better ears than budget, so i would like to think

I am saving for a better audio system having recently been exposed to a very good system, I can hear how much mine is lacking. Here's what I'm working with:

Technics "el crapo" SA-AX540
Sony "el crapo maximo" CDP-CX53
Some sort of monster cable

What amp/ preamp / integrated would be a good mid-fi starter under $1000?

Get a used Creek 5350SE.

If you're not afraid to go the tube route, there is the Tube Audio Design TA-30 integrated, which I believe retails new for around $900. This was recently reviewed favorably by The Absolute Sound.
Sophia Baby tube amp is very nice sounding; used at 450. A pair of Omega single driver speakers and a nice used Sony DVP-S7000 DVD player which makes a good CD player (and even better transport; yes, you should buy a good used DAC eventually). The Sony will cost 150 > 200; The Omegas used 300 to 600 depending on model and they have a few. That is just a little over a grand. For wires simply use quality 12gauge pure copper wire with good insulation. The Home Depot stuff is fine until you acquire something a bit better. Belden also sells some good 12g but I don't know the pricing in small quantities; I picked up a 500 ft roll via a whole sale license for 200 bux.
There are lots of pieces from Rotel, Creek, and NAD that would fit your budget. Personally, I would rank them in that order (others will disagree).

Right now on Audiogon there are a couple of nice Rotel power amps in the $500-$600 range, and a handful of Rotel preamps going for $300-$500. I would be looking in that direction if I were in your position.

Good luck!
Word "digital" was so abused in the past that no one paid attention when true digital amps based on TI chips have arrived.

I believe Panasonic digital receivers, namely SA-XR45 (discontinued) or SA-XR70 are hard to beat in sub $1K category. They cost under $300 and you get powered DAC, listenable tuner and 6 channel capability that can be used for stereo biamping. Or watching movies.

Search the Audiocircle and Audi Asylum threads to see what is it all about. Or better find store with excellent return policy and see for yourself. Sound harsh out of the box, need around 100 hours to break in.

The only problem? It is like pouring the best VSOP cognac out of cheap brandy bottle. The stuff is there, but no pride of ownership and no allure of splurged money.
I think you'd be happy with a Linn Majik. Available on this site for around $500 and very nice.
I would look for a YBA Integré DT, a Creek 5350, a SimAudio I-5 or perhaps a Bryston BP-60. There is also a chance you would be seduced by a tube integrated in that range, if you got the chance to hear one with your speakers. The Cayin/HIT Audio push-pull EL34 model is very nice indeed.

Once you get one of these in your system, you will be in a great big hurry to change your CD player.

Best of luck!
If you can stretch that budget just a bit, consider a Naim Nait integrated, if you have a chance to audition one. For my own selection process, it proved itself a giant killer.
A used Naim Nait is within his budget. Naim Nait or Creek 5350SE.

That would be my short-list.
Thank you all for you consideration and time!! This helps!!

odyssey has a new intigrated-the cyclops-
might want to give klaus a call