Best Tube PreAmp - McIntosh vs. Audio Research vs. VAC vs. Atma-Sphere


I’m in the market for a Stereo Tube Preamplifier for around $5k-8k in a used market. The reason I want a Tube PreAmp is because I love listening to Male Vocals with smooth velvety sound of Tube.

I will eventually be integrating it into a HT setup. When I’d Parasound Halo A51 5-channel Amp, I typically listened to Music 30% & watched movies 70% of the time. You never know but the % might change after I get the Tube PreAmp.

Source: Oppo BDP-105, Nakamichi RX-505 tape deck

Amplifier: Luxman m900u

Speakers: Tyler Acoustics Linbrook System II Floorstanding (89db, 8 ohms)

My question to you is which PreAmp would you recommend & why? I would prefer feedback from someone who has done some sort of comparison with atleast two of the following or similar type of PreAmps. I understand more you spend, more you get for your money. But I would prefer to stay at the lower spectrum of my price range than the higher.

  • McIntosh C2600 / C2700
  • Audio Research Reference 6 / 6SE / 40th Anniversary
  • Atma-Sphere MP1 / MP3
  • VAC Signature / Rennaisance / any other model
  • Cary Audio SLP-05 / any other model
  • PS Audio BHK Signature
  • Allnic L-9000 / L-7000

Later on the plan is to build a HT system & will add Amp for surrounds & center.

hitsofmisses

I will eventually be integrating it into a HT setup.

If this is the case, I think you’d be well served to pursue a tubed pre that can deactivate the tubes when using the HT bypass.  I’m not 100% sure, but I think Backert, Rogue, and maybe VAC offer this feature, and are excellent preamps in their own right.  FWIW, and best of luck in your search. 

If this is the case, I think you’d be well served to pursue a tubed pre that can deactivate the tubes when using the HT bypass.

@soix The problem you have with this approach is the ability to drive interconnect cables in such a way that the cables don't influence the system. Most of the home theatre processors I've seen lack that ability. A good preamp (if balanced, supporting AES48) can do this. So there is an argument for an active preamp, if sound quality is your goal.

 

Yup.  Totally makes sense.  But, unless you’re an extreme videophile who demands  every last detail of sound I think the prospect of not burning through tubes while watching TV/movies outweighs whatever you might lose in sound quality for watching video.  But, that’s me. 

@soix : I never thought about burning through tubes & how expensive it could be while video watching. 

@atmasphere : The MP1 is among the top 4 of my list. What's the life of various tubes in MP1, number of tubes/ models, and how expensive they're? Does certain tubes have to be replaced in set? 

Well, it depends. For me it is Audio Research Ref... you can see my system by clicking on my ID.

You must listen to a Mac system to,be sure you want to go that route. Many people love the sound... but it really lacks detail. VAC, CJ, ARC, AtmaSphere are great sounding preamps.

Integrating a 2 channel system into a HT is typically a really bad thing for two channel. Can you avoid this and have two systems? I am fortunate enough to have separate systems and it is one of the best things about both.

 

 

Things not mentioned so far which might be good:

AudioNote
deHavilland
Herron 
Don Sachs
SupraTek

ARC small signal tubes  will go 3-4k hours but the 6550 is 2 k hours, or less. Small signal are about $100 a tube, ref5 has 5, the 6 more... The 6550 from ARC is around $100.

If i were you, i would get a SS Mac and IF staying HT, never look back...

If you're seriously thinking of using using in a combo 2-channel/HT system, you might want to consider the Backert Labs Rhumba 1.3. It has HT Bypass mode that is activated when you turn the unit off, so the tubes are not losing life while you're watching TV/Movies. There may be other pre-amps that have this feature, but I'm not aware of them.

I have some relevant experience with some the pre's and your amp.  I ran the Luxman M900u for a couple of years - - very nice amp, but I definitely thought it benefited from partnering with a tube preamp; otherwise it was a little too "gossamer" for my system and tastes.  When I bought the amp, I was using the PS Audio BHK preamp, but I bought the amp with the C900u.  The C900u clearly showed me that there was a good bit more to be had than the BHK was giving me in terms of musical information.  I sold the BHK and haven't look back on that.  But over the longer haul the C900u with the M900u just didn't light my fire, sounding a bit thin and "see through" (I run TAD CR-1 speakers, which do need some warming to shine right).  Then I tried an ARC Ref 40 and I found this to be a synergistic combo, bringing a "fleshier" sense to the music.  Just my experience, and YMMV.

I never thought about burning through tubes & how expensive it could be while video watching.

The Luxman m900u has a very useful feature: two set of input.

Connect one input to HT and the other to stereo preamp, no need to turn on the preamp while using HT, and not even need the HT Bypass function in the preamp!

Your front l&r will be a 2 channel ’front stereo system’ via an integrated amp or preamp/amp pair. Used by itself for music, OR, used BY the AVR for video.

that preamp will need HT Bypass INPUT, that is how the AVR controls the front volume along with all the other channels it amplifies.

AVR will need FRONT L&R Preouts.

Consider low bass now: from the main speakers always, or if sub(s) will be used: how you get/control/ and if always available i.e. volume controlled via AVR and for just music, how use sub(s).

I would not complicate that with tubes myself, however, you know how much heat your cabinet/area/room can handle.

I think the prospect of not burning through tubes while watching TV/movies outweighs whatever you might lose in sound quality for watching video.  But, that’s me. 

I get that, but you can get thousands of hours out of the tubes. If you spend the same time listening to music the life is the same.

Stereophile did a survey at one of their shows in the early 2000s. It was two identical home theatre setups. One had the normal box store amplification and speakers, the other had high end stuff. People were not told what was different and were asked to gauge their experience. The room with the better equipment got better marks for picture quality! But the only difference was the sound.

FWIW, I use a C2700 for two channel and HT purposes, and am very happy with it. McIntosh also makes AV processors and the like if you want to take it a step further.

The MP1 is among the top 4 of my list. What's the life of various tubes in MP1, number of tubes/ models, and how expensive they're? Does certain tubes have to be replaced in set? 

@hitsofmisses  None of the tubes are stressed so they last a long time. The linestage and output of the phono section will easily go 10,000 hours.

The 12AT7s in the phono section front end do have to be quiet, but these are the tubes nearest the rear panel; the front and middle phono tubes do not have the same noise requirement. When the front end tubes get too noisy for that service, they can run fine later in the circuit. We've seen preamps in the field for 20 years that still have good tubes in them (with the customer claiming the preamp was in constant use; whether that is true or not is a different story...).

 

Hello,

Be careful about choosing a tube preamp for Ht bypass. When they shut off the tubes completely you will lose 10db of gain. The tubes in a preamp last a long time. So go with the brand that leaves them on even during HT bypass. 10 db is a lot for a surround processor to make up. I think $400 every 10-15 years is ok. 

VAC preamps keep the 6922 tubes on when using Cinema Bypass.  It also outputs a balanced signal.  I'm using my Master line stage with a Theta Casablanca IVa pre/pro which works well.