Line Stage battle: ARC LS26 vs Aesthetix Calypso

Dear Members, This is my first post on Audiogon & I would like to thank Audiogon and it's members for a fantastic community of dedicated fans of high end audio. For my first post, I thought I'd pick two exceptional line stage pre-amps costing roughly the same, yet created along very different design philosophies and pose the question - In a no-holds barred cage match between the two, which pre comes out the winner?
Kind of tough to compare the two unless you've owned & experimented with both. However, as an owner of the Calypso, I can say from experience that the Calypso can be transformed from very average to exceptional with the addition of $500 to $1,000 in NOS tubes, with emphasis placed on upgrading the 12AX7's.

I witnessed drastic improvement upgrading stock & new production tubes to NOS Mullard CV4004's in the 12AX7 slot & Tesla 6922 gold pins. Experienced further, albeit less dramatic improvement upgrading the Mullard CV4004's to the pricey Mullard 10M Gold pins.

I have no need to try a different preamp for the foreseeable future.
I'm not surprised you got the kind of gains you described upgrading the tubes & pins. Did your upgrade come in under $1000 all together? Given the ticket price of the less expensive Aesthetix pre compared to the ARC, you have to reason they had to economise somewhere, and it sounds like they've done that by installing the 12AX7's & CV4004's. With all that said, even after the money you've invested upgrading your Calypso, it's still on approximate pricing parity with the more expensive LS26. Perhaps a fairer comparison would be your upgraded Calypso vs a stock LS26?
I've never heard these units side by side in the same system.

I won't offer an opinion on how they sound next to one another, but just a general thought.

There are too many variables to consider when you are comparing preamps. Sonics aside, things such as how the input impedance and sensitivity of the amplifier matches up with the output impedance and output gain of the preamplifier, output specs of your source component, etc.

You need to really audition each preamp in your own system to tell which one is better. System synergy, component matching and how YOU like the sound is the key.

In my mind, LS-26 has it over the Calypso in several areas:
1. reliability. ARC preamps provide years of reliable service.
2. ARC is very quiet. However, there have been reports of noise in Calypso preamps.
3. features - adjustable gain on LS-26(Low, Med, High) gives you more flexibility with matching preamp gain to amplifier sensitiviy. I had an older LS-25 that had adjustable gain and totally loved this feature. If you have more thsan 1 source, or even want to switch gain just to see how it sounds with a differen output gain, this is a very oool feature.
4. more steps of volume control. ARC's 104 steps vs Calypso's 88 1db steps. Not a very big difference, but still a finer adjustment of volume is possible with ARC.

I have owned ARC tube preamps for over 10 years and none of them had any issues as far as reliability and all sounded great and were all super quiet for tubed units when used in balanced configuration within a fully balanced system. You may approach, but I doubt you will achieve, the sonics of the LS-26 with a Calypso by swapping tubes, but it won't be cheap and there are more tubes to worry about in the Callypso.

Also, considering the opinions of LS-26 users, it is very close in performance to REF3, which I think pretty much puts it above the Calypso. Calypso, as I see it, is more of a competitor to an older ARC LS-25 linestage, but not to the newer LS-26.

May be I'm biased, but with the features, reliability and sonics of ARC, it would be my first choice when it comes to these 2 preamps.

Research the specs of each preamp and how each matches to the specs of your amp.

But as I stated above, home audition is a must. Nothing substitutes a home audition.
Audphile1, thanks for your considered and interesting reply! I've also read the ARC LS26 is an exceptional pre at it's pricepoint & is very close to the Ref3, and that is a big statement given the Ref3's ticket price.

I appreciate your comments about ARC's reliability, as I had read one review which suggested otherwise (but only one).

Re: the Calypso, i've also noticed a lot of owners switching tubes after purchasing that pre, yet I haven't heard that kind of stampede to mod the LS26 whatsoever, so that sais something about how good it is straight out of the box.

The power amps which I will be buying to bi-amp my speakers have high current, so the LS26's adjustable gain would certainly be an advantage. I also like the LS26's display & the fact it displays tube hours as well. It also looks fantastic with that mean-looking aluminium faceplate & handles!

I'm planning a system upgrade which will include a pair of Infinity Ren 90's, so i'll be bi-amping them with high current Benchmark dual mono power amps & need a smooth, open & clean sounding pre which will exploit the maximum potential from the Ren's planar drivers. My source is a JVC XL-Z1050 Class C transport connected via a Nordost 'Silver Shadow' cable to a Vimak DS-1800 Mk2 Dac. Given that company, the choice of pre will be critical. One thing is for sure, the LS26 will definitely be on the rack when I start auditioning pre's!
Anything can break. But in case of preamps, reliability issues with ARC linestages are most likely limited to the units that have tubed power supply - REF2, REF2MkII, REF3. That's probably what you have read. You have to watch out for the power supply tubes and replace them on time. There is definitely a potential that a failed PS tube can take out a resistor, etc. So that would definitely be possible.

If you want a tube preamp that you won't have to worry about tube rolling or mods, LS-26 is the way to go. If you think you would like to experiment with tube rolling, then the 6H30 based pre such as LS-26 iswn't for you, because there is no tube rolling the 6H30s. But the advantage is that the tube lasts longer, and you won't get on a merry go round of tube rolling, which can be fun and frustrating and expensive all at the same time.

Good luck assembling a new system. It is fun!
Thanks for your comments Audphile, I am actually off in a different direction now. I have been blown away by the Cary SLP 05 tube pre! It just gets everything right. A pre-amp which sounds like a TRUE all tube pre-amp but without any of the typical trade offs like tube noise, lack of bass control, too warm/tubey (at one extreme), too dry & clinical (at the other), reliablity issues etc. Twin box design for low noise characteristics, fully balanced design, cool looking Mac-like meters & 8 exposed warm, glowing tubes to make your heart smile. And you have Cary's legendary back up service behind it. I know that ulitimately, hifi is about personal choice & what sounds good to YOU, but i've heard a number of people tell me this is one of the best pre-amps in the world & sounds better than the ARC Ref 3, that's a big statement. A'goner Rbirke's review from Feb '06 is a great read by the way, I am salivating over this baby!
You won't be wrong on Cary SLP-05, it is absolutely a remarkable pre. Tube rolling is fun, but the EH stock tubes are not bad at all.
I agree about the Cary, I tied the 05, but could not afford it bought the SLP-03 w/ 12au7 tubes tube rolled to NOS and have no regrets, a bargain for the money at 3K, I like the single box design, completly dual mono construction, dead quiet, works great w/ my Wyred4Sound monos
Congratulations on your SLP-03 Jtsnead! I agree, it's just a great pre-amp for the money with core design fundamentals filtered down from the 05. And rolled with NOS tubes, I can see why you're so happy with it! The main thing is system synergy of course & it sounds like you've got yours perfect and within your budget. My Audio Advisor talked me out of running tube monoblocks to drive the Ren's mid/highs as he felt that introduced a number of undesirable characteristics such as timing errors and distortion. The Benchmark Plexus power amps I am buying are very special amps, but it's the Cary pre-amp which is going to pull it all together & make my system shine! Come to think of it, no wonder i'm single; all I can think about is my next component, cable synergy, isolation feet, shakti stones.. Maybe i'll have to have a civil ceremony one day & marry my rig! Lol, i'd probably get a heap of gifts too from all of you A'goners!
Audphile, I thought you might be hanging in there to see if I came around to the ARC in the end, well after researching further (think RIDICULOUS hours on Audiogon and the net), it's clear from Audiophiles in the know that the ARC LS26 is the best all round pre for what I want to achieve in my system. Great quality, reliability, fully balanced, adjustable gain, incredibly accuracy, phenominal soundstage, lots of "air" around instruments, sparkling highs..yes, the Cary or even a CJ could give me more of a lush sound, but if I could transport myself back in time to 1993 and sit down for a coffee with Arnie Nudel and Cary Christie & talk about the Rens, I have a strong sense they would be talking up ARC because of it's natural synergy with Infinity. With the LS26, there is a perfect alignment of stars..
Melbguy1 Arnie Nudell, and Cary Christie would tell You when U'r spending this kind of money to use U'r own judgement/ ears!!!! They're ears can't after-all, decipher more than Yours. Last I knew they're ears were 180 degrees equi-distant from each other as, I think Yours are!!!! The final arbiters being what You like for U'r musical pallette. Yes, of course useful background info. is necessary such as gain, interfacing,reliability, and customer support, but outside of that you've got to live with the choices you make.
True Baggs1, i'm learning as I go along. The issue with the listening test given where I come from (Down under) is that, most of the high end hifi gear on the 2nd hand market is for sale on sites like this, so you do need to rely on reviews, knowledge, feedback etc to a large extent. With that being said, I do have a definite sound i'm trying to achieve. Interestingly, I've opted for a high end Integrated amp at this stage - a Classe Cap 2100, which I think is a lovely amp. This is an interim measure, as I plan to buy a Classe power amp & tube pre further down the track. What a great hobby!