There probably has been no fundamental change in tube technology in 60 yrs. There have been some improvements in convenience (e.g., remote control), but, the circuitry remains the same, and as for parts quality, there are plenty of older parts that beat anything available today.
When it comes to modern vs. older tube designs, it is more a matter of voicing than technology. Many current tube linestages are being specifically designed and voiced to be more like current solid state units. It is very much a matter of taste and system matching as to whether this is good or bad.
If you are looking at something 10-15 years old as the used alternative, I would say that you would not be giving up anything at all, in terms of sound, and would be way ahead when it comes to a dollar for dollar comparison. The only issue would be whether some of the components in the older unit have deteriorated. Specifically, one would be looking at the electrolytic capacitors in the power supply. At 10-15 years, these will probably still have quite a bit of life remaining. If they do go bad after some time, any competent repair facility can replace those parts. That is one of the positive attributes of tube gear--all of it can be serviced and kept up to original quality (it is often harder to service solid state because replacement transistors can be really hard to come by).
I bought an Audio Research Sp-15 for $1,500. here a few years ago. (It is a two chassis pre new was $6,000.
It is solid state with a nice (3) tubed phono stage.
Another preamp i bought used off Agon was a VAC Standard with remote for $1,500. New retail is $4,000. That is a four tube preamp.
Both were excellent deals for the price used/new.
So from my experience i would say some pretty great deals are out there on tube preamps.
Just have to watch the ads, and be ready to buy instaantly.
Low priced stuff is bought up within hours of being posted.
For example I listed an Audio Research Sp-10 for sale, working but needing new tubes, at a reduced price compared to the going prices. I had four good offers to buy within twenty minutes of posting, plus all sorts of question messages.. and that was at 7AM...
So basically to find a good deal on a great preamp, you need to watch the listings, and know what is what.
I would suggest researching the old tube preamps you are interested in.
Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, and others you feel are good.
So then you KNOW a few models, what they cost new, how old, and the going used prices. Then just watch. And be willing to grab one of a group that meet your desires.
You can get a great preamp for way less.
I knew nothing about the VAC Standard before buying. I had to look up reviews and decide in minutes if i wanted to buy it. Glad I did.
I would always go used; I bought my current pre , $7000 list, as a demo for $3000 and my previous one, $5000 list, used from a recording studio which was a victim of the recession for $1900. Components are like cars, they usually lose a lot of value as soon as the box is opened. I would look at Quicksilver, not much press but very good. CJ is always a safe bet.
Obviously, used is a better choice in regards to price. Just make sure you buy a product that is in fact in good condition and is well supported by the maker. The ARC sp-16 with phono I use is all the pre-amp I would think most would ever want and can be had in that price range and ARC has been around a long time and is known for service as well as sound quality.
I disagree with Larryi, there has been one major advance in tube technology. Companies have figured out how to get a lot more money for them! LOL
Thanks for the feedback... That's basically what I figured, and so I was thinking I would probably go the used route. I couldn't imagine that the preamps had really made that much improvement for a new one to better one that is maybe 10 years old, and 2x the price. Considering inflation, the difference is evn more substantial anyway.
I've always had a preference for the Sonic Frontiers preamps (probably because I just couldn't really afford ARC, C-J, BAT or others back then, so they never really showed up on my radar), so I was thinking of a S-F SFL-2 or maybe or Line-2 or -3.
Maybe some of you can tell me what preamps are contemporary to the late- 90's and early- 00's SF gear and should be considered? I like a comfortable sound, slightly laid back maybe, dark rather than bright, large and deep soundstage, and some 'tube' sound, but not hugely euphonic with tubiness. I think that's why I like the SF gear, over the older C-J, for example, but it's really been a long time since I've heard C-J.
One preamp that would meet your criteria is the VTL 2.5. It is in the right price and age range, purchased used, and is renowned for its soundstage. There are a couple threads discussing the 2.5 on this site - it has an enviable reputation.
No doubt others will suggest equally attractive options.
I'd second the ARC SP-15 which is a great value & classic valve preamp if you can find one here on the 'Gon. Another good pre to look at is a near new Modwright LS-100 which you can pick up (ex phono stage) for around $2k, or with phono stage around $3k.
CJ sounds less like solid state than ARC for example. My advice is to replace, or have any and all electrolytic capacitors replaced when you buy used. Over a period of years they get weaker and degrade the performance; of course this only applies to older used preamps
I am not familiar with the sound of Sonic Frontier gear, but, your description of your preference would suggest something other than Audio Research and even BAT. The Audio Research gears tends toward a quite lean sound (much more so than most solid state gear).
I suggest looking at Joule, Conrad Johnson, VAC, Cary, Jadis and Lamm. There are a lot of obscure brands that are terrific, though MUCH harder to find used, such as, Audiospace (a Hong Kong brand that has been putting out great gear for a long time), Fi, Air Tight,and de Havilland.
A hybrid rather than a tubed preamp, but wow do I like the Musical Fidelity kW. By buying used you are able to afford features in amps and preamps that you might not be able to afford otherwise, particularly in terms of parts that make up a big chunk of the price for these. In partucular I'm thinking of the toroids and power supply caps, and transformers.
Power supply in that kW is massive, and a good power supply goes a long way in audio...
Even though you can buy new, the new ones can still have the lower end parts, unless you buy their better/premium line. If you buy used, you can get the premium (for same or less sometimes) used ones, that can be more transparent, cleaner, and better in other ways, due to better parts and maybe a better design, a lot of the time. If you buy a brand that has been around, and has a good reputation, you could do a lot better used. These are items if built right, last a long time. Sometimes, the seller will even include better tubes also.
The dividing point might be remote control. If you can go without a remote, there are a lot of great preamps out there that go begging.
One of my first considerations would be a Music Reference RM-5.
Something else that will stun you if you can find one is Encore Audio.
joule electra la 100 or 150 mk 2.
Do some research on dehavilland ultraverve, performs way above its price.
Thanks for the additional feedback folks...
I've got a lot of research to do, but this is all very much appreciated information.
ya never know. i tried 5 pre's when i was auditioning. 2 were current production units and 3 were older....one was very old. was wanting to stay in the $2000-$2500 range. sound wise...the oldest one (pass eleph) sounded best to me. i tried to live with it but not having a remote killed it for me. went back to #2 in my shoot-out (pass x-1) and have been happy ever since.
the two newer units i tried (bel canto and wyred4sound) weren't a good fit for whatever reason...likely my sound preference. it was hard to believe but i liked the neutrality of the older units better.
so my point is....ya never know until it's plugged into your gear.
IMO, go for a used tube preamp from a well know manufacturing. That way you could save a lot money for some NOS tubes to tailor up your sound reference and maximize its performance. As far as reliable, I haven't got any bad luck with all the used tube that I bought on this website. Go luck on your quest.
I would focus on ARC used gear. First off if you purchase wisely, you will not lose any of your investment. The reason being that ARC is well established and their gear is extremely well made. So far as it sounding leaner than CJ, maybe their newer stuff but less so their vintage gear which IMHO is still desirable and offers excellent performance with careful tube selection and changing out some of the capacitors to enhance performance. Example, the classic SP-10 pre-amp that Elizabeth notes above. There are reasons its used value continues to increase and is still sought after by audiophiles and they aren't sentimental, believe me! The SP-11 and SP-15 changed the direction, more towards the leaner and accurate presentation but also superb performance, a matter of taste and system matching to be sure.
The fact that producing a new preamp today with quality construction will be more costlier for a manufacturer then that of yesteryear. Also some of them older preamps were built during a period of time when two channel was at its peak and alot of manfacturers were competing with each other for your dollars. This in turn produced some of the best sounding stereo preamps. I'm sure if you are willing to shell out enough money, you can buy a new quality sounding pre.
My recommendation is to buy used, and stick to an established brand. Eventually you WILL want to sell it, and resale value for an obscure brand is usually pretty dismal.
Good luck with the search.
I would recommend a used Emotive Audio Erato, Poeta or even Sira for the best sound and overall value in the price range. They don't come up for sale all that often but if you can wait a month or two you should be able to find one on Audiogon.
I also would respectfully disagree with the suggestion that the sound quality of older tube gear is equal to modern preamps. It is true that SOME vintage equipment and SOME vintage parts can offer unsurpassed sonic quality. I am thinking of Western Electric equipment and the like. These are exceptions though which is why they stand out.
I'd go used. If you choose right, you'll get more for your money.