How much better will a preamp be over a processor

I've had a dedicated theater room for over four years now, and have enjoyed it very much. Over the last couple of years I have changed the equipment around quite a bit for many reasons, but the main one has always been to improve upon the sound for two channel listening.

The first piece I upgraded was the amplifiers. I went from a five channel (Anthem P5) to a pair of Theta Citadel 1.5's. I kept the Theta's for about a year and sold them to move on to a BAT VK-600SE in November 2008. I went with the BAT based on the strong recommendation of a fellow enthusiast, and have to say I've liked it much better over the Theta's.

Last April I had the opportunity to buy a pair of Aerial 20T v2's. I couldn't pass these up at the price and traded my Aerial LR5's in on them to help with the cost. These have been the single biggest upgrade I've experienced in my system as far as the over all sound goes.

This brings me to my question. I am currently using a Denon AVP-A1HDCI processor for all the processing and preamp duties. My plan from the beginning was to get a dedicated two channel preamp to go along with the Denon or whatever processor I would be running. Like many others the poor economy has caught up to me and buying something like a good two channel preamp is now a bigger deal than what it was two years ago. My plan was to be patient and buy a used unit here from Audiogon and try it, if I didn't like it resell it and take a small hit from what I payed and move on to the next one to try. Now this doesn't seem to be a smart thing to do (Maybe it wasn't before either?), so I'm hear asking for your guys input.

My initial plans where to get a BAT VK-52SE to run along with the Denon processor, but I've done a lot of reading over the last year or so and there seems to be a lot of options. I'm also interested in products from Ayre, Classe, Anthem, and ARC. I am prepared to sell the Denon and the BAT amp and start over, but it would be nice to just keep one or both and make something work. I still have the BAT VK-52SE or BAT VK-42SE at the top of my list, and really consider these to be the front runners for me, however I've talked to a few people who have gotten the Classe SSP-800 and rave about it. One person I spoke with even got rid of there ARC ref 3 after getting the Classe. He told me the Classe didn't have everything the ARC ref 3 did, but it was close enough not to worry about. This is how I feel as well, if I'm going to spend this kind of money I want a significant improvement not a small one.

I know there are a lot of variables in all of this and I'm sure there will be many opinions. I'm sure the first thing I will be told is to go listen to the products I'm interested in, and that is best thing to do, but I live out in a rural area, with most dealers being two to three hours away. I work six days a week now and Sundays is for the kids. I also don't want to go and take up a dealers time only to come home and buy something used from Audiogon. I just don't think that is right, besides what sounds good at the dealer might sound horrible when you get it home.

I basically have two questions for you.

What type of improvements should I expect by going to a dedicated two channel preamp over my current Denon processor.

Can a higher end Processor like the Denon, Anthem, or Classe provide a two channel experience comparable to a dedicated two channel preamp.

Thanks for your guys input.
"What type of improvements should I expect by going to a dedicated two channel preamp over my current Denon processor."

You should expect a HUGE differance. A great pre can really make a system.

"Can a higher end Processor like the Denon, Anthem, or Classe provide a two channel experience comparable to a dedicated two channel preamp."

Nope. Not in my experience. YMMV. There are a couple of used Pass X-1 pre's for sale here for right at 2K. Has a HT pass through and truly world class sound. Balanced ins and outs as well as single ended to work well with your BAT amps. I'm sure you could re-sale for what you pay less shipping. Good luck!
I second Srwooten's reply. I went through the SSP phase about 9-12 years ago. High end SSP's from Krell, Proceed, Classe, etc. Once I tried a good stereo preamp (Classe CP-60) it beat every SSP I'd heard by a wide margin. I've never looked back. I would think that speakers as good as your Aerial 20T's deserve the full treatment.


>>What type of improvements should I expect by going to a dedicated two channel preamp over my current Denon processor.<<

Hmmm. That’s a bit vague man, so I’d say for sure, Different? …and in that difference one will say better worse, or simply different.

Perhaps a better Q could be posed if some more info were mentioned. Price range of preamp & Designs of the short list of pres….

Better still might be just what or where do you wish to wind up regarding the overall sound? Fatter? Richer? Fuller? Faster? More bottom end? Greater extension? SS? Tubes?

>>Can a higher end Processor like the Denon, Anthem, or Classe provide a two channel experience comparable to a dedicated two channel preamp. <<

Maybe. Though I’d suspect not. Not against a dedicated analog preamp, but the price of it too means something. Again, we’re stuck in the proverbial “subjective accounts’ loop, here and in need of further info.

For me, I’ve found a very good preamp is very very, important! IF one will be running more than a single source for sure, but mostly because of the influence of the more upscale dedicated preamp on the music.

The preamp’s voicing of the end product is unmistakeable if it’s truly a great preamp. This change of the systems voice too will depend on your own parameters and preffs for what allures you when in 2 ch mode, and of course the preamp you select to gain such ends.

Easiest way IMHO to add one to an existing HT array is finding one with HT Bypass functinos. ALSO I’d say keeping as close to neutrality and as quick a one too are needed attributes for film and TV.

Many of the latest line stage preamps even tubed ones sound more and more like SS preamps to me today…. And there’s the rub for myself. In stereo mode I’m usually reeled into the listening event by a far different presentation than what most SS preamps or processors will yield.

There was a review of a couple of mid to uppoer end receivers posted online and one of them was a Parasound, the other I think was a Marantz.

Their preamps were compared to two or three other line stages of varying prices. $2K $4.5K & $ a lot more… a whole lot more!

The final points were that of all five of the preamps under fire, two HT rec’s, and 3 preamps, active and passive of less and well more expense…. That none were bad at all, and in some instances the HT units were on par with each of the other 3 dedicated preamps… to some degree.

So all were different, and subjectively as good or better here and there and the selection of Who’s on First remained a users choice affair.

Were it me looking for another preamp for such an end, I’d look at the upper end preamps from JE, VTL, BAT, Thor, VAC, etc. All of which include glass. There’s others of course but you’ve got to figure out just what you want in the reproduction of a 2 ch signal first…. And which amp, though I’d keep hold of your 600 given how you see current or future acquisitions. There’s nothing wrong with that piece. .. land certainly not yet. It’s stable, powerful, and works well in either balanced or SE mode using adapters.

I’d begin by trying out (buying) myself either a dedicated SS line stage, or a tubed one of moderate expense. $2K or so, or equal to the value of that proc you’re using now… doing that should give you some better insight as to what is to be expected. $1500 to $2000 on a ded preamp definitely will open your eyes.

Very good luck
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If you listen mainly to compressed, modern pop music, or non-acoustic music, digitally, then Bob is right - speakers make "the most" difference.

If not then the electronics in the chain are just or nearly as important.
may i suggest a marantz 7 c.will cost you much less than the above mentioned preamps.i tried a lexicon processor in my system.while the sound quality was very good for 2 channel,it lacked any reasonable amount of gain.another suggestion would be a bottle head pre.i recently bought one for 155.00.sound quality is great,gain is more than enough for any system. and they hold their value very well.lastly a pre for 2 channel sound is a must. processors were built for home theatre not 2 channel systems.check out what other bottle head users have to say about their purchases.
There is no comparison between a dedicated preamp and a processor in my experience.
I agree, a preamp will give you a huge improvement over your processor.
The idea of combining a Pass X-1 with something like an Integra 80.1 for a total cost of under $4K seems appealing. But many of the newer SACDs have a multi-channel layer or bit-streamed audio that can only be accessed via HDMI. Then there are the raves about the new audio codecs available with Blu-ray via HDMI. So it seems to me to stand to reason that the DACs in the processor are critical as well. So where does that leave you (or me with my Proceed PAV/PDSD)? Do we buy a Pass X-1 to use with our Classe SSP 800, for maybe a cost of $8K on the used market?

First off I would like to thank you guys for your responses.

It looks pretty overwelming to me that you guys think I should get the two channel preamp.

My new question is Solid State or Tubes???

With the combo that I am running now I feel like I have a very good sounding system. The soundstage is good (Width X Depth), Dynamics are there, Plenty of low end, but the one thing I don't care for is the highs. Don't get me wrong the highs are clean and clear, but to me over excessive (especially at higher volumes).

I mostly listen to older and newer rock and the one thing that always seems to annoy me is they way cymnbals come across at higher volume levels. I don't know if I am explaining myself clearly enough, but I hope this gives a better understanding of what I mean.

I am under the assumtion that a tube preamp will help to roll off these highs a bit and push the midrange a little more, but I have read and seen people post that some Solid State gear (Ayre, Jeff Rowland) can sound close to tubes.

What's your guys thoughts?

My Anthem AVM50 is fantastic for HT but only so-so for 2-channel. So when upgrading my primary 2-channel system, I decided to move my Audio Research Ref 3 to the HT setup and use it there for 2-channel listening. Unless the dedicated preamp is of very low sonic quality compared to the 2-channel capabilities of the processor (and I suppose this is possible), a dedicate preamp is clearly the way to go.
Do you want the highs smooth and natural sounding, or rolled off? Good SS gear does not roll off the highs (IMHO) but instead retains the natural sound of the highs. I absolutely relish the way cymbals sound on my kit.

Inherently yes… a tube preamp will allow for some lessening of top end energy as a rule, although I’d say don’t let that scare or annoy you, as this effect is by degrees primarily and usually not night and day sorts of differences.

The rule of thumb I’ve discerned so far on the affect of a tube preamp is that they afford a greater ease to the receipt of the sound itself. Better decays, and more harmonic resonance.

This ‘affectation’ can be either very great or simply noticeable. And there’s the rub for some. It’s not extremely promising of any exact outcome, offering more so mere vague notions which while in one’s mind can become magnified without due cause and wind up as offputting.

And there too is the lure of tubes in the power train, simple pure end user flexibility. The ability to amend or attenuate the signal without degrading it just by exchanging tubes within it’s company.

In the most generic of ways, people say rolled off when speaking of tubes, generally. It’s not correct IMHO. The bite can and often is reduced from the usual overemphasis of most rock & pop recordings when the application of a well designed tube device is on the job.

I feel a better terminology would be to say the highs are made more natural. Of course this variable concerns itself with just how good a tube this or a tube that is in the system mix. To some degree too, those tubes within it as well. Adding a nice tube pre with very dynamic and extended tubes in it’s compliment isn’t going to provide quite so much change, as if it’s compliment of tubes were rolled towards a smoother sort instead.

I know some SS preamps which sound quite different from their own amplifier counterparts too. Krell for example has some very dynamic amps, but their preamps aren’t quite so aggressive. I’d assume other makers could take that approach too.

A very good post was made here above regarding the type of music you will listen too going forward and the choice of preamp for it/them… if rock and pop are your bread and butter, and all else is disinteresting and likely will remain just that way, go with SS preamps. They’ll cost you less money than tubed preamps will and you’ll have all the extension and speed those genres require.

Back when I was considering adding a SS preamp simply for another take on the music and as a backup only, a friend here mentioned to me the Rowland Capri. They aren’t way pricey and resell quickly. Past that I’d consider Levinson or McIntosh, as I’ve heard some from both of those makers SS units.

With that BAT amp I’d first think of looking around for a good 51SE too. I know of a couple friends who own those and their accounts to me on them don’t show them up as your more harmonically rich and somewhat slower paced tube preamps… but you’ll also find that as the price goes up on tube preamps, so too will all the other audio nut agendas… PRAT, extension, inner detail, etc. And it’s a 100% balanced design with that inherenet synergy of the BAT sound!

Again, FYI, there are tube preamps out there today which when eye’s are closed, are very difficult to tell from SS preamps. I’ve never understood the why of that prospect though, aside from many have been intended for use in some HT rigs as they have the ‘HT bypass’ option built into them as std.

Have fun
You might consider reading Audiophile review on the Bryston SP2 which is a pre/pro with a bypass for 2-channel music listening. After that in my opinion, you really should audition this piece, and demand the dealer to combine the SP2 (in bypass mode)with his best system. I am talking about equipment costing over $10,000 per piece for the remainder of the system. You'll be surprised. I own the SP2, use it for both music and movies, and have to admit that Audiophile is right on the money for this one.
My mistake ... I mean Stereophile, and not "Audiophile". Just type in keywords stereophile, bryston & SP2 into Google to get the review.
You have and have had very good to excellent equipment and you have a very well done theatre and listening room. I would recommend a good tube pre-amp for the stereo music. My personal favorite that I have listened to extensively at a friend's place is the Wyetech Labs opal pre-amp. But there are many others as well.

The other big changes are actively bi-amping your Aerial 20t'S and concentrating on the digital to analog conversion. Vinyl is in a different class and speaks for itself.

Good luck with your choices!
I just added a Wyred 4 Sound STP-SE stereo solid state preamp to my system. The Wyred has a convenient HT bypass. It has made an immense improvement in two channel listening. At only $1999, if fits the budget constraints.