A preamp recommendation

Hello everyone,  I'm looking for a "neutral" preamp that does not emphasize and de-emphasize any frequency range but has just a tiny bit of warmth.  Accurate harmonic information resulting in natural instrumental timbre, outstanding sound staging and imaging, solid extended bass without typical under controlled bass of typical tubes or over damped bass of transistors, crystalline smooth extended high frequency, excellent micro and macro dynamics, and clear transparent sound are all important to me.  I don't like hyper detailed sound typical of some transistor preamps or overly smooth warm sound of some tube preamps.  Currently, my favorite preamp is an autoformer passive preamp which gives many of the sound quality I like, but it lacks the drive and impact I get from active preamps. I have auditioned some top preamps from Audio Research, D'Agustino, Pass, among others, but was underwhelmed due to lack of transparency, inaccurate timbre, and/or significant deviation from overall neutrality.  I don't care if the preamp is solid state or tube, long as my requirements are met.  All of my amps have input impedance of 50KOhms or above. Which preamp would best fit my taste?  Any preamp new or used $15k or under would be on my list. Thank you.


Hi eric5kim, thanks for your recommendations. Have you owned any of these preamps? If so, can you describe you liked and disliked about them?

I completely agree with everything yyzsb... has said about the Benchmark LA4. I am auditioning one right now (and have recently been auditioning preamps-- like 6 or so recently- trying to settle on one) and it is certainly the absolute quietest preamp from an electrical/noise standpoint (i.e. black background) I’ve ever heard. Just blackness between and around the notes.

I would assess it to be the most ’neutral’ tonally without regard for price as well in that it seems to show you by comparison what the previous pre you just had hooked up was ’doing to everything’ passing through it. The other preamps’ ’signature’ style suddenly becomes more apparent. When a/b’ing recordings of the same piece in different halls for example, they sound the most ’different’ from one another via the Benchmark. I also cant identify a particular thing it does poorly or for that matter, well. There’s no ’huge staging’ or ’tremendous bass’ etc etc.

This said- it’s lack of doing ’anything’ means you better be sure you like what your amp does or the sound of ’no preamp.’

I liked for example, the synergy of my amp with the Schiit Freya S, which sounded-- maybe more ’fun/pacey’ and a bit warmer though less detailed than the Benchmark? And the SPL pre was more spacious/warmer etc. The LTA Microzotl level 2 was also significantly warmer and a bit ’denser’ but staged smaller etc. These qualities were evident with those pres with most every recording.

So... listening to a bunch of preamps recently has shown me that some are simply too much of a good (or bad) thing with my particular amp. Might be great with yours Trouble is-- dont think that says much about the preamp- just about the synergy with my particular amp/dac. Coda preamp (which I’ve been interested in as well) may be warmer per yyzsb... but with my amp that might like the LTA, be too much of a good thing.

So if its helpful, I don’t know if I’m gonna marry the Benchmark; I realized I LIKE certain colorations and ’fun’ factors etc, but it’ll definitely show you a thing or two about what your other gear is doing and one other thing- it’s somehow never ever brittle or ’bright’ in being so revealing- unless the recording is. (If I’m honest maybe I wish it added just a touch of warmth and had a bit more of an ’airy’ feel/expansiveness? Like if there was one single small glowing tube in there;) I like that sorta thing but it’s usually overdone (for my taste) when present. As I recall, the Freya S did this in my system but doesn’t have the detail or black background or finely granulated attenuation of an LA4).

I can also understand better after this shootout I’ve been doing why some think price is a bit of smoke and mirrors. That has definitely correlated with my recent experience. Loved the Freya S for example, and it’s the cheapest by a looong mile. Benchmark is second cheapest and it’s the most ’neutral’ of any up to 8 thousand. Never heard a 20k pre in my system; so cant comment there.

The Freya+ is also a fun preamp and really quiet. I was surprised a tube preamp could be so quiet and at that $1K price point. I agree it lacked the detail. 

One new piece of gear that I do not understand how it works is my RAAL VM-1a headphone pre + amp with 7 tubes. I expect it to be noisy and not that detailed. However, it is very quiet and the most detailed gear with the SR1a. It also does not measure that great. The LA4 in-comparison is unlistenable with the SR1a using a 2-channel amp (even a warm amp).

I am talking with someone who is auditioning a LA4 with a $10K mostly neutral DAC. He said that the LA4 and the DAC were a great combo but the DAC direct to amp was slightly better. That is a bit of a surprise to me since I tend to dislike DAC direct to amp and also find it a bit dangerous to use with some DACs. 

I got my CODA 07x preamp listed for sale. I want to get a second LA4 to replace it to make an all-Benchmark stack. I changed my mind on buying the KEF LS60. I am going with my original plan of the Yamaha NS5000 with an all-Benchmark stack. That will sound great. A slightly warm speaker with super neutral gear. 

yyz... was there some way other than tonal character in which you felt the CODA was much different from the LA4 or just slightly (or a lot?)  warmer?   In other words, to you, is it (roughly) an LA4 with an added dash of warmth?  Or are there other differences in terms of imaging/bass etc.  I'm sure many people myself included would like to know how those two square off in a bit more (forgive the pun) detail:)