I've never personally heard such a beast, but I believe the ARC Ref 3 is touted as being as quiet as you desire.
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Joefama, Most everything, especially tube products, has some floor noise and whether you hear it or not depends on 1)speaker efficiency, 2)amp input sensitivity, and 3)pre-amp output gain, and pretty much in that order. I am unaware of any tube pre-amp which is 'always' going to be 'dead quiet' under any circumstances.
Good luck in your search.
Paul Bolin wrote the following about the Ref 3 in The Decmber 2006 issue of Stereophile:
The first time I turned it on and unmuted its CD input, I ran the volume control up about halfway and heard nothing...utter silence. I cranked the thing wide open. Again...total, textureless silence at my listening seat. Only when I got within a foot or so of the tweeter of my Wilson Audio Maxx 2 loudspeakers did I hear a very faint, strinkingly fine grained hiss.
The Maxx 2 are 92 db loudspeakers...pretty sensitive.
As Newbee says, no tube preamp is going to stand up to the ear-to-the-tweeter test. That's simply an unrealistic expectation.
The fact that you no longer have the BAT VK-51SE, and now own an Audio Aero Capitole Mk II/ PS Audio phono combination is an interesting commentary on the importance (or unimportance) of absolute quiet from a preamp.
Personally, I rate absolute quiet several steps down on the scale of what's important in a preamp.
I use an Atma-Sphere MP-1 mk III and with a good set of new tubes it is silent. I'm listening through Soundlab A-1 PX panels. Any input and any volume level, including the phono, is perfect. As the tubes age you will begin to hear tube hiss but generally the tubes are close to failing at this point.
The very finest solid-state line stages, such as the Rowland Coherence II and the Blowtorch, layer space as well as any tube line stage, are just as musical and beat them on noise. With your budget, you do not need to do a tube preamp (or put another way, if you have a lot of money to throw at a preamp, my experience is that the very best solid-state units are the way to go, a fortiori with respect to phono stages because of the impact of noise where a weak signal is being amplified).
Far down the price range from where Joefama is looking, both Welborne Labs and Wright Sound Company desing amps and preamps to work with 100-108dB horn speakers. They are extremely quiet with those ultra-sensitive horns and dead quiet with anything less. They are also extremely revealing and neutral.
There are quite a few amp companies targeting the high efficiency horn market specifically, they would be the best bet if absolute quiet is your highest priority. Gordon Rankin's Wavelength Audio comes to mind in the $12.5k-$19k(Silver wired transformers) range new.
I was at Chris's house when we compared the ARC, BAT and Aesthetix and I can confirm that they were all very quiet. I never heard any noise or hum at all so I would venture to say they were silent, but I didn't stick my head in a speaker or anything:-).
As far as sonics went, I have to admit that the differences were seemingly minor given the hour or two we spent with each. If pushed I would say the ARC was the warmest of the three and had slightly fuller sounding bass, the Bat was the leanest and sounded a little less like tubes than the other two and the Aesthetix took the middle road. All three were extremely enjoyable and I would be happy to own any of them. My comments above are only to exxagerate the differences enough to give some idea of what I thought I heard, but I wouldn't want someone to think that BAT is lean or ARC warm. That would be misleading for sure.
I think all of us that were there were surprised to find ourselves struggling to come up with obvious differences. Chris's system is awesome and I would expect it to be very revealing of upstream components, so for all of us to be discussing their similarity more than the slight differences we could pick out I think speaks well of each design.
I think in the end if I had to choose from the three it would come down to features, user-friendliness, system compatibility and looks maybe, as I felt all of them performed very well.
Sure...I wish I had more to offer in the descriptions, but it was my first time hearing Chris's system and with changing between 3 preamps and a fair amount of new music, it was a lot to get my head around. One thing is for sure, the music all sounded really great that day...which reminds me, I need to find the cello piece that Guido brought, cuz it was killer, but I can't remember who it was.
I think Matt does a great job summing things up... It's funny how you read these reviews in magazines (or sometime posts on Agone) that tell how component X just killed component Y and it's the BEST ever, etc. Then you have a chance to hear three highly regarded preamps into the exact same system (AC line, w/the same IC's, etc). and the differences are so small that it would really come down to personal preference (for example I would like to have the ARC's remote, but can't stand that crazy neon display).
Yeah, I own the system, room and most of the music we played and, like Matt, I was still suffering the quandry of getting my head around it all....
To try to add some additional thoughts on things though... To my ears the ARC had slightly deeper soundstage than the Aesthetix, and the BAT. I think the Aesthetix had a bit wider presentation than either of the others, with less imaging hanging on the speakers (the speakers dissappeared as a source a little more).
I think the Aesthtix and ARC were a little more extended than the BAT up top, but the Aesthetix sounded sweeter to me... It felt more "right" like my easy chair compared to someone elses. I think Guido had the opposite take and it's probably down to what you are used to.
.... The funny thing is, right now I am messing with tube rolling (again) in the Callisto and I can probably make as large of a difference to the sound of things as the differences between all of these killer preamps ;-))
Noise on your power line. Have you considered the source of power to your equipment. Toroid transformer can hum like the dickens with any DC or other pollution on the line. If this question arises because your equipment sometimes hums and sometimes not, you need filtering. Don't go cheep. I purchased an Isotek Syncro cable and everything in my system is quiet now. I use to be able to hear my amp hum from across the room. The sound is also just that much better in my opinion. It cleaned up a little of the treble breakup at high frequency.
I have a BAT Rex with a Krell 400e amp. The system is truly dead quiet. I have three dedicated lines for the AC into the system and I swear that regardless of volume level of the pre there is no noise NONE coming out of those speakers. The speakers are Revel Salon 2, with an Esoteric K-01 for the source, and the whole system sounds great.
I actually make a DHT transformer coupled preamp. Killer sound, nothing I have compared it to comes close. It's in last stages of fine tuning that includes tube voltage regulation that so far in the test unit has made the preamp dead silent, almost cannot measure any noise even on 99db speakers. It has taken three yeas to get to this point. I plan to begin marketing the unit through local audio clubs in the NYC area and then branch out from there. Each unit is hand made, point-to-point wiring. We are winding our own output transformers and we have a selection switch where you can change the sound of the preamp to match your system. So far the few who have heard the preamp in their own systems have flipped out. The feedback they have provided is that they have not heard any preamp when the visit local audio stores that can compare.
I am using high efficiency speakers (97db) and want tubes so the noise issue has been very important to me. I have used a number of linestages over the years and by far the best sounding AND quietest is my current Herron VTSP-3AR02. The Herron embodies an uncanny ability to preserve the musical flow, is easy to operate with a number of useful features and is absolutely dead quiet. It also has the ability to adjust output (essential in my view) so that folks like me with speakers that super efficient can dial down the output to bring the noise floor down even further.
Yeah still modifying Counterpoint gear, about two units are
sent to me each week. I am able to rebuild the old amps
without the high price of the new boards. I will probably
advertise modifications for the preamps soon, that take them
to a different level for half the cost or less than Counterpoint
was charging. My partner can repair any audio component,
TTs, DACs, etc.
I am using the old 226 tube (you can sub in the 101D),
5AR4, 3A5, 12AT7 and 0A2. The 226 and 3A5 are DHT, the
unit is transformer coupled (we wind our own) so no
capacitors in the signal path, TVC volume control, and tube
regulation to quiet the unit down. I was using filter chokes
and capacitors but like Dodgealum mentions above, I tried
the preamp on high efficiency speakers 99db and we heard
some noise so we switched to the tube regulation design.
The noise level now is .001 on our meter. The only two
options left to improve the sound would be copper chassis
and maybe a custom transformer form Plitron. I have to work
on a website soon and shipping box. We received our first
two orders this week for the preamp, phono preamp and TT
that we design. The turntable is an old Lenco that we modify.
Next we are going to built tube amps designed after the old
Marantz 9s. I do like the EL34 tube sound.