Reference quality line stage?

I'm planning the purchase of the last line stage I'll ever need (as distinct from the last one I'll ever buy...). It's going to be used for two-channel stereo only. It will sit between my Audio Note 4.1x Balanced Signature and a pair of Wavelength Triton Blue monoblocks driving Coincident Total Victory speakers. My opportunities for auditioning units in the price range I'm looking at are severely limited, which is why I'm asking for thoughts here.

My musical tastes run the gamut: orchestral, chamber, jazz, rock, folk, blues, even some alt country. My audio tastes are decidedly single ended triode: I like music that's palpable, fleshy, detailed, open, dynamic, extended and just plain real.

I'm looking for a line stage that's going to give me everything with as little fuss and attention as possible. My mechanical requirements are simple. My minimum configuration would be: single ended, three inputs, one output. I need about 10db of gain. Remote volume control would be nice but not essential. Anything beyond that (balanced operation, remote source selection, tape outputs, HT capability etc.) is OK if it doesn't compromise the fundamental quality of the unit.

The price range I'm looking at is $10K to $15K USD. I have no preference for new or used. The short list at the moment includes the Blowtorch, the VTL 7.5 and the Aesthetix Callisto Signature. I'm a bit hesitant about the Callisto, frankly, because of the number of tubes - it looks to me like there's too much potential for care and feeding problems down the road.

Any thoughts on my three candidates or suggestions for others I should consider are welcome.
First Sound Presence References and Paramounts. They are unknown, but soundwise, difficult to beat. Even retail they are outstanding, as simple as they can come, with minimum amount of tubes (4) and massive and at your price range, maybe mono power supplies. Fully mono construction.
I second the First Sound Deluxe II. The models can be progressively upgraded to Emmanuel's top-of-the-line model. Only four tubes. Roll the stock tubes (which sound excellent by the way) with NOS Siemens 7308's and you're ready for anything.

VAC also has a new Renaissance preamp that offers balanced circuitry and remote. Something else to consider.
VAC Renaissance Signature should definately be on your shortlist and if you're willing to try solid state, think about the Linn Klimax Kontrol. It offers everything you need and sounds absolutely fabulous, more like a top-notch tube line stage rather then a solid state design.

Many feel the Lamm L2 is the best sounding preamp available, irrespective of price (it lists for +/- $13,600, incidentally). It is single-ended, has dual volume controls and no remote. It is a solid-state design with a tube-regulated outboard power supply.

Of the others mentioned, the top VAC preamps are supurb.

I have a Rowland Coherence II, which is lovely, but it ain't a Lamm.

Good luck.
You should take a look at the Gryphon Sonata Allegro. Probably the best preamp I've heard in that price point. Another great one is the Classe Omega.
1st choice YBA signature ,2 big power sup..nagra is close 2nd ... can you say ,TRANSPARENT ??????
Hello Glider,

The Blowtorch is fantastic. Best solid state preamp I've ever heard, and quite possibly the best regardless of type. Nope, I don't sell 'em.

You might also want to consider the Atma-Sphere MP-1, which it just so happens I do sell (surprise, surprise). Very lively with superb inner harmonic detail. Let me know where you're located and I'll try to arrange an audition for you.

But if you don't get the Atma-Sphere, get the Blowtorch.

My $.02,

If you're considering the Blowtorch, make sure that your sources have a relatively high level of output. From what i can remember, the Blowtorch doesn't have as much gain and you may have a hard time driving an insensitive amp to full ouptut with a weak source or very quiet recording. This would be something to talk to Bob Crump or John Curl about. It is a worthy contender so long as you can meet the above criteria. Sean
Just a thought if you DON'T get a Blowtorch: try a transformer coupled attenuator "passive" pre. I know you're aiming at 10db gain -- but do you REALLY need it with very sensitive speakers (95-96db/1m/2,83V??) & high output 300B's? If your amp's input impedance is benign (47kOhm?) and the source output is reasonable (say 2V) as Sean notes, you could be happy playing the source near direct into the amps.
Wavac makes these (at a price) -- so does a Swiss company (at swiss prices!).
Moreover, if you'd consider a kit, you can even get silver-wounded trannys for attenuation WITH a 6db step-up. At least one A'gon member is happy with such a kit from diyhifisupply.
Again, just a thought...
Sean, the CTC Blowtorch has 8db of gain single ended and 14db balanced. This has ALWAYS been enough gain in stock configuration so don't know where you are getting your information.....It is easy enough to allow more gain if the customer needs it by changing one resistor, but nobody has ever needed it.....The unit does not like driving amplifiers with input impedances under 20K is the only caveat and we offer an output buffer, but haven't sold a unit with this feature either......

Bob Crump, Proprietor
TG Audio/CTC Builders
Thanks for the ideas and suggestions, everyone. Digging up information about some of the candidates I hadn't considered has really helped focus my thoughts.

A couple of things became clear to me in the process. On is that there are a lot of very, very good line stages out there at this price point. The second is that given that sound quality is not so much of an issue, philosophical considerations play a major role in the decision.

I'm a bit of a hair-shoirt guy. I like designs that are totally focussed on sound quality, and I dislike designs that try to be all things to all people. Too many features turn me off. I've always believed that you get a better outcome if you decide up front to completely satisfy a limited set of criteria rather than trying to broaden your customer base as much as possible.

Given that understanding, the choice was simple. Curl, Thompson and Crump are getting my money.

Now all I have to do is wait...
A couple of last comments:

Sean, when I connect my DAC directly to my amps, the sound level is about where I normally listen, or a wee bit more. While that's OK, it doesn't leave much room for CDs with low recording levels, or the occasional bout of headbanging. So I decided on a bit of gain. The Blowtorch's 8db should be plenty.

Gregm, thanks for the TVC suggestion. I've already got one - a Bent Audio NOH. In a development that surprised me no end, it was summarily demoted to the TV system by my Audion. While the NOH is very nice tonally, in my system it rolled off the bass and lacked dynamics and focus. When I got it I was very enthusiastic (you can see my rave review over on AA). In comparison to my SimAudio P-5 it was a musical revelation, but the Audion let me know that much better results were possible.
Bob: First of all, i had no idea what the rating of the Blowtorch was in terms of gain.

I based my statements on the interaction between a Blowtorch and an amp rated at 200 / 400 with a factory rated input impedance of 24K. Using a one box CD player as a source, the volume control on the Blowtorch had to be cranked near maximum to obtain "reasonable" spl levels. Even at this volume setting, the sound was not punchy or dynamic. I didn't pass judgment on the Blowtorch in terms of sonics as the rest of the system was not of the same calibre as the Blowtorch itself. Having said that, the lack of gain was apparent in this specific set-up, so i thought that i would pass this information on based on this experience.

While i know that you guys / CTC would bend over backwards to take care of a customer based on past experiences dealing with you, $10K+ is a lot of money to spend on something that could be initially quite disappointing. That's why i suggested talking to either you or John PRIOR to purchasing one of these units to get the low-down. NO offense to you or your product, just trying to be helpful and honest. If i thought it wasn't worthy, i wouldn't have bothered to suggest such things. Hope you and any others interested in a Blowtorch understand where i'm coming from. I was NOT "knocking" the Blowtorch.

Having said that, I appreciate your honesty in terms of clarifying that your product ( like all others ) should be electrically compatible with those connected to it. Many other manufacturers would simply sell a product knowing that it wouldn't work well in a given situation and then tell the customer that they must have a cable based problem. I'm glad that CTC acknowledges component / system diversity and offer a suitable "real world" solution to such problems based on proper engineering. Sean
Sean, the 24K input impedance is OK as won't drop much, if any gain, there......Sounds like the amp only had 20db of gain instead of 28.3db which has become a standard of sorts.......Running balanced into 100k amp impedance with 28.3db of gain from a 2v out DAC I run the volume at 10:30 or so into 89db speakers here.....Running the unit single ended into 50K I run the pots at 12 O'Clock and was how I set it up five years ago. Easy to get more gain if necessary......Bet that was at the dance club in Desplaines, Illinois which was a huge and very boomy room about the size including height of a basketball court......Not sure the Chicago Symphony could fill that room much less anything for use in a home HiFi :-)
Save $7k to $12k and buy a H-Cat. Nothing else comes close.
Tbg, how would you know? You have never had the bulk of preamps mentioned in this thread, including ours, in your system. Norm, your priorities are also different than the original poster as you have always thrived on leading edge at the expense of a proper stage including depth.....Your system will just about recreate a drum in your room whereas most of us prefer to be taken to the site of the recording.....
I used to own a First Sound Deluxe MKII and found that the timbre of the music to be so natural and the dynamics second were very extended.I found the tube amp to be very reliable and the build Quality first rate, also Emmanuel is a true gentleman and a real pleasure to do business with.If you like great dynamics and soundstaging then look at the Presence ( very few used ones out there). I am sure that there are a lot of great preamps at this price range so talk to some manufactures and see who is willig to work with your current system-Take care Dennis
Rcrump, you have always insisted that is my goal, not I. I have listened to the Blowtorch and have had many top preamps in my very resolving system, all I am really suggesting is that the original poster should listen to this unit. He will know what to do on hearing it. You should come up for a listening. I think even you would be impressed..
You already have a great Dac and transport. Why not get an Audio Note preamp to match. The Audio Note gear is designed to go together. The more you have the better it sounds including the cables.
Khaki8 - I thought about the Audio Note preamps. The M6 would be in the price range I'm looking at, but somehow it just doesn't do it for me. The Blowtorch is an all-out, balls-to-the-wall assault on SOTA, and that really resonates with me. Besides, I just like the idea of helping feed Bob Crump's audio jones...
Lamm l2 , me too
BVaudio preamplifier has it all! Attention and detail is incredible. check their website
Joule-Electra LA 150 lS.
If you are looking for the last line stage you will ever need, you should really look into a Tube Research Labs GTP-4.
Bob: Yes, that was where i heard the Blowtorch. Personally, i didn't think that the room there was phenomenally large or that an amp that was rated at 200 / 400 would be too small to fill the room with sound. Obviously, one would need reasonably efficient speakers to achieve this but i don't think that high spl's in a room that size is out of the question.

Given that the spl level was far from being "loud" at any point in time, and i was sitting very close to the speakers, i have to wonder how much output was actually coming out of the preamp. Given that i am QUITE familiar with the specific make / model of the amp in question, i know that the lack of gain or output didn't have anything to do with it. To be quite honest though, the CD player being used was somewhat on the low side of output. With a gain rating on the Blowtorch of 8 dB's, even a 1 volt signal from the CD player should have resulted in 6+ volts of output capability. Given that the amp has an input sensitivity rating of 1.3 volts through the RCA's and 0.65 volts in balanced mode, we could not understand why the gain control on the Blowtorch had to be "cranked" way up.

As a side note, i can't remember if the Blowtorch was being run in balanced or single-ended mode. The amp in question has an input impedance of 15K per leg as measured to ground in balanced mode compared to a factory rating of 24K with RCA's. I do know that other preamps that i've used with the same make / model of amplifier were able to drive the amp into saturation quite easily, but at the same time, they too required slightly higher volume settings than with some other amps. Sean
Sean, I did a demonstration four years ago in that estimated 22 x 45 x 12 room with the Blowtorch using some 100w Atma-Sphere amps driven single ended into some Swans speakers and had no problem filling the place using both CDs and Vinyl......Better look elsewhere for the lack of gain as there have been no changes in the preamp.....Pots have a range of 65db BTW and are full open at 6 O'Clock on the dial rather than 5 O'Clock which would be the norm.....
Why not try a Monarchy Audio 22c with piggyback dacs? It is
available for (gulp) $850 from Monarchy Audio right now. It also has a built-in Monarchy 10a preamp.

I've heard their setup compared with Levinson, Pass, Krell, and CJ, and I was amazed that Monarchy could EASILY have priced this unit at $7-10k without blinking an eye. (Stereo reviewers would not have blinked, either. Their products are THAT good.) What sets Monarchy apart is that they DON'T gouge folks simply because they make such goog equipment.

If you can afford a $15k pre, why not audition the 22c dac/pre? It will certainly be a small price if you don't like it (heck, you can sell it on Audiogon if you don't like it). Trust me; I will never go back to my seperates again.