Preamp Help

I've been scouring the net for all types of information and thought it prudent to reach out to my fellow Agoners for some help in choosing a new/used tube preamp. Recently sold my Allnic L1500...too dark...and using a Reference Line One Series II passive....more gain...but I do like it. Spent the weekend listening to new Audio Research gear at dealer and was blown away by GSPre. Totally out of my price range, but was thinking about similar performance and tone from used...maybe LS17SE, Ref3, Ref2 MKII, etc. Any suggestions? I've had:
CJ ET2 - Too Noisy even after return to CJ
Allnic L1500 - Too dark, blunted leading edges
First Sound MKII - Terrible ergonomics, Gain too course, but otherwise great sound...pretty close to ideal
Reference Line 1A - Not enough gain, tends to be too forward

But it was the sound of the AR that approaches the type of balanced sound I'm searching for. (Dealer used Vandersteen Quatro Wood, GSPre, and GS150)

Will be partnering with Ghent Mono and Magnepan MG 3.6r.
Ag insider logo xs@2xcommunique1

That is a nice setup but I prefer the Ref 5se over the GSPre. That said how much of the sound you heard can you attribute to the pre and how much the amp? Also the Vandersteen speakers are very different than your Magnepan speakers. You really need to hear the ARC preamp in your system.

Don't get me wrong, I own a Ref 5se. It spent over a week in my system before I bought it. I also had an LS27 in my system for a couple of weeks as well as a few other preamps. You can try borrowing the LS17SE. At least that will give you an idea of how an ARC preamp would sound in tour system. To be honest I did not much like the LS27 and would choose either the Ref 2 mk2 or Ref 3 over it.

Unfortunately, I don't believe I have a close enough relationship with this dealer to warrant a loaner unless I purchase and return. I used to live near a dealer who freely let me borrow what was in stock over the weekend or a couple of weeks for his slower moving gear so I could make a relaxed assessment of the gear. No such relationship with this dealer...but that takes time and a few purchases to establish credibility. Besides that, I'm really leaning towards to Ref2 or Ref3.
FWIW, I tried a ref 5e in front of my Maggie 3.7s. It didn't work out well at all. I'm so glad that I tried before buying.
I used and enjoyed a number of ARC preamps over the years (SP16, LS26) and then moved on to both of Modwright's preamps (LS36.5 and then LS100). All were very strong performers in their own way, but each left me feeling that some element of their sonic profile not ideal, so I kept searching. At some point I acquired a Herron VTPH-2 phonostage which I adored and still own. The VTPH-2 is widely considered to be a near reference quality phonostage at real world pricing. Though the Herron VTSP-3A does not typically get the kind of accolades that the phonostage regularly receives, I decided to give Keith's linestage a try. I've had the Herron VTSP-3A (Rev 2) for well over a year now and can say with some confidence that my preamp search is over. It is a fantastic linestage with great features, build quality and, most importantly, sonic virtues. Just plain musically correct, quiet and transparent. Keith's customer support is second to none--I would suggest you look into it further.
I've heard the ARC Ref. 1, 2, 3 and now the 5 in my friend's system over the past 10 years or so. The 1 and the 2 were good, but not great. The 3 is a great preamp, IMHO. While the 5 is better than the 3, it is only marginally better, to my ears. If money is an issue get the 3, if not, get the 5. (I have not had a chance to hear the Ref. 5SE yet though. I have heard it is a true step up over the 3.)

My two cents worth.
Good Luck in your search.