Seriously considering tube preamp…opinions?


Tube virgin, here. I am building a system and I'm trying to contain the preamp/amp cost to $3k or so. (I could go up a little.) 

I'm inclined not to dive into tubes all the way through, but get a solid state on the output end. (Open to suggestions; inclined toward PS Audio, Parasound.) I'm reading around about tube preamps and have talked with my local dealer, who sells Black Ice/Jolida and Prima Luna (PL). He used to carry Rogue but said they kept coming back for repairs. That's why he carries PL.

I'm asking these questions after having established (via reviews, comments) that Schiit gear is quite the value. Lately, I've been reading about Decware and other small tube makers. I'm very curious about buying direct, if possible, and a company that stands behind their products is crucial.

So, your opinions about tube integrated or *especially* tube preamps —

1. Who do you like? Consider I want to do pre/amp for a total of $3k if possible.

2. Do you think PL is worth all that money just for a preamp? I get the feeling they're high quality but a bit over-hyped. (No disrespect to the highly passionate Kevin Deal, but he's all over my search results.) And what would you think about $2k/$1k preamp-to-amp spending ratio?

3. Any sense of what happened to Jolida since the name change to "Black Ice"? I see there's a sordid story there but did the re-branding clear up the mess? Any experiences with the Black Ice company?

4. I know there are many Schiit fans out there; so my question would be -- did anyone consider Schiit for tube preamp and go another way? Or move beyond Schiit for any particular reason? It's hard not to just capitulate and do a Freya+ or Saga+ but why wouldn't one just go with Schiit?




8700e65e 845e 4b1b 91cc df27687f9454hilde45
Check out Quicksilver. I been using QS for over 10 years and never a problem. Customer service is first class!
http://quicksilveraudio.com/preamplifiers/
In your price range, look at offerings from Modwright Instruments. Dan is a great designer and provides awesome customer service. 
Look for a used Aesthetix Calypso in your price range. Great undervalued product
Thanks! I’ll look at those. I’ve read mixed things about Vincent since production went to China but maybe those anecdotes are dismissible. The 237mkII is on my short list.

@yogiboy You using them for Pre or integrated or what?
Preamp and amp. I don't have an integrated amp!
Phono now?

Future?

If no phono now, I vote for Tube Integrated Amp now, then you get tube sound, and later, if you add phono, you add a separate tube preamp for that.

Newer units have remote volume, nice

a few have remote balance. People here are probably tired of hearing my advice, but I am a big fan of remote balance from the listening position.

it can be very hard to ascertain if a modern menu driven unit has remote balance. sometimes it has it, but hidden in sub-menus and not even listed in the specs.
I also wanted to place tubes in my system while staying with SS amplification. I started with a hybrid integrated and went to separate tube pre/SS amp. Now have a DAC with tube output stage and a tube pre feeding a SS amp. My sources are all digital. Vinyl adds complexity regarding system gain. 

The Quicksilver line stage pre mentioned by yogiboy retails at $1300. Dennis Had makes one that sells at similar price. The Schiit Freya+ seems to offer much at it's price . It can be run as a passive or supplies a lower level of gain when used in tube mode. I currently own a Jolida Fusion pre. It has served me well over the last 7 years. It has more gain than the Quicksiler or the Had.  I am not versed on the new Black Ice version. Due to the change to Black Ice the Fusion can be found discounted I believe. Originally sold for $1350.

As djones51 suggested, if you consider a hybrid integrated the Vincent would be hard to beat at your price point. Another option would be the Pathos Classic One MKIII. The Pathos provides less power than the Vincent. I have owned a Vincent SV226 MK and wish I had never sold it. I currently own a Pathos Classic One MKII. It is a showcase piece with a very smooth sound. My recollection is that the vincent maybe had a little more punch. Hard to fault either. 

When pairing separates, so much depends on the gain provided by sources/pre/amp and power requirement of speakers. An integrated simplifies this chain. Separates do offer flexibility. 

Keep us posted regarding thoughts/decisions. I wish you the best in your search.




Bias Control, look for external control, some have meters. My early Cayin A88T tube integrated Amp has internal adjustments. (I needed 16 ohm taps).

Later Cayin models, only 8 and 4 ohm taps, have external bias. I highly recommend Cayin. 

As for made in China,

this Cayin is an example of a unit designed by others (Germans I think I read), and made in China.

First thing I did was take the bottom off, WOW, Impressive!! It's gorgeous inside and out, superb build quality, sounds terrific.

Do your research and get advice as you are doing, but you shouldn't rule China or other locations out.
I suggest you look at either Don Sachs or supratek. They are within your budget and are handmade, with point-to-point wiring and are a very, very well-regarded on this forum.

Look for a thread on this forum titled. Preamp deal of the century. And look for another thread called. Don Sachs or supratek. The don Sachs is handmade in Canada. And the supratek is handmade in Australia.
^^ Similar preamps are handmade using 6SN7s here in the US for similar or less money (shipping is cheaper).
I don't have one but you might want to look at Aric Audio (US) , there are some threads on Audiogon regarding his preamps and amps
If you can stretch your budget just a touch, you may find a Line Magnetic 508ia integrated. I can't think of anything in your price range I'd prefer. The Don Sachs and Supratek recommendations are good, but out of your budget for an amp and a preamp. Good luck!
I agree with the Modwright suggestion. Not long ago, I bought a SWL 9.0 SE Line Stage that Dan had repaired with a new upgraded power supply, tube board, and MWI caps (with remote) for $1400. The result was a startlingly improvement in sound quality.

My system never sounded this good, I'm very happy. Dan is a true gentleman.

Regards,
Dan T
Impedance matching is critical for optimal sound when pairing a tube preamp with a solid state amplifier. 

I strongly encourage you to read the applicable chapters in "The Complete Guide to High-End Audio" by Robert Harley.

Do some homework, then you'll have a better foundation for a tube preamp decision.
I own the ex jolida - Black ice F35 integrated and it is very refined 
the well know Audio engineer            Jim Fosgateis designing all Black ice gear. The Amplifier looks as good as it sounds .it is retail $2200 but easily will compete with anything at 2 x its cost .
its New preamplifier has a ton of technologies in it. Only one tube 
but it more then makes up with it 
withthe many things other preamps cannot do . Their new website will be  out in a few weeks 10 Audio has done a few short reviews.
Lots to research! Thanks so much. I'll update when I can. No one's saying anything negative about PL. I assume you don't think they're overpriced. I'd like to go with a little guy... possibly... so many options!
Dehavilland Ultraverve 3 is what I have it blew my Manley Labs 300B neoclassic preamp out of the water. 
Like another poster said you MUST! Understand the input and output impedance for matching tube preamps with solid state amps.
Look up Dehavilland Electric Amplifier Co. Kara is the designer, builder CEO, CFO, chief bottle washer all of the above . She is great to deal with and has always been responive to my questions.
Happy Listening
Mark


After listening to tube and solid state preamps, I have to say there is something about tubes that make musics come alive.  It's hard to put it in words.  Check out some Conrad Johnson stuffs.
Van Alstine, Belles, DeHavilland or Modwright - they are all great so take your pick.
I moved from a NAD M12 pre/DAC NAD M22v2 power amp combo to a used Herron VTSP-3A (r02) tube pre amp and Audio Mirror Tubadour III SE DAC with the M22v2.  That combination works very well with my speakers. If you can find a used Herron in the ~2.5K, it might be worth looking into.
I had an ARC LS27 - beautiful (recently upgraded to another ARC).  I tried a Parasound Halo P-6 (solid-state), awful, lost $500 in 30 days with that piece.  I auditioned a Rogue Audio from http://crescendoaudio.net/ - a RP-7.  I think they marked the demo down to $3K with a warranty.  Sounded GREAT but would not do home theater bypass with XLR, just RCA - they said this could be fixed, but I found a used ARC in the meantime - loved the Rogue though.  There was a Cary Audio SP-5 - never heard it but sure looks cool - it was going for $3K on Ebay.
I have 4 tube amps.  All integrated amps, which I run from a DAC.  
I suggest a Sonic Frontiers Line 1, 2 or 3 as a great place to start, maybe even finish. 

https://www.stereophile.com/tubepreamps/769/index.html

And Parts Connecxion in Canada still services and repairs them.
https://www.partsconnexion.com/
I currently have a PrimaLuna EVO 300 Preamp with EVO 300 Mono Blocks in one of my systems and I love them.  I was a tube virgin myself a year ago.  I've had zero issues and I'd gladly spend the extra money for honestly, overbuilt components again. It has diminished my initial "tube phobia" greatly.  The tube sparkle and expansive soundstage is a great contrast to my other solid state system.  IMHO Kevin Deal's excitement about PrimaLuna's offerings as a whole is firmly justified. 
Aesthetix Calypso is a great buy and you can snag one for under $2500
if you can stretch your budget then look at Allnic Audio. They have the reputation of being bulletproof and the one I just bought a while back sounds fantastic.
Schiit Freya + all day long... Nothing is better in the sub 1k price range
+1 Aric Audio.  I have the Unlimited and it is a great preamp.
Given your budget why not go the integrated route.  Take look at the Raven Audio website and then call Dave Thomson, the owner.  The Raven sound is awesome.  
@hilde45 I was in the same boat as you last year. After shopping around and returning equipment I didn't like, I settled on the Modwright SWL 9.0 SE tube preamp and a Bel Canto REF 500S class D amp. I use WyWires for ICs. The synergy is great and Modwright is high quality and they have a great customer service reputation. You should def check them out. Good luck!
I had a Schiit Saga S and decided to go with a tube preamp. I was leaning toward the Freya +, in part because it had a SS option in case I decided I didn't like the tube sound. I wound up coming across a Jolida JD5T pre on sale (without being able to do a side by side comparison, my research on it suggested that it was definitely better than the Saga + but probably not as good as the Freya +). After having it for about a month, I don't regret the decision. It was significantly better than the Saga S. I'm not sure that it helps you to compare these two preamps, but the Saga S had a clean, neutral (maybe even cold) sound, while the JD5T's sound is quite warm. The Black Ice preamp looks nice -- it looks to be an updated Jolida Fusion preamp with the Foz-SSX sound stage expander built-in (I suspect the old Fusion was better than the Freya +, based solely on specs; of course, with the Freya you have the option of SS and tubes), so I suspect that it's better than the Freya + (though at about twice the cost).
Easy. Schiit Freya+ Tube pre. A pair of schiit aegir monoblock amps. Four xlr cables. Have a fully balanced differential class A, stereophile class a rated system for $2500. Add a node 2i and your in business. 
^^This man knows what he's talking about
1. It baffles me, if one can afford it, why one would NOT go tube preamp. 
2. If you are set on buying new you seem to have done a good bit of research and u can't really offer an opinion. But, if you are willing to buy used Conrad-Johnson really can't be beat and has scads of options at many price points. New would be well over $2k. 
Yours is a pretty common story, myself included.  Took the plunge into tubes some years back with a Jolida 502brc integrated and was glad I did.  Love the tube sound.  I was apprehensive at first but nothing to worry about really - piece of cake.  Most of the newer tube gear is easy to bias, some even with auto bias.  I have installed a couple new sets of tubes over the years, pretty easy.  

Then wanted to see what the fuss was with SS/tube mix so picked up a McCormack dna .5 here on Agon.  Was considering a Freya but bought a Schiit Saga + B-stock pre to go with it as a start.  Sounded great, especially for the money!  But, not especially tubey, and not enough gain IMO.  Then recently purchased a Rogue Perseus (again here on Agon) tube pre and am very happy with it.  Head and shoulders above the Saga.  But at around $1,800 brand new that should be no surprise.  Nice tube sound with the control of 100 watts of SS.  

I think a tube integrated is a great start for you.  The Primaluna stuff is nice.  Never owned any but have done several listening sessions.  Still love my Jolida.  I wouldn't ignore the Rogue gear either.  Very well made, and sounds great.  Not sure about the repairs your dealer was talking about.  I haven't heard of excessive quality issues.  If you are going the Schiit route (and it is hard to pass up for the price!) skip the Saga and get the Freya.  If you buy used you can really stretch that $3k budget.  I have less than $2k into the Mc/Rogue combo.  Bottom line: maybe just a little more work with tubes but well worth it IMHO.
@andrewkelley -- Andrew, I would appreciate if I could pick your brain a minute.  I've been in the market for a tertiary listening system in my house for about 8, long months. After much research reading, asking Forum questions, and watching YouTube videos, I'm now at the stage of convincing myself that my decision is the right choice for my current needs.  I have decided on buying Schiit Products: a Freya+, a Loki, and either a Vidar or Aegir.  I will be using them with a new Sutherland KC Vibe Phono Preamp, Klipsch Forte II speakers, and a brand new (still boxed needing to be built) Fluance RT-85 turntable or a vintage 1987 Rega P3 in mint condition.  

After reading your reply above, can you explain why you would go with Aegir over Vidar (I have asked this question several times and nobody will give an explanation why they would choose one over the other), and why would you use two set up in Mono Blocks versus using just one in standard stereo mode.  Caveat:  I know absolutely NOTHING about using amps as Mono Blocks instead of using just one amp.  I imagine it is for the purity, clarity, and drain on the component -- instead of one amp trying to serve two speaker's needs you have an amp dedicated to the left channel needs and an amp dedicated to the right channels needs.  (At its basic level, is that a pretty fundamentally correct answer?  If no, please correct me).

I appreciate your help.  I am wanting Tubes for this system, the the Freya+ is a slam dunk.  I'm just clueless on the bottom line differences between the Vidar and Aegir -- there is not much money difference but what is the product and performance differences.  As far as the Mono Block goes, you have me baffled...and not in a speaker design or room treatment way!

Again, thanks.

Allen Fields
I have gone tube preamp and SS power a class mono.... So etching about tubes in front end just sing. I'm in UK so have tried first of all a croft 25R which is amazing but in MM stage then found a SH tron Seven line preamp which bettered the croft slightly. Also changed to MC cart so have a separate more versatile phono stage. 
Again if you can demo at home that's the best solution as shop demos can be too short and you end up liking something there that makes you a bit edgy in extended listening once home again....... 
My 2p worth 



+1 for Quicksilver

great bang for the buck and a good place to start with tubes. Still have mine in my office system after moving up through ARC's and now have 5se in main system. QS still running in office system and still no issues
+1 on the Ultraverve from Dehavilland. I bought one used for less than half your budget and immediately sold my Primaluna preamp. The Ultraverve sounded much better than the PL in my system. I rolled many tubes in the PL but to me the key is the UV is a 6SN7 based unit. It made a big difference from the 12AU7 PL. Bigger, more natural sound, yet all the detail is there and more space between instruments. PL makes good products, gets all the reviews, and served me well...but Kara Chaffee’s product is much better in my system. She is great to work with on new and used gear. If you have a problem, questions, etc. with your gear, there is nothing like speaking directly with the person who designed, built, wrote the manual for, and shipped it! Just my opinion. 
I had a busy day yesterday and am catching up, following out leads in posts and thinking about it all.
While I cannot listen to many of the brands/makers being suggested, it's certainly interesting to survey the language makers use — sometimes it's tech jargon (legit and fluffy), sometimes it's a heartfelt origin story. Often, it's hyperbolic metaphor — I just read that one amp is especially focused on delivering "euphoria"! Well, sure — just throw in some "manna" and a "happy ending" and you've got my $2k!
At this point, I definitely need to just listen to what is around me here in Denver. If I decide I like tubes, it would be tricky to go for something I have not heard over what I have heard — but as many point out here, the price point and quality might be worth that adventure. More to come.
@markusthenaimnut or others — I've heard Kevin Deal say "point to point wiring" so often, I'm finding myself looking for it myself. But why is it important?

Perhaps a more general way of asking this question is —

What are the 3 or so really important build factors in a tube amp (preamp if we must narrow it down) that indicate a genuinely quality build?

@moofoo Thanks for your review -- and others about DeHavilland. Brand new, they seem to be out of my budget by a little. I want to mention that this sentence resonated: "If you have a problem, questions, etc. with your gear, there is nothing like speaking directly with the person who designed, built, wrote the manual for, and shipped it!" Indeed. And I do see that some other mfrs recommended here are also responsive. I would add -- and this may seem very irrelevant to many -- that a woman designer and owner in this industry is an interesting plus, and perhaps a good reason to support. If my daughter were to get into audio, it’d be nice for there to be some role models out there...
“While I cannot listen to many of the brands/makers being suggested”

One way to accomplish this, either plan a trip to AXPONA in April or wait until RMAF in October. 
If taking a trip is not possible then I would make a list of all of the brands being suggested and start calling the manufacturer or dealers for in-home audition. 
I understand. Once I heard the Ultraverve I contacted her to build me a modified Mercury 3 pre. She was great to work with, period. I am keeping both preamps. There are many folks like her in the industry. We read about them all the time here on A’gon. I am glad I am a music lover! A great lifestyle!
No matter what you look at or try, you will look long and hard to beat an Audio Research tube preamp.  They set the standard for the industry in the 1970's and while there are MANY other good ones out there, why mess around?

Some models are "better" than others, but I am certain that you can purchase one in your price range (used, I would guess) and you will be pleased forever.

I suggest you get one that has a phono stage unless you would never consider playing vinyl.

Other than that, enjoy the MUSIC, since that is what is all about.

Cheers,

Richard
@lalitk Good point. I live in Denver, so it's not a stretch to wait for RMAF. Of course, "the waiting is the hardest part." (RIP Tom Petty).
@moofoo I just took a second look at her website; it seems like the lowest price preamp is $2495 — without a remote and possibly without tubes (that wasn't clear). I have an inclination to buy new from manufacturers rather than scour used sites, not only to reduce the risk of buying a lemon, but also to support the maker. (I'm not rolling in dough, but I think people need to be paid for excellent work. Then again, if they're too pricy…). So, it may be that her preamps are out of my league, given that I also need to get a power amp.
@richopp I'll look at Audio Research. The suggestion to not "mess around" makes sense — of course, much of the testimony above is advising ways to avoid that with other manufacturers! Oy, what a first world problem! Thanks though for your two cents. I'll look into AR.
@hilde45,
The Backert Labs Rhumba 1.3 should work very well for you. This is a "preamp only" company.

aegir would be the one to get if you have very efficient speakers, something above 92db or so. If you buy Aegirs with inefficient speakers you will be much more likely to clip. Vidars should do a better job driving inefficient speakers (200 watts per channel into 4 ohms).

SQ wise, from what I understand, Aegir is more articulate/airy in the highs, where Vidars is less so but may provide more bass impact. as always YMMV.
personally i would by a used CJ or ARC. CJ for unbalanced and ARC for balanced connection. i would not buy an unknown brand as you’d be buying a boat anchor when reselling. IMO