Preamp upgrade ARC LS5, SF Line 3, others?

I'm looking to upgrade my preamp. I have Audio Research LS2 MKII and ARC D200 power amp. The LS 2 can be a little bright on the top end and thinon the low end. I have heard the LS5 and was blown away auditioning it in my home, but have a number of components that are single ended. I've always liked ARC products, but they seem low on features.

I've read reviews on the Sonic Frontiers Line 3 and am encouraged by it. SOmeone I spoke to said the Line 3 was dramatically better than the ARC LS5. Any SF Line 3 owners would like to leave comments on this. Any other preamps one should look into?


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I relatively new one on the market is the AE-3 DJH edition from AES. It's a significant upgrade from the standard AE-3. It's retails for $1200. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of places to purchase it from. You can get it from either Upscale Audio or direct from AES. I picked mine up from Kevin at Upscale Audio.

You can check it out at under the preamp section.

I liked the Hovland HP-100. Some people find it thin on the bottom end, I did not. The preamp is sensitive to impedance missmatch. You need an amp with an input impedance of 30kohms or above.

Good luck
Tom; I own the SF Line 2, and auditioned the Line 3 in home for 5 days. These are both very neutral sounding pre-amps, ie they do not have a "tubey" euphonic sound at all. But they are very smooth, and soundstage and holographics, especially with the Line 3, are excellent.

Both the SF pre-amps are loaded with features like Headphone out, an SSP out, Remote, 4 always on outputs for bi-amping, and many others. I have not heard the LS5 but can highly recommend the Line 2 or 3. Happy Hunting. Craig.
I second Jaica'a vote for the Hovland. I eliminated the need for a preamp in my system, however, if I needed one again, the Hovland would be it.
Placette active line stage. Not cheap ($4K) but the best I've heard so far under $10K. Wonderful on "bright" sources, as the Vishay resistors clean up the high end.
Like you, I had the ARC LS2-II. I bought an ARC REF-1 off Audiogon and have been extreemly happy with it! It has both balanced and SE connections. The biggest difference was in the bass, but the REF-1 bettered the LS2 in every way. You can find them here for under $4,000.

Good Luck!!!
I use a SF Line 1 with an ARC D200 and really enjoy it. I think there's definitely something to be said for combining a tube preamp w/ SS amplification. And the SF Line series features are very nice- I particularly enjoy the headphone amp w/ my Sennheisers.
Hi Tom,

Keep me informed as I currently using the Balanced version (LS-2B MkII). I've been thinking about upgrading my preamp which would have both balanced and single ended inputs/outputs as I am using balanced input for my digital front end and single ended input for my analog front end. That rules out the Hovland, but the top contenders are the ARC Ref series, BAT VK-50SE, and the SF Line-3.
thanks for all the responses

I looked into a number of those pieces mentioned, wow, quite a few interesting options.

Now how does one audition the less available pieces?
I'm in New Orleans and we are a bit limited in Audio. My friend sells AR, but Hovland and Sonic Frontiers are not that widely carried outside major audio markets. I've always felt the only way to evaluate the subtle differences in preamps is to experience it within your own system and room dynamics. Word of mouth and rave reviews are great, but in the $3-5 k range, you'd really like to go on more than that.

Yes, you start looking to improve and the next thing you know, you've doubled your budget

thanks for all the insight


Klyne 7LX3.5B will be a great one! Too sad you have to
run balance otherwise Hovland is just beautiful!

I replaced my LS2B with a contrad johnson premier 14.
The CJ presented more detail with a warm sound
Being that I just went through the exact same process of finding a replacement for my LS2B, I thoght I'd chime in with my two cents worth.

I understand that the LS5 smokes the LS2, the latest versions in particular but as I have no personal auditioning time with this unit I can't confirm or deny this. Also, as you've noted, the LS5 has no single ended in/outputs and few people own completely balanced set-ups. Word has it that the fixes for the lack of s/e ins/outs, ARC's BL units or adapter plugs, are not stisfactory sonically. However, someone who's ears I trust said that run in proper balanced in/out configuration the 5 was superior to both the Ref 1 and first iteration of the 25.

On to what I have heard- A few days spent with an LS16 in the system were completely uninspiring. Despite its true balanced nature it was far noisier and much more vague sounding than the "faux" balanced LS2B. Tube swaps to low-noise-tested premium Amperex, Telefunken, and Mullard tubes did not help. This performance was flat out embarassing, particularly when compared to...

The Sonic Frontiers Line 3SE I'd had on loan for a month. 10 6DJ8 tubes and this thing was dead quiet. We are talking like transistor quiet. Wow! Great, grain free, and smooth sounding with big effortless dynamics and "stygian" bass. This thing had about a million in/outputs, a great remote, a headphone jack (!) and it visually matched my SFD 2 Dac. A shoe-in right? Almost...

You see I'd recently replaced my ARC PH3 with an Aesthetix Io phono stage and this thing is astounding. I currently have the best vinyl playback I've ever heard. After spending some time correseponding with a few other Audiogoners I decided to hang it out a bit and scored a demo of the matching Calisto linestage from Aesthetix. This was a tough call. I have a great local dealer who is absolutely honest and treats me very well but nobody in Canada even brings these things in. I figured if it didn't float my boat I could probably flip it for about what I paid. Well the Callisto is stayin' baby! Yeah I give up my remote and the headphone jack and its a bit noisier than the Line3 (about the same as the LS2B) but it has plenty of XLR and RCA ins n' outs, all implemented properly in a true balanced circuit and it superimposes the performance on my room like nothin' else I've heard. It has ridiculous number of tubes as well so like the Line3 it runs pretty warm but what the hell. If its in your snack bracket, check it out!

FYI rest of the system:

Oracle Dephi V/ SME V/ Benz Ref
EAD T8000 Transport/ Sonic Frontiers SFD2 series3
Aesthetix Io and Callisto
ARC Classic 150s (recently updated/modded)
Merlin VSM Milleniums
2 Paradigm Servo 15s/ X30s
Cardas Gold Ref wires throughout
XLO Signature AES/ABU digital link.

Everything lives on Black Diamond cones/pucks, sandboxes, and Target stands in that order.

The Merlins are run full-range and the subs are crossed in (REL style) to pick things up at about 35hz where the Bam equipped VSMs roll out. I found that a very wierd asymetrical location of the subs along with judicious tweaking of the pair of X30s respective phase controls has tied the subs into the system very smoothly.

Oh, and it all lives in a purpose-built room with DIY tubetraps, wall and ceiling hung abfusors.

The LS5 MK II is a tremendous pre-amp. I recently purchased a remote controled version to replace my LS 5 MKII which did not have a remote. Thinking of selling the non-remote unit.
Mates very well with my EC amplifier and EMC1. The sound?
One of the best at "being there" that I have had the pleasure to hear. It is a no frills pre-amp but simplicity often leads to better sound. My exisiting kit is all balanced already so the move to this unit wasn't a big deal.
You don't see alot of them for sale. After getting lucky to find one used (I live in ARC's backyard which might have something to do with me finding one) I couldn't pass up the remote version that fell into my lap. I now have 3 pre amps and only one main system. Oh well. If you decide to go the LS5 route and don't mind the lack of remote feel free to email me. I hope you find something that your ear will enjoy. Take care.
Placette should be on your radar screen, and it also addresses your availability for demo concern as they offer a 30-day money-back trial period so there's nothing to lose. If your system is still bright on top and thin down low with the Placette it's somewhere else in your system. You can see reviews on Soundstage! and Planet HiFi.

I've also heard very positive things about Atma Sphere preamps, but I'm not sure about the demo situation--they may also offer a 30-day thing.