Pre amps cost vs. value ... what I discovered last month.

Greetings all.

I’m a mastering engineer. . We use Acoustic Zen balanced cabling, highly modified Cary 211 FE tube amps, Bricasti M1 SE DAs and Joachim Gerhard’s Allegra speakers. TORUS balanced power comes 220 from the street. The room is excellent, and you would love to hear it.

For 15 years the pre amp/router was a Crane Song Avocet. I paid around $1800 for it.

Recently decided to try a couple of audiophile products in the pre amp stage and was shocked and saddened how bad they were. Yes, the studio designed Avocet has a relay click for each 1db step, and yes it has a rack mounted 2U body with a corded remote, but it’s clear folks are really getting taken to the cleaners on pre amps. The older and highly regarded Boulder 1010 (used price $5500), was just terrible, truly terrible. The new and fully broken in BAT vk-43SE (demo price $7500) was much better, but still had a cloudy tone as compared to the class A Avocet. Not sure if that’s the cap or the transformer, but it made everything less clear and more generic, more distant from the music.

That’s all. Happy listening.
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Thanks Brian. Interesting. I’ll never forget hearing a top flight stack of Naim amps annihilated by a low rent Croft Micro 3 tube phone preamp back in '87. Ditto for Aragon, Classe, Cyrus, Audiolab and others. I asked Ken Kessler, the reviewer, how somone could like the wooly Aragons and he shrugged and said that is how music actually sounds like. Baffled to this day.

I agree on part of your post, but the other part????

but it’s clear folks are really getting taken to the cleaners on pre amps.
This is true, when many of todays sources have volume control, output stages as good sometimes better that some of these hiend preamps.

For 15 years the pre amp/router was a Crane Song Avocet. I paid around $1800 for it.
I looked inside this Avocet on the net, and it’s full of opamps, and if 15 years old they’d mainly be TLO5*'s ands NE553*'s which are very ordinary to say the least.

Cheers George
Parts matter, yet Dave Hill knows what he’s doing.

Avocet distortion is in the range of .001% at +20 dbu -3db is up between 200 and 300KHz

My listening tests are not "respectable"? A rude and ultimately hilarious reply.  Listening is what I do all day every day, for hire by others who can afford anyone, and not for fun. The credits are all online. Have a great day.
Props to the OP. There's always a self-important contrarian ready to pick and pounce despite any initial ethos. 

I suspect the synergy in your room reveals a lot when a part of it is replaced. 
Brian you tried two preamps with poor results. It doesn't mean you learned anything other than those two units were a poor fit for your listening tastes and system. Glad to hear your old Avocet is holding up and sounding good but don't give up the search,  there are many good preamps besides those two.
Also great to have such a respected mastering engineer in the forums you have some amazing credits. Lastly a question,  you describe the Cary amps as highly modified, if you had to modify the amps to get the sound you wanted do you think modding one of those preamps might have gotten you where you wanted?
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@jond Yes mods could work on the BAT without transformer, 6 caps a side on the 42 I think would be a good path, but it’s not worth the hassle.  Sonicraft Jeff does my mods, he’s a genius with great ears.

@dweller "I listened to some equipment and didn’t like it so whomever does like it must be fool"   False my friend, ... I said the Boulder was junk (too many negatives to detail) and the BAT 43se was very good but still veiled.

I never called anyone names, I’m taking about price to performance in this thread. Defensive posts are a waste of time, let’s not bother, ok?

@simao Yes, of course I understand synergy ... I can also listen to one component for it’s factual sound on an island. When you work on the same system in the same excellent room for years, any one piece is clear when swapped out.
Oh, but would I be able to swap the avocet (or its current incarnation) with my current pre? Or is a studio component only? The IIe version on Sweetwater looked hella advanced. 
Up to you @simao  ... It's all balanced, and I have not used the new one.   It has a nice DA as well, he keeps upgrading the DA as one would expect.

I looked inside this Avocet on the net, and it’s full of opamps, and if 15 years old they’d mainly be TLO5*'s ands NE553*'s which are very ordinary to say the least.

Cheers George
Sometimes’s the circuit not the components.

cheers mate
+1 for Brian,your comments have that ring of truth to them.I agree,there is a multitude of ridiculously over priced pre amps that simply do not make it happen.
  A close friend of mine who is an electronic a musician and producer with a pretty intense studio set up tends to scoff at high-end audio components when compared to professional audio components.  And he and I always debate the relative listening habits and needs of each group of components. 

 It reminds me of the crown discussion last month on this for him. And it makes me wonder if there are any professional components that could serve double duty, so to speak, in a high end consumer audio chain. 
I would want to know if the Boulder is performing to spec before I agree with your cost vs value assessment.
Yeah, I have no doubt you heard what you heard, but it's kinda strange that the Boulder sounded that flat out bad.  Does make me wonder if it had an issue of some type.  

Well to be fair sounding "bad" to me is "interesting" to others. The older Boulder sounds like one would expect from the design. I was just hoping they had pulled a magic trick. The center image power was non existent, the shape of the freq bal was way off, the tone overall was synthetic. Great people and a great company but a sound I was told would make me cringe, and I should have listened. The BAT was very nice, very nice. It was simply a bit veiled as compared the older Avocet, either from the cap or more likely from the transformer. Plenty of low end, a touch more than I was used to but not a problem either way. The gain up/down was rock solid, the image L/R at gains was solid. The volume from 60-100 Viktor told me was the sweet spot and he was of course correct. It’s a very nice unit. A bit veiled in the realism category is all.   And I’m just saying the price, whoa. A new one is $10k. It’s a low volume market, yet so is pro audio gear and a new Avocet is like 3000?
I question the sanity of anyone mastering with Cary 211 FE. Nice tube amp (had a pair for a while), but in no way does it reproduce what goes into it. It's a distortion machine. Get a pair of Genelecs.
Fair enough.   And I question the intelligence and experience of anyone who can’t read the words "highly modified" and the use their experience and imagination from there.  Signed, of course slightly insane to use a tube amp daily.
Genelecs ... are terrible, sorry.   And what are your credits in the audio engineering profession again?

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I've always thought of producing music and reproducing music as two entirely different things. The later being much more difficult. In the studio, you're in control of the signal from step one. At home we need to assume and attempt to recreate your vision. Yes? Joe
Dweller, why so rude, my man?  Brian’s sharing his opinion based on his system and makes it clear that it’s his experience.  Instead of disputing his claims, you’re just attacking him.  If you have a specific technical question, ask.  But you’re making all kinds of invalid assumptions and you sound like you’re just picking a fight for no reason.  If anything, it just undermines and credibility you think you may have.
Brianlucey, Have you listened to Ayre or Mark Levinson preamps? They are very highly acclaimed and neutral sounding, not adding color to the music.
 I believe Boulder is known for their amps. May be true some companies master amps, others preamps, others DACs. 

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@Initm Have not heard the Ayre, have heard the Levinson line a couple of times now (too dry for me)

@soundsrealaudio I’ll look into that one, thanks.

@dweller you are simply a rude person, from the first reply "To many variables (should be ’too’ by the way) to consider your opinion respectable. Please specify everything pertaining to your listening trials and I’ll get back to you." ... to your next reply "Please find someone to read my post to you as you obviously have poor comprehension skills. " to your last reply.  A hole attitude.

My opinions are respectable based on credential, and you are no one to my world, yet I am giving you the most respect possible given your tone.
Please post your full name and credits in production and "I’ll get back to you" ... how rude would that be to say to you?

Sure, I could spend 20 minutes typing out my equipment mods, and testing methods and all manner of information on how and why I do things in depth, and yet I’m busy. I'm not here to work   I get paid to use this studio and paid to teach. Maybe be happy I want to banter here in a respectful way with others who love music. Be not demanding. That is an a hole attitude, factually speaking.
When you come out of the gate with these kind of bad attitude replies, and then you can’t GOOGLE Allmusic as you’re bitching about a 1968 recording that is off topic, then you have too many emotional issues for me. Maybe issues with "Mastering Engineers" as a profession, or just with audio engineers ... I have no idea who you are or what your deal is. But you are rude and wasting everyone’s time. I’m here to banter with cool people. You’re out.
Sorry, but your initial reply was presumptuous and condescending. There may have been "too many variables", maybe -- but whereas the OP tried to establish his cred in his post, you just came across as a judgmental troll subpoenaing a member.  
@jnovak I would not say that listening is about copying any mastering room, that is in fact, actually impossible. What you want to do is enjoy music. Whatever that requires. Upgrade your room treatments as you find that is the weak link. Upgrade the X or the Y when that is bothering you. Active listening is not based on a hypothetical measurement or a grand theory of reproduction. Our listening evolves over time, we would hope, and as it does our needs in playback evolve. The weak link is the next thing to address, and NOT addressing anything is a beautiful thing. We can simply enjoy music in those periods of time. For the audiophile the listening room is an instrument, it’s your contribution to the recording. For the mastering studio engineer the listening room is both our set up space for assuring translation and it’s our template space for doing the work that results in our unique presentation as a ME. All mastering rooms, like all ME’s work products, are different. Nothing is perfect or repeatable in music playback across rooms, time, temperature, pressure, etc. Translation means that something has it’s integrity in ALL playback forums. There is no one perfect playback situation. When I listen to my work in the world, in all manner of locations, I’m happy to hear it always sounding like itself. That’s translation. The essence is there, with the local color added. From 24 bit to mp3, from radio to TV to sports arena, to strip club, to local restaurant to $200,000 system in a stupid hotel room, to a nice home set up at any price and age. But there is NO PERFECTION in music making, or music reproduction. There is no "sound as the artist heard it". Music playback is a moving target, not a fixture.  It's not about perfection it's about translation with a lower case T, local color added ... and it's about emotional captivation of individuals, a connection with the artist or composer, that happens through the listening experience. This is a concept that too many seem to miss.
@simeo in my experience those who are both too impatient or maybe lazy to do the research, and also so fast to be defensive and start quoting words that were never said to support their state of mind, are not rational enough to engage in a healthy way. So while I thank you for your support, I would caution you that some people are past engaging in reasonable replies once they get fired up. I can get fired up, and I can back it down. Yet I can read the tea leaves too.
My first post was IMO a sufficient explanation of the set up. My room, I would hope very obviously, is going to be better than 99% of the rooms that anyone here is using .... and since the room is maybe half the sound, that should be enough to engage with basic respect. Sure, I could have mentioned how I helped Bricasti to reprogram their filters after hearing a flaw in the the unit 4 years into it’s life in the market, and how my required mods are standard now for all M1 SE. I could have mentioned all the tube and cap testing done on the 211, or a host of techniques on listening and A/B comparison that I use that are never discussed online. But again, I get paid to teach. I didn’t think that was needed to converse here and it’s not fun for me to go there ... way past the nerdy gear lust stage, and proving my value stage of this game. My life’s work is elevating humanity by connecting one artist with one individual, very deeply, on a physical, intellectual and emotional level. Then the credits. Easily Googled. My clients at the top, can afford anyone in the world, last year four Billboard #1, and The Greatest Showman was #1 in 77 countries on iTunes. Many Grammy winners and Aria winners, etc. And that should all go without being said, available to anyone doing 4 slicks of research.
Back to work.   Let's keep this thread about Pre Amps, and costs and not get in the weeds any further.
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Jeff Rowland Consummate --> BAT VK-51SE --> BAT REX --> Atma-Sphere MP-1 --> Grace Design m905 --> 2400 Audio Imperium
So far I see 2 fingers pointing back at your initial finger pointing sir. Maybe, take heed of your supposed wisdom? 

"I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." - George Bernard Shaw
Was just listening to the Moody Blues "In Search of the Lost Chord". My word, what a lousy sounding album. I wonder if there was a mastering engineer involved in its creation.
I loved this album, and have two or three version one being the MFSL, and yes there is no good copy of it very compressed, as this DR shows all green means good, only track 11 (The Word) has good DR.
And this site has never let me down on which one to get, click on the one with the highest and most green and you have the cat no of it and go search ebay for a used copy.

Cheers George
@brianlucey Interesting findings. I've been mildly curious about how pro gear compares. I have no experience with BAT, but the two times I heard all Boulder electronics, it was very disappointing. They have extremely impressive build quality, but they were unequivocally NOT musical IMO. 

As others have suggested, it would be interesting to hear your comparisons to Ayre, Levinson, Pass Labs, etc
One other thought. Perhaps there is poor synergy due to impedance matching or other technical factors when mixing pro and home gear.

Yes @spenrock poor matching is always possible yet the Boulder sounds to me as it sounds to others I trust who I’ve talked to since. Again, great company, so well done, just not right in any way that I know of. And I’m not saying pro gear across the board is better or worse, not going there ... just talking about these 3 units in the pre amp category only.  Levinson is dry, analytical, well done, just not very engaging.  At this point I'm looking to completely rebuild and upgrade cost no object the crossovers in the speakers (fairly complex) and stay with the old Avocet.
1. Have you tried driving the amps directly from the Bricasti by using its volume control instead of the Avocet?

2. Have you tried some SS amps on the Allegras?  Their non flat impedance affects the frequency response of your tube amps and they're not an easy load either.

Hello Brianlucey,
I appreciate your sharing of experiences and perspective from the vantage point of a professional in audio recording. You have made some very interesting observations in regard to the listening experience.

I absolutely agree with your comments about emotional involvement and connecting with the artist and their music. I’ve always believe this is the entire point of listening to music. It is a very subjective and personal interaction and thus by default will vary amongst individual listeners.

I’ve written in this forum on several occasions that the audio components capable of permitting the higher degree of emotional connection and musical enjoyment are the ones to buy and keep. If an audio component or system fails at this task what else matters or can make up for this glaring deficiency? BTW I’ve had the opportunity to hear Boulder components and my overall impression is similar to  yours. It seems the quest for ultra detail retrieval can "potentially" result in an analytical/clinical presentation and lack the vital emotion and soul touching aspect of listening to music.
@brianlucey; your assessment brings up the age old observation that how a unit measures does not necessarily reveal how it will sound.  The Boulder equipment, same as the Levinson generally measure impressively, but can draw different subjective observations.  Stereophile when it measured the Boulder 2110 concluded - "Boulder's 2110 is the best-measuring preamplifier I have encountered."; however its cost will draw pause.  Yet, the cost effective Benchmark DACs and Amplifiers measure impressively and have both home and "Pro" following.  Your system with the exception of the preamp is very high end, so the value of high end is something you appear to appreciate.  Of course, the industrial design of high end with the sculpted and precision machined cases adds a lot of cost.  Also, high end generally applies a lot of emphasis on input power to accommodate the wide variety of source power - few have the arrangement you have.  Also, the distribution and dealer hands-on adds further cost that "Pro" hardware designed for racks and sold mass-market do not incur; and home equipment is expected to be routinely updated where "Pro" unit may remain stable for many years, so R&D costs can be very different.  So, as spoken above synergy (whole exceeds the sum of its parts) is that elusive item that once achieve, some of us will not touch for fear of its loss; and once disturbed can take months if not years to achieve again.  Some technical items, the Boulder while having PINS 2 hot can change the polarity, and this 'may' be the source of the weak center image; but not everything.  Nelson Pass in a recent Stereophile article has a interesting observation that positive phase 2nd order distortion can widen and deepen the soundstage while negative phase 2nd order distortion can reduce and focus in your face; so synergy with tube amplifiers can be sometimes be a mine field.  Quick review of the Crane Song Avocet manual does not list many technical specifications and quick web search shows a number of positive "Pro" reviews, but no technical measurements.  It would be interesting to see you opinion of the new Crane Song Avocet and whether 15 years later is it voiced the same? and of course in this community we can hear the chorus/mob yelling for blind testing.  At the end, everyone has their own perceptions/desires for how they want their system to sound; this is readily observed with the printed press that understanding they are for profit; but JA from Stereophile who is a recording engineer favors equipment that measures perfectly with speakers that measure flat.  Different strokes, different folks.  However, the cost-to-value item is a bit more complicated - what are the buyers priorities; what is the intended market; how much will the market bear; but to throw them under the bus is bit strong - IMHO.

Thanks to OP for observations. Wonder if he knew what he was wading into and how little his reasonable credentials matter to the religious belief based sub-groups here...
Turns out op amp designs can be great, backed by listening tests, and engineering and testing appraisal. Of course, they can su__ …ahh be less than great: all about implementation and parts.  I took a Denon PRA-1100 and put new caps and higher speed more modern Op Amps in it and sounds really good. Total investment <$75 and some sweat equity. (=fun)

It would be nice to be in a situation to have 2 clearly “better” and “worse” sounding pre-amps in the studio and put them on the bench for the more obvious measurements. Although pre- amps are dealing with smaller signals, at least they do not have the “power draw” issues to deal with.

It is fine by me when a poster indicates something like “I think this is bogus…because” knowing it is obviously one person’s opinion and that is what we are here for, but no need to directly rude to another even if widely divergent opinions.

I happen to believe that if sound differences repeatedly can't pass a double blind test they are likely non existent, and certainly not worth big money chasing, but you know, I could be wrong. 

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Home audio done right is uniquely about bling and aesthetics in addition to sound quality and value whereas pro audio done right does not care much about aesthetics. 
No surprise good pro-audio stuff can sound better than even pricey home gear when done right.

Brian, I happen to agree that preamps have become pretty expensive when the designer chooses to lean on their early successes and brings out new models with new bling on top of overpriced "improvements".  I'm not saying the new models aren't better, but it is an excuse for jacking up the price over time. 

I recently down-priced my preamp to a bargain, the Linear Tube Audio MZ2.  Its David Berning design is a marvel of neutral transparency, big soundstage, and imaging.  It was designed as a premium headphone amp but as a preamp it is amazing, if a bit limited in its features.  It certainly has limited bling factor although I love the look.  Fully optioned (remote, linear power supply, NOS tubes), it goes for < $2,300 but can be had basic for just over $1,200.

It sounds so much better than my prior $4k preamp did.  I love it when you can improve the sound, and drop cost.

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Hi Brian,

If we can set 'dweller' aside for a moment and talk about pre-amps...

Here's another endorsement for Zesto Audio.

Also... the Townshend Allegri+ passive preamp. A friend recently replaced a mega-buck pre with the Townshend with excellent results.

I'd be very interested in your response to the Townshend pre.

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Thanks for your posts and insight which are very much appreciated given your credentials and experience. 

So many times in high-end audio we find and we believe that component synergy of the electronics can create  the best results. Many times it’s advocated to use electronics of the same manufacture to achieve this. Do you find that other audio engineers believe this doctrine? In the pro world do others usually use  electronics of the same manufacture to achieve this? From your posts it seems that you do not necessarily subscribe to this. Interest in your thoughts. Thanks for your time.