High end stereo preamps? Worth it?


So we know the higher end preamps don’t include dacs and phono stages.  Highly desirable noise free devices.  I hear wonderful things about these preamps, Luxman, Accuphase, Audio Research, etc.

Are they as good as represented? 


emergingsoul
Yes, but as always it all depends on what sound characteristics you’re looking for.  There’s also VAC, VTL, LTA, Shindo, Pass Labs, Rogue, Backert, Allnic, Ayre, Atmasphere, Conrad Johnson, Bryston, etc. that are also excellent.  Again, just depends on your personal tastes and system synergy.  
I tried direct with DAC to amps, using several DAC's touted as having good preamp volume control: PS Audio DS with bridge, Auralic G2 and now my Mola Mola Tambaqui.  In each setting, the overall sound and especially soundstage was improved by inserting a preamp.  First the PS Audio BHK Pre, then moving on to the Audionet Pre 1 G3, and finally my nirvana, the Audionet Pre G2.  My measurement and science buddy points out that a preamp should not be able to add anything beneficial, just take things away.  My ears tell me differently!  I wonder of many people that recommend direct to amp have heard the difference a good preamp can make.  And +1 to soix3 on synergy. While the Audionet Pre made a difference, mating it with the Audionet amps was amazing. So while looking for that quality preamp, and many good mentioned here, keep your eye on the same company's amps...as in one day 'I will add those also'!
Only if you have an income 10X the price of that expensive preamp! It's really only jewelry!
I have limited owning experience but did a lot of research on preamps. The Quicksilver Line Stage, non-remote, version, is very simple, point to point wired, very good customer service, and has a very good reputation with customers. The company does not send units out to reviewers and is made in California. It's $1500 new but can be had for close to $900, used. That is, it seems to me, an extraordinary value in audio. 
+2, soix.

Once you hear Luxman, Accuphase, LTA, CJ, VTL and Shindo, you will know exactly what you were missing in your music.

BTW, Accuphase Integrated have an option to add phonostage and DAC modules.

In a highly resolve system, everything matters not just a high quality preamp.
Yes, they are, in answer to posted original question.  But the dac direct is a nice fallback if cost prohibits getting a good preamp.
@fastfreight 
In each setting, the overall sound and especially soundstage was improved by inserting a preamp.
My experience exactly after trying multiple types of passive volume controls and DAC direct to amp approaches.  I am using a unity-gain buffer, so no gain like a traditional preamp but active buffering of the signal, which seems to preserve the tone and dynamics that I find missing with passives and DAC direct approaches.  To answer the OP, "high end" preamps presumably handle the signal better than lower cost approaches (i.e., better design, better power supply, less shortcuts, better parts) but more dollars don't always equal good sound so to your question of "High end stereo preamps? Worth it?" my answer is, having a preamp or buffer is better than having none, but to the value - it depends on the preamp. 
Wise words mitch2.  Of course, if one has multiple inputs (beyond your DAC), the decision is easier.  I actually only have two digital inputs; ROON and my TV, both into my DAC.  Yet, to me, the preamp is indeed worth it.  
My comparison was they are not. But not quite the way the question is worded, which is asking if its worth separating the preamp from the DAC, etc. That part is definitely worth it. What I mean is not worth it is preamps in general. 

Not because you can't get better sound quality that way. You can. If that's all there is to it then go for it. But, "worth it"? Compared to what? That's where they come up short. 

Compared against each other everything seems fine. Compared against a good integrated however suddenly you realize it takes a pretty darn expensive interconnect between them or it just won't cut it no matter how good the preamp. Also both the amp and the preamp need at least as good a power cord as the integrated has for the comparison to work out at all. If you use a shelf, Cones, or whatever, add those in too. It all adds up to where you've spent a pile of money all just trying to get the preamp/amp to keep up with the integrated. 

But in terms of worth it to separate the preamp from the DAC and phono stage? Yes, totally. Just like in a high end integrated.
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I think there are...the question is related to return on investment.

I have a Moon DAC by Simaudio and they make impressive DACs that have preamp capability including MC/MM phone inputs as well.  My preamp is a McIntosh and they have quality DAC and Phono sections.

You can get a quality pre-amp with DAC and phono stages and you can even explore a quality integrated amp.  There's a trade off in costs and theirs advantages in simplicity including interconnectors and space requirements. 
A really good preamp is one of the most important parts of a system. I can still remember the first time I inserted a really good preamp, Air Tight ATC-1 into my system and being stunned at the transformation.

As others have suggested a good preamp doesn't have to be expensive, but they usually aren't cheap either. Buying used is always a good way to stretch your dollar.
There are always compromises to all in one designs.  For example my DAC has a 30 lb power supply, preamp separated power supply so all in ones don't compete.  That is not to say that all in ones cannot sound good.  The Vinnie Rossi all in one is a very good sounding unit but it is also a DHT design which is what I prefer.

Happy Listening.
Yes.

it depends on the room but if you’re good with the room, then yes for sure.

i went from Rotel preamp to rogue to Cary 98 then Cary 05 then arc 5se then finally audio research reference 40th anniversary.

the arc 40 is the best preamp I’ve ever owned and it’s hands down one of the best moves I’ve made.
How about the Benchmark (LA4)?   I didn’t see it on anyone’s list above, but I have heard a few good things about it personally. Just asking for opinions, I have no horse in this race.
— Jim
Parasound Halo JC2BP provides a sublime preparation of the signal at $4,500.
In my experience, a good preamp took my system to the next level (adding EAR 868L to Pass xa30.8). The vibrancy that it brought to the music the first time I turned it on I won’t soon forget.  I had been running DAC direct but correctly realized something was missing. 
There isn't a preamp that's built into a dac that's even close to a good high-end preamp. I have a SIM audio p8 and I haven't heard any preamp built into a dac that comes close. But then how can you compare the preamp inside the dac to a $15,000 preamp, that's a pretty unfair comparison.
There isn't a preamp that's built into a dac that's even close to a good high-end preamp.
That's because they're far more transparent and dynamic, because there is no preamp, and all the volume controlling is done in the digital domain, just have to watch out for "bit stripping" using it at or above 75%.

Cheers George
In a blind test no preamp can improve upon no preamp.
In a blind test no preamp can improve upon no preamp.
That one needs to be etched in stone, as another great audio saying.
Just like "it all starts at the source, get that right and your almost there" (Ivor Tiefenbrun Linn Sondek)

Cheers George
Give Prima Luna  a look.  It was a noticeable immediately.  So much so, I thought there may have been something wrong in the preamp it was replacing...Wasn’t the case, It just sounded wonderful...
I noticed a difference going from a NAD preamp to a Don Sachs. A little in the dynamics and a little in the delicacy. Put it together and tou get a little better sound.

And I can vouch for Primaluna. Running the Don Sachs into a Primaluna Evo400 power amp is a great combo. 

Totally worth it if you have other good things in the chain.
I just added an Airtight ATC-5 between my DAC and my amp. An obvious difference, more musical, dynamic and relaxing.
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an old quad preamp with the spectral tilt control, now THAT was a useful feature!
Many posts saying hi-end preaamps improve sound.
One post saying 'why', surely the additional circuitry cannot improve the signal it is fed with.  Doesn't it just add noise?
Or does it add some aspect to the sound that these posters find pleasing?
Can somebody who understands the tech please tell me.
YES.  When I first plugged in the Audio Research SP-3 pre-amp in 1974, in my shop, I had a true revelation in how systems can sound.

Obviously, in the many years since then pre-amps have evolved and even improved somewhat.  I suggest you work with your local dealer and audition as many as he carries IN YOUR ROOM to find the one YOU like best.

It will be as much a revelation to you as it was to most of the rest of us who have been down this road before.

This is not to say that there are not some SS pre-amps that are very good, because of course there are. However, the one that sounds best IN YOUR ROOM is the one you need to purchase and be delighted with in your system.

Cheers!
Surely its not just more components adding more ’noise’ - its a question of WHICH sort of components and WHICH sort of circuit implementation, no?
Maybe a drastic example of my own, a run of the mill mid/low-fi Rotel preamp I’d replaced by a Levison no. 326S preamp.
The difference like day and night. Maybe hard to believe - but that’s what can happen, and I’m pretty sure will happen - so long you own speakers, amp etc. that will match the ’new’ setup.
Cheap shoebox speakers and or low-fi amp will possibly just paste over the difference.
So as always it’s ’horses for courses’.
And the best expensive cable will NOT make any difference with a low/mid-fi preamp. Tried that of course too. Nada.
M. 🇿🇦
clearthinker129 posts
Many posts saying hi-end preaamps improve sound.
One post saying 'why', surely the additional circuitry cannot improve the signal it is fed with. Doesn't it just add noise?
Or does it add some aspect to the sound that these posters find pleasing?
Can somebody who understands the tech please tell me.

Many have posted how a quality preamp improved their systems.  None will be able to tell you the science.  To many of us, It just sounds better..  Bascom King, in his interview on inserting a preamp, states "the music is more compelling and real"  Compelling and Real.  I don't think we will ever measure these qualities, but I know I can hear it, or at least I am convinced I am, and convinced enough to own a nice pre amp. 

First- one premise made by the OP is incorrect- phono stages are not noise free. Some are very quiet but none are dead silent. 
Next, I’ve been messing around in this audio world since the 1970’s. Everything makes a difference and a great preamp can make a system and a dud of a preamp can break a system. More so, I believe, than can different amps. 
IMHO.... It has probably made the most significant change in systems I have owned in the past 35 years.
1980 Something... DQ-20 speakers, Adcom GFA 555, Amp GFA 565 preamp SOTA sapphire TT  ..
I went from the Adcom GFA 565 to a CJ Premiere 2.
I was completely blown away didn’t need to do an A.B. test...That was the catalyst that put me on the quest for Audio Nirvana.
YES !!!!! 
I think you need a decent preamp in any system.  I used to have an Audio Research Hybrid Preamp in the early nineties and for my DAC I have the Wadia Digital.  I loved my Audio Research until it broke after three years of use.  While looking for a replacement or trying to have my preamp repaired locally, I used my Wadia Digital which has a volume controller  temporarily thru my Krell  amp.  The sound was not as warm  with the DAC preamp as my Hybrid Audio Research  so I ended up going for the newer products. Now  my Preamp is solid state now which is a NuForce and I also switched my DAC to the Benchmark unit .  My Wadia is still in use in my bedroom system .  So the answer is a good preamp is vital to a good system and better as a stand alone than a preamp with DAC.

imThorek
So we know the higher end preamps don’t include dacs and phono stages. Highly desirable noise free devices. I hear wonderful things about these preamps, Luxman, Accuphase, Audio Research, etc.

Are they as good as represented?

there is no one size fits all answer to these two questions. the first question is whether a high end preamp is worth it.

up to a certain investment point in a total system, a preamp holds you back. this is because a stand alone active preamp adds a layer of interconnects and power cords and noise. at lower levels of quality those artifacts are bigger than the dynamic additions the stand alone preamp adds. you are better off using an analog preamp in a dac and eliminating a preamp and tasking that budget elsewhere. the tipping point for this question is not definable; it will depend on the level of gear you are using, if you are using multiple sources, and whether your dac preamp can handle the source switching.

past a certain point of system investment and performance the stand alone preamp takes you further. but it will need quality ancillaries to be at it’s best.

at the highest system performance levels stand-alone active preamps are not only worth it; with very rare and expensive exceptions they are essential.

the other variable is the quality of the preamp in a dac you might choose. for instance; i own the MSB Select II dac; which has a passive preamp inside it that will surpass many/most active stand alone preamps. and also it’s capable of accepting a source input so can be used with a phono stage. it it a remarkably capable preamp; but......the MSB Select II is hideously expensive. it takes my also quite expensive darTZeel 18NS preamp to surpass the MSB Select II passive, and then only by a small margin. if i was digital ’only’ i would not be using my dart preamp.

the second question you ask (not directly) is whether a high end preamp can have phono stages included. my dart pre has very fine phono stages (2 of them), yet performs at a high level. it is the resident preamp in Michael Fremer’s system too. and there are other fine high end preamps with internal phono stages. so ultimate preamp performance is not exclusive to those without phono stages.
I agree with most of the other, a preamp can make a huge difference. I went from a Rogue Cronus integrated with a nice tube sound to Belles amp and Audio Illusions preamp. the amp provided all the umph and power I was missing but the preamp (tubed) brought that tube sweetness and sound stage that I love. So, yes I believe they do make a difference. SS or tube and cost will be your initial marks. read and get knowledgeable. listening is imp if possible. I bought mine blind but from credible source that also own speakers like mine. Be aware that some preamps have extra features like MM/MC. that could be handy down the line. Happy hunting!
@mikelavigne really said it all in his informative post.   Not much more one could add to his post based on his considerable experience. I have also come to the exact same conclusion.  Well said Mike! 
@fastfreight 
Many have posted how a quality preamp improved their systems. None will be able to tell you the science. To many of us, It just sounds better..
I agree using a preamp (either a unity-gain buffer or an active preamp with gain) sounds better than passive options (and I have owned multiple resistor-based passives, TVC passives, and my current DAC that can directly drive the amplifier using a volume control implemented by adjusting the reference voltage.... out of the signal path).  

Some here have actually shed light on "the science" related to the improvements of active circuitry between the source and amplifier.  The issue is not just a factor of having enough voltage to drive the sensitivity of the amplifier but is also related to driving the interconnect cable, impedance matching, and more. If you search these forums, there are informative posts by knowledgeable folks such as (the late and well-liked) @almarg, and @atmasphere the long-time owner/designer of amplifiers and preamplifiers of the same name.  Nelson Pass has also commented on the subject in his comments about the Pass B1 Buffer Preamp:  
https://www.passdiy.com/project/preamplifiers/b1-buffer-preamp

Wading through the many "passive vs. active" posts here could lead you to some science-based information, but would be time consuming. Below are some comments by @atmasphere on the subject of why active circuitry between the source and amplifier is beneficial:
The reason to use an active line stage is to reduce coloration. The coloration can be caused by the cables and the math that derives therefrom (bandwidth limitations, increased output impedance of the source and thus the impedance driving the amplifier).

Gain may not be needed, but buffering the input and output of the volume control so that the source and amp see a constant impedance is. In this way the setting of the volume control may not also act like a sort of tone control.

The thing is, if you do your design homework, the distortion and bandwidth limits of the active line stage can be much better than those of the source itself and if you do your engineering homework, its possible to insure that the kinds of distortion it does make are of the type to which the ear isn't particularly sensitive.

mitch2

certainly, awesome very advance expertise you share herein. Soooo much brain energy being deployed.  This is complex stuff requiring many advanced degrees.

speaks to a need to improve the marketing efforts of high end hifi devices.  Basically, a large number have no clue what they are buying. They are comforted with expert reviews that seem helpful, and spending more money for incremental perceived value. Choosing a preamp is not easy!!! Marketing materials are horrifyingly tough to make sense of.  As long as boxes are built like tanks, weigh more and look pretty.
@mikelavigne plus 1 gazillion.

There are those who don’t believe that a top notch preamp can make a difference. To them, they haven’t heard the difference to make it worth it. Same goes for all bits are bits and cables are cables. Fine.

When you actually do get to hear the difference in your system, everything will click. I happen to love certain well executed integrateds but in my room, my speakers, my cables, etc a fine pre and a fine amp surpasses.
chorus
In a blind test no preamp can improve upon no preamp.
That’s an interesting claim. Have you actually conducted such blind tests? If so, please provide details and include the other components used in the test system. Then perhaps we can tell you where you are going wrong.
A great pre-amp can improve the entire system.  Especially in hi-end systems.  It was a day and night experience to drive my power amp with my DAC vs a matching pre-amp.  The power amp has such a low impedance that the DAC literally collapsed on it.  The DAC was never able to play loud.  The pre-amp on the other hand can drive the power amp until the speakers melt. 
Some more really excellent posts about how a quality Pre amp with system synergy absolutely enhances an already fine rig.  But to my point about not being able to site examples of science, I guess I meant that it is not easy 'to measure' the difference.   Nay sayers seem to stick to this defense; 'if you can not measure it, I can not hear it' and 'bits are bits' etc.  And, quite possibly, they can not hear it!  To me, measurements are important, but hearing is believing.  
Given high output voltages of modern DACs, the Pre becomes a glorified attenuator. The same result is achieved by either buying a DAC with analogue volume control or using a passive attenuator. There is really no good reason to use a Pre in digital playback. Analogue however is a different matter...
so a preamp bought to be used in ht bypass mode and only streaming from a nucleus is not needed, ie. Of no value??
@antigrunge2 
Given high output voltages of modern DACs, the Pre becomes a glorified attenuator.
This was a common viewpoint a few years ago and continues to work well for some, but others who have tried running their systems DAC-direct or through a passive preamp have perceived a loss of dynamics and tonal density and have since gone back to using preamps or buffers.  If you take a look at my post from noon yesterday, you can read about other factors that affect sonic performance with/without a preamp that go beyond simply having adequate voltage to drive the amplifier.  BTW, digital becomes analogue when it comes out of the DAC.
@mitch2,@emergingsoul

The only case where I could think of mismatch issues between DAC, attenuator and power amplifier are impedance related: low output impedance on the DAC, high impedance inputs on the power amp or very poor choice of interconnects. This is however an unusual constellation that one normally needn‘t be overly concerned about.
Where you do get a problem is when you rely on a DAC‘s digital attenuator; for the avoidance of doubt all digital output levels should be set to max. In other words: an analogue attenuator or volume control in the DAC is always needed


@mitch2 

I was obviously referring to analogue sources, not DAC outputs
You don't need analog volume control it can be done in the digital domain. You don't need a preamp in a totally digital system. 
I used passive preamps for many years. Then one day I decided to check out an active. I decided on an Audible Illusions. I was stunned and amazed! The music had structure and substance I never heard.
I now have upgraded to an Atma-Sphere MP-3. Pricey but well worth it.