Help With New Preamp Decision

Like most of us, I am constantly in the process of slowly (as funds allow) upgrading my system to what most would consider "mid fi" or low end "hi fi". I have been reading a lot lately on the subject of SQ upgrades, and what comes up frequently is that the preamplifier might be the foundation of moving to the next level as I upgrade.

True or not, that is the direction I have decided to virtual system is listed. And yes I know I need to upgrade other components as well, so I'd like to keep this on the idea of a preamp.

In doing a LOT of research, I've come across several preamps that I am most interested in and would appreciate some ideas/thoughts/input/recommendations. I want fully balanced XLR with RCA inputs and outputs,  be tube based, and I have no need or desire for a phone input. Max budget is $6,000.....or just a few shekels more.

(1) Aric Audio Motherlode XL $6,125 - Incredible reviews, Aric has a phenomenal reputation, and seems to be an all around great builder in this field -

(2) Backert Labs Rhumba 1.4 $5,000 - I have this lower on my wish list, as it is Backert's entry level preamp, what I'd really like is the Rhumba Extreme....but no way I can justify the $8,500 price. And finding a used Rhumba Extreme 1.3 has proved impossible, though I'm not opposed to it. 

(3) Don Sachs and Lynn Olson new Raven (Revolution) preamp $5,000 - His reputation alone makes this preamp important, and he is an all around great and giving guy of his time. I've communicated several times with Don, and he flat out tells me this is the best preamp he has ever designed by far and is a "cost no object" project. I think that production starts Jan/Feb this year (being built by Spatial Audio Labs) 


(4) Atma-Sphere MP3 Mk 3.3 $5,650 - Venerable favorite, it's a well known and well reviewed product

(5) Linear Tube Audio MicorZOTL $5,750 with balanced inputs and Level 2, see this well reviewed and well thought of brand a lot  


Thank you in advance for your input


You’ve got some excellent contenders but really depends on what improvements/sound characteristics you’re looking for as many of them sound very different, so personal taste is absolutely key.

The PrimaLuna Evo 400 appears to check your boxes. I have owned one and enjoyed it very much.  About $5000 new and $3000 used like new.  


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I want more transparent to neutral....with a touch of tube warmth, quiet with a low noise floor, detailed clear instruments, quick dynamic fast bloat, wide layered sound stage, a preamp that provides that "it" something that so many talk about. I ultimately want my system to bring me into the music and make it enjoyable to listen to; and be excellent enough to not be a weak link when I do upgrade the DAC, or streamer, or amplifiers. I will most likely always have one solid state and one tube amp

Also I do not tend to listen to jazz, classical or metal. More blues, rock, some grunge, southern rock, singer song writer, 80s/90s think Depeche Mode or the Cure. I find I listen to more live recordings and acoustic versions (Nirvana MTV Live)

Excellent info — thanks for that! Given what you’ve said I’d be looking squarely at the MP3 because it’s fully balanced. I think the LTA would be next followed by the Backert (Terry London reviewed both a marginally preferred the LTA), but I don’t think either is fully balanced if that’s really a thing for you. Sachs sounds great but I’m not familiar with it and not sure if it’s fully balanced either — I know his prior preamps were single ended only, not that that means anything. My guess is it’d be on the warmer side versus the other three. To me, the MP3 ticks all your boxes, FWIW.  I would also mention that the LTA also happens to be a top-flight headphone amp if that’s at all a consideration.

As a dark-horse option, here’s an ARC Ref5SE that’d be well worth considering and is also obviously fully balanced…

@vthokie83 I am in the same boat as you and looking at the same preamps. Wish I could hear them all but that probably won't happen. It will likely be my last preamp.

I found myself in the same position about a year ago.  You have some wonderful options and really can’t go wrong. It just depends on whether you’re looking for “old” tube sound or newer tube sound (more solid state sounding).  I ended up with the Cary SLP 05 because in my system and to me was more tube sounding than the ARC’s. During my selection process I decided I wanted a 6N7S based front end and tube regulated power supply. Again you can’t really go wrong just keep an eye on resale in case you change your mind.  Not that any of use ever do that!!

Of course, based n personal experience, I would recommend the Backert. All the prices you ave listed are MSRP. Talk to the dealers and you might get some discounts.

Soix & Woots, I thought about older ARCs.....but that brings it's own issue with older preamps. If I did buy used, it would probably be a newer product like Backert Rhumba Extreme. I like the idea of buying new, or newish.

I believe all of the options I posted originally are fully balanced XLR, it is an option on the MicroZOTL

I believe all of the options I posted originally are fully balanced XLR, it is an option on the MicroZOTL

I would double check that. Last I looked you don’t get fully balanced in Backert preamps til you get above the Rhumba, but I could be wrong and maybe something changed. With the LTA you can get balanced inputs with the upgraded transformer, but I don’t think it’s fully balanced from input to output. Again, I could be wrong but definitely worth checking into.

As an aside, if you don’t already know I’d check if your amps are fully balanced from input to output. If not then having a fully-balanced preamp is not as big of a deal because it gets converted in the amp to single ended anyway. If your amps are not fully balanced then it opens up more options on the preamp end. Just something to check just in case.

I recently learned of First Sound Audio and a friend of mine has one and absolutely loves it.  No remote, though.  I would love to try one in my system.  Does anyone else have experience with first sound audio?

From the Backert website:

"Fully Balanced XLR Input and Output

Shown below is the rear panel of the Rhumba 1.2 Extreme. The Rhumba 1.4 is very similar, except that it has two fully balanced XLR inputs and two fully balanced XLR outputs."

Hfihandyman, the First Sounds are single ended RCA

Van Alstine Transcendence RB 10. Just what I needed (ha ha) between a great DAC and a class A amplifier.


So, I have a system I am selling. I have not put it up for sale yet, as I would love to hang on to all my equipment forever, LOL. Anyway, I have an Atma-sphere MP-3 I am going to sell. I purchased it used in April 2023. It was sent to Atma-sphere in the previous fall for a full MP-3 v3.3 upgrade. It has the upgraded V-Caps and tons of damping material. Also has the phono preamp and remote. It has a transferrable warranty still in effect. I sent it back to Ralph in July for a look over and added the three part cover. He knows all his equipment well and said it was in perfect working order. 

If interested, let me know.  I have 100% rating here and on the other site.

Have fun in your choice, whatever that may be. 

Modwright LS 36.5 Would be fair contender option in your list. Don’t miss your opportunity to compare not only technical specs and reviews but also internal design and components before making your final decision. 

Another vote for Audio Research Ref5SE or stretch it to Ref6. Age is not a factor with these preamps - as long as you got fresh tubes they’ll run fine. Your original list consists mostly of what I’d consider “boutique” brands. Excluding a reputable and iconic Audio Research when looking for a tube preamp is a big mistake IMO. 

The linear tubeaudio I felt has the best build quality  and most Sonic options 

You can use 4different tube types ,it has adjustable gain to match any amplifier 

the model with the Lundahltransformersmy brother owns and sounds very good 

it beats many preamps much more expensive and excellent quality using clarity audio best CMR output capacitors .

+1audphile1 +1woots +1soix

ARC all the way for me.  Ref5SE or Ref6 will do the job.  Beauty to the ears!


You've presented some interesting options. My personal experience is stick with units with 6sn7 tubes. Much more natural sounding. A few of the ones you've mentioned use them. Also as someone mentioned, not all the units you mentioned are fully balanced. The LTA uses an output transformer, not fully balanced circuitry. I believe it's the same with the Backert you mentioned.

If you want fully balanced the Atma-Sphere MP3 that waswntioned is a monster but it's all very upgradeable and doesn't come with a remote stock, you have to add it. Also, it's only XLR I. And our unless you ask for RCA and that's an upcharge. I have Atma-Sphere MA-1 amps and they're the best thing I've ever heard. 

I had a Don Sachs model 2 for a while and I absolutely loved the sound. For me, there were 2 downsides, only 1 of which really mattered to me. There wasn't good balance control. For me, as a vinyl guy, records, particularly used ones, sometimes track a little off and being able to move center is something I really like. Also, the khozmo volume control clicks when you use the remote. I didn't care about that though. Honestly, I'd the balance was better, I'd probably still have it. 

Someone mentioned ARC. Ralph at Atma-Sphere does not consider them fully balanced. I can't fully explain that. You'd have to talk to him but he's very available and will happily take a phone call. 

Someone else mentioned a ModWright. I  have an LS100 and love it. It's not fully balanced. I don't particularly care. It sounds amazing. I'm likely going to send it to Dan at ModWright and have him add a lundahl output transformer to have a balanced out as it will maybe work even better with my Atma-Sphere amps. They make 1 fully balanced amp but it's over 10k. I think the lres a new ML kndel that they put out that uses transformers as well. 

Lots of great options mentioned here. I would add Rogue Audio RP-7 to your list.

looking at the suggestions, never heard any of them,

IF you don't need a tape loop, I would think long and hard about the BHK. stop doing something, or sell something to get the add'l $

Aside from ...... it has dedicated remote balance on the remote control which I use to perfect individual tracks that benefit from a small tweak.

btw: it's not always the track, sometimes a connection making a very slight difference somewhere in the system, a tube no longer perfectly matched, a speaker wire or inter-connect connection either end making a speck less contact ... can result in slightly imprecise balance, might only show up at certain temperatures,

IOW, you cannot expect perfect matching of everything all the time.




Designed by Bascom H. King

BHK Signature Preamplifier – PS Audio


I own the 10 tube AUDIO-GD HE-1 XLR at $5,000....haven't heard a pre under 10K that is as "musical" Underwood Hi Fi.

Here's a reference level preamp that is quite phenomenal and competes with units costing 3 times more...


4P1L Line stage | simplepleasuretubeamps

I own an ARC Ref 5se. You can get these for under 6k. The yellow circuit boards are the older ones. So you can save about 1k on those. Unless you have absolute proof of tube life I would get new regardless of what the hour clock says. ( it can be reset in 30 seconds. I did put new tubes in mine. It will cost you $500-$1k. It is worth it. The SE version is a big deal so stick with that. I have a SS amp pushing my speakers. All that matters is that amp matches your speaker as long as you get the SE version. The output is different from the SE and non se. Typically when people sell these it is because they went to the 6SE which is even a more amazing preamp. It should be for $18k. That’s what it takes to beat the REF 5SE, $12k to 13k. Just find a Ref 5 SE and call it a day. I hope this helped. 

I've been researching in this same space for a while as well - looking at the same pre's!  I've sort of narrowed my search down to a top 3 - but found that direct comparisons without buying all 3 are next to impossible.  The 3 i'm most interested in are the Atma-Sphere MP-3, the Aric Audio XL, and the new Don Sachs Revolution.  Only the A-S shows up used, as it has been made for a while.  The outlier to me is the Supratek line - also gets great reviews.  Good luck in your search and I'll be following for sure.

I am extremely pleased with my @aricaudio Motherload XL! Take a look at my system pics. It is replacing a $15k Luxman c900 preamp. The 300B Pset amp is a winner as well!


I did find an ARC 5SE, and the owner says it has the "brown" board.....not sure if that is a newer or older version, do you happen to know?

The Mola Mola Makua preamp (many say) sounds as good as many 30K preamps. I think current MSRP is 13K or so. Presumably this is out of range for your budget based n what I have red. If you can find a used one...go for it! They are built like tanks and sound INCREDIBlE


Thank you for the kind remarks! Aric gets an A+ for customer service as well. I have over 50 emails to him and he returned everyone of them. I had so many questions because I was brand new to tubes and he took the time to make sure I knew what I was getting.


if the current owner will share the serial number you should be able to reach out to Audio Research to get history on the Ref 5se.  I would do it anyway just to know for sure what you are considering to purchase.  Good luck. 

Someone above mentioned the yellow board was the old board so perhaps the brown board is the new one?

My friend just moved up the AR chain with a used AR Preamp he bought from Steve at VAS. I didn't pay attention to model numbers, but I visited, compared the old and new to him one, distinctly better, especially imaging.

Also better in Mono, no wander up/dn the frequencies either Ella's or Louis voices


I think he said Steve had two of them, you might give Steve a call and see what he has, AR or other, get any advice ...

He has so much equipment he doesn't advertise, it's ridiculous.



Someone above mentioned the yellow board was the old board so perhaps the brown board is the new one?

The brownish/yellowish board was the first Ref5se and the green board was the later version. I've owned both and there was no discernible difference in sound. 

You may want to check out a used BAT preamp. They're built like a tank and sound great.

The new Modwright LS99 is in your price range. Balanced. I haven’t heard it, but have enjoyed the Ambrose  One for about 6 years.

+1 for BAT preamps.  I have all BAT gear and over the past number of years have moved up the line to my present system (my system profile is not up to date, at all).  The BAT preamps check all the boxes that you mentioned, plus some.  The best value going would be a quality used VK-33SE.  It sold new for $10K and can be had for around half that.  It was replaced by the next generation, only last year.  Simply outstanding product in parts quality, build quality, and sound quality.

I would love to hear all those contenders. I own the Linear Tube Audio Microzotl preamp. Since placing it into my system, I’ve lost interest in upgrading my preamp. I still think about upgrading my Dac, or possibly my tube amps at some point in the distant future, but have a hard time conceiving parting with the LTA preamp. 

It has the sonic attributes you mentioned are of interest to you. And it looks handsome on my rack. It’s just a joy to own and listen to. 

First off, thank you all for your input! It is nice to get your experiences, and for keeping it on topic. So many suggested the ARC 5SE, and I've added it to my list....but only if I can find a later model with the new board, and if I can verify it's serial number and production date. I've found one, but I'm waiting for a response from the seller.

I'm removing the Atma-Sphere MP3.3.....I know it is great product (no offense to anyone that owns one or to Ralph who appears to be a great guy), but I have to narrow this down somehow. Same for PS Audio, Modwright, Cary, Mola Mola, etc.

A dealer within driving distance owns an ARC 5SE (green board) and a Rogue RP9, and I'm going this week to hear them as he's moving them to his listening room so I can A/B them. The ARC is his in his personal collection of preamps (until he upgrades to a 6SE later this year), but the Rogue RP9 is for sale; you never know on the ARC since I got him to get it out of his house.

Another dealer within driving distance has the BAT VK-80 and Rogue RP-9, and some of the same speakers as the other dealer; I'm going to see him this week as well. He too said he could be in the 20% discount ballpark.

I found another dealer that is not as close, but my wife is good with the drive.....for a nice dinner; God love her. This dealer has a Rogue RP9 and the Backert Labs preamps; though not similar speakers. That drive will be next Saturday.

Milpai, thank you for reminding me to ask for discounts, I was able to get 22% off of one of my favorites, and the above mentioned 20%.

Rmdmoore, I agree that I want to keep the 6SN7 models on the list.....that would include the Don Sachs Revelation (Raven I've also read), and the Aric Audio Motherlode XL. The idea of small batch, point to point wiring, and ease of upgrade appeals to me as well.

@vthokie83 I would be very interested to hear your feedback about the preamps you have lined up for audition.  Please keep us informed!


Going tomorrow to hear the Backert Labs preamps, sometime after I'll post some opinions.

Keep it in the back of your mind that you can do an in-home trial of the LTA MicroZOTL.  Terry London slightly preferred it to the Rhumba so that could be interesting.  Looking forward to your thoughts. 


I know that Terry has the MicroZOTL as his reference preamp, but I'm not sure which Backert he compared it with.....I tried to find the article, but was unable. I'm sure the MicroZOTL is superior to the Rhumba, but the Rhumba Extreme is a different animal; basically a Rhythm in a Rhumba box.

I think he was comparing the MicroZOTL to the Rhumba 1.1, but that was several years ago.  I’d imagine the Rhumba Extreme is quite a bit more expensive, no?  I think he may have moved on to another pre from Aric or something. 


That is the review that I was able to find, comparing models that are 5 years old and 3 revisions now. Yes you are correct, the Rhumba Extreme is quite a bit more expensive at $8,500 list right now. I've been able to find new ones discounted to $7,200.....still quite expensive. I'm probably going to be a bit over my $6,000 budget, no matter what I decide on.

If you are going to look at Audio Research might as well add many solid state preamps to the list as that is what AR sounds like to me.  I'm no expert about Audio Research but I did spend a year going back and forth with a Ref 6 and Schiit Freya + as well as Benchmark LA4.  The Freya + has some nice tubes that cost near as much as the preamp so I only speak to it's sound based on using those tubes.  I never tried anything other than what came with the Ref 6.  If the Ref 6 wasn't a huge space heater I would prob marginally have preferred it but the guys at ARC should be scared at how close a 1000 preamp can come to a 15K preamp in sound.  ARC has it all, balance all the ins and outs you'd ever need and built like a tank.  Remote does it all too, power on and off and balance control (something the Freya lacks).  For me it was just not better enough than the Freya + and sounded more like the uber clean and detailed Benchmark than the warmth you get from the Freya + in tube mode.  You also get a totally different sound from Freya + in passive mode which can be fun for a change and also easy to switch off the tubes from the remote and still keep the system alive and running for short sessions that might not happen if you have to "warm up the tubes" to listen.  Seems like a lot of ARC fans on here.  My take is why bother with the hassle if you want a tube sound then why buy a unit that sounds like a solid state unit and have to deal with the hassle of tubes.  I still want a preamp that is better than both and has all the features of a full feature preamp and doesn't run as hot a space heater in the room.