I love my SF Line-3. 6 inputs (2bal/4se), tape and HT loops, 4 outputs (2bal/2se) plus my favorite remote.
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How about the Linn AV 5103. It was their reference level peice for years, until the klimax Control came out, has 10 analog inputs, sorry, no phono, 4 coax digital ins, one optical, two digital outs, multiple main outs (3 pairs) second zone, two tape loops, and a nice DTS/AC-3 system. The DAC's are nice, but do have a slight lag to lock onto the signal...say a second delay. These seem to go for ~$2K nowadays, and are a asteal at that if it fits your needs.
The most flexible and versatile linestages and preamps I've used are the Mark Levinson Ref. 32, BAT VK5se, VTL 7.5 and the big Boulder linestage and phono preamp. All of these are extremely easy to program and use. Each input can be programmed for sensitivity. All switching, setting of volume, balance, absolute polarity, mono/stereo, etc. can be done by remote control.
The Boulder is way outside your specified price range. The Levinson is also outside that range, but I understand that other models, like the 380S have similar programming functions.
My Ref. No. 32 has seven inputs, I believe two are balanced, and, I believe, two single-ended outputs and one balanced output. I have a built-in phono stage. By remote control, I can change the gain on the phonostage, relative output (to match other inputs), capacitive loading, resitive loading (something like 7 different settings) and channel balance. The only functional issue I have with the Levinson is that the remote volume control is a bit slow going up and down because it makes changes in .1 db increments. Personally, I think that this degree of control is not necessary, but, on the other hand, I can hear .2 db changes in channel balance (when listening to mono) even if a .2 db change in volume is not discernible.
The McIntosh C2200 provides a lot of flexibility. 3 outputs, either balanced or unbalanced. 8 inputs, 4 of which can be balanced. One tape output. Phono input among the 8 inputs. I have not used the phono stage yet. It has gotten OK reviews -- "not as good as some but you can consider having gotten it for free" summarizes one I recall.
Is ATC currently distributed in USA? Don't overlook the ATC SCA-2 pre. Currently 4k in UK, it has 6RCA and 2XLR inputs, with provision for two tape recorders. Separate listen & record selectors. XLR and RCA main outputs, though you now have to request the RCA inclusion. Optional reference quality phono board. I've just auditioned - and just ordered - this unit; it's significantly superior to the KRC-3 I had before. It's also equally happy to run RCA or XLR in/out, or to mix it up. A rare flexibility in that respect!
All I originally wanted was a pre with 2 XLR ins, but the SCA-2 has truly amazed.
The TacT RCS 2.2X has 4- analog(3-RCA, 1-XLR) and 5- digital inputs(3-SPIF,1-AES/EBU,1-Toslink),balanced and unbalanced analog and digital outputs, DAC,digital Room Correction for main speakers and subwoofers with 9 programmable correction presets, user programmable digital crossover filters, 12 - band digital Parametric Equalizer and three band programmable digital tone control. Cost around $5K.
Their TCS MkII. HT unit has more inputs/outputs.
Both units have module construction to avoid obsolescence.
"If you are going to tolerate A/D/A, as in the TacT"
The real strength of the TacT system is using their amps and only going back from D to A at amp outputs.
With a low jitter digital signal feeding the TacT room correction system(RCS/amps), it's performance with Redbook CDs rivals anything out there.
I haven't heard the Meridan, does it have room correction?
how can it be most flexible but not offer multichannel inputs? I understand your need for lots of sources, I have 8 sources and am considering two more. (CD, Phono, Tuner, SACD, DVD, tape deck, VCR, Laserdisc) The Meridian 860 is interesting, how similar is it to the 861 that John C> - Aussie has over on AA?
Ideally I'd like my preamp to have three inputs. 1. Built-in active MC phono, 2. passive (TVC?) volume control for redbook CD, and a 3. HT/bypass (passive or unity gain?) for a pre/pro to connect the rest of the sources. I'd sacrifice the extra inputs for lesser used sources in order to get a great phonostage. You could also consider one of those cryo'ed Jena Labs input switchers. Put all of your lessers used sources on the switchers and use wyour last input on the preamp. Seems like we have to compromise somewhere.
I'm not convinced you can built such a beast (for what I would consider an acceptable pricetag). Unfortunately it seems as you have found out the only real market for that many inputs is the HT crowd. And they aren't as demanding of purity of sonics as 2CH audiophiles are! Sad but true.
But for those you want some real flexibility and don't mind the processing the Meridian does, it should make a fine preamp. I'm sure the cost is prohibitive though.