The Best Preamplifiers
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best preamplifiers? Why, there aren’t even tone controls on some of your picks! Let’s clear this up: these are the best preamplifiers that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
Luminous Audio Axiom II w/ Walker Mod ($499 USD)
We described this small passive unit as a “volume control in a box,” and were amazed when it kicked the butt of a few very expensive preamplifiers. Passives aren’t for everyone, but if you’re one of those people who are going “DAC direct” you might want to spend a few hundred bucks to get clean, clear sound—and all without a power cord.
Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL Preamplifier ($3,700 USD)
We get a tad giddy whenever we use LTA amps—these David Berning designs, based on his ZOTL topology, offer such a pure and beautiful window into the music. The MicroZOTL offers push-pull Class A operation and can be considered as a truly full-featured preamplifier. It even has a headphone amplifier, and if you know LTA you know it’s gotta be special. (It is.)
Pass Labs XP-12 ($5,800 USD)
Like the matching XP-17 phono preamp, the XP-12 is incredibly neutral and does an impossibly great job at allowing you to hear what everything else in your system is doing. Features are abundant, and yet the XP-12 is still incredibly easy to set-up and use. The single-stage volume control is a dream, by the way.
Pureaudio Control 2 ($9,500 USD)
The original Control preamp was as streamlined as it gets—there was only one knob on the front of the thing, and it was the attenuator. The new Control 2 is a bit more fancy—the automatic input selector, powered by 12V triggers, is now replaced with a more traditional push-button selector, and the remote control controls more than volume trim. Still, this is a minimalist preamp in the finest sense—short signal paths, the best parts quality and a slick attenuator that makes us giggle with joy.
BorderPatrol Control Unit EXT-1 ($12,250 USD)
We’ve declared this the “best tubed preamplifier we’ve heard,” and we’ve heard a few. Perhaps that’s because of its super low noise floor, its hefty power supply or even its point-to-point wiring, but let’s face it—this preamp is filled with some of the finest parts money can buy such as Dueland caps and a tube-rectified choke input filter PSU. Yes, you can get it with a fabulous phono stage as well.
Merrill Audio Christine ($12,400 USD)
Sporting one of the largest displays we’ve seen on an audio product—you can easily read everything from 20 feet away—the Christine was a synergistic match with the Class-D Merrill Element 118 monoblocks and forced us to reconsider our bias against Class-D amplifier designs. Definitely in consideration for being one of the best preamplifiers on the market regardless of topology.
Vitus Audio RL102 ($14,400 USD)
The RL102 is “a model of European simplicity and straight-forward sensibility,” meaning that it is no-nonsense in its approach. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a preamp that is extremely versatile. With the matching Vitus RS101 power amplifier, we found that the RL102 delivered a “highly three-dimensional and fully fleshed-out soundstage.”
Mactone XX-7700 ($21,500 USD)
Maybe the most beautiful preamp we’ve seen, and its sound is equally sublime. Mactone amps have been made by the same gentleman in Japan since 1964, and the XX-7000 screams “bespoke” and “pride of ownership is off the charts.” No remote control–this is every bit a classic preamp design, but with a sound that suggests both vintage and state of the art. The sound, in one word? Alive. An Editors Choice winner.
TIDAL Audio Preos D ($32,900 USD)
This might be the finest preamplifier we’ve ever used, solid-state or tubed, although we spent most of our time with the original Preos. (The Preos D adds a DAC and a phono pre.) The volume control is “fabulous,” the build quality is exquisite, and the sound is well, nothing, as a preamp should be.
TIDAL Audio Prisma ($40,000 USD)
We felt the Prisma towered over most preamplifiers and blew such a hole in our PTA awards system that we had to invent a new one, the Summit Award, to put a spotlight on its excellence. Everyone loves turning that incredibly sexy volume knob, but that’s only the beginning of a design that we called an “end game product.”
D’Agostino Momentum HD ($40,000 USD)
We fell in love with the D’Agostino Momentum Phono with its new input stage and ultra-quiet circuitry. As a follow-up, Dan D’Agostino has now brought many of these advances to the new D’Agostino Momentum HD Pre-amplifier. We can’t stop listening to the combination, and it may be one of the best preamplifiers we have auditioned.
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.