Recommended Components: Fall 2017 Edition Preamplifiers

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


Audio Research REF6: $14,000
Replacing Audio Research's Reference 5 SE of 2011, the Reference 6 is a product in which everything—parts, circuitry, the whole megillah—has been revised, the upgrades including a heftier mains transformer, an improved volume-control circuit, and new custom-made capacitors. The audio circuits include three 6H30 dual-triode tubes per channel, while the power supply has one 6H30 and one 6550WE tube. The eight pairs of line-level inputs are evenly divided between single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR), alongside three pairs each of single-ended and balanced outputs. Among the Reference 6's electronically controlled functions are its 103-step volume control, signal-polarity inversion, and a mono switch. MF noted the Reference 6's unimpeachable specs, and reported that while listening to favorite recordings through it, he heard "intense surprises that I'm sure can't be measured. Record after record, I found that the Reference 6 greatly increased my understanding of very familiar recordings." In measuring the Reference 6, JA noted "superb channel matching," "inconsequential AC-supply noise," and, overall, "little hint of the presence of tubes in the circuit" (that last observation intended as a compliment). (Vol.39 No.12 WWW)

Audio Research SP20: $9000 ★
ARC's first full-function, line-plus-phono preamp in ages—and their first-ever preamp to offer a headphone output—the new SP20 is a pure class-A, fully balanced, hybrid design. Its 19"-wide chassis blends styling cues from ARC's early days with a modern touchscreen, and the SP20's similarly modern remote handset provides control over volume, source selection, channel balance, cartridge loading, stereo/mono switching, absolute phase inversion, and more. The preamp uses a total of four 6H30 dual-triode tubes and provides 13.8dB of line gain, plus up to 58dB of phono gain. BJR cited the SP20's "detailed, delicate, extended high frequencies," "bass beyond reproach," and "superb resolution of detail"—and surprised some of us by declaring the new preamp's phono section superior to his (very) long-term reference, the Vendetta SCP-2D. Regarding line-stage performance, BJR maintained a slight preference for the better "high-level dynamic slam" of his Audio Valve Eklipse. JA's measurements gave the "well-engineered" SP20 a clean bill of health, noting in particular the phono section's "extremely accurate" RIAA equalization. (Vol.37 No.6 WWW)

Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty: $27,500
It would seem an impossible task: improving on a preamplifier—the Ayre KX-R—that sounded better to JA than no preamplifier at all. But that was the hurdle set for the new KX-R Twenty, named in honor of Ayre's 20th year of operation. More of a complete redesign than an upgrade of the original, the KX-R Twenty employs AyreLock, a new, proprietary approach to power-supply regulation that seems equal parts calculus and poetry. Also involved were similarly big changes to the active circuitry, including the adoption, in this model, of the "diamond" output circuit of the company's X-5 series—if only because, in the words of chief engineer and CEO Charles Hansen, it proved to work "so insanely well." Of his time with the new Ayre, JA wrote, "Some highly resolving audio components achieve their transparency to what has been captured on a recording by emphasizing detail. The Ayre simply cleaned the window." JA's listening notes were ripe with examples of fine performance at various sonic tasks, but in the end, his view was holistic: "The Ayre evoked the words Peter Schaffer has Antonio Salieri saying, in Amadeus, about the entry of the solo oboe in this music: 'This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God.'" (Vol.37 No.12 WWW)

Balanced Audio Technology Rex II: $24,999
The tubed, line-level Rex II is supplied in two boxes, albeit not in accordance with audio tradition: the Rex II's control module (eight tubes) contains a single gain stage for the left and right channels, plus the dual-mono power supply that runs it, while the power module (ten tubes) contains everything else, along with everything else's power supply. There are five inputs and three outputs—all balanced, of course—and ergonomic refinements abound, including a left/right balance control, a mono switch, and a switch to invert signal polarity. FK—who reminds the reader that two boxes filled with a total of 18 tubes will add warmth to any home—responded with enthusiasm to the changes wrought by the broken-in BAT: "singers beamed from the soundstage with a matter-of-fact, lifelike presence that I'd never heard from my system." He added, "the Rex II captured . . . their most softly whispered asides. It was spooky-palpable." Overall, FK concluded that the Rex II "eked from my LPs and CDs more new things than any other component I've sampled in years." JA, for his part, described the BAT's measured performance as "excellent." (Vol.39 No.1 WWW)

Bespoke Audio: $12,000 and up
Built around a stereo pair of hand-wound, multitapped transformers, the Bespoke Audio preamplifier—which provides attenuation and source selection but no actual preamplification—is a passive line stage that exudes an "unsurpassed" level of quality, according to AD. Buyers select from a variety of colors, materials, connector types, and ergonomic refinements, the last including a motorized volume knob and remote handset. While declaring that he is not normally a fan of passive preamps, owing in particular to a paucity of musical impact from systems so equipped, AD noted that the Bespoke was better in that regard than he'd expected, and that its use brought enhanced clarity to some recordings: "the best justification yet" for the passive approach is offered by this product, he believes. (Vol.38 No.10 WWW)

Boulder 2110: $55,000
Given that its predecessor, the model 2010, enjoyed a 17-year run in Boulder Amplifiers' product line, much was expected of the new 2110 line preamplifier: a multibox solid-state model in which user functions are optically controlled to eliminate noise, and whose six inputs are characterized by an impressive degree of adjustability and flexibility of configuration. All of its inputs and outputs are fully balanced, addressed only with XLR jacks, and the 2110 goes the 2010 one better by adding a fully differentially balanced volume control. Using the Boulder 2110 with his darTZeel NHB-18NS mono amps in balanced mode, MF observed that "[it] produced image intensity, physicality, and solidity that were unprecedented in my experience. First take: a giant Wow." MF elaborated: "It made recordings I know to be truly exceptional sound even more so through my system." With the Boulder pre on his test bench, JA observed, "The 2110's distortion is so low, in fact, that it taxed my ability to measure it." JA ultimately pronounced the 2110 "the best-measuring preamplifier I have encountered." (Vol.38 No.3 WWW)

Convergent Audio Technology SL1 Renaissance Black Path Edition: $12,995 line only, $14,995 with phono stage
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 Master Audio Systems Momentum Preamplifier: $35,000 ★
"Among the most beautiful pieces of audio gear" that MF has seen or touched, the Dan D'Agostino Momentum echoes the sculpted aluminum-with-copper, quasi-steam-punk cosmetics of the Dan D'Agostino Momentum power amplifier—but with a chunky, round volume control/level meter in place of the amplifier's chunky, round, output-power meter. As MF observed, "The complementary, balanced, zero-feedback Momentum is DC-coupled, has no capacitors in the signal path, and features fully discrete circuitry with no op-amps. Volume adjustment is via an optical controller and resistor ladder." User controls for the line-level-only, low-gain Momentum—all available on the impressive remote handset, most on the front panel—include absolute signal polarity, channel balance, source selection, mute, and tone controls. The main unit and its curvy and cunningly designed outboard power supply—the former sits atop the latter—are electrically connected via a multipin umbilical. After listening, MF commented: "In the Momentum, Dan D'Agostino has produced a preamplifier that duplicates the Momentum amp's delicacy, transparency, three-dimensionality, and especially its liquidity and freedom from grain without softening transients—all floating above the blackest backdrops." Summing up his measurements, JA noted that "the Momentum preamplifier lives up to Dan D'Agostino's reputation for heroic audio engineering." (Vol.37 No.8 WWW)

darTZeel NHB-18NS Mk.2: approx. $38,000
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. Despite the similar name, the NHB-18NS Mk.2 of 2017 is a complete redesign of the Swiss company's preamp but 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 that 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 far more expensive outboard Swiss Precision P1 ($31,000 without additional power supply) or Ypsilon VPS-100 Silver Edition ($65,000). That said, with the "tube-like richness and generous flow" it inherited from its forebear, the Mk.2 "will more than satisfy casual vinyl listeners." (Vol.30 No.6, Vol.31 No.10, Vol.33 Nos. 5 & 10, Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

Lamm Industries L2.1 Reference: $22,790
The greatest accomplishments of Vladimir Lamm's electronics are like those of the art restorer who removes grime and soot without diminishing the vibrant colors underneath—so believes AD, who said of Lamm's latest line stage, the two-box L2.1 Reference, "[it] reproduced the sounds of bowed and plucked strings alike with color, texture, and humanness." The Lamm does so with an unorthodox combination of technologies: high-voltage MOSFETs in the all–single-ended gain stages, and tubes throughout its power supply—for rectification, regulation, and the amplification of voltage references. The L2.1 Reference, which differs from its predecessor in its use of new current-source transistors and other recently available components, offers switchable signal-phase inversion and easily adjusted channel balance—the latter thanks to its dual-mono volume potentiometers—and further delighted AD by eschewing remote control. His verdict: "the rare product that swept the question of tubes vs solid-state into insignificance." Writing from his test bench, JA noted the Lamm's "extraordinarily low" distortion and observed that, "like the other preamplifiers designed by Vladimir Lamm that have passed through my test lab, the L2.1 Reference is well engineered." (Vol.40 No.7 WWW)

Luxman Classic CL-38uSE: $5995 $$$
With styling that brings to mind the Marantz Model 7C—especially if you "squint a little," per AD—the Luxman CL-38u preamplifier mates classic form with classic function by including a mono switch, rumble filter, balance control, tone controls (with switchable hinge frequencies), and a phono section, the latter with built-in step-up transformers for MC gain. All voltage-gain and buffering chores in the CL-38u are handled by eight dual-triode tubes, with rectification and some switching accomplished by solid-state devices. In AD's tube-happy system, the Luxman "presented music with natural, realistic warmth and color, and fine bass-to-treble balance," although with the "tone controls enabled, the sound was cloudier, less open." AD also praised the Luxman's "sheer speed and clarity of musical timing," ultimately describing the CL-38u as "not just a good value: It's an exceptional value." Reporting from his test bench, JA gave the CL-38u a clean bill of health: it "doesn't appear to be compromised in any way, either by its versatility or by its exclusive use of tubes." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Mark Levinson No.526: $20,000
Pricewise, the No.526 occupies the slot between Mark Levinson's No.326S ($10,000) and No.52 ($30,000), and offers both line-level and MM/MC phono preamplification in a single box. The fully balanced No.526 also has an ESS Sabre-based 32-bit DAC with user-selectable PCM and DSD filter options—AES/EBU, S/PDIF, and USB inputs are provided—and a "digital-restoration" module that parent company Harman International calls Clari-Fi. In the manner of other contemporary microprocessor-enhanced preamps and integrated amps, individual inputs can be customized with the user's choice of names, gain offsets, etc., and provisions are offered for network connection (Ethernet) and firmware updates (USB). The No.526's "sheer clarity, startling transparency, [and] liquid midrange" impressed LG, who observed that the preamp's "qualities of design and manufacture let me be drawn into the music as never before." Writing from his test bench, JA said that, "Overall, the Mark Levinson No.526 offers superb measured performance." (Vol.40 No.5 WWW)

Moon by Simaudio 740P: $9000
The solid-state Moon 740P is a dual-mono line-level preamplifier that offers both single-ended and true balanced operation, the latter thanks to its differential audio circuitry. Its volume control is Simaudio's own M-eVOL2 stage, comprising 530 discrete steps of 0.1dB each, and its power supply is built around the similarly orthographically odd M-LoVo voltage-regulator stage. FK had strong praise for the Simaudio's temporal cohesion, its ability to "[keep] low-level signals pure," and its facility with "detail . . . that most preamps smudge," but added that "in no way . . . did the 740P ever sound too analytical; its clarity didn't come at the sacrifice of musical warmth." JA summed up the Simaudio's time on the test bench: "The Moon 740P's measured performance is beyond reproach." (Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Parasound Halo JC 2 BP: $4495 $$$ ★
Styled to match the JC 1 power amplifier and finished in the same brushed, natural aluminum, the JC 2 exhibits a high standard of construction. Each channel of the fully balanced JC 2 is on a separate PCB, with the audio and control power supplies on separate circuits, isolated from each other by 3/8"-thick aluminum partitions. ST was impressed by the JC 2's noiseless operation and excellent reproduction of space, which allowed music "to emerge intact—with body, bloom, and dynamics, with definition and detail—from an utterly silent background." JA agreed, but decided the JC 2 sounded best with warmer-sounding amplifiers and speakers, when it excelled in the areas of images and dynamics. "Perhaps the finest solid-state line stage I have heard," sums up ST. "This is what a great line stage does: lets all the other components perform at their best. The Halo JC 2 matched the Ayre KX-R in terms of openness and sparkle, but sounded leaner and could not reach the Ayre's level of deep musicality, said WP. Compared to the Simaudio Moon Evolution P-7, the JC 2 sacrificed body for leading-edge definition, felt JA. One of Stereophile's "Joint Amplification Components" for 2008. Configured for home-theater bypass, the BP version of Parasound's excellent JC 2 preamplifier ($4795) has a revised circuit board and front-panel control board that make possible the hybridization of a traditional analog two-channel system with a modern digital multichannel system. The Halo JC 2 BP looks almost identical to the Halo JC 2, with only the Bypass LED on the front panel and the letters "BP" added to the labeling front and rear. It offers both balanced RCA and unbalanced XLR inputs and outputs. KR heard no difference between a direct connection from pre-pro to power amp and a connection via the JC 2 BP's bypass function. Owners of existing JC 2s can have their units upgraded to BP status for $500. (Vol.30 No.12, Vol.31 Nos.3 & 11, Vol.32 No.3, Vol.34 No.6 WWW; BP version Vol.34 No.3 WWW)

Pass Labs XP-30: $16,500 ★
In its conventional two-channel mode, the XP-30 comprises three separate chassis: one each for its control circuitry and power supply and each channel's audio circuitry. Using additional chassis, the XP-30 can be expanded to as many as six channels. Each audio chassis has both a Master and a Slave analog output, duplicated on balanced XLRs and single-ended RCAs; and six analog inputs, also duplicated on balanced XLRs and single-ended RCAs. The XP-30 uses an integrated-circuit volume control. It virtually transported JA to recording studios and performance spaces, consistently drawing his attention to aspects of music rather than of sound. "The XP-30 has rekindled for me the concept that the beating heart of an audio system is the preamplifier," he said. Measured performance was superb. (Vol.36 No.4, Vol.38 No.5 WWW)

Placette Audio Active Line Stage: $6995 ★
The Active Linestage is intended to combine the transparency of Placette's purist Remote Volume Control with a usable level of functionality, providing five sets of unbalanced inputs, two sets of outputs, and a tape loop. Its absolute clarity, focus, solidity, and transparency were unrivaled in BD's experience. "Highly recommended." Sold direct, with a lifetime warranty and 30-day refund policy. (Vol.30 No.11 WWW)

PS Audio BHK Signature: $5995
Like its stablemate, the BHK Signature 300 monoblock amplifier (see elsewhere in "Recommended Components"), 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. The preamp's two 12AU7 dual-triode tubes are also put to work in its distinctive volume-control system, in which some sound-level increments are achieved not through changes in resistance but through changes in tube-stage gain. Ten line-level inputs are evenly divided between single-ended (RCA) and balanced (XLR) jacks—there is no phono stage—and the two outputs are divided in precisely the same way. Apart from noting that the tubed volume-control system emitted an occasional and 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 directly drove a pair of PS Audio BHK Signature 300 monoblocks—he 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." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

Shindo Masseto: $13,500 ★
Like the less-expensive Aurieges, the Masseto is a full-function preamplifier, but adds a selectable choice between moving-magnet and moving-coil phono inputs. The dual-mono power supply is based on a pair of Philips 6X4WA rectifier tubes, the phono stage uses one Philips 6189W and one Philips 12AT7 per channel, and its line stage uses a single LCP86 triode/pentode per channel. With a "stunningly low noise floor," the Masseto consistently conveyed music in a way that allowed Art to become fully immersed in the performance. "Time after time," he said, "I found myself responding to my hi-fi the way I respond to real music." The Masseto's stock input MC transformer was "quiet in every way," and worked especially well with Art's Miyabi cartridge, providing "loads of texture, and enough drama to keep me happy indefinitely," he said. AD's reference preamp since 2007. Current model uses the same basic line, phono, and power-supply circuits found in the original, but has a fancier faceplate. Art has found that the Masseto does not respond well to isolation devices, aftermarket AC cords, or alternate tubes, and he recommends very gentle insertion and removal of interconnects to avoid damaging the Masseto's fragile Switchcraft RCA jacks. Still, the Masseto remains "satisfyingly musical and downright right," he said. "The most beauty you can buy for this kind of money." (Vol.30 Nos.7 & 10; Vol.36 No.6 WWW)

Shindo Monbrison: $12,500
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 is designed and built with output transformers.) The new Monbrison is also the first of Shindo's full-function preamps (ie, it includes 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 retained 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," and 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 WWW)

VAC Signature SE: $19,500 (line stage only), $26,000 (with phono)
In its basic form, the Signature SE ($19,500) is a tubed line stage that offers a mix of balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) inputs and outputs, the latter addressed by custom-designed output transformers. Its optional phono stage ($6500)—dual-triode tubes, MC step-up transformers, separate power-supply transformer, and all—fits alongside the line-level circuitry in the preamp's main enclosure. (A second, separate chassis is devoted to the line stage's power supply.) In his last review for Stereophile, our beloved friend BJR described the VAC Signature SE as nothing less than "the most significant audio product I've ever hooked up to my reference system. It was flawless." Noting, in his measurements, some frequency-dependent "poor overload margin" and "high intermodulation distortion" in the VAC's phono stage, JA recommended partnering the preamp only with phono cartridges of lower-than-average output. (Vol.38 No.6 WWW)

VTL TL6.5 Series II Signature: $15,000
Essentially a single-box version of VTL's TL7.5, the fully balanced TL6.5 Series II Signature line-level preamplifier combines a gain stage based on vacuum tubes—one 12AU7 per channel—with an output stage using solid-state devices. For the Series II version, those devices have been upgraded from MOSFETs to an unidentified type of FET that VTL says is more tube-like in its behavior. Other technical changes include the elimination of global feedback and a doubling-up of mains transformers. FK described the TL6.5 Series II Signature as "the smoothest-sounding preamp I've heard in my system—and I don't mean smooth in a pejorative sense." He also described extended trebles that were "pure" and "natural," abundant speed and consequent added realism on percussive sounds, and good imaging "without excessive beam." JA's measurements confirmed the VTL's high quality: "The TL6.5 Series II Signature is a well-engineered preamplifier—as I have come to expect from VTL." (Vol.39 No.8 WWW)

Ypsilon PST-100 MK2: $37,000 ★
Made in Greece, the PST-100 is a handsome tubed preamplifier housed in a thick, satin-finished aluminum chassis. It features transformer-based attenuation, 6CA4 tube rectification, choke supply filtering, a switchable passive mode, and a zero-feedback active stage based on a carefully selected Siemens C3m pentode tube. Though differences between the PST-100's active and passive stages were small, MF preferred the passive stage for its purer, more transparent sound. Compared to the darTZeel NHB-18NS, the Ypsilon produced more vivid tonal colors and greater physicality. "For now," MF concluded, "the Ypsilon PST-100 is the most transparent and, therefore, the most perfect audio component I have ever heard—or not heard." Though XLR input and output jacks are provided, the circuitry is unbalanced only. Without a line stage, the completely passive PST-100 TA costs $26,000. (Vol.34 No.7 WWW)

Zesto Audio Leto 1.5: $7500 ★
As BJR put it, the word that best describes the technical design of the "drop-dead-gorgeous" Zesto Audio Leto line-level preamplifier is simplicity: its per-channel tube complement of one 12AX7 dual-triode and one 12AU7 dual-triode provides up to 12dB of gain—which the user can switch to 3dB, if the need arises to stay within the volume control's most accurate range. All switching is done with reed relays, and BJR described the stripped-down remote control as "the most minimalist I've ever encountered." In addition to single-ended operation, the Leto offers transformer-coupled, true-balanced inputs and outputs. The Zesto Leto was capable of great musical delicacy, BJR noted, and "it most impressed . . . with its ability to articulate transients." He was also "astounded by the Leto's wide and linear dynamic range," although, on the downside, "the Zesto seemed to run out of gas a bit in the loudest passages; in short, [its] dynamic range seemed to stretch only from ppp to ff." In his measurements, JA was impressed overall, noting in particular that "the Leto's distortion signature doesn't change with level, frequency, load impedance, or at different volume-control settings." 2015 "1.5" version adds a headphone amplifier. (Vol.37 No.4 WWW)


Parasound Halo P 7: $2295 $$$ ★
Full-featured analog stereo preamp with six stereo inputs, balanced and unbalanced outputs, front-panel headphone and MP3 jacks, and an MM/MC phono preamp—See "Multichannel Components." Delightful sound but "falls asymptotically short of the delicacy of the Nagra and Simaudio preamps I have used," says KR. (Vol.32 No.1 WWW)

Parasound Halo P 5: $1095 $$$
The 2.1-channel Parasound Halo P5—the ".1" hints at the P5's three subwoofer outputs, which incorporate user-adjustable high- and low-pass filters—is a solid-state line-and-phono preamplifier equipped with a balance control, defeatable tone controls, an analog iPod input, electronic source switching, a headphone jack, and a built-in 24-bit/192kHz D/A converter with a USB input. AD observed: "On paper . . . the Parasound P5 seemed like an awful lot of product for the money; that impression was borne out in my system." He described the preamp as slightly dry sounding but with "enduringly good musical flow and momentum, and superb freedom from distortions of pitch or timing." While the P5's built-in DAC was pleasantly clear, AD suggested that it was no match for the more colorful, substantial Halide DAC HD; in his measurements, JA concurred, saying the P5's digital section is best "regarded as more of a convenience" feature, while praising the analog preamp's "excellent performance at an affordable price." (Vol.37 No.4 WWW)

PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium: $2199
PrimaLuna, a company that has been linked to a recent worldwide shortage of uppercase letters, designed this old-school, line-level tubed preamp in the Netherlands and builds it in China to "levels of quiet, durability, and sonic sophistication not possible in the 20th century," according to HR. The tube complement comprises four 12AU7 dual-triodes and a dual-mono pair of 5AR4 rectifiers, the latter an unusual choice in an era when so many preamp manufacturers economize by using solid-state rectifiers. Five single-ended inputs are offered, alongside two single-ended outputs and a tape out; a remote handset is supplied to control the ProLogue Premium's motorized Alps volume control, if desired. Used in a system that included, at times, PrimaLuna's ProLogue Premium power amplifier (built into an identical blue-gray steel enclosure), the ProLogue Premium preamp impressed HR with its "feminine and seductive" sound. While cautioning readers that the PrimaLuna's high (2800 ohms) output impedance demands a partnering amplifier with an input impedance not lower than 28k ohms, Herb observed that the owner of a properly set up ProLogue Premium preamp will enjoy "tangibly luminous presence in every recording you play. Punch and drive should be obvious. . . . Most of all, you should notice [its] liquid transparency." JA reported that the ProLogue Premium preamp "generally measures well," but he did discover a second-harmonic distortion signature that could be counted on to "fatten up the sound." (Vol.40 No.6 WWW)

Rogue Audio RP-1: $1695
The latest example of an encouraging trend toward preamplifiers with built-in phono stages, the Rogue RP-1 uses a pair of 12AU7 dual-triode tubes for line-level gain and buffering, and solid-state devices for MM and MC phono preamplification, the latter including eight choices for user-adjustable cartridge loading, ranging from 30 ohms to 47k ohms. Creature comforts include a balance knob—as HR wrote, "when was the last time you saw one of those?"—as well as a front-mounted headphone jack and a remote handset. HR did not mince words: apart from describing the Rogue's headphone sound as "mostly average," he wrote that, "compared to any preamplifier I know of at anywhere near its price, the RP-1 reaches deeper into the music to excavate a stronger, more precise, more spacious musical presentation. Highly recommended." Apart from confirming that its headphone amp rolls off the highs (–5dB at 20kHz) and that its output impedance requires a partnering amp with an input impedance no lower than 10k ohms, JA reported that the RP-1 measured well—and described its phono stage as "simply superb." (Vol.39 No.8 WWW)


Schiit Audio SYS: $49
ST, to whom the concept of a simple and gainless preamp has great appeal—"Why do you need so much gain if all you're going to do is dial it back[?]"—was attracted to this latest piece from Schiit. The SYS provides two pairs of input jacks, a switch for choosing between them, a volume control, and one pair of output jacks. Compared with an $8500 transformer-based passive preamp, the Schiit disappointed in its lack of ability to "expand dynamics and quiet background noise." But, said ST, "The Schiit SYS preamp introduced no crap of its own. No power-supply noise, no tube farts, no glare." His verdict: "You almost owe it to yourself" to try the Schiit SYS. (Vol.37 No.12)


Ayre Acoustics KX-5 Twenty

Ayre Acoustics K-5xeMP replaced by KX-5 Twenty; Moon by Simaudio 850P, VTL TL5.5 Series II Signature, all not auditioned in a long time.

tonykaz's picture

Does anyone own any of these Recommended pieces?

If so,

Can you tell us about it?

Tony in Michigan

ps. I own the Sennheisers which are Superb *

chrisstu's picture

I did head to head comparisons versus Berkley, EMM, Ayre....for me in my system the Bricasti beat the Ayre and Berkley and tied with the EMM for far less money. Their support has been OUTSTANDING as well. I had an issue with one channel and they took it back and performed upgrades on it to make up for the inconvenience. As other new upgrades come out they are great about retrofitting to the latest. Great sounding device. Great support.

SpinMark3313's picture

VPI Classic Signature with SDS power box, SoundSmith MIMC (OK, not the "star" edition), EAR 834P phono pre. In all a lovely, lovely set-up - fast, musical, extended, glorious mid-range. I am officially off the analog upgrade train except for some possible upgrades to the EAR in the future (some vintage Telefunken tubes have already taken it to a whole new level).
Once you figure it out and get a few of the right tools, the VPI 3D arm is not that difficult to set up and the on-the-fly adjustable SRA is terrific.
Interestingly, the Classic Signature drew my attention due to years of mostly good VPI coverage in Stereophile, the EAR came by dealer recommendation and audition, and the SoundSmith was a shot in the dark based on my intrigue with the moving iron concept, and the speed of the "moving coil" version. Turned out to be a wonderful combination...

Briandrumzilla's picture

I know you guys hate digital but surely the Sony Play Station 1 has not been reviewed in a long time. It has been on the recommended list for what seems like forever. Other components are deleted after a few years. Get over it. Your precious analog won.

DougM's picture

It would be much easier to read the reviews of recommended components if there were links to them in the recommended listings, rather than having to scroll through past reviews to find them.

Tempo's picture

I thought the Pono Player was discontinued last Spring. It seems to be still available through some retailers, but shouldn't the company's decision to change directions at least be mentioned?

woodford's picture

there's a typo in the price, or at least an extra digit. it's not a $10k cart.

ivayvr's picture

I noticed that the price of NAD D3020 is still shown as $ 499. For the last two years or slightly longer, the actual price for the D3020 was $ 399.99.
At the same time, we were duly notified about the price drop for the very next entry, PS Audio Sprout to $ 499. That is creating a false impression that they cost the same.

syj's picture

"For the DragonFly Black, output voltage has now dropped from 1.8 to 1.2V, but in the DragonFly Red—which also has the distinction of an ESS Sabre 9016 DAC chip with 64-bit digital volume control—output voltage is bumped up to a healthy 2.1V, which AQ suggests better suits it to drive difficult headphone loads."

I think the DAC chip in the Dragon Red is ESS Sabre 9018 (9016 is in the Black).

Also, IMHO, the iFi Nano DSD LE is far far better than the Dragon Red
in terms of sound quality via the Amplifier (with Foobar2000 as the
source). I have both of them. So good that I bought another iFi Nano LE

to use with my other system. The problem of the Nano LE is that the
USB port isn't really secure when I accidentally move or touch the USB
chord it may stop playing. This happens with both units with either USB2.0 or USB3.0 cables.

icorem's picture

Compared the list to the last one + deletions and there is no trace to the Vivid Audio g3.