2016 Buyer's Guide: Preamplifiers Under $3,000

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers
Mystere CA21,
Nuforce HAP-100,
Nuforce MCP-18,
PrimaLuna Dialogue 3,
Rotel RCD-1570,
Van Alstine FET Valve CF
2016 Buyer's Guide: Preamplifiers Under $3,000

NuForce HAP-100
NuForce’s HAP-100 preamplifier/headphone amplifier offers serious high-end performance at a modest price. The HAP-100 is a Class A solid-state design that delivers unusually wide bandwidth with low levels of distortion and noise. Together, these characteristics make for a sound that is quite detailed and that offers a purity and clarity unexpected at this price. The HAP-100 sports four inputs, a remote control, and a cool volume control with 100 settings in 1dB increments. It makes a good headphone amp, too, with one caveat: namely, the NuForce is audibly load-sensitive and thus not an ideal match for some of today’s more difficult-to-drive top-end headphones. With the right ‘phones, however, the NuForce sings. nuforce.com

NuForce MCP-18
The MCP-18 is an analog preamp designed to handle both multichannel and two-channel sources in the most sonically unobtrusive manner possible. It is basically a source-selector and gain-adjustment device whose signal path has been optimized to obtain maximum transparency and minimum coloration. The MCP-18 offers audiophiles a budget high-sound-quality alternative to digital pre/pros while still retaining a system’s multichannel capabilities. SS discovered that it was very difficult to uncover the MCP-18’s intrinsic sound. When he changed DAC sources what he heard was the new DAC, not any colorations that he could attribute to the MCP-18. The MCP-18 certainly ranks as one of the most transparent preamps he’s heard, regardless of price. nuforce.com

Rotel RC-1570
The RC-1570 stereo preamplifier is a fully featured unit with four analog inputs, an additional balanced analog-in, and even a moving-magnet phonostage. But that’s not all: The RC-1570 is equally adept with digital. There are two coax and optical inputs, plus two USB inputs (one on the front panel and one on the back). With digital sources, the preamp has a built-in Wolfson DAC that supports resolutions up to 192/24. Indeed, the RC-1570’s excellent all-around sound—it gets the essentials of timing, tonality, and dynamics right despite its modest price—only gets better with high-resolution files. With all these inputs and the built-in DAC, the RC-1570 can serve neatly as a versatile control point for a modern audio system. rotel.com

To be clear, this is not a FET-Valve hybrid. Van Alstine’s latest preamp features an all-tube signal path, relegating MOSFETs to the role of power-supply voltage regulators. The basic linestage circuit is rather straightforward: two cascaded gain stages followed by a 12AU7 dual-triode connected in parallel and configured as a cathode-follower buffer. Apparently, there’s plenty of magic to be found in a plain-vanilla circuit topology when it is coupled to a sophisticated power supply as deployed by AVA. Both mm and mc phono options are available. The FET Valve represents modern tube sound at its best. Its twin virtues, really a happy blend of neutrality and accuracy, guarantee that it will not dominate the personality of your audio system. It responds well to vintage tube substitutions, and so configured, it is without a doubt the best sounding AVA preamp DO has auditioned to date. avahifi.com

Mystère ca21
A fine example of the minimalist approach: a line preamp with an input selector (four line inputs) and a stepped-attenuator volume control. It can’t get any simpler than that, though some would certainly squawk at the omission of a balance control. It is built much like a power amp, featuring a massive power supply. Happily for DO it has also been “sprayed” with solid-state repellant. With the exception of rectifier bridges for the filament supplies and a handful of Zener diodes, this preamp is pure tube. Check out its sonic virtues: faithful to the original reverberant acoustic, a big-tone portrayal of cello and upright bass, edgeless presentation, and luxuriant harmonic textures devoid of gratuitous tube brightness or upper-midrange grain, especially when used with vintage 6SN7 substitutions. Where else can you find a budget preamp that performs at such a lofty level? A slightly closed-in treble highlights the midrange. mystere-usa.com

PrimaLuna DiaLogue 3
This surprisingly hefty pre generates tremendous WOW factor—it’s difficult to believe that such engaging, gorgeous sound, coupled with a wonderfully expansive soundstage, can be had for such a relatively modest price. One of its most compelling virtues is that it lets music “breathe” and flow effortlessly. Admittedly, it may make many recordings sound better than they should by taking some of the upper midrange edge out of them (particularly on digital recordings). If you want to hear exactly what is on the mastertape or prefer an analytical presentation, the DiaLogue 3 may not be your cup of tea. But if you want to listen for hours without any aural fatigue and be transfixed by the musical performances and the gorgeous timbres of instruments and voices, you’ve come to the right place. primaluna-usa.com

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