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  1. #1
    Loving This kexodusc's Avatar
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    What to look for when buying a preamplifier?

    I don't really think near enough time is spent on this area of a system, instead amps are the more popular and involving topics. I've always just used the pre-outs from old receivers to act as pre-amps. What should one look for when buying a pre-amp (other than # and types of inputs/outputs)? What makes one better than the next? Any good, cheap preamps you'd recommend?

  2. #2
    DMK
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    Don't look, listen

    Quote Originally Posted by kexodusc
    I don't really think near enough time is spent on this area of a system, instead amps are the more popular and involving topics. I've always just used the pre-outs from old receivers to act as pre-amps. What should one look for when buying a pre-amp (other than # and types of inputs/outputs)? What makes one better than the next? Any good, cheap preamps you'd recommend?

    You're better off using the power section of an old receiver rather than its preamp section. If I could tell you why, I would - but I can't. I don't know. But for some mysterious reason, my experience has proven to me that it must be easier to screw up a preamp than a power amp (assuming adequate power and power supplies, etc etc) as I've found more sonic differences in them than in power amps (see assumptions above). Certainly poorly designed power amps can do a lot of damage but with good gear all 'round, the preamp is ultra important.

    What makes one better than the next? Your preference for the sound. A cost-no-object preamp tends to sound better for the simple reason that there are few if any compromises in parts and workmanship quality. But this isn't always the case - the sound, I mean. I once heard an inexpensive Rotel preamp that I preferred over a much more expensive Bryston. Then again, I heard a different Bryston kick the pants of the same Rotel. Go figure.

    The neat thing about audio for me is not getting great sound out of spending a lot of money; it's about spending as little money as possible and still getting superior sound. A good place to start for a preamp is the little Parasound PHP-850 available right now from www.audioadvisor.com for $250. No, it isn't the end all/be all of preamps but it's the best sounding preamp new in box for that small amount. It even has a phono stage and what self-respecting audio enthusiast doesn't need that? Ok, maybe some don't. But this little booger has one and a nice headphone jack as well as tone controls. It doesn't screw up the sound too much which for $250 is saying a lot! Cheap receivers do, although I have a vintage Pioneer which sounds pretty durn good.

    The difference between the Parasound and a, say, Yamaha or Sony receiver isn't night and day. Quite honestly, I hear night and day differences between different speakers and different phono cartridges and the rest is a varying degree of subtle. My subtle, however, can be someone elses night and day and vice versa. But the diffs in preamps are musically significant to my ears, sometimes as much as a (subjectively speaking) 10% improvement but usually more like 5%. The Parasound can be returned if you don't like it, also. Try it for 30 days and plug it into your old receiver power in input if it has one. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Note: I'm not a shill for either Parasound or Audio Advisor. But this is one helluva sweet deal.

    Lastly, if you don't first have the best speakers you can afford, forget preamps and amps for now and upgrade your speakers. If I were to categorize by order of importance, I'd go this way:

    1) Source. NOT source components but the software. The best sounding CD's sound pretty awesome on the worst stereo! Could be improved but still great sounding.
    2) Speakers
    3) Room acoustics
    4) Vinyl playback source component
    5) Preamp
    6) Amp
    7) Digital playback source component
    8) All other claptrap such as cables, power conditioning, tweaks, etc, most of which I consider anywhere from dubious to an outright waste of funds.

    Let us know what you decide on and how it works out for you. good luck!

  3. #3
    Shostakovich fan Feanor's Avatar
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    Agree, DMK: get a real pre-amp.

    Quote Originally Posted by DMK
    You're better off using the power section of an old receiver rather than its preamp section. ...
    Another inexpensive option is the Creek OBH-12 passive pre-amp with volume control -- US$315 at Audio Advisor. It's passive, i.e. can only attenuate source inputs, so doesn't introduce any sound of its own; (though an adequate impedance match with the power amp is necessary). The OBH-12 has only two inputs however and no phono; the soon-to-be released OBH-22 adds Tape In/Out connections.

  4. #4
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    Another might be the Crown PS2, for about 500 new or less used. I just sold one about a month ago for 275 in prestine condition with box and manual. Straight wired, no sound coloration whatsoever, tone bypass, low rumble filter, phono inputs for mc and the other ( I forget...still have a new unused Denon DP 59L but haven't used a turntable for years ) AH! moving magnetic! thats it. and all other inputs needed for tape, cd, tuner and more but I don't remember all there is. Nice preamp. Definetely worth the bucks, especially priced used...and is rack mountable. Don't drop the ball. Look into equipment you can grow into rather than the dead end street stuff. You never know what you might want to plug into it next time you get a whim. I chose to go with a small mixer rather than a preamp. No noise, no color, can attach anything to it, even a keyboard if so desired but for the here and now, it does CD's, tape, tuner with room for mucho expansion.
    Good luck!
    Carlos

  5. #5
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    Whoops, I just caught that...........your still using receiver preamp ins and mains out? Whoa!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If your in this stage at this time, I would do just short of a ton of research and listening before buying anything! You owe it to yourself. Receivers have a lot of crosstalk and other jamming going on within the circuits since it's all in one box and connected together. You can seperate the preamp stage from the power amp but you still at square one with component quality and antique design era. Theres a whole lot of info available about receiver internals and specs of which theres not enough space here to mention it all but me thinks you really need to move on....or up.
    I'll get off my soap box now...thank you.

  6. #6
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    Let me slip in once more here for a moment. I have a Tandberg 3008A I bought new for 1000.00. Now mind you it is not current but it is listed on the internet ( not E Bay, it's local here ) for 350. but I am going to adjust that to 250.00. This one has about 6 hours use total. I'll give you the specs if your interested, otherwise no sense typing it all in here for nothing. Any questions? I'll answer.
    Just a thought,
    Carlos

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by kexodusc
    I don't really think near enough time is spent on this area of a system, instead amps are the more popular and involving topics. I've always just used the pre-outs from old receivers to act as pre-amps. What should one look for when buying a pre-amp (other than # and types of inputs/outputs)? What makes one better than the next? Any good, cheap preamps you'd recommend?
    Hi!

    So are you looking for a preamp that decodes digital signals and has all the bells and whistles or are you just looking for a passive one that basically you hook up for the volume control for several components?

  8. #8
    DMK
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    Quote Originally Posted by Feanor
    Another inexpensive option is the Creek OBH-12 passive pre-amp with volume control -- US$315 at Audio Advisor. It's passive, i.e. can only attenuate source inputs, so doesn't introduce any sound of its own; (though an adequate impedance match with the power amp is necessary). The OBH-12 has only two inputs however and no phono; the soon-to-be released OBH-22 adds Tape In/Out connections.
    I had a weird experience with the Creek passive and another passive I tried out - the McCormack Micro unit. Accuracy is what we all strive for, right? Anyway, I absolutely agree that neither had a sonic signature like active preamps do. I tested both of these units out with a CD player that had a variable out so we could do quick switches with the passives against no preamp. Couldn't tell the difference. However, I did not like the sound in either case nor the sound of no preamp (natch, since I couldn't tell the diff).

    D'ya suppose I don't like the sound of accuracy? Maybe I like a little fleshing out of the sound. Actually, I strive to replicate the sound of live music and the passives made the music sound a little more mechanical. Perhaps an impedance mismatch, as you said.

  9. #9
    Shostakovich fan Feanor's Avatar
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    Passive pre-amp guidelines from Enjoythemusic:

    Quote Originally Posted by DMK
    I had a weird experience with the Creek passive and another passive I tried out ... Perhaps an impedance mismatch, as you said.
    Here's a guideline from Enjoy the Music ...

    Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine:

    The question a prospective buyer must ask him or her self is: Should I employ an active or passive pre-amplifier? When that question is answered with some assurance, then, questions like which and what type can be answered.

    Q: Who should use a passive pre-amplifier?

    A: People who can say for sure the following are true about their systems.

    1. "I do not need phono equalization." If you have a turntable and you play black vinyl discs, then you need some sort of RIAA equalization (filtering) to restore your source signal to its original form. This usually will take the form of some sort of active "phono" stage with the proper RIAA time constants inserted between a pair of "buffer" input and output stages -- with or without gain. Usually this stage has anywhere from 24 - 78 dB of gain, depending on the needs of the associated MM or MC phono cartridge. And, very often this phono stage is associated with an active "line-level" stage which may have a gain of less than 0dB or it may have as much as 10 or even 20 dB of gain. (Remember, every 3dB of gain represents approximately a doubling of the music's apparent loudness!)

    2. "All of my line-level sources (my tuner, my CD player, my cassette, etc.) have enough gain to drive my amplifier directly." This means every source should have an output of (at least) .75 volts. A 2 volt output is industry standard.

    3. "The impedance of my sources is low enough and the load impedance of my basic amplifier is high enough that their direct connection will not seriously roll off my system's high frequencies or compromise its transient response." This means that every source component should have an output impedance of no more than 1000 ohms (less than 300 ohms is best) and that your amplifier should have an input impedance of at least 10,000 ohms. 20,000 ohms (or more) is better.

    4. "I do not plan on using interconnect wires more than two-meters long." Longer lengths of wire connecting pre-amplifiers to amplifiers present greater capacitance and therefore create low-pass filters with lower turnover frequencies thereby rolling off more of the music's higher frequencies and reducing the illusions of luster, brightness or transparency as well as transient attack. In other words longer lengths of interconnect can cause the reproduced music to appear dull.

    The perspective passive pre-amplifier user should always do two things: First consult manuals and/or manufacturers to determine if the above conditions are easily met. And second, you must try the passive preamp in your own system to make sure it does not screw up your music. These types of audio component interfaces are (in reality) quite complicated and typically possesses too many variables to be predictable -- therefore a home audition is essential.

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by kexodusc
    I don't really think near enough time is spent on this area of a system, instead amps are the more popular and involving topics. I've always just used the pre-outs from old receivers to act as pre-amps. What should one look for when buying a pre-amp (other than # and types of inputs/outputs)? What makes one better than the next? Any good, cheap preamps you'd recommend?

    Better specs to a point, flat frequency response, very low noise, distortion. Listening can be unreliable at times, be careful.
    mtrycrafts

  11. #11
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    I always look for linestages (no phono preamp) that are minimalist. I preferr passive, but there not for everyone or for every system. As for active ones, I always go for the minimalist approach. No on/off switch and no tone controls. The simpler the better.
    How cheap is cheap?
    Remember, different isn't always better, but it is different.
    Keep things as simple as possible, but not too simple.
    Let your ears decide for you!

  12. #12
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    I agree with Bturk
    Who needs tone controls anyways? If your gear satisfies you in the first place, there shouldnt be a need to change it in any way.

  13. #13
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    Talking Tandberg 3008A

    Quote Originally Posted by CARLOS
    Let me slip in once more here for a moment. I have a Tandberg 3008A I bought new for 1000.00. Now mind you it is not current but it is listed on the internet ( not E Bay, it's local here ) for 350. but I am going to adjust that to 250.00. This one has about 6 hours use total. I'll give you the specs if your interested, otherwise no sense typing it all in here for nothing. Any questions? I'll answer.
    Just a thought,
    Carlos
    Do you still have the above unit for sale? Whats the condition? I live in Havre de Grace Maryland...

  14. #14
    Forum Regular hifitommy's Avatar
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    your budget

    is important but it doesnt have to be unlimited. when i went from an adcom gfp565 ss pre to the audio research sp3a1 (tubed), i was floored. and this is staying with the adcom gfa555II solid state amp.

    i suggest strongly to navigate to audiogon.com and see if there is an arc sp3, sp6, or sp9 available and if its in your price range, perhaps snag one. a good ss amp should do, i am happy with my adcom. the adcom preamp just didnt quite do the job, even though i was happy with it for a long time, the arc outclassed it in EVERY way. and it does not have the usual 'warmth' colorations usually spoken about with tubes.

    it is much more dynamic, the bandwidth is wider, imaging and soundstaging a lot better, and tonally more accurate. the impedance happily matched the adcom and it seems a match made in heaven.

    sure, i would love to have a 100wpc arc amp but thats financially not possible at present. a good adcom, parasound, or rotel amp seems likely for you. again, audiogon is a good place to look for these things.
    ...regards...tr

  15. #15
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    Tandberg 3008A

    Quote Originally Posted by Sound_Bites
    Do you still have the above unit for sale? Whats the condition? I live in Havre de Grace Maryland...
    Hello, I got caught up in a whirlwind back in 2004 right after I posted this about the pre-amp and moved to Arizona. BUT, in an effort to answer your question in case your still curious, I do still have that Tandberg. I just pulled it out of a system that was in the bedroom to ( final decision ) list it on ebay. I used it bedside with a set of AKG's / CD / cassette / FM - all / Studer Revox equip for night listening. Still passes a signal super clear, no color that I can tell but the headphone pot is a little scratchy as is the main volume pot - which I never used anyway. The rest of the pre-amp seems solid, is scratch free and comes with the original manual, cord and a thank you. Anywho, I'll get a pic of it now and maybe you'll see it on the bay or see this posting. Geees, I'm surprised I even remembered my password!
    Have a good one,
    Carlos.....now in Fredericksburg, Virginia

  16. #16
    Charm Thai™
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    When i shopped for preamps i first had to determine my budget. Secondly I knew wanted tubes. Then i listed what features i could not live without. I required defeatable tone controls and 2 sets of MAIN outs. After i found preamps that met the above requirements i let my ears make the final decision.

  17. #17
    Retro Modernist 02audionoob's Avatar
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    Like hifitommy, I too lived happily with an Adcom GFP-565 before moving up to Audio Research. I must say, though...ignoring the higher level of equipment and just focusing on the GFP-565, it's outstanding for the money you'd pay for it. A nice sound about it, good phono stage, outputs that bypass the tone controls, separate switching for recording and playback. Very nice all around. And oddly enough, I think the Kenwood Basic C2 might just be almost as good for far less money. I actually prefer the phono stage in the C2 over the highly-regarded phono stage of the GFP-565, at least partially due to the loading options.

    All that said, I would largely rely on listening, despite the fact that that contradicts someone else's earlier reply. The preamp is a highly critical part of the sound. If it wasn't, how else would the move to Audio Research make such a difference in hifitommy's case? Even passive units affect the sound. For example, I liked the Adcom GFP-565 sound better than that of the Adcom SLC-505 passive preamp in my all-Adcom system. I say find the one you like to listen to, first.

  18. #18
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    Quote Originally Posted by bturk667
    I always look for linestages (no phono preamp) that are minimalist. I preferr passive, but there not for everyone or for every system. As for active ones, I always go for the minimalist approach. No on/off switch and no tone controls. The simpler the better.
    How cheap is cheap?
    This thread was a good read and brought out a few posters I have not seen.

    I agree on minimal and only had one pre-tuner with tone controls, which could be removed from the path. (Hafler 945)

    I am currently using a VAC CLA1 MKII which has an outboard power supply, separate volume knob for each channel, and three settings - Passive, normal gain and high gain. I generally leave the unit in normal and have been confused, curious about the Passive setting. Correct me if wrong, but the passive setting bypasses the tubes and goes right from input to volume to amp?

    If that is true, I suppose it will then magnify the shortcomings of the source (CDP). My Rotel player sounds much better through the normal gain than in passive. Why? Is the purpose of passive just to have a volume control before the amp?

    The pre-amp I replaced was a Sound Valves 101i which also had no tone controls, and didn't need them.

    And as DMK said
    '1) Source. NOT source components but the software. The best sounding CD's sound pretty awesome on the worst stereo! "

    And the bad sounding CDs sound way crappy on a good system to the point I can't even listen to them often. (Triumph-Stages) Great band and songs, one of the worst live recordings I own.

  19. #19
    Vinyl Fundamentalist Forums Moderator poppachubby's Avatar
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    I am running a Kenwood Basic C1 and for the most part, I love it. The phono stage is fantastic, quiet and neutral. It really allows the cartridge to shine.

    I haven't been pleased with the CD/AUX input. I haven't tried my new Yamaha CDP, but everything else I've plugged into it has been a little bright for my taste. CD's are unimportant to me, therefore I'm not worried. Secondly, it will soon be feeding to a Golden Tube, which should warm things up.

    Aside from this, I've typically owned integrateds, and have little experience with pre's. I'm hoping the C1 will pair nicely with my new tube amp, if not, I may be referencing this thread soon...

  20. #20
    Forum Regular hifitommy's Avatar
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    what struck me the most about the arc is

    the LINE stage. it is so open and wideband and uncollored that its a revelation after the adcom. poppa, i really suggest looking for an sp9, or sp6c, or even one of ARCs lin stages. they are THAT good.
    ...regards...tr

  21. #21
    Vinyl Fundamentalist Forums Moderator poppachubby's Avatar
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    Thanks Thomas...

  22. #22
    Forum Regular stevenv's Avatar
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    The simplest and most cost effective is passive pre. Just input selection and vol control

  23. #23
    Forum Regular hifitommy's Avatar
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    but not the easiest to use.

    one must use cables as short as possible and also hope all sources have enough gain.
    ...regards...tr

  24. #24
    Forum Regular audio amateur's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Feanor
    (Remember, every 3dB of gain represents approximately a doubling of the music's apparent loudness!)
    That is incorrect. It is either 6 or 10 dB, certainly not 3. A 3 dB gain does however represent a doubling in power.

  25. #25
    Ajani
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    Quote Originally Posted by audio amateur
    That is incorrect. It is either 6 or 10 dB, certainly not 3. A 3 dB gain does however represent a doubling in power.
    Yep - 10db it is...

    Funny how it's taken 6 years for someone to realize that mistake by Feanor

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