BTW, nothing is set in stone...just soliciting ideas.
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If nothing is 'set in stone' ditch the 'balanced' concept and just get another Lamm!
I might be wrong but I asssume that - 1)Balanced systems are a hard-core audiophile concept for those willing to explore diminishing returns and 2) No hard core audiophuile is going to want laidback highs and upper mids because that will reduce 'percieved' imaging and speed. Just a guess of course. :-)
FWIW, by way of example, I just 'gave up' deep powerful bass' and extended highs in a tube amp using some favorite 6550's and KT88's and inserted some very humble KT88's with softer highs and less powerful bass. Maybe it just synergy but my sound is much more 'musical' (natural) with the cheapie tubes. Go figure.
PS I realize you don't have a tube amp, that was only by way of illustration that there may be more than one way of skinning a kitty.
Well if you're not set entirely on tubes... how 'bout John Atkinson's new reference: the Parasound Halo JC2? Designed by John Curl and Bob Crump of CTC Blowtorch fame. John loved the "silky highs" when driving a Boulder 860 and mentions it's better mated with warmer amps.
Well the obvious answer is the Lamm L2 Reference. (It has balanced outputs.) The sound should be very similar. (I say "should", because I have not heard the LL2 Deluxe, but I have heard the L2 Reference a few times, and its sonics are somewhat the way that you describe.)
I would think that you'd want to stick with tubed units, as they tend to be more laid back than solid state units. (Although, technically, the Lamm L2 is a solid state unit, but with a tubed power supply. Go figure, huh?!)
Probably correct. I should not have used the word reference as an adjective.
I suppose I'm interested in some coloration, rather than the Absolute Sound. So, all suggestions are welcome.
Since I run 30 foot interconnects, I assume balanced is preferable to single ended, which is why I mentioned balanced as a criteria.
"I assume balanced is preferable to single ended".
It sure is if a long run of IC generates some noise from RFI. Unless you have 'fully balanced' components though I don't know how much you would gain, sans RFI noise (assuming proper electrical matching). Have you actually had a chance to compare balanced v non balanced? FWIW, in view of your experience with and preference for the Lamm, unless I had an extant noise problem I'd pass on fully balanced circuitry or just the facility to use balanced IC's.
BTW, another FWIW, there is always a tradeoff in component selection and/or design, and I think the most ellusive one is any component that has both tight/deep bass, lifelike mid-range qualties, and slightly soft (rolled) upper mids/highs. You can get any one of these three segments by itself but usually tight bass and brightish upper-mids/highs or rolled highs/mids and slower bass seem to go together, kinda immutable - the exact reason so many folks pass on both and just go for the mid-range. BTW, for myself I've always been interested in the Joule, Herron and Lamm stuff - but the stock market hasn't been kind to me this year! :-( Maybe in the next year or two. :-)
my experience suggests you will not find such a preamp in production in 2008. coloration is what most designers try to avoid.
consider vintage preamps, such as cj, mfa, and audio research. you have more information and experience than most of us, so you are probably aware of the usual suspects, i.e., products of the 80's and 70's. it is possible that you don't want to go there. if that is the case, perhaps you could consider shindo preamps. i have not heard them, but, if i were searching for a current preamp, i would want to hear one.
just one more thing. i have never found lamm products particularly warm or tube like in the classic sense. i have auditioned many systems using lamm amps and preamps. with the exception of one, they have sounded closer to truth than beauty. the one exception was lamm with tannoy speakers at a stereophile show in ny about 4 years ago.
Few that exhibit such a coloration in the upper middle range & treble incorporated 2A3 R-ing tube ( I just sold such a preamp to a friend of mine - very sweet. However, it needed some work & tube rolling to get the best out of it. I didn't want to bother. ) could be coincidence....It will be very difficult to find (100%) what you are looking for. When you are going to find the closest match , you could possibly placed it in the hands of trusted modder/technician to fine-tune it to your taste(or)needs.
Esoteric Audio Research 864 or maybe the newer 868, I owned the 864, with two tubes in the line stage 1 x 12au7, 1 x 12AX7.
Rolling the 12AU7 made it very versatile to "tune" to your system, but its transformer ins AND outs were never anything less than right in the zone, quite relaxed, not limpid and the highs were exceptionally smooth without reticence.
Price is a bargain anyway you look at it...plus you get the legendary EAR phono stage thrown in !!!
They show up here with some frequency, one just sold for under 2K....good luck
Look at the McIntosh C2300.
It is laid back without loosing any detail, has MM and MC adjustable input resistance phono sections, great headphones output, bass and treble adjustment (or bypass) assignable by input, HT pass-thru, 3 outputs per channel (for bi-amping or connection to a sub), looks amazing with the tubes glowing through the glass top and famous blue meters.
I have yet to find a flaw in its design. I love mine.
I'll take the contrarian tact as usual, Grant, along the lines of something that I know you and I agree on. In this instance, I would look into solid state preamplifiers.
For one, I think this is a better combination than the conventional wisdom of tube preamplifier/solid state power amplifier. The better solid state preamplifiers are far more likely to be more laid back and relaxed in the upper mids and treble, whereas tubes can be described as more lively and forward - "engaging" in the best scenarios, and bright in the less good ones.
Solid state preamplifiers are also more likely to offer balanced operation. Of course, one thing to always check is whether a component is truly balanced, as opposed to simply offering XLR input/output jacks.
For what it's worth, trying to turn things down a notch or two in the upper mids/treble is often just as easily accomplished by attacking the room. Finally, the most usual suspect in my opinion/experience is the loudspeaker crossover, especially, in today's loudspeakers.
I used to run a 32' Purist Dominus RCA IC from an Aesthetix Callisto Sig to CAT JL-3 amps and there was not a hint of hum or noise. So keep the non-balanced option open indeed.
But if you do become set on a balanced product, the Callisto Sig meets your requirement to a T.
As for going back to 1980s vintage gear, once you get used to the refinements of newer products, i.e., low-level resolution and clarity, often due to the significant improvements in passive parts, it's REALLY tough to let that go.....no matter how much "warmth" or "bloom" or other distortions we liked so much before. Relaxed or mellow upper frequencies do not have to come at a cost of layers of details lost elsewhere.