Boutique/custom vs production tube linestages

There are many boutique / small hand made tube audio companies (ie. Aric audio, supratek, Tube audio lab etc). Have you ever compared one of these devices to production gear (ARC, VAC, VTL, Atmasphere etc). And if so what were your findings? I suppose the idea with these more hand crafted creations is higher value but I am curious about your personal experiences.
I'm always curious about this too. Is it all just different flavors of ice cream, or are there boutique brands that are making gear that is clearly better than more famous marques?
Check out Toodshed Amps on Instagram or FB  if you want to see some beautiful  hand made creations.   Im having Matt build me a 300b amp and possibly his DHT Preamp.   
I currently own an AricAudio Unlimited pre. I haven’t had the opportunity to match it up against any of the big boys.  I would not hesitate to order from him again.  I’m very,very happy with my purchase.  
   I was thinking the other day about a future upgrade. In my mind I have narrowed it down to three manufacturers. AricAudio,Don Sachs,or Supratek.  
  As a maker of boutique (I dislike that term) preamps, the basic difference to mine (or others) is being able to customize for the purchasers needs.As an example, I recently built a preamp for a fellow who wanted the tubes visible, wanted a specific coupling cap, and wanted a special color of faceplate. All could be done for him.  As far as price to performance, often custom preamps can perform better than an off the shelf unit for less money due to less overhead. 
I've owned all manner of production tube preamps.

Audible Illusions

I am currently using a Don Sachs preamp which is certainly about as boutique as they come. I never compared it directly with any of the above, as it replaced a passive LDR preamp that I had at the time. But I can say that it is a fine sounding preamp and I have no desire to go back to any of the big name companies. 

As @blackdoghifi talks about above, customization is a big part of going with the little guys. It's not cookie cutter and you can get what you want. And most of the time, you get better parts quality than what  you get with the big guys.


Thats why I liked working with Matt at Toolshed.  Mine will be a 3oob but will have a few upgrades like stepped Khozmo attenuators.  Upgraded output trannys,  silver foil coupling caps.   Transformer covers will be dark bronze hammertone.   Amp uses 0.5 % tolerance resistors throughout.  Rosewood/Figured Cherry base.   

B.O.M. is better than most anything in its price.   I spoke to a few Toolshed owners and they said it was the best amp they've ever owned , and their list of former amps included all the big boys.  Many which are beyond my reach.    
Wow Toolshed looks impressive, would like to see them offer separates or do they.

Truely a work of art.
I have done some testing in this space as the importer for Art Audio and one of the importers for KR.  I have had A LOT of preamps here.  Some from big companies.  Some from little companies and in the end, it comes down to matching with your power amp and personal taste. 

I ran the Art Audio Conductor for a stretch and it sounded better than any other preamp I have had here with Art Audio, VTL and Rogue Amps.  When it arrived I had a PS Audio BHK and an ARC in on trade and a variety of others through time.  It has switchable gain from an active circuit with no gain to 25dB of gain.  So long as I was matched with a power amp where that made sense, the sound was incredible.  Give me an amp that was in the middle and performed best with 12dB, results were not as good.  

If the designer knows what he is doing and the components are well selected, a small company can do an incredible job.  Often, you can get some really great designs or really different approaches that you won't see from a bigger company (KR P135?????) which can be awesome.  

But, you have to vet them.  Is there a service center?  Are the parts really esoteric or is the equipment pretty mainstream?  Are they truly making it by hand (point-to-point wired) or is it PCBs that are being assembled.  Talk to certain manufacturers/importers and they will tell you point-to-point wired is the only acceptable method for production and PCBs are garbage.  Talk to certain repair shop and they may disagree rather vehemently.    

In the end, it comes down to the individual company.  Unless it is silver wired, I look for amps and preamps with PCBs (not a lot of silver PCBs out there) where the output specs are what I need for my amp.  That is where I start and then it comes down to the tube compliment to determine if I think I want it with my amp.  
It’s not that PCBs are garbage but in a tube amp there is often collateral damage when a tube fails.  I had an Anthem Amp 1 and it really was a nice sounding amp but if a tube failed it would also burn the bias resistor.  Wound not have been a big deal but it left a nice burn mark on the circuit board itself .  After cleaning that up 🆙 replaced all bias resistors and mounted them away from the PCB

Thats the main reason I am not buying a power amp with a PCB.  That plus  the fact that my last two tube amps with Point to Point never had any issues.  I think fewer parts and solder nodes make them more reliable to.  There are thousands and thousands of hours on my QS never a problem  
Just my 2 cents here. In the case of a cathode bias amp, a small company (like myself) would use a heat sink wire-wound resistor and mount it to metal, or use thermal compound underneath it and mount it on the side of the chassis. Then a 200-500 mA fuse on the primary of the output transformer will also save the resistor from blowing in the case of tube failure. Without thinking of the 2-3 times markup that commercial companies have to build into the price to sell to audio dealers, you can spend more into failure-proofing components as a small business. 
Like Aric Audio..., I have heard nothing but great things .   

 I wasn't quite sure what I wanted in an amp.   I almost bought another PP but honestly those QS are great, I certainly didn't need more power.  I wanted something different.... For around the same money as an entry level from one of the big boys, I will have a custom 300b that will be heirloom quality.     And while you may see another Toolshed 300b, it won't be exactly like mine.