Tube pre-amps: what defines "better"

Long story short: trusted audiophile friends recommend I add a tube pre-amp to my audio system. As with all gear, pricing is a very large range, so the usual irritating question is on my mind! -- what do I look for in a tube pre-amp that would send me to, say, a $1500 product over a $350 product? Beyond the issues of fit and finish, country of origin (as usual, the Chinese products are relatively lower-priced)...what in your mind makes for a stand-out tube preamp? Thanks for any advice.

Did your friends give you a reason why you should add a tube preamp to your system? Are you running all solid state right now? A passive preamp? What IS your system now? Is there something you don't like about it, that prompted them to suggest a tube preamp? What kind of music do you listen to and how do you like it presented?

Because of my personal preferences, right now the only type of preamp I'd want is a tubed version. I enjoy their naturalness, expansiveness, and smooth, sweet nature. I've had success mating them to solid state amps for a bit of both worlds.

Good luck.
different tube pres will have different sounds, ranging from extremely warm/tube-y/euphonic to clinical and almost solid-state - you need to determine which sound works best for 1.your ears and 2.your system.

if you have a turntable, phono sections differ enormously - with some pres, they're great, with others you'd want to get a separate phono pre
Musicslug is right about different tubes having their own character. I'm pretty familiar with two types, the 6SN7 and 6922 families which my preamp and DAC use respectively.

In general, the 6SN7 will have a fatter midrange and upper bass which yields a lightly more organic sound than the 6922, 6DJ8, 7308 family which on the whole is more neutral sounding. I like both!

When considering tube preamps, pay attention to the tubes being used in its design.
Generally speaking, the more a tubed preamp costs, the better the power supply. More often than not, the preamps' performance will depend more on the power supply and voltage regulation than the types of tubes it uses. Regulating voltage and providing clean power is costly in terms of components used and construction. This pretty much applies to all active audio components.
Real world example: a friend purchased a used Melos tubed preamp for around 700. I purchased a used Audible Illusions Modulus 3A for 1200. We plugged both of them into a aystem with very good speakers and a custom interstage coupled 300b SET (best we've heard and that includes Kondo). Our findings when we took the Melos out and inserted the Modulus 3A; the midrange suddenly had detail and transparancey again. The bass was tighter. The Melos has already been inspected and pronounced in fine working order; the Modulus has its stock tubes from 4 years ago and they s/b changed out.

The only tubed preamps I was considerign in the used market when I finally bought the Audible Illusions Modulus 3A (mostly because it was available and the other two are next to impossible to find used):

Audible Illusions 3A
Audio Research SP9
VTL Ultimate (first on the list, hardest to find)
CAT SL1 Signature or one of the other SL1 models in phono. This one is significantly more expensive than the others.

The Audio Research preamps (SP6, 8, 9) are excellent units but, at their age, certainly should be put on a bench and gone through as parts probably require replacing and/or upgrading. I'd budget an additional 500 max for this task once the unit is acquired.

The Modulus 3A is a great unit but uses up tubes a bit quicker than others. A good set of upgraded NOS Siemens EC88 (6922) tubes is about 100/ea and you need 4 I think; have not installed mine yet.

My finding was that there are not that many options in the 1000 to 1500 range for a quality used high end tube preamp if one insists on a tubed phono section.

If you have patience I'd counsel wait for a VTL Ultimate.
Too me, the more expensive tube preamps, assuming they are of good quality, is the ability to play louder with less conjestion and/or decreased dynamics. As stated above, I think this has to do with the power supplies more than anything else.
The AI M3A preamp is awfully good for the money it goes for used. It still stands comparison to some of the best available. If you don't need a phono section, then the 2 tube L-1 is nothing but a bargain used. I have owned both of these for long periods. The L-1 has just a small amount of that tube thing going on where the M3A is very neutral for a tube product. Also, either of them change with the use of other brand tubes. You can taylor the sound somewhat.
I curently use an Aesthetix preamp that costs almost twice what the L1/M3a does. Yes, it is just a little cleaner through the mids and has firmer bass but it is in its ability to play louder where it stands out.
I have always used a tubed preamp with a solid state amp. It kinda of gives you the best of both worlds. The only solid state preamps I have heard that I consider decent is Ayre's K5xe and K1xe. Other than those, too many SS colorations imo. I have heard a couple of decent passives.
Gs5556: I would agree very much with the importance of power supply design in tube preamps. But unfortunately high cost does not always imply a beefy power supply. Take the covers off the ARC LS25 and the BAT31SE, very comparatively priced products, and you will see the enormous attention to the BAT's power supply compared to the ARC. The same is true for the BAT 51SE compared to the Ref2.
Jafox, Gs5556 said, "Generally speaking," implying his awareness of anomalies such as the one you identify. There always have been instances where companies charge more because their brand name recognition allows them to, notwithstanding better quality available from other (perhaps less commercially recognized) manufacturers at comparable (or lower) price points, viz., your example of AR vs. BAT (with which I concur).

To get back to Jpaik's question, besides power supply, other issues significantly affecting cost (other than fit-and-finish and overall build quality) are the nature and quality of the volume control (beyond tube choice, volume control is another way in which many preamps add their own personality, color or even noise) and the quality of the internal wiring (point to point vs. circuit boards, e.g.).

I also add my voice in support of those championing the AI gear. I have owned both L1 and M3 in my time, and both provided outstanding sound and quality for the price, as well as being quite customizable in terms of sonic character with tube rolling.
Like many things in life, the better ones devote more attention to detail - both in their manufacture/design and their sound. I have upgraded my tube preamps from a Quad 22 (say 150 USD now) to a Verdier Control B with valve PSU (2300 GBP 4000 USD) to my current Tron Meteor (6000 GBP 11000 USD - replaced by the New TRON Syren - The mass of the preamps has increased considerably to reflect the better PSUs. However, more is not always better. It is important to get the details in the design correct - good quality power supplies, top grade or bespoke components. short signal paths which are correctly aligned to minimise noise etc. Inevitably this costs money and time. My Tron Meteor preamp took over 70 hours to build and weighs several times that of the Verdier let alone the Quad.
So what do I hear - very little! It's as if all the grain in the sound has been removed. The sound is transparent without noise. Soundstaging is natural and the Tron makes everything sound more like real music. That's what it's all about.

the rest of my system is
Platine Verdier Schroeder 2 Allaerts MC1B, Quad IIs (GT Audio rebuilt), Avantgarde Duos with PHY-HP cabling
I've been using Conrad Johnson tube preamps since the mid-l980s -- first the Premier 3 and now the Premier 14 -- and when I upgrade it will be to another CJ. Good luck, Dave
The next time you see a used Audio Electronic Supply, AES 3, made by Cary buy it. Usually in the $300 to $400 range. Be sure to replace the Chinese tubes with some better ones such as Sylvanias. It uses two 6SN7s. If you don't like it or decide to buy more expensive, you are likely to get most if not all your money back. I use one in front of a Llano 100 watt solid state driving Hales Rev 3s and am very happy. Other amps and preamps used include Acurus A150 amp and R10 Pre, Classe CAP 151, a Creek passive, and a Sim I5. The current combo just sound more natural. That is I can hear the wood in an accoustic guitar better than with other set ups. Click on the system link for a list of my current set up. Good luck and happy listening.
Many thanks to all of you, who provided such thoughtful responses and advice. I finally have some time to read carefully through what you have written and digest it all!