I have to recommend The Conrad Johnson Premier 16. It has the most beautiful sound I have heard to date.
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Best preamp I have ever heard is the new Don Allen Gen II two-tube preamp, and it's only $800(does not look like audio jewelry). Don't let the price fool you, there are people that have said it is better than the top of the line Hovland preamp, and I have had experience with it beating up a First Sound $5000 preamp. Many Good review over at Audio Asylum. Don is a first rate person also.
Here are four options I would consider at that price point (or slightly less used):
1) TRL (Tube Research Labs) 'The Dude' should definitely be considered at this price point- I thought it was fantastic.
2) Air Tight ATC-2 (plus you'll have change left over with this option). Wonderfully 'organic'- slightly smaller staging than the TRL unit though.
3) Herron VSTP-3A would also be an intriguing choice at that price point- great reviews but have not heard it myself yet.
4)Lamm LL2.1 deluxe- my friend has the orig. L1 which I have heard- some great magic in these Lamm preamps...
Just so you know there is a Conrad Johnson Premier 16LS and 16 LS II which have about a 1000 difference in price
I can tell you that I have heard a Premier 16 LS II for about 10 years at a friends house and it has gone back for service twice. Once because he put to much silver contact cleaner on an RCA and it had to be replaced, and I forget the other reason. Both times fixed right and in a timely manner, and it seems pretty much bullet proof.
What can I say Im biased toward CJ but between ED at CJ and Bill Thallman these things will last forever and can upgraded as your budget allows
The Shindo Auregies-L is the best preamplifier I've experienced in this price range, though to be honest, most of my experience is up to ~$2500.
I did recently sell my Auregies to fund a Tubeguru.hu ECC808 preamplifier. The intro pricing is ~$2650 and allegedly the thing has been preferred to the Shindo Masseto. Its all hearsay until I try it for myself, but they carry a 30 day full refund (no restock fee) so its worth a risk and within your budget.
Ok, I have owned the CJ LS16 Premier MKI on two different occasions as I liked it a great deal. Based on my experience I know of at least 3 preamps that are better sounding today. Again, I have had some extensive experience with this CJ pre and the others listed below.The CJ is very nice, but these to my ear are better.
1) TRL Dude (No remote however) This preamp is really several notches above the CJ unit in every way. So much better IMHO.
2) Audio Horizons TP2.1 actually replaced the CJ unit in a long term side by side comparison. As good as the AH unit was however, the Dude was a big upgrade from the AH. I have not heard the latest and greatest AH unit however and I understand improvements were made.
3) Audio Valve Eclipse is also a great preamp.
The CJ unit is very nice and musical. However the above units are just as musical but have better clarity, focus, dynamics, imaging, scale, ease, transparency and on and on.....
Just curious, have you considered using a Channel Island passive? That seems to be the approach preferred by the company. But to answer your question, the Joule 150MKII must be considered among others at the price point, I had the signature edition version and it was the finest tube line stage I have owned, and certainly not the most expensive.