Are you happy with the sound of the direct connections? If so, you might want to try passive with something like a Bent TAP or a Placette.
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The greatest bargain in balanced tubed pre-amps is the Doge 8. At around $1,500 at Pacific Valve, its performance is amazingly good and it also has a good phono section. Another very good pre-amp in the $2,000 to $3,000 range is the battery powered Dodd. But it is not balanced.
Another excellent pre-amp is the Audio Horizons 2.2. It starts at around $2,750 and there are a plethora of upgrades available to the buyer as budget permits. The starting price is $2,750 and the unit is fully balanced, both in and out. While it doesn't have the great looks of the Doge 8, it is an excellent performer.
Last night I compared my Perfectwave DAC Bridge (lossless FLAC files)to my PS Audio GCPH phono preamp going straight to Pass amp. I've been not listening to files for a while and wanted to compare sound quality between the 2 formats.
The vinyl medium scored a TKO in the first round. I was actually surprised how bad my digital setup sounded vs the vinyl rig - VPI Scoutmaster Dynavector XXV mark 2 cart.
What's this have to do with needing a preamp?
In some ways I'm surprised at how, for lack of a better descriptor, precise even the vinyl rig sounds. The digital gives me the obvious leading edge transients and infinite highs but at the expense of sounding fake. I think a preamp can provide some realness to the digital rig while adding some 3 dimensionality to the vinyl rig.
The MBL's won't hide any shortcomings IMO.
If I had more budget I would go with the Pass XP20 for sale down the street. Coupled with the X350.5 it probably wouldn't get much better.
The Aestetix Calypso is a well regarded pre. Have to add that to my short list.
Thanks for the suggestions.
Looking at the MBL 5011. I know I know, it's nearly twice my budget.
Having the MBL 121's I can certainly appreciate the stellar quality of MBL line. It really is amazing. I have one speaker that sustained damage to its finish - not done by me. I cannot find someone who can fix the deep mirror like finish. Is that a downside?
The preamp IMO is sort of the "general" of the system. I'd like to own the Patten if I could but maybe not so aggresive :)
Looks like one can be had for around 5K. Is it worth it?