Good tube pre amp for a mostly digital system

I am seeking advice from the a'gon community concerning a tube pre for my digital system. Some folks have qued be in to the fact that adding a pre tube will do wonders for my sound.

I have the jeff rowland 501 mono's and the bel canto dac3 as a my pre, a marantz running as a transport. On thing about the rowlands is that they prefer balanced so the tube pre must have balanced outs.

I've looked at the valve audio black widow, the cary slp 05, and the aesthetix calypso. All have balanced outs, well I'm not sure about the valve audio. Any other recommendations? Is adding a tube pre really going to do anything for my sound?

Lastly, being lacking some knowledge in this world, I am confused as to how, if I got a pre amp, I would go about connecting my cd running digitally to my dac then to the pre amp. Would it just be a matter of connecting the dac to the pre or does the cd player also have to be connected to the pre amp?

Lots of questions I know, yet lots to learn! Any help, suggestions, opinions are be welcome.

IMHO, you could accomplish the same thing by getting rid of the DAC and the Transport, and getting a good tubed CDP, such as the Audio Aero Capitole II, and running it direct into the amp. (Since you are not running any other sources, why spend the money on a preamp?) This is a great cdp, IMHO, (I wish I had the money to get one!), as its sound is as close to analog (i.e. vinyl) as any cdp I have ever heard. My friend has one, and it sounds incredible.

He and/or I have compared it to some really good cdps, such as the Marantz (I forget which model number), the Esoteric DV50 (good, but not great), the Opus 21 (Great, but not incredible - This is what I own, btw!), and we are now comparing it to the Ayre C-5xe. Initial indications, (from my friend, but not me, yet!) is that the Ayre, while a great universal cdp, is still not quite as good as the AA Capitole II is on Redbook. (I hope to get over to my friends to listen to this in direct comparision myself in the next week or two.)

I will point out that both my friend and I consider vinyl to be superior to digital is all its formats, so that may color our taste in how we prefer our CDPs to sound. (So take that into account.)

My two cents worth.
Adding a tubed preamp will not necessarily provide the "Ah-ha!" moment you might expect. It will certainly sound different to a degree.

IMO, you will hear a more substantial change in your system's sound with a tube amp rather than a tube preamp.

Expect a more 3D and natural sound with either change. The degree of holographic effect will vary from component to component.
Hi Maria.

I guess I can "clue you in to the fact" that both Audio Research and BAT make very good balanced tube preamps that should work well in your system...
Thnaks fro your responses folks. Kurt, could you key me into what is a CDP. I am not sure what that does and how it connects directly to my amps?
Sorry, I abbreviated Compact Disk Player (cdp).

(I forget that sometimes I am writing to people who don't live, eat and breathe Audiogon, and/or Audio Asylum, and may not know all the little shorthand we use.)

I apologize!
I started my journey into tubes with a AE-3 Line Level Pre Amp. At that time my system was a follows: Krell FPB 200, Adcom 750 pre amp and Philips 962 digital player. The AE-3 added warmth and detail. I felt I had hit pay dirt. So what’s a good HiFi nut do, add more tubes. I bought a CAL Alpha DAC. Oh my, it’s sounding good. Now that digital brightness is smoothed out. Are we seeing a pattern here? Click on my posted system below. Tubes and more tubes. The darn things are addicting. At first you tell yourself, I can handle this. Then you find yourself searching the web for NOS tubes. Some guy in a tube forum post a thread about his latest discovery, a very rare 1950’s long plate 12x7 that is the cat’s meow. There you go on a quest to find them. You just gotta get a couple because those little glowing glass tubes that hold the key to audio nirvana.

Sorry for going on and on, I am going to see about a NOS 12 step program right after I shave my head.
I agree with Kurt, if you don't need SACD and redbook digital is your only source, grab a AA Capitole II and skip the preamp.
If looking for a balanced tube preamp, the above mentioned BAT's, ARC's and Atma-sphere's can all be added to your list.

FWIW, have you tried the Marantz w/o the Bel Canto DAC?
I would think that cd player would sound better w/o the DAC.
I have a BAT tube preamp with my Jeff Rowland amps (Model 6 monoblocks), and it sounds great. I also have a highly modified Marantz SA-11S1, and don't feel the need for a seperate DAC. I use a preamp because I have 4 sources.

I also love the way the Marantz handles SACD's. If I was rebook cd's only, I'd definitely go after a Audio Aero Capitole and skip the preamp.

connections are:

CD Transport -> DAC -> Pre-amp -> Amp -> Speakers

Tube pre-amp is a great place to start. The 501's have 4K ohm input impedence. Try and find a pre-amp with 400 ohm output impedence or less on the balanced outputs. This will ensure good matching and volume control function.
Thanks everybody for the responses. NOS twelve step it is. It seems everyday I breath just a bit more of the audio nut concoction. Powerful stuff.

No I have not tried the marantz without the DAC. Fine suggestion, believe I will try that. In terms of the A A capitole, I did some research and everthing I read sounds great. I guess my concern would be limiting my options by not having a pre amp because, I would like a tuner and a turntable. Now I realize the A A capitole has a line stage built into it but unfortunately those are hard to find. The one on A'gon right now does not have the line stage.

So two questions, and other cd player with a line stage build into it that can hook directly to my Rowlands, or does anyone have opinions on how the A A capitole sounds plugged into a pre amp?

Also steuspeed, any suggestions of tubed pre's that are 400 ohn output impedence or less?

And of course any comments or opinions. This is great for me so I appreciate your time.
Surprised nobody mentioned Audible Illusion given it's sales and mpoularity as a loid glass pre.Depoends a lot on how much "bloom" you want.Some tube pre's dont' sound very "tubey" any m,ore.More and more solid state has attributes of tube gear )warmth,holography,more natural midrange) but tube gear (especially pre's) have more extended frequency extremes and tigher,punchier bass.I would say that in poast with a tarde off for noise that Conrad Johnson would give most "tube sound" (maybe certain AR models) but now CJ is less noisy and has better overall sound (bass not as "loose").You need to read about various pre's.But I think TVAD is right you will get different sound but if you expect "Nirvana" in a box you might not get it.Yet still might be good move.Alternately the better op amps in some digital players means that forgoing pre might be your ticket.Many audiophiles want sound of source and amp and nothing from pre,a pre that has no signature,Some go with passives but because they have constricte dynamics in general I am not one of them.So many models out there do your research and try to listen when and where you can.If you go to the not cheap Supratek will be their editors choice (I liek thier Blue Moon awards).Stereophiles buying guide gives so many choices it just shows what's out there not narrowing down choices.Also ask at Audio Advisor.Features,the difference in what tubes are used (poular EL34's which I use excell in mids.KT88's have more dynamic kick and bass control etc).Like I said some want not to hear it at all but to me I's say listenm to CJ,AR,neutral BAT,bang for buck Rogue or Modwright,Audible Illusions etc could take thoguht and time to listen.But because many feel it's signature not just function is the "heart of the system" when matched soudn wise with your gear and your ears the quest can be fun and really pay off.
Chazz, keep in mind that Mariasplunge is looking for balanced outputs for her Rowland amps. I think this would leave out CJ, AI, Hovland, Rogue, and many other tube preamps.

Mariasplunge, if you're thinking about a tuner and a turntable down the road, I would think that you would want a preamp. Maybe even a preamp with a built in phono stage, like the Aesthetix Janus. The Janus is similar to the highly rated Calypso line stage, but has a rendition of the Aesthetix Rhea phono preamp built in. I'm not saying that you have to get a preamp with a built in phono stage, but if you are thinking of getting a turntable, I would recommend getting a preamp, and a phono stage is another consideration. You'll have to decide if you want a preamp with an internal phono stage or have a seperate phono stage. You cannot just plug a turntable into any line input. This is something you should consider.

Either way, if you are considering additions in the future, I'd ditch the Bel Canto DAC/preamp and try running the Marantz through a nice tube preamp. The AA is the only unit that I would run straight into SS amps. I have to have tubes somewhere in the chain. :)

BTW, you can't run the Marantz straight into the Rowland's, you must have some kind of a volume control (preamp). I just think the Marantz DAC's will sound better than the Bel Canto's. They do to me anyway. Can you use the Bel Canto as a preamp only? Or do you have to use the DAC section too?

Thanks for the info. So I checked out the BAT's. Some of them have a phono stage however, some have told me that they are too trnasparent and in mostly digital system like mine, the BAT's might not add that warmth.

Secondly, the Cary SL-05, which was my first choice, must now take the back seat due to the fact that it has no phono stage. so audio research except for front end gear, I really don't find it appealing asthetically.

So the janus possibly, what else is there? I'll try the marantz hooked directly to a pre once I get one. Any other suggestions for players that function well with tube pre's.

Also, is what I have heard of the BAT true, too transparent. Anyone with expreience with these.

Well I've heard every complaint about BAT out there. Too transparent, too dark, etc. These are contradictory by the way. Too transparent usually means bright, and I know folks who think that BAT's are too dark, so it's probably a synergestic thing.

I'm expecting a BAT VK-32SE in tomorrow (Friday) for an audition. I've owned BAT VK-31SE, VK-50SE and VK-51SE. I've also owned CJ Premier 16LS mk II, VAC Renaissance mk II, Cary SLP-98. I would say that the CJ, VAC and Cary may sound a little 'tubier', but the BAT was much better with dynamics, power, extension and soundstage. The BAT is not the warmest tube preamp out there if that's what you're looking for, but it has actual bass definition that the 'tubey' sounding preamps don't have. The BAT definitely has tube like characteristics, more so than any solid state preamps, but some tube-o-philes like syrupy sweetness, which the BAT doesn't have. The other side is that the sweeter tube preamps don't have the power and dynamics of the BAT. Pick your poison.

FWIW, the ARC Ref 3 is also supposedly a great preamp, but with no phono. I personally do not want a preamp with an inboard phono stage though, because all of those tubes are running all of the time, even if you're listening to cd's and not using the phono tubes, the phono tubes are still burning.

For example, the Aesthetix Janus has 4 line section tubes, just like the Calypso, but it also has 8 tubes in the phono stage. So all 12 tubes are running all the time, whether you're listening to vinyl, cd, tuner, or whatever. When you find out the replacement costs of good tubes, this may be an issue for you, as it was for me. That's why I prefer a seperate outboard phono stage. Only use the phono stage when spinning vinyl.

BTW, the BAT's internal phono stage is an inexpensive $500 solid state plug in board. The Aesthetix Janus is a $2000 tube based phono stage. Quite a difference. Atma-sphere also makes a balanced tube preamp with a built in phono stage. Warning though, the Atma-sphere has no remote, if this means anything to you. However, it also has a nice built in tube phono stage (4 tubes line stage, 7 tubes phono).

That's about all I can think of that meet your requirements. Full Function (phono + line stages), tube and balanced outputs. Aesthetix Janus, Atma-sphere MP-3 both have tube phono and line stages, and a BAT is a tube line stage with a SS VK-3 phono board. Oh, and VAC makes several preamps that are tube and have inboard phono stages. They have balanced inputs and outputs, but are not truely balanced designs like those mentioned above. This means that their internal circuitry is single ended, but they have XLR ins/outs and use transformers to change the signal from Bal to SE and then back to BAL at the output.

As you can see, the more features you want, the more you paint yourself into a corner with selection.

I would recommend looking at VTL, I've had BAT(VK31SE) and it didn't have the air that the VTL(TL5.5) has.
Atma-sphere MP-3 Linestage with Phono. Fully balanced.
If you are looking for a very dynamic tubed pre - I can highly recommend the ARC LS-26.

It's my first venture into tubes - and I can say I like very much what it's done for my system. The soundstage is much deeper with a nice warmth to the vocals. Bass control is phenomenal.

I was concerned that I'd lose the impact of the bass with a tubed pre - but not so with the ARC.

My source is a Linn Unidisk 1.1 by the way.
John, You gave me some great things to think about here. I now realize, witht he cost of tube replacement, that I do not want a built in phono stage. You are absolutely right, why waste away those tubes when not listening to vinyl.

So I am slowly honing in here on some components. It seems to me to be between the BAT, not sure which model yet, or the Aesthetix calypso. Also I want to pair either of those with either the A A capitole or some other good player, myabe the Ayre C-5xe or cary 306 and take my Bel canto Dac3 out of the equation. Any thoughts on matching those. Any one with direct expereince here? Any thoughts on taking the bel Canto out of the equation?

Agree with TVAD... I would try IC cables (Magnan or Siltech worked well with me while I had Rowland)... tube be or not to be... hehehe

FWIW, I learned today that the MP-3 is not fully balanced although it utilizes balanced inputs and outputs. Apparently, only the phono section is fully balanced.

If I'm wrong, hopefully someone can clean up my mess.
As stated above VTL is a great place to start. Moreover buy from a well established company, it may cost a little more but in the long run it's worth the price.
Just wondering if you have tried the Jeff Rowland Concerto preamp, cause you're using their monoblocks already. The whole system will have a sweet top-end, warm midrange, and clean, deep bass (but not too plumb). For my taste, there're only several brands I can think of (in order of preference), no matter tube or solid-state:
1. Accustic Arts
2. McIntosh
3. Hovland
I agree that it's best to go with a seperate phono stage, that will give you a lot more preamp choices as well. Does that put the Cary SLP-05 back in the lead? That's supposed to be a very nice preamp, though I haven't heard one yet.
Choosing the digital and the preamp will depend on what values you prefer when listening to music.

For instance, the BAT will present more musical weight and power, while the Aesthetix will present more air and detail to the music. Search the archives and read what people like and/or did not like about specific models.

Same with the cd players. Of the three that you mention, the AA would give you the most warmth and musicality, but it's redbook only. The Cary and Ayre will give you more detail and transparency. Of these three, I would prefer the AA Prestige (gotta have my SACD). The Prestige is much more expensive than the Ayre or Cary though. If going with the AA Capitole, I'd probably choose the Ayre, because I gotta have my SACD. First listen to your Marantz though, as it will be closer sonically to the AA camp than the Ayre/Cary camp. This will give you some reference. Then also know that Marantz has also just released the SA-7S1 which retails for $6999, and also may be a strong contender.

Only you can determine what musical direction you want to go in. Do you want more transparency and detail? Do you want richer tonality and musicality? There are different products out there for folks that want different things. It's best to first know what direction you want to travel before starting on your journey.

Thanks John, and Jim who qued me into the audio research ls-26 which from all I have read is fantastic. Jim mentioned that the calypso might have a noise problem and that scared him away from it.
So where does that live me? O.K., I must say that upon listening to my syatem, which only had about thirty hours on it which, I realize is definately not enough time to judge, it felt somewhat veiled, like that palpable feeling in the chest was not present, the air was not there. Then my new speaker broke and I had to send it back to the manufacture.

So my gear sits here and I wonder, do I make an adjustment right now, or do I wait for the speaker to return and give my system more time. Really, most of my gear is used from this site so breakin is mostly done, all except the spaekers and my Bel canto DAC3. When judging the sound of my system, it seemd that the fact that I was using the bel canto as a dac and preamp combo was the weak link. Could the bel canto effectively drive the 500 watt rowlands? Then began my search for a preamp, also because I want to add a tuner as I really enjoy radio. Then I thought, well my system is down for at least a month, why not see what opinions arise about players as well.
So here I am. Like John was saying, I have to know what direction i want to go in. I think I want richer tonality and musicality, I want to create that palpable air. Do those tow coincide?
Thinking about audio research ls-25, cary slp-05, aesthetix calypso, BAT...

Thanks for your help all.
Patience grasshopper...patience. If I could go back and do it all over again that would be the one key...patience.

Wait for your speakers to be repaired, then settle in and really listen to you system. Some pieces may still require some burn in.

Richer tonality, musicality and palpable air certainly do go together, and it does sound like you want to go to tubeland. I would agree that the Bel Canto DAC/preamp could well be the weak link.

After everything is fixed, listen and get a good feel for what your system sounds like. Then I would recommend trying a tube preamp first, since that Marantz SA-11S1 is a pretty good stand alone cd player. Once you settle in on a preamp, then you can take the next step towards a digital upgrade, tuner and/or turntable.

One step at a time, don't try to do everything at once or you're asking for trouble. For many of us it takes years to set up a system right. Rome wasn't built in a day. :)

Take your time and research the archives here and at Audio Asylum before you buy. Lots of great resources.

John, you are right. I need to slow down a bit. I need to get my speaker back, let my system fully break in with a substantial period of break-in and then decide where to go. That's what reference is born of correct?
Still like you suggested, I coulf probably benefit from a pre amp some time in the future..yes?
Thnaks all for your help.
That's more like it. You can help the burn in process by leaving all equipment powered up 24/7, and even leave the system playing with a disc on repeat. I'm burning in a new preamp now. I just have the Ayre/Cardas disc on repeat when I'm not listening to the system. I can even turn the amps off, because they are already burned in, and I don't have to hear those test tones. :)

However, yes, listening to your sonic desires, I would say that a tube preamp is in your future. Keep us posted.

Thanks john for your time and all on this thread. I'll let you know how things progress down the road.

Thanks again.
I have a brand new VTL 5.5 and it has brought my system to a whole new level of detail and resolution. VTL is a great product, service is very good from the company, albeit very slow.
Hi Maria, I am currently auditioning an Audio Valve tube preamp in place of a lexicon MC-12B pre-pro, and the difference between the two is quite noticeable. The audio valve eklipse is a 2 ch. preamp, and it seems to be a fantastic pre. Thats Audio Valve, not valve audio. Although that is probably a fine piece as well. Anyway, i beleive i will be going with the A tube preamp for 2 ch. listening only as i will keep the lexicon for video in which it does a fantastic job with. Good luck.
Hello all,

This is one of the most positive, congenial and helpful (good spirited) threads I have ever read. This hobby is so starved for female participation that guys do backflips trying to assist a lady in distress. I am pretty sure the CAT ULT MK2 would be in this discussion if not for the balanced output disqualifier. I am not sure why that is a serious disqualification (they do make audiophile IC adapters that shouldn't degrade the sound much). At any rate, from immense tube rolling in the CAT, I have found that the CAT can be tuned to taste with carefule tube selection. It can be moved from hard and aggressive to overly euphonic and all points between. It is a very transparent product with better dynamics, bass and high end extension than I have heard from other tubed pres.
The advantage that tubes provide over solid state is that the sound can be adjusted to taste. Another point is that
people like variety. You have that with a simple tube swap. No matter how good your solid state system sounds, it probably will become stale over time. People wonder why in the world would a guy cheat on his gorgeous super model wife? People like variety.

Actually Bart, Mariasplunge is a dude named Peter.