I'm new to this. Critique my tentative plan?

Hi -- I am new to the world of high end audio. I got interested after a friend lent me his stereo, which is a Conrad-Johnson LS17 Preamp and MV-60 amplifier. He has a custom DAC from a defunct manufacturer. The setup sounds, from naive point of view, breathtaking. Remarkable detail, clarity, and warmth on a great soundstage.

For him -- and for me as I get into this -- the dominant usage case is streaming lossless or other high-quality files from an iTunes source to a DAC, then having a system put out two-channel stereo sound.

What I have now: An extensive digital library of music, a cheap integrated Onkyo amp, and a pair of 30 year old B&W bookshelf speakers up on stilts. The speakers sound great and my tentative plan is to keep them.

The question is --- what to get? I'd like to spend well under $3,000. My first thought was to buy a DAC, preamp, and amplifier, or an integrated amp and preamp. I listened to the Rogue Audio Atlas gear that Stereophile recommends, but missed the lost clarity. I also listened to a Pathos Classic One, which sounded better but not nearly as good as the CJ setup that spoiled me.

Here's what I'm thinking: Rather than get a preamp at all, I could get a DAC, passive attenuator, and power amplifier. Tentatively: The Channel Islands VDA-2 DAC, matching attenuator, and a used MV-60. As an experiment, I connected the MV-60 I'm borrowing up without a preamp, and it sounded amazing.

What do you all think?
Just get a DAC that comes with a volume control - it can be used as a preamp - for example Benchmark DAC1 has no need for passive attenuator. The concern about DAC's should be first and foremost its reputation for jitter immunity (is it well respected) and then take your pick for the subtle sound differences...
Bel Canto DAC3 will work.
Monarchy Audio NM24 is a DAC/preamp combo that sounds really good for the money.

That being said the CIA DAC and passive pre is a good idea, however you need to be sure the CJ is passive friendly. The CIA is a resistor based design and versus a transformer volume control based passive design impedance mismatches are more common.
how about this:
Bel Canto DAC3(built in preamp section with nicely implemented volume control, USB, Coax, Toslink and balanced inputs). Should run you around $1500
McCormack DNA-1Deluxe.

Or, Havana tube USB dac, Sonic Frontiers Line-1SE tube preamp, McCormack DNA-1Deluxe amplifier. This entire bundle should be under $3k and I bet it will come really really close to the CJ combo your friend lent you.
Hi Clio --- What does "passive friendly" mean, and how would I check for it?
Depends on the type of passive preamp. However, a few places to start are:

1. Your source(s) has the proper output to drive a passive. If this is a CDP then you would need one with an output impedance of about 500 ohms or less, and 2V or greater output.

2. Your amp has a sensitivity rating of 1V or higher (meaning under 1V).

3. Your amp has an input impedance of greater than 50k ohms, preferably much higher. Tube amps generally have a rating of 100k ohms so this is not usually an issue.

If I were you I'd give Roger Modjeski at Music Reference a call. He sells the pot in the box for about $200. It is a resistive passive like the CIA. he could tell you if the CJ i a match for it. Not all resitsive passives are built alike. That is why I prefer TVCs. One that is in your budget is Prometheus. Nicholas at Prometheus could also give you some imput as to how it may match up to the CJ.

There sure are a lot of combinations that will accomplish your goal. I do feel however, having just those pieces you heard that sounded so good would be best though.

I'll assume you demo'd the Cj items & DAC on your own speakers... and budgetary issues demand a piece be dismissed to achieve that end, and you chose to subtract the CJ 17 pre. to do it.

I heard a system once which floored me, or at least was one I became very impressed by... just as you have recently done.

I spent some time trying to emulate that sound using other gear... and a lot of money too. I would have been far better served to recreate the sound with those components that 'sent me', rather than trying to emmulate them with other pieces.

That CJ AMP should not be to difficult an amp to find preowned. The CJ 17 pre is A BIT PRICIER NOTE PERHAPS.

As you plan on going HD based music, I'd say get a DAC such as the Bel Canto DAC 3, (albeit good luck getting it for the previously suggested $1500... but then, who knows?) and get the CJ amp.

That is a situation I can and have used with my tube amps. The BC DAC3 and tube amps.... no preamp... and right off my personal confuser!

You can even hook a subwoofer to the DAC3 as well, as it has two sets of outputs albeit, one pair SE and one set XLR!

I'd suspect this path will not only gain you the warmth in tonality, but with far better detail and sound stage depiction... not to mention the far greater bass impact the DAC3 will add to the event.

ONce the DAC 3 + CJ 60 or some other tube amp is in place, address the power cords on each, and then the ic.

There after, if desired, a speaker upgrade maybe, and following that a preamp if other analog sources are to be added... IF NOT, YOU COULD BE WELL ON THE WAY TO BEING DONE RIGHT QUICK WITH AN EXCELLENT SOUNDING RIG.

The Bel Canto D3 brings a lot to the table when used with tube gear. A lot. It reduces jitter to near nothing, and is very versatile.

If you can't find a CJ 60, a BAT VK60 might well do you as it meets your budget, and is a truly balanced amp which will be a benefit using the BC DAC3's balanced outputs!

The VK 60 also can be rolled to sound very rich and warm, or quite the contrary, nimble and fast. I've had the VK60 too at one time. I now have Dodds.

Do have fun no matter what your choice is, and good luck.