What's your "diminishing returns" preamp choice?

What preamp would you consider is at the point of diminishing returns for you? I realize this is a vague and subjective question, but I think it will be interesting to hear the answers.

Of course, a $10,000 preamp will (probably) sound better than a $1,000 preamp but everyone has a different point at which they feel they have spent enough money. In some cases, one may feel that there isn't a significant difference between a $2k piece and a $10k piece to justify such a purchase.

I've noticed that there are some gems in the audio world that defy their price point. For instance, Apogee Centaurs, Halfer 9505 etc. I've always found such pieces fascinating.
Who can say for sure??
It just doesn't work that way IME. The answers you get will be predictable in the sense that folks will generally say that what THEY are currently using is either 1 the best they've heard to date 2. The best for the money that they can afford or are willing to pay 3. The best in THEIR system. Really there are too many variables in listening and music preferences for the answer to ever be anything less than subjective. Recent example, listening to a vintage preamp I acquired lately I prefer to my current tube preamp in many if not all ways and a 4K preamp owned by a friend but the owner of the 4k pre prefers his overall in MY system, not his. In MY system after a while it becomes distracting and even annoying for reasons I can't put my finger on but relating to tonality. He doesn't hear this. So as Ebm points out, who can say for sure? `
get everything you need for the lowest price after proper research of your system or future system. that's head-on strategy for the largest diminishing return.
buy low sell high 'n that's all you need to do.
I've tried quite a few preamps in my time, such as Joule Electra LA 150 MK III, BAT VK 30 SE, a Sonic Euphoria transformer-based passive.

I decided I again wanted to go back to a tube pre, and I had wanted to build one for some time. So, I bought a Transcendent Sound Grounded Grid kit, using silver hook-up wire, upgraded Goldpoint stepped attenuator (with Bent Audio remote volume control, Clarity Caps output caps, and NOS Amperex 12AU7 tubes), and I enjoy this little preamp more than any of my previous ones.

It is dead quiet, with great detail and dynamics. Good performance can be had with little expenditure, and, for me, the DIY aspect adds much enjoyment to this great hobby.

No preamp at all is my choice.
A VTL 2.5 the newer version. Good price made very good, I have had the 5.5 for. 15 years WITHOUT one problem. Lucky I guess.
I buy audio components for the status they place me in the audiophile community. For me, the law of diminishing returns runs backwards. The more I spend, the better the value.

Ditto to Timrhu.

The best most transparent preamp is no preamp, unless!!! you need to your ear, a "colouration" that nearly all preamps bring to the sound.
And then it's particular to your own system and your own ear, no one elses.

If you believe that your source amp and speakers have the sound you want to maintain and keep, then a passive preamp or no preamp (if your source has a volume control)is the way to go.

Cheers George
Cost really doesn't have much to do with it- how good it sounds does.

Many preamps have a price tag that is not in line with how they sound. I've seen $2000 preamps take $13,000 preamps and eat them for breakfast- better in every way. Yet people will often think the more expensive preamp is better just because of the price.

You can make things too simple though; passives generally will eviscerate the bass impact as the math . You really do need a proper preamp if you want to hear everything correctly. The exception is if you can run the passive at full up. Even George agrees with this:


Your putting words into my mouth Ralph.

I said if you listen to a passive up full and the level is loud enough for you, you do not miss out on anything, as the transients are not smothered even when they're full up.
Passives sound just the same down low as they do up high, so long as the source is not a weak high impedance tube output stage >1kohm

Cheers George
The biggest surprise was when I tried the Tortuga preamp. It has bettered both an Audio Research REF-3 and a Constellation preamp. It uses light dependent resistors for attenuation and has software controlled auto calibration to eliminate impedance drift over time. Most surprising is that it has the best bass performance that I've heard in a preamp. By the way, it also has user selectable input impedance which allows the user to optimize performance of the source device. The balanced version I have is $1800.
I went with REF5se thinking the cost vs performance trade to the Aniv model to be beyond prudent...would probably still make that decision..the REF 10..same thinking...listening, hearing...for me anyway...I guess I lean to upper mid Giant killers...
In fact passives are usually better if they are full up, as there is less shunt resistance to ground, so the source (if a weak tube output) sees an even easier load, which equals better dynamics for them.

Passives sound just the same down low as they do up high, so long as the source is not a weak high impedance tube output stage >1kohm

These two contradict, both written by you. So which is it?

My experience mirrors the former rather than the latter (we used to build a passive years ago and continue to test them); all (and I do mean all) weaken the bass as you turn it down from full. For our testing we used a CDP with a solid state output; it is by no means 'weak'.

Some of this of course depends on the source- for example if an output coupling cap is involved (which it almost always is). But its all moot if you have a preamp as it buffers the input from the output cable.

Both! You can't see the forest through the trees?

These are both in reference to a source with a weak tube output stage, geeeeish!!

And don't even come into play if the source has a good low solid state output impedance.

Cheers George
07-15-15: Zd542
I buy audio components for the status they place me in the audiophile community. For me, the law of diminishing returns runs backwards. The more I spend, the better the value.
and you forgot to write that we respect you more & more when we know how many $$$$$$ you have spent on audio gear....... ;-)

image is everything!
For me, i'd be done once I upgrade to a Vitus SL-102 preamp which is as good as I could ever need or want for my tastes. The nice thing about this preamp is it is modular in construction & is able to be upgraded in the field as new modules become available. Obviously not cheap, though that would likely be my last preamp (accepting upgrades over time).
It took a $2000+ preamp (Musical Fidelity kW) to give me what I felt combined the best aspects of the passive (detail) and active (bass impact, dynamics, oomph) preamps I'd tried previously. Prior to that preamp, there were more tradeoffs that had to be made in my consideration.
Both! You can't see the forest through the trees?

These are both in reference to a source with a weak tube output stage, geeeeish!!

And don't even come into play if the source has a good low solid state output impedance.

I can see forests pretty well and also am pretty good at contradictions. Since you did write both statements I accept that you believe both of them but just so you know, if that is true it is also true that you are contradicting yourself.

Perhaps it would help if you defined what is meant by a 'weak tube output stage' (since tubes can easily drive headphones if set up properly; we can do it with our UV-1 preamp) and also what you mean by a 'good low solid state output impedance' as clearly Oppo, Wadia, dcS and others apparently do not qualify. I am assuming you mean 'output impedance', perhaps you have some numbers?
I use an "old and no longer available" Kavent S-33 dual mono balanced preamp which is the same damn thing as a Vincent SA-91 (even says that on a circuit board) but re-branded for reasons I don't remember…it sounds amazing (has an isolated dual mono power supply in it's own 3rd of the case) and will stay in my system until it dies and I can't find anybody to fix it, because it likely has zero re-sale value anyway. I could find a different sounding preamp, or a tube preamp, but a better sounding preamp? Doubtful, but I don't seem to care anyway…I do use a tube power amp with it and somehow this combo does the job (also a SS REL sub driven by the tube amp…is that cheating?)
Whatever Ralph, believe what you want.
I am not an expert like the rest of the folks who are posting but would say that a preamp shopper needs to try a PrimaLuna Dialogue Premium.

Hand wired, dual momo, many available replacement tubes, etc., etc. for $3K new.

this is the best my system has sounded - Maggie 3.6 and DWM bass panel, Ric Schultz modified Oppo 105, and W4S amp.

Yea, I know it is my current preamp!

Enjoy the journey!
I've lived in the no preamp is the best preamp and passive worlds. Both provided happiness and long-term satisfaction. I think everyone should experiment, as despite what anyone claims, those options do offer the best solution for many people. Or, many people at that particular junction in time...

Now, playing along that you want an actual preamplifier, my vote for "diminishing returns" preamplifier goes to the AES (Audio Electronic Supply / Cary) AE-3. With the statement that different components perform better or worse depending on the system they go into out of the way, I've seen this little preamp sound flat out amaze people. In fact, as good or better than some that if mentioned here would react like throwing gasoline on a fire. My only reservation is that it doesn't include a phono stage for those who require same.
Woofer72, I have been going through somewhat of a "final" pre-amp search myself. It is the ONE component I would pay more for to find a notable improvement. Generally what you get with more expensive designs is larger power supplies, better parts and construction but I really believe that in conjunction with that what is equally important is the simplicity of the design itself which can make many lower priced preamps really make you question how much to spend.

I really have been enjoying a Supratek Syrah for many years with little interest in pursuing the upgrade path full well knowing that there IS better BUT I recently changed amplifiers and the seed of change is planted and I am also looking, considering numerous options but far from settling on anything as of yet.

One thing I would bring to your attention is the Odyssey Candela. What I REALLY like about this preamp is the fact that it is a budget priced linestage at around 1.6k with pretty lofty performance at its price. I would describe its sound as warm, VERY resolving with well defined image outlines but most importantly, an SET like tonal presentation, really drawing you in. This is but an example of what might be out there. The Dehavilland or possibly a used Cary are other excellent considerations as well but this Odyssey REALLY caught me by surprise, lent to me by a friend. It's hands down better than another 4K preamp I directly compared it to and the linestage is better than the Supratek. On the other hand the Supratek has a great phono stage and excellent dynamics, probably the best 2.5k I've ever spent on an audio component. You might want to try their free home audition. Its hard to imagine you wouldn't like it.
You are correct about the power supply. The best preamp will be battery powered (IMHO).
Tubegroover, I appreciate your suggestion. I will try to check out the Odyssey Candela. I'm looking for a very transparent and accurate preamp. One that conveys all the detail and nuance of recordings. Also, it must be fast enough to accurately reproduce fundamental notes of percussion. If all this could be combined with a bit of warmth and a 3d soundstage that tubes yield, it would be ideal.

I have tried the no preamp approach. While I do see some of the benefits of doing this, I overall prefer having a preamp. To my ears, having a preamp does add a slight bit of distortion but yields better dynamics and brings out more details of recordings. The trade off is worth it in my opinion.

Thanks to all for the useful info.
I use a Passive DIY built clone of a Music First Baby reference, which is excellent for detail and transparency, but lacks the last bit of slam and dynamics. I recently bought an ex Dem Modwright 36.5, which is marginally better because of the extra said slam. I am surprised nowone mentioned Modwright, which seems to produce value across it's range, not cheap, but good value. It certainly betters the ARC Ref 3, I tried in my system a while ago.

Going back 10 years, before I went integrated, the Conrad Johnson Premier 17 was pretty darn good. I suspect that, older generation of CJ amps could still give most modern Pre's, stiff competition.
David your comment about older generation cj preamps is interesting and timely in my case. I recently purchased a PV9 from the estate of a recently fallen audio friend at a very good price. He supposedly had work done on it but looking inside it appears stock, so I don't know what. Having owned both a PV7 and PV5 in the 80's I've always been a fan of the CJ. What I like about the PV9, much better than the other two with the huge power supply is the 3D layering of instruments and a natural tonality, more of a mid hall presentation than upfront/direct which I also like. The older CJ components I've listened to all seem to have this characteristic. The only issue with this unit is that it just doesn't resolve everything in the manner of a newer design although there is much to like otherwise. I am considering upgrading to better teflon/polypro coupling and filter caps to see where it might go. The only issue is cost vs gain since there is no way of knowing the end results and recapping will not be cheap. Factory upgrades to teflon would be quite expensive, more than I would want to pay. The big consideration here is the phono stage is included, a big plus since that was the main focus on this unit when it was introduced.
Has anyone ever heard a bottlehead beepre? I've been intrigued by 300 B preamps for quite some time and loved the DIY aspect of the hobby. So I really been thinking about giving the bottle head A try.
I use a Passive DIY built clone of a Music First Baby reference, which is excellent for detail and transparency, but lacks the last bit of slam and dynamics.
This quote by David12 is something I have heard many others say about passives and is consistent with what I personally hear from the two resistor-based passives I own.

I have owned some 20'ish preamps in the $3-10K price range, including many of which are still current models. For me, the merry-go-round stopped with my McCormack TLC-1 that Steve McCormack at SMc Audio upgraded/rebuilt with the single goal of providing the best sound possible. It is now a zero-gain, balanced, buffered-active preamp with an outboard choke power supply, Lundahl transformers, Jensen copper foil caps and a Shallco discrete-resistor volume control with Audio Note resistors. It has a new black faceplate and is pictured on the SMc Audio website and on my A'gon virtual system page. It just kills every other preamp I have owned. I highly recommend you give Steve a call and discuss your options. One of the best audio purchases I have made.
I can list off preamps up to 8K that couldn't hold a candle to my LDR at 1/8 the price.

I recently purchased an Ayre K5xe-MP here on Agon and absolutely love it. I was playing my CH Precision C1 dac direct into my CH Precision A1 amp and it sounded great, but with the Ayre there's a slight sweetening of the sound with no or little loss of air and dynamics playing the C1 direct. I think the K5xe-MP is a steal even at full list.
cj ET5
I am very impressed with the new $3k model from Backert Labs. Think they will have it at Capitol Audio Fest. Cheers,

Socfan12, you will also see you have more resolution, especialy in the midrange and no loss of resolution when you lower the volume.
Vincent SA-T8. I own 4 Pre-Amps and have heard many more. Competes with Pre-Amps up to 10k. Superb dimensionality, soundstaging,dynamics. Musicality in spades.
Hi Spencer

I understand there is a drawing for the 3K Backert Labs preamp. They also have a 7K model with some very interesting features. Check out this link.

Hi Michael,

Yes, that link sums it up pretty nicely. I've heard both the Backert Labs preamps and agree with the heart of the PFO review. Didn't get to roll any tubes, and IME that implies an even higher ceiling. I like the clever magnetic "pop-top" in the luxury model.

FWIW, Backert is no rookie. He has been doing mods to Conrad Johnson and many other top brands for decades under his other business RHB http://www.rhbsound.com/. Since Bob is a member of our local Philly area audio club (www.paagonline.org), I can say from personal experience that you won't find a more credible, humble and talented guy in the business. Many people I know have raved for years about Bob's ability to improve the sonics of their high end preamps & amps.

I hope to check out their room at Capitol Audio Fest w/Martin Logan. Cheers,
I'd love to hear the backert preamps. Bob repaired my joule a while back and was great to work with
+1, Socfan12 and Cerrot.
The Ayre k--5xeMP pulls everything together making the whole a whole lot better than the sum of its parts. An absolute bargain at about $3.5k.
:) J.
I'm with SOCFAN12 here. I bought an Ayre K5XE-MP from a Bethesda Maryland Retailer (who sells their trade-in stuff on A'gon). I have it paired with a Bryston 14BSST, and a logitech transporter (playing mostly FLAC files and Apple lossless).

Vanishingly low levels of noise, absolutely musical. I tried swapping out the K5XE-MP with a KXR-Twenty (that costs twenty thousand) and there was no audible difference (to me). Self-built cables (refuse to pay stupid money for copper wire coated with fairy dust)

The K5Xe-MP is in my system to stay. I also like the fact that the serial number was "penned in" with a "Sharpie" :-)
Not a preamp but if 60w/ch is enough to float the boat the bel canto c5i integrated has it all and would be the last piece 98% of music enthusiasts would ever need IMHO.
I'd probably get Lamm or Gryphon thinking of either as the best value too, and be happy ever since. Or maybe older top of the line Rowland.