Sonic Frontiers - especially since it has been upgraded!
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I'm not familiar with the Sonic Frontiers, but had a Jolida Fusion for a while. It was kind of noisy and made some loud noises (can't remember if it was at turn on, or switching inputs, or what). One of the balanced connections came loose and they were good about helping me get that fixed, but the connections were pretty cheap to start with. I wasn't very impressed. I replaced it with an ARC LS 26, which was a huge improvement in build quality, usability, and sound quality. The ARC is out of your price range, but I'd recommend stepping up and buying a higher quality product than the Jolida.
The SF Line 1 with Sovtek or new production tubes is not what I would call SS or if so it’s very good SS, but again I would not go there. Is it as Tubey as early ARC or CJ pre’s, no but not sure a real colored preamp is desirable for most listeners today. Many lush/warm preamps can sound a little slow and tubby fat bottom end too. Put some nice NOS tubes in and she will sing and you don’t have to replace all six but the two in the back will do nicely. The Line 1 is built like a tank and a great sounding preamp with the right tubes. The Line 1 will not disappoint and tube rolling is very noticeable with this preamp.
This is a good example of why I always say go integrated. Here we have several mediocre choices all of which wind up being $3k to $5k together, maybe more, and that's without interconnect and before power cords. That kind of money will get you into a nice new Prima Luna or Raven integrated. Just way more value that way- even before factoring in you can get a lot better power cord and interconnect because you're only buying one instead of two.
I'm with testpilot. Expand the search.
@adg01 The SF Line 1 with Sovtek or new production tubes is not what I would call SS or if so it’s very good SS, but again I would not go there.You are right, I didn’t mean to imply that all SS pre amps are poor sounding.
What I was trying to convey (as a former owner of SF Line 3SE) is that the SF Line series of pre-amps are boring, sterile, and lifeless. Don’t be fooled by the impressive parts list, the cool round hockey puck remote, and the fact that it has been upgraded with even more expensive parts.
Now if you have auditioned a SF Line pre-amp and you like it, ignore my post as your opinion is the only one that matters.
I had a ModWright SWL 9.0 and put it up against a few higher priced and newer balanced ARC, Levinson, Parasound, and other preamps and the little ModWright was more enjoyable. The others were cold and didn’t have the PRaT of the SWL 9.0 regardless of being single ended. I wouldn’t let balance in/outputs make my decision but on sound alone. At the time I had an ARC 100.2 and the SE ModWright still embarrassed several balanced preamps including an ARC LS25 MK II.. Pretty sure the LS100 is not balanced whatsoever but only a XLR jack which can be done with interconnects alone. Tape loop is an issue though but you can still record but does limit some depending on how the OP is actually using the loop and with what other component.
The SF Line 1 with proper tubes is a fine component which I know well and my opinion and only my opinion is if it sounds cold and sterile it’s possible or likely the source that’s feeding it. I always felt it is a fairly neutral preamp so it’s as they say, “blank in is blank out.” < parental edited. They don’t pop up often so there’s little to no risk to buy and if it doesn’t work it will sell easily. I had a older SF SFL-1 many years back and with the right tube, being a hybrid, that was a really nice preamp for the money and again it was way overbuilt and was leagues beyond the ARC LS7 it replaced. Forgot to mention at the time I was using Apogee Centaur speakers which do not favor sterile and cold components... great speakers by the way with the right equipment.
I would not recommend an old (very old) preamp that was just ok many years ago. I personally would be leery of the whole upgraded thing. Just because you put a better part inside a preamp doesn't guarantee it will sound better. The design is such that all the parts have to work together to sound right.
There are some really good new pre's that will probably outperform the Sonic Frontiers and the Jolida and you would get a full warranty. Look at the Schiit line and also take a close look at the Supratek line, specifically the Chardonnay model. This model keeps getting better and better because they keep evolving the circuit. Many of the owner's of this preamp say it outperforms units costing 2X to 3X it's price. They are all point to point wired, he uses tube shunt regulation (which is unheard of at this price point) And tube rectification in the overbuilt power supplies.
I'm not certain what the budget is but they are calling the Chardonnay the preamp deal of the decade. It retails for $1999.00 brand new. Do either of the two used models you're looking at come with any kind of warranty and do you know how old they are? Supratek runs the tubes very conservatively and the typical tube life is 10,000.00 hours. The design is based on the 6sn7 which a lot of people think that is the best sounding tube design for a preamp. The Chardonnay comes with a lifetime transferable warranty, pretty much unheard of. Warranty is great but it's the sound quality that matters most and everything I've read about the Supratek says it's absolutely amazing. Supratek's power supplies are overbuilt so the reliability is excellent. Good luck with whatever you decide to do.
I forgot to mention in my last reply that years ago I had a Sonic Frontiers pre (it's been over ten years) so I forgot which model but thought it was not only boring but also had some of the worst bass I've ever heard from a tube pre, it was very muddy and boomy. Putting in nos older tubes helped but those can be very expensive.
I have tried a couple times to move away from my SF line 1 of which only has pertinent upgrades due to its age. Right now I have my Pass xa30.5 up and running and with only playing a cd I can assuredly say that music is not sterile or without impact. On some level I suspect that I have held onto this unit because of the full function remote and the plethora of features of the Line1.
That being said.. I recently had a Modwright LS100 in here and definitely found my music to have more of everything and attribute that to the 6sn7 tube based LS100 and of course its topology. And I sold it.. go figure. minor issues ---huge cabinet.. would need to move the feet a bit to have it even sit on my normal size rack. I had put it on the large glass top of a Sanus rack where my TT lived and put the TT on top shelf of my main rack. Moving the feet should be quite doable due to vented slots on the bottom.
other main issue ---Volume control (blue Alps) not so great via the remote. unable to implement an incremental volume down to get the level I wanted. Could be a janky motor for the remote volume function. In all fairness there was some intermittent issue with that function and I had talked to Modwright about it and seemed to resolve some sticking but still not able to lower or raise volume to my satisfaction using the remote. ---esp compared to the Line 1.
Also,, although Im not positive of this because I am relying on memory hindsight. Bass was possibly a bit over done at times. I only thought of this because I read of one other complaint of this and that was after I sold mine.
btw- running Harbeths so my speakers have been excellent no matter what I have run so far.
Now, seriously considering on going for a LS100 yet again.. The sonics were obviously lush and engaging .. tube flavor ---too much?
Supratek does indeed seem to be a top consideration. The logistics of the whole thing are a bit of a put off. I had contacted Supratek re/ a used one for sale on a hifi web site and he was not particularly forthcoming on info about the older unit. Generally, I am much more inclined to buy pre owned for obvious reasons of cost. Of course then one has to consider any potential for issues with used.