My recently purchased Blue Circle Audio 21.1 preamp (w/Shallco attenuator)has all the attributes you require.
I've paired it with an Anthem MCA 20 amp with outstanding results IMHO.
There is a BC Gatalea listed on Audiogon right now for 1500.
An excellent amp.
If you want to go a little higher a BC 3000 for 2300.
I've owned a Rogue 66, a 66 Magnum and then jumped right up to the Magnum 99. The 66 is a great value if you are looking at a tube preamp in and around the $750 pricepoint but the Magnum 99 is an all together different animal and used its within your budget. Build quality is substantial over the 66 and sonically its a quantum leap ahead with wonderful air around the instruments and detail extraction at par with some of the best SS preamps I've heard. Your other 2 choices would probably offer their own sonic merits but as I've not heard either I'm sorry I can't compare them. As usual system synergy plays a part in this game we play here and maybe your amp will have the most effect on your choice...
I think Devon may be on to something with his suggestion of going with a used Galatea instead of the BC21.1.
The BC21.1 is a replacement of the BC21 which I own. The main differences are the use of two 6922 tubes instead of the two 6SN7s in the BC21, but that was necessitated by the lack of quality 6SN7 tubes. The other difference is the addition of the Shallco attenuator.
A used Galatea mkI also has an improved external power supply which should give it an edge over the BC21.1.
I like a tubey sound in my preamp so I'm contemplating having my BC21 outfitted with the BC21.1 improvements and incorporating an external power supply as well.
Recently, I've been comparing several different "best value" preamps and one that may fit your sonic criteria is the BAT VK3i. It has a very expanded soundstage and a slightly tubey nature unlike the rounder sounding BC21. It's a large piece of gear and accepts only balanced connections, so I'm not sure if this is something that will work for you.
There is currently a BC3 Despina on auction, here on Audiogon. Believe me when I say that you will be very hard pressed to find a better tube preamp for under $2000. They are an absolute steal on the used market.
The Galatea(same preamp with better power supply), is superior, but the Despina is almost as good.
I'll throw in for the 2.5 VTL (paid $1,300 w/phono). Haven't had a BC in my system, but I haven't had any reliability issues with the 2.5. I swapped out the stock 12au7 tubes with some NOS RCAs, and I've been happy with the results. I'm currently running this into a Rogue 88 (non-magnum). Very happy with the results.
I have a VTL 5.5 that is absolutely wonderful and seems to meet your qualifications like it was made for them. Bass could be fuller in my system but is it the room, do i need more amp? you know the drill there. Very open sounding preamp and in combo with VTL monos it is the least tuby tube set up i've heard next to ARC while still having the body and killer mids that tubes are known for..i.e. warm but not mushy. i've seen more than a few of them here for around $2k. I've had mine for about 4 yrs now. No problems and it still has original tubes in it.
<<< OK, I am a bit of all over the map in terms of price, but I am looking for best value, not necessarily within a specific budget. WOuld like to be under $2K though. Buying used.
My candidates are:
Rogue 66 and 99 Magnums
VTL 2.5 and 5.5 (someone told me the VTLs have reliability issues. True?)
Blue Circle 21.1
No phono required. Where would you cast your votes in terms of value? I like a transparent enough, but not too revealing preamp, slight tubey character but not too much, and large soundstage depth and width. Good extension on both ends also a factor.
Your not going to find a VTL 5.5 for $2000 unless you find someone going bankrupt. And yes, I have had issues with VTL customer service.
May I suggest you also consider a BAT VK5i. True this pre is a bit outdated, but it will blow away the pre's that you have mentioned IMHO. And you can buy a VK5i on Audiogon for under $2000. Keep in mind this is a $4500 pre, new. I think you will find it has everything your looking for. I'm sure their are others that I have not listened to, that would also fit the bill.
Of those you have listed, I would put my money on Blue Circle. But You should try to demo a few of them in your home before deciding. When I first started in this crazy hobby, I listened to all the opinions of the stereo magazines, then I went out and listened to some systems. I found out that the stereo magazines writer's opinions differed from mine.
just my 2 cents worth :)
VTLs used to have reliability problems being a new company etc but they have clearly gone a long way and I think they are the way of the future for tubes. They are trying to make them simpler to use and their more recent models are amazing. I have an ST150 amp myself and am very happy with it.
Thanks for all the input. My concerns with each of the preamps (both questioned and recommended) are:
Rogue 99: way too many on Audiogon. Why? Surely they didn't sell that many new?
BAT VK5i: only balanced. Need SE or adaptors, which raises the effective price and then am I better with something else? (I know, I didn't bring this up in my initial post).
BAT VK3i: baby of the BAT line. Does it compete with, say Rogue 99 (ignore what I said above for a minute). Is it truly a 'dark' sonic character as a reviewer indicated?
VTL 5.5/2.5: dunno what to think about this. There is not a strong consensus of opinion here.
Yes, I want perfection! And I want it cheap! (Just admitting what many of us have thought at times). Any SS candidates out there that qualify: smooth, etc.?
You can find a VK5i for about $1700 if your patient. It does add a little colour to the sound, but so does every tube pre out there. But yes the BAT is has the slightest bit more. I was merely going by what you originaly stated in your initial post. I thought the VK5i would work well for you.
As far as the adapters for BAT gear, you will lose a little from your source. But if you don't have a pre ( now )in the same catogrey as the VK5i, you won't know what your missing.
I personally ran nothing but single end gear with the both the VK5i, and the VK3i with excellent results. Also you can buy the necessary adapters that Audio Research manufactures for $25 less per pair. You will still be under your $2000 price point. I see them all the time here at Audiogon for sale used.
You can also follow this thread that just started about XLR-RCA adapters.
VK3i vs Rouge 99? I'm sure the Rouge lovers will argue with me. But I think the VK3i will dance cricles around the 99.
sorry, forgot the thread link:
Kck, I can only comment on the Rogue 99, and will say that this pre is high end audio at a great price new or used. I purchased mine new.
This is my 2nd tubed preamp, so I was always comparing it to the former preamp, and out of the box the Rogue seemed lifeless. After a 100 hours or so of use and replacing the stock tubes, the Magnum 99 is truely a fantastic piece of equipment that should be considered.
I have talked to the owner Mark O'Brien more than a few times and he is always willing to help you. He suggested I try different tubes with the Rogue to compliment the other equiupment in my system. I purchased some NOS from him and they brought out the best for my listening tastes. He was willing to send me different tubes if the NOS were not to my liking. Great customer service.
You mentioned that you see many Rogue 99's for sale on Audiogon and seemed concerned about such. I have looked at the 99 for quite some time and the equiupment that you see for sale is typical of used gear. Cary, ARS, Conrad Johnson, VTL,....you can find them for sale every day but that doesnt mean that one should worry about purchasing them. It would only make sence that more a company sells, could also reflect the used equiupment for sale at any one time. This probally doesnt hold true to the higher priced goods because most people cant afford them so there is few in the consumer market and little to none for sale used.
Good luck and happy listening.