I didn't know this until recently, but the phono preamplifier has a lot to do with the subjective quality of the noise from a record. If the preamp is made with insufficient headroom to handle the occasional pop or click, those noises can really overload the preamp, which can destroy the signal for a number of milliseconds *after* the noise has ceased. This is heard as a really grating noise and is objectionable.
BTW, vacuum tubes with high supply voltages can be made to be pretty much immune from that kind of overload. Maybe that's why there are people who prefer vacuum-tube RIAA preamps for their record playback setups.
Getting a great sound from vinyl is expensive. It's for enthusiasts, really. If you want the best sound for the least money, yes, digital is definitely superior. I'd say a carefully chosen, competently designed $500 digital player will destroy any $500 combination of turntable/tonearm, cartridge and RIAA preamp. I'd say that's a safe bet...
Hopelessly addicted to this stuff, but on a strict budget.
Snell Type C speakers
Homebrew DC-coupled, push-pull, 2A3 amp, Intact Audio volume control
RIAA preamp (similar to Arthur Loesch design) - Thorens TD124 w/ Audiocraft AC-3000 - Denon DL160
Pioneer Elite PD-D6-J (CD, SACD)