lexicon is always a good bet if HT is your primary use. MC1 on an upscale basis, dc 2 if not.
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I've been really pleased with my Class'e SSP30 HT Pre-amp. Movies ( Dolby 5.1 and DTS) are much more open, realistic, and clear. The 2 channel (stereo) is also much better and now my pre-fered music only format. The blur I had on both the high end and bass, which I though was my 10 year old speakers, just disappeared. I had been using a Denon receiver as the pre-amp section for a Class'e CAV-180. The feaures on the SSP30 are also very well done and family friendly for the remote. You can get one used in the price range mentioned.
You might also want to check out a Sunfire Theater Grand II. I've been very leased with mine. They should be in your price range and since Sunfire is just bringing in the Theater Grand III, prices should be taking a dive in the near future. Only real drawback is there is no 5.1 analog input for SACD or DVD-Audio.