How much do I need to spend to get a preamp that sounds better than no preamp?

Hello all.
I'm using an Audible Illusions L1 preamp and I think my system sounds better when I remove it from the signal path. Oppo BD105 directly to SMC Audio DNA1 Gold power amp. I have read that there is level of quality you need to hit before there will be an improvement in sound. I can't seem to find what that level is. Any ideas?
Thanks in advance,
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Um, this is very very much a matter of personal taste. I don't think no preamp is necessarily the golden standard. I buy for pleasure, not specs or measurements.

Sometimes a juicy, colorful preamp can be fun as hell. :) 


Well said Erik, and probably what many others are thinking and don't want to admit.
Linear Tube Audio MZ2 with the upgraded power supply is around $1800. In my opinion it is the best bargain in Audio.
I've tried four different DACs direct and I've always preferred the sound with a preamp. 
I should point out that this idea of taste applies only when we're talking about reasonably well matched impedances. If you have a low impedance amplifier input a preamp may indeed be needed.

However given the modern high-current op amps in most DAC's, most can drive 600 Ohms. Easy peasy. 


Rather than spending a lot of money for a better preamp, here’s a much less expensive possibility to consider, that could very conceivably result in a significant improvement:

I presume that all of the connections you have been using between the components you mentioned are unbalanced. Although I’m not certain, I suspect that as in the case of several other Oppo players the balanced analog outputs of the BDP-105 are driven via a signal path that is fully differential from the output of the D/A converter chips to the XLR connectors. And it has been reported in various posts here that some users of Oppo players have found the sonics of the balanced outputs to be superior to the sonics of the unbalanced outputs.

According to this review from the year 2000 Steve McCormack offered, and perhaps still offers, a mod to the DNA-1 which provides it with balanced inputs, implemented with a Jensen transformer. The cost of the mod in 2000 was indicated to be $450. And, alternatively, a Jensen transformer that could be used externally to convert balanced signal pairs for both channels to unbalanced, such as the model PI-2XR listed here (select RCA output connectors under "Pricing") can be had for ~$250.

If your DNA-1 doesn’t already have that mod you may want to consider either contacting Steve to see if it can be incorporated, or separately purchasing a Jensen transformer that would provide XLR inputs and RCA outputs.

-- Al

I don’t think you can look at it as a “level of quality”... instead it is more of a trial and error. I had an oppo 103 playing directly into my amp... it sounded good. I added a budget ( under $1k preamp) and it made a big improvement. Then I tried a nuprime dac9 as a preamp and it was a step backward. 

Bottom line, since lots of new equipment is returnable... and/or lots of preowned is resellable at virtually no loss... you have to try a couple preamps and see where it takes you. 

There is a reason why audiophiles are heading back toward integrated amps and receivers.

The sales pitch went...


Integrated amps

Preamp & amp

Preamp & mono blocks

Sadly this is an upsell tactic more than a sound quality one, most of the time. Now that reviewer guilt selling has run it's course a lot of HEA folks are going back to Integrated Amps as their amp, and simpler speaker designing with less crossover work.

Your also seeing One Source systems coming back into play among the purist.

Michael Green


Absolutely right. I just built a shaping board into my new phono/pre, and it works a treat for digital. For the first time, I am truly enjoying CD's. We'll see if that lasts.
I agree about integrated amps. I have the new PassLabs INT-250
and an OPPO MODWRIGHT 205. I doubt that I could get better sound from separates. To me if you have good speakers and an
excellent amp, the input sources become the most important issue.
Each time I have improved one, the system improves considerably.

By the way fo those of you with MODWRIGHT OPPO's the tube
quality is critical to its performance. Ask Mod Wright which tubes they use at shows. I did, changed to Philips and Amperex and transformed the OPPO into something close to vinyl.

Lots of chatter lately about the pre or not to pre debate. I tried the direct source to amp route and was immediately impressed by the increased level of detail. After listening to it like this for about a month the music started sounding dull and lifeless. Put a Schiit Saga passive pre in with it's hybrid tube buffer and stepped attenuator and it helped a bit. I think I'm going back to an active pre, still feels like I'm missing something. 
Unless you get a quality tube preamp then there should be little difference from adding an SS preamp in the path. A quality tube preamp will not necessarily be transparent but good ones will give you a wonderful warm presentation. Keeping signal levels as high as possible without clipping can be extremely important to get the most out of a preamp.
Honashagen 4-22-2018
No balanced inputs on my DNA1.
I’m not sure from this response if my suggestion came across clearly. To be sure it’s clear, I was suggesting that you consider **adding** balanced inputs to the DNA-1, either with an external Jensen transformer or via the mod Steve McCormack had offered, and perhaps still offers. I suspect that doing so would allow you to utilize better sounding outputs of the BDP-105. It would also eliminate the possibility that ground loop issues between the player and the component it is driving are affecting sonics.

A potential benefit of using the external transformer approach, rather than Steve’s mod, is that it would provide you with the flexibility of having the Audible Illusions preamp (or some other single-ended preamp) either in or out of the path, while using the balanced outputs of the player.

-- Al

50+ years in audio and I know only 3 things(slow learner) .
NEVER buy a preamp without a gain switch or nob and a TT without
a fly on the play adjustment .
That and  impedance matching IMO will solve 90% of 'too harsh, no base,etc.etc. etc. etc. etc. etc , complaints on here or anywhere else for that matter .
And you can buy 3 cars with the money you save or pay your daughters way through the local state university . And buy her a new car upon graduation .
It's the riddle for which there is no answer, the corollary to "not all things that can be measured count and not all things that count can be measured". System dependent, but in many cases, a great preamp creates the "jump factor" that turns a boring system into an attention grabber. That's a fact. Debate it all you want. 
System dependent, but in many cases, a great preamp creates the "jump factor" that turns a boring system into an attention grabber.

+1 @fsonicsmith 
"System dependent, but in many cases, a great preamp creates the "jump factor" that turns a boring system into an attention grabber".

True it can wake up a boring system ,but it can also make a system too alive and strident
I’ve never tried the Oppo direct but I find it very digital sounding (in a bad way) and that is through a VAC preamp.  So, I don’t think any preamp is going to help.  If you like the sound direct, stick with what you have.
 I would suggest a better player or add an outboard dac that sounds better and reinsert your preamp.  That said, it’s your ears not mine that count.
Crap! I must have hearing problems. I thought the darned Oppo sounded pretty good!

you should consider any specific recommendation of equipment as anecdotal as it may not sound nearly as impressive in your system. 

Although unlikely, it’s absolutely possible that a $3k tube preamp won’t impress you as much as a $1k solid state preamp. 

Best to stick your toe in the water, buy something returnable and find out what works for you in your system in your room with your music.... all while realizing it may take a few tweaks to get it right. 
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browndt ... what Amperex tube are you using ? I'm using NOS Mullards and like it.. Try Sophia Tube 274B in the power supply.. I think you'll like it better than the Phillips.. I do
The preamp is the brain, the nervous system of your audio system. You cannot beat a good SS amp with a good tube preamp combo. Well, I like tubes only also, I love both setups. Just depends of the kind of music that I listen or my mood for music.

The Audible Illusions & the Audio Research preamps are great, I’m about to try the Schiit Freya with the Bryston 4B3, something tells me that this combo will sound good.
I went for a Hattor passive with 6dB attenuator and remote which I'm really pleased with. The audio path is clean. XLR balanced into the power amp. Sounds great. You are at about 1500 USD though I think.

Your question is essentially that you are asking what level of quality you need to attain to improve on Oppo 105 direct to your DNA amp. (Or possibly how to find it, but the answer to that is obvious, trial and error, or, asking an expert with more experience, hence, presumably your post.)

The discussion up to now seems to me to be ignoring one obvious aspect. That is, what you are really trying to do is improve on the built in preamplifier that comes with your OPPO 105.   To really and truly bypass your Oppo 105, you’d pretty much have to take a digital out signal and go with a preamp that takes the digital signal and modulates that into the analog domain. Otherwise you are using some of the preamp circuitry of the OPPO already. 

I believe (and I may be wrong) that your Oppo uses different pathways for its RCA outputs whether line level or variable out, than it does for its XLR outputs.

It means you have potentially two different quality preamps built into the Oppo, and you’re listening to just one of them.

Consider a preamp might outperform one, but not the other. 

For example if if you had a Bryston amplifier with both RCA and XLR, you might prefer one to the other, and require a preamp taking in the digital signal to improve the one you don’t like to get to the level of the other.

Before I’d blindly assume a preamp which is just as likely to color poorly as well as improve it, I’d also equally consider an amp with true balanced technology to see if the OPPO does a better job via its XLR outputs. (ie you may already own a better preamp, you are just not using it)

I guess I’m just pointing out you already have a preamp in the OPPO.  
honashagen, The preferred hookup for the Pass Labs with it's super
symmetry circuitry is via XLR, since your amp doesn't accept balanced interconnects you won't be optimizing the capabilities of the Pass Labs pre. The McCormack is a fine amp and perhaps even the ideal match for your system, but it seems to be the bottleneck for what your trying to achieve. Perhaps the money spent on the Pass pre might have better been spent on an amp that plays nice with the Oppo?
Agree with fsonicsmith re jump factor. 

Answering the OP question, I'd say $5k to $20k. In other words, the price of a Shindo preamp. 

I would rather go straight from DAC to amp using jriver digital volume control than use a $2k preamp. The big jump, where the preamp adds musicality (and not just warmth) happens above $5k. 

Warmth is often just smearing and roll off. Musicality is extra tone, no details smeared away, and extra compelling transients. 
Buy the New Schiit preamp at $699 using 6sn7  tubes, 
justreplace them with the Golden Lions ,and you have the =
to preamps up to 3 timesthe cost, even a solid state option if you choose to  but a Pangea sig, MK-2 power cord. Fantastic for under$900 maxed out .also upgrade the fuse if you choose to.
Find an Ayre K3x with phono. Why waste more money for little gain. Because it is new and fancy, doesn't necessarily mean you will get that exponential gain in listening pleasure.Use your spare cash on something else worthwhile to you. How many enthusiasts have "aging" componentry that cannot be replaced because yesterday's stuff was quality, todays is science and mass market, or hi-brow if you can afford it.
I didn't look through the chain to see if anyone mentioned LDR-based preamps but that is a good place to look especially with a high sensitivity amp like the McCormack.  My three buddies and I have replaced preamps from Eastern Electric, Counterpoint (highly modded), Parasound (JC series), and Slagle with LDR-passed no-gain preamps from Tortuga (various models) or Horneshoppe (the Truth).  In all of our experiences, these are the most transparent pre-amps we have owned with outstanding performance in the frequencies extremes, a gorgeous life-like mid-band, and deep and wide imaging.  For us, these preamps transformed our systems to higher levels then we thought possible and we feel we are no longer limited by our preamps, only by our sources, amps, and speakers.  They are really good at any price level and outstanding killers at their actual prices.  In addition, if you do need a little gain, Tortuga has a buffer that can be added and configured to add a little gain.  I believe both companies offer trial periods and both are owned by colorful, thoughtful people.
I have an easy way to evaluate a pre-amplifier.  A few years ago I obtained a Stax tube electrostatic headphone system.  By chanch I also had my then Audio Research LS26 tube pre-amplifier sitting right next to me.  Anyway I simply hooked my Stax system thru the LS26's record out outputs.  As at the time a long time user of Stax headphone systems, I immediatly noticed how the audio reproduction was greatly improved.  Not just a little bit but a definite audio improvements.  Now when I would take an audio source and hooked it up directly to my Stax system, the audio quality went way, way down.  Presently I am doing the same with an Audio Research LS27 and both a solid state as well as a tube Stax system.  As the LS27 has both a ballanced as well as a single ended output, with a pair of adapters I am able to hook up two different Stax systems.  Now in between I tried tje same thing with a Classe DR5 solid state pre-amplifier and got different results.  Now the Classe was a very good pre-amp, but the Stax systems would sound better if connected directly their audio source as compared to thru the Classe pre-amplifier.  Which brings me to the opinion that the question of whether to use a pre-amplifier or not might just rest upon the quality of the pre-amplifier itself.  The results are so much easier to compare if done thru a high quality headphone systems as opposed to a regular speaker based audio system.  Unlike a speaker bsed system, the results are easily noticible, and immediatly thru a quality headphone system.  Thru my LS27 I can match output levels and with a push of a button on my remote control go back and forth easily.  And again, the results are so easily apparent immediatly.  No need to go back and forth countless time to evaluate different audio components down the line.  Again, it is the quality of the pre-amplifier being used that will make the difference.
Well I got the pass preamp and to me it sounds a bit thin on the bottom compared to no preamp. The vocals aren't as warm and there is not as much Bass. Crap.
Well I got the pass preamp and to me it sounds a bit thin on the bottom compared to no preamp. The vocals aren't as warm and there is not as much Bass. Crap.

<< sigh >> yeah. If ever there was a brand I wanted to love based on their history and looks, it would be Pass. 

“Well I got the pass preamp and to me it sounds a bit thin on the bottom compared to no preamp. The vocals aren’t as warm and there is not as much Bass. Crap”

As posted earlier - for adjusting the sound and for fine tuning - get a tube preamp. Very little benefit to an SS preamp except that all decent ones should be transparent to the point of being not too different from stock SS sound from an SS device.

For example, a tube preamp with 12AX7 tubes is going to be highly configurable by rolling tubes and those tubes are not hugely expensive and there is a wide selection.

Luminous Audio Axiom mkII $199 (passive) - most impressive and significant upgrade in sound quality I've yet done to my main rig.  The best explanation I can come up with is the old audiophile cliché: it was like lifting a thick wet wool blanket off my speakers and my system already sounded spectacular and extremely resolving.

technics SL-1500mkII > Denon DL103 (re-tipped by Sound Smith and housed in modified wood body) > Jolida JD9 > Loung Audio Copla MC SUT/head amp > Axiom mkII > NuPrime STA 9 > Tekton Uruz speakers

*the Axiom has replaced three preamps I still have:  Accuphase C200, Jolida 3000B and a heavily modified Dynaco pas tube, all of which are fantastic preamps.  I have the 'base' model Axiom which means it's just one input and one output and volume control.  More ins and outs add to the price and they offer a 'Walker mod upgrade' which is supposed to be amazing but they run from $199-$999 depending on options.  Spending $200 to try one is well worth it as I will be getting one with more ins and outs very soon.