"Reference" Preamps

Seems like every time I turn my head there's a new "reference" preamp available. Heck, in this month's stereophile there are TWO that are better than anything else out there. Seems like their reviewers don't talk to one another.

Problem is that no one in the press ever wants to COMPARE sonics anymore, but they're oh so quick to throw superlatives around, and gush over dozens of subjective attributes.

I want to upgrade my ARC LS25mk2 preamp and would like to know where to spend my time. These are all $10kish msrp preamps that would hopefully fall into the "last preamp I'll ever want to own" category.

Audio Research Reference 3
Ayre K1xe
EAR 912
Mark Levinson 326

Didn't make my list:

Conrad-Johnson ACT2 (no balanced outs)
Hovland HP1000 (no balanced outs)
Lamm Reference 2 (no remote, separate volume controls)

Would someone care to start offering comparative opinions on these? What other preamps should I add to this list?

Ghunter, I have heard three of the linestages on your audition list and would recommend that you add the Placette Active linestage.

The Placette Active linestage sells for $5000.00 because Guy Hammel sells his creation direct, otherwise it would sell for around $10000.00 thru a retail store.

I auditioned six preamps before settling on the Placette, and it replaced a Mark Levinson reference 32 in my system.

Guy Hammel is a great gentleman to do business with, you get a 30 day home trial, and he can customize the Active anyway you would want it.
Based on the way you have worded your question and your previous experience and list of options I would put the new ARC Ref 3 at the top of your list.

I would only add Aesthetix Callisto as an option. it's a wonderful preamp and retails for about 11K, but there are dealers that offer discount.
VTL 6.5 and 7.5II, VAC Phi 2.0, Cary SLP 05, Aesthetix Calypso (will compete with some of the ones listed and is MUCH cheaper).
Just imagine the great gear we never hear of unless we attend the CES, or other events that showcase highend audio. I purchased a Messenger preamp earlier this year. IMHO the Messenger competes with any preamp currently available. It won't make your list. No remote or balanced outs.
The Placette active would get my vote.
I upgraded from the LS 25 MK2 to the Ref 2, and then to the Ref 3. I don't think you will find one better. If the Ref 3 is too much, the new LS 26 is actually better than the Ref 2 MK2.

Good luck,

If you can do without a remote, you owe it to yourself to try and audition the H-Cat preamp from North American Products. See their website for a list of dealers at www.H-Cat.com. I personally think it is the best preap regardless of price.
Thanks very much for the responses. As I typed the list out I knew I was forgetting something, and the VTL 6.5/7.5 is definitely an option I'm interested in too. I've heard Aesthetix mentioned in high regard, and will investigate further (as with the others).

Now, could you please provide some more relative opinions?

For example, Teajay states that his Placette replaced a Mark Levinson preamp, and auditioned six others along the way. What did the Placette excel at that made you buy one? Was it more detail than the Levinson, more soundstage than brand #2, better dynamics than #3?

The devil is in the details... especially when getting ready to spend such a large amount of money and with a two year old around lengthy excursions to the hi-fi shops are few and far between! Again, much appreciated.
I will second Alberts Aesthetix Callisto Signature suggestion. I went from an ARC LS25II to this preamp and the differences where pretty dramatic.

The ARC sounded real nice, was quiet, and did nothing wrong as far as I am concerned. The Callisto is quieter, sounds nicer in every way, and does everything very "right". I can't tell you how it sounds compared to some of the others, but it is one heck of a pre amp from my experience.

Never heard the Callisto, but head to head the VAC Ren Mk2 beat the Calypso in every way. It has balanced out and a very nice remote. Comes w or w/o phono stage.
Ghunter, the Placette Active Linestage, in the context of my system, exceled in the following sonic areas:

1) The Placette offered the most natural timbres of any preamp I have ever had in my system.

2) The Placette was far more transparent then the other preamps I had auditioned, which lend it to offer great details/microdynamics.

3) The Placette produced the largest soundstage of all the preamps with "air" around each player and precise layering on this soundstage.

4) The extension of both the top and bottom frequencies were terrific and lends itself to a very natural and dynamic presentation.

All of the above sonic virtues are presented in a very "easy/organic/musical" way, not a "HiFi" or over dramatic fashion. However, this linestage is not euphonic in anyway, it will tell you about your upstream gear in a total honest way. As we both know, personnal taste and system synergy are always the most important factors, so I hope your interested enough to possible set up a home audition.
Requirement for a remote limits my (already limited) choices here. As ALbert notes, given the wording and the clues in yr wuestion, the AR-3, the VAC (above)would be possibilities, as would be the big Aesthetics (many tubes there).

Generally speaking, however, only three-and-a-half line stages impressed me as being definitely superior to all other (excellent /outstanding) pre's I heard(including no pre):
*FM acoustics 245/255 (no remote ASAI recall)
*Goldmund mim. 7.1 i think (old model; no remote, single ended)
*Goldmund 27.3 (remote & balanced -- OK; expensive)
*EInstein acoustics tube pre (not sure about remote; didn't use one)
*Dartzeel pre (no remote AFAI recall; you get a phono however). This is the "half": I only listened to it once.

I have some relative comments concerning the Callisto Signature to three other models in my own system: Calypso, BAT 31SE and CAT Ultimate II. The Callisto Sig and the Calypso have very similar tonality and frequency extreme coverage but the Callisto Sig definitely has more low-end coverage. But as we learn so quickly when we hear the Callisto and Io models, it's not just tonality. I suspect that the Callisto's tube power supply has much to do with its significantly greater portrayal of space and decays over the Calypso....in fact it is not even close. And the sound with the Callisto goes much farther out from the speakers' edges. Once you hear these two models side by side, back and forth a time or two, it is really darn tough to return to the Calypso. Both of these models greatly benefit from tube changes and this has been discussed heavily on many other A'gon threads. If anyone is comparing either of these models with stock Sovtek tubes to other line stages out there, whether those other models are 6H30 based or not, they are NOT hearing the true potential of the Aesthetix pieces ... and as far as I am concerned, any conclusions as to the merit of the Aesthetix models in such cases has to be taken lightly.

The BAT31SE performed fairly well against the Callisto Sig in the context of the dimensionality but the BAT was just too soft on the top which resulted in loss of detail and ambience. Perhaps a 51SE might improve upon this one area over the 31SE, but the other BAT line stage I have heard, the VK5, had a similar tonality on the top.

The CAT Ultimate II line stage has awesome dynamic contrasts and great tonality but not the incredible dimensionality of the Callisto Sig. The CAT also is single-ended only and has no remote.

One thing to keep in mind is that just because a line stage has XLR outputs does not mean these are truly balanced. And the same for an amp's XLR inputs. I would be more inclined to find a product that is a sonic fit with your system rather than be concerned with whether or not it is balanced. I use the Callisto Sig into CAT JL-3 amps with a 10m RCA-RCA cable with incredible results. The Io-to-Callisto link absolutely needs to be balanced to get the magical Aesthetix sound, but otherwise everything else runs mighty fine with single-ended connections.
If you will consider a minimalistic passive preamp of the highest quality, audition the Audio Consulting Silver Rock TVC. It can be had SE or balanced at no additional cost, with or without a battery-powered input buffer. A balanced Placette Active doubles the price.
I own both a Placette Active and a Levinson Ref. No. 32. As far as control flexibility, ease of use, and all other non-sonic considerations are concerned, no question that the Levinson is better. As far as sound, both have their strengths. The Placette delivers a huge soundstage and is very dynamic and dramatic sounding. The Levinson is a touch dull sounding dynamically speaking, but it is also a bit less harsh and sounds more refined. I like both for different reasons. I guess that makes the Placette an incredible bargain given the price differential.

I current use a tube linestage, the Emotive Audio Epifania, that I prefer over both the Placette and the Levinson sonically. It is not as flexible and easy to use as the Levinson, but is a bit better than the Placette (includes a balance control). This linestage somehow manages to extract more detail, particularly room acoustic cues, without being harsh or analytical sounding. But, it is considerably more expensive than either, and I will have to deal with replacing tubes, etc.

I have heard a few other really nice linestages, but not in my own system, such as the Connoisseur 4.0, Audionote M-10, a Kondo (don't recall the model number) and a custom linestage made from old Western Electric parts. I suppose these are also candidates for a reference system.

I agree with some of the others who listed the VTL and VAC linestages as possible candidates. I heard nice sounding systems that had these linestages in them.
Thanks again, everyone. Some very interesting options here, and I'm also questioning my bias towards XLR outs too.
It's rumored that Ayre may have a new design to partner with their latest monoblocks. If that's true you should seriously consider waiting before you make such an expensive upgrade. The K-1 is one of the very few preamps that offer mechanically driven attenuators for remote control. Along with a philosophy of balanced operation and fabulous sonics, it may suit your needs.

A high quality and very well executed alternative to the mainstream products you've listed is www.reflectionaudio.com

Your at a level where your subjective taste and possibly system synergy should be the guiding factor. At this level a head to head comparison would only reveal their basic traits and provide little in the way compatibility with the rest of *your* system. This is that magical point when this hobby becomes either fun or sort of scary. Whatever your choice, you will be amazed by the importance and improvement a well designed preamp can have with your existing system.

Personally, I feel the audio press is doing their job when they effectively convey their experience with a product and stay away from opinionated ranking of products at this level. One publication recently did a head to head with class D amplifiers and may have lost a great deal of credibility due to an enormous weakness in their process of comparison.

Of course that's just my opinion I could be wrong.

Have fun
Vic, I completely agree with your statement that my subjective taste will weigh heavily in the final decision. What I'm trying to do here is to narrow my list down a little so I make sure I'm evaluating the best contenders. This is both to expand the list (as with the Placette) and to narrow it so I don't waste time listening to gear that probably won't sound the way I want.

Where I disagree with you is in believing that there's middle ground that the hi-fi press is not covering right now, and that has to do with more basic comparisons and fewer superlatives. Stereophile's recent review of the ARC Ref3 tells me little more than it is the greatest preamp ever made and it exudes all the qualities one would expect from a preamp in that price range. It offers nothing as to the character of the sound relative to the author's own current reference, nor any other products in that range. This is as useless as the direct comparison you mention, but just because there are flaws on either end of the spectrum does not mean that there is value in between them.

How much are the Reflection components? Seems like there's a very Naim-like (addictive and expensive) upgrade path with their offering.
You've stated that Callisto is the best preamp in the world once it has the remote mod. Do you still stand by that statement?
I dare say the deHavilland Mercury 2 would not be embarassed in the company of "the reference preamps", at probably 1/2 to 1/4th the cost. See the "Enjoy the Music" review. The Mercury has been the most exciting addition to my audio system in 40 years.
The Aesthetix Callisto is the best preamp in the world (obviously my opinion), regardless of the remote control mod or not. The remote is a convenience, and nothing more.

There are many people who will not consider a preamp without a remote. I have owned both types and get accustomed to either. I have to get up to change the LP anyway, so tending to the volume may be done at the same time. It is nice on recordings that are off balance or cut low or high to have to option to tweak from the sweet spot, but not a life or death deal. I buy what sounds best and live with whatever is required to reach that goal.

In my dreams, transistor units the size of a cigar box and an iPod or CD makes perfect music. Imagine how much more space could be dedicated to software :^).

Until that happens we all have to decide what's the breaking point and how much hassle we're willing to put up with to get each increment of performance in search of perfection :-).
Ghunter-I see your point. An alternative would be to locate a dealer who sells at least two of the products on your short list, call them and be absolutely honest about your intension. Their response might be brief but there's a good chance of gaining some solid insight.

Reflection is literally a one man operation. I happened on this product completely by accident and was fortunate to purchase a full boat unit used for $3600, the only one I'ver ever seen before or since. You would have to contact Stephen for current pricing. My previous preamp was a recently fully upgraded Audible Illusions M3A. The difference the Quantum made in my system was stunning.

I wish you well in your search, take care.

shindo vosne-romanee stereo preamplifier:$16,000,all tube,world class phonostage included,output trasformers on XLR connectors.It sounds real.
It takes one's breath away(at least in my system).
Although I haven't had the chance to hear any of these models, I still think that you should consider them if your looking for something in this price range:

MBL 5011 - 8400 USD
Boulder 1010 - 12000 USD
Simaudio Moon Evolution P-8 - 11000 USD
Accuphase C-2810 - 10000 USD (in Japan)
Pass Labs X0.2 - 10000 USD
YBA PASSION 1000 - 10000 USD (in Europe)
The preamp section of the ASR emitter II exclusive version blue if you are using this amplifier. I tried connecting my ARC reference 3 to it and use it only as a power amp - volume in optimal position "51" as advised - and it degraded the sound quality.
BTW, cd player was the ARC CD7 that has an output stage similar to the ref 3 , may be other cd players would result
in different opinions.
Some excellent additional models there.

I've sent an e-mail to Placette but haven't heard anything back yet.

Cardas also suggests that 3-4m of single-ended Golden Reference is not a problem and that I shouldn't use the XLR outputs as a selection criteria.

I'm also going to try and hear the Hovland HP200 and Conrad-Johnson ACT2.
To add my 2 cents. I just talked to Guy Hammel (owner) of Placette because im interested in buying a new system. He is very very insightful and knows quite a bit about the difference of types of pre amps. Everything makes sense from what im hearing about these pre amps. I'm also considering tube pre amp ran in front of a good solid state amp. But after reading about these pre amps and actually getting in touch with Guy on the first call today was great. I just might have to try it. Also to add, some companies that sell their equipment direct to the consumer and they are smaller than the big boys have the tendency not to answer emails very fast because they are busy building awesome equipment. Hope this helps.

I thought I had the ultimate pre amp in the Aesthetix Calypso before I acquired an Audio Horizon TP 2.0,with the nB upgrade.You just can't go wrong here,the only downside is no remote.
Check out the dialogue in this forum or sign yourself up for a 30 day trial,details are posted in the preamplifier tube adds.
Don't forget now that BAT is starting to ship a whole new line of preamps. The VK-32SE, VK-52SE, and VK-52SE/Rex.
The new design is so radical that BAT's famous upgrade policy no longer applies. You cannot upgrade your 31/51SE.

Just to throw some more fuel on the fire. :)
Joule Electra LA150 - musical, musical, musical!
I've been meaning to call Guy Hammel to follow up on my e-mail. I can understand why he'd want to spend his time with people who care enough to call :)

On the other side, I've had some ABYSMAL experiences lately with dealers for some of the other products on my list. It seems like once you leave the mainstream there are some very strange people carrying the product lines. It really does make me want to either deal direct like with Placette or stick to the bigger brands like BAT and ARC.
Ghunter, I wanted to share my experience with Placette with you as you are considering your preamp change. I owned and loved my CAT Ulitmate MKII (? one of the best) and purchased the Placette passive RVC as I wanted remote volume control and more flexibility in volume levels. I then tried the Placette to serve as a preamplifier. Six weeks later I sold the CAT pre on Audiogon - my CAT JL2 amplifier works very well with the Placette and my sources. I found the Placette to be a very worthwhile alternative to some of the very best tube preamplifiers and at a much lower cost. The simplicity of its approach also has a certain appeal to me. True, they require more attention to system compatibilty (as do SET amps), but they can also incredible perfomance at a lower price. You will find Guy to be very helpful and informative, and from what I can tell, very honest. Good luck in your search.