Recommendations please for good, affordable pre-amp for system?


Hi All, 

I'm configuring my first system, and have so far acquired the speakers (Thiel 3.6) and amp (Bryston 4B SST). I believe I need a preamp to complete this (and I believe only a preamp, right?). And I'm hoping you can give me some leads, information, and recommendations.  It's a 2-channel setup, and while it would be nice to add some HT capability in the future, I'm seeking as pure a sound as possible.

Some things I've looked at are Theta Casablanca, Bryston 0.5B, and perhaps for future upgrades, model Rotel RSP-1582 and Marantz AVR8802 -- although I'm concerned that those latter two, while brining nice features, will work to molest the signal.

Prime listening will be CD, with some lossless Network-attached storage, and Airplay with Tidal or otherwise Internet radio.

Thanks for your recommendations!
donzi
Need a little more info. Tubes or S.S.? What is your budget? Remote control? ETC
Sorry. Newbie in all of this. I actually don't know. Budget is perhaps $500 on down for real quality, and I would like a lot cheaper than that. And yes, on a search, I found some for $18k, which is what sent me here. 

My amp is solid state, so I would presume the preamp should be as well, right? I've been recommended to seek something with "HT passthrough/ HT bypass", as I ultimately might like to hook up an HT system (while still keeping the quality of sound on the fronts for CD, and Network Storage, etc. Can you combine tubes and SS? Remote is not so important on this unit as it will be, ultimately on the future HT. Those features would be nice, to turn on home sound from app and the like. But meanwhile, I'll plan to get up and push buttons. Though perhaps, on that day, if this has some sort of power on that can be controlled by another unit, that would be bonus. Thanks!
Any opinion whether this one might yield higher quality front sound? Or the Casablanca?

http://www.parasound.com/2100.php

Sorry, I am not very familiar with either of these pre's. However both companies are highly respectable. 
Perhaps another member that has some experience with either of these products will chime in.
Good luck on your journey.
Would you like to try passive pre amplifier.
They are available on Ebay, tube and SS version.
The guy is from Poland and he is using high quality parts
3 inputs and 2 outputs. Totally neutral,
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Number of steps: 48
Contact material: Hard gold
Polished wiper and contact pins
Extremely short signal path
Channel matching: +/-0.1 dB
Resistance: 10, 20, 50 or 100 kOhm (other values on request)
Resistors: INPUT - Caddock MK132; GND - military Vishay/Dale RN55 1% 100ppm , 1/10W, low noise, non-inductive, metal film

Upgrade options:
Remote control - $200
Vishay Zfoil series resistor - $60
Takman REX shunt resistors - $70



Topten, what is the difference between active and passive? And can tube be used with a SS amp? What would be the info, or link for this one? 

WWW.AKUSTYK.COM
I can’t at the moment think of a $500 preamp that I would pair with the Bryston amp to drive the 3.6s.  Many audiophiles think the preamp to be the heart of a system, having greater influence on the sound of a system than the amplifier. 

You have purchased 2 fine components to a great system. You will need a preamp and source component to compliment for best results.
SS amp does not require a SS preamp. In fact many folks like to couple a tube preamp with a SS amp. You just have mind the impedance mismatches. It would appear that you would be fine with a preamp with an output impedance under 1K.

That said, looking for a >$500 preamp to mate with that much more expensive amp would seem a bit strange to me. I think your only option would be to go with some passive attenuators.

Other options would include, look for a digital source with volume control to replace your current one, or look for a integrated amp to replace your Bryston amp.

I do agree with mesch, I find the preamp the heart of the system. For me, finding the right preamp can be more difficult than finding the right speakers.
Since you are on a tight budget and looking at Parasound,you should take a look at this one. It has all the features you need!   http://www.audioadvisor.com/prodinfo.asp?number=PAZPRE2
Get a pass labs B1 buffer preamp. It will cost about $900 and will be totally worth your system. I cant think of any other preamp which can do justice to that setup within $1k
donzi---What everyone is getting at here is that your Bryston amp and Thiel speakers are so good that they will make very audible the sound quality of the pre-amp you use. The problem is, it's going to be tough to find an active pre for $500 that will be good enough! If possible, hold off until you can scrape together about double that so you can get a pre that will provide a sound you'll be happy with. Having higher quality components downstream violates the first rule of system hierarchy!
Mesch, would I understand you to be saying that perhaps (budget reasons) start with something temporary, but be prepared to a significantly higher outlay in the future? I would guess this is what I hear. If I went that jump now, any recommendations?

Jmcgrogan, I’m a little uncertain also with what you’re saying. If you’d said <$500 paired with more expensive amp being strange, that would make sense. Can you clarify, please? And the comment about this perhaps being more difficult of a search than speakers, really sticks. Perhaps again, something reasonable now, and then use a future time to audition various components. And, by that time, I’ll likely develop a better ear as well, to be able to decide what I like and now.

Yogiboy, I had seen that on Parasound’s website, but I’m not sure how that compares to the 2100 that I had seen. Lesser, greater quality? I did seem to remember only the 2100 had HT passthrough, which is of some importance to me.

Pani, I did a google for this, and came up with Passdiy.com -- wow. Mind blower. I can’t figure all of this out, but am I understanding that Nelson Pass has built in a set of pages to help you to build your own?! Now that would be intriguing! Like the old Heathkits. I’d be totally in on doing this, and have a blast to do it. Heathkit came and went before I ever had the ability to try any of their projects, but always wanted to do it. I’m sure you were suggesting a unit made by Pass already, although I need to continue to search to find it. It would almost be very cool to have a cabinet full of equipment, with this one device being a circuit board, all bare wired and home soldered, that’s controlling the whole thing. Yeah, I built that. (I recently made a home coffee bean roaster from an old bread machine, by analyzing and selectively employing the circuit board. <grin>)
Personally I have never liked passive line stages,  so with that said I would recommend an active preamp......especially if you want to set up a home theater....for just a little more than your budget you can pick up a McCormack RLD1 which has a HT bypass and is one of the better used values out there.  There is a Parasound  Halo P3 on the bay for $600,  another good value.   You have a great amp and speakers, don't use a receiver's preouts ,  get a dedicated preamp.     
Thanks Oddiofyi, great counsel. I have seen that unit on the web, and have it in my consideration/watch list. :)  I will gratefully check out the McCormack, another name I've heard several times now, but haven't looked into. Thanks!
donzi, you are correct. I had the > turned the wrong way, should have been <$500.

There is virtually no active preamp on the site right now that would do justice for the amplifier and the speakers that you have.
There is a nice passive unit, a Sonic Euphoria PLC passive line stage for sale on Audio Asylum for $625, maybe $500 gets it. As far as fitting in with the quality of your amp and speakers, that’s probably about the best you can do.

I would still consider selling the Bryston and going the integrated amp route, or using a source with a built in volume control.
You'll regret selling that Bryston in favor of an integrated....  I have a DAC that can drive an amp and although it still sounds good, it can't drive my amp like my preamp can.  Be patient, maybe listen to a table radio a little longer and save a little more..... That amp and speakers were $$$ when new, they are worthy of a nice pre.   
Of the ones you noted, I would stick with the Bryston.

Many people like to overthink things and mix/match brands of preamps/amps.  Sometimes it works fine, but other times it's a disaster.  

It can be particularly risky with passives where I've heard plenty of combinations that SHOULD work on paper, but they don't.  Again, sometimes it works fine, but is it worth the risk???

Don't overthink things...You have an amp by Bryston that I assume you like and are keeping...why not just get the preamp from them which almost assuredly would be a good match?

The odds of you hitting a bigger home run with the mix/match route doesn't outweigh the risk of striking out, imo.

If you are looking to hit a home run or get a sizable upgrade, then I would suggest going with both ARC preamp/amps.  Otherwise, you should be just fine with Bryston in that price range.
@oddiofyl , you really need to listen to some good integrated amps before you condemn them. There are very nice units out there these days from Ayre, BAT, Pass, Hegel, Allnic, not to mention my VAC Sigma 160i that put a hurting on many separates these days.
That even address' @labtec post about running with the same brand preamp/amp.
I sold over $20K worth of separates when I heard the VAC 160i.
Sure, that is probably not a good match with the OP's Thiels, but I bet the Pass, Ayre, Hegel or BAT would drive them just fine.
Oh, and one less power cord and pair of interconnects to buy. ;^)
Donzi, I think you heard me correctly. You are in a situation where you have the potential for a great system, however currently short of funds. 
Don’t panic, Buy a used preamp that can be sold when you upgrade.  After all you can’t tell what you have without a complete system and the ability to listen comes 1st.

Your amp has an input  impedance such that it would match with most preamps, tube or solid state. 50K unbal, 30K bal.

I mated a tube preamp with a solid state amp. I like what this does for a digital system. Not saying this is what you need to do.  I would search the AG marketplace, purchase a pre that will serve you short time and when in a position to upgrade you can sell without losing many $ considering your use.

Take a look at the AG market place.


I love the Thiels, although you're pairing speakers that could potentially be described as on the "lean and bright" side (at least that's how I recall hearing them), and an amp that definitely fits that description.  You might look to a preamp that could add some warmth, fullness, and flesh to the sound.  That's a tall order for under $500.

One such option is the Marsh P2000t (which I used to own many years ago).  Or you might consider a preamp from a company such as NAD or Parasound.  Or, if you're handy with a soldering iron, consider one of the Bottlehead (vacuum tube) preamp kits to put together.  

To be completely honest, though, I'm with jmcgrorgan2 in that I think you should sell the Bryston and use the proceeds plus that $500 to get a really good integrated that mates well with your speakers.  I truly think you'll be much happier in the long run at that price point.

Otherwise, if you can save another $500-1000, you'll be able to choose preamps in an entirely different league that will fill out your system much better.

Michael
Thanks all! I've gotten a great deal from this group, and am grateful. OK, for the either now or future route, if reasonable money weren't an object, are there any additional recommendations? Michael, I am SO intrigued by the tube preamp kits. Where would, say, the 300B rank with other manufactured gear? Believe it or not, I was thinking yesterday that surely the information is out there to grab a schematic and build my own. All the better, already in kit form. This is almost a surety to try this, although I risk a grand, without having the ability to audition in, and decide if I like it. Even so, it's less than some other options that I also wouldn't audition.

You had mentioned Parasound. What about Halo P3?

And if I do sell the Bryston, what would you recommend for Integrated? And if I go the tube route, is this still your recommendation? Thanks!
@donzi , the 300B is tube usually used in SET amplifiers. The only preamp that I can think of that uses the 300B is the Manley Neo-Classic 300B.

I agree with @sufentanil that the Bryston/Thiel combo would be too bright for my tastes. However, I do understand why they make so many different flavors. Different strokes for different folks. Some people love extreme definition.

I have a friend who loves his Thiel 3.6’s. He has found the best combination to be a tube preamp (CJ), Classe amp, and Kubala Sosna cables. All of his electronics and cables have a reputation for being warm sounding, which is why they probably mate so well with his Thiels.

As for integrated amps, I don’t know that a tube integrated amp will drive these speakers properly.
I think the Thiels crave SS power. A BAT integrated may give you the taste of tubes though, with a SS output stage (150 wpc). Pass Labs INT-150 is also very popular, though no tubes are used.

Also, how large your room is and how loud you like to listen will determine how much power you need. Will the 125 wpc of an Ayre AX-5 be enough? Or do you need the 250 wpc of a Hegel H360, or maybe even the 400 wpc of the CODA CSiB or Jeff Rowland Design Group Continuum S2? Only you can make that decision.

Happy hunting,
John
Donzi-

I would buy a Bryston pre-amp. If you want to go into tubes- Audio research (ARC).  Keep me posted & Happy New Year!
Would this Dared 2a3c one be amp or preamp? And this Bottlehead BeePre 300B is preamp, right? If they are both pre's, I wonder how they compare? 
The Bottleneck thing really has my attention, and I would seriously consider that model. Compatible with the Thiels and Brystons, do you think? It's got three inputs, though, I and really need four. Can one pigtail the lesser two quality components and get away with this? And second question, might it be possible to add a set of RCA's and go directly to speaker output, to create my own HT passthrough? Or does that kind of thing really screw with the whole design?
I'm reading that the imput impedance of the Brystons is 50k/20k for direct/balanced. That BeePre output is 500/1000 for direct/balanced. So it would seem that (using what I read as a 10x factor) it would be acceptable for either with a computed minimum of 5k/10k amp input -- so on that count, if I both understand and do the computation correctly, the Brystons would work. (?)

And finally (wow, the questions never end), what's the wisdom on Balanced vs. Direct end? 

There are a couple of low end Bryston pre's that I'm looking at, such as this 0.5B. Would this be too low end? Or do you suspect that this actually would be a good match as you're suggesting? And if not, which are the ones you might suggest?

My room is about 27 x 37 x 9, with rug, combined dining room/living room. So the listening half is the right half of that space, with the listening area about halfway back. So large-ish, it would seem, for power needs. 
For any who may be interested, I got this preamp via auction. It's at least a good start, and may serve me for a decent point into the future. I am still highly interested in the possibility of building a tube pre, particularly in light of the discussion as to the clarity/sharpness of both the Thiels and Brystons. (Bryston, btw, was the brand that the current Thiel people recommended when I contacted them. So, in all events, I think I have all the parts now, and we shall see.) I'm actually excited about getting this all plugged in now, particularly after reading an old review on Thiel last night.

I'm still curious for the thoughts on the Bottlehead, and that specific model and how it might rank relative to others. And for the thoughts on Direct end vs Balanced, as I now need to cable the whole thing. And on that count, what do you collectively think of Monoprice as a cable source? 7mm solid copper.
First choice would be Audio Research LS3, second the John Curl designed Parasound Pl/d2000 or Pl/d1000, the Adcom GFP750 is another contender. All should be available used for around five bills with the pl/d1000 being about half that.

Donzi, Quicksilver makes a small tube pre-amp that is both relatively inexpensive (especially if you get one that isn't a remote control model) and of pretty good quality. And it might put some flesh on those bare bones sounds you will get out of your Bryston/Thiels units. At least that will give you some kind of an indication of what you system will sound like with a good pre-amp. And, after hearing that you can make upgrades to improve on it if necessary. And if you don't like it and think you can do better it should be easy to sell. FWIW I agree with jmcgrogan whose comments reflect my experience with the Thiels. Personally, in your place I would buy an Integrated Amp with good current and modest power (note my comments in a previous post about power requirements) and forgo all of the torture you will endure in trying to put together a competent system at this stage of your audio experience. Even if you were moderately experienced in audio and audio equipment I think you would find what you are doing as daunting and frustrating. 

I would also suggest that you do some reading about  Audio so you can better understand what is going on in selecting equipment, setting it up and evaluating what you have accomplished. I recommend Robert Harleys book, "The complete guide to high end audio". 

Good luck




Congrats! Enjoy your audio/video processor!
@donzi, you're all over the map here.  My best recommendation would be to establish a relationship with a local dealer and borrow a variety of equipment so you can listen to the differences for yourself and best figure out what you tend to prefer sonically.  I think this advise will save you a tremendous amount of time and money in the future.

That said, I think the Thiels are excellent speakers, but difficult for all but the more high-powered tube amps to drive well.  Those tube amps won't be available at the price point that you'd be looking at, so that leaves solid-state amplification.

If I were to recommend an integrated, I'd think the Plinius 8000 or 9000 series would be a good choice, but consider also Classe, Electrocompaniet, NAD master-series, Yamaha AS-2000, or one of the older Musical Fidelity integrateds, just to list a few.

Ultimately, though, audio preference is a personal thing, and you will likely find your own preferences will evolve over time.  So the more equipment you're able to listen to, the most informed you will be both in terms of the differences (or lack thereof sometimes) of the various electronics, but also what you tend to like sonically.

Good luck, and enjoy the journey!

Michael
I just picked up a Bryston 11b (same family as the 0.5b, but with more features).  It is replacing a Pass DIY B1 buffer which "pani" suggested.  I also have an Aikido tube preamp I purchased on Agon.  All of the above were purchased for sub-$400.  I'm running a Belles 400 power amp and Klipsch Fortes.

All three preamps sound good.  I was running the Pass over the Aikido because the sound was cleaner and to my ear, more involving.  The Aikido has more euphonics and texture, but to the point of distracting me from enjoying the music itself.  It was more natural to toe-tap with the Pass than it was with the Aikido.

With the Bryston, I'm getting a more pleasing form factor, a nicer (for me, at least) volume setup and a built-in phono stage.  I didn't do extensive side-by-side testing, but I believe the Bryston is more similar to the Pass than it is to the Aikido.

If you have a limited budget, I don't think it's a bad thing at all to buy a 0.5B and use it until you have more funds to upgrade.  If you buy well, you'll at least break even, as Brystons hold their value well.
Thanks hanfrac, Nice unit! I found it interesting that you felt the sound better out of this Bryston than a tube preamp. I had understood that tube usually added warmth to the system (a bit of a concern for me, as both my speakers and amp are known to be "accurate".) I ended up getting this unit, but had a bid in on a Bryston 0.5B. I didn't chase it aggressively, as I knew that preamp was already on the way. But, especially in light of all of that, your experiences are fascinating. 

Part of the reason I went with Bryston is that this is what the people at Thiel recommended for those speakers when I called them. For sure, this is all subjective, but as a new member of audio, I figured theirs was good advice to get. But then again, I'm told that they're both bright.

Another preamp I'm considering is this one, based on a recommendation earlier here. For sure, this is a future upgrade; but the idea of building my own simply fascinates me. --And, I was hoping, the tubes would add warmth. Perhaps not always, based on your experience. And perhaps as the Thiel rep said, Bryston/Bryston might be the way to go with amp and pre. Bright + bright + bright. Who knows, maybe that's the way it was designed to be.

I just picked up the speakers yesterday, and none of the rest of the stuff is here yet. So I'm anxious to plug it all together and see what I have -- and begin the process of hearing and listening. And perhaps, fine tuning as time goes on. Someone else here also said some wonderful advice, that, in his opinion, the preamp was a harder purchase than the speakers. Certainly this is not something that I can chase with continual purchases to try it. So, thanks again for the recommendations and thoughts!
I talked to engineer at Bryston and he said BP-6 thru- 20 series pre's were all basically the same .
But not BP 0.5 or BP 1, I would presume? Good info. Would you imagine that staying within a brand is generally a better, more compatible way to go, in terms that they know what they're trying to achieve end-to-end?
Donzi what preamp did you get? Your ebay link wasn't active.
@jond , Donzi bought the Theta Digital Casablanca 6-Channel Preamp Processor.

You are in a great position to try a silk tvc. You can tame the amp with proper interconnects.


@jond , if you scroll down, you'll see the details below the top stuff. 

I like the thought, expressed here I earlier think, that buying the preamp is as hard as the speakers. Surprisingly to me, although budget is not unlimited, I find myself a little bit expecting a process of buy-play-try. I anticipate, as long as I keep to auction and used, I can try, and recycle, and not get hurt too badly. Although surely the best is to find a local dealer who can demo this element is best, I think that's going to be hard in my area.

I expect to receive amp and pre within a few days. I'm looking forward to plugging this in and beginning this new life of audio!
A used Quad 99 is pretty decent and has useful tone controls for helping Internet radio out a bit ☺

I'm a huge fan of the AMC CVT1030 tube preamp which can be a bargain on the used market. They usually need a bit of work but are very satisfying. I know these units inside out if you ever get one and need advice. 
There are lots of opinions and there are some people who hear more things than others and people who prefer some sound personalities to others.  No one here is going to be able to tell you which preamp work best with your amp, speakers, sources, etc. without guessing or without putting their personal tastes into your system.

You have some expensive, demanding speakers.  You got a well-respected amp.  If you bought a $300-500 Bryston preamp, you might love it, you might not.  But just because someone tells you that tubes add warmth doesn't mean that warmth is necessarily a good thing or that tubes are better.  My Aikido preamp is not a high-end tube preamp, but it does add a certain sound personality.  I went back and forth between it and the Pass endlessly before settling on the Pass.  I may go back to the tube pre one day, but for now, I'm perfectly happy with a simple, easy-to-use solid state setup.

Based on how you've been in this thread, I suspect you are at the beginning of months or years of buying, trying, selling, trading, building. 
Look in an Andire  Diffet 2 preamp. Used within your low budget but vary neutral with abilities you need. Not well known but built in USA and good owner. I owned one and their Forte power amp. It was a good combination, but ultimately upgraded the amp twice before I needed a better preamp.
I’d recommend a TVC passive as it’s going to avoid most of the issues with impedance matching, will give you a very very low noise floor (prob most important quality for a preamp) and unlike other passives, they are still revealing at low volume levels (if you’re in an apartment, for ex). It also won’t need a socket.. no power cord). $500 preamps w/ AC power supplies are usually nasty sounding devices. Back to TVC, at around your price range.. the only ones you might want to consider are the Mingda TVC passives available on eBay. For the higher end I’d recommend a used Stereoknight or the newer similar version made by Audio Music (the RS).. it’s fully balanced. but for $350-$700, Mingda makes both a single-ended version and a balanced (XLR) version with two volume controls. You may not find it on eBay.. but just message them there. Fyi, these are simple devices.. so integration with home theatre will still require an additional ht processor device with ’pass through’ if you’d like to use multiple inputs/sources, but in general TVC’s will give you your best bang for buck. Another option is to pick up a used Rogue Metis for under $700 (stick with stock replacement tubes from Rogue). If you need it, the Rogue with thicken your musical stew in a good way. For transparency, a TVC will give you the cheapest most non-degrading volume control possible for the least $.

I agree with the posters who suggested you get a cheap place-holder until you can get something that will do justice to your fine amp and speakers.  The preamp is, IMHO, second only to the speakers in determining the sound quality of your system.  One thing I get from your posts is that you seem to be equating tubes with warmer, better sound.  That is not always true, which is why an audition - in your home, with your system - is so crucial.  I would look for a good used Rotel pre, with tone controls.  While the Rotel probably will not bring out all your amp and speakers have to offer, it is more or less neutral in tonal balance, so you can see what a solid state pre does to the tonal balance in your system.  If you find yourself adjusting the tone controls in order to enjoy the music more, you need to either eventually find a preamp that compliments your system's tonal balance better, or select a better preamp that also has tone controls or EQ (McIntosh, Classe, others).


I have been very happy with my McIntosh C220 tube-hybrid pre for the last 5 years.  It offers complimentary tonal balance to my system, and does everything else pretty well, with great flexibility and features.  Horses for courses, as they say.


As for Monoprice, this is a good source for non-critical cables, like ethernet cables, but other budget sources for cables might offer better performance, such as Blue Jeans Cables.  I am not looking to start a flame war here, but cables should be compared in your home with your system.  Go with the cheapest cable that does not seem to harm sound quality.  For this you need a decent amount of time for a home trial.  I personally don't belileve in spending a fortune on cables, but something above the very basic stuff Monoprice sells will probably offer better performance that you will hear.  Like with the preamp, if you want to go up-market on the cables, get some place-holders from Monoprice or Blue Jeans to tide you over.  These will also provide a good way to compare pricier cables when your budget permits an upgrade.


It took me many years of very selective and carefully considered upgrades (many items bought used) to reach the point where upgrades are something I would only do if I suddenly had a lot more disposable income than I do currently.  I have a very budget-friendly system that I enjoy listening to for long listening sessions whenever I get the chance.  When I listen, I simply enjoy, with no nagging feeling that this or that aspect of the sound could be better to ruin my pleasure.  I've heard many pricier systems that I would not trade my own for.  But that is the result of luck, careful, well-researched (and opportunistic) purchases, and critical auditioning.

Congratulations on the Bryston and Thiels. My Buddy has that amp and the matching preamp. I have Audire and they are certainly comparable.

eBay currently has an Audire Legato or $175.  I don't know of any other brand that compares with this preamp or less than $500, unless you get really lucky and/or find an Audire Diffet 2 or 3. I would imagine a B&K would be good (I have their truly excellent sounding tuner.), but I have never heard any thing else from them.

Bryston is very good, but due to national marketing, compared to Audire's limited market. the name costs a lot more.

I will tell you some preamps we have tried that sounded really bad with our Audire and Bryston amps: GAS Thoebe, Rotel, SAE, and Phase Linear/Carver (Not too bad, just not worth the money).

Although I never had a preamp from them, I immediately sold a Sumo amp I tried out. GAS and Sumo had the same designer. His Thoebe preamp was rotten to the core with the Audire or Bryston.

Brands like GAS, Hafler, and Phase Linear were designed well, but manufactured by the lowest bidder, whereas Bryson and Audire were made in house with the designers' overseeing production.

A small step up (from my somewhat limited experience) would be Theta, Threshold, Bedini or Mark Levinson, but they are overkill for your Bryston. I love Audio Research, but it is out of my price range. 

NAD and Adcom  have good names, and I liked my NAD amp OK, but sold it for a second Audire. The NAD was clean and relatively powerful, but did not separate the instruments from each other, while the GAS, Rotel, and Adcom preamps I tried were not good sounding at all.

Since John Curl designed some Adcom stuff as well as Mark Levinson which I have owed, I would imagine the Adcom pieces he did are good, but my experience with their preamp was not good, soundwise.


Regarding your quest for cables, I generally buy used ones found on Ebay or here on AG.  Sometimes new when sold at discount.

I use Audioquest for interconnects, starting with lessor expensive ones and worked my way toward better.

Music Direct is selling AQ diamondbacks starting at $55 for a 0.5 M pair. You might try these between pre and amp and CD player and pre. 

I have purchased on Ebay some Esoteric USA interconnects that seemed to be will designed/made and truly inexpensive.

Check out Blue Jeans Cables for speaker cables. 



There is a Parasound P-3 Pre for sale here on AG. Asking price is $450. Might be one you could use until you upgrade and sell without much loss.
Thanks all, for all your thoughtful and detailed comments. It's incredibly helpful, and I've started a new bookmark folder just for these suggestions. A world of information here! Thanks a ton!
A used Placette Remote volume control would offer the highest performance possible in a passive in this price range. The Bryston has 1.3v input sensistivity setting which would help overcome any passive limitations. The use of a passive also depends on your sources. If the source has enough oomph the Placette will give incredible dynamic and bass performance along without blurring the sound with an additional gain stage (engineering seems to fall down in the area of passives, but oomph might be voltage output and lower output impedance). If your sources have oomph, I'd put a Placette on the used shopping list and check it out. This model only has one input and one output, but other flavors of Placette are possible that add features including balanced connection.
I use I used a McCormack MAP1 that has 2 sets of 6 in/6 out and 3 stereo sets of inputs. Totally passive and very clean for the price. I used a Bryston 9 bst and a powered sub with very good results. Obviously I had to settle for 5.1 sound on movies. The 2 channel was better than any pre/pro I had, and I tried a few. My source was an Oppo which did all of the prrocessing and I used the better stereo outs on the Oppo directly in to one of the stereo inputs on the McCormack. 5.1 SACD sounded good too. They come up on Agon rarely, but are pretty reasonably priced, around $700.