The Best Preamplifiers
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2021! 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 with Luminous Audio Technology to get clean, clear sound—and all without a power cord.
Parasound Halo P 6 2.1 Channel Preamplifier and DAC ($1,595 USD)
Despite a tendency to sound slightly dry with different sources, the Parasound P 6 contains so many features for the money that it becomes possibly to ignore. It contains a DAC and a surprisingly enjoyable MM/MC phono stage and a plethora of subwoofer hook-up options that explain why this is a “2.1 Channel” preamp. “If you want honesty and accuracy with a big dollop of flexibility, then definitely take a listen.”
Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL Preamplifier ($4,450 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 Pass Labs 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 Pureaudio 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. Designer and co-founder Gary Morrison passed away in early 2021, but partner Ross Stevens has promised to continue offering these designs.
Pass Labs XP-22 ($10,000 USD)
The matching two-chassis preamplifier for the XP-27 phono preamplifier, the XP-22 carries over that models dedication to reducing distortion and lowering the noise floor. The new single stage volume control is borrowed from Pass’s reference line, and the larger output stage is designed to work with longer runs of cables. Extremely versatile, the Pass Labs XP-22 has an amazing amount of features and leads us even closer to absolute neutrality.
Mola Mola Makua ($12,200 USD)
Designed by Bruno Putzeys, this French preamplifier has “an eye towards futuristic functionality and a ultra high-end sonic pedigree.” The razor sharp sonic definition led us to reconsider our views on “total sonic purity,” and the Mola Mola app was one of the most thorough control apps we have seen in high-end audio. It even includes an astonishingly good inboard phono pre! A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
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 BorderPatrol 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 Merrill Audio 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 Audio RS101 power amplifier, we found that the RL102 delivered a “highly three-dimensional and fully fleshed-out soundstage.”
Doshi Audio EVO Series Tape Head Preamplifier ($18,995 USD)
Nick Doshi has created an interesting product here—a preamplifier designed to handle the unique challenges of the best reel-to-reel tape machines. Useful for both audiophiles and recording engineers, the Tape Stage has a servo output stage that can be switched between Class A and Class A/B according to listener preference. Passive equalization is also included.
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.
Allnic Audio L-8000 DHT ($22,900 USD)
This Korean-built preamplifier uses directly heated triodes in the line stage paired with Permalloy conductors, using this old-school Western Electric-style technology to create a sound that was magical. “This soundstage was positively massive and not in a fake audio-gear-on-LSD kind of way,” we concluded, “but a real sense that everything in the music extended twenty feet beyond the sides of the speakers and forty feet above them.” The Allnic earns a Reviewer’s Choice Award.
TIDAL Audio Preos D ($32,900 USD)
This might be one of the best preamplifiers we’ve ever used, solid-state or tubed, although we spent most of our time with the original Tidal 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 Tidal 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.
True Life Audio SSP-1 ($46,000 USD)
The TLA SSP-1 preamp, built in Greece, is a true class A dual mono design with completely separated power supplies. It’s tube rectified, with two separate chokes and a distinct power transformer for each channel, all made with OCC copper. At the heart of the pre-amplifier sits a pair of G.E.C. 6SN7 tubes in parallel configuration. “Achieving this delicate balance between the warm and the neutral, the mighty and the intimate is a rare feat, one that sets apart the True Life Audio SSP-1 from the pack.”
The Buyers Guides of Summer 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges