Most folks start their introduction to tubes with a tube pre-amp. Its a lot easy to use, the effects are more noticible to most people, and all you have to be concerned about is the matching of its output (gain and impedence) to an appropriate amp. That way you can increase your knowledge about tubes, making way for the day you decide to go to a tube amp as well, which I highly recommend.
I started with a tubed preamp, added tube amps a couple years latter. The amps make the bigger difference in my system but the preamp on it's own mated with a nice SS amp sounded very good also.
I just recently added a Audio Research SP16 to go with my Audio Research 150.2 amp and really like the results.
I started with a tube preamp as well. I then moved to a tube amp, but eventually went back to a solid state amp as a result of speaker efficiency.
Done right a solid state amp and tube preamp can sound very nice together. In addition to proper impedance matching, depending on the type of sound you desire, you'll need to find a tube preamp with the right sonic signature to match your amp. Some tube preamps are very musical (my Joule Electra for example) while some are much more transparent (the new Modwright comes to mind). There a lots of good choices out there so try to listen to a few in your system to get a good idea what matches up best with your amp.
I did it the opposite way, as I already owned a Musical Fidelity CD PRE 24, which is a solid state preamp/CD player combo. I replaced a Musical Fidelity A300 power amp with a Prima Luna Prologue 5 tube amp.
With a tube power amp (36wpc), I notice that the sound is richer and fuller, but doesn't doesn't quite have the slam that a muscle power amp has (150 wpc).
One thing about doing it this way, I did not have to be concerned about output matching as Newbee mentioned above.
It's a lot cheaper to tube roll in a pre-amp.
A nice pair of 12ax7's is a heck of a lot cheaper than a quad of KT-88's!
About five years ago I started just the way Dave did, with a tube preamp first. Since then, I feel it's had a greatly positive affect on any solid state amp I used with it. I recently added a tube amp and am enjoying that difference as well. As Elevick suggests, tube rolling a preamp is much cheaper. Also consider that many tube amps get extremely hot!
I second the suggestion to start with a tubed preamp, many options out there from First Sound, CAT, Cary and of course Conrad Johnson.
I also suggest starting with a tubed preamp. I think that the preamp exerts the greatest influence on sound quality. Also they're cheap and fun to tube roll. Enjoy checking out different preamps, I own and love my Herron and also recommend Joule Electra, Supratek, Air Tight, First Sound and many others. Have fun and happy listening!
Why not try a tube integrated and see how you like the sound. There are plenty of choices new from Cayin and Primaluna to Cary, CJ, ARC, or VAC on the pre-owned market. I started with a tube integrated in a second system which prompted a switch to tube separates in my main system. You didn't list your music preference, but from my experience tubes would only be a disadvantage for techno electronic or heavy metal type rock.
The Arc LS25 was a great match with my MC300, great tight bass and better extension on the highs than using a Mac solid state preamp. The Arc wasnt too tubey, had AU24's all around and was quite happy.
Another thought would be to also listen to the hibred amps.
I had a Moscode, which was tube input and S.S. output. 300W. Old circuits I assume as there was something about that unit that was lacking air. but alot of tube gear can seem that way. As well, S.S. can seem thin and shrill.
But there is a CJ that is tube in and mosfet out and that might also allow, (maybe) for a passive pre, which can add clarity that few powered pres can match.
If i had to do it, I'd get a VAC, or Joule pre, or an ARC and run it into S.S. That way you are amplifying music, even if thinning it out; as opposed to squashing music or squashing thin sound with tubes. I'm trying to figure which could be the worst outcome, and I think I'd go tube pre or tube hibred amp.
I have not looked at the other posts, so sorry if I'm repeating anything. Just focus on the amp/speaker combo and stop even thinking about the front end for now. The amp will-WILL make the biggest real (musical) difference of any component period. It is where the music will come alive or not. No other component can make the kind of impact that the amp can. A preamp is important when and only after you have the amp of your dreams. use a cheap pre with a statement amp and it will kill the statement pre/budget amp hands down. I wish the stupid mags and reviewers would just admit the amp is king and people would'nt have to keep trying to upgrade their way overpriced allready cd players and or go for even more obsene expensive speakers trying to get better sound.
To try and answer your original question... If you are going to go with just one, the general consensus is to go with the preamp. Reason being that the amp can only "amplify" the signal it is sent - so you can induce tube goodness with a pre. Beyond that, a s/s amp offers tighter bass control.
From a practical perspective this does two things for you:
#1 - you can spend less - look at the AES AE-3 for about $400 on Agon
#2 - you don't have to worry about how much poop you need for your speakers, the speaker impedance curve etc if what you already have works well. Also as Gunbei notes, a big tube amp throws lots of heat which may or may not be an issue for you. Since the only way to get more power is to use more or bigger tubes...
Thanks to all for your responses. I'm getting a sense that the biggest difference is probably the comparative price of tube rolling (and perhaps the heat on those hot summer days). I confess that I put the proverbial cart before the horse (in this case, the amp before the pre) by leaping at the dutch auction of TAD-60 amps earlier this week. I was struck by the impulse and then decided to ask the question. I figured I could audition it for the 15 day trial period with the Placette pre and see what difference it makes.
There was a modicum of rationale to the impulse, in that I thought the combo of transparent passive pre with tube amp might be a more balanced combination than less transparent MacIntosh and tube pre. On the other hand, I've also thought of replacing both with a tube pre and perhaps something like NuForce amps (having been intrigued by some of the comments here and elsewhere).
I appreciate Mahandave's point about anchoring the system with something strong because every 5 years I've gotten the itch and each time it gets more and more expensive. (not to say that my 5 year itch will ever entirely cease.)
Your responses are extremely helpful as I go down the road.
Maybe these comments arrive a bit late but... Like with any system when it comes to synergy of components I would tread cautiously in matching speakers and power amps, yet to my mind that may well evoke the most rewarding musical result in adding tubed components in one location of a system. A tubed Pre is maybe better added to tubed power amps for many reasons IMHO. Although I differ with some on what is THE most important single component, my choice being the source, hands down. If you don't recover the music, how can one amplify it? That said, the recent addition of Atma-Sphere OTLs to my system was profound and astounding. Best of luck Holderlin with your search.
I started with ss Symphonic Line RG1 with Klimo tube pre amp.Very nice.Then switched out SL for Graff GM100 OTL and more magic.Then I went to another higher level with Chapter Audio SS amp followed by their Preface pre.I truely could not beleive SS could sound so good(and beleive me I love tubes)
What preamp choice did you ultimately make and how are you liking it? I've just gone and done nearly the same thing as you--bought a tube amp (Air Tight ATM-2) on impulse ahead of choosing a preamp. Now, I'm shopping for a preamp and looking at these--Air Tight ATC-3, Herron VTSP-1, Modwright SWL 9.0 SE, Supratek Chardonnay, Acoustic Masterpiece C101, and EAR 834L. I'd have the Cary SWL 98 in there too, but I already have a Cary intergrated system that gives me a warm, "romantic" sound and I'm assembling this 2nd system for, theoretically, a more linear, transparent, and balanced presentation.