Built like a tank, the CA21 is a fine example of the minimalist approach: a line preamp with an input selector and a volume control, but no balance control. A giant killer in clarity, soundstage transparency, and detail resolution, its slightly closed-in treble highlights the midrange. Tonally, the center of gravity is the lower midrange, enabling a big-tone portrayal of cello and upright bass.
PrimaLuna DiaLogue 3
With its massive toroidal power transformers, this true dual-mono, point-to-point-wired preamplifier is unflappable, reproducing music effortlessly and with wonderful dimensionality even through complex, dynamically challenging musical passages. While it may make many recordings sound better than they should, you can listen to it for hours without any aural fatigue.
Triode Corporation TRX-1
This all-tube linestage boogies along with plenty of dynamic conviction, generating an infectious enthusiasm for the music. It may not excel in audiophile terms, but is a standout in its faithfulness to musical values. In particular, it captures the interplay between musicians to an extent that is rare or even exceeds that of preamps costing much more. The caveat is that you’ll have to invest in replacement tubes, preferably 5751s. Consider it a must-audition if your priority is to simply enjoy the music.
Electrocompaniet EC 4.7
The Electrocompaniet EC 4.7 solid-state preamp from the Land of the Vikings produces a natural mix of lifelike imaging and soundstaging that gives large complex orchestral music about as much realism as you can achieve in a home stereo. Clean, transparent, and exceptionally quiet, it also has significantly more extended bass and high-frequency response than many competing units. A very good preamp by any standard.
T+A P 1260 R
T+A’s design is deliberately simple, functional, and notably compact compared to that of most high-end gear. The sound is precise but not cool—remarkably elegant and refined, as well as notably low in noise and pure of tone, with fine detail and outstanding balance across the frequency spectrum.
Parasound Halo JC 2 BP
The JC 2 BP is that extreme rarity—a near-reference-quality product that many of us can actually afford. Neutral and natural, transparent-to-sources, quick and delicately detailed (though not as hard-hitting and detailed as the higher-priced spreads), here is one solid-state preamp that doesn’t trade away key parts of the baby (air, bloom, color, three-dimensionality) for the bathwater of razor-cut imaging and iron-fisted control. (The BP version of the JC 2 adds a home-theater bypass)
$4500 ($1500 for phono option)
Despite its entry-level status, the ET3SE is a low-distortion, high-resolution line preamplifier that delivers timbral accuracy and phenomenal bass control. The overall presentation is clean, smooth, slightly laid-back, yet highly detailed, with an emphasis on harmonic accuracy. It can certainly hold its own in elitist company.
$4900 line section; $5860 w/phono
This no-frills tubed preamp from Atma-Sphere is a must-hear for the purist music lover. Offering a crystal-clear, smooth, and concise window on the music, the MP-3’s expansiveness is a perfect match for both tube and solid-state amplification. Balanced-only operation; phono optional.