Do I even need or want a preamp?

For over 5 years my home audio system had been stable. I used a Wadia 6 direct into a Jeff Rowland Model 1 with Synergistic Research balanced interconnects, out to a pair of Aerial 10Ts (Synergistic Research cables). I knew that the speakers could use more power than the Roland could give, and that the Wadia 6 was now pretty outdated. I recently replaced the Wadia and the Rowland with an Accuphase DP-57 CD player and a used Levinson 336 amp, plus replaced the interconnects with a pair of Tara Labs Air2. The end result was that the Aerials came alive and I am hearing MUCH more detail without harshness.

I brought home a BAT preamp to try out and have to say that whatever differences (other than volume capability) seemed quite subtle. The bass might have been a bit tighter, but it seemed like some of the ambient information was lost. Considering the $6500 list price of the preamp, I am trying to figure out if a preamp is even helpful for my system. The Accuphase has its own internal volume control. Never having owned a preamp before, I don't know what I was expecting, but improvement in the sound did not seem to be present with the preamp. I am now leaning towards not adding a preamp to the system, but want to know if I'm simply uninformed about any benefits that one might do for my current system.

Thanks in advance for helping me learn!
Why buy one if you don't need it. Save yourself 6k and go to Vegas and enjoy yourself...Maybe you'll hit the big jackpot and you can sell your 10ts and buy new Aerial 20Ts.
You didn't say how long you've tried the BAT in your system?

What I try to do when deciding on a component that seems close is listen to it for 30 days then take it out of the system. If you miss it, then keep it.
BAT/Levinson/Aerial have good synergy. I owned 10T's and used 33H's with a VK50SE. You have a great system going there.

If you are happy with the sound without a preamp, then good for you, enjoy the music and pocket the savings.

You make no mention of the cables you used for the preamp when you had it to try. All of your current components will reveal all about the interconnect and speaker wire used, and show you nothing but the truth. At the level you are at any change in cable should be immediately noticeable for better or worse. This could be why the BAT preamp didn't do much for you.


Paul :-)
Hi Brian . I own the 10 s and 20 s in a multichannel system and while the 20 is excellent and the 10 quite good , they both are a demanding load.I personally feel that the 20 t is one of the most resolving , musically satisfying speakers I have exer heard so if you like the Aerial family , I too suggest looking into the 20 t. In my Pipedream 21 system , I am struggling with the preamp issue myself. I am CSM for Apl Hi Fi and Alex is a firm believer in no preamp and designs his products with internal volume . I compared the Apl 3910 with 6 dacs per channel to the CJ Act 2. Going straight brought a livelier sense of spaciousness , more air and top end extension with a natural presentation to the sound that was focused and open . Installing the Act 2 closed the air off a touch but brought a more diverse palette of harmonic shadings throughout the entire frequency range . Throughout the midrange especially , the timbre contrasts were greater.There was more burnished tone to the Sax , more chest to male vocals , more delineation to the various percussive drums as each was struck in a drum kit. Conversely , the startling snap of leading edge transients were sharper with the unit bypassing the preamp. Its ultimately a matter of taste as much of this hobby is.
You have just discribed what some 'philes may not now, or may not ever, experience. That is a "synergy" within your audio system. If you would like to add another source or would like to correct the details in the sonic field and/or add multiple function, then you need a pre-amp. Since your sound is about dead on, I would suggest a fairly cheap way of addressing the pre-mp issue. The use of a "high quality" Passive pre-amp may suit your needs. I use a McCormack TLC-1 that sells (usually) for under 500.00. It is transparent and detailed my system. There quite a few others, as well, that range from about 500.00 to 2000.00 new (and of course, less used). All of them (that I know of) have had good reviews.

I will second the passive preamp route. I am using a Reference Line 1A with Atma-sphere M-60 MKIII amps. It has been the single biggest improvement in the system since the Atma-Spheres. It brought out detail, imaging and richness in my Silverline Sonatas I have never experienced. It bested a Sonic Frontiers and a Cary in my system.
I'll try to answer everyone in one post. I used a broken in pair of Tara Labs Air1 balanced interconnects from the preamp to the Levinson which, I assume, are similar to the Air2 interconnects in sonic qualities. The BAT was also well broken in prior to the dealer lending it to me.

I only had the BAT in my system last night. I would go from direct in from the player to the amp, and would then put the preamp in the middle. I could keep it for a few days, but I seriously doubt that the dealer would allow a 30 day trial! Even if I could keep it for more than about a week, it didn't take long to notice that there wasn't much difference between having the preamp in the signal path and not having it there. Both my son and I thought that the bass response was a bit tighter, and that there was something present in the way of more cohesion.....but both of these were certainly mild, if they weren't the result of a "placebo effect". We both also thought that there was a bit of harshness that wasn't present without the preamp.

As I see it, the preamp provided a volume boost that I doubt I needed. I have never had to have the Accuphase at full volume. I truly didn't know what to expect. Logic says that I should have expected more volume and a slight degradation of sound that one might expect from adding one more set of int3erconnects and another piece of gear in the signal path. That IS what I seem to have gotten! Somehow, I had a hope that a preamp might do something "magical". It sounds silly as I look at what I just wrote, but I am just being honest about my expectations. As best I see it, perhaps I would be better off getting a better pair of interconnects and speaker cables than to buy a preamp. If I'm missing something in my thinking, I'm glad to know about it!
I'm now passive for a couple of years and won't go back. Not everyone can do this as you need beefy low impedence sources and sensative hi Z amplification. Sounds like your fine w/o

Yea, I agree with Electroid. Since you are not really adding another source, nor do you need to alter the signal, you may be better off just where you are (w/o a pre-amp... passive or not). I think that you may have found your "magic", or perhaps the need to visit a small audio salon in Mugwart. Talk to Dynacovia, the Gypsy lady (with the one softly glowing green eye).

My thanks to everyone who responded.....truly! I was doubting myself, since many people seem to feel that a preamp is necessary. I borrowed a BAT "top of the line" tube preamp Monday and again found that it did not sound better to my ears than not using a preamp. Some of the detail is missing, and the sound is now a bit TOO dark for my tastes. I will simply trust my ears and stop looking at preamps for my system. Whether "right" or "wrong", I am very happy with what I am hearing, which is what counts! Thanks again!
No, just get yourself two cans and a string. Seriously, a quality preamp can add, rather than subtract. Besides it is nice to have the ability to switch between components.
I have tried all sorts of passive preamps.The good ones often will sound better than most active ones.But this does not mean that passives are better than actives.It just means that most actives are poor.

This is probably the most neglected area in audio.

When you find an active that synergises with your power amp and system then you will realise straight away that no passive is going to be as good.

My advice is to keep trying active preamps until you find the right one[for you].You might want to consider valve ones too.
This is an interesting thread for me as I was a die-hard "no preamp" guy for about the last 10 years or so. I almost always bought CDP's that either had a variable out, or ones that had lots of gain/voltage. Well, recently on the persuasive suggestion of an audio friend, I decided to audition a BAT VK-3ix, as my current system seemed to lack the critical dynamics that make music reproduction more life-like. Much to my pleasant surprise, not only were the dynamic shadings (both macro & micro) improved, but all other parameters - soundstage depth, height, noise floor and of course bass control were better. All of this with no detectable loss of any fine details that I thought would be the trade-off. (These were all more than just subtle improvements btw). So I guess it show you that it IS better to try something before assuming the results! as they will "vary with mileage.." (My current setup btw is the incredible Esoteric UX-3SE, NuForce 9SE, M.L. Summits in a dedicated room). I also heard the same wholesale improvments with my Opera Audio Droplet CDP.

Nice system and nicely set up.
There seems to be a subtle consistancy to the thrust of this thread. Your mention of the Nu-Force amps (in your system) brings up a real point. I recently switched out my single ended tube amps for a solid state amp (this merry-go-round is perenial and has been for many years). I found with my SE Tube amps that they really enjoyed the quicker motion of a good tube pre-amp on the top end. The "alive" feeling that comes with SE amps, and that is also shared with the Nu-Force (and other amps of the breed.. ie: Bel Canto and Channel Islands) is nicley mated with a good tube input. Mine worked the best with a DJH Sig. (Cary/AES). My current Muse 160mk2 jst drips with life using a Passive.

btw: I see that you used a RL Pre/Emm 2B. Did you like it compared to others ?

I can comment on both using a passive preamp and going direct. I used one of the best passives, the Reference Line Preeminence 1, which was superb in my system (and a very significant improvement above the McCormack TLC-1, which I used previously.)

But, when I got a Benchmark DAC1, which has variable out, the improvement going direct to the amp was very nice improvement over going through the passive Reference Line. Most recently, going direct was reconfirmed when I (just last night) connected my tuner (Onkyo Integra T9090II), which has variable out, direct to the amp. Again, the improvement over the Reference Line was significant. So, for me, the passive bested any active preamp, and going direct bested the passive. (Interconnects used were Nordost SPM and Frey.)
Thanks for the nice compliment Tubeears. I really did like the Reference Line passive (it's for sale BTW:>) It worked wonderfully with my now sold BAT P5 phono stage acting as nothing more than a volume attenuator, leaving all the dynamics and subtle details intact in that application. I think it is one of the best passives out there, but I really haven't tried that many - Adcom GPA-750 and an older McCormack TLC-1 passive were the only others that I have owned.

And yes! The fabulous NuForces do seem to "gel" quite nicely with my BAT VK-3siSE, (hmmmm...must be something about this whole "SE" designation - Esoteric UX-3SE, NuForce 9SE, BAT VK3ixSE) Too bad now I can't afford some type of car with an "SE" badge!