NAD, or a (new or used) Musical Fidelity. Also try Creek. And PLEASE go and listen to a used Jolida. When you hear the magic of tubes. You may not have to upgrade for a LONG time.
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I have a Jolida 502 in my bedroom and an NAD 317 in my office. Both have great price performance and are avialable used for your price range. The Jolida sound marvelous retubed. The factory Chinese tubes do not do the design justice. A proper set of tubes is between $100-$200 based on your selections.
You are quite correct about the Chinese tubes. European (Russian, Czech, or Yugo) tubes are a significant upgrade, really opening things up, and transforming them into new amps(of a much higher level). I also recommend a 202 or 302, which are EL-34 based(and cheaper), if this is enough power. The 502 and 801 use 6550(or you can go with KT-88, KT-90, or EVEN EL-34). EL-34's are much more musical(IMHO), and "classic" tube. EL-34's are also half the price(or less) than the 6550/KT88/KT90.
The Acurus DIA 100 (mark I and Mark II) used to receive rave reviews in Stereophile. Those sell for around $500. I've heard other acurus equipment and thought it sounded pretty good. You might even be able to buy an old adcom amp and preamp in that price range. The Adcom 555 mk2 was a nice amp. Those go for $300, and a matching preamp should be 250-300.
Hi Mrsoundman! You did not mention your room size, what you like to listen to, and if you have any specific sonic priorities, so it's kind of hard to recommend an amp. But, I do have to agree with some of the other posts regarding the Jolida gear, especially when re-tubed. They are quite magical, and hard to beat for the $$$, especially used. Which model you choose might come down to what you like to hear in the music; the 6550 based 502 will give you a bit more power and bass control, the 202/302 will give you more midrange clarity and a sweeter top end. At least that has been my experience with these amps. I choose the 502 because it mated better with the speakers I had at the time, and it gave me great satisfaction. I kept it for about 4 years before I "upgraded" to a pair of VTL MB-175 monoblocks. In retrospect I should have held on to the amp too. The Jolida could hold its own when compared to the MUCH more expensive VTL amps, and never sounded less than musical. In fact, besides output power, the difference between the Jolida 502 and the VTL gear might seem like minutua to some, especially at sane listening levels. Yes, the VTL amps perform "better" in all the typical audiophile areas, but at 10x the price of a used Jolida, they had better! To make a long story short, at the end of the day, I could happily live with the Jolida, and I bet you could too, unless you HATE the idea of tube "rolling" and are against hot glass bottles in your listening room. Just might be the perfect amp for a tube loving audiophile on a budget, who has a small room/system, and fairly efficient speakers. One word of caution though; I did have some problems with my 502, most of which seemed to be caused by poor UPS handling. And the company replaced the unit no questions asked! This might be an isolated incident, and in now way should it discourage you from considering these amplifiers. I just thought you should know. Having said that, I'm considering getting another one for my den system! Best of luck with your search.
My Jolida was damaged by UPS when I bought it used. The weight distribution makes it very tricky to ship. Fortunately in the Bay Area there is a wizard repair guy. BTW Deborah the Jolida has become my wife's amp since I travel so much. She is also a music and tubed sound fanatic and we have spirited tube rolling discussions. Downstairs we have tube equipment costing 25 times the Jolida and are continually amazed at the quality of the Jolida sound.
I'd love it if your wife would join us here. I'm not sure if you've been keeping up with allot of the stuff thats been going on within the Audiogon discusson groups, but let me just say, it's tough being the only female in here most of the time! And I'm glad you and your wife feel as I do about the Jolida, and tubed gear in general. It is a shame about UPS though. With you all in the music, Deborah.
Good points Deborahl and Plsl! Deb, what tubes did you prefer in the Jolida? I found Svetlana good for smoothness, the JJ(Tesla/Teslovak) for overall balanced performance, and Ei for guts. I also think KT88 tubes are a big step up from 6550s, in these amps. Also, have you heard one modified for triode operation? I'm curious to hear one, despite the 50% drop in power. Didn't buy a Jolida myself(I bought a more expensive amp), but I have promised myself a Jolida in a second system one day. Have gotten many of my friends to buy Jolida, and often wonder if it's REALLY worth it to spend more. An upgraded Jolida is VERY close to many more expensive products.
On the Jolida 502, we are running matched Svetlana KT-88 with NOS selected by ear for the driver tubes. The speakers are old IMF Monitor IIIA transmission line speakers. The bass is astonishing. Our main system currently has new Melos Solist 400w each Triode Monoblocks custom made to match our Dunlavy SC-Vs. We listen in a large room to late romantic orchestral music with Sigtech room correction so we need the power downstairs
You might want to look at some older high end gear. I am using an 80's Pioneer Series 20 A-27 integrated amp. I bought new and would put it up against most Integrated amps. made today. I use a Sony DVP-7700 for a cd transport and a Monarchy 22-A DAC. and two pairs of Infinity sm-225's hooker in parallel.
One of the earlier NAD integrateds are very good the model 3080 or 3060,last 2 numbers indicate power per channel. Early NAD design product had very good build qality,and very good parts,and are easily repaired. I remember some audiogon member had a 3080 at $125.00,killer price. Look under NAD to see if he still has it.
Artech Electronics (distributor for numerous audio products) is clearing out Audiolabs, which have now been discontinued due to Tag McLaren taking over Audiolab. If you want phono, you can look at the 8000A at $449; if you don't need phono, the 8000S at $549. Both of these are 50% off retail, and Sam Tellig thought the 8000S was a superb amp at full retail two years ago, so at half price it's a fine deal I would say. I have an 8000A which is about 12 years old which I'm currently using and figure I'd have to spend at least $1000-$1100 on the used market to noticeably better it. These amps will also benefit from a decent power cord.