Would an amp or preamp have a larger SQ increase?

I have a modest system right now consisting of a Carver HTR-742 as a preamp, Adcom GFA-545, and Ascend Sierra-1's.

I recently replaced a pair of B&W 601S1's with the Sierra's, and it was a large improvement. I'd like to upgrade my amp and/or preamp (eventually both), but was wondering which I should upgrade first to give me the larger increase in SQ? I was hoping to stay in the $6-700 or less range for each component.

Only real caveat is that the preamp has to have a remote. We listen to Blues, light Jazz, as well as electronic music more oriented towards Ambient and Dub. Also sometimes rock/pop from the 80's-90's.

I do a lot of my listening after our 2 small kids have gone to bed, and my listening room opens up to a stairway with the bedrooms upstairs, so I'd like an amp/preamp that sound good at lower volumes.

I've been doing a lot of reading on equipment, but since I haven't been able to listen to them it's hard to make a decision. I *think* I want a SS preamp since I like electronic music and want the bass nice and tight, as well as deep and controlled. But, maybe what I really want is just all around quality in my sound? I'm not hi-fi educated enough to know :-(

Some equipment I think I'd like that may be in my price range is:

Musical Fidelity A3.2CR or A308CR and Parasound HCA-2200 mkii.

Thanks for any comments,

The amp you have is generally considered to be very good in the mid-fi/entry hi-fi market. I've found that, assumming that your amp and speakers are properly matched, a good pre-amp is the foundation of a good system. In your price range, the Adcom GFP 750 is considered to be a very fine performer and certainly a high end product.
I am not an Adcom fan, but I'm less of a Carver fan. I'd upgrade the preamp. It has much more of an effect on the sound than the amp.

If you listen to CD only, you can get a cd player with a volume control to go directly to the amp. That would be the best solution.

I'd prefer the musical fidelity over the parasound.

B&K amps are usually a good bargain, and a step up from the Adcom in my book.

Also, you could get a beefy integrated amp.
Thanks for the comments. Do you have any experience with the Musical Fidelity preamps vs. the Adcom 750?

I do like the way the GFA-545 sounds, but if I could get "more" (bass, seperation, impact?) I think I'd be happier? I don't really have any benchmark to judge what I have against, just what I read. (not the best scenario, I know)

I like the dual mono layout of the MF, and the build quality looks great. I tend to keep things for a long time if I like them, so something that is rock solid is a plus to me.


Well, I'm not much of an Adcom fan - you can do better for the money.

Do you listen to cd exclusively. Turntable? Radio? What cd player do you have now?

Is your $700 budget for both an amp and a preamp or for each piece?
Right now my music source is mostly CD-quality digital streams from our FIOS service. I know, not the ultimate, but it sounds pretty good to my ears. Also, I plan on either getting a Squeezebox, or letting my Panasonic TV stream 192kbps Pandora to my system. Would also like to be able to stream lossless files from my PC.

At some point we'll be getting a Blu Ray player, and I was planning on getting an Oppo, so that would be my CD source as well.

$700 budget would be for each component, but I'd probably have to wait a while (6 months?) between purchases (wife acceptance factor, not cash-strapped factor, lol). I could probably stretch a bit more for a really good component if I could be convinced that I'd actually be able to tell a decent increase in SQ. (when taking into account my other equipment, my non-treated room (is 13.5x33x7 though), and me not being a trained listener)

I suppose a frame of reference would be when I went from the Carver receiver powering my B&W 601's to using the Carver as a preamp and using the Adcom 545 as a power amp. There was a large increase in the lower end and bass response, not trivial in the least, even my wife could easily tell the difference.

Then, when I moved up to the Ascend Sierra-1's, there was another definitely noticeable increase in SQ. More bass, much tighter and better defined also. More extension and not boomy anymore. More "air" and seperation between instruments and sounds in music as well. Lyrics, etc become more clear.

I'd really like to get another increase in SQ on par with that I got from those 2 changes, if I can.

In general I find preamps make a bigger absolute difference in overall sound in my system than amps. But one area where I find amps make relatively more of a difference is with regard to bass, which seems to be high on your list of priorities. The quickest, tightest bass I've had in my system came courtesy of Bryston amps, and if you're looking for air and separation their preamps are way, way up there too. I would think going with something like a BP-6 would be a huge improvement (i.e. wider/deeper 3D soundstage, increased clarity/detail and sense of space, etc.) over your Carver's preamp section, but you might have to stretch your budget a bit. Of course the 20-yr. warranty is also nice to have if you're a buy-and-hold type guy.

You also seem like a good candidate for adding a quality subwoofer at some point. If you're looking for something that would provide a big absolute difference in what you're hearing across the board, there you go. Hope this helped, and best of luck.
Thanks Soix. Funny, I actually spent quite a bit of time today reading up on Bryston amps. I'd probably have to settle for an older 3B, or even a 1st gen 4B. Do you have an opinion on what would be a better choice, a a slightly newer 3B version, or an older 4B (assuming about the same price)?

I'll do some reading on the Brystom preamps.

Yes, I will add a sub at a later date. I just figured that would be sort of a 1-dimensional improvement (bass), whereas the amp and/or preamp would give me SQ gains in more areas.

Wow, it's been almost 3 years since I began this thread!

I figured I'd give an update on the questions I asked, and where my system is now.

My first upgrade was a Smart Devices TA-242 power amplifier. The amp is basically a Hafler DH-220 with an improved power supply with a torroidal transformer and some improved components (claimed by Smart). It did everything better than the Adcom GFA-545 mki. Smoother highs, cleaner mids, more seductive vocals, and much better bass. Tighter, deeper, and more output.

My second upgrade soon after was to purchase an Oppo BDP-93. That made another large increase in the SQ of my system compared to streaming Pandora through my TV using its internal DAC. It was a very obvious change for the better, and I was hooked. Plus, I could play CD's again now, and music I had on my NAS drive.

A couple months later I bought a Rythmik Audio F15HP-SE sealed 15" subwoofer and Velodyne SMS-1 subwoofer controller. Wow, who knew how much difference to your music a good subwoofer could make? It was far from the 1-dimensional change I thought it would be. Music was oveall more powerful and energetic. Even up in the midrange it sounded better. And it wasn't just my ears; my wife (who couldn't care less about audio) sat with me one night as I was playing Diana Krall. "Listen to this" I said, and I muted the subwoofer for a few seconds, then brought it back. "Wow, it's like adding a whole other dimension to the music!". The SMS-1 lets me tune the sub to my room, as well as allowing easy adjustment of the sub level via remote.

A few months later I bought a BAT (Balanced Audio Technology) VK-31se preamp. Now that's what I'm talking about! I was concerned tubes wouldn't have the low end I wanted for my electronic music listening. Boy, was I wrong. The BAT has bass in spades. Deep, powerful, tight, and controlled. And detail; who knew baselines were anything other than fuzzy booms of different frequencies. For the first time I heard what I had read people talking about; "texture" in bass. And the black background. It's real, lol. The space, and air, and separation of sounds and instruments. Wow. The leading edges of sounds (percussion, particularly) were so much more "now", crisp, and powerful, with drive and energy I'd never heard before. Probably doesn't need to be said, but it KILLED the Carver HT receiver I was using as a preamp. Not just in a different league, on a different planet. This was the point when things really began to come together. Listening to music and a new track begins and you just smile unconsciously. Awesome. I can't say enough good things about this preamp, and it's not even the current model, or top of the line from BAT. At this point I don't know if I want to listen to anything better, as I like this so much and feel I could live with the 31se happily for many years. I actually started to feel sad that I had missed out on 20 years of "good" sound. If only someone in my college years had sat me down and made me listen to a really good system I may have gone down this road long ago. If it was loud, I was happy.

Not quite a year down the road and I began to wonder how much a better amplifier would improve my system, so I began to look for an amp. I liked the VK-31se so much that I figured I should try a BAT amp. I began looking for a VK-200, but then knew I'd wonder what a real tube midrange sounded like, so started looking for a VK-60. I emailed Victor (of BAT) and he suggested I look for a VK-55se, if I could stretch my budget that far. I found one here on Audiogon not long after for a reasonable price and made a deal with the seller. I picked up some Blue Jeans balanced cables to connect the 31se to the 55se and had my first listen. I have to admit that I wasn't overwhelmed at first listen. But, the kids had been terrible all day, the wife yelling at me, and the amp only had a few minutes to warm up. The next day I was in a much better mood and less stressed, and the amp and preamp were on all day before I did any real listening. Wow, it was a revelation! Not sure how I couldn't hear what I was hearing now the day before. Now the stereo image is totally free of the speakers (you can't even tell where they are with your ears), and the soundstage is so wide open and clear. I'm in love with female vocals. Ambient electronic music (The Orb, Massive Attack, etc) is even more open and spacey. All the sounds are distinct and easy to tell apart. The only thing that I feel could use improvement is soundstage depth. But, I think that is a factor of the BDP-93 and not the BAT pieces.

Which leads me to my current quest, to improve the SQ of streaming music I listen to. Currently a large portion of my listening is Pandora streamed at 128K through the BDP-93 (Blasphemy, I know. But, I don't have an extensive music collection, and it exposes me to many artists I would never otherwise know exist). I want to stream MOG at 320K, but I need an external DAC for that. I've done a ton of research over the last year or so, and am looking at the Wyred 4 Sound DAC-1 or DAC-2. I'll get an Apple TV also, and that way I can stream music from my MacBook and download some hi-res tracks to see what I've been missing.

So, back to my original thread. I'd say the preamp made the largest increase in SQ in my system. It's a lot closer with the sub and the amp. With lower quality streamed music, I'd almost have to say the sub gave me a larger SQ increase. If you focus more on jazz and female vocals only, it might have to swing in favor of the amp though.