Used Aesthetix Calypsos can be had for well under $3K. Hard to beat, IMHO.
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The preamp you choose may depend on what is available, and the asking price. If I were looking for a preamp, I would watch the ads for one of a group i could live with, and when one at a good (low) price comes along, buy it.
I have currently three preamps, a new Bryston BP-26, a bought used VAC Standard, and a used Audio Research Sp-15. I paid half what someone is currently asking for a SP-15.. just two years ago. So deals are out there.
I would watch for a Conrad Johnson, or an Audio Research. I am sure other recommendations are out there. But these are the two biggest names in a tube preamp. The Conrad brand in general is more tubey, and the ARC less tubey sounding.
The Sonic Frontier is going to be harder to find, unless lucky, as fewer made, and fewer for sale.
The Lamm LL2 Deluxe bested the Calypso in my system, but the Calypso is much more user friendly since it has a remote and display. Although I thought the Lamm clearly sounded better (so I sold my Calypso) the Calypso did sound good...it just didn't have the ability to bring me into the music like the Lamm. Now that the LL2.1 Deluxe is released, the former model LL2 Deluxe is a steal on the used market since the design, components, and sonics are the same, with the main differences being knob shape, selectable gain, and remote trigger feature. A used CAT SL-1 Ultimate MkII would be a very good choice and IMO equivalent to the Lamm, although a different sounding presentation. The Lector Zoe was also fun and sounded good. Several TEAD Vibe with Pulse preamps have been listed lately and, for solid state, it is the best I have heard although a bit "hair shirt" in the absence of features. Make sure you get the Lithos 7 model. The Lithos 6 model is still very nice sounding for solid state, but is worth much less on the used market - and you would need to ship it to England if you want to upgrade to Lithos 7. It is my experience that the jump from the Lithos 6 to Lithos 7 Vibe was much greater sonically than from the original two-piece Pulse to the "breadbox" style Pulse II. However, THE PULSE POWER SUPPLY IS MANDATORY if you want to hear what this preamp is capable of.
I love my Cary Audio SLP98P, it's one of the few items I don't look at switching out. I have one of the "hot rodded" F-1 versions that Cary only sells through Upscale Audio, upgraded caps, direct coupled, HT passthrough, and more. Sound is fantastic, deep soundstage, excellent highs, and the dreamy midrange people love from tube pre's. I'm a big fan. I change out gear all of the time, but I've had this preamp 3 yrs, and don't plan on looking at any other pre in the near future. In fact, I like the sound so much I bought a Cary F-1 integrated to match with some Klipsch speakers in a second system.
My preamp search ended when I got a Musical Fidelity kW hybrid linestage from Walter at Underwood HiFi. Combined the best characteristics of active and passive pres that I'd tried in my system and did so much more to improve the sound. You can check out the Stereophile review of it, which also includes bench measurements from John Atkinson. I believe there is one for sale now (no affiliation with seller).
Strictly personal here,I've enjoyed a Calypso,Cary 98L,VTL 5.5,Audio Reseach LS 26,Supratek Syrah.My personal favourite and an uptick from the aforementioned is my Audio Horizons tube line stage.It's within your price point and the company offers a free home trial.
I know what I like and I like what I know.
I have heard the LS26 in the same system compared to the Audio Valve Eclipse and TRL Dude preamps. Both the Eclipse and Dude preamps bested the AR LS26. The TRL Dude was easily the best of the group.
The Dude & Eclipse had much deeper and fuller bass response, larger stage size, better imaging and much better body and texture. The Dude separated itself from the group with its 3D stage and live sounding presentation. Music seemed to have more life and emotion all served up with amazing transparency and composure.
Problem is the Dude is $3800 new and may be out of your budget. The Eclipse can be had for $2200 or so when they show up used.
Another choice that surprised me greatly is the Bel Canto Pre 3.They can be had for $1000 used and it sounds very good. I would buy this over the LS26. Very sweet sounding with great resolution and musical at the same time. Based on your budget the Pre 3 would be a great choice and save you money. If you want the best sound possible, near your budget, go with the TRL Dude.
It might not be the best looking unit out there-IMO that's an understatement. I've always thought, for a preamp trying to compete in the mid-high end arena, and succeeding to a certain degree, they would do much better by putting even a small additional effort and cost into their exterior design and casework.
I've had a number of tube preamps in the past few years including Hovland, Rogue, Audio Horizons, Lamm and a ARC LS-26. It may be synergy thing with my Bryston monoblocks but my preference is:
2. Lamm Ref2 (this was my favorite but it just had issues in my system and is out of your price range)
3. Lamm LL2 Deluxe
5. Audio Horizons
6. Rogue Magnum 99
So its all system dependent for sure. I still the best bang for the buck was Lamm LL2 Deluxe.
I heard the Calypso in a friend's system and it was great except that it was finicky on noisy tubes. Never owned a Cary but a few friend's have and they work very well with Cary amps for sure.
Good luck in your search....
Don Allen has a new two tube preamp that is spectacular. It is actually the best I have heard..fantastic dynamics, very natural and balanced sound without any sterility, the bass is spectacular, and the midrange is perfect. All for $850.00! I have heard many of the above named preamps, and this is definitely the best I have heard IMO.
I have absolutely no idea what the Dude is. I have heard the Lamm(s), ARC, Audio Horizon, Hovland, Rogue, Bel Canto, Shindo, McIntosh.........
I think the Dude will be on my list to hear before I die. I'm guessing the Cary is still better.
In this price range, I'm still taking the Cary, it's definitely my fav, and has the best build quality and long term value. Well along with the ARC on the long term value, ARC stuff is stellar and really holds it's value as well. Mac holds value as well, and you could find a C2200 in this price range, maybe, I like the Mac sound as well, and build qaulity is great too, but I would still, take the Cary.
The Doge 8 pre-amp with MM & MC phono stage and made by Pacific Valve is a steal at $1,500. The next best up the food chain is the Audio Horizon at $2,750, which has numerous available upgrades. After that would be the Coincident Technology Linesatge at $5,000 which is basically as good as it gets, although it has no remote and only has two inputs.