Musical Fidelity V-LPS Phono Stage Michael Fremer
I admit that $5000 and $3500 cartridges are out of reach for most of uswhat's good at the (true( bargain end of the price spread?
How about a sweet-sounding starter phono preamp for moving-magnet cartridges that lists for $119 but can be had online for under $70? It's the Audio-Technica AT-PEQ3, a little plug'n'play box with a wall-wart power supply that's quiet, sounds clean and surprisingly dynamic, and gets the job done remarkably well.
True, I auditioned it using the ridiculously good Ortofon 2M Black, a cartridge equipped with a Shibata stylus and selling for $669, but the combo goes for only $700 and change, and I lived happily with it and the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable (with Graham Phantom tonearm) for longer than I should admit to.
It's true that the upcoming double 45rpm edition of RCA's famous The Power of the Orchestra, produced by Reader's Digest and engineered by the late, great Ken Wilkinson, would sound good played with a pine needle, but had I played it for you through this modest front end (not counting the 'table and arm!), you'd never know what hit youuntil you heard it played back by far more expensive cartridges and phono preamps. The orchestral sound was open and a tad bright, but with surprising heft and slam. Imaging was a bit flat and strings on the thin side, but if you needed proof that the law of diminishing returns rules high-performance audio, this would be it.
Switch to Musical Fidelity's MM/MC V-LPS phono preamplifier ($199) and add the instrumental layering the A-T misses, along with better image specificity and dimensionality, greater dynamic slam, more supple instrumental textures, and better harmonics. Replace the wall wart with the V-PSU power supply (which can simultaneously power two other Musical Fidelity components) for an additional $199 and it gets even better, with noticeably better bottom-end extension.Michael Fremer