I need help choosing my next tube preamp.

Although I really enjoyed usnig my ARC LS-15 preamp since I bought it brand new several years ago, I'm looking to upgrade it.

I'd like to stay with tube preamps only.

I like experimenting with different tubes, so the new preamp should probably not be based on the new 6H30 supertube.

Qualities I'm looking for in my next preamp - it should have a pretty laid back(more so than the LS-15) but dynamic character, with plenty of detail, but not be hyper detailed, should have good definition in the bass region(deep, tight bass, not bloaty), full sounding mids and produce a wide and deep soundstage.
Also, it should have a high resolution volume control with plenty of steps to provide ability to fine tune volume for late night low-level listening.

Primary source in my system is digital. No analog as of yet.

The candidate preamps are:
ARC LS-25 MkI,
BAT VK-31,
Sonic Frontiers Line-3
Aesthetix Calypso

I'm pretty much open to other tube preamp suggestions, as long as it is from a well known manufacturer and is not known to have reliability issues.

I listen to different types of music. Classical, traditional and modern jazz, blues and rock.

Really looking for your expert opinion. And if someone who has any experience with the mentioned preamps can share their thoughts, it would be great!

Thanks a lot!!!!
I would go with a used Conrad Johnson preamp, a 17 or 16 or other model. They by far make some of the finest tube gear on the planet. One look at the internal construction of CJ equipment and you will agree. And the sound...well you hear everything with a sweetness that has to be heard to be believed.
What amp will you being using?
Pubul57, I'm using McCormack DNA-225 Gold Revision. You can actually view my components if you're interested by clicking on the System link.
Stevecham, thanks for the CJ suggestion.
Hi Audphile1 - maybe I can help a bit. The BAT and the Calypso are both built around that 6H30 tube, so the sound you get from the factory is pretty much IT - and both of them sound ruler flat and grainless, but neither has the harmonic warmth of tubes. If that is what you are looking for - I suggest that you spend some time researching VAC pre-amps from Florida. They have ALL the desirable features ( XLR and RCA outputs (both live), optional MC tube phono stage,home theater pass thru, and remote control. Add to that a 100K input impedence with an under 300 ohm output impedence and the basic tiny triode design flawlessly executed by Kevin Hayes at VAC, and you have the best tube pre-amp on the market, IMO. Musicality, flexibility, reliability, and some of the best looking pre-amps in production all will lead you to the same conclusion.
Though not a household brand name I would highly recommend checking out the custom made preamps by Deja Vu Audio in Mclean, Virginia. I borrowed one of their amps when I took my amp to them for some repairs and it was so much better than mine I never gave it back! I later picked up a preamp that thoroughly improved upon the performance of my Herron VTSP-1A. I was surprised because I really liked the herron but there was no comparison, the music was much more direct and alive. Though not a major manufacturer they have been around forever and don't look to be going anywhere. They are one of the most respected dealers in the country for tubes and vinyl, keep an open mind and give them a call, Google their name for their website and contact info. Happy listening!
Joule Electra
it should have a pretty laid back(more so than the LS-15) but dynamic character, with plenty of detail, but not be hyper detailed, should have good definition in the bass region(deep, tight bass, not bloaty), full sounding mids and produce a wide and deep soundstage.
You're describing the Lamm LL2. Read the reviews, as they accurately describe the "sound" of this preamp. I've tried it in at least six different systems, always with the same result: you hear more music, less componentry. I've heard the BAT and the Aesthetix, which are both excellent, but don't fit your stated requirements, in my opinion.
The tube compliment for some models above has been incorrectly stated. The BAT 30 and 31 use 6 6922 tubes while the 30SE and 31SE use a quad of 6H30 tubes. The Aesthetix Calypso uses a pair of 6922 (6DJ8 work too) and a pair of 12ax7. So if Audfile is looking for models not using the 6H30 tube, the listed candidates is valid. The CAT would be worthy of consideration if balanced I/O was not needed/wanted.

I can not speak about the 30 or 31, but I had the 6H30 based 31SE for 2 years, and it had great "harmonic warmth of tubes". It just has a little bit of a roll off on top which reduces the detail and ambience in this range. This latter sonic character is not at all an issue with the Calypso. But the Calypso does not have the same bloom in the mids. It's one tradeoff for another here.

For a few hundred $$ more than the LS-15 as sold on the used market, the LS5 is a logical choice. Even with stock Sovtek tubes, this significantly outperforms the LS15. With an investment of Mullard or Tele tubes, a replacement of the caps to Dynamicaps, or perhaps a GNSC update, this modded LS5 would be an unbeatable value in the <$3000 or so range.

There is no way anything can be tagged as "best"; such a label has no value. And the only way to truly know what works for you, in the context of your system and relative to your LS15, is to bring home some of these models and do a direct shootout in your system to your LS15.
I've been offered to demo a Calypso and VK-31 in my own system. I may take advantage of it and check these units out first hand.

Jafox, little roll-off at the extreme highs would most likely not hurt me too much with the B&W N803 speakers that I'm using as they sometomes have high frequencies to spare. I'm willing to experiment. But my goal is to get a smooth preamp not lacking in punch and dynamics. If this is possible.

I've heard lots of good things about ARC LS-5 but I don't think it will work good in my system due to very high output gain of this preamp and input sensitivity of the DNA-225 amp. I've modded my LS-15 with Dynamicaps. Dynamicaps are a nice improvement over the original caps, but still, I'd like something a bit more relaxed sounding.

What about SF Line-3SE? So far it hasn't been mentioned. I've never listened to it, but am very familiar with Line-1SE. How could the Line-3 be characterized vs Line-1? I kind of like the sound of line-1 but I think it lacks a bit in dynamic drive.
I'll add to the list of desired features the XLR inputs and outputs and a remote control. Sorry...missed it in the beginning.
I'll add to the list of desired features the XLR inputs and outputs and a remote control. Sorry...missed it in the beginning.
That removes the Lamm from consideration.

I've been offered to demo a Calypso and VK-31 in my own system. I may take advantage of it and check these units out first hand.
Always the best way to answer the question. Enjoy!
Thanks Boa2.

But please keep the suggestions flowing. It's been years since I shopped for a preamp and I'm really unfamiliar with the sound of the latest models. I'm also planning on visiting few NYC hi-end audio stores, just to take a quick listen to few preamps. This won't be as good of an evaluation as I would be able to do in my own system, but at least I may get an idea.
The LS5 MK III comes as 12 or 18db. I believe it is typically set in the factory as 12db. When I updated mine to 18db, I had to replace 8 resistors....it took about 1/2 hour of time. But if you want something more relaxed, the BAT models will do this vs. the more forward sound of the ARC models.

All of your requirements are pointing to the Aesthetix Callisto.
Please accept this for consideration rather than as a recommendation. The qualties you've described are the ones usually attributed to VTL gear. On the other hand, FWIW, the McCormack amps are said to match well with conrad-johnson.
I would go for the CJ option too, I used the 17 for 3 years and would still have it except i have gone integrated. If the XLR point is a deal breaker the CJ is out, if not, a strong recommendation.
Jafox...that Callisto preamp looks insane!!!! And I'm sure it is great, but it's out and beyond my price range at $8999.
The deHavilland Ultraverve and Mercury are very fine preamps however sans xlr.
Just go with the Manley Shrimp and be done with it! Has all your requirements including a stepless volume control.

I'm pretty surprised no one has mentioned VAC yet, but I would strongly recommend their preamps to fit your system.

I have a McCormack DNA-500 and a VAC Phi preamp and the synergy is incredible. My system also sounded good with my prior preamp, a VAC Standard LE, altho obviously not as good as it does with the Phi. Great imaging, detail, layering, soundstage, musicality, etc., etc., etc.

I believe the VAC preamps also fit your requirements above - XLR, remote, etc.

I have Legacy Whispers and the McCormack/VAC sound is truly magical. There have been several other people here on Agon who have tried this combo upon my recommendation, and they are now happy VAC/McCormack owners as well. Just my $.02
Sorry, I didn't see the added XLR requirement, skip the c-j.
Why do you have to have XLR inputs and outputs? If you can live w/o those, I'll add one more recommendation for a C-J preamp. Or a Cary.
I checked out VAC website. Looks pretty interesting. Phi is going to be off my radar screen due to price. Fplanner2000, when you had Standard preamp, were you using XLR from the preamp to amp or SE? What was your set up from source to pre? Was it SE or XLR? thanks
Recently compared the LL-2 and a VAC Ren Sig mk2 and it was not contest, course the price is 2X as well. i liked the VAC better than the joule in my system. you get xlr ins and outs, but i am told they are not a true balanced circuit. Regardless, its quite a pre-amp, imo. no experience with a ss amp tho.
Steveaudio, I use XLR from my cd player ARC CD3MkII into my preamp. I've noticed, and heard from others, that the CD3MkII sounds considerably better through balanced outs. And I prooved it true in my system. It is hard to say though what sounded better either the player or a preamp likes balanced input, I'm not 100% certain. But still want XLRs in any case.

Dodgealum, I appreciate the mod reccomendation, but I would like to upgrade to a different preamp instead. Mods improve things, but the core sonic signature seems to always stay the same. That's been my experience. In any case, I guess I just want a little bit more of the tube bloom than LS-15 is capable of producing. Little more involvement in the music and more liquidity in the overall presentation. Even if I fully modd LS-15 and end up still not where I want it sonically, I'll loose more money when I'll be selling it, because the mods don't add much to the prices of used gear. I've read somewhere on these threads that someone purchased a used GNSC fully modded LS-25 that sold for only about $400 more than the stock LS-25 usually goes for.

Right now, based on the recommendations here, I added VAC to my short list of preamps. I'll give the VAC guys a call tomorrow to see if there are any dealers in NYC or Jersey. I would like to listen to it.
modwright 9 swl--worth considering!

Glad VAC is at least on your list - tell Kevin "Harve says hi" if you talk to him. In answer to your questions - I tried both SE and balanced from my APL-modded Denon 3910 to the Preamp. SE sounded better in my system, which is not surprising since the APL was designed to sound the best single-ended (Alex Peychev, the designer, is not a big believer in balanced ICs from the source).

I also tried SE and balanced from the VAC to DNA-500, but there was a complication since there is a "Steridian"(a/k/a proprietary equalizer-type box) between the preamp and amp for my Whisper speakers (which really does work, most of the time.....)Anyway, what I discovered was that the Steridian processed a SE signal more cleanly and with more energy than it did a Balanced signal, in my system. I know that may not make much sense, because it didn't to me either, but it is/was a peculiarity of the Steridian design (among several others, which is off topic). Legacy has since replaced this problematically-engineered box with another much more expensive(Thousands $$) equalizer that supposedly doesn't have such problems.

Since SE worked the best in my system, as discussed above, those are the cables I invested in. I got a SE Virtual Dynamics Revelation Signature IC for the Denon-VAC conncetion and a combination of VD Revelation and Nirvana S-X Ltd, both SE, between the VAC Phi-Steridian-DNA-500. I tried easily 20 different IC combinations, mostly from John at the Cable Company, before arriving at my current set-up. Yes, cables DO INDEED make a difference in a resolving system!

I added bi-wired Revelation speaker cables and am now as close to my "that's it - I'm done" as I am going to get for the foreseeable future. As I said, the sound is just incredible, both to my ears and others who have listened. I am now simply, finally, ENJOYING THE MUSIC!!!

Hope this helps..........
modwright 9 swl--worth considering!
Mid40sguy (Threads | Answers)
Nope. You haven't read the entire thread. No preamp without XLR need apply.
I have owned over 20

1) Dodd audio reference linestage
2) Dodd audio battery powere
Fplanner2000, thanks a lot for the info. VD cables are very good. I had their Master digital interconnect when I had a dac.
My interconnects are AZ Silver RefII from cd to pre and Matrix RefII from pre to amp.
I'll be definitely calling VAC today. I wanted to find out who the VAC dealers are in NYC and is the optional XLR input on the Standard LE preamp truely balanced.
I'll try to find a dealer who would cary several brands of tube preamps so I can compare and possibly bring mine to compare as well, if they won't be willing to provide a unit for home auditioning.
How did you find the volume control on the VAC? Is it a smooth rotation type or it has steps?
Audphile - the VAC preamps are not dual differential fully balanced pre-amps. The only pre-s with tubes that are ( to my knowledge) are the BAT pre-amps. However - that certainly should not give you pause for concern. I use my VAC Renaissance pre with BAT s/s monoblocks using 3.5M XLR connections and it is dead quiet. I also use the RCA outs for my subwoofers at the same time, so both sets of outputs are active. I am not sure who handles VAC in NY, but Kevin @VAC can let you know. Good Luck - I know that you will enjoy the listening experience!
Glad to help.

The "balanced" answer is pretty well descibed above, I believe, but 2x check w/Kevin anyhow if you have questions. The volume control was smooth as silk, and if for some reason it is not to your liking, Kevin can probably make whatever adjustments you would like(within reason, of course).
I talked to Kevin at VAC today and found a dealer in NJ not too far from where I work. I made an appointment there for next week to give Standard MkII a listen.

Also, despite the absence of XLR inputs and outputs, I still decided to give CJ a chance. I found a store near by that has CJ CT6 hooked up to DNA-225. Based on how many people mentioned CJ on this thread, it made me curious to see how the CT6 matches with the DNA-225, so I'm going to listen to this combo. The CJ preamps 17LS or 16LS, are these the older models? Which units in current production now replaced the 17 and 16? thanks
consider wavelength audio products and gil audio products.

from what i have heard, especially the well known brands such as audio research, conrad johnson, aesthetix, etc., the two aforementioned companies have preamps which are closer to the traditional sound of tubes, or should i say the "classic" sound of tubes, than most other brands.

oops, i forgot cary. forget about cary. does not sound like tubes either.
It may be a little late to introduce a new preamp into this mix but the Audio Horizons TP 2.0 has all of the features you seek (balanced in/out etc), costs less than $3K, and is available for home demonstration. Several Audiogoners are using this preamp and love it (including me). You can see other comments if you search these discussion forums using the key words "audio horizons."
This preamp is a wonderful performer.
sonic frontiers line 3 of the products listed...
Thanks MrT, thanks Cedar.

Jaybo, could you please describe sound of Line-3 in few words? Things like presentation(forward, middle of the hall, laid back?), resolution, bass, mids, you know, all the good stuff. thanks!
Audiophile1 - be particular when trying the cj pre. They have a very unique volume control circuit which impacts the imput impedence of the pre, based on the volume setting, so certain high output impedence cd players and other devices will sound awful with these pre-amps. Besides - the VAC will blow the cj away in resolution and sonics IMO.
Jwpstayman thanks!!!!!
I tried the CJ CT6 preamp and really liked the sound. However, I found the volume control unlikable (see comments above by Jwpstayman about CJ premaps). I don't care if it's the best volume control made the very load clicks when changing each volume step was a show-stopper. Even the dealer seemed unexcited about selling me this $4500 preamp.
Latest update.....
I've heard the CJ CT6 preamp with sony ES sacd player and I did like the sound. However, I also noticed this clicking when changing volume. I guess it's the relays that CJ uses. Nothing you can do. I also verified that my cd player does sound better through XLR outputs than it does through the SE ones, so CJ was out of the question unless I change my cd player and this is not what I want to do.

I just had a chance to go and hear ARC LS-25MkI. Really liked it. Found it to have very smooth sound and it is very dynamic. Anyway, I bought it. It blends very nicely into my system. Synergy between the ARC CD3MkII, LS-25 and the McCormack Gold revision DNA-225 is incredible.
Thanks all very much for your recommendations, but I guess I liked and bought a unit that wasn't mentioned here on this thread, but was one of the candidate preamps. I guess I'm an ARC fan. I like the way ARC presents music and the LS-25 is one fine sounding pre.
Thanks again!!!!

Later on I plan on experimenting with some NOS tubes. It has the stock Sovteks in it now and surprisingly, I like the sound.
Have you considered the Cary SLP-05? I ahve heard awesome things about that pre. I will be auditioning it against my Classe CP-700 ss preamp. In my opinion, you just cant go wrong with Cary pres and cdp.
Tboooe, no I haven't considered this preamp.
What you plan on doing, though, is going to be an interesting comparison.
The Joule Electra LA-150 has been upgraded to the MII version and no longer used any Russian tubes. The gain tubes and follower tubes are now 6350's which have been in the Joule lineup for over 10 years.

The result is a much more fleshed out and musical presentation.

Jud Barber - Joule Electra
thanks. At this point I am pretty satisfied with my ARC LS-25 preamplifier. So far I think the preamp search had ended. Thanks again for your recommendations.
Im an ex audio engineer and of course current audiophile/nutcase. I have ATC active speakers, Densen 400XS CD Player and the ModWright9.0SE Pre-amp which uses 2 5687 and 1 Sovtek for the valve regulated power supply.
This pre-amp will walk all over most pre-amps period and has been compared to the top range Wavac and VTL. And for the price, buy it!