Pre to meet 2021 goals

I'm looking for recommendations on what you would consider a "valuable" pre-amplifier. I want to evaluate different topologies of amplifiers, so if there is something that would be at home (gain, etc) going from a First Watt J2 to Decware Zen Triodes, to Atmosphere S-30 to vintage Conrad Johnson tube mono's, please advise. Maybe throw in a pair of Nagra Pyramids along the way! 

Most of my experience has been with integrated amplifiers. I've enjoyed integrateds  from Luxman (550, 590) McIntosh, Simaudio, Audio Research, Leben (300X, CS600), Mastersound, Almarro, etc. I listen to and tweak gear for 2-3 months before moving from impression to forming a real opinion, rarely owning something for less than a year or more, unless I find myself not pressing the power button.  

I have great sound from my Devore O/93, Leben CS600, Mojo Audio dac and power supplies, Roon Nucleus with Tidal and Qobuz. I'll be adding this pre alongside the Leben just to experiment and have fun with amps that peak my interest, or that friends own locally. I tend to gravitate towards tubes and the warm side of neutral.

I'm open to end game recommendations, but audio for me is an adventure where I enjoy variety. I have enough quality stable relationships in my life- electronics doesn't need to be one of them. If you want to share a story about how you settled on an amp or a topology please do.  If you want to criticize my methods go for it. If you need to rage about politics feel free.


Please don't encourage raging about politics!

Since you use a Devore/Leben combo I suspect your musical priorities are similar to mine.  Regarding preamps I currently use a VAC Renaissance MKV which I really love.  The only preamp I'd consider upgrading to at this point would be a Shindo Vosne-Romane.
Audio Research SP6 (I have one). A significant advance over the excellent SP3! The preamp that William Z. Johnson said he'd always wanted to make! I prefer it over the later, more complex preamps from ARC!
T_E_P, I had a Vac Avatar SE in around 2008 when the DeF Super 8 came out and I really enjoyed it, especially in triode mode.  It paired very well with a pair of JM Reynaude Emeraudes too. I know you mentioned the Mk V, but would you recommend going older in the VAC line too? 

Roberjerman, it seems Audio Research has a big following in the vintage SP line.  I'm not at all intimidated with something of that vintage, and might prefer it, as long as it is quiet.  Is there an ARC specialist, kind of like Audioclassics is to McIntosh gear?   

Thank you both for the great  suggestions.

@roberjerman, when Steve McCormack closed his retail store (Music By The Sea) in the 1980's, he held a sale to get rid of components he had on hand. I bought his personal SP-6b, and later sold it to Brooks Berdan. That's one piece I really wish I had kept!

A number of SP-10 owners soon wished they hadn't replaced that classic with the new hybrid SP-11. Big mistake! 

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 I listen to and tweak gear for 2-3 months before moving from impression to forming a real opinion, rarely owning something for less than a year or more, unless I find myself not pressing the power button.  

You're comfortable moving on after such a short time? May I ask how many times you've been married or how much coffee you drink?

Very interesting question and I'm eager to hear more replies!
+1 bdp24! Along with the SP6 I bought at the same time a D75 amp with new KT120 tubes from a HiFi store in Georgia. I paid about $1600 for both!
conrad johnson’s current or recent linestages are beyond reproach

their very low output impedance makes them excellent for matching all sorts of power amps
I appreciate the additional responses.  Tvad- I've never heard of either of those pieces and will check them out. 

@hilde45,  lol- married once, keep cars for 5+ years, still have the same wallet I was given 32 years ago for my 15th birthday.  2-3 cups of coffee from 4am to 7am. 

Part of my enjoyment in music reproduction is hearing different signatures. I find 3 month is enough time to determine if something is a keeper or not.  I've kept speakers for 10 years, but might cycle through 5 amps in that time.  I've done dac shootouts over a 2 week period.  It's kind of like fishing for me- I like to plan and target every species throughout the year, not just cast and be satisfied with what's there. 

jjss49, I've never head CJ but think I would enjoy it. Can you recommend a model or put a year to define recent?
That’s really interesting. I’m planning to write a paper about audio listening (an academic, philosophy paper) and I’m interested in different approaches.

Would it be safe to say that you try things until you either like them or don’t like them, and if you like something, you at least keep that thing?

The fact that you cycle through amps makes me wonder if
(a) you’ve never found an amp worth keeping for long
(b) if amps are a constantly interchangeable element and that even if you get rid of one you like, you know something else will be reasonably equivalent?

The reason I ask is that it would seem that if you found a speaker and amp that were both excellent (and in synergy with one another) they’d be delivering the music to you with enough quality that you’d at least be reluctant to give that up just for the sake of change.

But then again, there is another option to (a) and (b) above, namely,

(c) you may see change as the ultimate goal, here -- which is cool, but it’s rare to see in audio discussions.
Here's a little more than you asked for:
I grew up in NJ with family in Manhattan so concerts and music venues were a constant for us (small clubs, indoor/outdoor arenas, small/medium bars, medium/large dance clubs, parks, etc.).  My parents loved music and put together a McIntosh system in the mid 70's. 

Prior to my wife and I having children, in around 2004 I had a friend that started an audio business. He would occasionally ask for help going to set up bigger systems. The gear was phenomenal he was meticulous in detail, both in set-up and room acoustics.  

This re-ignited my own passion for music reproduction (and I had a source to demo/try/buy new/used gear). When our kids were born we travelled some, but with more focus on work and family, music reproduction entered the picture and took hold. 

With regard to your philosophical interests, I would say a mix of b and c.  I've explored a few different topologies, some of which have called for major overhauls- big model 5's from Hanford with Minnesota made amps, two piece speakers from Quebec with small but hot amps from Yokahama.  Not always just change for the sake of change. I've enjoyed exploring different approaches, and eventually honed in on higher efficiency speakers that are mostly at home with tubes, but also SS.

My pursuit in audio (for most) is listening- bringing the essence, or soul of someone- young, old, dead, likely famous but maybe not, into our own room. When done well, this is the hair standing up experience, or chills, etc.  Many people do this with different systems- my goal is one system- in a living room, with my family. 
This combination does it for me and I love it, but I enjoy hearing nuances in scale, power and flavors, as long as it retains the fun factor and I can do it responsibly. So maybe the speaker is the heart and the amp is the mind.  Maybe solid state is like a crossfit workout and tubes are like yoga. It's all in what you allow the experience to bring.  The (c) part for me is that I believe it can happen in so many ways. If I go out to a good restaurant, I want to eat what the chef likes to make. If I go deep sea fishing for yellowfin tuna, I'll try catch a mahi mahi for lunch. That's the variety and changing part for me.  It's also nice when I come home from work and the Leben volume is at 12 O'clock and my wife is singing and our kids are dancing.
Benchmark......I heard it and was floored at it's neautrality, especially for it's price.
Btw, we ARE listening to recorded music, so the merry go round is still all about personal preference, and nothing more.
@bjesien Excellent! Really enjoyed reading that and I think it's quite informative for my purposes.

I'm interested, especially, in the nature of attention, and often when people switch gear a lot, it's due to an inability to pay deep attention. In your case, your desire to switch gear is a sign (to me, anyway) of very deep attention, and I truly love your statement, "I want to eat what the chef likes to make." When I put together my system, I sought advice from lots of folks, and the ones who had the biggest influence were those who asked me questions but also seemed to have a genuine cast to their own preferences. The notion of trying on different "takes" is a great one, because if one can surrender their preferences (and the quest for the "ultimate sound"), they get to experience things from a variety of perspectives. Thanks again for writing that out.
mrdecibel, thanks for your Benchmark suggestion, I will add it to the list and have a look. I relate more to the sledge hammer game at the carnival.  After you get enough of the form correct you can usually ring the bell.      
hilde45, I appreciate the follow-up, and thank you for making me think about my quest into audio.  The competition for these designers is stiff, and from what I understand one really needs to shine on the world stage to truly succeed.  I consider myself blessed to be in a position to appreciate a small fraction of their work.  

I know you mentioned the Mk V, but would you recommend going older in the VAC line too?

Sorry, I don't have any experience with the older VAC preamps.  I picked mine up used less than 1 yr old for ~$5K.  Can't see how you can do better for the price and for my listening priorities.

as for conrad johnson i have their et-5 and premier 16ls2 linestages ... their top of the line is the GAT... that would be what they consider their best, diminishing returns rule applying of course

i would say try a GAT or et-7 mk2 to get a good idea of what they are capable of

one note - cj gear is single ended only... not balanced

good luck
@hilde45 I hope you post a link to your paper once you’re done. I for one would like to read it. Like most hobbies, I’m sure there’s a gamut of approaches and motivations based on each individual’s background, perceptions, resources, and skill set. Some learn to cook, others only dine. Like most sensory pursuits there are components of preparation, execution, ritual and consumption. I think some of us can lose sight of the presumptive goal while in the process, and the journey becomes an end in and of itself. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a path unintended. 

Myself, I run a 100% true balanced system, but, here's a nice single ended brand new designed preamp that might do what you want. And it's only $800
Thanks tweak1 years ago I had a balanced air system and enjoyed it greatly.  The balanced part never got a rise in my Levi’s, but it wasn’t the high end Ayre stuff either.  I wonder if he’s modding those units!