Biggest impact: moving from integrated to separates

I am slowly moving to separates from my Cronus Magnum integrated amp. So far, I’ve upgraded the Phono stage to a Pass Labs XP-15. I’m now looking for the next upgrade. I will need an amp and a line stage preamp. My budget is @ $3K and I am looking for the biggest bang for the buck. Which upgrade should come next? I would like anything I upgrade to have balanced connections (for linestage both ins and outs.)

Two interfaces that affect sound the most are a) speaker to room and 2) amplifier to speaker. You don’t say what your speakers are, whether you are happy with them, or what type of sound you’re looking for. Low power SET + hi efficiency speakers is a very different sound than say a tube pre and solid state amp. If it’s the latter you’re looking for, consider a Don Sachs pre ($1,600?) and the new Adcom GFA 555SE at $1,300. Or if you're just looking for more detail and power than the Chronus, check out other integrateds like the Bryston BP135 or Musical Fidelity M6i. Another possibility is the Line Magnetic integrateds, or the LSA Statement(s), etc.
@keithtexas thanks, I like my speakers (ZU Soul MK2) which are 99db efficient.
Why the assumption that separates under $3K will significantly outperform the Cronus? Bryston and Musical Fidelity would be a lateral move at best. 

One of the many myths of audio is that you need separate chassis for ultimate performance. I've heard integrateds that go toe to toe with $30K monoblocks, while doing it with a lower noise floor.
I tend to agree with @helomech.  As a CMII owner, I have inevitably wondered what it would be like to replace it with an RP-5 and Stereo 100, but until I get a chance to hear that combo, I’ve concluded that the difference would in all likelihood be quite small.
I agree that at a $3000 budget it would be difficult to do better than the Cronus via separates or another integrated. Different sure, but better?
@helomech @mesch Thanks for your replies. I am looking for separates with balanced connections which the CM does not have. My listed budget of $3K does not mean that I think this is what it will take to best the CM, it's really just my budget.

When I have spoken with Rogue previously, I asked what the built-in phono pre would be on par with price wise. They said it's on par with a $400 phono pre. My upgrade to a Pass Labs XP-15 was transformative, albeit, at a much higher price point ($2,400.) As I peel away what I am using the CM for into separates, I am looking to achieve this type of transformative performance.

I should also clarify, my budget of $3K is for either a line stage preamp OR an amp, not both. 

@twoleftears I would hope that an RP5 and Stereo 100 could best the CMII or why produce them? What would the value prop be if a separate $3,500 preamp cannot best a $2,200 integrated of the same brand?

I have not heard the RP5 however, I have heard the RP7 which was unreal, but the source was a Dave DAC and it was playing through Focal what was I really hearing? Who knows..
I'm eventually going the opposite route, going from separates to an uber class integrated like Gryphon, Vitus or T+A.
I now understand. Replacing a $2000 integrated with ~$8500 of separate phonostage, line level pre, and amplifier is another proposition. 
@nitewulf sounds like a plan, the Gryphon equipment looks impressive. Why the consolidation?
I heard the T+A integrated (PA 3100 HV), and it is highly impressive. I will still keep a separate DAC and Phonostage, but I believe bringing in the linestage and power amplification within the same box affords manufacturers to give you more value for the money, they reduce manufacturing cost of separate boxes and pass it down.  Users benefit on that plus on the savings of not having to buy interconnect cables. Signals certainly travel shorter distances, and I just love it from a purist perspective.

@asp307 Agreed that moving from a 2.5K integrated to a 3.5k pre-amp connected to a 3.5K amp *should* make a considerable difference, but in this "hobby" I’ve found that dollar-based logic doesn’t always work out the way you’d expect it to. Still, I reserve judgement till I can hear it (the proof of the pudding, etc. etc.).

BTW, the RP7 does of course get you the XLR connections you're looking for, but it's more expensive.  Have you checked out the new Rogue phono pre-amp, which does have XLRs?

I owned the CM2 and its going to be hard pressed to find separates that can compete with the CM2 at that price range.  Also, unless your turntable phono cables are fully balanced, I’m not sure how much of an improvement your going to hear going with a fully balanced amp other than an increase in gain.  Are you sure your not happy? :) I would imagine your ZU speakers  would sound great with the CM2.

Although, I don’t own the CM2 anymore, it’s still an amp I think about and wish I didn’t sell.  If you’re looking to going fully balanced, I would save up for either Pass or Ayre equipment.  Rogue separates are a great value as well.  I would also look into Belles amps as well.  I think they are single ended amps but they sound great for their money. 

With that said, I wouldn’t rush into this decision. The CM2 is a wonderful amp that should keep you happy for a long time. Personally, if I were you, I would save up for higher end balanced equipment or consider upgrading your sources or possibly your speakers.  Either way, take your time and buy what sounds good to you.  

Good luck!
Remember XLR does not equal balanced. Two seperate, but related, items. Are you saying you have 6k to buy seperates or 3k to spend on your next upgrade?
@robd2 I have $3k for my next upgrade. Thanks.

@nycjlee thanks for your feedback. I have the CM1 not 2. It’s a great piece and I’ve used it extensively for the past 4 years, however, I’d like to move to the next phase of this journey. I’ve been looking at the Pass Labs XP10 for instance as I am very impressed with my XP15. Just looking for thoughts/feedback from others who may have gotten out of integrateds for separates. Thanks.
@twoleftears and that is important to consider, the law of diminishing returns. I am not going to obsess over a perceived 5% gain in benefits for 3 or 4 times the spend of the CM1. But if there is something out there that I should consider that will make a large impact, at my budget, than I would like to explore.
@asp307 I too was once an integrated only guy. I felt the synergy of a 1 box solution and the ability to avoid complications with an extra interconnect outweighed the benefits of seperates. I was completely wrong.... : ) you will never look back from seperates, it's just more expensive. Now how best do we spend your 3k..... Your current integrated, are you able to run it as an amp only with an external preamp?

@robd2 thanks, I am not looking to upgrade both amp and line stage at this point, just one or the other with the next upgrade probably occurring next year. I can continue using the Cronus Magnum either as a line stage or amp so I have flexibility. 

I am choosing to build around the Pass Labs XP15 phono preamp as I am very pleased with it. 

I'll list my current set-up below for future reference. In terms of what I am trying to achieve, I guess you can say more of everything that I love about my current set-up. Lower noise floor, wider sound stage, strong detailed bass, etc. My speakers excel in the mid-range area so further attention to this area may be moot but again open to suggestions. 

VPI Scout 1.1 TT
Lyra Delos MC
Pass Labs XP-15 phono pre
Rogue Audio Cronus Magnum (version 1 with KT120 tubes)
ZU Audio Soul MKII (99 db)
ZU Audio Mission MKII phono, interconnect and speaker cables
ZU Audio Event MKI power cables

This looks to be an easy decision to me. I would look for a dedicated line stage as your next step. Do you want new or is used ok? Remember you will need 
@robd2h , thanks. I am fine with used or new. Perks of new would be a forgiving return policy in most cases. Perks of used would be buying up a few levels at my budgeted price. 
Where are you located? It really is best to work with a dealer who lets you take home gear for in home demo. I've actually set a rule for myself that I can't by any expensive gear without hearing it in my system first as system synergy is very very important. But I'm lucky to have many dealers close by. Well the rule is mostly enforced : )))

The dealers also have demo gear that you can negotiate very well on. 

Some other thoughts
-Thoughts on the new Pass xp-12?
-I'm not a big fan of the expensive McIntosh preamps but the newer c47 is a great piece and you would get a good DAC. 
- with the c47 you could do a fun shootout with your new pass phono.
- an older Ayre preamp would be very nice
- my personal favorite and this would be tough to do for price range but not impossible. VAC makes an entry level line stage that really impressed me when I had it home for a 2 week demo. I liked it so much I bought one of their more $$$$ lines stages. This would be a tough deal though because of your budget. But if you could find a dealers demo with no phono and you come up some extra $ ....
@robd2 thanks for this. I would love a Pass Labs XP12 however even at the intro price of $5K it's more than I want to spend. If I go the Pass route, it may be the XP10 at half the price. 

Regarding McIntosh, I've looked at the C47, however, is McIntosh the same as it used to be before the buyouts? You are not the first to mention Ayre...I'll dig a little further into that. 

My challenge in Pittsburgh is that there is one decent hifi shop but like many they only carry so many brands. 

I really appreciate your feedback and I do agree about system specifics, etc. For me, I do not listen to any of this feedback as gospel because of all of the variation and personal preference one needs to consider, however, I gain insight into different brands that I may not be familiar with, and I can see what's trending (similar to your comment on Ayre which I have seen plenty of in the forums.)

I'll keep you posted on how I get on. 

"and the ability to avoid complications with an extra interconnect outweighed the benefits of seperates. I was completely wrong"

 Being a seperates guy for decades im now running an integrated and coudnt be happier so I disagree with this statement totally.It depends on where your system level is,if you take what a great amp and pre amp cost .Add the cost of a nice set of  ICs ,throw that cost at a great integrated and be done with it.

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The Mac c47 is a good piece, I actually own one. A benefit you also get a decent DAC and an "ok" phono. I'd love to hear about a comparison of it vs your Pass phono. : )

I bet you can find a dealer within an hour or 2 that has a c47 you can in home demo. Also try the find a dealer section on the pass website, you might have someone closer than you think who carries something like an xp-10. I found a pass dealer 40minutes from my house this way recently.

Keep your eyes open for one of those small VACs I sent, that will destroy all these. 

Since you like your speakers, you may want to consider these as options to improve sound without spending a lot :

1) Are there mods available for the amp?  Also consider tube upgrades.

2) Are there fuses that could be upgraded to hifi fuses?

3) Consider a quality power cord that brings out the best in your amp.

4) Consider a subwoofer (or two)- you'd be surprised what they add to the midrange and overall imaging of your system.

Given you can use your Cronus as an amplifier and it mates well with your current speakers I agree that you should look for a line stage preamp at this point.  
I'm in the camp of @robd2 and @missioncoonery

I think part of the feeling regarding the superiority of separates reflects a lack of integrateds on the same level.  The majority of integrated amplifiers on the market fall into the entry level of a manufacturer's lineup.  I've owned upper echelon separates, and certainly understand how strongly those components perform, and still own some of them.  However, in the end, the combination of musicality, control, muscle, and sweetness of my Jadis DA60 integrated has brought me the most happiness of any amplification I've found.  And the convenience of everything sitting on a single chassis and the nullification of purchasing another set of interconnects, a power cord, and the matching of the two components synergistically certainly doesn't make life any more difficult
asp307 12-19-2017
I am not looking to upgrade both amp and line stage at this point, just one or the other with the next upgrade probably occurring next year. I can continue using the Cronus Magnum either as a line stage or amp so I have flexibility.
If I’m not mistaken none of the versions of the Cronus Magnum provide either an input to the amplifier section or a means of disabling the amplifier section.

Which means that if you were to use it as a line stage you would have to put load resistors having high power handling capability onto its speaker output terminals. As you may be aware, running a tube amp which has output transformers in an unloaded condition can cause damage to both the transformers and the output tubes, especially if the amp is processing a signal.

And if you were to use the CM as an amp, I believe you would have to have its line stage in series with the new line stage you would be purchasing. That would work, but it would probably negate the benefits of the upgrade. Although I realize it would only be a temporary arrangement.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al

@almarg , very good points that I have not considered. I guess as I assumed I can use my XP-15 Phono pre, that I would be able to do this with other separates (line and amp) and ween myself off of my CM. This has given me pause and I’ll need to do some more homework. 

@trelja @mesch @missioncoonery @keithtexas @twoleftears @robd2 thanks for your feedback and I’ll keep you posted on how I get on..
Hi @almarg , just spoke with Rogue Audio. I figured I'd follow up.

Here's what they say:

  "You can use the version 1 Cronus just as an amplifier. The way to do this is to connect the outputs of your preamplifier to the variable output of the Cronus. I know this sounds wrong connecting an output to another output, but doing this will bypass the front end of the Cronus and feed the signal straight to the amplifier portion of the Cronus."

Awesome! Thanks for letting us know.

I would suggest, though, that you follow up with him by asking what the output impedance of the variable output is. Assuming that the "variable output" is in fact an output, that output impedance will be seen as a load by whatever line stage you connect to it. Which in turn could very conceivably result in an impedance match with the line stage you end up choosing that is very non-optimal from a sonic standpoint. Especially if the line stage you choose has a coupling capacitor at its output, as most tube-based line stages and at least a few solid state line stages do.

Also, when and if you use this approach I would suggest having the CM’s input select switch set to something other than phono. And in addition it would probably be a good idea to put shorting plugs on the selected input, to avoid the possibility that RFI/EMI pickup might cause the CM’s line stage to sum a low level "signal" together with the intended signal. If you search at eBay for "RCA shorting plug" (without the quotes) you’ll find many such things at very low prices.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al

@almarg great thanks! I'll follow up with Rogue on the points raised. I currently have the CM in the Aux 1 input as I am using an external phono pre. 
Why do you think going to separates is going to up the SQ? I had a pair of Classe separates then moved to the rogue Cronus magnum 2 with the kt120 tubes. I liked the move except the Cronus caused some flabby/not controlled bass. So I move to a Hegel h100 which was nice but not enough power, so in months, I bought a new Hegel h300 and this met my goals. I got this new at $3000 which I think the Hegel would beat any $3000 with of separates. Btw: you also have to include the cost of a IC connecting the preamp to an amp which could cost 100’s of $$$
I have heard cheap separates that sound profoundly better than  integrated cost no object componet's.
Integrated amps can be better than separates. Yes, when they are.
Separates can be better than integrated amps. Yes, when they are. 
So I am going to focus on a preamp with balanced ins/outs up to $5,500. Yes I’ve increased the budget and I’ll start a new thread to gain recommendations. Thanks all for your feedback. 
Asp307, has there been any word from Rogue on the output impedance of the variable output?

BTW, for those who may own a Cronus Magnum II, I found the following statement in a description of that version of the amp at a dealer’s site:
The Cronus Magnum II comes with a host of upgrades over the original Magnum.... The variable outputs are now buffered for better subwoofer performance....
Assuming the buffer which is referred to is an active buffer, which it almost certainly is, I would caution anyone owning a Magnum II that Rogue’s suggestion to the OP that it would be ok for him to connect the output of a line stage to the variable output of his earlier version of the Magnum will not work with the Magnum II. And although it is probably unlikely, doing so could conceivably even cause damage, depending on the specific design of the line stage and the Magnum II’s buffer.

-- Al

they said 100K
OK, if so you won’t have an impedance compatibility problem connecting any reasonably designed line stage to the variable outputs.

That would certainly explain, though, why they added a buffer stage for that output in the Magnum II version. A 100K output impedance would be pretty much useless for driving many and perhaps most powered subs, which commonly have line level input impedances in the area of 5K to 20K. And in an application where treble response may be important, such as using the variable outputs to drive a separate amplifier for biamping, the resulting sensitivity to cable capacitance would be very likely to cause poor results as well.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al

@almarg thanks, any rule of thumb for best matching on 100K? I know you said it should match anything reasonable. I’ve seen different ratios offered in other threads..thanks.
If the output impedance of the line stage is 10K or less at all audible frequencies, **or** if the output impedance doesn't vary very much over the frequency range even if it does exceed 10K, there won't be an impedance compatibility problem with a 100K load.  It would be very rare for a line stage to not meet the first of those criteria, much less both of them.

-- Al

I know you're looking for separates but consider this integrated.

If you haven't heard one you'll be amazed. A buddy of mine  uses one and you would never know he doesn't have separates. This would also allow you to have some funds left over for other upgrades. Just throwing out possibilities.

My personal experience...
About ten years ago I bought a used Pass X-1 pre-amp. It replaced a Linn Kudos.
The change was transformational!

Soundstage, air, so uncongested....
it was like I'd been listening to music through a megaphone.

So if it was me, I would spend the money on a  line stage...

I’m a big fan of the Mytek Brooklyn. Balanced outs to my Bryston 14B ST. Very good sound and versatile. I run it off an RV battery and it's very quiet.