Van Alstine gives you two outstanding options there, he pretty much owns the market at that price level. The T8+ is pure tube, while the Avastar uses a tube input stage and an SS output stage.
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Upscale Audio still has a few AES-DJH preamps. These were designed by Dennis Had of Cary Audio. I believe you can get one new with remote for about $1300 or so. Great little preamp at a terrific value. Swap out the stock tubes with some NOS and you should be set. As with most Cary gear, it's on the warm sound of neutral.
Must be also tonally accurate, extended and transparent.
Let's put it this way, if I substitute the Shrimp in place of the VAC Renaissance, I still enjoy the music. I am not sitting there thinking that the sound sucks in comparison to the VAC.
I cite this as a straight drop-in without changing cables other than XLR to RCA which I have both in the same model. So, no other system alterations whatsoever necessary when switching to the Shrimp.
The Shrimp has less low end heft but as a trade-off, sounds punchier in the bass. It is also not as extended at the top as the VAC. Consequently, some of the recorded ambience is not as completely separated from the notes played as heard through the VAC. But, there is still a certain puppy-like quality to the Shrimp that just makes it fun to listen to. The lack of remote control is a bit of a pain but the Shrimp has such a nice big smooth operating volume knob that it's a pleasure to get up, go over and give it a turn. The volume control is not stepped either which I hate.
I have no problems with hiss or hum which I also hate.
I much preferred the Shrimp to Audio Research SP16 or LS15.
From your description, tonally accurate and extended with a bias toward the warm side of nuetral, I think you would like the VTL 2.5 tubed preamp. It comes with a remote and is within your price range if you don't need the phono stage. I was on the same search a few yrs ago and found the answer with the VTL and NOS Mullards. Hope this helps.
Remember with a tube pre-amp and SS amp, it is important to go with an amp that has higher input impedance (I prefer 60K Ohm or higher in general, but 40K is probably OK). How high will vary depending on pre-amp output impedance peaks at certain frequencies, which is often poorly documented. I like to go with the general rule keep the output impedance spec on the pre low and the input on the amp as high as possible to minimize chances for distortion and poor dynamics.
I recall 3 of the leading contenders in a tube pre-amp for me were DeHavilland, ARC, and VTL. The Manley is interesting but was not on my radar at the time. My local dealer sells ARC so I got to hear the sp16, liked what I heard and ended up buying the sp 16 new though at a decent price in that it was near the end of its production run.
What amp will it be used with? The TAD 125s? With ARC, I'd expect those to provide a most resolving sound similar to the best tube gear I have heard, which tends to resemble SS more.
VTl and DeHavilland made my short list when looking probably can't go wron with either of those as well. Probably more of a personal taste thing. My gut says those will sound more "tubey" than the ARC based on what I have read, but have never actually heard these.
I think any of those pre-amps are good choices.
ARC sp16 uses 6 12AX7 tubes, three in the line stage and 3 in the phono.
My TAD 125s and my ARC SP16 are in different systems. Would like to try them together someday with the Dynaudio monitors and OHM 100s in particular.
The ARC replaced a Carver C6 pre-amplifier and was a major step up in my main rig. The Carver is currently running the TADs and this combo is quite good in my second rig running Triangle monitors + M&K sub and Stax headphones.
You have a pretty detailed amp and very resolving speakers (Merlins?) I believe also.
Unless ultimate detail and resolution is your thing, ARC may not be the way to go in your case.
I think you are on a good track. I would love tohear the resulting system no matter which way you go with the pre.
Not sure if you do phono or not, but be sure to take that into account in that some pre-amps have this built in and some not and typically it will add cost.