Best preamp for my system.

I am looking to upgrade my preamp, and am looking for advice from experienced audio people. I am currently running an Emm Labs CD player into a Levinson 380S and then the Levinson 33H's and on to the Genesis 4 tower speakers. All signals running through Gabriel Gold Rapture IC's. What I like is a real lush sound, vocals being most important with respect to accuracy. Some preamps that I am considering are the ARC reference and Lamm Reference.......but am open to suggestions if a serious upgrade from my 380S can be had for less than those two expensive units.
Bullot, take a look at my review of the Audio Valve Eklipse here on the GON, it will give you details why I would recommend that you put it on your audition list. It retails for $4200.00, built in Germany and is a terrific linestage. I have auditioned both the Lamm and ARC and like the sonics of the Eklispe better then either of them.
I just had a custom linestage built by Tom Tutay of Transition Audio Designs. He uses a separate tube power supply incorporating the 6X5 for its tube rectification.
The preamp itself uses a pair of 12SN7 or 12SX7 for its tubes. He can build it with the inputs and outputs you desire,after all it is custom made.
I was going to add an extension to my MiniMax preamp to house some Mundorf Silver/Gold/Oil caps but Tom convinced me to let him build me his preamp using the Mundorf caps I had. This was one of the best decisions I've made in audio.
I've been a part of a few audio shows and although I haven't heard every preamp I'm familiar with a lot of them and this linestage is one of the most musical pieces I've ever heard. So much so that I've commissioned Tom to build me his all tube MC phono preamp which he claims is his masterpiece.Mr Tutay is one of the great circuit designers on this planet. He hand builds and measures everything and the preamp will carry his lifetime warranty.Depending on the options you desire, how many inputs,outputs, maybe dual Noble 31 stepped potentiometers Balanced XLR inputs,low and high gain switch,whatever, Tom will custom build one for you.The only thing is you will have to get in line to have him build one for you and usually takes about 8 weeks.
Depending on options $2200-$2600, the high end caps such as the Mundorf Silver/Gold/Oil 4.7uf will run you about $200 per cap extra. The preamp only uses 2 of them and I had the 4.7's laying around so he used those. I think Tom normally uses 3.3uf caps so a little less expensive then the 4.7uf's.
Tom is an older gentleman(mid 60's) and is strictly an analog kind of guy and doesn't own a computer so you have to call him. Trust me on this, once you speak with him you will know how brilliant he is and just one of the nicest guys in audio. Do yourself a favor and just talk with him before you leap into your next audio purchase.
Here is his phone number (850) 244-3041.
Please tell him Bill from Morningstaraudio sent you. He might knock off $50 bucks on my phono stage. LOL
Good luck in your search whichever way you decide to go.It truly is a marvelous preamp.
Warmest Regards,
Check out the Audio Horizons 2.1 series tube line stage.If its lush sound and that immediate emotional impact you're seeking it should be on your short list.Check out the Audio Horizons thread on this forum.
I went from a 380S to a BAT VK51SE. (which I bought used on Agon) what a step up from the 380S -incredibly transparent with much more dynamics. Works great with the levinson amps -I was using it with 4-436's but have switched to the newer 532 (another story by itself-it blows away the 4 -436's) with a pair of German Physiks speakers. A BAT can be had used for about $4200 or so on Agon. I haven't heard the Lamm, but they make fine products. If you want to stay solid state the newer ML preamps like the 326 are hard to beat.
For lush sounding, you must add Conrad johnson to your list. Is your cabling balanced ? If so, stick to ARC ref. Otherwise, look for a CJ in the older Art series down to the Premier 16.

Anything less, IMHO, would be detrimental to your actual system !
I have been auditioning the Allnic L-1500 and it certainly fits your description....a very good linestage and good value for the money IME
Second the CJ (just bought the Art 2 and love the sound, not overly lush, detailed and dynamic) CJ is definitely worth a listen.
It's an Art 2 I bought, still dreaming I guess!!!
I think adding a tubed preamp will give you the qualities you are searching for. In addition to the ARC, Bat, and Conrad, you might also consider Atma Sphere, and VTL. The Atma Sphere comes with an excellent phono section (optional) which put it ahead of some others for me.
Shane: Please take a look at one of my threads where I was asking about dual-output balanced pre-amps. While you don't need dual output, the list does contain many great pre-amp suggestions that I received. As of late, I've also received a recommendation to have a listen to the CAT pre-amps (2 models). They won't work for me as they are single-ended however they currently very highly thought of on Audiogon and elsewhere....
Thank you very much to everyone who has responded, you have given me a number of options to investigate. My issue with the tube stuff is that I need to use the pre as a pass through for my theatre system as well as my two channel system, and don't know if that can be done without putting time on the tubes!?? I just don't want to have to unhook and hookup cables depending on if I run the two channel or the theatre! If a tube pre is going to be that much better than SS I can work on other options, but would like the ease of pass through capable pre. Right now I am also using Y adaptors on my 380S output so that I can run one cable to the bass tower amp and one cable to the tweeter/mid amps............I need to do this as the 380S only has one left and one right output. Thanks again for all the info everyone, much appreciated.
there are plenty of tube pres w dual outputs. And most pre-amp tubes last a very long time and unless you use NOS tubes, are not that expensive. Also there are some HT bypass units that do not require the pre to be on. For example my Doshi, but there are others.
am open to suggestions if a serious upgrade from my 380S can be had for less than those two expensive units

When you have a chance to try a Lamm LL2, do it. Amazing good sounding unit.
Has 2xoutputs.
Shane - Check out the list on this thread in which many people gave great feedback on dual-output pre-amps;

Give me a call if you like as I wound up to talking with several of these members about the data and opinions they provided. Enjoy!
Thanks Mark might just give you a call! I have done much reading based on feedback from members here and recommended threads..........yours was interesting Mark...entertaining!! Some other preamps that caught my eye from my reading were MBL6010D...but it seems alot of folks think the sound can be too big and not real, as amazing as that pre sounds from the reviews. The Shindo interests me, but not sure if it's single ended or balanced, I will have to check into it. The Halcro DM10 seems undeniable, but I just don't know about the design! ARC ref 3 is interesting, seems like most people think there is good bang for the buck with the ARC ref 3, but not alot of people raving about it......not much passion about it, seems strange for a tube reference amp......seems to me that when talking about us audionuts that most of the really over the top ones are tube people, and yet alot of folks like the REf 3 maybe even love it, but no passion in their words. That said.....I read about the BAT VK52SE and there are some passionate folks talking about that unit, so much so that it is at the top of my short list right now! I just read some about the Krell EVO 222, don't have much info on that so will have to look it up as well. Thanks again to everyone inputing their recommendations!
Hi Bullot, if HT bypass is mandatory, and you are more into tube domains, the VTL Ref7.5/7.5mkII is a great pre-amp and seems one possible option. However, if true quality sounding SS you are after, you can't go wrong with any of the FM Acoustics offerings, audition FM 245, or even their base FM 155--they may be diminutive in size, and design wise, 'simply' a far cry from the likes of MBL 6010D, but I'll wager you'll be pleasantly surprised by the performance. Browse through their website and users' testimonials. Goodluck.
Thanks Bvdiman, I will look into it! I had kind of dismissed the FM stuff cause the only one on here was $70000.............waaaaaaay tooooooo much! Hopefully the models you named are much more realistic in price! BTW, the HT byepass is not mandatory if the sound from a particular pre is that good! I will give the VTL a chance, I'm hearing lots good about them, but like Halcro I'm having a hard time getting past their looks!! I'm kind of strange that way though.......I like big Italian women better than the sleek California model!! Preference I guess!
The FM 245 should be around the 20k mark, FM 155 rrp I assume to be below 10k. Three fellow A'goners have quite recently made these worthwhile discoveries. Teck5--155, Spike1--245 and Flashunlock--255mkII, you might just want to look them up and have them share their thoughts and insights.
I have had the ARC Ref3 for a couple of years now and it is the best I've had. I've still tried other since but none come close to the sound quality I get from the Ref3.
Thanks guys! I did find a number of reviews today that raved about the ARC ref3, very impressive. What I like about it is that it has dual balanced outputs! Wondering though if you can do HT has a video input!!?? Not sure if that would be for the HT passthrough! Thing I'm finding with ARC is everyone likes it. With BAT some really really don't like it, others rave about it. I know alot of this is system dependant, but ARC seems to at least work for everyone! The MBL is interesting, anyone have any experience with ARC AND MBL?

Yes it has Cinima passthrough. It does not do any video. My HT sounds better going through my Ref3 than directly from my Meridian G68. The feed go's through the tubes with unity gain and the Ref3 must be on even though it is in Cinima passthrough. It is not a direct WIRED passthrough as with some other preamps like VAC. The VAC Limited I had I could shut off when in Cinima passthrough mode if I wanted to. I use the extra output for my sub.
Bullot, I have owned and lived with both the VTL Ref7.5 and ARC Ref3 in succession of 3yrs+ each ('01-'08). Although found them to be good satisfactory pre-amps, they are simply not in the same league to that of FMA 245. In the three separate different instances and set-ups which I know of, owners traded their Ref3 within minutes of a side-by-side comparisons (four including me).

Opinions and reviews aside, you owe it to yourself to find means and have a first hand experience to compare them directly yourself--ARC Ref3 vs MBL 6010D vs FM 245--best in your own system prior to any decision. Bad news is that, for the price--they don't even have a remote! ;)
Ok, VTL.........can't get past the looks.
Halcro......can't get past the looks. much cash, unless a used one comes on the market.
MBL 6010D:This seems to be my best option right now! There are used ones on here occasionally for a decent price.
Burmester 011: Very intrigued! ANYONE EVER AUDITION THE BURMESTER??
consider a conrad johnson premier 3 or pv 5.
You should give the Burmester 077 a listen. An incredible preamp!
UPDATE: Well I did some auditioning and ended up buying a Nagra PLL preamp. It blew me away. It is better than my Levinson 380S in every way. I could not audition everything I was interested in, due to local availability, however over the years I have compared lots to my Levinson 380S and always the ML came out on top for me. The detail on the Nagra is in a different league from my Levinson, as well the sound staging and reality of the performance for me is a big step closer to being there. The Nagra also was for me heads and shoulder better than the MBL 5011. I was unfortunately unable to listen to a MBL 6010D. I also thought the Nagra was much more detailed than the Krell stuff I listened to. I really didn't want to buy the Nagra, because I wanted Home Theatre pass-through for convenience, and also wanted two sets of balance ins and outs, which the Nagra does not have!! I am also not crazy about the side inputs and outputs on the Nagra........I keep my interconnects short due to cost, and am now probably going to have to purchase a longer set! However.........I just could not deny the sound and performance of this preamp. So much so, that all the other "wants" just became secondary to the music. I am hearing so much more music on every CD I play, that I look forward to re-hearing every song on my favourite playlist. Occassionally I'm shocked at how much I never heard before on CD's I've played for years. One other thing that stands out for me is how everything is held together at higher volumes. It doesn't matter whether playing low volume or higher volumes, things all stay the same, only louder. I could never really understand what some people were saying when they would comment on this, until now, and I realize how thin my Levinson got when the volume was turned up.

Thanks to everyone who input to this thread.

Not everyone likes the REF 3. I bought it without auditioning thinking the same thing.

I'll sell you mine for half price.
If you decide to sell your Gabriels please let me know; I have been keenly interested in trying them, and nervous about their price......
I love the Gabriel Raptures. I don't have much to compare them to........some MIT and also some Virtual Dynamics stuff,Heavens gate, Madrigal, Cardas........
The GG is so so nice! I would like to try some other stuff, but when I look at the system and think, well what could my weak link be answer is never the GG. So I will make them work for now, perhaps look at a longer pair in the future, we'll see.

With respect to the Ref 3, I considered it very carefully. It did everything I wanted, had all the connections I wanted, but, I found too many people who were not happy with it. That's not to say that it's no good or anything I'm sure, just that perhaps it did not fit into everyones system to their liking. With the Nagra, wow, really happy with it. I will need to hook my home theatre through it in the next little while and see how that is going to sound...........if I can't make that work nicely for me, I may need to consider something like the VAC Renaisance in the future, with all the connections I need...........hopefully I can make this pass-through thing work, cause I would like to make this preamp a keeper.
Just to keep anyone up to speed who is reading or following this thread................I sold the Nagra and bought the Joule Electra LA300 (Marianne)preamp. Don't get the wrong idea, I loved the Nagra......didn't like it's looks, loved it's "sound". Now with the Marianne, I feel my preamp search is over. I find it to be like a woman that is somewhat attractive at first, and the more you get to know her the more beautiful she gets........rare!! As much as I liked the sound of the Nagra, it never came close to having that affect on me, no piece of audio equipment has!
Glad to hear you're pleased with the Joule LA300 (Marianne). I've had the Joule LA-150 Mk2 for a couple years and have never thought about changing preamps until your post. Simon emailed me the other day saying that the SE upgrade is definitely worth pursuing, which adds some of the trickle down changes that were put into the Marianne version. I will have to go that route considering the price of a new Marianne.
I'm about 460 hours into break-in on an Esoteric C-03 preamp. This unit is truly something special. I now know first hand why it won 2 Blue Moon awards from 2 different reviewers on 6moons!
I've heard a little about the Esoteric preamp Mark, but will have to check out those reviews!

I have moved on from the Joule and bought both an Atmasphere MP1 and MBL6010D to compare, thinking I would keep the one which worked best in my system, which I did. The Atma has moved on and I am using the MBL now!
Let us know how it turns's always great to hear about your latest audio adventures!
Something I bought since last talking with you Mark are the Bybee speaker bullets! Love them.....if you can get them on a deal.

The MBL works perfectly in my system. It has tons of detail and yet is somehow on the warm side, it's like a velvet hammer. I can't see getting back on the preamp merrygoround again, for a while anyways.
Would love to hear it some day soon if I can make it north of the border! I'll take a look at the Bybee speaker bullets as well. BTW...Esoteric C-03 pre-amp is a beautiful unit! If you get a chance to hear one, you should do so!
I also bought Burmester 077 aftr listening to too many preamps. Now I can relax and enjoy.