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?




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Listening report: GOLD SOUND 2+ hours. Wonderful conversations with Ron Gold the owner, who educated me a lot. This is a great store. (Denver area). I auditioned Prima Luna EVO 400 ($5k) with a CD player and Spendor A4 ($3.5k) speakers. This was my first time listening to a tube amp for an extended period. I then auditioned Parasound P6 and A23+ separates. I did not have the chance to do a separate tube preamp with a solid state power amp. I found the bass in the PL setup to be rather muddy and lacking in articulation. It reached down deep enough, but there were moments of bass-chaos to my ears, too. The highs also sounded rolled off and there was a distinct lack of "crack" on drum hits. Vocals were luscious and the sound stage was delightful. All those deficits were repaired by the Parasound, the sound stage was still great, and while there wasn’t the same soft nuance in the vocals, there were fine. The highs were back.

All in all, I know something now — at least about these two pieces of gear — viz., that all tubes are not fitting my listening expectations. I do suspect a lot of this is because the first time we try something new, we judge based on old expectations rather than on the new benefits. Indeed, I imagine I was *blind* to a lot of the new benefits. I was trying to keep a very open mind about this, too — I didn’t go in expecting that the tubes would do what the solid state had always done. Still, it didn’t provide what I wanted in the kind of music I played — jazz, rock, classical.

Next step would be to continue the idea that a tube/solid state mix is worth a listen.

I do not care for Elac. Nor Spendor that much. The owner is down on Dyns (notoriously difficult to drive), but I still want to hear them again. Waiting on my Salk Wow1’s.
I absolutely agree with MarktheNut's recommendations for the 6SN7-based tubes amps by Don Sachs or Supratek.  I had Don Sachs original tube preamp and now have his newest version and it is fantastic.  I suspect the Supratek is quite fine too.  Quicksilver makes great tube preamps, as well.  The Schiit Freya, with upgrade tubes, might give you a glimpse of the SQ of the Sachs preamp at far less cost. 

I personally think that there is magic in 6SN7 tubes in preamps.  The new best Chinese 6sn7 tubes are outstanding, rendering my stash of dozens of vintage NOS 6sn7 tubes merely "closet queens."   
Tube equipment can sound very close to solid state, or it can sound soft and bloomy, or anything in between. Your experience today barely scratched the surface, so don't judge all-tube amplification based on what you heard today.

With your solid state amplifier, a low output impedance preamplifier will match best...resulting in better bass control.

The aforementioned Modwright gear approaches a solid state sound. It matches well with solid state gear. I know from experience Lamm Industries preamps also match well with solid state. A used Lamm LL2 Deluxe would be in your price range.
Here is my two cents.  The Primaluna 12AX7 based for $2200 new is a very musical preamp.  The Quick silver is a nice sounding preamp not as tube sounding versus the Prima.  The deHavilland is a good sounding tubish sounding preamp but I have only heard it after I modified the unit with my upgrades for a buddy of mine.  The upgrades included V-Caps, volume control, some tube sockets, transformer (much bigger thatn the junkie stock one, AC filter choke, resistors, and a few other changes.  Those upgrades gave the preamp a much bigger dimension, better detail, made it quieter, and with more space between instruments.  The stock unit to me was nothing special.  Other options would be a Counterpoint SA-3000.  It has phone which is OK for an old preamp. These I can perform upgrades that bring them to a new level.  I also like the SA-3000 for the separate power transformer which helps eliminate noise.  Besides parts upgrades I can upgrade the circuit to today's level and is basically a new preamp.  All of the above are good choices.

Happy Listening.