I would recommend a Conrad Johnson PV-10B tubed preamp. There are a couple on this site for sale.
I've got a VTL TL 2.5 that might even end up on the market soon -- fully tricked out with NOS Mullards even -- due to the fact that I upgraded to a Rogue 99 Magnum (sure hope it goes fast, if I ever decide to sell it...). What can I say, the Rogue is lots, no holds barred, better than the VTL (but, then, the 99 is also a bit more expensive than the 2.5). Not familiar with the 66, but definitely worth a look as Rogue, and the folks behind it, are top notch. When I got the VTL, the other one I was considering was the CJ mentioned above. If I remember correctly, the CJ was a little warmer and "tubier" than the VTL, but ended up with the VTL due to its expanded feautres compared to the CJ (namely, a remote and a HT bypass loop -- the CJ, with neither, is a really bare-bones unit. May matter to you or not.). Either way, a little patience should turn up either a VTL or a CJ used between $7-800 or so and, at that price, they'd both be a right decent piece of equipment. Well, just looked, and there quite a few of the Rogue 66's available in that range as well. Me, I'd be most tempted by the Rogue -- but that's me (remote, no HT bypass loop -- although Mark O'Brien (aka Rogue Audio) would happily put one in for you for about $150 while, at the same time, politely suggesting that your money would be better spent elsewhere.
As for whether any of this would consitute an upgrade from your current, modded stuff - no clue. A shame you can't find a way to audition some stuff, that's really the only way to know....
I upgraded my CJ pv10a to a Rogue 66 Magnum and was/am very happy.
IMHO, the CJ was a bit to warm for my liking but like anything else, beauty is in the ear of the listner.
PLEASE try to find a way to audition whatever you choose in your system before obligating to a final purchase.
I can name a couple of times were I purchased audio equipment based on all the glowing reviews and ended up selling the equipment a couple of months later.
I may rave about the 66 for example but when you put it in your rig, it may not be your cup of tea.
Sqiddy I too have a AE-3 that has the oil cap upgrade. I just purchased a pair of Infini caps to replace the Kimbers that are stock. I will try to get the Infini's in this weekend. Although I can't speak on the Rouge,CJ,and Blue Circle gear I really like the AE-3. It replaced a LS-7 if that's any food for thought. Anyway let me know what mods you had done on the AE-3 and best of luck on your search. (BTW try the sylvania wgt's if you have not done so-the best-imho)
The Audible Illusions pre is very good and an extremely good bargain. I had one until I upgraded to a Supratek, and I loved it in my system. I chose it over the Rogue, which was the runner-up for me in this price range. The Supratek is on another level, but it is also more expensive.
The Audible Illusions does everything well and has a terrific phono stage to boot. In the interest of full disclosure, I should report that I have one for sell in the classifieds. However, whether you buy this one, another one, or something else altogether, try to give the Mod 3 a listen before making a decision.
happy listening and good luck--
Squiddy, so far as ARC goes, look for an SP-6 or an SP-8 600-900 used. For a bit more, which may be out of your budget but you can still find older ones at 1100-1200 used, don't rule out the CAT. Any of their models are great full function pre-amps. CJ are ok but the cheaper models are too rolled off at the frequency extremes and a bit darker and bloomier that the above mentioned. Then again you may prefer this initially but long term you'll probably want more.
My first TUbe PRe was a CJ PV-10AL.
SInce you said you are looking for something that is more transparent, I would have to suggest that you NOT buy a CJ-PV10 model. They sound ravishing, but transparent is not a word I would use to describe them.
Maybe a PV-11/12/14, but still, the CJ house sound is still a tad on the warm side.
What about a Passive Pre/assuming your source can push?
Also, consider the Adcom unit (yeah, I know, Audiophile bias) that is/was a recommended component in S'phile. I've actually heard it, and it is clean and clear, and is switchable between active and passive.
True, the Audible Illusions PRe is probably EXACTLY the sound that you'd like, but see threads re: dealing with repairs/parts etc. SLOOOOOOW.
I use Rogue. I like Rogue, but I think the 99 is a big step up from the 66, and the 99 is out of your range.
MY suggestion is to consider further UPGRADES TO YOUR CARY PIECE.
IT sounds to me (I've been there more times than I'll admit) like you're absolutely jonzeing for an upgrade.
THis shit is addictive, no doubt about it.
But you could probably keep what you've got, change some tubes or power cords or cables, OR MAYBE JUST CLEAN THE CONNECTIONS REALLY WELL, and get a HUGE reward.
But then again, it sure does feel good dropping some $$$ on a new toy.
I auditioned the DJH Super Amp about 1 1/2 years ago. Found it to be as close to SET as one can get w/o actual SET. It was emminently musical and glued me to my listening sofa night after night. (Hated that overly bright blue on/off light, though.) Found it to have properly entended highs and lows and just the right balance of color and clarity. It made music for me. However, the upgrade bug kept gnawing away and I ended up with the three times as expensive Air Tight 300B. However, the Super Amp is a real keeper. I used a Creek OBH12 passive pre with remote control (a must in any pre-amp I will own) and it worked just fine. Plenty of dynamics, etc. If not this, suggest you go with as neutral a pre (tube, of course!) as possible so as not to lose any of the wonderful Super Amp tone and color.
By the way, you may want to, some day, check out ProAc and Vienna Acoustic speakers. However, you have put together a great system with music first, obviously. A music lover, no doubt.