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


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. 

Sorry for the long delay in getting my thoughts together, it's been a hectic week at work. As I mentioned I went on a preamp listening tour last week and this past weekend, trying to hear several tube preamps on my list in situations where I'd have a chance to fairly compare them. There is no scientific way to do this, so I did the best I could. I am not great at describing my listening thoughts, these are my comments, on my experience, and in NO WAY is meant to be disrespectful and any equipment or anyone's preferences. Also no way to compare one of my finalists, the Aric Audio Motherlode XL 6SN7 preamp.....but I have had several occasions to hear his Super 6SN7 Linestage, which is where I learned of Aric's products.

On several of these trips (not the first trip with ARC REF 5 SE and Rogue RP-9), I was with my golfing buddy and fellow audiophile Patrick (who is luckily enough to not have some of my financial constraints), and is moving on from integrated amps to separate preamps and amps in two wife bailed, probably a good decision for both of us.

My thoughts are listed in the order I demo'd them:

  1. Rogue RP 9 $7,500 (was offered $7,000) – A really really good preamp. I found it hard to get into a critical listening session, it just involved me into the music. Strong points: quiet background, wide and high soundstage (not overly deep), instrument placement was really good but a bit forward on the stage, great detail, bass attack and clarity were excellent, highs were very detailed, instrument details (decay, edges, string plucks) quality much better than my current setup, thankfully this pre is good with the types of music that I listen to. Weak points: midrange and vocals were just a touch “off” maybe dry without as much tube warmth I’m looking for, a tad too revealing on lesser recordings (The Church “Under the Milky Way Tonight)….shows what is in the music, bass not as deep as others, not physically impressive as some other options….almost ordinary. I did not expect this preamp to be this good going into it.
  2. ARC REF 5SE – A very good preamp, and technically excellent. Very attractive preamp, certainly a statement piece. I did not feel I was in the music, but listening to the music (if that makes sense at all), dealer wanted to start with classical music and jazz were much more engaging made them more enjoyable than I am accustomed to, very detailed, wide soundstage if not as high and deep, vocals had excellent detail but was missing more tube like sound, bass was very good….if just a touch rounded. Once started listening to my music, I guess I expected more; no doubt this is excellent. this was also a 7 year old unit with over 3000 hours on it, a few scratches on the top and sides that didn’t bother me….but one on the faceplate that was irritating to look at. Directly compared to the Rogue RP-9 at same location
  3. BAT VK-80 $10,000 (I was offered a bit less) – First off, it’s just too expensive for me even with discounts, but it was available and many have recommended it......and it's on Patrick's list. This preamp is a work of art, just stunning, and it’s performance is excellent. Take all of the best parts of the ARC REF 5SE and this preamp is a bit better in most respects. Better deep bass, faster and more controlled, great instrument placement, soundstage the best I’ve heard to date, quite involving, balanced and revealing but in an enjoyable way… harsh edges, smooth, has some of that tube magic that I like. I could live with this as my final preamp at this point in my journey. Directly compared to the Rogue RP-9 at second location.
  4. Backert Labs Rhumba 1.4 $5,000 – Really a very good preamp, but not as good as the Rogue RP-9…….I really didn’t spend too much time listening to it. It wasn’t as good as the Rogue RP9 in some respects, and it certainly wasn’t as good as what I heard next. Directly compared to the Rogue RP-9 and the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.4 at the same location.
  5. Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.4 $8,500 (offered new for $7,200) – Damn! I would loved to have the BAT VK-80 on hand to do a head to head comparison. Take my BAT notes and cut and paste here, maybe better? Really involving, lovely vocals, fast and smooth (I know, mutually exclusive), detailed without any hint of sharp edges, quiet, really good dynamics, goes deep with nice attack….not at all flabby, really physically attractive in a retro kind of style….well made. I could live with this as my final preamp, at least at this point in my system. Directly compared to the Rogue RP-9 and the standard Backert Labs Rhumba 1.4
  6. Aric Audio Motherlode XL $6,125 - I have never heard this preamp directly, but have heard Aric's Super 6SN7 paired with a CODA amp on several occasions. I wanted to keep a 6SN7 based preamp in my final decision; and this one makes it based on previous experience with his other preamp, 6SN7 based, balanced AES48 standard, terrific reviews by some good people, have read dozens and dozens of positive user experiences with his equipment, quality of parts, and many great communications back and forth with Aric.

I'll add another post later tonight or tomorrow with final thoughts, and conclusions.

Final thoughts, and what I did (actually Patrick purchased too). I decided to purchase the Aric Audio Motherlode XL 6SN7 preamp. In the end I just like the idea of having a handmade point to point wired preamp, that is relatively easily upgraded if need be. I have had nothing but excellent communications with Aric, and have seen nothing but excellent reviews from owners on his equipment. I did get one upgrade, a set of "Bad Boy" Sylvania 6SN7 tubes......I will still have lingering thoughts on the Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.4, that was a great preamp.

My friend purchased the BAT VK-80 preamp, I had it right up there with the Backert Rhumba Extreme personally.....but he certainly did love the sound and looks of the BAT