Please recommend Tube pre-amp(s)

I've listened to, and liked the Conrad Johnson PV 12 (a bit under $2,000) and really liked the Conrad Johnson Premier 14 ( $4,300?). However the Premier 14 is a lot of money, and we wouldn't even have listened to it except it has a remote control which my wife insists on, and then she fell in love with the higher quality sound of the Premier 14. I've listened to solid state gear from Rowland, Ayre, Classe and Krell none of which I liked although I thought the Rowland was incredibly precise, detailed [and lifeless.] The only other tube gear I listened to was the BAT preamp/amp combination which didn't do it either - I thought the sound was kind of dark and a bit dry emotionally. We felt that the CJ sound was very open, inviting and involving - we felt like part of the emotional experience of the music. I'm quite new at this and it seems like the preamp has a large effect on the overall character of the sound of the system, at least more so than the power amp. So far I have a Cal Audio CL 10 5 disk CD player and a Conrad Johnson DA-2b D to A converter plugged into my soon to be replaced old receiver and speakers. I have no plans for vinyl, so I'm looking for recommendations for line stages. What preamps can you recommend in the $2k to $4k price range with remote controls? The two dealers who had the CJ line said CJ has a distinctive sound - do you agree? If so, how would you characterize the sound from other amplification companies' equipment - like VAC, etc. etc.
CJ preamps do have a distinct sound, but the Premier series is perhaps the least guilty of this. To me CJ sound is warm in the sense of a slight glowing halo thrown around the sound. In their lower preamps like the PV12, this halo can actually seem to cloud some of the details, but still provides a richness to the sound. ARC and BAT, on the other hand, have none of this warmth, almost leaning towards analytical. They do still provide the three dimensionality that only tube preamps can, along with dynamics and detail more like solid state. Cary tube preamps tend to have warmth again, but more in the sense of a glow from within the sound, rather than surrounding the sound. They do not have the transient attacks or crispness of ARC, but to me offer more realistic sounds. Air Tight makes my favorite tube preamps, whose sound seems as uncolored as ARC and BAT, yet has the palpability and fullness that CJ tends to have. Air Tight just released a line stage for $2500 that is spectacular. All I can say is, once you get to like a tube preamp, there is no going back!
I purchased a used CJ Premier 10 a few months ago as a start in upgrading my system. Listened to many preamps in showrooms and was mainly impressed with the PV10 over a similar catergory Anthem preamp. I bought the Premier 10 (used)based on Sterephile recommendations of CJ products and the PV10 sound (Premier 10 couldn't sound worse). I was amazed on the improvement in sound in my system. Had been using a highly modified Dynaco 3 for years,with an Adcom amp and Fulton J speakers, so I guess I'm sold on tube preamps. Recently had the chance to try this Premier 10 in a friends high end system (one that's pricer than I aspire to). He uses a Levison preamp and 200w amp with Proceed CD transport and processor, feeding Mangaplanar 4.5? (6 ft. tall) speakers. I am very impressed with the Magnaplanars, great clear sound, fast, fast transients, endless top end (unfortunately not much bass). However, something was missing. And it's soundstage. Several tries at speaker positioning finally gave a decent image, no hole in the middle but spread out sound. Still not impressive, as clear as the sound was, still not really involving. So we install the CJ preamp, with plain Jane cables, not the pricier ones he normally uses cause his system normally uses balanced cables. But what a difference!! 3D in spades, some sounds literally jumped out at you! He noted less quick high ends, but to me it was just more realistic. Transients aren't supposed to shock you everytime. But the loss of high end speed doesn't mean highs weren't there, probably shouldn't use the term "loss", just a little different. As I said, to me the tubes won hands down, but he prefers the quickness, to each his own. And this with a solid state amp, although a good one, I wonder what the sound would be with a CJ tube amp? CJ told me that the Premier 10 circuit is the same as the 14 but without the microprocessor remote. I don't know where you could get a 10 to save money (I had never heard of one before I bought mine) but I'd sure give up the remote before I'd go to a solid state preamp. At least any that I have heard. As far as CJ vs the world, the only preamp to equal it was a ARC and I don't remember the model,but it wasn't remote anyway. Sonic Frontiers, Anthem, VTL, Audible Illusions 2A didn't have the openess that I want. Probably have other things that others want.
belcanto SEP-1 for $3500 retail. belcanto SEP-2 for $2500 retail. There is not better SE tube preamp for the buk. Also, build quality is hard to beat. And yes, full (real) remote included. It took us 2.5 years to find a new tube line, and this is what we went with. belcanto factory also gives great customer and dealer support. Really a well rounded product (lloks great too). thanks, ph805.527.9739 fax805.527.9808 eCatalog available. New equipment demo’s by appointment. All quotes are good for 30 days. Customers in every state, & 26 countries (angol/ingles/englisch/beszelunk magyarul!/ hablamos en espanol/wir sprechen deutsch).
I have been happy with a Paoli modified SP-6 (ARC) which is basically a Curcio Daniel II (hybrid), very similar to the Sonic Frontiers SL-1. I recntly rpleced it with a much more expensive Presence Audio (First Sound) unit. The Sp-6 was that good! Return e-mail if this is of interest to you.
One wonders if it is wise to put a combined equalizer and distortion unit in your signal path; this is what all tube preamps are in reality. Add to this hum, noise and unreliability. Perhaps what you really want is solid state, not an outdated myth.
Fotopres is obviously an avid tube hater with little actual experience with any quality tube products. His statements regarding tube preamps are also quite skewed. I currently own a Vacuum Tube Logic Ultimate preamp (rather arrogant name, but still one of the best I've heard). My current pre runs DEAD silent (as do some other tube do SOME SS preamps...but some of EACH design do not). My first preamp was a NYAL Minuet, which was a hybrid and could be seen as an "equalizer" due to its euphonic coloration. It could also be considered "unreliable" in that it burned itself out (though it wasn't a tube that failed!) after it reached 15 years of age. My next pre was an ARC LS3...solid state, fairly quiet, quite musical, and quite reliable. It worked well in my system, but when I changed speakers, the preamp no longer matched well. Out went the ARC, in went the VTL. The VTL was inexpensive on the used market (though originally $3k in the late '80s) and has proven TOTALLY reliable. It has a fantastic phono stage that will shame that of any solid state unit near the price I paid (or 4 times what I paid). The line stage is quite neutral, not "romantic" or "tubey" and has a much more extended top end than the ARC unit, as well as a stronger, better defined bass. From what I have seen, the VTL measures at least as good as many solid state units in most areas, has less "noise and hum" than many I have heard, and is utterly reliable.
I'd suggest used Convergent Audio so called CAT I think for say $2000-3000 there is no better preamp,period. Harvey
Audition the Anthem PRE-1L $1000. or the PRE-2L with remote $1300.Check the reviews on these units.
Conrad Johnson's nice , But AUDIO RESEARCH WINS as far as I'm concerned .
Find a used Dynaco PAS 3X or a pair of PAM's and refit them with some custom boards,(or even hard wire them), upgrade the caps, resistors, and wiring(teflon), and use solid state rectification. For a couple of hundred dollars, (probably less), you'll have a preamp which will rival ANYTHING costing $3,000.00 or more(Audible Illusions,Krell,Levinson,etc...).
I enjoy tube amps and have a few that I listen to on a regular basis however,, although comparing apples to oranges, is correct to a certain extent. SS devices are faster, operate with little or no distortion, and have a greater frequency responce but, ONLY THE HIGHER END STUFF! The mass produced, low-fi SS junk put out by Japan can't equal even the older low end Scott, Fisher, Eico, etc... for sound reproduction. Even some of the higher end SS stuff has a hard time competing with some of the older tube stuff that has been modified. The statement that SS equipment sounds cold compared to tube equipment(which everyone says sounds 'warm') is actualy in reference to the 2nd harmonics(distortion) found in tube stuff. I like tube stuff and I've listened to it ALL, the best of tubes and the best of SS, but lets face it, there is no way youre going to make a sailboat of the 1800's as good as a 'Scarab' or 'Cigarette of the 90's. What it finaly boils down too is which type of boating do you prefer. Personaly, I like them both for what they are.
I've owned both Krell KRC3 and Sonic Frontiers Line3 and I am thinking about unloading the KRC3. I've also tried PV12 and Premier 14 in the past but Line3 has always given the purest sound from the source. Go with SF's Line stage pre-amp series, you will not regret.
Tube wise,it's the Joule Electra,superb.
Beat tube preamp w/phono stage: Atma-Sphere MP1
OK - here it goes (I hope i dont get shot/pummled).... For 2000 or a little more with phone stage, you can get a brand new Bryston 25 pre-amp .. solid state but basically transparent. Every review of this underrecognized pre-amp was outstanding, including Stereophile and TAS. It is the closest thing to the warmth/image that you will get with the mid-priced tube pre-amps such as BAT/low CJ/low AR etc. Please demo one (preferably with one of the Bryston ST amps) and then post your impressions. I didnt beleive what it sounded like in DIRECT comparison to the BAT/AR/classe/YBA/Crell that I heard. Be good.....
I left a similar message to a similar question. Encore Electronics DL2010.2, designed by an Allied Signal wiz-kid, (now wiz-man, I suppose). Very excellent pre-amp that I have seen used for $1300. Kicks anything in this price range out the door. Tight, spacious, quick, coherent, 3d, not in any way your gramps tubes. I've listened against Levinson, Krell, CJ, .... Guess which I own. Didn't hurt that I found an incredible deal. Doesn't get the press it deserves. I don't know if it is still in production. Mine is the 11th one off the "line". I've used it trouble free for 8ish years. It's the one piece of the system I'm not ever thinking to replace. Speakers, cd players, cables, etc. come and go.
Try a Musical Refernce Rm-5. Simple tube design, very reliable. Superb sound quite an underated piece for the money. A super bargain used.
i like the Unison Research Mystery, but as it is an Italian product, it might be too expensive in USA (as US products are much more expensive in Europe).
I have been thru pre-amps from audio research tube audible illusions mark levinson(solid state) sonic frontiers joule electra to name a few names hehe ....I swear if you love music and want to find the tube pre-amp to play it on there is NOTHING LIKE CONRAD JOHNSON TUBE GEAR IT HAS THE MOST MUSICAL SOUND IVE EVER HEARD!!!! I own a little inexpensive c/j PV10-AL this unit is more musical than ANY of the above mention pre amps EASY!!!! i've heard higher up the line C/Js and just gets better and better from the PV10 at something like $1500 new (much cheaper on line) lol to how ever much C/J you can afford you will hear MUSIC beutifull always... get one...!!! youll love it.... :o) ps you will notice i spared you any audiophile detailed descriptions save it for the other gear hell buy and play with as much cool gear as ya can hehe fun.....but do youself a favor an keep a c/j forever....until you can get the next model better c/j its a no brainer these play music....highest praise they love all music BEATHOVEN to ZEPPELIN it will be as it should enjoy....
You will never regret owning ANY CJ tube product, all they do is make music
How about trying out the Counterpoint SA5.1. It is a supurb tube pre amp, absolutely musical and liquid. Though it is available in the used market only, it is still a class A equipment regardless of price. And if you want to upgrade line stage only, you can have Michael Elliott do it. He is the the chief designer for Counterpoint. He can be reached at
if you like the cj, then by all means get the cj . . . i own both a VAC and a cj unit, and i love them both . . . the VAC is livelier, whereas the cj throws more space
Dynaco7199 makes some valid points. The most important decision is to decide what it is that you like most in sound reproduction. Do you like the music to sound up front (horn loudspeakers), laid back (Vandersteen loudspeakers), quick and precise transients (the best solid state), warm, fat and bloomy (tubes like old Conrad Johnson, Marantz and Dynaco) timbral accuracy (single ended triodes are the best example), deep solid tight bass (solid state), or all of the above (that is what I want but haven't found it yet!) Tubes offer the wonderful full warm sound that so many of us love (2nd order harmonic distortion), it is more relaxing and involving to some and too bloated for others. Some like solid state for the quick transients and bass, I can't imagine any other reasons other than for low impedence loudspeaker loads, I'll look for another speaker thank you. I like some others think that you can get an old tube pre-amp and in the hands of a good tech who is familiar with circuits can come up with a unit that will compete with many of the mega buck units for a fraction of the cost. This you may not be ready to do but don't discard the idea. I have gone this route and wasn't sorry in the least for it. Conrad Johnson tube gear is very very good stuff (I owned a PV-7 pre-amp in the 80's and loved it) and the Company has been around for a while but before and if you decide to purchase Conrad Johnson in the event you don't want to go the mod route, you must also listen to Audio Research gear. This company has been in business for 30 years has a great tradition of service and in my estimation, offers the best of both tube and solid state and is and always has been to my ears at the cutting edge of music reproduction electronics. Good luck and enjoy the journey.
CAT Ultimate is the ultimate. It's background is the blackest I have heard
Rogue Audio 99 is a great pre-amp you can order it with out phono. dead quiet and a remote too!!!!! or the model 66 which I have does a good job as well, you should check out there web page.
Try the VK-50SE. This thing will blow you alway!!!!!
Looks like I got to this discussion late. I own a Melos MA-333 Reference and absolutely love it. Before I bought it I auditioned in my system at home (Accuphase DP-55 cd, Rega Planar 3 w/Benz Micro Silver, Muse Model 160, Martin Logan SL3s w/Velodyne F-1800 Mk.II) the following tubed preamps: Audio Note Line 2 Sig, Air Tight (about 2500), Sonic Frontiers Line 2, Melos SHA Gold, BAT VK-3i, and Audible Illusions Modulus 3A. These comments are obviously system dependent. You'd never guess the Sonic Frontiers had a tube in it. The Air Tight and Audio Note were just a tad too warm. The BAT was just a little too cool. The Modulus 3A had a wonderful phono section and was a good unit, but what's the deal with two volume controls and no remote? I actually had settled on the SHA-Gold until I heard the MA-333 Ref. It was the winner. (p.s. The solid state Ayre preamp I heard seemed tubier than most every tube preamp I heard.)
If you like the CJ sound GET IT!!! Others will be different but not better. Have several preamps and often return to CJ both as reference and for enjoyment. Some have more detail, or are quicker, or are tubier. But the balance seems just right, especially for a lover of classical.
The cj premier 14 is being replaced by the premier 17. I purchased a premier 16 last year and i absolutly love it. The 17 should sound similar to the 16 and the ART for about the same price as the 14. Check it out.
Absolutely agree with all above re: conrad-johnson. I've been through a number of "names" in high-dollar tube and ss preamps, but eventually settled on the c-j 14, which is being replaced by the new 17LS or the 16. The c-j ART was my ultimate choice, but not within my budget. After owning a number of other preamps and auditioning more in the past six months, I have settled on connie jay as, overall, the most musically satisfying line stage preamps, regardless of make or price. There will be many recommendations here, all of which are valid within their context, but the ultimate decision-makers are 1) your ears, and 2) your budget. Good luck!
SNT Line3 definately is the best pre-amp with $2700-$3000 range. You can upgrade to Aperrex tubes from UPSALE AUDIO and you will a happiest man.
I agree with most of what Pedsent said about the Bryston BP-25. I had one for a couple of years. I tried a Cary SLP-98 tube pre-amp and the Bryston got sold. I listened to a few tube pre-amps (Electrocompaniet, Art Audio) but the Cary had a sound I thought was just right. I seemed captivated by the warmth but after listening for a few months I felt the bass was not as tight as I have heard in my system and the warmth I thought I loved was now a veil. I eventually bought a TacT RCS pre-amp. I've had the Tact for six months and this is the pre-amp for me. If you like a tube sound try a Cary.
from what i've learned in my search for a good preamp under $1500, the suggestions above are all very interesting, and accurate. It seems the missing ingredient is the tubes you use. i have settled on a CJ PV10a. It is wonderful with NOS Mullard's- but just average with Ei's from eastern Europe. I wonder if much of the variety of opinion expressed above is based more on tube variation than brand name?
You will never waiste your time or money on a conrad johson. If for some unworldly reason you don't like the sound, you can sell it for very close to what you paid for it. I bought a used PV10A about 5 years ago for $800. I saw one sell on ebay last week for $700!!! So, put aside your worries and get back into the music.
to pjpoland, I've owned several high end ARC,CJ and Melos tube preamps over the years as well as Jolida and EAR. There are significant variations in sound dependent on the tube sets. For the high end stuff, after experimentation I usually stick with manufacturers tubes since I believe they were voiced that way. However some may want to play with the tubes. My wife and I have different preferences in preamps and tube sets eventhough we have been to almost 1000 live classical music performances together.
Re: Pjpoland's comments of 04.11. One of tube gear owner's pasttimes is "tube rolling"--auditioning tubes other than those supplied in original equipment--to find audio nirvana. As Plsl says 0n 04.12, we may revert to the manufacturer's choice because the preamp or amp was "voiced" with that particular brand/model tube and a different choice sounds no better, or many times degrades the sound. Again, what sounds good to one person may not to another, and that brings up the second point made by plsl--the difference in the way he and his wife hear a piece of equipment or a tube change, even though both enjoy a live performance together. I believe this is a common experience. My wife, as with the vast majority of females, has more acute hearing in the upper registers as we age, and is extremely sensitive to glare, grain and other artifacts produced by audio equipment. She listens closely and at length to any proposed equipment, speaker or wire purchase, as well as to different tubes I might try, and makes reasoned comments. If I change wire or tubes without her knowledge, she immediately notices any difference that may be apparent and will make comparisons. It's a medical fact that males tend to lose response to highs much earlier than females and as a rule, women tend to enjoy more pronounced bass than men. The continued deterioration in male hearing acuity may be responsible for some equipment and speakers having a pronounced or "bright" treble component that is immediately noticed by women, as the overwhelming majority of audio gear is designed by men. This brings up a third point--all reviews of audio gear appear to be done by males. How good is their hearing after the age of 10-12, which is considered by audiologists to be the pinnacle of audio acuity. It would be interesting to see the graphs of audiological tests taken by reviewers from the top audio magazines, and how their hearing ability compares to the 10 to 12-year-old ear. Such enlightenment might give us greater insight to their reviews.
Most audiophiles are male, and generally spend more time listening to the system than their wives. So, why would you want to gear the sound toward her preference? I dispute yours and your anectdoatal "audiologists" claim that men loose more high frequency sensitivity than do women as they age, or that acuity deterioration begins to occur at age 12 in males. This has not been my experience (with myself, or in scores of others I've known), and I feel that sensitivity loss has more to do with non-gender specific genetics. And even MORESO, you must take into account how much noise exposure either the man, or the woman, has endured cumulatively through their life. I FEEL THIS IS A CASE OF GUYS JUST NEEDING TO GET APPROVAL OF THEIR AUDIO EXPENDITURES FROM THEIR WIVES, more so than that their wives are critical listeners, with "trained ears" that somehow have superior sensitivity in ANY of the frequency range. I've never met a woman who could hear as well as me in any aspect, or was as interested in listening critically to music on an audio system as I am. It's fun to experience other things with them, though...Anyway, women generally find musical fulfillment in radically different ways than male audiophiles do, IMHO, and I've never seen any real evidence that begins to refute this. Have you? And it's not just an issue of them not being as interested in "electronic gadgets", either. It's that they don't see a point in sitting and listening to recorded music...Just like I don't see a point in gardening as a hobby, or following "high fashion" clothing. And interestingly (aside from gender observations), HAVE YOU EVER MET AN AVID AUDIOPHILE WHO WAS ALSO AN AVID GOLFER? The two obsessions don't seem to have room for one another. That's just been a curiousity of mine, since I've never heard of any...but golfers are certainly as taken with it as audiophiles are with audio/music, it practically controls them like a substance addiction. ANYHOW, WE ALL CAN REVERT TO OUR OWN ANECTDOTAL "EVIDENCE" IN HOPES TO PROVE SOME POINT, but it generally doesn't do much of anything to sway the opinions of others, since they know what they experience first hand. SO PERHAPS THIS HAS FALLEN ON DEAF EARS, I dont know.
I guess I may be the only avid golfer who also loves the pursuit of audio enjoyment. Most of my listening is done after dark when I find it difficult to play golf. I also enjoy movies with my family and have recently setup a dedicated home theater with all solid state gear(Parasound amps, Yamaha DVD, Legacy speakers, Sony HDTV). However I still enjoy tube sound on my 2 channel system and to keep this somewhat on topic use a Bel Canto SEi 40 as my amp\preamp for Legacy Focus speakers. Nice sound and I got it used from a couple here that had it hooked up to a pair of Bose 901's. They couldnt understand why it made their "super fantastic" Bose speakers sound so bad. After confirming where they bought it and how old it was I took it off their hands for about one third retail! I had never had room to do 2 systems before but am very pleased to have made the investment. Next project is hopefully adding a pair of Cary 805's. That or bi amping with the Bel Canto 80 on low's and 40 on high's. Of course it is also spring and I have used the same set of irons for 4 years now and might be ready to make a change. Mizuno Pro 2's maybe? BTW my wife loves music and is a huge Elvis fan. She likes recordings where you can here him breathe or talk low to the audience. IMHO nothing does vocals like tubes.
Carl. How foolish of me to attempt any discussion of hearing anomalies, as you have the answers. It's unfortunate that few adults hear sounds to 20K as you do, and I'm sure all of us wish we, too, had "golden ears." Certainly many factors, including genetic makeup, job-associated noise, illness and other factors cause loss of hearing acuity. My comments were based on discussions with three respected audiologists when I sensed a softening of extreme highs in one ear and sought expert answers. As to "guys needing approval for audio expenditures from wives," I, like you, am sure this is an issue with some in the hobby. My wife comparing the sound of hardware or commenting on the difference in presentation has nothing to do with critical listening; it has to do with her perceptions as they compare to mine. The comment was made in reference to plsl's statement that he and his s.o. have different preferences in hardware--the raison d'tre we own different equipment. A final point: my wife doesn't garden, has no interest in high fashion apparel, and doesn't play golf. She does, however, listen to music on our system whenever she gets the chance--attentively and responsively--for the sheer enjoyment it offers. By the way, the hearing problem I referred to earlier cleared up. My last audiology graph was "normal." Good listening!