Bent Audio NOH
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Try the Tron Syren (see 6 moons website for new review). I have the Tron Meteor (the Syren's predecessor) and this is stunning. I've known Graham Tricker, the designer and maker, for 15 years. His tube amplifiers have alwyas been designed as bespoke ultimate instruments. Like Frank Schroeder, Graham makes every piece himself. Unbelievably, he will also sell his amps with a money back deal if you don't like them!
Joule Electra LAP 150 and Bent Audio NOH - I own and use both. The Joule replaced a Hovland HP 100 P, which in turn replaced a VTL 7.5. The Joule is by far the best tube pre-amp I have heard or used - it is very dynamic (using the very latest in Russian super tubes, and separate power supplies that would power Cleveland for many separate stages) and gives the most "you are there" reality and "jump" in the midrange I have heard. The tube phono section is wonderful. As a back-up (with high-powered tubes you always want a back-up) I use the Bent Audio NOH - a passive pre-amp, but using exotic transformers to step up the current to avoid the "anemic" sound that can result from passive pre-amps. It also uses the latest in relay switching and remote controls - very handy. Anyway the Bent NOH is very, very clean and pure, but still punchy, particularly on CD, every bit as much as the Joule LAP.
There is no such thing...but since you asked...
Herron VTSP-1 (w/lastest upgrades) It just sounds like music...live music.
This is the preamp I own, of course. But I auditioned Joule Electra LA100 mkIII, First Sound Presence Deluxe MkII, Hovland HP100, Blue Circle Galatea, CAT Ultimate and various ARCs and C-Js.
I remember being impressed by the CTC Blowtorch and Aethetix Callisto in demos, but these machines are 10k and 5k more than my beloved Herron.
I suppose I can list some of the contenders, but of course, the "best" is dependent on system, taste and need (e.g., remote controlled?). Sonically, the best I've heard in systems that I am familiar with are:
Audionote (u.k.) M-10 and M-8
Emotive Audio Epifania
I heard the Connoisseur in a system that I was not familiar with and it sounded very good. I heard the top of the line Boulder linestage and phono preamp in a system whose other components I know well, but the system did not sound right, but it's impossible to attribute the source of the problem. The Boulders certainly look good, are well built and the convenience and flexibility are absolutely top notch.
I own a Mark Levinson Ref. No. 32 preamp/linestage. It, like the Boulder and BAT linestages, has an extremely versatile and easy to use remote control that allow for an amazing array of setup options. Sonically, it is a bit on the soft and polite side. It is not in the league of the M-10 or Epifania, but it is remotely controlled and probably takes up less than a tenth of the real estate the M-10 would take up (not to mention costing about $100,000 less).
I have a Placette Active linestage that is not quite as flexible and versatile as the Levinson, but is sonically quite good (more vivid and exciting), particularly given its relatively reasonable price ($4,000).
Silly, Dont you know that the best preamp is.................no preamp. On a serious note, How many preamps have been made? Do you think people responding to this thread have tried every one or do they vote for the 3 or 4 that they've actually owned and listened to in they're own system. Does that seem like a thorough evaluation. It seems a little ridiculous doesn't it. I guess you guys are bored, I'll stick with my Line-3. Have fun with your thread.
I have recently had a Hovland HP100 and Lamm LL2 in my system. I felt the LL2 bettered the HP100 but I recently upgraded to the Lamm L2 and it seems to be better than the HP100 or LL2 in every way. I really think system matching is the key but I have never heard a preamp that presents this much detail in such a continuous natural manner than I hear with the Lamm L2.
A real sleeper. Battery powered with a smartly designed charger that never lets the preamp see VAC. Unlike some other battery powered preamps I've heard, the Quantum passes all of the bass signal. Remote control is not a part of the design philosophy here. Thank you. Unexpectedly, my new favorite feature of the Quantum are the two phase inversion toggle switches on the rear panel. It seems recordings are made with no default phase and some heavily multitracked recordings have individual tracks out of phase all together. Filping these switches can have a positive effect on most purist recordings.
Rmaidenberg: I´ve heard very good things about CJ ACT 2. I´ve an option on the forthcoming (release autum/winter 2005) fully balanced PL-P MK II (or however it will be called). I strongly believe this one will be very hard to beat. Can´t comment on current PL-P vs. ACT 2 but PL-P vs. many others (see my thread best pre under US 10.000,00. The best I´ve heard is Boulder 1012 - stunning detail, clarity, space, speed, etc. Spectral as well was very good.
CTC Blowtorch...but Pedrillo, I don't think you're going to ever get a "...genuinely accurate picture of which is the best preamplifier". Tallying these responses is skewed (obviously) by what people have heard, so preamps that are more expensive and/or harder to get hold of are prone to getting fewer "votes". Even more of a problem: how many people who "vote" (including me!) have heard ALL of the "serious" contenders in their OWN SYSTEMS, and with all other variables COMPLETELY CONTROLLED (i.e. to see what each preamp's "character" is really like relative to others). To further complicate matters: I'd venture many of us have had the experience of inserting a new product into our systems that someone we trust has recommended as being better - and THEN having been disappointed with the new product. This has happened to me enough times that I have learned a very important lesson: one tends to get in "trouble" when he assumes the relative quality of two components without trying other things (cable changes, room treatments, speaker or head position, etc) to make each component sound it's best, i.e. tweaking things a bit. I think I understand your desire for a definitive and absolute answer on preamps. I just don't think it's possible for ANY component.
Problems one runs into with these threads apart from taste and the very different systems a pre-amp may be part of, are of course that no-one really heard them all and it is a moving target over time. Which is why I find it interesting this thread is being revived after almost five years.
So, I'll translate "best" in "best I ever heard" and then it is, yes you guessed it, yet another name:
I heard this when Lothar, its designer, was still putting the finishing hand on it. Even then, it was a stellar performance, completely beyond competition for anything I have had the pleasure to hear so far (with a price ticket to match, admittedly).