Interesting how there are so many 'schools of thought' in this hobby. I've heard of the "speakers are the most important", "source is most important", "preamp is most important", and "amp is most important", though usually those that attend the "amp is most important" school are using SET tube amps. I even know a couple of folks who attend the "cables are most important" school. There are many different paths to audio nirvana.
That said, to me, the preamp is the heart and soul of the system, and has always been the most difficult choice for me. Possibly because I am looking not only for specific sound qualities, but also there are many ergonomic or functional issues involved. Unlike an amp, which basically just turns on and off, a preamp has many more functioning duties. So it is more difficult for me to find a preamp that sounds the way I want it to, and to have all of the features that I am looking for, than to find an amp that I enjoy.
Of course with all of that being said, what are you trying to accomplish here? Are you unhappy with the sound of your current system? Or do you just have some extra cash and are looking to spend it on audio gear? If you are unhappy with the sound, are you looking for more resolution or more musicality? What speakers are you using and how big is your room? How loud do you normally listen at? Perhaps if we knew more of what you were trying to accomplish, it would help us to make more informed recommendations.
You most definately need to upgrade your preamp, I have owned the same AES preamp and was dissapointed with its sonics. In fact it spent the least amount of time before selling it.
I agree with Jmcgrogan2. The linestage in my experience is the most critical piece of electronics in the system. In the past few decade I have had the privilege of trying out a mumber of Phono preamps, linestages and power amps. There were a number of phono stages and power amps that I could have lived with, but only two linestages were acceptable. The others had such strong colorations that I was unable to ignore them. Not so with the phono preamps or power amps. They all have colorations but they were not as intrusive.
I haven't heard the AE-3 but I spent a couple weeks with its big brother the Cary SLP-95, and while the Cary wasn't a bad sounding preamp it did have some strong character, I.e . Colorations. There are certainly more neutral linestages on the market.
I agree wholeheartedly with Jmcgrogan2 the preamp is the heart of a system. A preamp can hold back or bring your system to a different level.
Of course all things in the chain are important, but without a good preamp your system won't shine.
Your preamp has nice tone, but doesn't have the resolution for your other components to open up and show what they are capable of, IMHO
The linestage is important to drive an amp to its full
potential and provide a way to select between sources unless
you have only one source. But more importantly it should
sound good with your current setup. Unfortunately there is
no clear way to cut to the chase, and "sometimes"
one has to resort to trial and error.
I have heard several Cary products and liked them a great
deal but the AES was not one of them. I think most of us can
generally agree on what sounds good and tube rolling has the
potential to improve this sound but there are products out
there that you can spend alot of money upgrading, however
they are not engineered properly nor do they provide the
proper foundation to benefit from these improvements.
I purchased a chinese tube preamp one time and asked a well
known designer to upgrade it, his response was " what
would you have me do to it? I read between the lines and
buried the idea.
I recommend an Audible Illusions L1 or the M3a if you need
phono and or if you can find one, you can't go wrong.
EXCELLENT SONICS for the money!
I am also in the preamp being the most important camp....it has been for me. The preamp has the most affect on the tone of the signal and when you get it right you know right away. In conjunction with that I have also found the cable connection that makes the biggest difference (although they all matter) is the preamp to amp connection.
Get those two things right and you are more than halfway there IMHO.
Jmcgrogan2's comments make a lot of sense, to me at least, assuming that one already has an established system that they are trying to improve by altering the input signal or modifying the amp/speakers tone. I would take a different view though if one were to design a system fresh in which case I would want a pre-amp which was a straight wire with gain, one that contributed nothing to the source signal and drove the amp optimally. Lots of adjustments to obtain a desired tone can be obtained in a system without including the pre-amp.
In general, I agree with all the comments regarding preamps. Preamp has to work with a low level signal so it's difficult to build one that preserves the integrity of orig signal. Plus the ability to drive amps properly with enough features. From my experience, a good one is usually very expensive.
If I were to start a system, I'll start with speakers. I find speakers have the most influence on the sonic character of a system. Speaker decision will drive remaining components. I will ONLY over spend on a preamp and speakers if I have more self discipline. LOL!
I went from a classe audio dr6 to a cary slp-05 that I got for a great deal. Depending on your budget I would suggest the slp-05 used or if that is too much to spend maybe a used slp-98.
I have also heard that the audible illusion preamp sounds pretty good (have not heard it myself) but read on numerous threads that it chews through tubes rather quickly.
I was thinking maybe a red wine isabella, dodd audio, or manley. My price range is about 2000k used. I will look into audible illusions as one of you suggested. any others?
Dav65mus, I think you done very well for yourself with the
Cary slp-05, excellent choice. I can tell you the Audible
Illusions will sound much different, high definition leaning
more towards very good solid state but much better in terms
of transparency and detail and would seriously come down to
which sound you prefer, both being very good. I think the
Cary will sound more rounded and warmer but with excellent
The Audible Illusions can eat up tubes if you don't go with
the manufacturer's recommendation to use their sovetek
tubes. Even so they are very good sounding and you probably
wouldn't need to tube roll anyway. When I reinstalled an
Audible Illusions L1 preamp, I was reminded by friends that
this is how good your system used to sound. By the way it
did not replace a Cary preamp which I also liked a great
I have 2 friends with Audible Illusions and they roll Reflektor 6H23N-EB. It's durable with excellent sound. AI is definitely more neutral compare to SLP-05.
Please send me a PM. I have a preamplifier possibility in your price range that may be of interest of to you.
I went with a Modwright LS-100. Its still a 6SN7 pre, but I think it will be a much better match for my Pass amp
Thanks for updating us. Let us know what you think when you have it set up and settled in. I enjoy preamps with the big, bold sound of the 6SN7 tube. Hopefully you will too.