Tried them all? No Audio Research in your list. I have been down your path, including an EAR. For the last few years I have a VAS Citation I, which is a knock off of the HK design of the 70's, with updated components. If you are into vinyl, the VAS is the one to have, IMHO.
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I've been a member here for longer than I can remember, and it's never been my thing to post anything negative. I'm going to break that trend now. I ordered an EAR 911 NEW from a dealer several years ago. I waited 3-4 months, and it arrives at my house DOA. So they send it out to the Authorized EAR tech in California, and he couldn't fix it. Then they get it back to EAR, and I was told the phono section was wired out of phase. Just for the record, it was making NO sound at all. That diagnosis to me meant they built this preamp and never bothered to check and see if it was working at the factory. At that point, weeks continue to pass by, and I'm not receiving any updates. At this point I lost my patience, and worked something out with another dealer to take the 911 on trade. All that aside, I'm happy the EAR is working out well for you. I found the EAR to be excellent when I auditioned it prior to purchasing.
Stringreen, sure I haven't tried them all. Nobody has, I believe. I guess the sense of my post was that I tried lost of preamps, many of which have a reputation for being up there with the best...and what surprises me with the G88 iss how much better it is. I thought I got close to the best possible with my previous preamplifier, a Shindo Masseto, but the difference I can hear is not subtle. As I said, you feel closer to the performers, and that is ultimately all you can ask from a component. I should have said that I use it with a pair of EAR 509MKII, so yes system matching is certainly an element...still I think I never experienced such a difference from a single piece of equipment. And I used it with three different speakers: A pair of Verity Amadis, a pair of SF Minima, and a pair of stacked quads...same results, same sonic signature.
FJN04, sorry to hear about your horror stories with EAR gear. I owned several EAR pieces and never had a single issue. Hopefully your experience does not mean the company has gotten sloppy. For sure, the absence of customer support is strange for a company like that.
Congrats on your new EAR pre Ggavetti, EAR gear is reputedly very musical sounding. I currently own a Vitus integrated amp, but plan on upgrading to separates at the end of this year, including a Vitus SL-102 pre. I previously owned a tubed Ayon linestage, but am looking forward to seeing what the Vitus can do.
Jafant, I have had little experience with Pass Labs. I demoed one for a couple of weeks (an INT-30A). I went very close to buying it. So, I liked it a lot--probably one of the best integrated amps out there (it's on par with two other great integrated amps I have: An ASR Emitter I Exclusive, and an EAR 859). At the time I demoed it, I was running it against the combination of a Shindo Masseto and my EAR 509MKII monoblocks. The Shindo/Masseto combination was better to my ears. The G88 is considerably better than the Masseto.
The best preamp IMHO should have ALL possible functions for the best preamp. Everything should be adjustable such as Line gain, Phono gain, Input sensitivity, Balance, multiple outputs, doubled inputs RCA/XLR, Phono input impedance, capacitance adjustability, Adjustable headphone output, Digital inputs(DAC) and Digital outputs (ADC).
Haven't found the best one yet tho...
^^ getting a preamp to jump through all those hoops would be a trick. Balanced and single-ended are inherently incompatible for starters.
Adjusting the phono input impedance is something only needed if the phono circuit is unstable with RFI. So a better preamp really does not need adjusting input impedance as 47K is sufficient at least as far as LOMC cartridges are concerned.
The more geegaws you add, the less likely the unit will deliver the bacon...
But Ralph, I had a contrary experience. Properly adjusted gain provides the best resolution per desirable loudness. Each and every album you're listening to may have different recording levels and adjustable gain can give you advantage to compensate lack or excess of such
The more geegaws you add, the less likely the unit will deliver the bacon...
I believe that more 'geegaws' simply add-on to the manufacturing cost more than delivering or not delivering bacon.
Ralph, your statement that balanced and single-ended are incompatible reminds me that there is something I've been wondering: Not that you should necessarily be familiar with the designs of your competitors, but you often do seem to be! In the ARC Reference line stages, both RCA and XLR jacks fill the back panel. Unlike EAR products which also have both but provide balanced outputs via a transformer at the back end of a circuit, ARC claims to offer fully-balanced operation via the circuit itself, obviously on the XLR jacks only. Where, then, does the single-ended output come from?
The best preamp, to my ears, has been a dedicated ditto integrated into the DAC; that is to say, no separate hardware preamp in the traditional sense. With the power amp used (Belles SA-30) the matching to the DAC/preamp (SOtM sDP-1000) is very successful, and with not a flicker of the "anemic and drained/non-dynamic" sonic imprinting the DAC-direct solution has often been reported having. Matching obviously is paramount, but newer solutions of dedicated DAC/preamps have come a long way making named issue equal zilch, and thus matching is less of a problem. Volume controls also have come a long way via digital implementations these last years, though the one used in my SOtM DAC/preamp is in the analogue domain (digitally "actuated").
Much of the controversy/debate over whether to use a separate hardware preamp (when we disregard its necessity with turntable setups) or not (i.e. as integrated solutions with only a digital source) seem not to take fully into account how systems can be build from ground up via either one or the other; in my case I've intended the latter from the beginning as an outset that would then come to fruition, and as such the inclusion of separate preamps often tip the balance in my setup where very often a lack of transparency and oddly "flavored" signature sneaks into the sound. Very expensive preamps have sometime blurred which solution to choose, but where this has occurred my thought has always been that the expense would be better invested elsewhere.
Conversely where separate hardware preamps have been used as an outset in ones setup(s), it's easy to imagine how its negation could induce sonic alterations that stem from the balance of the setup as a whole, and thus might call for rigorous tweaking to come near ones preferred sonic balance sans preamp.
Bdp24, re your question, arcdb.ws provides schematics for a number of older ARC preamps. It appears that in cases where the internal signal path is balanced but outputs are provided on RCA as well as XLR connectors, the Ref 2 being an example (click on the schematic thumbnail at the bottom left of the page), the center pin of the RCA connector is wired directly to XLR pin 2, and is thereby provided with one of the two signals in the balanced signal pair.
Which means, of course, that if the two outputs are used simultaneously (perhaps to connect a powered sub to the RCA connector in addition to the main power amp being connected to the XLR connector), that a possibility arises for adverse sonic effects on the balanced signal path, and on the unbalanced signal path as well. Which may or may not be significant depending on the impedances that are involved, as well as the cable lengths and cable types.
The best preamp is that one that when you put in in your system and hear it, makes you realize there is a level you never dreamed about. You will never go back and you will sell your house for it. It will not be the perfect switching device of all time with all types of connectors and inputs, etc - it will just make you hear that thing that you have bee chasing forever (one big hoop). 3-d sound that you can walk around the instruents; stick your hand in and turn a page for the pianist. rub ellas tummy.
Cerrot, I think you capture quite well what I feel when I listen to the G88. BTW, I agree that system matching is important, but I don't think it's fair to say that "everything is relative". There are different leagues of preamplifiers. A Conrad Johnson ART will always sound better than a more than respectable deHavilland, in most if not all systems. I guess what I wanted to convey was that moving to the G88 from preamplifiers that most people would put in a pretty top league (Shindo, Spectral, the old Klyne Arts) felt like moving to a new level altogether.