Preamp dillema for McCormack Ultra Platinum


I've had my eye on either a McCormack TLC-1 or the RLD-1, to possibly replace my Ref 50. I've tried the VTL 2.5 but I believe the gain is too much.

Some have recommended the CJ preamps, I don't have to go with tubes, but since this DNA-1 amp has transformed my system, I was thinking of going with the RLD-1.

I would liken to stay under $1500, even $1K but depends on what's avail. I would like to end up with something like a Pass XP-20 but that's a bit of a stretch right now.

Thoughts on an older RLD-1 stock or upgraded vs. similar pre's?
dyl71
What aspects of sound reproduction are most important to you and what are you looking to improve upon with a new preamp?  Will be easier to make recommendations once your particular tastes and goals are better known.  Also, I seem to recall modified McCormack amps may have a relatively low input impedance, and if so not all tubed preamps will work well with your amp (I could be wrong on this though). 

I had a stock RLD-1 in my system on a demo feeding my DNA 0.5 Rev A, and although good I found it to sound a little veiled.  I think your amp deserves better, and frankly I think a $1500 budget might be a bit low for your amp -- a good preamp is critical to getting the most out of your amp so don't cheap out there. 

I have owned both the RLD-1 (with SMc Platinum-Level upgrades) and my current TLC-1 with SMc Signature upgrades (the best Steve can do).  The upgraded TLC-1 is clearly several leagues above the RLD-1 IMO.  The RLD-1 Platinum had oodles of drive but was otherwise forgettable with the equipment I had at the time.  OTOH, the TLC-1 Signature is the best preamp I have owned, out of many.  FWIW, my TLC-1 is run in unity-gain with a buffered output, is powered by an outboard choke power supply (from the SMc VRE-1), and is balanced using very high quality Lundahl transformers.  Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how the stock versions of those preamps sound but if you purchase one you will always have the option of upgrading later. 
This DNA-1 is setup for unbalanced inputs so the input impedance is 100K ohms. My current setup sounds really good, but I want to say there seems to be a very, very slight attenuation or just something missing in the neighborhood of 500 Hz. Perhaps that's just the signature B&K sound...it's not bad by any means, but if I had to put my finger on something, I would start there. Also the upper treble, mainly with the higher register of female vocals, it can sound slightly pitchy for lack of better terms.

It's hard to find the exact fault in my setup but for the sake of discussion, I would say I would like to smooth out the midrange and bring a tiny bit of warmth to the upper treble while maintaining detail and clarity.

Right now I have an Intenso feeding the Ref 50 then into the DNA-1. Instrument and vocal separation is excellent as well as vocal clarity...just seems to reach a little too high at times.

The Ref 50 does not have an analog pass through, "direct" mode I'm fairly sure it will still perform an analog-dig-analog conversion despite removing all tonal and Eq controls.

I agree $1500 is on the low side, but looking for an interim preamp until I can make a larger jump.

Hope that helps.


Well, there's a Hegel P20 and a Pass X2.5 available here now in your price range that I'd think would both be a nice improvement in refinement over your Ref50 (and at least get rid of the unnecessary ADA processing -- EEK!).  For a little more and moving to tubes there's an Audio Research LS17, or for again a little more there's a VAC Standard LE that could be a really nice sonic match for what you're looking for.  Obviously check that these work with your DNA1 -- I'd look for a bit under 10kOhms output impedance just to be safe.

Just FYI and FWIW, I'm looking at a Sachs SP14 (about $2k stock) or a Backert Rhumba 1.2 (one here now for $2400 I wish I could buy -- dammit).  Looking forward to what a little tube magic can do in front of my SMc amp.  Anyway, hope this helps and best of luck. 

Thanks for that, I will look into them. I would like to think my VTL 2.5 would work the way I want but this one has 20db of fixed gain.

Soix, I have a Don Sachs DS 2 that I use with my DNA-1, very nice pre, all the detail of my Pass XP-10, but with a touch of tube magic. Another good choice are the DeHavilland pre's -- lush and warm sound, the Ultraverve version has gain control that works pretty well.


The Hegel P20 does look nice, I do like the remote... :) 
I have several of Steve's upgraded amps.  In fact, I just got back a modded DNA125 with some new stuff he hasn't done before.  It's phenomenal.  I also have legacy DNA.5 Platinum stereo amps and a single monoblock that I use for center channel.  I also had the TLC1 and RLD1 in the past in my system.

First of all, you have a great amp that will mate well with virtually any preamp.  The only exception is if you got yours modded to have balanced XLR inputs with Lundahls xformers.  This might make it slightly less friendly to certain preamps with high impedances.  There aren't many like that, but it's something to note.

The gain on Steve's amps is fairly high, so you can get away with a passive preamp...especially if you are using low capacitance interconnects and short runs.  The TLC1 is a good passive because it also has a buffered output in case you need to run long cables.

The RLD1 is also a nice piece for your budget, but my first question is why do you need a preamp?  Do you need multiple input selectors and/or a phono stage?  Many DACs now include a preamp/volume control, so I ask that question because doubling up on a preamp from the DAC and then a separate preamp can cause issues.  You have a tight budget, so I'm trying to potentially save you some money by just buying a high quality DAC with volume control.

Alternatively, if you need multiple input selectors and absolutely require a preamp, then I would look at a used CJ 17LS.  They are tough to find and probably a bit more than your budget, but it is a great preamp that I used to own. 

ARC makes great preamps too.  In fact, I'm even selling a used ARC preamp right now (LS12) that is actually SS.  I used it with McCormacks prior to getting a DAC with volume control.  It's got less gain than your VTL and sounds great.  Balanced is a noticeable benefit, but if you didn't have your amp modded to included balanced inputs, then it might be overkill.

I'd be happy to cut a fellow McCormack guy a deal, but frankly, I think the used RLD1 deal on Audiogon right now for under $600 might be your best bang for the buck.  The good thing about the RLD1 is that Steve can mod that too, so it's future proof like your amp.  It's probably your safest move if you really need a preamp.
Thank you for all the words of wisdom. My DNA-1 was not modded for balanced, so that should give me more options.

I like the idea of a DAC with volume control, I believe if I settle on one that will be in the criteria. Right now I’m using a Northstar Intenso and this has changed my thinking on digital inputs....it really is a big step over my SA8005. So much that even adding the Intenso inline with the SA8005 and the preamp the SQ is noticeably improved.

Don’t get me wrong, the SA8005 is a fine player/DAC, but the Intenso adds more refinement especially with a quality USB cable.

I may be spoiled with the Intenso right now so a DAC with a volume control will need to be on par with that DAC SQ wise...which I’m sure is not an issue.

How would you compare the CJ17LS to a modded or even stock TLC-1, or the ARC 12? I do like having a remote for the volume, I need to factor that in.

I appreciate the offer on the ARC LS12....I will give that some serious thought.

I may put the RLD-1 idea on hold as the consensus is it may not be a step forward in the sense I’m looking to go.

Do I need a preamp? Well, I don't think I need one, but I feel that right now it will be the best option given the current setup with the TV, phono stage, we even run the game console through the system....it makes it easier. 

It's just trying to find that right preamp that does it all in my budget....which seems quite difficult...lol.

I did see an ARC LS-10 programmable line stage for sale...little high on the budget but seems to have favorable reviews, I've honestly never heard of one.
It's hard to go wrong with either a CJ or ARC preamp in your budget.  

Both brands have remotes and retain their value when you buy them used.  There are other brands of course, but those two have quite a legacy and performance standard that make them safe pics.

A used Aesthetix would be another brand that is up there with the best, but I doubt you will find one in your budget.  Placette made a really high-end passive preamp that would be a notch above the TLC1 unmodded, but those are even rarer to find...especially with a remote.

Personally, if you're using the preamp for TV and game consoles, you might want to avoid tubes.  You're likely going to have to keep the preamp on a lot more with all those uses, and you will go through tubes much faster.  You may not find it worth the extra cost, heat, and higher noise floor of tubes with some of those applications.

As I mentioned, ARC makes a SS preamp in your budget (used) and the RLD1 would be a quality budget option for SS too.  I really don't see anything blowing the RLD1 away in your price range, but the ARC and CJ options would be first choice.
Long awaited update but I was able to find a RLD-1 in excellent condition  for just under $500....should be here tomorrow.

I would like to find a good tubed pre again that matches my system but I want to wait and save some more and get what I want.

I'm sure the RLD-1 will serve me well and I plang to discuss upgrade options for it. I'll report back once I have spent some time with it.
Sorry for the lengthy wait on the update....I’ve spent quite a bit of time with this preamp and can say it’s definitely a welcome addition having full analog pass-through.

The transparency and detail quickly became apparent and mates well with my gear.

However, I can tell the RLD-1 and the DNA-1 Ultra Platinum together are just a touch on the bright side and this is very slight. When I say bright, I also want to speculate it’s also a slightly thin midrange and my last tube preamp (VTL 2.5) tended to fill that slight void.

My question is ..given the age of the RLD-1, should I mod the RLD-1 to a platinum or ultra platinum, or maybe look for a used Pass XP-10, or maybe even a XP-20?

I could likely sink $1500-2K into this RLD-1 but I’ve never heard either a modded RLD-1 or any Pass Labs preamp.

Tough call given the cost to modify the RLD-1, but I really like the DNA-1 so I’m not uncertain SMC could make it shine..just a fair bit of coin that could go either way.
I owned the platinum RLD and while it had tons of drive it didn’t sonically touch my modded TLC-1 that you can see on my system page and on the SMc website.  Steve can work wonders with the TLC-1, which can be set up for unity gain (like mine) or to have +6 dB gain, if needed by your system. I have owned quite a few mid to high’ish end preamps and none of them were equal to my SMc Audio TLC-1.
@dyl71 ,
I had many products modded by SMcAudio. All turned out to be improvements.
I would call Steve or Pat, describe your system and they can do a custom upgrade based on what you want to spend.
B