Best 3 tube preamps under $18000?

I will be pleased to know your opinion, about which can be the 3 best tube preamplifiers, with a price, NEW, under $18.000. I want to use them with SS amplifiers.
If I were shopping in that price range, I would seriously consider ARC Ref-5, Atmasphere MP-1 and Wavac PR-T1 (used).

I'm sure there are other great tube preamps though.
Shindo Masseto, ARC Ref-5
Einstein and Atma Sphere MP1.
Full function or line level only?
You did not specify
I will assume you mean line level only, and so here are three that my friends use or used. (FYI, I use a solid state preamp, the Ayre K-1xe, which is a full function preamp.)

The ARC Ref. 5 is one of my top choices. ($12K new/$7K used) Lots of inputs and it has both single ended and balanced inputs and outputs. Lots of features which are available on the remote control.(Very neutral sounding, without any tube bloom. Could easily be mistaken for a solid state preamp, IMHO.)
(Note: The Ref. 3 is very close to the Ref. 5 sonically, and if bought used, it is a bargain, (@ $5K), IMHO.)

Lamm L2 Reference is another. ($15K new/$7K used) Very, very musical, but a slight bit dark sounding in comparison to the Ref. 5. It does not have a remote, nor is it a true balanced preamp. (Note, the unit itself is actually solid state, but the power supply uses tubes, so I am not sure if this counts for you or not.)

The Conrad Johnson ACT 2, Series 2, ($16K new/$10K used) is also very nice. Lots of inputs (SE only though), and a remote.

My two cents worth anyway.
One made by Jeffery Jackson
If I was spending $18,000.00 on anything,I think I would be doing the legwork myself.I'm sure folks here mean well but are you seriously going to consider spending that much money on something recommended by a complete stranger?Just a thought.
VAC Ren Sig
Doshi Alaap
I second the VAC Signature; VAC Phi 2.0 is also very good, if you can find one for sale.
You absolutely have to consider BAT REX- it bettered some of the preamps, mentioned above, in my system, in terms of the SQ.
Speaking of functionality and flexibility, I cannot imagine anything better.
I own a REF3 and had a REF5 for demo and as per Kurt_tank posting(Note: The Ref. 3 is very close to the Ref. 5 sonically, and if bought used, it is a bargain, (@ $5K), IMHO.)

I agree with him, I did allot of research and decided to place an order for a VAC Signature MKIIa so this will be interesting.

I also have solid state amplification, mono blocks so when I was doing research a couple of areas were important to me;

1. True balance design
2. RCA and XLR connection, in my current set-up I use all XLR cables so the pce had to offer XLR outputs and inputs.

What are your IC connections?

There are some great choices above but because of my basic requirements many were eliminated, the Einstein MKII interested me but after more research just too many tubes, runs too hot and I personally don't have an appropriate spot for it.

What's the rest of your set-up, are you looking for line only or including phono, I ordered my VAC with phono.
Every amp mentioned here is worth auditioning, as is the Joule LA300, and if you don't have money burning quite as big a hole in your pocker, the Joule LA150 MKII SE. Not sure it has been mentioned yet, but no preamp survey is complete without listening to some of the CAT preamps.
Ooops, I should have mentioned the Joule LA 300 (and the brand new fully balanced Joule 450, which I heard @ RMAF this year and was formidable to say the least). I for one have never been impressed w the CATs. YMMV.
Not sure what SS amp you have in mind but you might want to try a Cary SLP05. Pretty flexible & you can add the phono stage for less than $18000.
Jesus, $18k on anything better sound good.
I love my BAT Rex with Pass Labs XA.5 amps. Very quiet, dynamic, and it adds just the right touch to the midrange.

In considering balanced pre-amps with a remote, the only others that have my curiosity include the Joule LA450 and the VAC Sig IIa.
wow, some got it like that.
I know it is not tubed, but a worthy of consideration. Steve McCormack VRE-1 Preamp.
The BAT Rex is pretty special! The most natural mid-range I've heard to date. Hope you find what you like.

VAS II, about $5000. Classic design, top of the line materials. Yes, it cannot beat the ARC unit, but hey, it sounds great and is a super value.
The ARC Ref-5 is definitely a nice pre and I would only recommend it if you can live with the fact that Audio Research will come out with a Ref 6 in about 3 months and that your ARC 5 will not be upgradable.
I would seriously have to stretch a couple of grand for the BAT REX or get the VK52se which may not be the best under 18k but it is upgradeable to the rex which is one of the if not the best pre-amps out there at any price.
There are great brands, like the Forsell Fetcode and the Millennia...they are fantastic.
Let's throw a couple more on the pile:

CAT SL-1 Ultimate
Allnic L-4000
Atma-sphere MP-1 (yeah, I know it's been mentioned, but it deserves to be nominated again)
As the proud owner of a VAC Ren pre, I was flabergasted (astounded, amazed, etc) when I heard the Veloce LS1 battery powered tube preamp (about $14k or so). This is easily the single most dynamic, blackest background, most musical pre that I have ever heard in any system. Having taken one home for audition ( with the corresponding matching phono stage also battery powered), I am now in the process of trying to figure out how to pay for the one I have ordered.
If you only have one source and it is digital the an $18000 pre amp is a big waste of money. It is a very expensive way to turn the volume LESS DOWN. $18 grand could go along way to improve a system in other ways.
Shindo Vosne Romanee, Masseto, Monbrison.
Having owned CAT, Joule, and Atma-sphere, I would say that 6550c's observation should be given some serious consideration; you at least need to try a Passive - in the right system, you may not need to spend $18,000 to have SOTA sound. Try a Bent Tap-x for $1,000-$2,500; it is worth comparing to anything mentioned here (not that it would be your first choice, but for some, yes).

Ask the government, they have been doing it forever.
Agree with Pubul57. Good AVC or TVC passive may beat any active preamp (price no object) in the right system of course.
Otherwise I`d be tempted by Concert Fidelity. This along with Silicon Arts and FM Acoustics are supposed to be the very best in the market.
No-one has mentioned the TRON Syren yet. Fabulous tube pre-amp built to order (and hence can be bespoke)by Graham Tricker in the UK (
Atma-Sphere MP-1 or an MFA MC Reference if you can find one. Specifically for use with digital and phono. If you don't have a vinyl front end then please disregard, as that has been my experience.
My $0.02
I would recommend the McIntosh around $12,000 USD,retail
Fully balanced design...Full function with excellent MM/MC phono stages.
Hello and thanks to all that have posted his opinions, in relation to the passive preamp , I used-owned the best Bent model and the excellent expensive audio consulting, is not the way for me, another way is to use the dCS as preamp, for me is posible if you don´t use very good preamps, but always that I compared this solution with a excellent preamp, I have seen that this is not the solution.
Surprise by the ausence of names as CJ, Kondo, Vacuum state and for so much presence of the ref5, I never heard it, but the ref3 , for me and sorry for the people who owned, owns or like this preamp, is a very good preamp, but not exceptional, because for me it don´t have the soul that you can hear with Kondo, Connoisseur(SS), perhaps in the appropiate system with FM, Soulution, Boulder, Sovereign..
Then surely I need to explain more what I´m looking for: one preamp that sounds as this that I think that are excellents preamps, but tube preamp and with a very good price, is this a chimera- pipe dream?
I have a small list of contenders, but surely they are so small brands, that is practically imposible to hear them:
New Aestethix top of the line
Wyetech opal
Nat audio

Then I hope that one of you can say: this is a lot less expensive and as good as the more expensives ones
Yes, Kondo was on my mind also but I can`t recall one that fits 18K retail price. I`m sure that you can find a used one for 18K.
Thanks Pluto, did you heard Concert Fidelity? how it compares to the great ones?
hello Pubul57, I have heard the Joule electra LA150 MKII SE, it´s good but not exceptional, did you heard the Marianne Electra Memorial preamplifiers?
Unfortunately I haven`t had a luck to hear it myself. It just seems to me that many reputable reviewers and other people who have a significant experience with upper class gear are extremely enthusiastic about Concert Fidelity. It also seems that CF gear is not very tubey sounding in it`s classical meaning but is more targeted to open and realistic presentation. So if you are looking to add some some tube warmth and bloom it might not be your first choice.
I´m sure that some members here have had a luxury to hear it so their options will be most valuable.
i will simply echo earlier comments on einstein tube preamp. it does wonderful things with dynamics + harmonics, the sort seldom found in either tube or SS topology, and should be included in any subjective discussion of 'best'.

So many wonderful choices! I believe whatever option you exercise, considering the responses in this thread, will deliver great sonic satisfaction...BAT conveys the experience for me :-)

Hi Emigene. I have not heard the Marriane 300 version, though I think HP just gave it a rave review - for what that is worth. It might be somewhat system dependent, as one would expect, but with Merlin speakers, I like the performance of the Joule very much. Since you have tried the Bent, I would say you have given passives their best shot, and they are not for everyone.
from reading reviews, i would think that vacuum state may belong on the list.
I have been to a private audition where the Veloce LS1 was put through it's paces in a very good room and rig with Magico M5's & MBL 9011 mono's. It was compared to the EAR 912 preamplifier (that had been tube rolled) and another preamp (can't remember name) that was more expensive. The Veloce was the best one, 2nd was the EAR but the differences was clearly heard. The veloce had Bigger soundstage, tighter separation, quicker and less veil.

I'm not a fan of the looks of the veloce but it's was beautiful to listen to and the remote worked well.
No discusions here:

When using LA150MK2 SE for M60MK3.1 , which is better ? Single Ended RCA?
Or Balenced Ic ?

How about LA150MK2 SE+ M60MK3.1 vs. MP1+ M60MK3.1 for Merlin ?
Also,for Merlin VSM ,which is better ? Seperate (A150MK2 + M60MK3.1)?
Or Ars Sonum fila ?

Thank you !
I prefer the separates to the Ars. I like both the Joule single-ended RCA and the MP3, but if I had to choose I would proabably go with the Atma Combo, but the Joule is no slouch with the Atma M60s. I don't really feel qualified to tell you which you would prefer. If you had the Joule pre and the Atma amps, I would proabably stick with that.
The Messenger preamp is the finest I've owned and/or auditioned.

Disclaimer: mine is up for auction, but NOT for sonic reasons, I assure you.
Lamm LL2.1

(sold my Aesthetix Callisto sign. 2 weeks later)