AES AE-3 can buy new fancy models from Upscale Audio. AES is a Subdivisiuon of Cary Audio. If you can find a non jazzed up used model should cost well under $500. I paid $350 for mine. Great tone from the 6sn7S and very responsive to tube rolling.
You can live without a theater bypass feature. I don't have one and I have a combo 2-channel/Home Theater system. The only thing you have to do is to select a repeatable reference volume setting on your stereo preamp. If your volume control is analog and not clearly marked, you could place a small mark or sticker on the preamp to indicate the reference level. Balance the surround settings for your HT system with the preamp set to that level, then just remember to set it at that level when firing up the surround sound.
Pacific Valve sells something inexpensive called the "YS Audio A1" that looks killer as does the remote "V2R"...their "Doge 8" seems pretty cool also, and is well regarded. The "Jolida Fusion" is also a sweet preamp...I've heard one of those and it sounds amazing.
Anything from Cayin/VAS, used or new. Great value, great sound.
Ishould have mentioned Eastern Electric which are highly regarded. Not sure they are very inexpensive anymore.
blair chapman. i use it myself.
I know that going with a tube preamp/linestage and solid state amplifier is an often recommended combination. But, you should at least address certain issues before going that route.
First, I have found the interaction of any particular tube linestage with a particular solid state amp to be more unpredictable than going all tube or all solid state. The idea of expecting a "warm" tube linestage to somehow balance a lean solid state amp, for example, often just does not work out. Also, a tube linestage that might be great with almost any tube amp is often more touchy when it comes to pairing with a solid state amp. In other words, an actual trial (or willingness to take a gamble) is a high priority when doing the mixing game.
Another thing that should be worked out are operational issues such as the powering up of gear. Solid state sounds better being left on all of the time, while tube gear should be turned off when not in use. If you chose a tube linestage that makes a lot of noise when first turned on, one may not be able to leave the amp on during such power up of the linestage if there is no ability to mute either component. The noise that some tube linestages put out when first turned on can damage speakers if the amp is powerful. Even if you plan to turn off the power amp when not in use, and always first power up the linestage before the amp, you need to consider the potential effect of an intermittent power outage and the power coming back on--the solid state amp will often come back on instantly, in which case it would be subjected to the noise of the linestage powering up. These things can be worked out (e.g., an automatic mute circuit on the linestage).
There is more to system matching than just deciding to drop in a tube pre with a ss amp. What constitutes a "budget" to you? What is the input impedance of the ss amp? What is the sensitivity of the ss amp? Other than HT bypass, what other inputs, tape loops, and phono stages, etc. might you need? Do you have the appropriate space for a tube pre to breathe? What are the sonic qualities of the rest of your system, and do you plan for the tube pre to compliment/compensate towards the final sound you are seeking?
Unsound, After reading your post I am thoroughly exhausted. There are so many things to think about. If I want to try a tube preamp in my system I just hook it up and see how it sounds. I did not realize there are so many technical things to consider.
At some time one does have to just hook it up and see how it sounds, but narrowing down the field IMHO ultimately is much less exhausting than needlessly and repeatedly buying and selling and reconfiguring.
I feel Unsound is right. Anyone doing their homework should consider what an impedance mismatch between the amp and preamp will do to the sound. Start with the output impedance of the preamp and the input impedance of the amp. Even beneficial specs guarantee nothing regarding SQ, but gives you a shorter list of preamps to try and preamps to eliminate from consideration.
Go to their website & check out the Norh ACA-2B tube preamp. It uses two 6DJ8 tubes and operates in pure Class A. I have had a few of the budget preamps mentioned above (like the AES) but the Norh performs far above its retail price. I owned one a year ago and regretably sold it. After the buyer received it he said that he was very sorry that I had to sell it. He also stated that it beat every preamp he owned prior, like Audio Research and Conrad Johnson but he didn't mention which model numbers.
I finally picked up another used one on Audiogon (very rarely seen for sale) a couple of weeks ago and it feels darn good to have such a outstanding peformer placed back in my system and it is connected to a solid state amp with very good results. The ACA-2B retails for $299.99 but the shipping is $181.00 from Taiwan. It does not have home theater pass through but after you hear it you will soon get past that problem.
Be careful of the very high 10,000 ohm output impedance of the Norh ACA-2B preamp. I'd try it at the price were it not for that.
Actually the Norh ACA-2B is made in Thailand not Taiwan, sorry for the mistake. It goes back to what Unsound & Foster 9 said, make sure that it can match up (impedance) with your power amp before purchasing.
FYI the generally accepted rule of thumb is that the output impedance of your preamp should be 10x less than the input impedance of your amp.
I will reiterate a common refrain. SS souces and pres mated to tube power amps is often better than a tube source into a solid state power amps. The phono amp amplifies a small signal. Tubes as much as I love them are not inherently quiet, in fact they generally a little noisy but the noise doesnt seem to be amplified by the line stage or power output. I strongly recommend SS phono sections for their low noise and the rest of your system tube if possible.
I am now curious about the Nhor, however at that crazy low price.
I use SS into a tube amp only because I have a very low noise and capable preamp (and phono preamp), and because it's what I had when I bought the tube power amp. It sounds fabulous. I'm not sure the paranoia about preamp matching is justified though as I bet most tube preamps match fine with most power amps, but then what is the point of this forum if not to allow geekdom to engender fear and suspicion? I like it. Keeps me from becoming too relaxed. Also, I use balanced cables from the preamp (and the DAC feeding it) just because they're generally a little quieter.
Going with Unsound's questions, please list for us the input impedance and input sensitivity of your amp. If you don't know, tell us what amp you have so we can possibly look it up. Since we're on the subject, what's the output impedance of the component ABOVE the preamp (cd player or DAC)? Not to confuse you more but maybe a passive preamp will work for you. There are many to choose from, and some VERY cheap! Since it's passive, if the output voltage of your cd player or dac is at least as much as the input voltage sensitivity of your amp, you will have enough voltage to drive the amp to full power.
At this point I do not yet have an amp either...my whole setup is being driven by an Integra DTR 40.1 receiver which is not bad, but i feel can get much better for a reasonable price if I know what to look for.
Perhaps the better question after reading all the great responses would be to define a preamp / amp combo to get me started.
I would suggest matching your speakers to an appropriate amp, before deciding an an appropriate pre for your amp!
I agree. IMO, amplifer/speaker matching is the most important part of an audio system.
True...if you have a zebra striped amp, you gotta have zebra striped speakers.