Looking to upgrade my preamp - suggestions?

My system has been coming along pretty nicely since I started putting it together 2 years ago and I am now thinking about upgrading to a better preamp. I'm looking for opinions about which preamp would go well with my Manley 300b neoclassic amps. The Manleys only have RCA inputs (no balanced inputs).

Here are the amp specs:

I am currently using the Manley Shrimp, which I still think is a good unit for the $$$. I'd like to upgrade however because I think a better preamp would improve the bass, give me a bigger soundstange and also improve my ability to hear further into the music. My system now is a bit laid back - many recordings sound like they are coming from a few feet behind the speakers. I would like a bit more forward presentation. The sound is rather neutral which I like. Not looking for an artificially warm tube sound.

I would like to buy in the used market and I'm fairly flexible on price range - $2000-$3000 or so. I would love to own a Conrad Johnson CT5 (or Ref 3) but at $4500 or so (used) its a rather outsized investment relative to other components in my system. I really built my system around the 300b amps :) In my opinion, past $3k on a preamp I would be better served upgrading my speakers?
Hi Latinsambal, I would rcommend that you try to audition an Audio Valve Eclipse that with the right tubes would give what you want sonicly in your system. For all the details on this great preamp take a look at my review here on the GON. The Eclipse retails for around $4500.00, however you should be able to get a used one or a demo in your price range. Audio Valve gear is built to a very high standard to last forever, so if you go for a used piece or demo it will still perform at a very high level. Good luck.
Hi Teajay,

I will definitely look into it. Another thing that I didn't mention in the first post is that I would prefer to stick with a major brand name (Conrad Johnson, ARC, etc) because I don't want to lose out if I decide to resell/upgrade a year or two from now. I figure if I buy a 2-3 year old CJ or ARC it has hit a "floor value" where I can buy it with little to no depreciation thereafter.

Any opinions on these line stages?

Conrad Johnson ET2
Conrad Johnson 17LS

All of those preamps should fall in my price range if I strike the right deal. I prefer the looks of the CJ preamps but sonics trump looks for me.
I used to own the ARC LS-26 before upgrading to the Ref 3 and i think the LS-26 is the better value for the money as its sonic attributes are oh so close to the Ref 3. It is a mini Ref 3 for all intents and purposes. From what I have read, the LS-25 MkII is the last ARC pre-amp that still has the 6922 tube and is a bit more tubey/euphonic before ARC switched to the very linear and neutral 6H30 tube design. I have not heard the CJ preamps you list above but the CT5 I auditioned once and it was a very nice preamp as well. My guess is you will get good results with any of the above but I can certainly recommend the LS-26 without reservation. The input impedance of your Manley 300B Neoclassic amps is 100Kohms. The output impedance of the ARC LS-26 is 700 ohms balanced and 350 ohms single ended, so no impedance mismatch there. Good luck.
Yes the ARC LS-26 looks very nice and the review I read said something to the same effect (it being very close to a Ref 3 in performance). Another nice feature is that you can select gain in SE for 6,12 or 18db. Looks like low 3s is probably the going rate now on Agon for one.

I wonder if anyone has compared the ET2 against the LS-26? The ET2 can probably be had for $700-800 less on Agon.
Heard both but have owned cj 17ls and 16lsII; both cj pre's were excellent. Pick whatever one its your budget first ARC or cj ..........
Have you considered mods to your current pre-amp? I was at a similar point with my system last fall. I felt my Jadis DPL needed to be stepped up to a JPL. At the suggestion of my cable supplier I contacted Bob and Gary at RHB Sound Dezign. http://www.rhbsounddezign.com
They took my stock DPL to a level I thought I would never be able to reach. Due to these mods, everything that you described your looking for in your new pre-amp, mine now has and much more. Specifically, there new dynamic linearty tube supporting circut. This is unique only to RHB. Give them a call and they will explain it to you in greater detail. Cheers!
I have a Shrimp as a secondary (backup) preamp. In my system the Shrimp is punchy, exuberant, and certainly not laid back. Compared to the VAC Renaissance it does lack bass weight and impact. It also lacks some of the spacing, refinement and soundstage of the VAC. I a/b'd the Shrimp against the ARC SP16 which was thin/lean and had an annoying stepped volume control. The bass of the Shrimp killed the ARC. Looking at photos of your system, I would suspect some setup and room treatment might be money better spent. I would not lay all your problems on the Shrimp. Note: I purchased my Shrimp as a demo and they could not find the stock cord so I have always used it with a Nordost Brahma plugged into a Nordost Thor. So, you could try a different cord.
Yes, Im sure room treatment would help too, but I am pretty limited in what I can/will do there as I am in a NYC rental apartment. Certainly the room layout is far from ideal. The speakers in my system are designed for tight front wall setups and for listening I cover up the TV with a heavy wool blanket which helps some. Side walls are completely uneven (the side wall opposite the sofa is a built in kitchen) so no point trying to treat just 1 wall. On cords and other things I have experimented a bit. Replaced the 12AT7s with Telefunken ECC801s which made a big difference over the OEM tubes. Im sure the room is 50% of the problem though - no arguement there.

Latinsamba1, I thought the following information would be something interesting now that you mentioned you like Connie-J and ARC gear.

Mike Wright, a reviewer on the website stereotimes, wrote the following regarding the Eklipse's performance compared with CJ ACT2 preamp. "During the time that I had the Eklipse in my system, I also had on hand the ACT2 Series 11(He mentions three other preamps). The ACT2 was the class of the bunch with the Eklipse a step below it. But when I put RCA clear top tubes in the Eklispe, it bested the competitors, including the CJ ACT2. I had a lot of listening sessions with friends over this period of time, and each reached the same conclusion.

Don't get me wrong, I was in serious lust for the ACT2 and, up to that point, was prepared to call it the best preamp to ever grace my listening room. But the Eklipse eclipsed(pardon the pun)the ACT2's performance, and at less then a third of the price to boot. The amount of realism and lifelike dynamics, and the ability to communicate the music was a step beyond what the other preamps on hand were doing."

I also auditioned a ARC Ref3 in my system and found, for me, the Eklipse the better sounding preamp for almost $7000.00 less. The Eklispe is not the worlds greatest preamp, but offers performance way above its price point.

If your concerned about resale value, they sell almost as soon as someone puts them on the GON. So, unless your heart is set on either a Connie J or ARC piece you still might consider an audition.
Not even close: Shindo Augieres line stage, $2.2K used, sell some of your JPS wire and get a matching Shindo IC, $350 used when you can find it, look at some Kondo copper speaker cable, $500 for 8ft/pr...that will put you on the next level.
I got to try an Audio Research LS 17 that belongs to a good friend and it sounded very good. I not in to tubes too much anymore, I found my self trying different tubes and it started to get in the way of just listening to music. I just bought a Pass Labs XP 10 from Reno Hifi and I find it to be extremely transparant provided you have the corect power cord. Another good pre-amp was one that another friend brought over was an Allnic L4000 and it was one of the best preamps I have ever heard. It was one of best I have tried in my system! I have heard that changing the tubes and or both modifying & changing tubes you can make the Manley Shrimp into a giant killer.
I'm thinking either a CJ 17LS2 or the ARC LS-26 at this point. Someone here mentioned matching the input impedence of my amps to the output impedence of the preamp? Not really sure how to determine which preamps would be suitable on that basis. I understand that you need a certain amount of gain but what is the ideal impedence range?

On the Shrimp, I agree that changing the tubes made a big difference. With the stock 12AT7 tubes the Shrimp sounded fine but upgrading to Mullard CV4024 and finally a pair of Telefunken ECC801s really kicked things up a notch. I like the look of the Manley Neoclassic gear actually, and their 300b preamp has gotten good reviews. Might be worth considering that preamp too I suppose.
Latinsamba1...i mentioned the impedance matching. You want to make sure that the input imedance of your power amp (300B Neo) which is 100Kohms is at least 10X of the output imedance of the preamp you are going to use. That is a min. Many people prefer >=20X. So in the case of the LS-26 it's output impedance is 700 ohms when used through balanced connections and 350 ohms through single ended connections, so no impedance mismatch there. I hope that makes sense. Here is a link to a post that I placed asking about this a while back and the responses I received so hopefully that will help in making it clearer: http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?aamps&1253079731&&&/Question-re-matching-pre-and-power-amp-i
Thanks Cmalak. I would be using the single ended connections because the amps only have RCA inputs, but that sounds like the LS-26 would work fine.

Question on the gain of the preamp. My Shrimp has 12db of gain which corresponds to turning the volume knob to roughly 9 oclock for my regular listening level. With the gain adjustments on the LS-26 (6,12 and 18db) is there any advantage to running a different gain level in terms of lowering the noise floor?
Yes...with the gain setting on low (6dB), when you move through the volume setting, you get finer gradations in the level than you would at medium gain (12dB) and at high level (18dB). So it just gives you the ability to fine tune levels to where you want them. Also depending on the gain of the amp you are using it with, if the power amp has a high gain setting, you can put the LS-26 on the low gain setting and again that allows you to get finer gradations in level when you move up or down the volume setting. The Ref 3 has single gain setting and when used with a high gain power amp for example, even at the volume level set at 1 notch above mute, you may get too loud a level for late night listening for example. So it just gives you flexibility. Hope that helps.

Is there anyway for you to audition the LS-26 vs the CJ pre in your system before deciding? Even if you just audition at a dealer with a system that is close to yours, it may be instructive to get an idea of the sound. ARC's latest offerings (like the LS-26) are very neutral as compared to other tube offerings and you heard some comments above that referred to ARC gear as lean. So it may be that you may not like or be used to this sonic signature (although I don't think it is lean but I have an all ARC system and so the synergy between the pre and power amp is there). I would at least give it a listen (preferably in your system but if not at a dealer) before deciding to pull the trigger. I personally love the ARC house sound but that is my opinion and listening preference. Others have different opinions. Good luck and let us know how you make out. Take care.
Another very strong vote for the Shindo Aurieges. A 2nd choice would be the line-level Leben. Both should be available used within your price range. Either one could easily be the last preamp you will ever buy. Yes, they are that good!