Why not consider Merrill's own Cara pre-amp? $3500 and balanced.
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Ah. I understand. That sort of input can definitely detract from the listening experience. (Now I’ve become curious what sort of pre-amp gear she does find attractive.) Obviously, if cosmetic considerations have to be factored in, these will of necessity drive the buying decision toward an even more accomplished preamp.
Given what you're looking for I'd seriously consider a tubed preamp. ATCs are awesome speakers, but they seem to do more of an upfront presentation that doesn't do the 3D holographic imaging thing as well as some others, and a good tubed pre might help with that along with helping your system sound less clinical. One I've been looking at is Vacuum Tube Audio SP14 by Don Sachs. Pretty sure he offers a short demo period, which is nice, but it would also leave you enough left over to get your Oppo modified by Ric Schultz at Electronic Visionary Systems. I'd think these two together would make a huge difference in your system and in getting you a lot of what you're looking for. Best of luck.
@arcticdethwhich of the seemingly endless options of tube pre would accomplish what I'm after in your opinion?
I will look at the pre you recommend. I have noticed that the Backert Rhumba gets good reviews, but it is over my price point. Locally and way over my price point is a preowned AR ref 5 pre in the preferred (by my wife) black color.
i like your way of thinking! "Why yes darling, it is expensive but look how good it looks in the room." My wife prefers invisible audio gear, but is learning to like things. Helps when I play music she really likes. I will give a look at the Oppo mod you suggested. I had already looked at ModWright, but that's her my total preamp budget. I'd like the preamp that I buy to be a lifetime keeper if at all possible.
There's a lot of chatter about Prima Luna it seems. The features and design philosophy seem good. I wish it was balanced so I wouldn't have to spend extra $ for cables. Perhaps I can get a nice deal on some single ended cabling from Kevin...
I am trying my best to stick to my guns on balanced, but that makes it harder, budget-wise.
Any of the BAT tube preamps worth a look?
The black audio research pre offered used locally (dealer trade in) is a Ref 3, not Ref 5. Asking is just under $4k. Is that worth a look? Maybe I can convince them to let me try it for a week or two in my system to see if it’s a good fit. Really don’t want to try the fuzzy logic to swing that deal though...
the same high-end store has an AR LS-27 (silver) and a McIntosh C2200 available. I’ve never been a McIntosh kind of guy (just no experience with them) but having the MM phone section is a plus, especially since my turntable is nothing special (so it doesn’t warrant a $$$ phone pre). I think I need to suck it up and schlep to the store (traffic isn’t my friend) and discuss.
FYI, here's a link to the Sachs SP14 preamp I mentioned earlier. Only reason I'm forwarding is that one of the customer reviewers (toward the bottom) compares it to both ARC and PrimaLuna preamps he owns that might be of interest.
I did read that review and it was interesting. I love the boutique nature of the Sachs SP14, but I really want to stay with a balanced pre.
If I were going single ended, I think I'd have to seriously consider the Linear Tube Audio microZOTL 2.0 line stage, especially since it is made here in the DC area. https://www.stereophile.com/content/linear-tube-audio-microzotl20-line-stageheadphone-amplifier
@kddusing Can you elaborate more about the differences between the two? I strongly considered the Rhumba 1.2 but opted for the Pass XP-20 for reasons other than and in addition to sound quality / performance.
The LTA pre is getting positive coverage over on the Tekton thread and Terry was one of the reviewers of the 1.1.