Didn't even know there were any good ones for under $15k?
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The VAC Ren MKV is fantastic and it's the one I use in my main rig right now. Got mine used (w/o phono) for $5K. I've read a number of others, including dealers, that you have to move up a significant amount to the Master ($27K) to get a meaningful improvement up the line. The MKV borrows much of it's DNA from the Statement. Great value here IMO.
I think the "best" will depend on your amplifier and preferences (sonic, aesthetic, and ergonomic), but these came to mind in ignorance of those preferences (in alphabetical order):
Audio Note UK (Whichever model is within budget. They have many models...)
Lamm Industries LL2.1 Deluxe (especially with NOS tubes)
New Audio Frontiers Amati
Thomas Mayer 10Y
VAC Renaissance Mk V
I haven't heard the Atma-Sphere MP1 outside of show conditions and can't comment but some people seem to enjoy it.
disclaimer: I sell Lamm and NAF
The best preamp will be the one that sounds the closest to a piece of wire.
Guess what? that's what direct source to power amp does, (if your source has a volume control).
If not then passive pre is next inline, if your system is impedance friendly for one (90% of systems are).
I just got a Linear Tube Audio Integrated amp at home and it’s balls out amazing. Superlatives aren’t sufficient to cover how dead quiet it is, how much musical information it reveals, and how much tube magic it imparts without being in any way veiled, warmed over, or syrupy.
Well worth checking them out and at about a third of this price range.
Tried the PS Audio BHK and the Stellar preamps which we’re both kinda meh so I decided to check out an integrated from Linear Tube Audio to see what the fuss was about on the Berning circuit. It’s the real deal.
All under 15K
Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty
Pass Laboratories XP-22
PrimaLuna EVO 400 Tubes
PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier
At least in a single ended system, the Art Audio Conductor is pretty great. I replaced a PS Audio BHK with it and it was a noteworthy step up. Not sure if it is the best under $15K but is fabulous and a good value at $8500.
I am sure in a balanced system the BHK would be better, single ended though...
I am with @roberjerman--I bought an SP-6 for less than $1000.00 recently and it is awesome.
Of course, the new Audio Research stuff may be better, but you will pay a lot more for them. I would certainly audition one in my system. They started out with the best of the best pre-amps back in the 1970's, and continue to produce better pre-amps than most.
I posted a power amp by Jadis in error but it's still a great amp and the one I would have.I remember Richie Favia's system in the 80's at Longplayer Stereo where hr had a Jadis preamp into a Defy 7 amp with Martin Logan CLS's with Kinnergetics subs which were six feet high.I think he had a Sota Sapphire turntable and I can't remember what CD player he had.Great sound.
Lots of MicroZOTL fans - very interesting.
I should add that I require remote. That probably takes half the suggestions off the table.
To those making fun of the price range, I just wanted to be all-inclusive and the ARC Ref 6 lists around that much which most consider a standard-setting piece. I actually own a Music First Baby Reference TVC that doesn't cost half that and sounds amazing - but it doesn't work with a particular amp in my stable. Hence the need to acquire another preamp.
+1 for the Vinnie Rossi
Have loved Vinnie’s work since Red a Wine Audio. He really knows what music sounds like and is able to infuse that.
My other very high recommendation is Audible Illusions.
A rare company that has specialized in only making preamps for decades. They have kept improving and have been listed in TAS at “the best at any price” forever. I happily live with mine. Ultra neutral with only one tube pre channel in single ended with an external power supply.
I listened to a number of tube preamps in the $7K to $10K range ($15K is outside of my budget) and landed on Balanced Audio Technology (BAT). What a fantastic design philosophy, and sonically it delivers a phenomenal soundstage with imaging that is a mile deep. Sonically I find that everything about it is, well, just right. The VK-33SE is $10K but you can go up from there to the VK-53SE at $15K.
They do operate with a remote, which comes in the box. A very well made, all aluminum remote that is not cluttered but has just the right amount of function controls. A very cool feature on the remote is a "fade mute" function. One touch button and the volume fades away rather than a hard mute (though there is a total mute function, too). You only realize how wonderful that feature is once you have it. The preamp features are great, but it's the sound quality that got me. I am surprised not to have seen others mention the BAT brand. It's very well reviewed and regarded in this industry.