Preamp help for First Watt J2/ZU Omens combo

Hi, I'm an all analog guy.  Just a turntable with a phono pre.  I bought a First Watt J2 a couple of months ago and can't seem to find the right preamp.  My speakers are high efficiency ZU Audio Omen Mk2's.  I tried a luminous audio axiom passive and while the midrange would blow you away not much else was there.  I also tried a Schiit Freya which comes with a passive and tube side....passive side real weak and the tube side is like drinking from a fire hydrant.  It's detailed but really in your face and forward.  Very fatiguing.  The people with Pass/First Watt all say a PASS preamp will do the trick like an older X-1 or the like but those are expensive still and kinda out of my budget right now.  Plus, buying used there is not much of a return policy if it doesn't work out.    Trying to keep it $1000 or less. But, it needs to sound right too so If I need to jump up I could. Any help would be greatly appreciated! 
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First of all, "drinking from a fire hydrant" is an awesome descriptor thank you! Looking at some of the current preamp listings this jumps out:

$695 is well below your $1K budget, for a preamp that retailed for $2150. I've not heard it specifically but I've owned two other pieces from Edge over the years, a Signature One preamp and one of their more entry level amps. Both were excellent. You are right about no return policy but buying something used at the right price can make for pretty easy resale if it doesn't work out. As always just one opinion YMMV.  Good luck!
Sorry the Freya wasn’t your "cuppa" with the J2. Am using one with a First Watt F7 but it is well broken in and I’ve rolled tubes. Very happy with the sound.  More than tubes, interconnects from source to Freya and from Freya to amp seem to have a big effect on sound when that pre-amp is in the chain.  Driving Silverline Prelude Plus speakers, a Cardas Golden Reference XLR is between Gungnir and Freya and a Cardas Parsec SE between Freya and F7. It works for me and I’ve battled "harsh" in the system long enough to know! :-)  The F7 is very mellow and mates well with the Freya, or so I think.  Good luck in your hunt.
Thank you! Well, I am still giving the Freya go.  I have a buddy that has supplied me with a bunch of different tubes.  There are some that are definitely making it more smooth.  That's interesting about the interconnects.  I am running ZU missions to my Freya and ZU mission balanced XLR's to my J2.  I hear you that yours sound mellow but mine just seems very forward and fatiguing  so far.  I only have about 10 hours on it so I am hoping it will break in more so we shall see. 
Ghosthouse makes a good point about rolling tubes and just for fun can you try single ended cables from the Freya to your J2? It might relax the sound a bit you never know.
Good luck tk. Hope you find a good combination of tubes and wire for that Freya. There is a LOT of Freya discussion on HeadFi if you are interested. 81 pages ! (but they’re short ;-)

re my "mellow"’s definitely the combination gear, tubes & wire that gets it there. My sense coming from a 6H30/EZ80 tube preamp is that Freya is pretty neutral. I wouldn’t call it "mellow" as in slower with rolled off highs.  Hopefully it will open up and SQ will improve as well with further playing time; 10 hours is still pretty new.

+1 re jond suggesting trying SE vs XLR. I had an AQ Columbia XLR from DAC to Freya. Nice clarity but often too bright and/or lean with my gear. Tried a Cardas Parsec RCA from Freya to amp. I thought I heard a clear difference. Sounded better with RCAs which surprised me as I expected XLR would always be better. Much more relaxed sound. Not as bright. Of course had to adjust volume a bit. Could have simply been a preference on my part for Cardas vs AQ sound there but whatever the reason, another variable to experiment with.

Thanks Ghosthouse and jond!  I have sifted through the comments over on the head-fi site before.  It rambles on some but some good info in there.  I'll keep rolling with it for another week and see what happens. I am going to switch back to my SE cables and see what that does.  
Except for late night low volume listening, I also noticed the Freya doesn’t have the oomph in passive and FET modes to get the attention of my SEP 12 watt per side amp, but the tube stage has plenty of gain. My previous preamp has a 12 db boost/cut I clearly used on the "boost" setting so the Freya was initially worrisome...I only use the tube mode anyway so now I don’t care. I replaced the stock tubes with new Tung Sol 6SN7GTBs that sound fine (and I had an unused pair already) and it’s not fatiguing at all…it actually got better sounding as the Freya, the tubes, and a new pair of speakers possibly broke in somewhat. I might collect a little pile of NOS 6SN7s (I have couple of Amperex tubes I like a lot that I use in my power amp) eventually to experiment with, but the Tung Sols are staying for now. Headfi does have a pile of info which taken as a whole is a bit much.
I have a Nuforce st200 amp with Zu Omen Defs. When I was waiting on my Rogue RP-5 Pre to get repaired, I use my Pro-Ject S2 Dac as a pre (only digital inputs). I was really impressed how it sounded. In fact, if it had all the analog in's, I would probably be happy enough. Anyway, Pro-Ject has this preamp AA has a good return policy. Overseas, (the Pro-jects come with universal plug adaptors for power any part of the world, this pre looks tempting:

This Preamp has gotten decent reviews:

Good Luck
If you can pull it off, get the Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 preamp with the linear PSU option. It will be little more than your $1k budget but it is as good as any $20k preamp out there. I have just replaced my $18k Audio Note preamp with this amazing MicroZOTL 2.0 and I love it to the core. It will be a great match.

What phono preamp do you have? The matching between that and the line preamp is also a consideration. The J2 gain figure also appears to be a higher than average and its behavior is just like a current-source tube amplifier so most high-gain preamps will probably overload the system causing harshness.

It should sound real nice with the full-range single driver speakers like Zu.

Thanks kalali.  It's a Parks Audio budgie hybrid.  It has 46db of gain so maybe that is a little too much and could be contributing to the harshness?

When you say "passive side is too weak", are you referring to the volume/gain or its just somewhat lifeless, the latter being my experience using a passive preamp or a direct-to-amplifier arrangement. As for the gain match, I’d leave judgment to the experts but the 46dB gain does appear fairly high feeding into an amplifier with a 20dB gain.

By the way, as a fan of full-range single driver speakers, I’ve been particularly very curious about the FW J2 since it’s supposed to be an excellent match with that design of speakers. If you get a chance, read Nelson’s technical article about current-source amplifiers and how they interact with full-range drivers. Its posted on the First Watt site. Its one of his earlier articles published in 2004. Take your time in finding a good matching preamp. It’ll be worth the effort.

Good luck.

Well the passive I first used was a luminous axiom and while the midrange was strong and powerful everything else was lacking.  Bass was there but lacked any punch.  So the phono pre I am running is the newer model by Shannon parks and 46db of gain the older model is only 38.  A buddy of mine has one and I switched it out this afternoon and all the fowardness was gone.  I already sent my Schiit Freya back but wish I would have held onto it a little longer as I should have thought to switch out phono pre’s to a lesser gain.  Im thinking now I can start moving forward with better answers.  Thanks for everyone’s input!
Just as another option, you may want to look at Mapletree Audio preamplifiers. They are beautifully built and very reasonably priced. You can also specify the gain if you order one new and are willing to wait a few weeks. Aric Audio is another shop where you can have one built to order. Both are all tube all hand made units and can be upgraded as much as your budget allows. I have one of Aric's preamps and really like its sound.
I use First Watt B1 (buffer preamp) for my First Watt F2J (current source) power amp.

My speakers are Zu Druid (101db) and while the power amp is less than 5 watt, i use only 10-20% of the volume control (in my big living room) on FW b1 with my phono preamps.

Out of curiosity i’ve bought another preamp (Pass Labs Aleph L, latest version which is passive if the volume control is 3 o’clock, it became active only if the volume control is more than 3 o’clock).
I haven't gotten to try mine yet (it's coming next week), but you might investigate the hornshoppe "the truth" pre. It's at your price point, with a 30 day trial period. Various threads around, and a detailed review at:
Your amplifier is balanced, so a preamp that drives a balanced output would be a good place to start.

Given the distortion character of the amp, which is very good, I'd go with a tube preamp but finding a balanced one in your price range might be a bit of a challenge. To really take advantage of balanced operation, the preamp at the very least should support the balanced standard, aka AES48.

Well the passive I first used was a luminous axiom and while the midrange was strong and powerful everything else was lacking.  Bass was there but lacked any punch.
This is a common complaint with passives.

If you need balanced preamp look for Pass Labs Aleph P mkII with remote.

For the bass just look for Zu Audio Undertone mkII SUB :)

I wouldn’t use any tube gear with First Watt amp, my previous tube amps were a nice WLM Minueta (with the best NOS Telefunken tubes) and Luxman tube amp, but my First Watt F2J with B1 buffer Preamp simply kill them all !!!

I have no problem with bass if it’s on the record, First Watt gear is much better than any tube amps i’ve tried with any NOS tubes i’ve tried.

Also with Druid speakers you don’t need an active preamp at all. Your FW amp has more power than mine, but with Druid even 2 watts is enough. I think it's the same with Omen. 
Do you mind if the preamp comes with DAC?. 
Check these out, totally over engineered for the price:
Audio-Gd Dual ES9038Pro D-27
If you like R2R DAC:
Audio-Gd R-8

You can get these used sometimes over at head-fi and other places. I have only good experience with Audio-gd. Totally outrageous value for $ in my opinion. 

No idea if I'll agree with these super positive reviews, but another good one for The Truth pre-amp just came out.  Hopefully I'll post some agreement in a week or two...
Stick to Nelson Pass desing
This is all you need: First Watt B1 preamp