Audio Research Ref-5 SE
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Before Die Muzik, I have owned Vienna Mahlers for several years and wrote the review for TAS. Fantastic speakers indeed. I have used three different pres with them with excellent results...
ARC Ref 3 -- wonderfully resolving, mildly tuby and pastel in its tone, wonderful almost completely linear bass.
Rowland Capri (V1) -- greater dynamics, resolution, and staging than Ref 3, but with a slightly light tone in the bass region. The new Capri S2 has exceeded greatly performance of the original and no longer shows the peccadillos in the bass region
Rowland Criterion -- simply sonically and musically stunning for all audible parameters. No longer in production, but the current Rowland Corus is very close. One is available used on Audiogon in your price range.
If you were interested in Ref 3, please let me know via PM. My unit may be seeking a caring adoptive parent, and will be well inside your budget.
A shocking preamp and I mean shocking how good, is the Manley 300B which carves out space better than any preamp solid state or tube, greater warmth then the ARC stuff, with a great sense of flow, and it is very involving and you can get a brand new unit with warranty and no issues for $5,800.00 this thing is a bargain.
I would suggest you take a look at the Herron VTSP-3AR02. I had several Audio Research (SP16 and LS26) and Modwright (LS36.5 and LS100) preamps prior to acquiring the Herron and the VTSP-3AR02 represented a significant step upwards from these well regarded models. My search for an extremely quiet, musically compelling preamp has ended with the Herron. I am not sure how it would mate with your Pass amplification but I believe I have seen this combination elsewhere. You could check with Keith on this as he is very honest and willing to talk through whatever questions you may have. The Herron is well within your price range.
Bar81, No I have not demo the Ayre, and after my very poor experience with Audio Consultants in Hinsdale IL, I wouldn't even consider giving them any of my money, so unless there is a more respectable dealer in the Chicago area I've given up on Ayre.
Drubin, Thank you for the input, I will look into Music First.
Also had an opportunity to try the Manley Labs 300B that Audioorcale suggested and he is correct, for the price it is an outstanding unit, just lacking the tight bass control & micro detail I heard in the BAT VK-33.
The top VAC preamps can be had for around $8K used, without the built-in phono stage. I love my Phi Beta.
I also think the Music First passive drubin mentions is phenomenal--liquid, detailed, dynamic, harmonically full--really does it all. A comparison to my VAC was a toss up in my system, and the MF is quite a bit less money--with no tubes to futz with. Not sure how it would mate with Pass amps but it was outstanding with Bryston 28B-SST2.
I have a Dude. A few teething problems with Paul - like some superficial quality control - knobs not fitting, etc - but in the end he came through, fixed everything and it does sound spectacular.Best I've heard. And I've tried most of the top $8-12K preamps. The Dude and the CJ Premier 16L would be my two top 2 preamps.