Best Pre-amp under 7k

I am looking for a new preamp to fit my system: Theta miles CD, Pass Aleph 3, Proac 2.5, basis 1400 with graham 2.0 and grado reference. I have an audio research PH3SE as my phono stage so I dont need one. Have been looking at Rowland Synergy, Levinson 380S, Hovland, Thor and Audio Research LS25. I enjoy the liquid sound of tubes but highly regard the detail and bass slam from solid state (i.e. Levinson gear). What is the best preamp for my sytem to provide me with detail, superb imaging, tight bass, and a smooth sound? If I have to choose between detail/superb imaging and liquid sound, I would go with the detail/imaging. Thanks for any help in this mind-bending saga!!
I've heard all the units you mention except the Rowland. I elected to carry the Thor, and found an unexpected benefit - the Thor pre-amp is so three-dimensional that it is now much easier for me to quickly position speakers properly. What used to take a couple of days with a respectable $8.5k solid state preamp now takes maybe twenty minutes. I have had several customers tell me that my demo system has the best nuance, timbre, and bass pitch definition they have heard, perhaps largely attributable to the speakers (Sound Labs) but obviously the Thor isn't mucking things up! If you don't have a local dealer, I could probably arrange an in-home audition for you. But if you do have a dealer already, by all means support him! By the way, the Pass Aleph series are superb little amplifiers, among the few solid state units worthy of the Thor. I spent several very enjoyable hours listening to the Thor and an Aleph together once, so I can vouch that the combination is a good one.
Hello Jadis, I can highly recommend the BAT-VK50se. Good luck, Tom
I'm mightily impressed with the Hovland. The detail/imaging and overall sense of neutrality/musicality may well be what you're seeking. Great looking too.
Have seen this:
It's Don Morisson ELAD.
You'll spend 1/10th of your budget, and have the most open sound in the world.
Please, the Thor is a turgid, dark sounding turd. I oughta know, I used to own the TA-2000. Next!! The best preamps I've heard by a longshot are the Lamm L1, the above-mentioned Hovland HP-100 (beautiful too!), and the First Sound Presence units. The Lamm is the most balanced of the three for various types of music and systems. The Hovland is wonderfully liquid and musical, but the bass is a bit soft and it can be a tad forward in some systems. It works great if you listen to a lot of jazz, light classical, and (especially) vocalists. The First Sound units have incredible dynamics, stupendous even--this is the one to get if you're into heavy rocking blues or full-scale orchestral pieces. They do have waaaaayyy too much gain though, so they are best matched with a power amp with low input sensitivity or you won't get any play at all in the volume control.
Get a CAT SL-1 Ultimate. It is the best preamp at $5950 or below (or above insofar as I have heard). If you like detail, well you'll get it, but not the screeching brightness that passes for detail with some other preamps. The mids are absolutely liquid, transparent, smooth and musical. There is no harshness brightness or grain anywhere. It has got superb dynamics, great 3D soundstage and great, great bass extension. It is a tube preamplifier that lets you have your cake and eat it too. It is absolutely dead quiet, and it has a world class phono section which rates with the best of the outboard phono preamps. Everything that the Hovland does very well, the CAT does significantly better, except I can see where one could rate the extreme highs of the Hovland over the CAT. I have a/b'ed CAT's vs. Lamm's (Lamm lost. Not nearly as musical), CAT vs. Hovland (Hovland loses. Seriously rolled off in deep bass. Not as dynamic as CAT.). I must admit to not having heard all of the previous preamps, like Thor and First Sound, but based purely on its sonic capabilities, I almost don't know how you could ask more of a preamplifier. If you don't believe me, check out the April May 2000 Absolute Sound, where Larry Alan Kay declares it his "first choice in preamps" or look at the August 1999 Stereophile where Robert Deutsch recommends putting the CAT Ultimate at the top of your short list. Your personal taste may lead you elsewhere, but I believe it would be a serious mistake to fail to audition this product.
Can anyone clue me in as to when the CAT Super Pooper Duper Ultimate is to be released? I'm sorry, but I cannot maintain respect for a manufacturer who "updates" his or her product on a seemingly monthly basis. It's a totally unfair practice for the customers who have put their money where their mouth is and purchased a product. Half the time their unit is out of commision, sent off to the manufacturer to be updated. In addition, much like revisions of textbooks, "updating" lowers the value of older units. It's a delightful way for the manufacturer to continue to garner top dollar for new units by rendering older ones "obsolete". I used to think Audio Research was to be held in contempt, but they've been outdone by the folks at CAT.
I'll just say to the previous person posting that the Ultimate is not an upgrade product. That is, you cannot update any previous CAT preamp to the Ultimate. You have to go out and put down your $5950 to get one. So I guess that would qualify it to be considered a separate product from any of the previous CAT's, and that would make CAT no different from any of the manufacturers which Mr. Cardinal reveres, in the sense all they did is put out a new product. That said, I think there have been 5 or 6 CAT preamplifiers in the 15 or 16 years that CAT has been making them. With most of them, there was an upgrade path. I have heard several different models and they are all fine products in their own right and can hold their own with any of the top products today. I'll leave it to others to determine if those are too many upgrades in the last 16 years.
Best Preamp for hi-rez with line level only :Spectral DMC-30 for around $6500. Beats any Levinson with my electrostats. For phono listen to an Aesthetix phono preamp with volume
control, you will be impressed.
Try to listen to a Placette if you can. It's an entirely different direction from the tube preamps mentioned above, and while it may not be what you ultimately choose, I expect it will be a revelation.
Rayhall...I was going through your posts on the Callisto thread, did you get a chance to hear it? I too am in the market for a reference level pre..I had a CAT S1 mk3 and it was awesome, only drawback.single-ended only, but I'm over that now. If you've heard the Callisto, I'd much appreciate if you could compare it to the CAT..thanks, John.
The Aloia preamp is a step-up from the CAT at about 3500 retail but will be raising their prices.
Hi,Don't know why nobody has mentioned you user name and added the "buying used" concept. Now taking both together; why not a used Jadis? I believe the CAT Sig. came out in 90/91. Two upgrades in 9 years,at the rate things change/ and only 1200(the 1 was 3995/ to go from 1 to 3 seems decent to me.
Snook2, Please state in detail why you believe the Aloia is a step up from the CAT. What does the Aloia do which the CAT can't. Or, what does the CAT do wrongly which the Aloia doesn't do? I want to know because I have seen other posts which, I believe, you have written which say the same thing and I want to know why I should go out and listen to this product. I am certainly open to the idea that there are better preamps out there than the CAT since I am trying to find one for a second system, but tell me why the Aloia is better!


I certainly agree that the used way is the way to go. I was lucky enough to find my Ultimate on Audiogon almost two years ago for $3400. As far as buying old CATs and upgrading them, these old CATs are something special in their own right and can be a screaming bargain when considering them at their used prices. Some people prefer them to the newer models, so listen first before you upgrade. Just remember that you cannot upgrade to the Ultimate.

Thanks guys,

Ray Hall
The so-called "best" preamp in this price range is debatable, and depends on the application/system and preference. Nevertheless, I beleive that the ARC LS25 (with NOS 6922 tubes) is a very special preamp, at a real-world price point. Coupled with an ARC PH2/VT100 MKII, it produces beautiful music. Highly recommended.
Rayhall I'm not bashing CAT. I've owned them for 5 years. Aloia's phono stage had more gain openness and air. The line stages of both are excellent. Since I've listened to both extensively I would give Aloia(Inductive)an edge.
Thanks, Snook2. I didn't think you were bashing CAT. I tried to take pains to make sure that you wouldn't think that I did think you were bashing it. I had just heard you speak about the Aloia before, and I wanted to know what made it so good. Thanks again. I'll go listen to it.
Heard a loot of good things about the CAT. What's their website? Thanks
They don't have one.
I had the Presense Delux and found the same issues with gain as Evansdad is reported. It was a good preamp but it lacked transparency. When I replaced it with the Aloia Inductive I made the right choice. Its transparency and dynamics are equal to the EVS Ultimate Attenuator I had in my system but it does that special gain thing that most amps need without adding its own sonic signature (has lots of body too). I hate preamps but they are a necessary evil.