Amps, preamps, and home theater

I decided I want to upgrade my amp/preamp, and am deciding what to get. I have a pair of Joseph Audio RM22si signatures currently driven by a Denon AVR2600 receiver (5x70 watts RMS). This gets really tricky with home theater, since I want to be able to use my setup for that.

I'm looking to buy only those products that I will leap out of my seat when I hear the difference from my old receiver. I'm hoping I can get giants leaps of sound improvement for around $1000 used. Maybe I'm optimistic.

What are people's opinions about whether to use the Denon as the preamp (it has pre-outs for all channels) and just buy a quality power amp? I'm afraid the Denon's preamp may taint the sound, though. Another option is to buy an integrated amp. I only need quality power to the front 3 speakers, but since I need to be able to decode Dolby Digital/DTS, maybe I'm stuck choosing a 5 channel integrated home theater amp (I have no need for a tuner).

I'm also interested in people's opinions about what brands would best drive the Josephs (which sound terrific in my small listening space).

Are home theater and good stereo sound as difficult as I'm fearing they are?
Upgrade the amplifiers . . . . I went from a Denon AVR-87 alone to a using the Denon as a pre to drive a Rotel 985 Mk II for the front three channels (the AVR-87 only had outputs for the three front channels)and it made an amazing difference.

The Denon's pre stage might not be ideal, but it will sound much better with good amplifiers. Also, once you have the power amps, it's a short step to a dedicated pre/pro down the line . . . .
I used to own a Denon AVR 5700. Then bought an amp, using the Denon as a preamp, then bought a pre/pro, and then sold the Denon. And that was only the beginning...

Based on the budget you have and assuming you already have a decent cd player, interconnects and main speaker cabling, I'd recommend the following to reach your goal:

1. Purchase an Odyssey Stratos 2-channel amplifier for $1000. See for reviews and product info.
2. Purchase an Odyssey Temptest pre-amp for $1000.
3. Sell the Denon.
4. Sell any home theater center and surround speakers and speaker cabling you may have.
5. If you don't already own one, find a used M_U_S_I_C_A_L subwoofer for about $1000.
7. Install dedicated electrical circuits and lines for each of your components using 12 gauge or 10 gauge romex wiring: amplifier on one circuit, pre on another, cd and dvd on another, sub on another. If you do the work yourself, it'll cost you about $200 in circuit breakers, romex, etc. Make two of the dedicated lines 20 amps. One 20amp line for the amplifier and one 20amp line for your subwoofer. The other lines should be 15 amps for source and pre.
8. Purchase four of the best 20 amp industrial grade electrical outlets at Home Depot for about $12 each and install them fon your dedicated lines.
9. Forget about DD or DTS. Watch your movies in PCM 2 channel only.
10. Experiment with speaker placement to maximize your soundstage and imaging.

Do the above for about $1000-$2000 out of pocket expenses after selling other items and you'll have a very nice sounding high resolution 2-channel audio system and a very nice sounding high resolution 2-channel system for movies.

You'll forget all about DD and DTS.
You'll forget all about the missing center and surround channels.
And instead you'll have a more beautiful, clean, and simplified setup.
And your sound system for music and movies could well be categorized in the upper 10 or even 5 perctile of all audio systems.

Most importantly it's not how much you spend but on what and where you spend it on.

If you want really good 2-channel performance you'll have to get the Denon outta there as both the preamp and amp sections will both significantly limit your system's potential. But the good news is you can keep the Denon to do surround processing and power the center and/or rear channels.

I'd focus on a good stereo amp first, because it'll be important that it's a good match for the Josephs. Something in the 100 watt range from someone like McCormack, Marsh, or Odyssey would be cost effective and trounce the amp section in your Denon. Next, find a good stereo preamp -- again, Marsh, Odyssey, and McCormack all make good preamps, but the McCormack offers a HT passthrough that will let you seamlessly integrate it with your Denon(i.e. no volume matching necessary). Not a must have, but a nice convenience especially if you have others using the system.

Hook your stereo source into the stereo preamp and the stereo preamp to the stereo amp, and you've got a pure high-end system for stereo listening. Hook the front L/R preamp outs from the Denon into an AUX or VIDEO input on the stereo preamp, and voila, you've got an integrated high-end 2-channel system integrated into a HT setup. When you want to listen to high-quality stereo music just choose the proper source(i.e. CD), and when you want movies or surround music just choose the AUX or VIDEO input on the stereo preamp and the Denon once again controls the whole setup. Pretty neat.

You will notice significant improvements by adding a better stereo amp or preamp, but adding both will almost certainly give you that "leap out of your seat" experience you're looking for, and it will allow your Josephs to really open up and show their full potential.

If you're intent on listening to music in surround modes you might consider a 3-channel amp and a new surround processor, but now you're talking a much higher outlay of cash. If you build a really good 2-channel setup as outlined above your desire to listen to surround music will be greatly diminished if not obliterated -- better to leave the surround stuff for the movies, at least for now. Hope this helps and best of luck.
Soix, I like your idea a lot. Let me ask this: does it need to be an amp and preamp, or would a good integrated amp do the trick? If so, is there a good 3-channel integrated amp with the HT passthrough feature you describe. Or even 2 channel, and I could continue to power the center through the Denon (but less ideal).

Stehno, I just can't see how two speakers could provide that you're-in-the-movie feeling. I'm open to having that opinion changed, but I'd really need to have someone else's system convince me before I made a move like that.

Tsrart, great point. What I may do is buy an amp first to use with the Denon, waiting until later to replace the Denon with a preamp.
Oops, forgot to mention an integrated will work too. I'm not too familiar with integrateds so I don't know of any that have HT passthroughs or three channels of amplification. Either way you're definitely limiting your choices severely and may very well sacrifice sound for features.

I'd still advocate for seperates as you'll have more choices, you can upgrade in stages, and you'll have more flexibility to upgrade in the future as your system evolves.

Unless you spring for an expensive pre/pro along with a 3-channel amp your center channel's not going to sound as good as your L/R speakers anyway(since it's being processed by the Denon), so I don't know how much value there is in spending that much extra in amplification for it. My guess is that movies will still be pretty darn involving with the Denon powering the center channel, but if you get the stereo stuff right your 2-channel experience is going to improve in a major way. Best of luck.
AFAIK, there are no 3-ch integrated amps. Any integrated, or preamp/amp copmbo will work as Tim said. An HT bypass, or unity gain, feature is convenient, as it takes the preamp's volume control out of the circuit, so to speak. Otherwise, calibrate your HT system using a known volume control position on the preamp/integrated, and always return it to that position when you select aux/video to watch HT.