Modern Linestages

This is a general question about how complex and expensive some linestages have become. I'm looking to understand why? I can grasp that really good volume controls are complicated and that equally good switches are not inexpensive. I also have a general understanding of the importance of a high quality power supply, which again is not going to come cheap. I just don't comprehend how you get to a 50lbs. plus preamps that cost well over $20k. Is this level of complexity really needed or is it the equivalent of the spate of 500hp "sedans" for every day driving?
Dammed if I know. Seems as if the cost of some of the finer vintage pre-amps w/phono stages when adjusted for inflation etc, cost no more than current line stages, albeit the newer lines stages may sound more detailed, etc.

Lets face it, cost correlates more with 'expected' value than anything else. And, FWIW bling has never come cheap either.
I agree. Are some manufacturers "gilding the lilly" just not to fall behind in sophistication perception?
I bet that overall circuit components would not exceed $1000 even on these preamps. It's obvious that from circuit components net worth of $1000 you can have world class performance. Such great preamps as Pass or Bryston don't even reach this level so here's my humble opinion.
The Manufacturers operate at a Mark up of 500%...Thats the reality of it.....
is every expensive preamp worth it? no.

do some deliver the goods? sure they do.

i have 'one of those' over $20k preamps with built-in phono stage. it's too bad it's sounds better than less expensive pre's, or even other expensive pre's, but it does.

it's swiss made, battery powered, and i've owned it for 5 years. i've compared it directly to quite a few stand alone phono stages and other pre's. it sounds better.

Michael Fremer has had the same pre for 3 years and compared it to 4 or 5 equally or more expensive pre's and only one (more expensive) was it's match....if somewhat different.

sure; the Swiss franc and the dollar is part of the issue. but it's assembled like a swiss watch....and then there is how it sounds (or rather does not sound).

and if you are asking 'where's the value?' you need to listen to it in a system which can show what it can do, maybe open it up and look at how it is assembled. use it for awhile to see how everything works exactly like you might want it to.

in the context of a top level system a no-holds-bared preamp does earn it's place. unless you have very low noise sources, a good turntable, arm and cartridge which can take full advantage of the low noise switching and attenuation, you nmight not get the full value of the refinement of the top of the food chain.
Mikelavigne, thanks for your response. It's good to hear the opinion of someone who has extensive experience with such high quality products.

My question isn't really about value or sound quality. It's more about why are these products so complex. The expense is a byproduct of the complexity. Think A.I. when I say this, "linestages, we're talking about linestages!" How complex do they need to be?

In my earlier reference to high horsepower sedans, I understand that manufacturers make statement products that demonstrate the limits of what they can do. But such products raise the question that beyond a challenging technical/manufacturing exercise, what's the point?

BTW, Mikelavigne's preamp is at the low end of the cost scale compared to some recent entries.
For your car comparison.
If you want the feel and prestige of a Ferarri, you do have to buy a Fararri.
Same with high end preamps.
If all you want is a decent (cheap) preamp, buy an old Hafler. $100.
I currently own three preamps:
Bryston BP-26 $5,000.
Audio Research Sp-15 $7,000 when new
VAC Standard $4,000 when new.
After purchasing Dr. Peppard's Mapletree 2A/SE Linestage I asked him this question. He said he did not know why they were so complicated. After all, his is simple and inexpensive, and IMO is a classic giant killer (granted, no balanced or digital inputs, but I don't care 'cause the sound is superb!). Seems to me they need not be.
and how many sources?
If simplicity also meant inexpensive it would be nice. All to often something that is very simply made, almost elegant, is a work of extreme craftsmanship. A simple circuit will do but when you extend that to better/purer resistors, capacitors, etc. etc. and so forth, simplicity adds up to a lot of costs real quick.
A Swiss watch is a thing of beauty, not a lot of moving parts but try getting one for the cost of a Timex.
Sometimes paying more gets you more and sometimes it is a case of a fool and his money are soon parted.
Let's look at the cost of some of the key components in a top quality preamp - like my tube preamp.

- 45 step Shallco volume control $300 - $450
- Duelund/Vcap or like quality coupling caps can cost as much as $200-$500 each depending on size. Mine takes two of them! Two Duelund 3.3 uf caps cost $400!
- Large power supply caps (computer grade). You know the ones that look like coke cans or even bigger. They cost up to $30-$60 each and my preamp has 12 of them!
- Large transformers are also very expensive. They can cost $150 - $300.
- Mine came with 7 tubes. 4 of them are NOS RCA 6sn7's from the 40's and 50's. Tubes alone can cost $300 or more for all 7.
- In addition, my preamp has chokes, expensive solid core copper wire, ceramic tube sockets and other parts....
- What about the cost of a good, well made chassis with all needed hardware, knobs, footers and the particular finish. I bet such a chassis made from heavy stock, with a thick face, special finishing, nice knobs etc... can cost up to $1000. I am not sure, but speculate here.

I see a lot more than a $1000 in parts here folks.I see closer to $2800 in "parts" before all the labor needed to hardwire (point to point) this puppy.

I suppose some preamps have a higher mark-up then others, but once all the costs are considered, the mark-up on some is not even 100%. Costs also involve, R&D, labor, insurance, building, utilities and on ......

So how much should a preamp like the one above sell for? I mean sell for direct from the builder with no additional mark-up? How much? $5000 - $10,000?
Well stated post! In my experiences simple circuits with fewer parts count(but of premium quality) with a high standard built do usally sound better than than complex (multiple stages) designs with many parts crammed into a chassis.

My linestage is very simple in actual circuir(no signal path capacitor or resistors) layout but admittedly heavy(73 pounds) due to the weight of various transformers,chokes and the two separate steel chassis.
Hi Grannyring,you must have posted just seconds before me, Your case is well made using the Dude preamp as an example.
Simplicity doesn't mean inexpensive, but again we're talking about linestages! A linestage only controls the volume and source, so why shouldn't they be somewhat simple? For the following example I'm going to use product weight as a proxy for component complexity.

As a point of comparison I gather some data about 8 top of the range linestages. In the first group I put EMM Labs, Pass Labs, BAT and EAR. The average price is $13,125 and the average weight is 48lbs. In the second group I put Soulution, MBL, Constellation and Boulder. The price average is $38,700 and the weight is 88lbs. Roughly speaking, the second group is 3x as expensive and 2x the weight of the first group of linestages.

I freely admit that my groupings are totally arbitrary, limited and thereby possibly misleading, but I think it makes a certain point. Each of the companies and/or designers have impressive track records of producing superb quality products. I make the assumption that each company could produce any product they envision and that they have the imagination/brilliance to conceive at the state of the art level. Yet there seems to be a clear dividing line as to what is the vision of a top grade linestage. While still very expensive, one grouping is much less expensive than the other as well as being significantly less complex.
Onhwy61, haven't we visited this issue before?? What a manufacturer charged has nothing to do with cost of production. They will charge whatever someone is willing to pay for it.

If it cost $.01 to produce and supply is low but demand is high, they can charge as much as the market is willing to pay. SIMPLE!
When looking at the manufacturers costs to build a preamp lets be sure we understand that "audiophile" capacitors and other components like transformers, chokes, etc. should be based on wholesale, not retail costs. What I pay for a capacitor as a consumer is not necessarily what I pay for them as a manufacturer. Don't forget to add labor into the equation as well. Someone has to be paid to put it all together.

Other than that I think Knghifi nailed it. Simple circuit or not manufacturers will charge what the market dictates.
You can attend a fancy orchestra with excellent season seats for several years for the prices mentioned in this thread.

As the original post mentioned, it is just a linestage.

The time and resources that a stereo company spent making a $20k linestage is time and resources they did not spend to bring the costs down and distribute their product to "the masses".

You want to know why this hobby is dying? This thread is a perfect example. Why should sane people go for a $20k linestage rather than excellent seats at live performances? Go ahead, tell people you meet that you spent $20k on a linestage, go to the unemployment office and shout it and see what you get.
Trebejo, Your point could just as easily be lodged at BMW, Mercedes and Rolls Royce owners. They haven't done an especially good job of getting their costs down and spreading it to the masses either. Like it or not there will always be a better something or other. Scarcity is one thing that drives up cost but not the only one.
We all can't drive around in rich luxury cars but I do not bemoan those who do. We all cannot have totally exotic systems that mystify us as to how is this possible.
The implementation of simplicity is rarely inexpensive. Getting rid of impurities in resistors et. al.,, costs, design, R & D etc all add up. Then there is what will the market bear?
A tree limb with a line and a hook can work for fishing but a fine flycasting rod and reel is a whole other story.
Agree with Knghifi. High end audio prices are completely divorced from cost of manufacturing. As many here know, pricing a luxury good considerably lower than competition may actually have a negative impact as consumers often equate quality and price. While I own some expensive gear (Shindo, Koetsu) I am not fooling myself into believing their is a relation between material cost and price. What I do believe is that many high end goods (using Shindo and Koetsu as example again) are labor intensive and made in relatively small quantities. They will charge what they can for it. That's how some phono cartridges can be priced at $20K and some Interconnects for $5K. Audio is strange because there is no objective and universal criteria for designating quality. Some consumers will actually feel better paying more. That is why there is often so much animosity when someone disses someone elses equipment. It becomes a personal affront.
people who buy $20k line stages can typically go to live music when they choose. it's more a matter of how their allocate time. some might enjoy bringing the best possible reproduction to somewhere they can enjoy it on their terms whenever they choose.

personally i'm in a high stress job 6 days/55 hours a week. i'm around lots of people all day. for me; i want to escape into my own space and immerse myself in music. i'd rather watch my sports in HD mostly than attend games too (even though i typically have tickets).

as far as why expensive line stages cost so's somewhat 'all of the above'. if you examine the build of this piece of gear, it's clear the casework and all the very heavy anodized aluminum is quite expensive. and the workmanship level is extrordinary. some of that is a matter of performance, some is aesthetics. both are required on top level gear. nothing on this is 'off the shelf'. i know that Herve Delatraz spent literally years working on this product and came up with his own unique solutions to the challenges of building the ultimate preamp. he designed and built his own transparent attenuator solution.

it's not cheap to build things in Switzerland, but there is access to talented people that are world class precision builders. and when you are building dozens of something, maybe one hundred or so of something, there are very few economies of scale. so it's not efficient.

a few years ago i heard a Rowland class 'D' amplifier. it sounded pretty good. since it was very small, i considered using it for the rear channels of a multichannel setup i was putting in my room. then i found out it used an off-the-shelf ICE module. the Rowland cost $7000 a pair retail. i was able to find a Chinese built amp with the same circuit for $1800.

was the Rowland worth $7000? it's performance was in the neighborhood of other $7000 solid state amplifiers. but with off-the-shelf circuits it turns out that it's value did not hold up. and i agree that using good inexpensive parts sensibly put together can make a very compentent preamp.

before i got the darTZeel i had a passive balanced Placette RVC and custom switchbox. total investment $1200 for the RVC and $1500 for the switchbox. it looked very modest and unassuming in my expensive system. but i was not concerned about that. it had bettered my $15,000 Mark Levinson #32 preamp. i used it for 5 years and compared it to numerous expensive preamps. they all added crud to the musical message in one way or another.

then the darTZeel came along and was better at everything than the passive Placette. so i was not hung up on finding a 'bling, bling' preamp. performance was and is everything.

try to find a modestly priced preamp that can go head to head with the best over $20k preamps. have all the flexibility needed, be well built, have a remote, do everything. the darTZeel even has it's own 50 ohm BNC interconnect scheme which outperforms conventional interconnects. it has 2 separate phono stages.

it's not cheap, and i would not call anything swiss built a bargain. but it delivers value for the investment if one happens to desire the performance it can deliver.

I did factor the costs in my example on builder costs, not full retail.
Mikelavigne stated it very well, I don't care how the piece looks I care about what the piece does. If it makes music then YEA everything else is an afterthought.
Better to spend $20k on preamp than on two pairs of custom John Lobb shoes. Personaly, I would do neither.
The good news is that you can find GREAT preamps for very reasonable prices...they just have to be made in China. My dual mono balanced Kavent S33 weighs a ton and is crammed with groovy little parts (no clue what the parts do, but I've taken the top off the thing to gaze fondly at them) assembled beautifully, works perfectly, is quiet, and sounds AMAZING (I made a friend drag his Pass XP10 over and we BOTH thought the Kavent sounded as good or better...sorry Nelson). $1500 or something list, and it looks like a circa 1987 VCR...not sure if that's a bonus. I think "cache'" is a large part of the "audio exotica" costs but if the esthetic rewards are enough, then I say support the "state of the art" if it makes you happy...however, when China makes a car that drives and has the build quality of my BMW for way less money, I'm all over it.
I make the assumption that people on this forum are mature adults who make their own choices and accept whatever consequences there maybe.I also assume the money spent is money they earned and is disposable after their various expenses, income taxes etc.

If people choose to spend 100.00 dollars or 50,000 for audio equiment,jewelry,boats,cars or what else, it`s their own business. They have absolutely no reason to feel guilty because others have less means. Jealousy and envy solve nothing.

Ironically the folks buying these items of "personal choice" are the same ones getting whacked by a silly progressive tax code(the more you make, the more we take). A large chunk of Mike`s 6days/55hours income is`nt his to keep, thanks Uncle Sam.Those who work and earn their money can use it as they see fit.
Marakanetz - 3 pairs inputs (all customized gains by Dr. Peppard per intended devices); 2 pairs outputs. Oh, and no remote either.
personally, and i think mike made the point indirectly, i feel that getting a very good linestage can have the greatest variability in cost. the placette vs the MLevinson as a great example of my point.

a very good speaker w/ roughly comparable performance is not apt to cost b/w $1500 and 15000. but you can get a linestage that in A/B testing can compete to a draw.

for those who demand the best, they pay the most. i dont doubt the dart is great, i've heard the passive ypsilon and it is great, but i dont think i'd drop another 25k above what i have in my herron for the improvement(see my system thread for thoughts)

frankly, insofar as electronics / speakers go, the easiest job belongs to the linestage...ergo, it should be the cheapest. my 2c anyway.
A lot of very interesting comments above. Manufacturers charge what the market will bear; too much and they go belly-up; not enough and they don't have the resources to survive tough times and develop new products. I esp. liked Uru975's comment:
If simplicity also meant inexpensive it would be nice. All to often something that is very simply made, almost elegant, is a work of extreme craftsmanship.
Whoever actually wrote the line attributed to Twain- "I'm sorry this letter is so lengthy but I didn't have time to write a shorter one" knew what he or she were talking about it. It is certainly easier to put a bandaid on a problem (more parts, more complex circuit) than is is to design the problem out of the product. Simplicity is the "ne plus ultra" of any design or creation. It should be as simple as possible in order to achieve the designer's intent; no simpler and most certainly no more complex..
As a group audiophiles work hard to attain subtle improvements in performance. As such I'm a little disappointed by the lack of subtlety in some of the responses. I don't see how someone could reduce my comments here to a criticism of people buying expensive components. As I see it there has been a trend at the higher end of equipment, which by definition is expensive, towards increasingly complex and as a result even more expensive linestages. It's the increasing complexity of the products that seems to be driving the cost upwards. Implicit in my comments is a belief that linestages really shouldn't be that complex a device. I could be very wrong about that belief. So rather than go on about the tax code, explain to me why the increasing complexity of some recent linestages. Is it only a matter of time before someone releases an 8 chassis linestage weighing 300 lbs. and costings $150,000. And I'm sure some will say that's progress.

The idea that the manufacturers of these products are charging "what the market will bear" is somewhat insulting to the people who buy these products. If Mikelavigne is a valid example, then this group of people aren't fools. They seem to be a performance driven as any other group of audiophiles.
The general responses here seem to favor simplicity rather than championing complexity.Superior built, skilled labor part quality etc. were cited as reasons for higher cost items.Undeniably market forces do apply, demand for a product and how much does a consumer value certain items(for what ever reason). People will spend up to their own individual comfort level and no more.
If some linestages go in the direction of increased complex design, it may be at their own peril, buyers will make that decision.

The tax reference was in response to Trebejo`s last two paragraphs in his post.His example does`nt hold water IMO.
I don';t know anything about circuit design, so I can't comment on Rhyno's statement, but regardless of whether or not a line stage has an easy job, IME, the pre-amp is the heart of any system. One of the most important things to get right. I will also say that the three pre-amps I have enjoyed the most are a VAC Ren MK2, a Doshi Alaap, and a Lightspeed Attenuator (OK, OK, not exactly a line stage but functionally equivalent) which in terms of list price cover a range of about 20X.
I would certainly expect that I should pay a far higher tax rate on that portion of my money I use to purchase a $20,000 preamp than the money that I use to pay for heating bills and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for my kids.
It's the increasing complexity of the products that seems to be driving the cost upwards. Implicit in my comments is a belief that linestages really shouldn't be that complex a device.

I don't necessarily think it's the increasing complexity of the products that drives the cost up. After all an Audio Consulting Silver Rock is at minimum $13k, and no one is going to convince me the passive Silver Rock is a complex linestage.

However, I'm in complete agreement with the second sentence. It's the reason I now favor passive linestages. To me simpler is better and passive linestages are among the simplest designs. In comparisons I've done with my Slagle autoformer and Lightspeed attenuator (which I have compared to the Silver Rock), both hold up very well against more complex and/or costlier designs.
Is it only a matter of time before someone releases an 8 chassis linestage weighing 300 lbs. and costings $150,000. And I'm sure some will say that's progress.
So what, it's not your $$. As long the seller and buyer are satisfied with the transaction, why do you care??

The idea that the manufacturers of these products are charging "what the market will bear" is somewhat insulting to the people who buy these products.
No, it's personal responsibility. CAVEAT EMPTOR!! Noone is forcing anyone to make the purchase. If they are satisfied with the purchase, then it's not insulting to them.

Onhwy61, I think you just don't understand free market and capitalism and is stuck in the weeds. We just go round and round in these same old threads periodically.

Swampwalker, I agree with you the preamp is the heart of a system. I was playing around with different combinations of components and found the common denominator to magic is when my preamp in the chain.
Yeah, well, a whole lot of wind but the answer is obvious, $20k for a preamp and watch this hobby die.
This hobby isn't going anywhere. Just like car enthusiasts, you have guys that tinker around with old Fords and Chevy's, then you have the Porche & Ferrari crowd. Audio hobbyists will find their level and keep chugging along. Periodically you will find a mfg that will create a giant-killer. There's lots of good stuff between the high and low end of this hobby. There's something for everyone that wants to be an audiophile, regardless of financial situation.

Someone wrote in a thread here years ago that audiophiles are as crazy as they can afford to be. That certainly applies to me. I have good stuff, but the ONLY reason I don't have better stuff is because I can't afford it.
"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler". Albert Einstein
" Make everything as expensive as possible and sell it to the fools "
To somebody who appreciates it a McLaren MP4-12C at $229,000 likely beats the pants off of a Toyota Camry in every way, but these days you can, if you work at it a little, put together a stereo system in your house that is 98.372% as musical and enjoyable as one costing 37 times as much...and that's cool.
Well said!
Great car hobbyist analogy
I agree, excellent audio systems can be built with relatively modest money if one is patient and does their homework. There are many very good components that are`nt expensive. High cost and high performance is`nt linear at all.
High end audio is no different from any other specialty hobby, there are many levels of expense(dirt cheap to ultra prices) people find their own comfort point. As long as people enjoy music and the home audio components that make it possible, High end audio will continue to exist.
Having owned "complex" line stages, but also very simple Mapletree active/tube and Lightspeed Attenuator, the OPs question seems to be very much on point - why the complexity for great sound? Is it even related?

Adding gain when none is needed explains some complexity, and finding ways to keep noise down also adds complexity. And if someone want to charge me five figures for a line stage, it better be complex and/or built like jewelry. The Mapletree and Lighspeed are neither, but they sure do sound good and both under $1,000 (not great switching facilities though).
08-21-11: Inna
" Make everything as expensive as possible and sell it to the fools "
Inna (Threads | Answers | This Thread)
I choose to live in a society/system with the option to be the "fool" ... freedom, independence, personal responsibilities ... opportunities.
I can see the appeal of freedom, but not particularly interested in being a fool unless absolutely necessary. I am still only slightly foolish when it comes to cables and power cords:)
I can understand some need for complexity, if there is regulation, surround sound decoding, bass management, room correction, etc.. I think we all understand that a good power supply is a plus, but just how stiff a power supply does a line stage need?
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."
I am still only slightly foolish when it comes to cables and power cords
As for me: cables- slightly foolish
power cords- more than slightly foolish...
just how stiff a power supply does a line stage need?
I have zero knowledge about circuit design but I do not think that that is the case.
I have zero knowledge too but my guess is that power supply is always very important, be it phono stage, line level preamp or power amp. And this is probably not cheap or easy to really get it right.
Active preamps are to me a dinosaur left over from the analogue days, when one needed an riaa stage in the preamp and then another gain stage to get the voltage up to the input sensitivity of the poweramps they were to drive.
Today's sources cd, tuners, ipods, phono stages. etc: have enough output to drive the poweramps directly even into overdrive.
So all that's needed is an attenuator between them to attenuate the level, there is no need for active preamps with gain stages as there is no gain needed between today's sources and poweramps.

Cheers George
George, I Agee that todyas sources do not "need" active gain stages BUT many do sound better than passives. I've been a BIG fan of passives over the last couple of years and have used them to great effect (but never tried yours sorry to say) but until I listened to the Steve McCormick VRE-1B I didn't know what I was missing. No passive has ever given me the 3-D effect I hear from this line stage (it has only 6db of gain). I'm not saying it's accurate because who really knows what accurate is? It just let's me enjoy music like no other active or passive has ever done. Yes my Kondo M1000 pre (over $100,000) was very special but the VRE puts a smile on my face every night I listen, and that's what its all about at the end of the day.
"dealer disclaimer"
In theory a passive linestage "should" be all that`s needed with the higher output sources use these days. The reality is however in "most" systems a good active linestage simply sounds more complete and life-like, there`s more "there".