Recommended Components 2022 Edition Two-Channel Preamplifiers

Two-Channel Preamplifiers

Editor's Note: Apart from the Bespoke, CAT, and Shindo, all the Class A preamplifiers offer balanced inputs and outputs. And unless noted, the preamplifiers listed do not have phono stages.


Audio Research Reference 6SE: $18,000
An updated version of the discontinued Ref 6, with changes in capacitors and wiring, the fully balanced, tubed '6SE impressed JVS, who noted that when he installed the Ref 6SE in his system, his speakers "poured forth some of the most polished, transparent, and arresting sound" he'd heard from his system. Longer-term listening, however, indicated that the Audio Research preamplifier was sensitive to setup issues. Once he had optimized everything else in his system—cables, footers, stands, AC supply—JVS could report that the Ref 6SE's "warmth and vibrancy of color, prominent midrange, and seemingly more dramatic dynamic contrasts made me want to listen more and deeper." In a Follow-Up, JA felt the Ref 6SE's sonic signature, with its slightly softened highs but superb resolution of recorded detail, would work best with systems that are a little laid-back in the upper midrange and that don't have underdamped or poorly defined low frequencies. (Vol.43 No.11, Vol.44 No.8 WWW)

Benchmark LA4: $2499 without remote $$$
Benchmark's usual approach to design is to out-spec the competition, and so it is here. Like other Benchmark equipment he has tested, the affordable LA4 challenged the resolution of JA's test instruments, with "superb" channel separation, "extremely low noise, and virtually no power-supply-related spuriae." Restricting his measurement to the audio band, JA found an "astonishing" S/N ratio of 105.5dB for both channels; it remained extremely low across the audioband. He summed up: "Benchmark's LA4 is the widest-bandwidth, widest-dynamic-range, lowest-noise, lowest-distortion preamplifier I have encountered." In his listening room, KR compared the LA4 to a cable—and couldn't hear any difference. He concludes, "the LA4 is probably the most transparent and revealing audio component I've ever used. It does not seem to leave any fingerprints on the sound." See also HR's review of Benchmark's similar HPA4 headphone amplifier (see "Headphones"). JA found that the LA4 had a more upfront presentation than the MBL N11 or Pass Labs XP-32, with less soundstage depth apparent on his own recordings. (Vol.43 Nos.1 & 11, Vol.44 No.3 WWW)

Bryston BP-173: $4695 ★ $$$
With its five single-ended inputs, two balanced inputs, and mix of single-ended and balanced outputs, the solid state BP-173 is the middle model of Bryston's three line-level preamplifiers. It can be customized with a variety of add-ons, including a MM phono stage ($750), a DAC ($750), and a remote-control handset ($375). Used with a Mark Levinson No534 power amp (see "Power Amplifiers"), a fully equipped BP-173 delighted LG with its ability to preserve bass weight and solidity when called for and its no–less impressive recreation of recording-hall ambience. LG wrote that the Bryston "produced engaging, detailed, tonally captivating, utterly natural sound that approached reference quality," while noting that matching with the correct amplifier is critical. JA's report from his lab on the "superbly well engineered" Bryston was similarly to the point: "It is difficult to see how a preamplifier could perform any better on the test bench!" Tests of phono and DAC modules also fared well. (Vol.41 No.6, Vol.42 Nos.6 & 7 WWW)

Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Renaissance Black Path Edition, line-only: $27,995 with phono stage: $34,995 ★
The Convergent Audio Technology SL1, which has grown a long name to match its long life, continues to be revised and refined by designer Ken Stevens. In its Renaissance update, the heralded CAT SL1 line stage received a new circuit-board layout and improved power supply; it was also treated to an A/V bypass, user-selectable gain, and a switch-selectable, moving coil transformer for its optional phono stage ($2000). Compared to its predecessor, the SL1 Ultimate, the Renaissance offered greater transparency, resolution, and dynamics, said RD. JA noted "superb measured performance and an equally superbly linear circuit topology." The most recent (2015) change was occasioned by CAT's development of their Black Path signal capacitor, and named for it; further audio-circuit optimizations and a reduction in noise intermodulation are also among the refinements claimed for the Black Path Edition. After spending time with the SL1 Renaissance, RD pointed to improved rendering of intertransient silence, crisper and tighter percussion sounds, and better transparency and resolution than from the SL1 Ultimate: "I knew I was hearing no minor improvement." (Vol.32 No.11, Vol.38 No.12 WWW)

Dan D'Agostino Momentum HD: $40,000
The two-piece Momentum HD—its power supply is contained within its stand—is an all-balanced, fully discrete, line-level preamplifier with six inputs and two outputs, all via XLR connectors. As with the original Momentum, the HD's aesthetics keep pace with the designs of other D'Agostino creations: Here, the dial at the center of the front panel is a green-lit volume meter, its bezel the volume "knob." Once installed in JVS's system, the Momentum HD brought to a favorite recording of the Shostakovich Symphony No.11 "deeper and more resonant bass and an all-enveloping three-dimensional soundstage that was as thrilling as it was terrifying." He added, "with the Momentum HD, a new window opened, and every recording became a source of wonder." Writing from his test bench, JA noted that the Momentum HD fell slightly short of its predecessor in a few aspects of measured performance yet distinguished itself as "a well-engineered preamplifier." (Vol.43 No.2 WWW)

darTZeel NHB-18NS: $53,000 ★
The "stunningly transparent" darTZeel NHB-18NS of 2007 offered spectacular transient speed, resolution, and decay, while providing an overall coherence that "made recorded music, analog or digital, sound much closer to live," according to MF, who added that, with its warm, vivid combination of red case and dark-gold front and rear panels, the NHB-18NS "looks like it sounds." As of the summer of 2008—by which time he'd bought one for himself—MF felt that the battery-powered NHB-18NS matched the resolution and transparency of MBL's 6010 D preamp while managing to sound less mechanical. The NHB-18NS of 2017 is a complete redesign of the Swiss company's preamp, but it still offers both line and phono stages—the latter, per MF, being "sonically far superior to the original" and more adjustable than many outboard phono preamps of his experience. MF also hailed the new model's digitally displayed volume-control calibration and the fact that, unlike those of its predecessor, the new model's batteries "have never run out of juice during a listening session." According to Mikey, the new darTZeel's phono section sounds "neither as transparent nor as dynamic" as the CH Precision P1 phono preamp ($31,000 without additional power supply) or Ypsilon VPS-100 Silver Edition ($65,000). Yet, with the "tube-like richness and generous flow" it inherited from its forebear, the 18NS "will more than satisfy casual vinyl listeners." The major difference between the original NHB-18NS and the new version was the replacement of the transformer-coupled balanced inputs and outputs with a direct-coupled topology. JA found that the balanced output impedance was usefully much lower than the original version's. While distortion was very low, the noisefloor was higher than JA expected, and there was an odd rise in the noisefloor in the mid-treble. The MC input offers adjustable gain and input impedance, an optional subsonic filter, and so-called Neumann 4th pole equalization. JA recommends the latter be switched off—without it the RIAA deemphasis is superbly accurate. (Vol.30 No.6, Vol.31 No.10, Vol.33 Nos.5 & 10, Vol.40 No.6, Vol.45 No.2 WWW)

Engström Monica: $60,000
See Jason Victor Serinus's review in this month's issue.

Esoteric Grandioso C1X: $46,000
When tastefully illumined by the adjustable blue LED lighting of its separate power supply, the dual-mono, fully balanced Grandioso C1X line preamp "looks like a million dollars—which, given its healthy price tag, it should," wrote JVS. But even if Esoteric's attention to detail had not convinced him that the C1X was a class act, its sound would have, and did. "The C1X delivered bass every bit as mouthwatering and thrilling as I've come to expect from my system," he wrote. Overall, the Grandioso C1X "could very well be the keeper, the component that delivers a lifetime of joy and pleasure," he concluded. "It is one of those rare products whose excellence is proclaimed with every note. It is more than an object of beauty; it reaches into the emotional core of musical experience and opens a window onto ultimate truth." JA was similarly impressed when he got this Japanese preamplifier in his test lab, writing "Esoteric's Grandioso C1X offered superb measured behavior. Its extraordinarily low levels of distortion and noise rival the performance of contenders from Benchmark, MBL, and Pass Labs." Asked for his rating, JVS says, "If there's an A+ category, it belongs there." There isn't.(Vol.44 No.7 WWW)

Luxman CL-1000: $22,995
AD described the massive, full-function CL-1000 as the "antithesis of a bare-bones, 'purist' preamplifier." It uses six E88CC dual-triode tubes in its transformer-coupled output stage, as well as FETs in the single-input phono stage and solid state devices in the power supply's rectification and regulation circuitry. One thing lacking was a remote control, much to AD's joy! Playing LPs, the Luxman appeared to have a flatter frequency response than Art's reference Shindo Monbrison preamplifier and sounded altogether more serene—"but along with that," he wrote, "was also a sense that the Luxman's audible range was a bit more spread out, from bass to treble." AD's auditioning notes included such comments as "Listening to this record through the CL-1000 was a spellbinding, wholly engrossing experience" and "The music had flow and, where appropriate, drive." The Luxman "is simply a hell of a good product, at a high but not unreasonable price," concluded AD, adding "I loved every minute with it." (Vol.43 No.5 WWW)

mbl Noble Series N11: $16,500
This beautiful, multiple-input, multiple-output line preamplifier can be used in its Unity Gain mode for maximum sound quality or with a higher-gain setting. JVS found that the N11 in its higher-gain mode "brought out the warm core of every note," adding that it enabled him to hear "the subtle differences of interpretation, dynamics, and color that are the portals to the truth behind the notes." He found that Unity Gain moved the soundstage farther back in his system with his D/A processors. While perspective was clarified, this mode made the sound less open with slightly reduced transparency and bass. Ultimately, he felt that the N11's Unity Gain "toned down the noisy top ends of some recordings, making for easier listening." The N11's measurements revealed extraordinarily low noise and distortion, especially in Unity Gain mode. However, the CD input's unbalanced impedance of 2.3k ohms will tax sources with a tubed output stage. Those can be used with the balanced inputs or the unbalanced Aux inputs, which have impedances of 10k ohms and 47k ohms, respectively. To his surprise, JA found that inserting the N11 between his DAC and power amplifiers resulted in a more palpable presentation, with a deeper soundstage. (Vol.43 Nos.7, 11 & 12; Vol.44 No.3 WWW)

Pass Laboratories XP-22: $9975
The two-box, solid state, line-level Pass XP-22 provides both balanced (XLR) and single-ended (RCA) inputs and outputs, plus a vestigial tape loop. The XP-22's volume control—an Avago-sourced encoder that JCA describes as having "good bearings and a nice feel"—is the same one used in Pass's upmarket XP-30, and balance is adjustable via a chunky metal handset that "duplicates all front-panel controls, and then some." JCA heard "impressive" bass impact, "pinpoint" imaging within a large soundstage (albeit one that shrank a little at lower volumes), and sound that "seemed a tad more open" than with his reference preamp. In measuring the XP-22, JA found "superb" channel separation, "extremely low noise," an "excellent" (85.35dB) audioband S/N ratio, and "extremely low" THD+N: "superb measured performance." (Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

Pass Labs XP-32: $18,375
Replacing the well-regarded XP-30, the three-box XP-32 looks almost identical. To minimize noise, each channel's audio circuitry is housed in a separate chassis with the "dirty" control and power-supply circuitry in a third. Internal improvements include new transformers and DC-coupling of the balanced and single-ended inputs. The output stage runs a higher class-A bias with lower output impedance than the XP-30, and the volume control now operates in 0.5dB steps rather the earlier preamp's 1dB steps. JA was enthralled by the XP-32's transparency, hearing small details in his own recordings that he had not been fully aware of before. "A great preamplifier will allow through so much information, so much of the music, that the shortcomings of lesser speakers and amplifiers can be forgotten. The Pass Labs XP-32 satisfies that definition," he concluded. (Vol.44 No.3, Vol.45 No.4 WWW)

PrimaLuna EVO 400: $5295
PrimaLuna's brand-new flagship line-level preamp—it replaces the company's DiaLogue Premium—the EVO 400 uses tubes for rectification as well as for gain and buffering, and includes input and output transformers that allow balanced operation. Noting that its extraordinary weight (52.8lb) comes not from its steel chassis but from its abundance of power-supply transformers and chokes, HR praised the EVO 400's very high parts quality and lavished similar praise on its "scintillating" presentation and ability to portray vivid, well-saturated musical colors while nevertheless being "more concise-sounding" than its predecessor in the PrimaLuna line. "It generated clearer, more muscular presentations with sharper focus and more distinctly punctuated momentums." Reporting from his test bench, JA noted that "the EVO 400 measures well for a tubed design." (Vol.42 No.7 WWW)

PS Audio BHK Signature Preamplifier: $6599 ★
Like its stablemate BHK Signature 300 monoblock amplifier, the BHK Signature preamplifier is named for its designer, Bascom H. King. Also like that monoblock, the BHK Signature preamp is a hybrid product, using both transistors (N-channel MOSFETs, also as in the BHK amp) and tubes (two 12AU7 dual-triodes, also put to work in the preamp's distinctive volume-control system, whereby some sound-level increments are achieved not through changes in resistance but through changes in tube-stage gain). Ten line-level inputs are divided evenly between single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) jacks—there is no phono stage—as are the two outputs. Apart from noting that the above-mentioned volume-control system emitted an occasional, barely perceptible noise that was ultimately masked by the music, JCA was impressed: after comparing the BHK Signature with nothing at all—that is, with the sound of a system in which a DAC drove a pair of PS Audio BHK Signature 300 monoblocks directly—JCA wrote: "With the BHK Signature preamplifier in the system, the music seemed more lively, and the space in which the images were cast was more tangible." Writing from his test bench, JA observed: "this preamplifier measured superbly." In his June 2018 Follow-Up, JCA compared the BHK Signature—now his reference—to the Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty, noting that, by comparison, the PS Audio "softened … transients just a touch, slightly polishing the edges." But he found much to enjoy in both, and declared his BHK Signature "honest and musical." (Vol.40 No.6, Vol.41 No.6 WWW)

Rogue Audio RP-7: $4995 ★
This line-level preamplifier uses four 12AU7 dual-triode tubes and contains 17 (!) separate power supplies, including an individual regulated filament supply for each tube. Its military-spec circuit board is endowed with heavy copper traces and graced with an abundance of Vishay HEXFRED diodes, Vishay resistors, and Mundorf oil-caps. The Rogue's rear panel is itself abundant with connectors: three unbalanced (RCA) line-level inputs, two balanced (XLR) line-level inputs, and two each unbalanced and balanced outputs, following the same connector conventions. The front panel is notable for more than just its single ¼" headphone jack and its old-school volume knob: It also includes a Balance knob, which HR loved. Used in conjunction with HR's First Watt SIT-3 solid state amplifier, the Rogue preamp delivered "a superbly balanced and invigorating—nay, intoxicating—system that didn't sound like tubes or solid state. But it did reproduce, with extraordinary weight and saturated tones, my latest favorite piano album." Herb's conclusion: "My new reference." In measuring the RP-7, JA found that, "as long as it's driving a power amplifier with a high input impedance, Rogue's RP-7 offers generally respectable measured performance." (Vol.42 No.3 WWW)

Rotel Michi P5: $4299.99
This versatile, heavy preamplifier—it weighs 50.5lb—features tone controls and a full array of inputs: Bluetooth with both aptX and AAC support; USB and S/PDIF digital: balanced and singled-ended analog line; and MC/MM phono. It also supports MQA. There are analog, digital, headphone, and subwoofer outputs. Playing LPs with his EMT MC cartridge, KM found that "every instrument was portrayed as a clear, distinct, meaty line, with solid … tone and precise, stable placement within the soundstage. On record after record, regardless of genre or format, every musical line was clear, illuminated, and precisely located." His experience with MQA files streamed from Tidal via the P5's USB input was very positive, writing that "this DAC and MQA were sending me musical information I'd never heard before." KM concluded that, paired with the right power amplifier, the P5 created a deep soundstage with excellent spatial qualities. "It performed with great clarity, good tone and dynamics," he wrote, "and always left me satisfied and wanting to hear more." In the lab, the Michi P5 offered superb measured behavior via its line-level analog inputs and its USB digital input. The TosLink and coaxial S/PDIF digital inputs suffered from relatively high jitter, however. (Vol.43 No.11 WWW)

Schiit Freya+: $949
See Kal Rubinson's review in this month's issue.

Shindo Monbrison: $12,900 ★
Some months after the death, in 2014, of founder Ken Shindo, Shindo Laboratory's long-lived, second-least-expensive preamp, the Monbrison, vanished from the line—a consequence, many presumed, of the company's having run out of Monbrison-specific enclosures and other parts. Soon after, their next-most-expensive preamp, the Masseto, also disappeared. Both products have now been replaced by an all-new preamplifier: a Monbrison in name but a Masseto in function. (Unlike the Monbrison and like the Masseto, the new model uses output transformers.) The new Monbrison is also the first of Shindo's full-function preamps (including both line and phono stages) to be designed by Ken Shindo's son, Takashi Shindo, who departed from previous Monbrisons by eliminating one of two sets of phono inputs (and onboard step-up transformers) but retaining their use of ECL 94S triode-pentode tubes for line-level gain and 6X4 diodes for rectification. Shindo's signature steel casework endures, but now the Monbrison's enclosure is a two-level structure, as in the company's most expensive preamps. After a lengthy break-in period in AD's system, the Monbrison "demonstrated nuances of expression I've never heard from the Masseto: The new Monbrison doesn't just convey momentum—rare though that talent is in the larger context of consumer audio—but begins to hint at the emotional and intellectual energies of the players." AD added that the Monbrison is "realistically, generously colorful and expresses sonic textures convincingly and without etch." He praised it for providing "greater listening pleasure than any other preamplifier I've had in my system, save for the considerably more expensive Shindo Vosne-Romanee." (Vol.40 No.9, Vol.43 No.5 WWW)

Sugden Masterclass LA-4: $4650
Sugden's solid state, line-level-only Masterclass LA-4 offers four single-ended (RCA) inputs and one balanced (XLR) input, with outputs of both of those types. (The circuitry is fully balanced overall.) Gain is generous—JA would measure ca 20dB, single-ended or balanced—with signal attenuation courtesy of an old-school volume control. With the Sugden in his system, JCA noted "more ambiance with good recordings" than through his reference PS Audio preamp, but also "a touch less body." Overall, the Masterclass LA-4 "subtly illuminated the music" and "preserved subtle soundstage cues." JA's measurements uncovered lower-than-specified output impedance, thus indicating good compatibility with a variety of power amps, but a "disappointing" wideband S/N ratio. (Vol.42 No.4 WWW)

The Bespoke Audio Company Passive: $16,000 and up
As reviewed: $23,235 ★
Built around a stereo pair of hand-wound, multitapped transformers, the Bespoke Audio preamplifier—which provides attenuation and source selection, but no gain—is a passive line stage that exudes an "unsurpassed" level of quality, according to AD. While declaring that he is not normally a fan of passive preamps, owing in particular to a paucity of musical impact in systems so equipped, AD noted that the Bespoke unit was better in that regard than he expected, and that its use brought enhanced clarity to some recordings; Bespoke Audio has, he believes, offered "the best justification yet" for the passive approach. In the June 2019 Stereophile, MF wrote of borrowing a version of the Bespoke passive pre with all-silver-wire transformers and Furutech Rhodium input and output XLRs ($23,235), praising its "black" backgrounds and declaring it "the most beautiful" high-end product of his experience. (Vol.38 No.10, Vol.42 No.6 WWW)

Topping Pre90: $599
This affordable solid state preamplifier comes with a remote control and one pair each of balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. The optional $249 Ext90 adds one RCA and three XLR input pairs. Circuitry is all balanced. There's no balance control, but the volume control operates in relay-controlled 0.5dB steps. "A transparent, noise-free sound," decided KR, who described the Pre90 as "a great bargain." JA warned that the balanced input has very low impedance—1000 ohms—which will give a bass-light balance with source components that have a tubed output stage. But with its extraordinarily low levels of noise and distortion and very high channel separation, he concluded "the fact that that performance can be achieved in such a small chassis and for such a low price suggests that Topping has some serious audio engineering talent in-house." (Vol.45 No.2 WWW)

Woo Audio 3ES: $7649 (standard version)
See Headphones & Headphone Accessories. (Vol.45 No.1 WWW)

Zesto Audio Leto Ultra II: $10,900
This well-engineered, tubed line preamplifier offers single-ended, transformer-coupled balanced inputs and outputs. A unique "Presence" control knob applies high-frequency rolloff with five choices of corner frequency. KM liked what he heard, writing that the Leto Ultra II was one of very few preamplifiers he's had in house that in some ways equaled his long-term reference Shindo preamplifier. "Record after record, the Leto Ultra II's neutrality, transparency, and recovery of the last iota of sustain gave fresh insight into familiar recordings," he wrote, concluding that "Superbly clean and transparent, the Leto Ultra II's midrange-to–upper treble focus and lucidity was off the charts, giving fresh insight to familiar LPs. Silky and smooth, its tone was also good." In a Follow-Up, JCA explored the effect of the Presence control and found that the top three settings, which progressively roll off the top octave, were beneficial with recordings that had highs that had been balanced on the hot side. JCA was also impressed by the Leto's overall performance, writing: "This is a preamp that wears its tubed nature lightly, imparting a slight creaminess on the sound while giving up little in the way of transparency. Instrumental timbres remained natural and soundstage depth was preserved." (Vol.44 Nos.2 & 9 WWW)


Ferrum OOR: $1995
See Headphones & Headphone Accessories. (Vol.45 No.2 WWW)

Editor's Note: There are currently no Class C and D preamplifiers listed.

Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty, not auditioned in a long time.

donnrut's picture

Not a single disc player reviewed under $4 thou??? Come on. I don't drive a Porsche Taycan or a Lambo. I have a $7 thou turntable rig assembled over several years of upgrades. My SACD player died 5 years ago, and now, I am in the market for $500 or $1000 disc player. I'll stream eventually but I have listened to my CDs, tossed out the bad ones and have maybe 200 that are well engineered/mastered, about 50 SACDs. I want S'phile to help me get a decent player. There are maybe half a dozen newish models.

johnnythunder1's picture

been doing a little research. The Hegel (discontinued) was 5k. The Bryston is 3+k. Ive had my eye on a Rotel CD 11 Tribute. It's like $600 and gets very good reviews.

AndyT2050's picture

I have a Rega Research Apollo Cd Player. Beautiful sound, nice design in my opinion. Not too expensive

moinau's picture

Nothing in the 500 to 1000$ range SACD player, although this Arcam might interest you.
Arcam CDS50

Ulfilas's picture

There is one recommended in the integrated amps category:

I have one myself, and grateful for the recommendation I am.

rlo's picture

Can you please bring back the links on the mobile page that let you jump to the relevant recommended component page? This has been missing for the last few. It’s quite annoying to have to switch to desktop theme to be able to go directly to the page I want (e.g. loudspeakers, amplifiers etc)

Jonti's picture

I've had mine for about 18 months and still have a sense of quiet awe every time I listen to/through it.

Tube-rolling can also yield excellent results. I have switched to NOS Mullards, which work a treat by (to my EAR) thickening the syrup and stirring the pot in such a way that the ends and edges of trailing sounds glisten, firing off from a weightier centre. (The stock EAR-stamped tubes were fine, just different: lighter-sounding, I think; I assume Tim would have approved the use of NOS Mullards given his views on the quality of many new tubes doing the rounds.)

Just for the benefit of any readers thinking about rolling those tubes, here's some extra instruction I received from an engineer at EAR Yoshino on how to go about it:

"Remove the top cover by removing four screws on the bottom of the unit. The jumper plug is located on the left side of smaller power supply circuit board labeled ECC83 and 13D16. The default position for the jumper is 13D16 with standard 13D16 valves fitted. If ECC83 valves are fitted then move the jumper one position to the right in the ECC83. position."

And finally, on the subject of MM/MC carts, I think it's fair to say (as correctly reflected in its rating here) that the Phono Box gives a solid platform to MC carts but really excels with MM/MIs. Try it with a London Decca!

[Edited version of post on Herb's original review]

hesson11's picture

The comments under the heading "Harbeth P3ESR XD" seem to imply that the XD version is identical to the 40th Anniversary edition, which Herb reviewed. Is that, in fact, the indisputable truth? I don't believe I've ever seen any official word that this is, in fact, the case.