Fantasy or reality? Inexpensive solid state preamps that get you 80% there?

Recently, I posted asking about solid state preamps in the $4k region. I got some really good suggestions. Much appreciated. I have that list saved in a folder and will consult it.

I'm still a bit shy about spending $4k. So, lately, I've found myself reading about Schiit Saga and Freya S preamps. Why? Well, the idea of a non-tube preamp still appeals to me but these are much, much less expensive. 

I'm wondering if anyone has done some comparing of Schiit's Saga and Freya solid state preamps? Have you tried either of these preamps and come to some conclusions about their sonic worth compared to other more expensive solid state preamps? Were they worth it? Were they just a waste of time for you?

In brief:

Schiit Saga S vs. Freya S?
Schiit Saga or Freya vs. more costly solid state preamps?

The ultimate reason for asking is that this is a hobby where it's easy to plunk down small amounts of money (relatively) thinking that one can get 80% of what they want only to find that there's really no free lunch. If that's the case, I'll just keep saving for something better (Pass, Ayre, etc.). If not, I might just try a Saga or Freya (or something else — Parasound used? Etc.)


For 2k if you are patient you should be able to snag an Aesthetix Calypso.  In my opinion its a viable competitor to the Pass and Ayre solid state preamps you mentioned above.

I own a Freya + that I mostly run in solid state mode. I believe it is quite good, and was a significant upgrade from my NAD. Given the price of the S models, I think it is a pretty cheap experiment to try one, and resale value is good for these units. 

Curious why you have eliminated tube preamplifiers?  Are they more expensive compared to solid state?  I’ve tended to like tube preamplifiers with solid state amplifiers.

Just a different recommendation, Lavardin C-42. Close to 4keuros. I guess it will get more than 80% there. Really like their integrated ones.



I've had a Schiit Saga -- an excellent, very neutral preamp. The only problem I had was that it is unity gain. My setup needs a preamp with a bit more gain. I ended up switching to a Schiit Lyr 3 which has switchable gain. It has only one or two inputs (depending on whether you get their DAC or phono card installed) but that's fine with me since my only source is a streamer. I also got an excellent headphone amp with the Lyr.

I also think, in terms of sound quality, that Schiit is well past your 80% mark. Sure there is always something better, but at what cost? Or, you may just prefer something with a different sound profile -- more tubey, etched highs, etc., but that's all a matter of taste and not necessarily "better" (for anyone but you.)

One thing about Schiit is they have a 15 day trial period. You can return items like the above with only a 5% restocking fee. Or, if you want to try it out for a few months, Schiit has a really high resale value on the used market and items typically go quickly.  So you can try out either a Saga or Freya without much cost if you decide to move on.

Thanks for the replies. @petg60 I'm inquiring about things much LESS than 4k euros. This is a lower priced preamp thread.

I prefer tube preamplifiers. This is something with a different sound and/or when I do not want to think about tube life or longer warm up times.

Keep it coming!

I owned the original Freya (with tubes). It sounded very good.

Then I read about the Topping Pre90.

Bought it.

Compared them back to back.

The Topping was little better with clarity and micro-details.

The Freya had a little more bass "bloom".

Both are very good.

I sold the Freya.

Love the Topping. Paid $600 for it new a couple years ago.

I have Freya S and very happy with it...also had original Saga with both standard and upgrade tube, much preferred the Freya S...system is Freya S , Schiit Modius, Nuforce STA200, Salk Monitors...Freya S a particularly good match with the Nuforce which can be difficult..and have tried with other gear reference pre is Pass XP-22

@jl35 So Freya S you like -- and Pass is your reference? High praise! Topping, Van Alstine, Odyssey -- great!

$2k for a preamp is inexpensive to some here. I like having that price point to consider, but I'm still most curious about what's $1k or less.

Still listening for other suggestions.

@hilde45 Wrote:

If not, I might just try a Saga or Freya (or something else — Parasound used? Etc.)

I recommend you do a home demo of the Freya+ you must try it in your rig to know if you like the way it sounds.


Since the ARC SP-3 came out in the early 1970’s, if a solid state designer/manufacturer hasn’t learned how to mimic a good tube pre-amp in 49 years for a reasonable price, I would be shocked!

Mimic is not the same as "identical," but might be close enough for the $$.

Of course, you could always buy a used tube one and save from paying new prices, AND get the sound you are seeking.


Post removed 

The Audio GD master 19  preamp under $1400, or model 29 if you have around $2k ,they are very good examples ,yes made in China but many parts made in U.S Japan and Europe. 2 big R core transformers , substantial u.k capacitors 

and a 100 step relay controlled preamp with a very respectable headphone amp 

with adjustable gain to match your other electronics . Excellent value for the money with excellent bass and dynamics unmatched in its price class. I compared the Schitt and nothing there for power supplies to match the midBass and bass of the Audio gd , not saying it is the end all ,but very good quality value for the Money.

Most of us here are interested in the best sound quality we can get. While there are definitely flavors in sound and differences in absolute sound quality… if you know the kind of sound you want and do your research, then every time a component of double the price is going to sound significantly better.

What constitutes 80% or one is completely in our heads… or no question the $20 component wins. But, you get what you pay for. The real question is do you want the best sound you can afford or just a really cost effective system. You are toying in the mid-fi vs high-fi realms.

A good used audiophile preamp that you can purchase for around $4K-$5K can be a central hub of an audiophile system for many years or decades. A $2K preamp will sound pretty good… but never give you the highly refined sound of a hi-end preamp, and the solid construction.

Solid state preamps can sound very much like tubed these days… there has been a lot of improvements in solid state. But you end up paying for it. Personally I would only look at tubed preamps. Most can last for many many years without a thought to tube replacement… and the tubes are small and not expensive.

Anyway if you are looking for really good sound, buying stuff that might be “good enough” is going to be very disappointing and cost lots more in the long run as you buy the cost effective stuff and then keep trading up to get better sounding or drop out because none of it was worth it. Each purchase must be carefully chosen to maximize your enjoyment, or probably you will not.


You might want to look into the Benchmark La4, or the Holo Audio Serene standard or the Serene KTE they go for $2,700.00 to $3,100.00, or if you want tubes the Audio GD Vacuum HE1 XLR tube preamplifier, all of these are very highly rated, and are all under your 4K limit.

Stop! Don't buy anything if you haven't heard the sound with your own ears... lots of variables! ..

If you plan to stay in this hobby for a long time, it is better to buy a good preamplifier right away - this will save you a lot of money in the future. CAT SL-1 or CJ...don't buy rubbish.

Remember me with a kind word ;-)

I got a good deal on an SPL Elector solid state preamp. Retails close to 3k but could be found for around $1,800. In my opinion, pretty magical. Very special pre. Imaging is amazing. Holographic, balanced, clear, super detailed, really layered, just a hint warm, but not in any way that works against tuning one’s system. Tube-like in many ways. Was thinking of going the tube route at first, but absolutely no desire to do so now that I’ve got the SPL in my system. I might try a tube power amp down the line, but do not plan on changing out of this wonderful pre. Highly recommended!

budget new solid state: van alstine preamp. add a phono circuit for $370. 

budget used solid state: van alstines newest or an apt holman with the level 3 upgrades, yamaha c4 (i think its the c4. one of em is head and shoulders above the rest)...there are so mant options, but if i wanted top notch and new for a coupla thousand less, id buy the van alstine. 

If you add at least 100% to the price of a piece of Schiit gear, you'll get a better idea of what it would cost at a retail store. They make well researched, great sounding stuff and have been in the business for a long time.

Just get the Benchmark La4. You will not be sorry. And they hold their resale value very well if you decide to move on. 

There is a Hafler DH 110 preamp on EBay for $325 + $32 shipping. Why spend more? I have one in my collection of preamps. Sonically as good as any four-figure preamp - contrary to what the "golden ears"  crowd claims.

A simple question but no simple answers, I afraid.

In the audiophile world, you get what you paid most of the time. However, the higher cost it goes the diminish return rule will dominate. I believe you will get 80% of the functions in a budget level SS preamp. The only question is if you will be happy to settle on 80% of the performance.

May be your implied question is this one: Is preamplifier not so important in the audio system, that you can put a small percentage of budget in it and not affecting much of the overall performance?

I have an original series Freya and don't know why everybody doesn't have one of these (now Freya +). The tone with great sounding NOS tubes is amazing (my preference is NOS GEs), it has plenty of amp driving gain especially in tube mode, and its two other modes are always there to keep the tubes honest...the tube mode sounds simply more detailed for my tastes and my primary amp these days is a Pass XA-25 witch itself is extremely detailed. The Schiit stuff is generally excellent, USA made, and hard to beat. 

The Benchmark LA4 gets me to 100% of reference levels.

I sold the following preamps in the last 2 years and kept the LA4:

  • Coda 07x
  • Topping pre90
  • Schitt Freya+

I liked all 3 above to some degree but had complaints with some aspect of their sound. With the LA4, I feel I do not have a preamp and what matters is my source and amp. No complaints with the LA4. I may get a second one if my next 2nd system DAC is not as good as rumored direct to amp.

Audio GD Vacuum HE1- XLR / with it’s own regenerative power supply. Nothing can touch this monster under 10 grand US....... cost $3,500 and you’ve got a piece that you keep forever. The most musical pre amp for your money available out there.

@hilde45 ​​​​​​

May I ask why you want a preamplifier?

Is it to enhance (or color) sound or is it just as transparent interface with a volume knob? 

If it's the latter then go with @yyzsantabarbara recomendation of the Benchmark LA4. 



Well if you want a aid state preamp and you are thinking Ayre have you thought about a k3? A k3 is a wonderful preamp and you should  e able to get one for around 2k usd.  If you want to spend more a k1 should be able to be found for around your 4k price. In my opinion  still in the the very top of the range preamplifier ever made. On the tube side there is a canary ca601 listed for 1150 usd  at the moment  about half way up there line at the time personally  I have not heard one but there base one from the day is very good and there top model is wonderful  as good as it gets. That would be a very cheap way into the top end. That is on the for sale part of audiogon. The ca 801 ca802 was the second from the top I have one of those as well as an Ayre  k1xe  the flavor  is different  but they are both at the top level of preamplifiers in my opinion.  

Question ?

Did ever consider a vintage amp?

I guarantee if you find a Pioneer C-Z pre you will be happy . Can be done for way less than 4k. The Z series is a fantastic choice for a solid state pre

If possible to take the price out of the equation for a moment, I suspect you’ll find you can get more than 80% results by simply comparing preamps and selecting the one you like best. And if that comparison is blind, I’d guess the odds of your grail being affordable is quite good. 

Many who equate SQ to price will disagree with me but I find that in high end audio, you often do not get what you paid for. You may get polished aluminum faceplates and heavy remote controls, but with your eyes closed, the reality is much different. 

choose wisely and remember, you do not need to blow your child’s college education to achieve a stunning music system. 

I wanted a preamp with remote volume control.  I had been using an APT Holman, which is very good for a vintage solid state unit, but no remote control.

I did try the Freya+, twice, in my bedroom system.  Both units were defective from the factory.

Yes, Schiit sent a second set of tubes right away, then replaced the unit.  They also quickly refunded the purchase after the second unit was also bad.

The solid state sections sounded nice,  The remote was nice.  The tube section on both was crap.  Tried all kinds of tubes, so not the tubes.

Tried the Topping Pre90.  It sounds good.  Very neutral.  It's very small.  The remote completely sucks, the volume control is quirky.

Both the Freya+ and the Pre90 were/are dead quiet.

If anything ever happens to the Topping, the Benchmark looks like a contender.

I recently upgraded from Schiit Freya + to Pass Labs XP10. I really liked the Freya. It was a tremendous deal and a big improvement on my Cambridge Audio CXA81. But I got the upgrade bug, and replaced mySchiit with Pass Labs. The improvement is undeniable, but the Freya was more than 80% there in my opinion. I’m about to put the Freya up for sale. You can contact me if interested. 

@hilde45 not solid state, but solid state quiet, a used Rogue RP1 is an incredible value. Swap the two JJs for a pair of Brimar CV4003 from Upscale and put a good power cord on it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Should be under $1200 for a mint condition unit on a used market. Look into it. 

I appreciate replies, but I'm not looking for $2k or $3k or $4k. I'm taking notes of everything mentioned, but in my OP, I discuss looking at Schiit stuff and other inexpensive options.

Also: Some clarifications:

I have two excellent tubed preamps. I prefer them and will use them most of the time. This is for some variety and to give my tubes a break occasionally. 

I know preamps are important.

Thanks for the other rec's!

@tjag To boost signal and volume knob. I have tried an extremely high quality autoformer and it didn't have enough gain. Things were too thin.

@wolfgarcia — that's helpful — I have the same Pass amp.

@audioman58 Thanks for the AudioGD mention. A good friend in Italy has an amazing system and after many trials, settled on AudioGD for his DAC. Very high quality stuff, but not as much PR as some other companies. Good value there, most likely.

@ghdprentice It seems my "80%"  comment is misleading. I would put it this way, instead: "What SS preamp sounds pretty decent as a backup for less that $1k?"

Compare this purchase to shoes you wear around the house. Comfortable, acceptable, but not your best or nicest shoes.

@tomcarr  Would you please do another comparison possibly for the good of the group with and without the (topping) preamp?  Is with preamp better sonically?  How much better and in what ways?  Thanks.

@lanx0003 My system is very simple. Just a CD player, preamp, amp and speakers. In my case using the preamp sounds better than using the CD players volume control. The sound is more natural, less grainy, more organic. A lot better.

Re: Topping. It seems decent. I liked the comment from Stereophile:


Internally, the Pre90 is the very model of a modern analog preamp. It is fully balanced. It increments gain in 0.5dB steps via relays that switch among resistor arrays. Its active stages are based on nested feedback/composite amplifiers (NFCAs), an increasingly popular construct that can deliver extremely low noise and distortion without resorting to complex, bulky circuits or esoteric semiconductors. On paper, it seemed perfect, with two channels of balanced or unbalanced input and output, adjustable gain, and eye-popping specifications. Despite its low cost and small package, the Pre90 shares many characteristics with larger, more complex, more expensive products, including the recently reviewed Benchmark Media LA4HPA4 and the Pass Laboratories XP-32.

One limitation to the naked Pre90 is that it provides just one RCA and one XLR input. Topping, though, has a solution in the form of a matching accessory: The Ext90 costs just $249, connects to the Pre90 with an included umbilical, and adds one more RCA and three more XLR input pairs. The Pre90 doesn't provide any adjustment for interchannel (L–R) balance, so if you need that capability, you'll need to find a place for it elsewhere in your signal path."

Van Alstine seems to be a good candidate which is above the cheaper stuff (Schiit, Topping) but still way below the others -- Benchmark, SPL, etc. 

Any opinions on the van alstine RB vs. SLR model preamps?


if you're ok with hybrids, the vincent sa31 or rogue rp! can be found for a grand or so and are at least 83% of the way there

Only issue with the pre90 is that it plays very loud with some amps. The only amps where the volume could move to more than 9AM was the Benchmark AHB2, Parasound A21+, and 1 more that I forgot. All 3 had gain adjustment on the amp. I tried a few other amps with the pre90 and they were awful with them with respect to volume. These included, the CODA #8, Krell Duo 175XD, D-Sonic amp, and LSA Voyager 350 GAN.

The LA4 works with everything and is a much better preamp.

@yyzsantabarbara Many here are liking the Benchmark. But at $2799 it's not in contention. I appreciate your comments about the Topping. Those comments are more on point.

If I were to consider the Benchmark at close to $3k, then the whole conversation would change. Then folks would point at Pass or Ayre etc. Or to some of the other expensive things already mentioned.

The challenge is really $1k or less, and it's my fault for not putting it more clearly in the OP and I have to keep reminding people skipping around the thread about it. Live and learn.

I got lucky my Topping Pre90 plays well with my Vincent SP-331 amp. To listen at 85 dB peaks on most albums requires the volume to be at about 70% of max.

It's really quiet (130 S/N!!!). It's really neutral.

Only quibble is the remote must be aimed very accurately, straight on, no more than about 8 feet away.