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Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Esoteric Grandioso C1X

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Constellation Inspiration 1.0


As with Constellation’s other Inspiration Series components, the Preamp 1.0 offers Constellation-grade sound quality at what is essentially breakthrough pricing for this maker of cost-no-object components. The Preamp 1.0 sports the same circuitry, chassis build-techniques, remote control, and display as the $35k Virgo III. The sound is similar as well, with the trademark Constellation combination of resolution with ease, tremendous clarity and transparency to sources, and wonderful rendering of timbre.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Zanden Audio Systems Model 3100


This gorgeously built, relatively demure tube linestage preamplifier is a virtual sonic clone of its companion piece—Zanden’s extraordinary 8120 stereo amplifier. With its all-tube output stage, all-tube rectification, a fixed-bias current-regulated power supply, and transformer-coupled outputs, you might expect the 3100 to sound classically “tube-y.” But as is the case with Zanden’s power amplifier, you would be entirely wrong. JV has not heard an all-tube linestage at this price that outdoes this one in neutrality, speed, resolution, soundstaging, and grip.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Brinkmann Audio Marconi MkII


When contrasted with much more expensive equipment from CH Precision, Boulder and Ypsilon, the Brinkmann preamplifier doesn’t quite have their magnanimity of sound, grip, and airiness. CH Precision produces a cavernous black space that seems unrivaled. Boulder has a degree of control that is unique to it. And Ypsilon lights up the soundstage. But Brinkmann comes remarkably close and has its own set of virtues. It has a dynamism and smooth continuity that are immensely beguiling. It represents formidable German engineering allied to a profound sense of musicality that will be difficult for most listeners to resist.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000



With seven inputs (five RCA, two XLR) and seven outputs (four RCA, three XLR) as well as an optional phonostage, the Noble Line N11 is equipped to handle just about everything in your system. What makes this single-stage preamp stand out is its remarkable “unity gain” volume control, which lowers the amount of boost applied to incoming signals and thereby audibly lowers noise, increases transparency and resolution, and expands dynamic range. A sonically remarkable bit of engineering.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

VAC Signature IIa


Kevin Hayes has outdone himself with the Signature IIa preamp. Transformer-coupled, completely balanced, hand-wired with no coupling capacitors or negative feedback, the full-function model has four line inputs and a tubed phonostage with mm/mc inputs, a separate power transformer, dedicated filter circuitry, and variable impedance loading. And the sound is gorgeous.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

VTL TL-6.5 Series II Signature


The TL6.5 Series II Signature is a significantly updated version of VTL’s TL6.5 Signature preamplifier. The VTL design team’s goal for the Series II was to incorporate most of the advanced technology found in the company’s flagship preamp, the TL7.5 Series III Reference—a hybrid, two-chassis (separate power supply) model—in a single chassis. The application of this advanced technology has certainly improved sonics (and ergonomics). Musically natural and measurably superior, the TL-6.5 Series II maximizes all that tubes do well, while minimizing their shortcomings.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

FM Acoustics FM 155-MKIIR


Like its companion pieces, the FM 108-MKII monoblocks and the FM 122-MKII phonostage, this compact Class A linestage preamplifier is one of FM’s most affordable products. As with the amp and phonostage, it too preserves the native sound, the number, and the receptivity patterns of the mikes being used in recording sessions, along with a clear sense of the dimensions and ambient signature of the venue in which those mikes have been set up. And yet this transparency to setup and source isn’t being bought at the price of an analytical presentation. On the contrary, there is a musical sweetness to the way the FM 155 reveals instrumental and recording essentials that makes for consistently enjoyable listening.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

T+A P3100HV


T+A’s top preamplifier is a significant redesign of its predecessor. The HV in the model name denotes the high-voltage power-supply rails (100V), which T+A says leads to more linear operation of the transistors. Those transistors are hand matched JFETs mounted on a complex circuit board that compensates for temperature variation. The P3100HV has exceptional command and grip in the bass, with tremendous depth, power, and authority. It’s also very fast, conveying music’s dynamism.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Boulder Amplifiers 1110


Boulder Amplifiers’ 1110 is the sweet spot in the line, offering much of the technology, sound quality, and battleship build of the company’s higher-end 2100 and flagship 3000 line. More than just a source-switcher and volume control, the 1110 is a highly advanced computer-controlled, network-connected component with one of the most advanced feature sets of any preamplifier regardless of price. The 1110 has exceptional detail and transparency, a superb sense of air, “live” dynamics, tight but powerful and realistic bass, and a broad soundstage with excellent width and a depth that is just slightly forward compared to much of the competition.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Constellation Revelation Pictor


As a deft amalgamation of Constellation’s upper-level technology with some of the cost-saving measures from the lower-level series, the Pictor delivers overall performance closer to that of the more expensive Virgo III than expected for its asking price. With an external power supply and optional DC Filter chassis, the Pictor presents a decisive visual statement commensurate with its sound: open, transparent, dynamically alive, tonally neutral, and musically coherent. The soundstage expands beyond what is typical for a solid-state linestage and imaging is solid, three dimensional, and specific—just shy of tube-like in this regard. A wonderful linestage.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Audionet Pre G2


With a rated bandwidth of DC–2MHz and thoughtful features like 18dB of variance per input for level-matching sources as well as source-naming, the DC-coupled PRE G2 is as versatile as it is sonically accomplished. Characterized by its exceptional transparency and resolution, it is one of the most organic and natural-sounding solid-state linestages GW has auditioned. It plays music from any source with impeccable linearity, sophisticated finesse, and spot-on tonality, rendering exquisitely and accurately scaled dynamic involvement at any volume level.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Progression 350 Stereo/550 Mono 

$24,950 ($29,950 with DAC module)/$44,950 pr.

The Progression preamplifier may not have quite the visual cachet of the company’s Momentum preamplifier but it’s nonetheless a stunning bit of industrial design. The power supply is isolated from the audio electronics in an ingenious arrangement that tucks the supply underneath the main chassis. Two large meters and a gorgeous volume control dominate the front panel. An optional digital module features a differential DAC compatible with PCM up to 384kHz and DSD256. The signal path is discrete and fully complementary from input to output with no negative feedback. The Progression has a midrange liveliness and resolution that bring out low-level information in strings and woodwinds without hardening the timbre of violin or brass. Low-level passages are unusually clear. The DAC module is excellent and easily worth the asking price.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Zanden Audio Systems 3000mk2


The all-glass-powered Zanden Classic trio (2000mk2 linestage, 1200mk3 phonostage, and 9600mk2 monoblock power amplifier) will get you where you want to go—i.e., the sound of the real thing—without forcing you to pay a heavy toll in listenability on less-than-SuperDisc recordings. This consistent listenability is one of the Zanden Classic suite’s sonic virtues. It is not a typical overlay of tubey-ness; indeed, for tube gear the Zanden 3000mk2 sounds remarkably precise. It is focused, grain-free, and a little Class A “dark” in timbre, without any bottom-end plumminess. Indeed, the bass of the Zanden 3000mk2 (particularly in combination with its sister phono- stage and brother power amp) is truly superb—richly (and accurately) colored, three-dimensional, bloomy, clear-as-solid-state in pitch, near transistor-quick and powerful on transients, and immensely detailed in performance cues. A TAS Product of the Year winner.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Lamm Industries L2.1 Reference


The L2.1 Reference is a hybrid design but not in the usual sense. The power supply is all tube while the audio circuit is solid-state. MOSFETs are used in Class A, no-feedback circuitry for the gain and buffer stages. Sonically, the L2.1 is clearly deserving of the “Reference” appellation, holding up as it does a mirror to the music. It cuts through previous limitations of solid-state preamplification allowing the music to flow with precision and emotional conviction.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

MBL 6010 D


This superb solid-state preamp has a noise floor so incredibly low that it consistently resolves fine harmonic and dynamic details that simply aren’t audible through other great preamps. At the same time its transient speed and authority are highly realistic. To ice the cake, it is neutral in tonal balance, with excellent imaging and soundstaging, and superior ambience retrieval. One of JV’s longstanding references.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

VTL TL-7.5 Series III Reference


VTL’s linestage is the best one it has produced. Its transient fidelity, dynamic power, enormous soundstage, and sheer grip are mesmerizing. Like its predecessors, the 7.5 features an ingenious “clean” and “dirty” box to prevent the signal from becoming contaminated by noisy parts. But there the similarities end. The Series III version of the 7.5, which features a host of upgraded parts and improved circuit design, has conquered the slight bit of electronic grain that the Series II version displayed.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Absolare Passion

$31,000 ($40,000, Signature Edition) 

This ultra-minimalist single-ended triode preamplifier is about as tweaky as a preamplifier gets, with an extremely simple signal path, just four unbalanced inputs, no remote control, and two unmarked front-panel knobs (volume and input selection). The circuit is built using cost-no-object parts and techniques and housed in a massive aluminum chassis clad in rich leather. Sonically the Passion is very much like the companion Passion 845 power amplifiers, with a complete lack of grain, etch, and solid-state glare overlying timbres. The treble is just a little on the forgiving side, a quality that complements the tendency toward brightness of some dome tweeters. Soundstaging is phenomenal—wide, deep, transparent, and three-dimensional.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

CH Precision L1

$34,500 ($51,500 with X1 power supply; $92,000 dual monaural/dual supply)

Like its companion piece, the CH Precision M1 monoblock amplifiers, this exceptional, dual-monaural, ultra-low-noise, ultra-high-bandwidth, fully balanced line-level preamplifier is a contender for Best in Solid-State. Designed by the Swiss team of Florian Cossy and Thierry Heeb, the L1 is a model of timbral neutrality, high transient speed, high detail, precision (though not razor-cut) imaging, and wall-to-wall soundstaging. The L1 may not have the bass of the Soulution 725 (and it does not come with a dandy built-in phonostage like the Soulution unit does), but it is certainly its equal in other regards—and its superior in low-level resolution.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Pass Labs Xs


An all-out challenge to the state of the art and every other preamp available. Wayne Colburn and Nelson Pass have truly excelled in producing this massive two-unit preamp. It does everything right in every aspect of sound quality and is so revealing of musical detail that you must listen closely to realize how good it is. AHC could not find any flaw by comparison with other top preamps, and its extraordinarily low noise floor and natural, detailed deep bass have few, if any, rivals. 

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Constellation Virgo III


Save for the Technical Brain TBC-Zero, JV has never heard a faster, more detailed preamp than this high-tech gem (which uses the same circuit as the $85k Altair, albeit with slightly less pricey component parts). But where most solid-state preamps tend to trade off tone color for resolution and speed (or vice versa), this one doesn’t. Given the right source and the right speaker, the Virgo sounds ravishingly beautiful and astonishingly realistic.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

D’Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum HD 


This drop-dead gorgeous, all-discrete, Class A, solid-state linestage preamp from master engineer Dan D’Agostino is far too neutral and accurate to compensate for the colorations in other pieces of gear. It does not have a characteristic sound that shapes the music. Instead, it seems to free music from such distortions, getting the best of detail, dynamics, soundstage, and imaging. In the end, reviewer AHC had trouble describing this marvelous preamp, for any “sound” of its own simply wasn’t there. A state-of-the-art effort.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Tidal Prisma 


The solid-state Prisma preamplifier is a minimalist design taken to an extreme of execution. The innovative circuits are realized with no-compromise build-quality, particularly the elaborate, discrete-resistor stepped-attenuator. The minimalist theme extends to its black polished-acrylic front panel, which includes just a volume control and a source selector—no balance control, no on/off switch (it’s part of the source selector), and no display. Inputs and outputs are balanced only, including the phono input. As great as the Prisma is as a linestage, its phono section (moving coil only, with only two gain settings) is spectacular. The Prisma’s unique topology reduces by nearly half the circuitry of a conventional phonostage/linestage; the result is clarity and transparency coupled with a lush timbral rendering devoid of electronic artifacts.

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Audionet Stern


At 19.88” deep, the Stern is more feature rich than its predecessor (the PRE G2), starting with a 7″ wide by 4½” tall high-resolution display centered on the upper half of its front face. Sonically, its purity, transparency, tone color, and especially texture are exquisite. Like its companion Heisenberg amp, the Stern simply breathes life into the audio spectrum, reproducing musicians with remarkable realism. Its ability to create a genuine sense of the body, bloom, and texture of instruments is only matched by the lifelike fidelity with which it reproduces transient detail and timbre. 

Editors’ Choice: Preamplifiers $10,000-$50,000

Esoteric Grandioso C1X


The sumptuous C1’s weighty control knobs bathe in a soft blue glow that brightens when you touch them, and the speed at which you turn the volume control affects the rate of volume change. It’s almost enough to make you forego the beautifully honed remote. Sonically, music pours from the C1 with uncommon smoothness and effortlessness. Dynamic emphases really pop. In keeping with the Grandioso stack’s theme of purity, the C1’s sound is free of any specter of electronics. 


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