A great linestage/preamp "makes" a great system

I've evolved a very nice and synergistic 2 channel music system over the past decade (posted). The learning curve has been very steep at times, but the result has been worth the ride. The one component I've found the most elusive to get "right" is the linestage/preamp. I've owned resistor-based attenuators (EVS and Endler), passive TVCs (Django and amorphous core Promethius), Musical Design MP-1b and custom 2 box "balls out" (Black Gates/tantalum resistors/Schottky)solid state, fully tweaked Atma-Sphere MP-3, and Blue Circle 3000 GZPZ tubed units - all of which had virtues, but none possessing the full package. I understand where the passive crowd is coming from. That nth degree of transparency is very hard to get from actives. Likewise, the liquidity/body/"humanness" of great actives adds so much to my musical enjoyment. My new Audio Note L3 Kits "2 box" Custom build from Bill Baker of Bella Extreme has finally gotten me the best attributes of both passive and active designs I've used.

I'm wondering if any of you, like me, have been on the journey a while and have found the linestage/preamp to be the trickiest to get "right" in your system. For me a truly outstanding one is the centerpiece of my system.
I too have traveled the elusive "right sounding" preamp road. Then I got Placette passive and the journey ended.
Hi JB,

I too, have found this area diffcult to get "right". I fooled around with Joule Electra, upgraded BAT VK-30, and now a Sonic Euphoria passive. The last entry, The SE, has my system sounding the best it's been so far. Change in the linestage department is not in the offing anytime soon. Nice you've found what works for you, congrats and enjoy.

My experience over the years has been that the effect of any linestage/preamp in my systems has been the most unpredictable. Digital sources have consistently proven more refined/analog-sounding as I've moved up the cost ladder (ouch!). Once I understood how to match amplification with compatible loudspeakers and "tamed" the listening room, the "amp/speaker" choices distilled into a paradigm-based "flavor" preference and I've gotten what appeals best to my "taste". Preamp/linestage has been the most difficult component. I'll still hold on to my EVS XLR and Endler RCA passives (in case of active "failure") and a K&K fully balanced active linestage in my office system, as these have been the biggest bang for buck units outside of the Audio Note Custom.
I finally got it right, but by pure chance.
The only thing I couldn't find was a pre-amp that wouldn't aggravate me never mind one that lifted my system to the highest point I ever thought I could want or afford. I need look no further.
I collect 6SN7s which I had been using in an ultralinear PP integrated 40WPC amp. I switched my WAF amp to a Jadis DA-60 which uses 12AU7s and 12AX7s. My big rig was controlled by a modded wire with gain all 12AX7 ARC SP6B. I could finally listen to my 73i6s in the Jadis and made ample use of the 5751s I had accumulated.
I nevertheless had to get a pre that used 6SN7s and I lucked into a "miracle". This preamp uses all of 2 tubes both 6SN7s, it is the AE-3 from Cary's sub brand. The bill for this used bought on Agon was an incredible grand total of 300 or so bucks. I bought it just to make sure the tubes I bought sounded as well as they tested.
This little pre has bought me nirvana with only a single set back. The 6SN7s do the important things like providing gain and phase splitting. All music must pass thru those tubes if anything is "off" about the tubes, it is ruthlessly revealed .
Some tubes I thought were really very fine when used as drivers are simply junk in this application.
I have used a number of 6SN7s in it while most take the system to my limbic system directly. there are tubes and there are tubes that are just more equal than others.
The more sought after ones are generally better. I found this to be the case except for a very popular tube and a royally expensive tube at that. The beloved Tung Sol round plate . I am certain it is vastly over rated the 4 pairs I own sound rather uninspired except for one pair that sound good but not glorious. I test them and even though they all tested very well. You really have to hear them. I don't know why the electrical parameters report a tube as very good, even test like new nominal and they can still sound like @#$%^&* So shoot me. I keep waiting for the magic from that bunch.
JAN CHS 6SN7 Ws are the top dog and it isn't subtle. The hard part with these is finding quiet ones- good luck, some sellers swear up and down, absolutely quiet one here, no noises at all, not even some microphonics and in use they sound like the furnace blew a gasket.
In sum and your point this pre is definitely a very crucial element in my system. It provided the synergy, the voice, and the glue along with my tube monoblocks to make the once elusive great system, we all aim for actually occur. It's a happy story preceeded by years of frustration. It all adds up to my idea of audio magic, a very very coherent sound. It is of course active.The phono from ASE costs more than the pre and I am certain there is no tube that lasts without a degradation in sound and becomes too noisy for phono stages. Otherwise I am a true tube person.
I should add that the AE-3 was upgraded with very good caps and new faster hex freds etc. along with some minor mods by a friend. We were both worried it might take something away. It didn't add a whole lot, but it didn't ruin it at all. He called it "scary good" and he is the designer of a very high end pre-amp. He said the 15K pre he is marketing was only 10% better than this one.
Mechans, how I wish I'd have found the best preamp for my system so inexpensively. You are lucky, indeed! FWIW, I'm also a 6SN7 collector as an Atma OTL owner. There are greats among them and two of the four I now use in each monoblock are Sylvanias.

My custom Audio Note preamp uses a pair of 5687s in the gain stage, the "smaller sibling" of sorts to the 6SN7. I must like the character of the 6SN7/5687 family!

I do agree that for me at least, the line stage preamp is one of, if not the most difficult choices to make in building a quality stereo system. I can go back only about 4 years ago, when it took me 7 in home auditions to find the preamp that I chose.

I think one of the things that makes the preamp so difficult is combining sound quality, with features, and compatibility. For the most part, when we are choosing speakers, amps, sources, etc, we are only choosing quality of sound and compatibility. There are no real 'features' to rely on. For instance, a preamp you may be looking for remote control ability on top of phase inversion, balance control, balanced ins/outs, etc....etc.

A speaker only needs to sound good by comparison.

Bottom line, I do agree with you that the line stage is the 'trickest' piece to get in a great sounding system.

Features are definitely a huge consideration. One of the reasons I went the "custom" route with Bill Baker was to tailor a preamp to my liking. I wanted that glorious Audio Note sound with two pairs each of (transformer-coupled) balanced inputs and outputs. The M10 at the top of Audio Note's commercial preamp line has 'em (though I don't think a PAIR of each). I also wanted right and left channel 0.25 dB step DACT attenuators in addition to a DACT master volume attenuator to fine tune channel balance. Others surely would have a very different set of system-specific features.
I too feel that the preamp is the most critical component in the system. Since the amps and speakers magnify whatever the output is from the preamp it greatly effects outcome. I have gone through many hi end preamps by Audible Illusions, Sonic Frontiers, Hovland, Lamm, and Wyetech but found that my Shindo Vosne Romanee has made the largest positive difference in my sound of any component I have tried.
Despite some of what others might call short commings, I like the thor MK II line stage.

I also feel the preamp, if one is used, is very very important.

congrats on your own achievement.

to get off mine, I'd have to find one with as good or better sonics, and far more flexibility, and all with remote control actuation.
To this day adding a preamp to my system many many years ago (formerly had been using a Wadia CDP w/ volume control) was the single biggest improvement my system ever experienced. While speakers and amp make the most noticeable differences, the Preamp is a critical component when it comes to fine detail, and nuance. Congratulations on finding one you like. I've been through many recently and I've found a couple I really like. I think my current unit is going to be a "keeper".
If the preamp is dropping the ball with the signal, loosing detail and bandwidth, that sort of thing, there is no way the power amplifier will be able to restore it downstream. As a consequence the preamp is the heart of the system- everything emanates from it; it has to be right.
The preamplifier and source component should be considered as one. Get either one wrong and you have half.
I guess I might be the odd man out. In my expereince linestages have had less sonic influence than speakers and amps. I will agee that due to the specific funtions needed and the direct hands on interaction, linestages might have qualities or the lack there of, that connect or disconnect us to our systems on other levels.
I definitely found that a great linestage was the key to my system. Trying around 6 units that retailed between $3k and $6K, I finally found the one that sang and opened everything up. Trying different amps with the same "good, but not perfect" linestage resulted in different flavors of the same sound, but not the near mind-blowing improvement that the right linestage made in my system. It is so system dependent, it is hard to know what is really the best, but I found one that was extremely synergistic with my other components and very nice in it's own right.

In the last few months, I demoed at home: Eastern Electric Minimax, Herron VTSP1a-166, Classe CP-700, Audio Research LS26, Dehavilland Ultraverve II, Modwright 9.0 Signature, Simaudio I-7 preamp section, and McCormack ALD-1 with Gold+ SMC upgrades. All had their plusses and minuses, but the ALD-1 was the standout for my system. It is nice that the journey is over; time to focus on my source!
Founding the right one has been truly a revelation and life changing (audio) experience for me. So, enough of flirting and dating (almost 30years), am now happily married to one. She now becomes the backbone of my great family.. =)
I don't necessarily agree that the linestage makes the most difference, but, I do agree that it is the electronic component that is most unpredictable in terms of compatibility. I've heard preamps and linestages that sounded really good in one system that were utterly hopeless in another very good system. This has been particularly the case with tube gear. Also, a tube linestage may sound slow and soggy in one system and thin and analytical in another, with no obvious reason for the difference. That makes the search for the right one a pretty tricky endeavor.

I currently use an Emotive Audio Epifania linestage and a Viva Fono phonostage (both tube). This combination works well with my amp (Audionote Kageki). As far as functionality/ergonomics, it has what is to me the minimum features -- remote control of balance and volume. Other features I wish it had would be ability to individually adjust the sensitivity of each input, a mono switch and the ability to change absolute polarity by remote control. Soundwise, it is a terrific linestage -- open, detailed and lively sounding, huge soundstage, delivers a dense and natural sounding harmonic structure without sounding soggy.

All those features I require, and a whole lot more, are available in the the Levinson No. 32 preamp I also own. However, it does not deliver the same level of performance as the Epifania. I have lent it to others and it does seem to be quite predictable, in terms of the kind of sound it delivers -- well composed, relaxed, natural, but a touch dull sounding (I don't know about the Epifania's compatibility because I haven't lent it out. Emotive Audio's cheaper linestage, the Sira, is EXTREMELY variable in its performance).

I also own a Placette Active linestage. In some ways it is actually better sounding than the Levinson (very lively and fast sounding), but it is not nearly as ergonomically easy to use and "complete." Still, this is quite a "bargain" compared to the Levinson and the Epifania.
I just tried my recession system in a "direct connection", that is;I connected the power amp directly to the tape input to bypass the linestage in my preamp. I have been playing records (analog mm). The system plays fairly loudly,but not too bad.The sound is significantly better.It gives the feeling that there is no ceiling to the treble extension and the bass is very coherent.Indeed, when playing a very good Hyperion recording Howells/Vaughn Williams,the inner details,microdynamics are much more apparent and well placed within the sound stage.This music is very difficult to record and play. Top treble notes are often portrayed as a big splat! of distortion.With this config. this rarely happened and only in the biggest spot on the recording.
This has finally opened my eyes to the passive preamp. Does anyone know of a basic,cheap,very cheap, kit or diy for a passive?

This system is surprisingly revealing.The Snell E speakers are in a close listening position.These are driven by a Arcam P-80 power amp and a Advent reciever/preamp.The source is a Realistic direct drive table with a AudioTechnica AT62E.

I know it sounds like cheap junk,but it would surprise you as it has others (knowledgeable audiophiles).

I feel that I have stumbled onto a very well matched system, that performs beyond expectations.

come have a listen

Emorrisiv, google "lightspeed preamp." I don't have one myself, but it has a following among the minimalist crowd. I tried the direct connection myself and was most impressed by the results.
Thanks Stewie.
"This has finally opened my eyes to the passive preamp. Does anyone know of a basic,cheap,very cheap, kit or diy for a passive?"


Try a LDR pre amp when they are back in stock. Dirt cheap and great sounding.

My Supratek Chenin preamp is the cornerstone of my system. Stock it was very nice, but I have modded it to run single triode 2C22 tubes in place of the 6SN7s, and swapped the plate resistor on the 2C22s for a constant current source based on cascoded IXYS10M45S current regulator chips. Also replaced all linestage resistors with Texas Components TX2575 resistors and the coupling caps with Duelund CAST.

Holy cow, it is transparent as glass, with great bass and oodles of musicality. I can't see myself changing from this preamp, ever.
thanks Jonathan, that looks very nice. Unfortunately the recession/downsized/no jobs in site/ situation that I find myself in puts me in a sorry state for anything more than a simple DIY project. Just got a call on a possible job and if it happens the Prometheus will be high on my list of passives to audition.

fingers crossed