Preamp Quandary - sonics vs. ergonomics??

I have been auditioning (buying and selling) preamps for over a year now. My only absolute criteria is that the preamp must be a fully balanced design that has low enough output impedance to effectively drive my McCormack DNA 500 amp (10K input impedance). However, since my system is in the living room, there are some ergonomic considerations including the potential for other users. After trying several, I currently have two pretty good but different preamps, an Atma-Sphere MP3 that is maxed out with teflon caps, regulated power upgrade, caddock resistor package, and user-applied 3M constrained layer damping sheets. It also has Jensen transformers for phono that I do not use. My other preamp is an Ayre K-5xe which is an outstanding ergonomic match with my CX-7e source. The comparisons are;

Ayre K-5xe - very user friendly, stays on all the time, uses the same remote as my CX-7e source, no heat issues, dead quiet, smooth sounding with tight punchy bass and adequate decay for a SS unit, no turn-on/off issues, heat, DC worries or other tube related concerns. In other words a competant performer which is the perfect operational match for my situation.

Atma-Sphere MP3; deep bass, dynamics that you can feel in your chest, well-extended for a tube unit and has that "rightness" only tubes seem to be able to provide, outstanding 3-dimensionality, and an outstanding midrange that puts the performers in the room with you. In short, this is the best sounding preamp I have heard in my system, but not the easiest to use.

Have any of you made a similar choice, and did you have any regrets?
I know you like your DNA 500, but it seems to me you're being boxed into a corner unnecessarily.
Yes, quite a few times. Yes, there have been regrets. I sometimes wonder why I paint myself into a corner with 'requirements' like must be fully balanced, must have remote, must have such amount of gain and such amout of input/output impedence. I've also flip/flopped back and forth on the tube issue. When I have a tube unit, I long for the power and dependibility of SS. When I have a SS unit, I miss the liquidity and 'realness' of tubes.
Currently I'm looking to head back into tubesville. It's been long enough that I've almost forgotten about the maintenance issues, and believe me IME, tube units require a much higher maintenance cost than SS. In other words, I like the tubes but they don't like me. :)

BTW, is one of the reasons you say the Atmasphere is not the easiet to use because it has no remote? I was considering this preamp, but honestly, I'm not sure if I could live w/o a remote anymore. Sad isn't it? I never had a remote until the year 2000. I was in this hobby for 25 years with no remote, and now I don't think I could live w/o it. Maybe for a month or two, but that's all.
To answer your specific question, I always opt for sound over ergonomics, and based on your description, I'd keep the Atma-Sphere MP3 (How ironic is that model name for high end audio? Makes me smile.) It's much harder to find something that "has that rightness" and synergy with a system than it is to find something that functions nicely but doesn't quite make music.
How about trying one of the more full function tube units out now? I just heard the ARC ref3 in my system and thought it souned very good. At the same time we had a BAT 52se for comparison, and it sounded wonderful too. Both of these things will basically do everything but make your coffee (I actually hear that ARC is comming out with their Mk pi-to the 3rd update that will take care of that issue though ;^)). The super tube 6H30 is supposed to last 10,000 hours or so... Tube maintenence shouldn't be too much of an issue.

Seems like the only thing you would be missing is the remote compatability with the Ayre CD player..... Then again you could always upgrade that too!

Hello Chris,

Do you mean the BAT 51se or the 32se? The reason why I ask is because I was just went down to the BAT factory last weekend and Victor told me they were waiting on some parts for the 52se so they could send out the first batch of them.

Thanks guys for your comments.
Tvad - you are right, I do like the McCormack and think it is an outstanding amp. I never have to worry about SS haze or grain with that amp, and I never have to worry about lack of power for the Aerials. I am curious whether your comment about boxing myself into a corner is related to using only balanced connectors, the lowish 10K input impedance, or both. If the impedance, I agree with you and have sometimes thought about other amps that might match it sonically and power-wise, with higher impedance. The most likely candidate is the JC-1's, although others I have considered are Mac 402's and Pass 350.5 (only 20K). If my pre to amp run wasn't 3M long, I would more likely try the single ended CJ Premire 350. BTW - I also agree fully with the last sentence of your second post which is well-stated.
To Jmcgrogan2; as weird as it sounds, the lack of a remote is the least of it, especially since almost all digital sources have remotes that can stop play or advance tracks. I almost like not having one for the preamp because I tend to set the level and enjoy the music, instead of messing with it all the time. The issue is more related to general tube things like heat, remembering to turn off the amp before the pre (A-S doesn't use a mute switch), differences in tubes, tubes wearing out, and that little bit of extra noise (although not much with the A-S). CMO has a good point, and I have considered a Calypso and ARC Ref 3, but probably not the BAT because I cannot afford the 51SE and I am concerned about the 6H30 "supertube." The models without the 6H30 (the 31 and 51) are said to lack resolution and high end extension, so I thought those would be a backward step from the A-S. I have tried the VTL 5.5 (nice and musical but poor soundstaging compared to the A-S), and the SF Line 3 SE (comparatively marginal bass definition and lack of "thereness"). I would like to hear the Ayre K-1xe in my system, but it is quite pricy. If I were to change everything, other combos in my price range I have thought about but not heard are Mac 402/C46, Calypso/JC-1's and CJ 350/P17LS2,P18, or P16LS.
The A-S really is a nice unit, but probably best suited to a dedicated room or single-operator system. I am listening to the K-5xe now, and it is very nice in every way, with no flaws or shortcomings, but just not quite the last degree of richness, clarity and dynamics that the A-S provides. If I had never heard the A-S, I would probably be perfectly happy with the K-5xe.
By boxing yourself in I was referring to your desire not to change your amplifier and thereby limiting your choices of preamps. As you have stated, there are other amps that IMO would be equally as good as the DNA500 and would open up your preamp possibilities. I think all three of your alternative combos are excellent alternatives.
I chose a Bryston BP26 over a Pass Labs X1 primarily for ergonomics, though in a level matched comparison the two preamps are effectively indistinguishable. Every time I pick up the BP26's remote, which is everyday, I'm thankful I didn't keep the X1.

My experience has been, even in the rare cases where there are some real sonic differences, unless you have another component to swap in and out you soon adapt to the sound of a particular component and forget the others. For me life is just too short to be concerned about minute perceived differences.

So I'd go with the easiest to use, most reliable, easiet to maintain option.
How can you consider the ARC Ref 3, but not the BAT VK-51SE due to cost? Last I checked the Ref 3 cost more than the VK-51SE.

Strangely, when I spoke of maintenance cost of tube units, the problems I've had on the units themselves cost more than the cost of tube maintenance. Capacitors, displays, and other items. For some reason I've never had capacitor or display or any other problems with solid state preamps. I don't know if it's just bad luck or what, but my last two tube preamps cost me over $1500 in repair fees, and that's not including tubes, in a two year window.

That's why I say that I like the tubes, but they don't like me.

As for boxing yourself in, any item you buy will do this to some extent. Buy a CJ amp with higher input impedance and you may box out balanced preamps and/or difficult to drive speakers. Everything comes with limitating factors that will make one make decisions for proper system integration.
What if you decide to match up all of the impedence, balance/unbalanced, etc requirements, and the unit doesn't sound good to you? What if by buying a new amp to open up your preamp options, you wind up limiting your speaker options?

IMHO, it never ends. All items present limitations that will require careful matching on the front end and/or back end.

Well, the obvious solution to your problem is to upgrade your Ayre K-5xe preamp to the Ayre K-1xe preamp.
(And yes I own one.) It is one of the best solid state preamps available, IMHO.

(If you can wait, you will see one pop up on Audiogon occasionally for around $4-5K depending on whether it has the phono stage or not. The phono stage is really good btw.)

The Ayre K-1x that is currently for sale here on Audiogon is rather over priced, IMHO. FYI: I bought mine used for $4K a few years ago, and it had all the upgrades available at that time, as well as the remote, phono stage and a spare (black) face plate, in case I ever want to switch out the silver face plate. I like it so much, I had the 'e' (evolution) upgrade done to it by Ayre last year. (And well worth it, IMHO!)

My two cents worth anyway.
Good Luck in your search!
Jmcgrogan2 has a good point about chasing the dragon. If you're happy your present DNA 500 and loudspeaker synergy, then find a preamp to match.
Actually, the Ayre K-1xe that Kurt mentions is a good example of Mitch's preamp quandry of sonics vs. ergonomics for me. I've read that it sounds great. I haven't heard one, but I have heard other Ayre gear and I always thought they represented a good value. The reason I've never pulled the trigger on a Ayre preamp? No balance control, that's all. Yes, 90-95% of my listening is done with balance centered, but there are some recordings that sound better with a slight image shift. Not to mention how it helps trouble shooting everything behind the preamp.
I know Ayre says they don't use a balance control for the sake of signal purity. However, they do use a remote control. Some manufacturers don't use a remote for signal purity's sake. How much convienience do you want to give up for signal purity? That is a personal choice.

It's the same issue with a remote control(in general, not with the Ayre). I try to convince myself that I can live w/o a remote, but everyone that I've talked to tells me not to bother. They claim they've tried it and after a few weeks it drove them nuts and they sold the piece. I could see that happen to me. Again, I don't use the remote often, but it's nice to have one when you want one. I think I would try to live w/o a remote before I would live w/o a balance control. But that's just me.

For me, I guess it's not about the absolute sound. I have minimum qualifications about ergonomics and maximum qualifications about cost. I try to find something that meets my qualifications and sounds the best to me.

i would try a mccormick pre also
More good responses, and a good discussion, thanks guys. Jmcgrogan2 - I must have been thinking of the Ref 2, you are right the Ref 3 is more expensive. Bob_Reynolds makes a good point, and that is exactly where I am at now, trying to decide if I am able to simply forget about it and enjoy the music. With either of the two preamps I have now, my system is perfectly matched impedance-wise, and sonically, but they just don't sound the same. I can't really lose, both sound great, I just like the sound of the A-S better. Actually Kurt's suggestion is my "plan B." If a K-1xe or K-1x had been available at a lower price, I would have tried one of those first instead of the K-5xe, but after reading all the rave reviews I thought that maybe the 5xe would have been close enough, and it may still be, but I will probably eventually try and hear the K-1xe or maybe the 1x to start then go for the upgrade. So, whichever of the two I now have that I decide to sell, I will probably stay on the lookout for a decent priced K-1x to try. These may start to become more available if Ayre releases a Ref series preamp as they say they plan to. In the meantime, I will have a hard time giving up the Atma-Sphere. The other thing I always consider is the company itself, and in my opinion SMc-McCormack, Ayre, and Ralph and crew at Atma-Sphere are all at the very top of service-oriented audio, you just cannot go wrong with any of those. Finally, Jaybo which McCormack pre do you suggest? The only one I would consider trying is the RLD-1 with full SMc upgrades, but it is not balanced. Steve has been promising a new preamp for about a year now, and I will be real curious to see what he comes up with.
Have you considered a VAC a VAC Renaissance or Renaissance Signature? Talk about a company that's at the top of the customer service heap. The VAC preamps are balanced, have phono, and remotes.

I imagine the output impedance on a VAC could be easily adjusted at the factory to match the input impedance of your DNA-500. Lamm did this for me on my LL2 Deluxe.
Perhaps a Sonic Frontiers Line 3 will satisfy all your needs?
The input impedance of each channel is usually detetermined by a single resistor on the amp's input. If this is the case with your amp then any competent tech could change that resistor and raise the input impedance.

Why not check with the manufacturer? They choose such a low value to minimize noise that the amp can pick up through the inputs, but unless you live in an extremely electrically noisy enviroment (unlikely) then increasing it doesn't affect the performance.
12-17-06: Herman
The input impedance of each channel is usually detetermined by a single resistor on the amp's input. If this is the case with your amp then any competent tech could change that resistor and raise the input impedance.

An excellent alternative, IMO.
Can't do that with the DNA 500, per Steve McCormack -
"I usually design my amps with a 100K input impedance for maximum compatibility, but using the Jensen (or Lundahl) input transformers forces a shift to 10K (at least for the 1:1 types I prefer). It would be nice if I could offer all of the advantages of the transformer input topology along with high input impedance, but I feel strongly that the strength of this approach more than outweighs this small disadvantage. Using these transformers allows me to simplify my input stage somewhat, and provides a “brickwall” filter against DC and RFI – without the need for blocking capacitors or additional filters. Like many audiophiles, I used to look askance at the use of transformers, but I must say that I have become very fond of them. Used properly, I feel they offer a lot of advantages, and their main drawback is high cost."

the whole thread is at;
12-17-06: Tvad
Have you considered a VAC a VAC Renaissance or Renaissance Signature? Talk about a company that's at the top of the customer service heap. The VAC preamps are balanced, have phono, and remotes.

Well I have had terrible luck with the 2 VAC components that I have owned. I'll spare the details as it is not relevent to this thread.
I will point out though that the VAC preamps are not true balanced designs. They have balanced inputs and outputs, but only by using input transformers that shunt the negative leg to ground. Essentially they are single ended preamps that convert the signal at the rear panel. Quasi-balanced if you will. You could get similar performance by using Cardas XLR/RCA adapters on any single ended preamp.

The VAC's are not true balanced preamps like the Atma-Sphere and Ayre that Mitch already owns.

The VAC components I have heard sure sound good, though. Sometimes I don't think true balanced is all it's cracked up to be.
12-17-06: Tvad
Sometimes I don't think true balanced is all it's cracked up to be.

I can certainly agree with that statement. That goes back the the original quandry. Many owners of SE sources and SE amps look for a SE preamp as a qualifier. Most owners of balanced sources and amps will have balanced as one of their preamp qualifiers. Again, balanced/unbalanced has nothing to do with quality of sound, but it can be a requirement to a owner during component searches, just like remote options, impedence characteristics, tube/ss, etc.