Source. If it is not there coming into the pre, it will not be there going out.
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Which is more important, a) the source, if it is not clean as clean can be the rest just keeps the garbage flowing, b) amplification, if it isn't made loud enough and cleanly so your going to hear each piece of grunge that gets picked up along the way, c) speakers if they can't release the purity, beauty, and flow everything upstream is wrong.
They are all true, everything effects everything else in the stream from source to speakers to room and back to your ears.
What is most important is getting the stream right and as the I Ching says so clearly, "It is difficult in the Begginning"
I'm a bit behind you with regards to settling on a phono stage right now.
Sorry no hands on experience yet with a great preamp just alot of coloured over priced pretty boxes over the years.
Though my hunch right now to take serious is something from Jeffery Jackson of Experience Music Inc. or Guy Hammel of Placette Audio, Guy's active line stage.
My own answer: Both
Within reason, naturally. But . This question has truly, no right or wrong answer, as everything matters. The How much part depends on way too many variables to be resolved quite so simplistically.
I wanted/have a system which uses multipel sources. So a pretty good pre is in order. Certainly so is each source. Radio, CDP/DAC, PC/DAC, etc.
I have a great preamp. One whose attributes accentuate the musical side of the ledger more than the articulate side however, it is most revelatory in exposing errant signal info as well so most sources I own, though not commensurate or on par with my preamp, do engender adept signal generation. Consequently, my pre has an additive effect on improving things generally speaking. Ill put it another way. Regardless the amp Ive attached it too, and the source for that matter, the sound has stepped up every time.
It follows then that every step up I can attain in a source output, Im again improved upon with the final outcome.
Being practical about things as Im prone to do not having the ability to buy top tier devices whimsically or impulsively, I feel there needs to be a fairly good disparity in there somewhere for appreciable signal loss or more pertinently, degredation to occur or in fact, be realized.
For example, todays market is producing preamps that perform very well indeed for less than $4K MSRP. A few online rags have chosen some for under $3K as some of their best of 2009 items. Very good digital one boxes are had now for under $2K! Its taking a much higher level of investment now to out run the more modestly priced fare lately.
Knowing now what I know of that which I currently own, Ive got to say IF a pre is to be used as central unit to a rig, the pre investment will show itself as one where spending more (to a point) is a very good idea . More so than on the source again now, within reason. Perhaps its akin to the adage you wont want to run recaps on a Vette. .. and I say all this with the notion I believe strongly in building fromt to back rather than the speaker first concept as Ive found this approach pays off quicker.
BTW the MSRP on my preamp is higher than that of any other piece I own in my system and may well get a further investment via upgrades. So if nothing else is concluded from my exp, it can be said wherever you infuse a larger investment into components transmitting or developing the signal, it will pay off. The key then remains merely the matching of the components to one another. I do doubt seriously too, were the investment contrary to mine, and I had spent 4K on a source and 1K on a preamp, would I have had as good results or better? Id say No and not look back, if my DAC, or receivers preamps are providing me any true insight into this suggestion.
Find the magic in your affair where you can. In my own, its my preamp predominately, but not exclusively. Its the sum of the whole more so than just one piece.
You asked for real story. OK, here is mine.
I had a quality SS system based on vinyl in the early 80's. Excellent turntables (2). I thought this was pretty good. Source to speakers. Unfortunately vinyl was becoming a real PITA. Record quality was terrible and new vinyl was being recorded in 'digital'. Then came the CD 'forever'. I bought an early Sony and a few CD's - it was terrible! Then I bought a CAL Aria (tubed) CDP. OK this is better but not really great. Then I got flush and I bought an ARC SP10II - suddenly CD became more enjoyable and I bought more CD's. But I also played some records and I was appalled by all that I was missing with my previous phono-preamp.
The SP10II became a gatekeeper for me for the next 20+years. IMHO, sources come and go, formats come and go, but a wisely chosen pre-amp will last a long time and take you thru many changes of sources as well as amps and speakers.
Agreed again on- weakest link, and also synergy factor.
Commonly known in the audio community.
But yet hoping to hear more stories reflecting dramatic improvements when injecting new components into the system.
So still searching- which one is more important?
Let's say budget allows one expensive component and one inexpensive-- which would you spend more on???
By the way I am wondering if integrated amps may be a good way for companies to make an incredible piece of equipment that will beat seperates by carefully matching the internal preamp to the amp and sounding better than seperates. I'm sure it has happened but that could be another thread.
The signal from a source through a preamp be it FM broadcast , phono stage or cd, this is where a great front end will hit the wall if the preamp is a bad design at ANY price level.
For anyone serious about this issue not using a preamp, you will need volume controls and certainly not the ones offered with the majority of components.
This is where magnetic based passive volume controls come into play, then again this path may not work in your particular set up ,you have to try one. "However if it does" you can forget the line stage.
Years ago I went that route and it did not work for me,for others they will never return to a preamp.
I will re-visit, try again with these superb controls.
As for a "serious preamp" a good place to start would be Jeffery Jackson's unique tube design, Experience Music Inc. and for solid state Guy Hammels active line stage, Placette Audio.
If in no hurry... wait and see what the new Thor enterprise, sans mr. Marks comes out with... or just snap up an older one for near nothing now. it/they are likely the best value in high end audio today. for their now going prices? A true no brainer... if SE is not an issue for you. Fascinating line stage preamp!
Best preamp I've heard in many many years. Many. Including Krell, Levinson Cary & CJ's upper end ones, but not the very top ones they all make.. as I've not heard their Reference units. I did hear the top McIntosh and again, thor TA 1000 MK II, won easily.
4 tubes.. self biasing.. outboard power sup.. plug it in, play it and you will enjoy it.