stereo preamp $2-5K suggestions

I have been a long time lurker of Audiogon forums but I don’t think I have posted anything yet. I am in the market for a stereo preamplifier. I am currently using my Arcam AVR380 as my preamp. The AVR is connected to a 250WPC Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier (input impedance 23.5komhs). I was interested in putting together a tube preamp to solid state amplifier system. I am interested in a tube preamp since I have always preferred to use guitar amps with tubes and I thought that some of that tube magic may apply to hi-fi as well. I have a budget of 5K yet would really like to spend 2-3K instead. (Who wouldn’t?) I am interested in new or used. I have liked my Emotiva amp and looked at the Emotiva’s XSP-1 preamp but I have not tried it at home. I may A-B the Emotiva preamp with whatever tube preamp I end up getting to see how good the XSP-1 is. I tend to use my Music Hall MMF 5.1 turntable / Grado Platinum 1 Cart. / Phonomena II phono preamp to listen to most music. I also tend to play a lot of music with female vocalists. I really like the voices of Anne Murray, Linda Ronstadt, Shelby Lynne and Olivia Newton John. However, I also play a lot of Led Zep, Pink Floyd, Willie Nelson and Steely Dan too. The most important aspect of music to me is the vocals and acoustic instruments. I like solid bass but not at the expense of good sonic texture in the bass. My current audio system (Vandersteen 3Asig speakers/Arcam AVR380/Emotiva XPA-2 amp) sounds good but not great. The sonic texture, dynamics and soundstage width are pretty good in my system but I do not get the 3D presentation I have heard in other systems where the instruments and vocals seem to be floating in space. I can hear the instruments/vocals in my current system placed side to side (2D) but I do not get much depth. I would like suggestions on tube stereo preamps that may get me closer to a 3D presentation of the music. I have been doing online research and saw the PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium Preamp that is new for about 3K. Is this preamp as good as many reviews say it is? Can it really compete with 10K preamplifiers? If there are any great solid state preamps that you think would also give me a great “virtually-there 3D presentation” (in the 2-5K range), I would like to hear about those too. Thanks all!
I have been very pleased with the Aesthetix Calypso standard version approximately $2500 used and now the Calypso Signature version approximately $3500 used. They perform best with NOS tubes, good news is that there are only four tubes. Things really locked in went I mated the Calypso with the Aesthetix Atlas amp. Good luck
Thanks for the suggestions Sgunther I will check those out.
Something to keep in mind is that you will hear the depth a given pre-amp is capable of reproducing ONLY if your Emotiva power amp also possesses that capability. I'm not saying ut doesn't, as I don't know.
You could do a lot worse than an Audible Illusion M3A, used less than $1200 or a new $3500.
For your speakers, Ayre and Aesthetix would be my first 2 choices.

Once you get the AV preamp out of the chain for music, you won't recognize your system.
Makes a good point. Yes, replacing the Arcam with a better preamp will yield improvement. The power amplifier can be a very limiting factor when in search of 3 dimensional sound. A quality tube preamp is a good start however.
I second the Ayre nomination. I purchased the K5xe-MP here on Agon and absolutely love it. My system is pretty resolving and the Ayre fits in quite nicely.

These come up from time to time, and usually sell within a day or two, so grab one while you can.
Thank you all for the great suggestions. I do plan on upgrading my amp at some point too. I like the full sound my Emotiva XPA-2 amp gives over the venerable Bryston 3B amp (100 watts/channel) that I had years before. The Bryston sounded good but ran out of juice when I turned up the volume to moderate levels. The Emotiva seemed to really "wake up" my speakers compared to the Bryston. However, I think I may detect a little upper-mid-range glare or hardness with the Emotiva. A few months ago I took my Emotiva amp out the chain and ran the speakers with just my Arcam AVR380 (90 watts/channel). I noticed that vocals were sweeter sounding with just the Arcam but the dynamics and slam were missing as compared to the Emotiva. Thanks again for all the feedback I really appreciate it!
Be sure your speakers are set up the best they can be before upgrading anything. You might get some of that magic for free. My (3A Sig) mistakes were assuming the tilt back was the same because I used the same shims on each speaker. That was not true and the 3D image suffered. On top of that, moving one speaker forward or back by as little as 1/2 inch solidified or blurred the images. The 3A can be used near the back wall without booming but stay away from a room corner. If you've already got your speakers painstakingly dialed in, good for you, ignore this. As for upgrading your system, changing just one component *may* get you some improvement. If your preamp is a *severe* bottleneck it could be a big improvement. From past experience, with your modest system I think you will be disappointed putting that different a league pre in the mix.
Are you absolutely sure the speakers are set up properly? Before spending money on a new preamp I would investigate speaker placement, toe-in and more critical with Vandersteens than most, tilt angle.
When I owned the 2CE sigs a while back it was amazing how dialing in speaker set up made them go from adequate to superb. And sometimes it can be as little as a couple degrees toe-in or tilt angle.
Good points Timrhu and Wlutke. I followed the Vandersteen's positioning guide to set up the speakers including setting the correct tilt angle. I have also played around with positioning too. In fact, I moved the speakers farther into the room (about 6") and slightly increased the toe-in last week. After moving the speakers I noticed the imaging improved. (My wife has not noticed that I moved the speakers out more yet...) I have never had the speakers professionally set-up. I purchased the speakers used and never benefited from a dealer professionally setting the speakers up. I have read about set-ups where the dealer positions the speakers using lasers and mirrors and I thought that may be worthwhile someday. The Vandersteen 3ASig speakers may be a little too big for my room too. The room I have them in is 15' wide by 16' deep with 7.5' high ceiling. The speakers are about 8 feet from each other and 3' from the back and side walls. This weekend I will play around with speaker positioning more.
Used Thoress has 3 phonos wonderful 3D sound all tubes.
"The speakers are about 8 feet from each other and 3' from the back and side walls. This weekend I will play around with speaker positioning more."

Try them closer together. Experiment a little, but start around 6.5 to 7ft apart, from the inside edges of the speakers. With proper set up and electronics the images will go beyond the outside edges of the speakers.
I highly recommend Jim Smith's book and DVD "Getting Better Sound" as a guide to system setup. I think it cost $39.95.
3' from back and side walls is not good. Back and side distances should not be equal. Might be that is causing the issue?
I have and highly recommend the primaluna dialogue premium pre. It just gets out of the way and really smooths out digital. Good imaging and usefully low gain to so you dont have to live in the low range of the volume pot. Works great with solid state amps because output impedance is very low, under 250 ohms I believe. Most tube pres have much higher output impedance and are unable to get under the recommended 10:1 ratio of amp input to pre output.
"08-04-15: Milpai
3' from back and side walls is not good. Back and side distances should not be equal. Might be that is causing the issue?"

Highly unlikely. Right now the OP is using the preamp section of a HT receiver. If he wants good quality 2 channel music, he'll have to get that processor out of the signal path. Those things are terrible for music, even the expensive ones.
Thank you all for the great suggestions. I will look into the Jim Smith book. (Thanks Sgunther) Earlier I gave a guess as to my speakers placement. (During a pleasant work distraction.) My speakers are 37.5" from the sidewalls and 34" from the backwall measured from the center-top of my speakers. However, in five minutes I will be tweaking the speaker placement and tilt to get more from my speakers.
Dbong - Thanks for the primaluna dialogue premium preamp review!
The electrical components used in the primaluna are impressive.

Dbong - Did you get a chance to compare the primaluna preamp against any other preamps?
My experience with Vandys is they are among the best in soundstage, imaging, depth, etc. I also think the Arcam is probably greatly limiting what you're getting out of your speakers. That said, when the wife's not around I'd suggest pulling the speakers 4, 5, and even 6 feet into the room and see what happens to your depth of stage (and of course use recordings that contain that type of material), just for your own reference if nothing else. I bet you will hear much more of what you're looking for specifically in terms of depth despite the Arcam handicap. Others with more experience with Vandys may have more informed opinions on this, but 3 feet from the back wall would seem to at least somewhat limit the depth of stage you're currently perceiving. And getting a good stereo pre should greatly improve imaging, depth, etc. even further. Best of luck.
Definitely agree to get the Arcam out. While your amp is good for the price, it is also not great and not as good as your speakers. It appears from the Vandersteen owners and dealer that regularly post, that set up, placement, listening position are much more critical for Vandersteens than for many other speakers, though proper placement is always necessary.
If looking at tube preamps, make sure that they are comfortable with the input impedance of your amp. We just introduced a tube preamp in this price range and FWIW its OK with that impedance.

However I agree with others here- make sure your system is set up as best you can before making changes to the equipment to further your goals. It can save you a lot of money!
Best linestage I've had in my system was the Musical Fidelity kW. You can google the Stereophile review. Uses 6112 tubes, and was the longest lasting component in my system by a long shot. With that preamp, I finally got the combined sonic benefits that had previously been trade-offs between passive (detail) and active (dynamics and oomph) preamps.

Only reason I am not using it now is that I am employing a DEQX as DAC, preamp and room correction. Something like the DEQX might be worth looking into, as it will do a world of good on both your speakers' frequency response and other characteristics as well as correcting room effects. I use the DEQX primarily with vinyl and here no degredation from the ADC that the unit uses with analog inputs. You can check out more discussion of these on the "Is DEQX a game changer?" thread
G, many, many years ago I owned three different versions of the Vandy 2 speakers so have maintained some interest in their models.

There were two separate times I heard amazing performance from Vandersteens, one at Havens & Hardesty (a former dealer in Orange Co., CA) and the other time at Bill Lowe's home (owner of Audioquest). Both times the speakers were placed well away from the side walls and rear wall, at least 6' as best as I can remember. The Vandersteens are designed for minimal diffraction from their cabinets, as well as being time and phase aligned. These features make them more sensitive to set up but more rewarding once the right spot is found.
I have looked into all the preamps suggested and have found many that I think would be a good fit. Now if they will only show up on Agon... In my stereo room I have 16'w x 15'l to play with. Lets see... so if I sit 1/3 into room (5 feet) and put the speakers 6 feet from the back wall and sit the minimum specified distance from the speakers (Richard Vandersteen states for the 3A is 6 feet) then I need 17 feet. Damn. I need a new house! I do plan on moving the speakers this weekend into room about 6 feet. Its a bit of a job since I have to move furniture, rug and two 100 pound speakers. Thanks again for the great suggestions.
Why are you sitting 1/3 into the room??? Is it a logistics thing? I find I only need a foot or two away from the wall behind my chair to avoid bad things happening from reflections from that wall.
Soix - I was looking in the Vandersteen manual and one of the suggestions is to place the seating position and speakers 1/3 of way into room. However I was just kidding around a bit in my last post. There are other suggested seating/speaker positions listed too such a placing speakers and sitting position on odd divisible boundaries. (i.e. 1/3, 1/5 and 1/7 into room.) I do happen to sit about 4 feet from the back wall since the back of the room is a natural walkway to backyard.
I have been extremely happy with my Modwright LS-100 with phono option.
I haven't read all the post as I see some are in regard to the speakers.
As others have mentioned, the preamp has to be compatible with the amplifier which means a lower output impedance when mating with solid state amps.
There are a lot of good choices out there. Our LeAnna preamps have a 600 ohm output while the new Lusso and balanced LeAnna models are <180 ohms.
Compatibility between components is critical.
Hi G Rodgers,

I purchased a new PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium preamp from Kevin Deal and now have about 200 hours on it.

It is paired with an Oppo 105 modified by Ric Schultz, W4S ST1000 amp, and Maggie 3.6 speakers and bass panel.

My last preamp was a W4S STP. The PrimaLuna is better in terms of a sense of a live performance and seeing into the music - better separation of instruments and voices in space.

However, the depth of the soundtsage is not that much improved over the W4S preamp. Some of the other comments alluded to speaker placement and the ability to move the speakers out further into the room as an important consideration in this respect. Obviously, room logistics and aesthetics are going to control how far out into the room you can go rergardless of equipment.

FWIW, I heard Vandersteen 3A's with Conrad Johnson electronics in a 25' by 25' showroom room. They were probably about 8 feet from the front and side walls. What I remember was the clarity and smoothness of the sound and not necessarily a holiographic image.
Thanks all again for the feedback.

Dsper - thanks for your review of the PrimaLuna. Do you feel the PrimaLuna was a good upgrade in your system or were you hoping for more? I think you may be right that my speakers may not be the type of speakers that can do the holographic type imaging.
Some excellent suggestions here, Ayre, Prima luna, though I don't know the Aesthetix. One more to consider, because of the quality and good value is Modwright. The LS 100 is very good, more what you would consider a traditional tube sound, but I chose the 36.5. It is exceptionally capable and at a very good price, clear transparent and fast.
"Dsper - thanks for your review of the PrimaLuna. Do you feel the PrimaLuna was a good upgrade in your system or were you hoping for more? I think you may be right that my speakers may not be the type of speakers that can do the holographic type imaging."

Mine do. You just need the right electronics. That goes for any speaker, not just Vandersteen.
G Rodgers,

The PrimaLuna was an improvement in my system. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about preamps to say that I could have done better for the same money.

It is revealing and stays out of the way.

The clarity with which the innards of the preamp are discussed in the literature was part of how I decided to purchase it. I am not sure that all manufacturers are that straight forward and open about what they want you to buy from them. My opinion.

I would think it would be interesting to try a Van Alstine or tubes4hifi SP14
"I am not sure that all manufacturers are that straight forward and open about what they want you to buy from them."

They want you to buy their products.
I'm not sure I would spend up to 5K on a preamp to pair with an Emotiva amp. But that may just be me......

I have owned the Ayer K5xe and found it too polite for my

I have the Primaluna Dialogue Premium, now, and find it
to be fantastic - transparent, dynamic, and with an
excellent sound stage (in my all-digital, mostly-
streaming-from-Tidal-via Sonos system).

Also agree with Dbong's observation about good imaging.
Vincent SA-T8. Dynamic, transparent, 3D soundstage, wide & deep. Has musicality in spades. Competitive with pre-amps 3 times it's price.
I really appreciate the great preamp suggestions. Thank you! I have been keeping an eye out for some of the suggested preamps to pop-up on Agon.

Shakeydeal - I agree that putting a $5K preamp with a $800 amp is not ideal. However, I plan on upgrading the amp next after the preamp.

Mjmch2003 - That is good to know. Did you buy the PrimaLuna preamp new from Upscale Audio? If so, do you remember their refund policy?
If you are looking for best stereo preamp under $5k, look no further i have two available, MARK LEVINSON NO.326S and 380s many many raving review on line on these two preamp so check it out..
Banmac - will do. Thanks.