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

Showing 50 responses by hilde45

Short answer:
Total system = $11-12k max.
Amplification = $5-6k max

Longer answer: I agree that I'm indicating ambivalence. Here's where I am, budget wise — I have shifted above my initial budget above $3k because of:

(a) desire for tubes, possibly all the way
(b) desire not to be buying again in 5 years
(c) desire for headroom
(d) desire for quality

This dialogue and other research has helped me establish these criteria as necessary and has indicated that the picking might be slim in the sub-$3k region. Maybe not, but I'm sensing that.

My ambivalence stems from concerns about overkill. I have gotten more comfortable with $5k on amplification if no overkill. I'd love to meet the above criteria for less -- but again, no overkill.

What is overkill, you ask? I'd say that until I find myself deep in this hobby 5 years from now, I will not be spending more than $11-12k total on this system. I don't want to get into a long discussion about proportions of spending (I'm reading the Harley book, I've seen lots of pissing matches on this topic); I'm grounded in the fact that I have heard speakers and a sub I like that will run to about $3500-$4000.

That said, I won't spend more than $6k. I cannot believe that given where I am with this hobby, that'd be necessary or something that would sit right with me. And as you can see, going so quickly to nearly double my upper limit of $3k has made me nervous. But I can get there w/ the right criteria and deal.

Thanks! I am not sure. I'll correspond with you off this thread.
Van alstine not high, eh?
@tvad  Wow! I cannot do an all tubes amplification combo for a 84db bookshelf for 5-6k? That's not total system cost, just amplification. Hmmm. 
@tvad , all: I went back and read the last few pages of this long thread and really appreciate all the advice. I do regret that in some ways, my posts occasionally ran people in circles — reiterating good advice to me that had already been given, with sufficient clarity! My apologies.

* I now have a very, very short list of tube amps to drive inefficient speakers.
* I now have a very, very short list of solid state amps to drive inefficient speakers.
* I have some very powerful advice to reconsider buying inefficient speakers.

Since I am not fiscally committed yet, I can keep this in mind as I audition the Salks vs. Dynaudios.

Given the above lesson that "tube speakers love efficient speakers," the only question I'm left with as I keep the inquiry into more efficient speakers is a simple question:

At what *starting* level of db sensitivity does the choice of quality all-tube amplification open up? 88db? 92 db? more? (I suppose I'm not thinking of the tiny-watt tube systems, but things that are up to 35-40 wpc)
[Context for the question are the earlier parameters: listening at modest volume (85db), room (450sq ft), genres (classical/jazz/rock), digital sources, comfortable headroom]

@almarg Thank you for taking a closer look at the specs. I've saved that information for down the road!
@jackd thanks for the Rogue tip.
@Tvad, I was thinking about what you said — the list available with the criteria I listed (well-known, easy to re-sell, under $6k, mates well with the 84db speakers to good listening levels, new, and not from boutique).

So, what can I compile from my notes?

IF I accept the minimum watts for driving the 84 db speaker to what Jim Salk indicated (at least 30 wpc for tube), I get the following list:

Black Ice F360 Hybrid tube preamplifier $1995.00 + Fusion F35 Tube Integrated Amplifier (60wpc) $1,999 = $3994
Cary SLI-80HS integrated amplifier 40 wpc $4495
Erhard-Audio Power Amps "Basie" 38wpc $1850
McIntosh MA252 hybrid $3500 100 wpc
Prima Luna EVO 400 tube Integrated amp 38 or 70 wpc $4999
Quicksilver $1295 QS Line stage preamp + $2995 60 QS Watt Mono (60 watts) = $4290
Quicksilver pre and Mono 120 Amplifier (120 watts), $3995 + $1295 = $5290
Rogue Audio Sphinx v3 tube Integrated Amplifier 100 wpc $1,595.00
Rogue Cronus Magnum tube integrated 100 wpc $3000
Schiit Freya+ and Vidar $1498 ($899 + $699)

I left off deHavilland Ultraverve because I don't know what it would pair with. But it might get together w/ something good for less than $6k

So, that's the list I came up with. I suspect that a couple of these might get eliminated by some additional scrutiny (e.g. you might think they're not quite at the quality level or easy to sell, etc.).

Anyway, I'm just trying to collect my thoughts and would be interested in what you, others, folks would add or subtract.
@tvad Yes, I think you’re right. That helps limit things a lot. Where does one get VAC? I am having trouble locating it.

I found a couple others to add to the list. Any thoughts?

• Van Alstine Fet Valve CF RB $1,599.00 + Fet Valve 400R (200 watts) $2899 = $4498
• MANLEY STINGRAY II 32wpc $5900 (not enough watts with this extra criterion)
Aha. Will look. One more: VTL IT-85 Integrated Amplifier 60wpc New $5250.00
@tvad Why not van alstine? Pathos is too boutique-y, right?
Also, where does one get VAC? I am having trouble locating it.
Ok, Tvad. I'll think about those!
At the moment, I thought I might be able to do (at the least) something from Quicksilver, e.g. $1295 QS Line stage preamp + $2995 60 QS Watt Mono (60 watts) = $4290
and I thought there were others in my notes which could get in under $6k, but I have to go dig them out.

@tvad Thanks. I did consider that perhaps since my Salk order is standard veneer and not delivered yet, I might just change my order with Jim and go with a more sensitive speaker. Not sure if he’d allow that but IF the speaker I ordered was of higher quality and price, I’d still come out the same in overall costs and Jim would sell a more expensive product. (I don’t want to make assumptions about what he considers reasonable, so I’m ready to be rebuffed if he balks at such a proposal.)

The key issue is that the other models I might now consider that are more sensitive than the 84 db speakers I order are: 87db, 88db, or 90db. The 90db speakers are more than double the Wow1’s ($3800 vs. $1500). QUESTION: a jump of 3 or 4 db in sensitivity doesn't really buy me enough, does it? It should be 6db? 

@almarg Thanks for reminding me of the dynamic jumps. That’s key part of music realism in the genres I enjoy. Good to have 90db as a starting point. That may rule out some makes of speaker if I try to broaden out my amp choices. Daedalus is nice, perhaps a bit much for me right now. I’ll keep an eye open.

@mesch Part of it was increase, part was just thinking out the wider parameters. "I wandered into a bar, looking for love," kind of captures my state of mind at the start.
I will reconsider the speaker budget. Part of that might come from a higher sensitivity speaker choice. The output stage (tubes or not) is still open. I have heard both sides. But I also am aware that matching tubes/ss is a dangerous game, and I’m a bit shy on this front. That leads back either to integrated tube/ss, all tubes, or all ss.
I will check for used and visit dealers.
Thanks for posting and enjoy your family time!
@tvad 90db. Ok. (I guess 88db isn't better enough.)

Bookshelves: I began with bookshelves because I wanted new desktop monitors. Then, I opened up to the idea of a larger room/space. In the meantime I bought a sub. As I got deeper in, I realized that I really wanted a listening space. So, I guess bookshelves are a remnant of the earlier parameters — and I think they do offer flexibility for future placement. But if I was to be pushed, well, I guess I'm now at the point where I'd entertain floorstanders. Here come the Maggies! (Just kidding. I think.)
@atmasphere Thank you for your comment about speakers. It definitely helps.

@almarg You are one tireless explainer! I keep learning.

@russellrcncom I’ll be curious what path forward you take. I began with the idea of a tube/ss hybrid -- where some manufacturer works that out for me. I’ve moved toward the idea of separates, ideally matched by the same mfr or at least of the same type (tube or ss). I have moved away from mixing and matching myself because of (a) the experiences presented here that it could be somewhat tricky to do in a way that has a pleasant outcome and (b) because I won’t have many opportunities to try out combinations, first. The last thing that I want is to just grope in the dark for synergy -- to mix and match and discover, soon after purchase, that I have to try to sell one of the pieces I bought because it doesn’t work. And remember, there is also (c) the speakers to match up with all of this, too. 
Thanks, @tvad That is quite an attractive option. I don't think a flight to Ogden is in my plans yet, but then again, I think Tekton is within driving. I could compare those two companies' stuff...and catch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Just to add -- thanks for continuing to question my initial speaker choices and offering new ideas. Since nothing has been purchased yet, there are still listening opportunities. At least 1 person has suggested upping my speaker budget, knowing that it could come out of the amplifier portion (since that could be reduced concomitantly).
I did a lot of speaker listening and narrowed it down, but I didn't comprehend the implications of sensitivity because I had yet to experience how much I liked tubes. That's the reason this has gotten so complicated. 
@tvad I sure will. I'm already a fair way down the road to a short list of very good amps suggested by folks here, I've auditioned things people have mentioned, bought literature to read, and after some painful lessons about the speakers I first fell in love with, I am even revisiting my initial commitments to speakers. If by "will I drink" you mean, invest in learning, I think the answer is "glug, glug, glug." 

But you probably mean "home trials, shipping, travel to audition, buying, reselling" and more. If that's the case well, "sip, sip, sip."
@jaudio1 Thanks, will take a look.
@tvad Zu is a good option. I'll take a look and maybe they'll come my way. Good price points. I was curious about Omega, also, but I wrote them and there is no home trial. You buy it, it's yours. Done.

Any thoughts about Ascend or Fritz?
Thanks Ihcho and 93cobra

I'm looking now at that Rhumba 1.3.
It is kind of a bummer when they tell you how much better the Extreme is! Just when I'm thinking, "This is the right price point for me" they go ahead and tell you all the ways things could be better. Aaarrrggghhhh.
@decooney Great point. My two spaces are not all the flexible for placement. The nice thing about bookshelves -- and the reason I went with Salk WOW1's for a trial, is the flexibility which comes from small size and front-ports. That's what's probably dogging me on the low sensitivity front. Some of the speakers here may just be too large. Hard to do in-home trials of lots of stuff. pretty soon, it's gonna be a year and a lot of shipping.
@tvad Thanks. I joined an audio club this morning and visits to folks houses in Colorado will be possible now. I will eat shipping as part of the process. Going to bake that into the spreadsheet. I contacted Tekton — no facility in Utah to tour. Just direct. Hoping to hear from Zu. I'll be at RMAF for sure. I'm realizing that this process may take a while. That's cool. I find it interesting.

@lewin Thanks for the info about Rogue. I definitely have options to try them in Denver. I suspect my local dealer said that in part because he now carries Prima Luna, but I'm not sure. He could just have anecdotal evidence that happened to align with not selling Rogue any more.

@decooney Yes, dealer/mfr support is so important and will make the difference. Appreciate hearing the system-history, too. Small speakers are not out of the question, for sure. The issue is driving them. Good point about 0-60, for sure. Maybe this is possible with the harder-to-drive speakers, but if that can be fixed before setting out on the tube journey, it is sounding like I've had sufficient warnings (about over-spending on tubes to power 84db speakers) and should correct that.
When i listened to tubes on good recordings, I liked the way they sounded. That was compared to solid state A/B and D class. I have not however tried the Pass Labs Class A. I'd like to do that.
I had a good chat with Jim Salk, who said that at a recent RMAF show he played his Salk 9.5 towers (8 ohm, 87 db) with no problem from a 30 wpc tube in a 30x30 room. I'm likely going to change my order (I'm going to think about it a bit) to the Salk SS 6M speakers. 

They're 90db and 8 ohms. They're a lot more $$ than the WOW1's but the amplification needed for decent headroom will be much less; I won't find myself pushed into stratospheric prices for adequate amp power. I'll still get a 30 day trial to see how I like them. (Others on forums are comparing them to Joseph Audio, so I'm optimistic.) As folks here advised, I am *starting with the speakers* but this time, I'm also paying attention to sensitivity.
@tvad If I might wax philosophical for a moment about what’s happened for me, here: this has been a great lesson in "slow technology," a drawing back from that impulse to go 0-100 mph right away. Part of that is impelled, I suspect, by how we buy things now — instantly. Such habits clearly shape, also, how many automatically seek to learn and communicate, too. A favorite thinker who’s been tracking this way of living for 30+ years, Albert Borgmann, calls it the "device paradigm." (He’s quite a famous figure; I recommend his books, and here a good one is:

But the impulse to speed and automaticity, lack of patience, isn’t necessarily how one must live (as you all know). Conversation and reflection slows me down and helps me realize that doing things quickly is often at odds with doing things well. This general point was familiar to me already (I’ve written on education and the rise of the smart phone), but because audio involves so many complex devices which "do it all," I didn’t grasp how firmly audio, too, is within this sphere.
@tvad and @almarg  Thanks for the feedback. It seemed like no big deal to Jim, and it makes so much sense from the what you've said. It really was when I made a decision to listen in a larger room and then broke out a spreadsheet (where I listed the costs and details of speakers and the amps needed to drive them -- and then mixed and matched the costs) that I saw that there was no serious economic downside to making a change. The Pass Labs sounds like a good deal, but I think I'll also follow another piece of advice I got which is to "live with the speakers" for a while before trying to match it to an amp. I have some Adcom stuff which will be just fine until it's time to find a deal on an amp.
@djones51 -- Thanks. That's a good idea. There's supposedly an MA252 at Listen Up. It will be helpful to try out the speaker with different amps, for sure. 
Thanks for the Ear suggestion!
@markthenaimnut 450 sq feet. Retangular basement room; brick walls 3 ways around an bookshelves along a long wall. Small hallway leading off but can be curtained. About 15 x 30 460 sq ft. 7.5 ft ceilings. Not sure how to set up in it with new gear, but likely along long wall utilizing bookshelves and listening across the width of the room.
@tvad The speaker change was meant to open up options at commensurate or greater quality. I wasn’t trying to lower quality on the amp front! E.g., locally, I have choices between lower and higher powered QS, Rogue, Octave, Black Ice/Jolida, and more to audition. On the used or internet market, the options also now multiply. Many times, folks have posted amps which seemed great but made me wonder if my speakers would have enough power; other times, folks posted amps with enough power but with a price tag greater than pretty much my whole system budget. I was attempting to address those issues with the speaker change.

@bigby thanks, will take a look
@decooney I hear you on not under-powering the speakers. Jim didn't say "minimum" of 30 wpc, he thought 30 wpc was comfortable. That said, there's not reason not to do at least 40 or perhaps 60. Above that, I may be doing more future-proofing than necessary, and the whole reason to buy speakers more than double the price  -- and remember, they'll be on trial basis -- was to cut the amp costs. If I don't do that, well...
Also Dared Saturn is local option, too.
Ok, then. I'll need to be clear about what I'm hearing in the store!
Thanks for the extra info decooney.
brotw -- i'll look into tekton, possibly. I'm going to try to really love those salks and match them with the right amp; I'll have about 30 days to get them in front of as much amplification as possible. will probably need to burn them in a bit first.
@atmasphere Thanks for relaying that. Knowing that someone has found synergy is highly motivating. I'll go take a look at the M-60.

Thanks, Markus for the added suggestions, including Coda. The challenge for me (just a newbie) would be figuring out in the abstract not just whether the preamp/amp would work, but would they work well together and with my speakers. That implies more research, but having these names halves it for me!

I'm taking notes on everything, and am quite happy to see the conversation go wherever. In fact, that's probably the biggest fun for me — to see where folks take this question.

I love this suggestion about 4500 wpc for a bookshelf. It reminds me of that Darwin award about the guy who supposed strapped a JATO jet engine to his car and then disintegrated himself into the side of a rock-face, Roadrunner style.

At this point, I’ve only compared tubes vs SS two times:
Dynaudio evoke 10s (84db, 6 ohm) somewhat underpowered by
Atoll solid state separates 60wpc vs Quicksilver integrated, 20 epic. The QS was far superior. #2
Spendor A7 (88db, 8 ohms) quite well supplied by Primaluna EVO 400 integrated vs Parasound separates P6 & A23+. The Parasound was superior. 
Overall, as I said, the QS was clearly superior to all else, but I want to hear more. 

I mention this because it is my actual listening background, and identifies my present limitations for comprehending suggestions and data points mentioned. 
Great advice @aball ... looking forward!
Another question -- sorry, they keep coming to me -- How important is it for you to have a tube amp fixable locally rather than having to ship it back to the maker for fixes or upgrades?
Hi all, just when you thought this thread was dead...
I'm seeing some deals out there, and I'm wondering how important it is for a tube amp to have the "ultra-linear vs. triode" switch? In what circumstances would that be important for listening? 
Great, thank you both. There's a Cary integrated amp that switches triode/ultralinear in their 80w model but that option is not in their 100 w model. I found that curious.

I wouldn’t hesitate to have equipment repaired by technicians like that, although I would want any parts used to match those originally installed.

Even if the newer parts were better? Just because it goes outside the original design?
@schubert What is not worth it?
@tvad  I hear you on altering the original design, esp of a premium product
@atmasphere Thanks for the advice about repairs. I would prefer just to deal with a local dealer, though perhaps they just ship it back to the maker? I don't know, but of course if it's under warranty and in their hands, I'm spared the hassle.
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?
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!
@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?

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.
@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...
@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.
@richopp Audio Research looks amazing. I'm not sure how I fit that into the budget I outlined. Good to dream, I suppose.

@milpai Thanks for the note about the Rhumba 1.3. It’s $4k, as a preamp. I was looking to keep preamp & amp to $3k. I imagine at $4k, there are a lot of options, but this is effectively beyond my budget.

@bstatmeister Schiit is the option that is lurking in the background, always. I appreciate your note about the difference btw their amps, as there is some fluidity about which speakers I wind up with.