Where does one begin to evaluate these components? I thought about it and after two years decided to write my own personal review here. I don’t have flowery words and mystic meanings. I CANNOT give a distortion analysis. No Frequency response.
Im going to rank then 1st to the SOUND and experience. Then Ill rank them realistically including the specifications etc etc. For me you CANNOT combine the two. You have to compromise something.
The solid state second place does NOT mean its better than 3rd place Valve preamp. Its just that as a solid state preamp it EXCELLED
Ill rank also again when we consider features, price etc etc.
Lets begin with the facts, environment and associated equipment:
- I’m using the Zingali Evo Twenty 1.2’s as my reference. They approach an Avant-garde Duo in clarity and speed. The bass is about 8.8/10 vs the slam of a B&W800D2 at 9/10. They have a Duntech Sovereign bass, signature. I also used the B&W800’s and Tannoy Kingdom 18’s my tests.
- I used the the BEST “sane” speaker cable in the world. The Van Den Hul Supernova ($599/m). For me it was better than the any one of the top cables the competition has to offer. And yes, again tested most of them too. There are better cables, but now we talking $15000 plus…not sane anymore
- I used an EMMLabs XDS1 and the iFi giant killer PRO iDSD as sources. The iFi pips the EMMLabs sometimes in clarity. Love them both. Also had dCS Puccini and Yamaha S3000 as sources, but iFi stayed my reference.
- The room is a 8.6 x 7.8 with a sloping roof of 2.9m to 4.5m and acoustic treatments.
- Interconnects: The van den Hul Mountain, Siltech Classic 330i, Kimber Select 3xxx.
- Source – SACD’s, NO streaming. Hires FLAC, DSF, whatever reference used at shows too 🙂 Gosh if I ever hear Chris Jones – No Sanctuary here…
- I used a cloth couch – Red in color
- I also used the remarks and comments of at least 8 pairs of ears I trust and are even more critical than mine, and the reaction of two audiophile cats. I rely heavily on the comments of my audiophile friends. They love picking a fight.
Lets list the contenders. I have had almost 100 different preamps in various systems the past 3 years. I’m blessed that because I sell 2nd hand a LOT of kit passes throughh the shop.
This is a list of the best of the best pre-amplifiers I feel I have listened to.
- MingDa MC300 Valve preamplifier based on 6SN7 driving a 300B. VERY unusual. MSRP: $3200
- Cary SLP-05 – 6SN7 based preamp. Two boxes. MSRP: $8000
- EAR 868 – Minimalistic 2 valve box, ECC82/83 – MSRP – $8000
- Halcro DM10 – solid state masterpiece – MSRP $15000+
- Pass Labs XP-22 – solid state beauty – $12000
- VTL 7.5 MK3 – Valves 12AU7 – $18000
- Audio Research Reference 6 – $14000
- Valve Audio Black Widow – $3000
What I left out:
Its DREADFUL to not include these as they are also REFERENCE items. Discard ANY of these preamps and you will be POORER for the experience! Trust me. ANY of the below is considered high end.
Mark Levinson no32, ARC Reference 5SE, Hovland HP100, Jeff Roland Corus and Synergy, Perreaux, Plinius Tautoro, Manley Labs, Various other Cary, Levinson. Leben RS28CX, Krell KCT & KSL/KRC. Conrad Johnson CT5, Premier 7 etc. McIntosh MC2500 & 2600, Valve Audio Genesis
This list in itself consists of preamplifier that score 8.6/10 or more! You can buy ANY one of the above and you will be happy. I guarantee that.
Lets define my scale.
0-3/10 – Wooden stick. I dont think I ever had something so bad that I wanted to give this score.
4-5/10 – Some pre 1960 kit. Especially the DIY stuff.
6-7/10 – Here lives a lot of the 1970’s kit. Quad 22, Marantz, Yamaha, Sansui , Pioneer from the 1970’s. Some renowned brands from the 80’s. Nad, Rotel early models.
7-8 – Now here comes the “lekker” stuff, listenable, enjoyable. Now you have a HiFi. Ill put my Krell KSL here. Goodness CJ PV10, Some McIntosh, Threshold, Rotel new RC models.
8-8.5 – THIS is the congested space. To enter here, you have to beat a Cello preamplifier. The Cello gets an 8.0/10 from me. Its mine so I can criticize all three models (Palette and Audio Palette). The 8.5 bar for me is the HOVLAND HP100 and Mark Levinson Reference 32 at 8.7/10.
9.0 – 9.5 My list above, and Im sure kit like the Audioresearch Ref 6SE, Pass XP32. Lamm. Even the d’Agostino. Gryphon. SimAudio Moon.
9.5 or more. NONE, who knows what comes up one day ?
Im not going to pitch a speech here. Just notes and a feel how Ill score them.
EAR 868 in 4th place. I feel it earns an 8.8/10. It is uncomplicated. Cosmetically its always pretty to classy. It has balanced and SE in and out so its a plus. Very Little valve issues expected, so another plus. The phono is DAMN good, so its a massive plus if you have a turntable.
Its sounds so relaxed. But not in a typical “older” valve way. There might be a slight de-emphasizing of the trebles, but just enough to keep the blaring of trumpets making me wince. Midranges are so strong and complete, this tames all solid state power amplifiers, making it the perfect match for good, punchy solid state amps like a Krell or even ML.
Bass is very good. A solid state amp will pick up the slam to VG levels. Depth is excellent. Definition might be slightly hazy, but only if I point you to specific passages.
Mixing it with a valve amplifier ? As long as its an ARC Reference 75/110/150. The “warmer” and sweeter amplifiers might make it too relaxed ? But on a Wilson Audio and Zingali, Focal and Vivid G1’s this can result in an amazing experience. Will not work on the Souvereign’s, Revel Salons.
The Valve Audio Black Widow (8.8/10), current model is a killer preamplifier! It surprised me when I first listened to the new one, man what an upgrade.
This preamp seems to mix solid state and valve amplification to perfection. It raises the trebles to beautiful levels. Its so listenable, so easy on the ear. I couldn’t detect valve roll off here. No fatigue at all. It matches both solid state and valve amplifiers well.
The Midrange is very good. IT has bloom again. It defines the voices and instruments so well. Wide stage here filled with information. It didnt bloom quite as much as the 868.
The Bass is strong, really well defined. It has separation, definition that matches the of XP22 and maybe even the REF6.
Well it has to be a solid state and valve. Lets do the Pass Labs XP22 first, I feel it deserves an 8.9/10.
Silent, dead silent. Music flies out of the speakers, jumps at you. No longer conservative presentation between the speakers. It reaches out to you. Excellent, slightly sweet treble, extended and throws a nice sound stage. Surprising for a solid state amplifier.
Midrange is strong, just above neural, which to my ears are good. It sounds detailed. Voices have definition, texture. Makes you want to listen more and more.
Bass is excellent. Very good. It kicks and rolls. It stops when needed. The speaker and amplifier knows what is expected of them.
Pair with a serious good solid state amplifier, this preamp demands the best!! Even the top Valve power amplifiers will have to behave a little with being driven by the XP22.
The Audio Research Reference 6 (8.9/10). Possibly the biggest legend in Audio. I have so the SP10,11,15 etc. Love ARC to bits. So why is the Reference 6 in 3rd ? It could be in 2nd place if the ARC sound is more to your liking. If we take the whole package, definitely higher (see later).
It is an orderly preamp. Just like the company. Seriously well though out. Less clinical than the REF5 and REF5SE brethren. It is very quiet for a valve preamplifier. It opens up the music very well.
The treble is there with no roll off anywhere. Its not quite sweet. Its defined and clear. The finest of details are there but not “floating”. It doesn’t try and hug you with sound. Its more reserved. Its a reference, and acts like one. You wont miss a thing listening to the REF6. You can review equipment and this preamplifier will be your discerning tool.
The midrange is gorgeous, unmistakably reference quality. IT is strong. Its pure and unchanged in the path. It come out in unison with the treble. I love it. You know the sound is “RIGHT”.
The bass approaches solid state levels here. Probably the strongest bass of all the valve preamps here. You just cannot complain here. No, if you want slightly warm, listen to others but mind the fact that you will loose the other seriously good features.
A marvelous preamplifier.
Ok, lets talk Halcro (8.9/10). Why does it beat the XP22 ? Well simple. Its probably one of the most uncolored reproductions you are going to get. Nothing will force this preamp to act otherwise.
Can it sound cold ? Yes it can. Warm ? Oh yes. Now you probably go, “What the hell ?” Indeed. I said the same. Why does it do that ? Well it depends on your source hardware and software. It depends on your cables, even the USB! This preamp is very much an amplification wire. It doesnt add much.
So what does it add!? Luckily it adds AIR. Makes notes float. It forces music out into the room. Its a Vladimir Putin of preamplifiers. Its not a big mouth, it knows itself and projects it, controls proceedings, it dominates.
Trebles are light, very defined. Out there for you to pick up and listen to. You don’t strain to hear differences. Sometimes on bad recording you will feel uncomfortable. Pity that producers chased $$ more than becoming legends in Audio. But its correct, you cannot fault the Halcro here.
The Midrange is more reserved than the Reference 6, less bloomy, less palatable. Its strong. Pure. Most enjoyable. Very good for a solid state preamplifier.
Bass ? Ok, it kicks … it doesn’t try and take the edge off. Its produces probably down to 1Hz. It has pace, it has kick, It can explode. AND its define. Double bass here is so defined.
And with it comes the Cary SLP55 (9.0/10). How does it beat the Reference 6 ? Well to my ears it starts with the euphoric sound. The Cary isn’t about pure order, its about dragging you into the music. It will tug at your ears and senses until you are into the groove!
The treble is like the REF6 detailed and airy. Here it just floats around the speakers. Its more alive. Sounds in the recording studio now has left the speakers and YOU are standing in the door of the recording studio, in front of the artists.
The midrange is Oh so good. It makes reserved speakers like Harberth and Wilson and Tannoy tap their feet and smile at least. It makes exuberant speakers like Zingali’s party, passionate Italian Sonus Fabers SING.
The bass is not as strong as the REF6. But somehow it doesn’t matter. We now find us less analytical to the music and more tapping our feet. Its growing into a party here.
Well, how did I end up with two VALVE amps ? Doesn’t really matter, it seems right to me, after listening to them all.
The VTL 7.5. The 6.5 and 7.5’s have been legends for years and years. Like SME and Krell.
The treble. take the REF6 attention to detail and treble separation. Let the Cary add its bloom and life and the VTL is exactly the combination of them both. It swings out the trebles, it moves around, it draws attention, it is sweet, sweet in a way that doesn’t remove the original “tone” of the note ? It makes the ears feel good. Its as if the ears relax.
The midrange is the best of them all. It blooms, it has texture. It has the force of the DM10 and XP22. It even has the edge. It makes voice so beautiful, you can listen forever here.
The bass is unusual for a valve preamp. The REF6 matches it. It is as good as the XP22. It kicks and makes thunder when needed. It can drive big woofers and make them happy. It stretches those surrounds and make the listener sit up. Make it very loud and the listener will run out the room.
The soundstage is deep and wide. You can easily find your way in the presentation, easily discern instruments and placings.
Now we go to the Chinese orphan. Why is she here ? Th MingDa MC300 (9.1/10) is super unusual.
Its a 3.5W 300B amplifier used as a preamplifier. Very odd. It uses a notorious “difficult” 300B valve. Its has a slight hiss, hum on speakers of 94dB and more efficiency. That alone should disqualify it.
And then you press PLAY. I always wait 3 seconds and see how far the jaws drop. Every single demo I ever did made people sit up, clap, laugh, become angry (their systems lack), sit back and relax.
The trebles surpass even the VTL 7.5. I had people ask if I’m playing in 5.1 surround ? I had people point almost 2m to the left and right of speakers saying that sounds originate from there. So the soundstage is huge. Its deep to very deep.
The trebles are stunning. It extracts impossible detail and ambiance out of the tracks. One cannot believe that those sounds were on the recording in the first place. WOW. It has the best upper midrange to top trebles of all the preamplifiers
The midrange is very good. It blooms. Not quite like the Cary but grows and crawls towards the listener. It also reaches out to you. Voices envelop you. You get lost in the positioning of notes.
The bass. All of the above preamplifiers I feel matches or exceeds the MingDa bass. Ill score the lower bass a respectable 8.3/10. Its not lacking. It rumbles. It kicks.. The lowest of notes (double bass and synth bass) lack a little separation and definition. Upper bass (9.0/10) is shocking fast and good.
So there you have it. After 3 years of people moaning at me to put my thoughts out. The preamps in my TOP 10 (ok 7).
You WILL be happy with any one of them. They are the SUPER preamps. Except for the MingDa they are built like tanks
Now lets put my salesman hat on:
Very quickly Ill rate them as follows:
- VTL 7.5 – Complete package. Has EVERYTHING. Sound, looks and prestige, build. DAMN expensive
- Audio Research Reference 6 – Different look, maybe the BEST look (except SLP5), extremely capable, less expensive, hold value very well. Amazing Build
- Cary SLP-05 – Close to the BEST sound, for me the BEST looking preamp, affordable and good build.
- Pass Labs XP22 and Halcro DM10. Best solid state preamps I have heard so far. You cannot go wrong with these! Remember this: I compared them to the best valve preamplifiers. And they competed on the STONG valve fortifications of bloom, airiness and ambiance. Ill also include the VA BlackWidow here. A Superb buy, really for the price unbeatable.
- The MingDa. For me its the BEST sounding preamp here. Its the cheapest by far. Its good looking in some way. Its got Chinese build quality here and there. Has the least features. Actually they did an excellent job adding XLT inputs via transformers to a single ended design.