Maybe tube preamp

My current setup is Tidal; ifi  nano DSD; Parasound HCA 2200 (recent purchase) ; Magnepan 1.7i  

This arrangement sounds pretty good at low volume with most material.  However I think it would benefit from a preamp.  The ifi's output maxes out at 1.3 volts.  I was thinking the warmth of a tube preamp would be a good match for this setup.  Years ago I had a New York Audio Labs setup. I liked it but it save for the noise floor. My HCA 2200 is blissfully silent. 

My budget is about $1,000


Manley Labs Jumbo Shrimp.... warm and punchy with great low end and sweetly articulate with amazing mid range that is very liquid indeed, big sound stage and terrific detail with great rise and decay, beautiful tone and very palpable presentation. With near 12db of gain and a very low output impedance this will drive any amp. This is a $3800 pre amp and you can find them for around $2000 -$2500 in great condition with remote radio controlled volume. Upscale Audio sells these as well as other retailers. Uses 6 tubes total. TUBES RULE!

Matt M
If you havn't got a tube Pre-Amp you are missing out badly.

A Vincent SA-T8 if you are lucky enough to find one.
I enjoy my all tube Jolida Fusion pre coupled to a BEL 1001 MK5. The Fusion sells for $1350 new, rarely come up used.
Might also check out Quicksilver, Micro Zotl, and Vincent (as stated above).
A used Conrad Johnson.
My local dealer has listed a CJ PV-10/wphono for $699.
Thanks folks. Matt, I checked out Upscale Audio. I didn’t find any Shrimps, but they do have a Jolida Fusion that mesh recommended. It is listed at $849. I see a Conrad Johnson Classic SE here for $1250. I also see there is a shrimp model (not jumbo) That sells for $2500 new. Any difference other than the phonograph stage?

I also became intrigued by the Prima Luna Prolog Premium which goes for $2200 new So far I haven’t seen any of those used. The Conrad Johnson and I think the Manley are US made. A plus in my view.

I am also thinking about Rogue

Anyone have experience with these units?

This question seems to pop up at least twice a month and the recommendations always include the usual suspects and/or personal favorites. The input impedance of this particular amp is high enough to allow most tube preamps out there so you can basically pick anything within your budget. For under $1K budget, I'd recommend new and suggest Aric Audio, Quicksilver, or Mapletree Audio.

Good luck.

If you're still looking within that budget, I just listed a Modwright SWL 9.0se here.  My amps are virtually silent at idle too, and the Modwright is one of the quietest pieces I've had in the system (which might be due to the Bybee upgrade in this particular instance, although I never heard it pre-Bybee) 

Rogue is great as well.  Rogue and Modwright are both on the more extended/dynamic side of the spectrum. Primaluna is relatively less airy/clean/dynamic/extended but highlighting an even more textured, palpable midrange.  At any rate, enjoy the journey, I think you are headed in the right direction with tubes for your system. 
Take a look at Aric Audio's The Unilimited preamp (just under 1K) and Aric @aricaudio is terrific to deal with.
Schiit Freya with a set of TunSol 6sn7 will save you some cash and give you all the sonic rewards you can ask for! 15 day tryout so what do you have to lose?
Thanks all for your great suggestions: I have tentatively narrowed it down to two:

1. The Aric Unlimited suggested by Kalali and David Ten. I like the fact that it is a ’pure’ tube solution. Plus, I like the look of units with their Tubes Sticking Out. Kalali, I notice from another thread on this site that yo have been enjoying this unit for a few months now. Impressions? I am particularly interested in your evaluation of the noise floor. Have you experimented with rolling tubes yet? David, I would ask you the same questions, presuming you own one. Thanks to both of you.

2. c_s: I am leaning toward your Modwright. Although it is not a pure tube setup, I read the 6 Moons and Enjoy the Music reviews and was impressed. It is rare that reviewers pan units, but they sometimes ’damn with faint praise’ as my father used to say. Not so with these reviews, and the characteristics they described were by and large those I am looking for. I also like that it appears to have an Alps or Alps-like motorized volume control as well as a torroidal power supply. I am aware that I need to decide soon if I want the Modwright. I do not expect it to last long at that price

gsselling: I did look into the Schiit. Very nice price. I noticed that people complained about the noise floor, though the tubes you suggest appear to solve that issue. Thanks for the suggestion.

markainsworth, I’ll give you my impressions here, hopefully not too boring for others. I was in your same exact position a few months ago except my budget was a couple of hundred dollars less than yours and Aric’s Unlimited caught my eye, prior to his latest modest price increase. It brought the much missing warmth to my system right out of the box. As noted, its a full tube design and with the exception of a small PCB board for the phone input RIAA the inside is all point to point wiring, very homemade looking. Its not a fancy piece at all and the case, power switch, and knobs, are all very basic but it sounds excellent. Aric is also a pleasure to deal with and gave a list of upgrades that he had tested extensively. I first upgraded all the tubes with what he recommended and the sound quality improved significantly. I then asked him about other upgrades and he suggested replacing the cathode follower capacitors and the specific values and brands. As a novice DIY guy, I took the plunge and changed the capacitors a couple of weeks ago. Fairly straightforward in a point to point circuit. I can tell you this modest looking preamp now sounds like a real high end preamp. I put it up against a friend’s Audio Research LS26 and we both could not believe how great the upgraded Unlimited sounded. It could not match the little tighter/lower bass of the LS26 but we both felt it had warmer midrange and nicer soundstage. Even the upper end drums and cymbals sounded more crisp and sparkly. We thought it was a little what people call more "tubey" but that was the sound I was after. The total cost of the upgrades was roughly $90 for the tubes and $60 for the capacitors.

As for the noise floor, it is completely dead silent, even the phone input, but it has a knob on the back to adjust the output gain to match the input sensitivity of your amplifier or even compensate if you have super high efficiency speakers.

Send me message or email me if you have any more questions and sorry about the long post.

Thank you very much, Kalali, for your insights.  Your opportunity to compare this amp to the LS26 is especially interesting.  I am a big fan of ARC components.  I just can't afford them :)

If you can stretch your budget to $1390, I don't see how you can go wrong with one of these:

or if you can build a kit, then  "a complete kit of all parts to build is $960 plus $40"  which would be right on the mark at $1000
Claude's suggestion is a vet good one. Another would be the Bottlehead beepre. Fantastic unit at any price. 
I would have to concur that Aric Audio would be a good place to start. I have several pieces from his bench due in large part to the sound floor. If it's not dead black silent, it doesn't get out of his shop. That holds true for both amps and preamps. Plus, as has been mentioned, he is refreshingly genuine to work with and is as passionate about tubes as anyone I've met.
Claudebond & Analogluvr: Thanks for the suggestion, but I am not ready for a kit. I did a rough count and I figure there are about 400 solder joints in that kit. It would take me a year. I am not willing to wait that long.

TubePower: Thanks, that is good to hear. While we are talking about jumping the budget up to $1400, What do you think of the Transend 6SN7 Line stage? Is it worth the extra $400? ( It definitely looks cooler. ) Do you have experience with 6SN7 tubes as opposed to the 12AX7 tubes used in the Unlimited? Kalali & David_Ten (and anyone else): Please feel free to chime in.

One other note:  I saw a photo of the 'innards' of the upgraded Unlimited, and it is pretty ugly.  I realize it is at least in part due to the fact that ALL the components are point to point wired (zero circuit boards), but still.  A little organization would be a confidence builder.

MarkAinsworth: I have only seen photos of the 6SN7 Line Stage, but that was enough to foster a "few" conversations with Aric about it. After learning about the inclusion of some impressive components like True Copper caps and the 5u4 Rectifier, which should add to the tone and body of the sound, I liked it even more. My Enigmatic Mono Blocks run 6SN7s, chosen over 12AX7s during design due to the larger and more dynamic sound of the octal over the 9 pin mini. I am also a fan of the 5u4 Rectifier (black plate) and already run them in both my Special SE and in my Unlimited. All these things together, make the $400 less significant. I do not stop being impressed with how the Enigmatics sound, and soon they'll have a 6SN7 Line Stage in front of them.
You have to call upscale and talk to Kevin to get a Jumbo Shrimp. The Shrimp is a older unit. You can find a Jumbo Shrimp for $2500 or less if you look around. Also, the J shrimp does not have a phono section ( thats a chinook) it is strictly a line stage pre amp.

I have owned the Modwright SWL 9.0 Sig edition with tubed pwr supply, this unit I supplied with tubes from Andy at Vintage Tube Services. It is a wonderful sounding unit with awesome beauty of tone and great harmonics, very rich and warm sounding but the bass was a little less defined and punchy then the Jumbo shrimp imo, the volume control on the Jumbo Shrimp is what its all about, its a tubed controlled circuit (and when u turn the knob it feels a little nicer even though it is also ALPS)! the Modwrights Alps volume is UN inspiring. This unit is in my fathers system so I never really got rid of it (still in family).

Matt M

It looks like the tubepower has a lot more personal experience with Aric’s products but if you’re not picky about esthetics like fancy case or heavy aluminum faceplate, machined knobs, etc., I think you will be happy with Aric Audio preamp. The inside is a bit ugly but its sort of the nature of the beast with handmade point to point wiring. The positive side is it makes it possible to easily replace parts either for repair or upgrade. Don Sachs preamps also get great reviews but I understand the waiting time could be long. I also seriously considered the Mapletree Audio preamp mainly for its separate power supply unit. Quicksilver also has a preamp for under $1K.

By the way, my comparison with the LS26 was after I had rolled all new/NOS tubes and upgraded to top of the line Audyn capacitors. Some may still like the LS26 better for its more natural balance sound across the frequency range. I had tried a Conrad Johnson PV10 in my system - what started me on this path, a while back and it sounded nice and juicy but the high end was not sparkly and just felt a little too dull. It seemed like the frequency range was squeezed at both ends and had bulged in the middle, if that makes sense. With the ARC it was like the frequency response was ironed flat. The modded Unlimited just seems to have the best qualities of the two extremes with more sparkle on top. I should add that my system is fairly modest so I may be hitting the limits of what my system is capable of. Better amp and speakers may still pull more sound out of the preamp.

There are lots of options out there and you need to decide how much "tubey" sound you like and pick the gear accordingly. I think a more tubey preamp would be a better match with your Parasound.

@markainsworth  I was working with Aric on an amplifier build. This was after receiving strong recommendations from @kdude66 and @teajay  
but I decided to hold off on it until I further solidify my digital front end and get the new speakers in system and settled.

If you can stretch your budget and get the upgraded parts you and Aric agree upon, that's what I would recommend. The preamp is a critical component (I recently learned this valuable lesson myself) and once you get a good one in system, you will realize that upping the quality reaps tremendous returns. Even if you stay to budget, the base build will go a long ways. Great thing about working with a builder like Aric is that you can have him perform the upgrades later. FYI: his current times to build are super short relative to some others out there and he doesn't over sell the upgrades; if anything he's likely to hold you back should you get crazy. : )

As for the 6SN7 linestage vs the Unlimited, Aric will be able to guide you on the differences and best fit for your needs and system. 

All the best.
One additional thought, given the infectious spiral of our may be wise to look past your you are better 'proofed' for the future.
Hi Mark take a serious look at Radu Tarta's DHT 4p1L tube preamp. I have owned one in the past and hope to get a custom one soon. Radu is a very talented builder and uses Lundahl transformers for power, choke and output. The link shows his most recent build with a $400.00 remote control. If you don't need a remote he will likely build one for you without it at a reduced cost.  
Just to add to what david_ten said, going down the Aric's path, or any one-man builder shop for that matter, is a very different mind set as compared with the big guys and going off the shelf. He's literally one email away and (obviously) knows his gear inside out. You just need to tell him what type of sound you're after and he can tell you what parts to use, down to which capacitors and exactly what values. You can do that as a recipe for him to build to or implement the upgrades yourself after purchase. I personally find that very refreshing and can forego the fancy esthetics of a comparably priced, possibly used one at that, a name brand piece. For example, I'm a soundstage and an air-around-instruments junkie and the replacement/upgraded capacitors he recommended were higher in chain of the same brand but different values from what he'd in the unit. All based on his experience. Like everything there's always a trade off so if I preferred more bass he might have recommended a different brand and/or value. For me, it was fun to pull out my long forgotten soldering gun and ordered the components myself and the self satisfaction was really enjoyable. I could have spent a lot more than the price of the preamp just for the upgraded capacitors and that's where the experience of the builder comes in to inject sanity. The irony is many of the real pricy gears out there use real cheap components and a good chunk of the price of admission goes for the esthetics and all the machining of the case and the fancy knobs. 
Anyway, like I said, the good news is there are lots of options out there, and at any price point, both for the gear and the path of upgrades one is willing to take. 
Make sure you let us know what you decide.
I just bought a Schiit Freya, which I didn't need and hasn't arrived yet. It's so inexpensive I simply had to try one as no other preamp I've heard of has its features, and I wanted a tube preamp to go with my SEP power amp. It comes with one fancy knob.
Thanks David and Kalali.  Good advice, I think.  I will have chat with the folks at Aric. And I will certainly post here my decision, and perhaps some of the deliberations that precede it.

Hi wolf,  I agree.  The Schiit Freya is a VERY reasonably priced unit.  If my budget were more constrained, I would consider one.  At some point the 'you get what you pay for' adage starts to carry some weight.  I'm reminded of the Chinese amps you see on E-Bay for $125 that produce 4000 watts.  (How is that even possible?  115volts x 20 amps is 2300 watts.  That would seem the theoretical maximum wattage derived from common household current) 

Let me be clear.  I in no way intend to imply that the folks at Schiit are charlatans.  I do not recall their web site making outlandish claims. In fact, I think that even if the quality of the Freya is a few notches below that of Aric's Unlimited,  which I believe to be the case, they are offering a very good value.  .Enjoy.  Let me know how far off base I am.  :)
My current preamp sounds absolutely excellent (Kavent S33…rare but amazing) but the Freya just seems like it has a "fun" potential (and more of my current fave 6SN7 tubes) so I simply hope it sounds good. Balanced, 3 modes, interesting volume control…we shall see. I’ve had a Schiit Loki long enough now to be sold on the Schiit quality control, and I think price can often be irrelevant to the sound of things as proved when I scored a lightly used Dennis Had "Fire Bottle" amp for 1200 bucks…the Aric stuff does seem pretty cool and handmade (my Had amp is utterly hand done and I open it up just to look at it sometimes) so please get one and report back!
mark, in case you ultimately decide you want to go with a popular name brand, there's a Conrad Johnson Classic SE for sale now for $1,150. I have not heard this particular model but it gets good reviews and should have that famous CJ midrange glow.
Have had a Freya for almost a year now. It is well worth the money especially in regards to functionality, flexibility and good sound quality (low distortion to my ears). I personally also like the form factor. It does have a few quirks. Freya replaced a very nice tube rectified 6H30 Opera Consonance Reference 50 preamp. I thought the sound with the Freya was more refined and relaxed; greater detail without any hint of harshness or "etch".

I use it mainly in JFET buffer mode. I suggest tempering expectations regarding its virtues as a tube pre-amp. I’ve run the stock 6SN7s, some upgraded Russian 6SN7s from Upscale, new production EH as well as NOS (early 50s) RCAs. To me, the sound with any of these tubes did not change all that much. I don’t find it to have any sort of classic tube euphony - at least with my gear and to my ears (though I do associate that quality more with choice of power tube). There’s a major increase in gain (14 db) with tubes to be sure; this can be advantageous but, as well, this level of gain will highlight noisy tubes, esp. in the gain stage.  There’s a lot of discussion about Freya and tubes over on I’m in the minority there w/respect to my view on the tube sound from Freya.

Do not take this the wrong way. I am NOT ripping the Freya. I really like it. Sold off my tube pre-amp. My purchase of Freya was largely driven by wanting something passive and with balanced input/output options. You may have a completely different experience w/respect to running it in tube mode. I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface of NOS 6SN7 options not to mention the various 6SN7 variants that will work in Freya.

Good luck to the OP finding something excellent for their system.
+2 on the Freya but,when I was looking I got a fair quote and quick response from Mapletree Audio.see below.HT in the model code was for the 'Home Theater Bypss'

""Thank you for your inquiry. The Line 2CHT is $820 USD and shipping to you would be $40.00. This includes the PS 2C power supply, tubes, line cord, and power interconnect cable. The Line 2CHT will have 3 line inputs, with Input 3 being your HT channels. The selector switch position next to Input 3 is labelled HT and it bypasses the Input 3 signal directly to the output jacks, of which there are two pair. You can power off the PS 2C when in HT mode. There is not a "REC" output on the HT model.






Lloyd Peppard

Mapletree Audio Design

Thanks, Kali.  I had seen that unit.

Wolf:  Since you have experience with 6SN7 tubes, you may be able to provide some insight into something I am curious about:  How would you describe the difference in sound between 6SN7 tubes and the more popular 12AX7's ?
Ghost & Axe.  Thanks much for your valuable insights.  I am leaning toward Aric, but may take another look at Mapletree.
I do not know,but,Mike Moffet at Schiit says" I need to clarify that I am not a fan of 12A(any)7 tubes. The 12AU has bad curves, and although I have never used it the 12AT also suffers from curves far worse than the 6SN7/5692. The main application for 12AT7 tubes is audio circuits in shortwave transmitters and receivers where audio non-linearity and punch help intelligibility over weak, noisy, signals. For line level (not phono) tubes, the 6SN7 family just rules. 6DJ8 and 5670 are quieter, but this is useful for phono apps."
PS - wish I’d added this to my earlier post.

I am NOT saying there is anything wrong with Freya’s sound using quiet 6SN7 tubes (new production TungSols seem popular on HeadFi). Just that, for me, if I don’t need the gain that tubes provide, I am very happy with the sound when running it in JFET buffer mode. Other than the gain, I’ve not yet heard a huge sonic advantage using tubes. Small differences, yes, maybe. Again, that’s with the tubes I’ve tried. I also want to stress folks over on HeadFi are reporting much bigger changes going to tubes from passive mode and seem to strongly prefer tube mode.  Okay...done now.
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My Freya shipped today so I won't have to wait long to see what's what. If it doesn't sound great it simply gets sent back. My experience with 6SN7s is mainly from that last several months of owning a "Fire Bottle" single ended amp that came with an Amperex USA 6SN7GTB (and sounds great)…the amp has only 4 tubes including the rectifier so it begs for tube experimentation. I bought another Amperex as a backup since I like the original one so much, and have a pair of Tung Sols (recent version) ready for the Freya since I had one already and bought another identical one…same test scores (!). The Amperex sounds better than the Tung Sol in my amp but not by too much. Both are very quiet and non microphonic. I can’t really say what the differences between 12AX7s and the 6SN7s might be as I haven’t had an amp that could swap ’em out…I had a pile of 12AX7s for my previous amp, a Jolida 502P, and recent version Gold Lions sounded best to me for that amp. I’ve also used 12AX7s in guitar amps since the 60s so there’s that…but guitar amps may be more forgiving anyway. It is interesting that the Schiit dudes love that 6SN7 tube so much, and the "octal" base is way more confidence inspiring when taking the tubes in and out of an amp than the easily bendable wires of a 12AX7…points just for that. I’d like to get a pair of 5692 "red base" (that's supposedly important) tubes just to check ’em out either in the Freya or the Fire Bottle as they seem interesting…pricey but cool.
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The Inspire preamps aren’t remote controlled, and cost about twice as much as a Freya…I have heard of a remote version somebody talked Had into building recently so maybe in the future I’ll get one, but one thing about Inspire stuff is the utter randomness of Had’s builds and the "contact over Ebay" thing. It’s sort of like a club you join, and that’s OK. The Freya’s balanced design (my DAC has balanced outs), a hip volume control (so they say), and 3 operating modes appeal to me also, although my amp is single ended. I may change my mind and bug Had if the Freya doesn’t deliver the mojo I seem to want it to…next week it arrives so we shall see.
The Freya is also in the Harmony Universal remote Database so that is very Handy for those that use them[me].
Wolf_Garcia: I run both 6SN7s and 6SL7s -- the 6SN7s are in my mono blocks and the 6SL7s are in my preamp. This decision was made to take advantage of the fact that the 6SL7s bring a little more gain than the SNs, which I wanted. With respect to the "Red Base" -- I believe that it is, in fact, important. I have rolled a lot of both the SNs and the SLs in order to be able to say that. New production, NOS/NIB, it doesn’t matter, nothing sounds like a red base 5691 which was RCA’s Premium version of the 6SL7 or a red base 5692 same for the 6SN7. Premium because both included extra support rods between the top and bottom mica spacers making the structure more rigid, and in doing so, eliminating microphonics; and long life cathodes rated by RCA at 10,000 hours.
                                                                                                                           RCA also made both in a Black base as well and I must say I find it very difficult to tell them apart. The Black base seems to be easier to find and they command less money.

Great info there tubepower…after reading endless "headfi" posts about the Freya I'm very curious about the tubes they ship with. I've also noticed RCA "black plates" and they do seem less pricey, so based on your experience I may just get a couple of those…I'm absolutely certain that if the Freya passes the test to earn a place in my gear pile I'm going to go after lots more 6SN7s.
Thanks Wolf, just to be clear, it's "Black Base" rather than "Black Plates."
I did mean "Black Base"...oops...and saw several on Ebay last night. Any recommended sellers you might have used? Otherwise I'll go with the Ebay rating score.
What claudebond said.  The tubes4hifi SP14 takes a back seat to nobody at any price.  Exceptional.  You do see them pop up on the used market if you're patient enough, but you have to be diligent and willing to wait.  Most people build one and never buy another.
I have a C-J PV-14L ($950 here on A-Gon) which replaced a Classe.  I have since gone down the C-J rabbit hole buying an C-J EV-1 phono preamp and then a C-J classic 60.  This weekend alone have played everything fromDave Brubeck- Grateful Dead to Kendrick Lamar and had my house guests of 9 all commenting about how much they appreciate it and requesting more.   18 hours of music from Turkey Day to today's Duff day and we are still going.    I have been an audiophile for a long time but with this tube combo is the first time that others have really taken notice of something that I have appreciated for years!   Tubes all the way!
A used Conrad Johnson pre at the OP's budget would be a pretty safe bet. First off you'll get a great taste of the virtue of tubes and if it doesn't appeal for whatever reason, doubtful at least from my perspective, an easy resell without any financial pain. These units really focus on the essence of music and I totally agree with suko, people take notice of the music, not "Man, your system sounds great"!  
I did say I would update this post with my decision.  2-1/2 years later I am looking at old posts and notice I neglected to do so.   I bought a Transcend 6SN7 line stage preamp from Aric Audio.  Turned out to be a good decision.   It added the warmth I was looking for without muddying things up.  As noted Aric was a pleasure to deal with.

I notice the Transcend 6SN7 is no longer offered on the AricAudio website, though he does offer a 'Special'  6SN7 line stage with a bunch of upgrades for $3500
Also to update, my Freya (original version) has been around here for a couple of years now and it's certainly the best 800 bucks I've ever spent on hifi gear. Various tubes have been tried, none including the original Russian something-or-others have been microphonic or noisy, and my current faves are NOS GE amazingly transparent preamp that supplies zero motivation to replace it as it simply works perfectly and sounds beautiful. Or doesn't "sound" at all which is how a preamp should.