you more than you want to know about this subject!

Michael Fremer's picture
Daniel Emerson's picture

Not being particularly dextrous with delicate things (took me ages to set the weight after installing the Origin Live counterweight/stub upgrade), I think I'll leave it as it is, as it does sound good.

I suppose was really looking for reassurance that Rega's solution is at least one version of the right setup.

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coaster92's picture

D. Emerson, Rega and others (Technics) do use something close to Stevenson alignment. Rega (or Roy Gandy) says all the alignment theories are compromises and opted for the one which deals best with "IGD" (inner groove distortion). Aside from alignment, Rega considers the mechanical interface of the cartridge and arm to be of utmost importance- I've done both 2 and 3 fixing points on the Exact (with 2 bolts I used Baerwald alignment) and for me its 3 bolts hands down. The sonic difference of giving up the third bolt is greater than the change in alignment. There is a very precise quality with percussive instruments and more rhythmic grip and snap to the music with 3 bolts, and the vinyl plays slightly quieter too. The Exact pulls off the trick of having some drive and excitement, while at the same time being a nicely musical cartridge. Really anyone with a Rega table should at least try one. Its only shortfall is it might not be for "Soundstage" listeners. The stage is good but others like Ortofon and Goldring are better there. Read the Stereo Times review of the Exact. He covers the differences of bolts also.

Daniel Emerson's picture

It means peace of mind, too, which also adds to the listening enjoyment.

pbnaudio's picture

Thanks so much for the "Gruvy" for our little Liberty B2B-1  Greatly apprectiated !



Peter Noerbaek

PBN Audio

Paul Boudreau's picture

Thanks much for the roundup.  Minor quibble:  The Nitty Gritty 2.0 is the oak-clad manual machine while the 2.5 is the semi-manual you described.

jazz and cocktails's picture

thoughts on the combo of a Traveler w/ Otello?

Michael Fremer's picture

The cartridge is available in both high and medium compliance. I think you'd want medium compliance but I'm sure Soundsmith will know which works best. It's a very good cartridge. The Ortofon 2M Bronze would be the competition at about $50 less but I've not done a comparison.

jazz and cocktails's picture

to a Carmen vs 2m Black vs Dynavector 20, all on the traveler?

TheThing72's picture

Any thoughts on the Ortofon Red 2m vs. the Grado Red? I have a Music Hall MMF 2.2 that I am looking to swap out the stock Tracker cartridge. I have been getting great results from it for about the past year with fairly heavy use. But, it is getting time to either replace the stylus or get something different. My local shop is recommending the Grado Red.. but I have not had much experience with either carts. In the past I have used Shure M97's and AT95E's.. and am looking for something a bit better. Will the Grado have issues with the MH motor?? Any advise would be a great help.

Rudy's picture

I think this is the first list I've read in a dozen or two years that includes equipment I actually own!  Yes, it's been that long since I've seriously upgraded anything.  And I tend to hang on, so what I got this year will likely be around for a decade or two.

Cartridges--2M Black vs. 20X2-H: how is the 20X2-H as a tracker?  Would the Dynavector 17D3 be preferable in that respect?  (I already realize it has more of a "romantic" sound to it, and I'm totally OK with that.)  I want to change things up a bit and might go with an MC cart.

Michael Fremer's picture

I haven't directly compared but the 2M Black's Shibata stylus is probably a slighty better tracer than the microridge found in the Dynavector but really it is splitting hairs. Haven't heard a 17D3 in a while so can't really say. But if you really want to "shake things up" with a MC, I'd get the low output 20X2 and add a step-up transformer if need be...

Rudy's picture

A late reply...

I ended up going to the 17D3, partly due to the microscopic cantilever having such a low moving mass. That did the trick, along with the MicroRidge stylus. (Anyone know if this is the same MicroRidge diamond stylus the V15VMR/V15VxMR used? Seems as though it should be a trademarked name.)

To say it tracks circles around the 2M Black is an understatement--my ancient Grado F3E+ tracked about the same as the 2M, and only cost me $55 circa 1980. The 17D3 is still maybe a small notch below the V15VMR (which I wore out my last stylus for) in trackability, but it goes right through vinyl passages that the 2M Black couldn't even cope with. (And if you recall my handful of emails, I had to do a lot of fussing with the 2M Black just to correct its alignment and sloppy build quality.) This was also the first cartridge to play back the Nat King Cole "Just One Of Those Things" LP (the S&P reissue) without Nat "lithping" throughout (and I've heard more than a few complaints about this particular LP). Also, the Dynavector seems to be meticulously built--it feels like you're handling a precision device. The 2M just feels like plastic imported junk in comparison (not to mention having a very dangerous stylus guard which broke the second time I used it).

I can now hear why MCs edge out most other cartridge types: the music just seems to "pop" out of the soundstage...maybe more holographic, I'm thinking? I notice a little more detail as well (not the treble end, but the way it picks little things out of the mix I hadn't heard before). It reminded me of last winter when I finally got the crappy Pioneer DV45A out of my system and put a new Oppo 105 in its place--I have these moments where I have to put down what I am doing since the music grabs my attention that much.

BogdanR's picture

Have you tried one on your V15VMR before plunging over $1200 on the DV?
Just curious...

Leo Quinonez's picture

It is not necessary to have Trademark.

jazz and cocktails's picture

I pulled the trigger on a Traveler/Carmen combo, should be here next week.

2channelguy's picture

Based on the Gruvy award I just ordered the ifi iPhono to go with my Traveler/Grado Sonata 1.  Should be here next week.

Michael Fremer's picture

Later today (Friday) I will post files of four MM phono preamps (3 also have MC capabilities that will be covered in the near future). You will be able to compare the four, priced from $99 to over $500. One is the iPhono but of course you will be listening "blind". 

mschlack's picture

I have the one with the big red blinking light in the middle. Having recently upped my digital game with the Auralic Vega, I now find my VPI Scout with Benz Wood SM a little behind my digital experience. Was wondering if you have any thoughts on what would be a reasonable step up. The rest of my chain is ARC LS 26/Simaudio Moon 5.3/B&W 70s. Also, are you going to review the new Phonomena?

Dr. Frankenheimer's picture

Time for me to consider a new cartridge, but not a whole new rig. So the cartridge will have to ride along in an old(ish) Origin-Live modded Rega. Which means, no fine adjustments of SRA and no azimuth adjustments. What's a decent cartridge that isn't too fussy about that sort of thing?

adidino's picture

Curious why the JC3+ is not on the Gruvies list but is on the Stereophile A Recommended Components? Vice-versa for the Lehmann Black SEII. Not on Stereophile RC but made the Gruvies list.

What's up with that Mike? :)

Dorian Workman's picture

Or was this just a one-time thing?

Shirly Coomer's picture

Can I order this in Canada?

kevemaher's picture

The performance in the London ffrr LP of Gershwin is better in every way than the Fiedler performance that Analog Productions has remastered. I have the SACD from a previous remastering and the original issued LP but not the Analog Productions remaster. I cannot comment on the technical merits of the AP issue. However the other two I have are severely limited by the awful interpretations by Fiedler and the quirky piano playing of Earl Wild. My ffrr release from somewhere post 1972, but pre 1980, conducted by Lorin Maazel with Ivan Davis on the piano is dynamic and powerful with wonderful hall acoustics. It is impeccably performed, especially by Ivan Davis. The actual LP itself has a huge soundstage, warm mellow sound, wonderful bass dynamics and is extremely quiet. My copy, bought soon after original release, was mastered by Harry Fisher. Both sides are from the first master lacquer. Side one was from the second metal master, first stamper. The second side is from the fifth metal master, fifth stamper. I wish this performance could be remastered although I can't imagine a better vinyl could be created than the one I have.

Some performances recorded by RCA in their "Living Stereo" series are not of the highest quality. The technical merits of the new AP release may be many and wonderful, but, in the instance of the Fiedler Gershwin, cannot correct for an almost unlistenable performance. Anyone have a similar experience?

latinaudio's picture

Hi Mickey.
It has been a long time since you made the Gruvy Awards.
Don´t you think it´s time to include/exclude some products and give them a new "class" treatment?

Bob257's picture

I'm considering upgrading from my current Technics SL-D20 with Audio-Technica SL450 P mount cartridge to the P6 with the Exact cartridge. I'm hoping to hear an improvement. I can upgrade later to a MC preamp and a Ania cartridge if I desire. I'm using a Yamaha a-s801 integrated amp with its preamp. My main speakers are a set of EPI 320 T/E with new drivers, and the secondary speakers are Elac 6.2 and two sets of RCA bookshelf speakers and Polk PSW10 subwoofer. Do you have any other suggested TT?

Bob257's picture

Do you think that using a preamp like the Schiitt Mani would have better sound than the preamp in my Yamaha a-s801 integrated amp?

tnargs's picture

An update of these awards would be interesting, especially at the lower price points. Thanks

Duke86fan's picture

I really need to upgrade from my simple schiit mani, Uturn orbit with grado black setup, if i really want to get into real mindblowing musical experiences

zackchild1's picture

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brednjam1's picture

Hi Mr. Fremer,

I actually just e-mailed you asking for some recommendations. Are these still your favorite turntables? Is there a better one in the under $1000 range?

brednjam1's picture

Hi Mr. Fremer,

Hi Mr. Fremer, I actually just e-mailed you asking for some recommendations. Are these still your favorite cartridges? Is there a better one in the under $500 range?

brednjam1's picture

Hi Mr. Fremer,

Hi Mr. Fremer, I actually just e-mailed you asking for some recommendations. Are these still your favorite preamps? Is there a better one in the under $500 range?