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The A3cr is a very nice pre amp, although I would give it at least three solid weeks of audition in before making any appraisal. I bought an A3cr combo some months ago - together they make a very exciting pair. However, I wound up returning the pre for a Sonic Frontiers Line 1. With proper NOS retubing, I found the SF to deliver greater presence than the A3cr, particularly with vocals and more intimate arrangements. The Line 1 (with proper retubing - and I cannot overemphasize this) strikes a good balance between the strengths of tubed and SS preamps - dynamic, neutral and extended, yet musical. I found it at least the equal of the A3cr in range, dynamics and detail. The A3cr is nevertheless a very fine performer, particularly at its price point - very transparent, quiet and smooth. On complex recordings, the A3cr left me with the impression that it captures absolutely everything, but just not quite as elegantly or coherently as the retubed SF. I've not heard the Rogue, but did briefly consider it - I understand the 99 to have a more euphonic signature than the Joule and certainly far more so than the SF or MF - perhaps closer to the stereotypical tube sound. The Joule is really at another price point, even used. I strongly considered it as well, but felt the SF a better match in my system.
The Line 1 is exceedingly polite up the middle with the stock 6922s - I didn't like it either. However, there has been extensive commentary on the SF pre amps over the years and the universal theme is that these units come alive once you pull those terrible stock Sovteks. I obtained a full six tube upgrade set from Kevin Deal, including two wonderful Siemens valves, which completely transformed it. It is really just terrific now, especially in that all important midrange. You've got to retube these units to fully appreciate their potential.
Just spoke to a Sonic Frontiers dealer, who informed me that SF is about to release an SE version of all three preamps -- with Valvo tubes rather than the Sovteks, and improved parts/wiring throughout. I'm thinking that it might be worth a shot. If you had to quantify the re-tubed Line 1's performance versus the A3cr, how much "better" (in your opinion) would you estimate it to be?
It's somewhat difficult to quantify how much better any one product is over another. Does the retubed Line 1 stomp all over the A3cr? Absolutely not, and the MF has some very desirable strengths, including razor sharp but smooth full spectrum resolution and no need to find and buy rather expensive NOS tubes down the line. But as I mentioned previously, I think with the right tubes the SF yields an overall realism that the MF doesn't quite match. It's very close, however, and I would happily live with the MF if I had to. The SF with the Siemens just gives a greater sense of holographic "thereness" than the MF, without any loss of detail or extension. Dare I say, but it was the slightest bit more musical than the A3, at least in my setup. Please also note that it takes a VERY long time to burn in a SF pre amp, especially when you notice all those Multicaps inside (I've used Multicaps in prior tube projects and they take literally hundreds of hours to settle down, during which they sound very brittle). Only having the SF a couple of weeks may not have been long enough for a decent burn in. There are some other factors besides the sound that had me more impressed with the SF, including the extensive use of much better quality components, better rear jack layout (the MF has a rough time accomodating larger RCA pairs), and more usable features, such as non degrading balance control. SF also does offer upgrades to their products (such as the SE version you mentioned - and Valvos are very nice tubes), which MF does not. Contrary to some posts, I've had no problems with my SF and it has a higher quality "feel" to it than the MF, if that is important to you. If might be impossible to do, but before you give up on the A3 perhaps an SF dealer would loan you a demo Line 1 with upgraded tubes (many SF dealers sell NOS tubes) to compare directly in your system. That is really the only sure way to tell. One last note: you mentioned an interest in the Joule. It should be noted that Joule pre amps are designed, voiced and manufactured with carefully selected NOS tube makes (Jud Barber is a big believer in the superiority of NOS) - perhaps explaining their wonderous performance. I can only imagine what an LA-100 would sound like with new Sovteks.
i haven't tried either the s/f *or* the m/f, but, i recently went from solid-state to tubes. i was using the latest iteration of the linn kairn, which was wery nice - accurate, detailed, dynamic, extended, good soundstage width & height - but it lacked depth. i hoped tubes would give this to me, but i dint wanna lose what the linn was good at.
1st, i tried a rogue *magnum* version of the 99, & it definitely did the depth thing! but, i lost a lot at the frequency extremes, especially the dynamics, range & texture in the bass. i tried nos tubes, which helped, but i couldn't live w/it. also seemed a bit coloured thruout the range, but i prolly wooda kept it if it got the bass right. in fairness, there may have been an impedence mismatch - rogue sez the output impedence is 100 ohms, but, after crosing the outputs w/resistors, my guess is 2400 ohms is closer.
next, i tried a cary slp98l. this was better in all aspects - not as coloured, and as extended in the bass as my linn. everything i wanted in a preamp! and, the wersion i tried dint have any of the upgrade caps cary offers. mite be even betteer w/them.
but, just days after buying the cary, i came across a melos music director (latest version of their ma333). i just *had* to try it, remembering how much i liked the sha-gold, the model below, a few years before. well, nice as the cary is, the melos is in another league altogether. sounds like *music*! :>)
i was able to try all this stuff, cuz i bought either used or demo - the only way to do it, unless yure loaded, or yer local dealer will lend ya everything ya wanna try.
the cary, a nice preamp, is definitely in your budget, if bought used, but the melos, (or something else in its price-range, used), isn't much more, & will take you to another level, imho.
Well, it has been two weeks with the Musical Fidelity -- and I must say I am extremely impressed. It is a terrific unit (as least as far as I can tell, since I will never use the phono stage) that seems more and more musical every day. My only serious quibble is the meagre range of the remote (which is limited to about 15 feet, at least 5-8 less than my $250 Pioneer DVD-525 transport!) -- which I will eventually try to remedy by writing Mr. Michelson personally. Other than that, I can't imagine a solid state unit sounding any sweeter or more musical (at least within any vaguely sensible price range). I will almost assuredly keep it -- and add 1 or 2 of the matching amps at some point (to replace my Conrad Johnson MF-200). My guess is that a third-party line cord will further improve the musicality of the unit (the supplied cord is exceedingly thin and generic), as well as eventually running the preamp from a PS Audio Powerplant. Thanks everyone for your input. Opinions on the matching amp are also appreciated (although I may indeed eventually need two to drive Apogee Duetta Signatures).