Need Preamp Advice For Adding a Turntable


This is my first post on Audiogon, so please be gentle. Over the last several years I've been able to find the help that I've needed just searching through the forums, but now I could use advice specific to my system. I understand this is all subjective and everyone's hearing is different, I'm just hoping for a little shove in the right direction.

My system consists of:
Ayre K5xe mp Preamp
PS Audio PerfectWave DAC
PS Audio PerfectWave Transport
Theta Dreadnaught Amp
Vandersteen 5A Speakers

I'm pretty happy with the current sound, though, at times I've wondered if I could improve on it with a different preamp or possibly other tweaks. The Ayre is a great piece and I only mention changing it because it's been my experience that the preamp has the greatest affect on the sound. It's very easy to listen to, but I feel like something is missing. This may be due to previously having a tube preamp with class A mono blocks before having to move and go without a stereo for a couple of years. I've just recently finished piecing this system together so my ears haven't had a ton of time to adjust and I'm just happy to be able to play music again.

So now I'm hoping I can draw on other's experiences as to whether I should look into just adding a phono preamp to my current system, or go with a preamp with a built in phono stage or possibly replacing the Ayre K5xe mp with a separate line stage plus phono preamp that mate well together.

The type of sound that I enjoy is fairly neutral and transparent with a good amount of detail, a large soundstage with good separation and timbre with maybe a touch of bloom. Something musical and fairly accurate.

Features I'm looking for:
Solid State (have to integrate into HT, tubes a possibility)
Home Theater Pass Through
Fully Balanced
XLR and RCA inputs
Remote
Under $5K used

Preamp models I've read about, but have no experience:
Pass Labs XP-10 or XP-20
Parasound JC-2
Sim Moon
Aesthetix Calypso or Janus

Phono Preamps, also no experience with them:
Pass XP-15
Ayre P5xe
Aesthetix Rhea

I do enjoy what a nice tube preamp can add to a system, but am hoping to get as close as I can with a solid state preamp since it's going to be integrated with my HT and I don't want to burn up tubes watching movies and television. The phono preamp could be either tube or solid state. And my focus is on music and not HT even though I'm merging the two.

I appreciate any and all feedback on these models along with any other suggestions or advice that anyone may have to offer. And thank you for taking the time to read my post.
firsttoact
How many channels on your Theta are you using?
A few years back I had a somewhat similiar system to yours - Vandy 5A speakers paired with the Theta Citadel amps (similiar sonics as the Dreadnaught) and I used an ARC Ref 3 preamp. While a little older now, the Ref 3 has all of the features that you listed and you should be able to find one used at $5K or less. I think that the Ref 3 paired with the Dreadnaught will provide the sonic attributes that you are looking for and in my opinion, would be a definite step up in sound from the Ayre K5xe MP preamp.

With the Ref 3, you would need a separate phono stage but you haven't given any budget for that or what analog front end you plan to use.

Hope that helps and good luck,

Arnie
Zd542,
I'm using all five channels. Two for the Vandy 5As, two for the VSM-1s, and one for the VCC-2. I've considered adding another to bi-amp the 5As, but that would defeat its purpose to save space.

The Dreadnaught has actually surprised me and I'm rather happy with it. I had thought that I'd be taking a step back going from monoblocks and a three channel amp to the Dreadnaught, but I'm pretty content. My priority is music and this amp does that well. I haven't had a chance to try it with home theater yet and wonder how it will do.
The reason I ask is it looks like you are looking for an upgrade to get a little more out of your system, and the improvement doesn't necessarily, have to come in the form of a new preamp. Have you tried using 4 channels on your Model 5's? If you haven't, you may be in for a pretty big surprise. The Dreadnaught is a very underrated amp. It was designed by Charles Hanson from Ayre.

As far as a preamp goes, the one you have now is great. Not only is it a great preamp by itself, but its very well matched to the rest of the system. The K5 is a very hard component to out class, but given the quality of everything else in your system, you can justify an upgrade. For SS goes, you may be able to pick up a used K1. Even if its an older unit, you can always have it upgraded. That will pair very well with an Ayre P5 phono preamp.

For tubes, Aesthetix would definately be a top pick. Given the rest of your system, you can't go wrong. The only thing to consider is if you should go with a Calypso and a Rhea or a Janus. You'll be happy either way. Babybear mentioned the ARC Ref 3. I think that would definitely be a good choice too. Its a bit more lively than the Aesthetix. Its a faster sounding preamp with great pacing.
Hi Arnie,
Thank you for your response and suggestion. That must have been a very nice sounding system. I've heard great things about the Citadels along with ARC products.

Audio research has crossed my mind a few times, but there's so many preamp models I don't know where to start. Recently, I came very close to buying the DAC 8, but ended up going with the PS Audio Perfect Wave setup instead. I've just never been happy with the way USB fed into a DAC sounds, so I thought the PS Audio bridge using an ethernet connection might be the way to go.

Well, I only have $5K total to spend now and am trying to figure out where to go from here. I've considered just adding a phono preamp to the K5xemp and then trying to fine tune the system with cables, room treatments, etc. Or upgrading my preamp to another linestage then add a phono preamp down the road, or try to find a good preamp with phono stage. Is it generally better to have an all in one preamp or separate phono pre that can be changed while keeping the same line stage preamp? I have no experience with vinyl so I'm a little lost if you can't tell.

I guess I feel like the preamp is the heart of the system, so I want to be sure I have a good foundation to build from. The Ayre is a solid piece, but I feel like something is missing. Maybe I'm romanticizing my old system and need to spend more time listening to my current one.

Any and all advice is welcome, even if it's that I'm going about this all wrong.
ZD542,
Thanks for your advice, it's just what I'm looking for.

You nailed it on the head when you said I'm looking for an upgrade, I'm just not sure where the best place to invest my money is. And I think I might have complicated it by rolling it in with adding a turntable and integrating 2 channel and HT together, both things I haven't tried before. My new house is smaller and will only accommodate the stereo and HT in one room and I'm a little worried whether it's going to work out. If not the HT will get the axe.

You might be right on about bi-amping the 5As to improve the sound. My previous amps were about twice the power (400w 8ohm) driving 3A sigs and maybe that's where the difference in sound is coming from. Mr. Vandersteen has told me over the phone that his speakers don't need a lot of power and that my previous amps were overkill, but I've noticed that Vandys can really soak up power and don't play as loud as other speakers I've heard. I don't crank up my system often, but every once in a while it's nice.

So now as far as upgrading goes, I'm wondering if maybe I should go ahead and hold onto the Ayre K5xemp and just add a phono stage? Oh and maybe keep my eyes open for a second Dreadnaught if the bi-amping works out. It's funny that you mentioned the Ayre K1 because I'm still kicking myself for passing one up locally that had the phono boards and remote. The seller really bent over backwards to help me buy it, but I was short on money at the time, wasn't sure if I'd buy a turntable, and wanted the convenience of HT pass through.

For full disclosure, the main reason that I'm looking over my system and questioning whether it's up to snuff is because I just recently purchased the 5As. Someone offered them to me for a price that I absolutely could not refuse. All of the electronics were purchased prior to this in anticipation of hooking up my 3A sigs that have been in storage for the past 2 or so years.

With a $5K budget for either used or new equipment, where do you think I'd get the most bang for my buck? If I replace the Ayre with another preamp, then that'd add around another $2K to go into the budget after selling it. I don't want to spend money where it's not needed, but want to give the 5As the opportunity to sound their best.
I don't think you can better that preamp unless you go for their top of the line MKR for $18,000. Your current preamp is a sweet, silent preamp with loads of textures. Try it with a RHEA with a good tube selection but I would not get rid of it. You will end up buying it back for more bucks.

I would give some new amps a try. I think that will be your biggest bang for the buck. Those speakers will SING with the right amps. You already have the right preamp.
At this point, I think it would be a good idea to try using 4 channels of your Theta on your 5's before you do anything. Its just a matter of changing some cables around. I can tell you it will probably make a big difference. For me, I considered the Theta but I ended up going with 2 Ayre V-5's instead. The point is the 2nd amp makes a big difference. That will tell you a lot about where you need to go. If it does work, though, you don't have to get another Dreadnaut for your surrounds and centre. If theatre isn't as important as music, you can get something else that will sound fine for far less money. That will still leave you open to something with your preamp and/or phono preamp. You are correct, though, the preamp is the heart of the system.
Add just a phono preamp. Your preamp is great. The Zesto phono stage is great. The Manley Chinook too. If you want to go north of $10k - the ARC PHREF2SE is excellent.

My choice would be the Zesto Andros Phonostage. Just google it.
Cerrot,
The Ayre KX-R is a beautiful preamp and I hope I'll have the opportunity to compare it to the K5 or try it in my system at some point. Unfortunately it probably won't be until the new model comes out and the used KX-R prices drop to a range within my budget.

Any other phono preamps that you'd recommend in the under $2500 range?

Do you have an amp suggestion for me to possibly try down the road? I'm probably not ready to tackle that now, but appreciate any feedback or experiences that you've had and will keep that in mind.
Zd542,
I'll definitely try bi-amping the Vandys with the Dreadnaught. It's a great suggestion and will be a fun experiment to see if I can hear a difference. Your set-up with the two Ayre V5s sounds like the way to go over the Theta with each channel having its own chassis to improve channel separation.

What are you using for your current preamp? Are there any others that you've had a good experience with? I've wanted to try the Pass Labs XP-10, but think that would be a lateral move from the Ayre.

I'm giving Babybear's suggestion of an ARC Ref 3 some serious consideration. There are only 6 tubes and I'm guessing I should be able to go atleast two years between tube changes if I factor in both TV and audio use. Maybe even 3 or so. Babybear also pointed out that the Ref 3 should be the quieter of the two which is important to me. I wish I could compare the Ayre and ARC without having to purchase the Ref 3.
I actually think the Ayre you have sounds better than the ARC. I just picked up a pair of magtech amps and they are amazing. Not assure if they're in your budget but I would try them if they are. Not sure on other phono preamps in the $2,500 range - I picked up my Rhea for that, used. I was very limited in that price range for used as well. My thoughts are to upgrade to the signature if I ever got the bug, or get the Zesto.
"I'll definitely try bi-amping the Vandys with the Dreadnaught. It's a great suggestion and will be a fun experiment to see if I can hear a difference. Your set-up with the two Ayre V5s sounds like the way to go over the Theta with each channel having its own chassis to improve channel separation."

I wouldn't assume that the V-5's are better than your Theta. Both amps are very popular with Vandersteen. Its just a matter of what you like better. Some people prefer the Theta you have. As far at the biamping goes, its not so much to improve separation as it is to work the amps the same amount as possible. The 2 Ayre's I have are vertically biamped. I use 1 amp for each speaker, not 1 for the highs and 1 for the lows. Using 4 channels of your Theta is basically the same thing. I don't think having the 4 channels in 1 box is anything to be concerned about. The design is what's important.

Most of the time I use an Aesthetix Caplyso. My Wadia 861SE has a volume control, so I can run it direct to the amps, but overall I like having the preamp in the system. I don't like Pass preamps. Pass amps are great but the preamps have no life to them. You shouldn't take my word for it, though. I always recommend listening to any piece of audio equipment before buying it.

The ARC Ref 3, Ayre and Aesthetix preamps are all dead quiet. Its not a factor. I wouldn't worry about it.
Zd542,
How does running the Wadia directly into the amp compare to the Calypso? I have that option with the PS Audio DAC, but have not tried it. Before the PS Audio DAC, I had a Wyred4Sound DAC 2 with a digital volume control and preferred a preamp with that particular system. It sound fine as long as the volume was above 30 or so if I remember correctly. I'd have to figure out how to incorporate a phono stage though.

Richard Vandersteen mentioned that if I bi-amp the 5As that it's important that the amp modules driving each speaker share the same power transformer or else the crossovers, amps, or speakers could be damaged. Can't remember exactly which it is, but his warning had put it out of my mind at the time.
Mbovaird,
Thanks for the advice and I will look into the Zesto. I see there's a couple listed here now.
Cerrot,
I think I'm going to give the Ayre more time in my system and try to tune the sound. Charles Hansen has posted suggestions on another forum about possible tweaks that are fairly simple to do. Seems to be a well built unit and I've read that Ayre really stands behind there products with good support.
"How does running the Wadia directly into the amp compare to the Calypso? I have that option with the PS Audio DAC, but have not tried it. Before the PS Audio DAC, I had a Wyred4Sound DAC 2 with a digital volume control and preferred a preamp with that particular system. It sound fine as long as the volume was above 30 or so if I remember correctly. I'd have to figure out how to incorporate a phono stage though."

You just have to try it. Results can vary, its more of a personal preference. I get good sound either way but I like my system more with my preamp.

"Richard Vandersteen mentioned that if I bi-amp the 5As that it's important that the amp modules driving each speaker share the same power transformer or else the crossovers, amps, or speakers could be damaged. Can't remember exactly which it is, but his warning had put it out of my mind at the time."

Not so much damaged, but poor sound quality. That's why I do a vertical biamp. There's no need for you to worry with your Theta. You can only do a vertical biamp with it. Couldn't mess it up if you wanted to. I believe he goes over it in the owners manual.