Welcome to the Best Preamplifiers section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2022.
The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank].” This collection represents our enthusiasm. Every product listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — the best loudspeakers, CD players, amplifiers, turntables, cartridges, preamplifiers, DACs and more — this is it.
The Best Preamplifiers
These entries represent the best preamplifiers we’ve heard. They are organized by price in ascending order. Enjoy!
Luminous Audio Axiom II w/ Walker Mod (starting at $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.
Audio by Van Alstine Transcendence 10 RB ($999 USD)
So you’re telling me there is an all-tube preamp, made in America, for less that a thousand dollars? Yep. The Transcendence 10 RB is an all-tube preamplifier that will appeal to audio purists embracing minimal setups and anyone looking for affordably priced, astonishingly detailed and musical tube sound. Shipped with two 6DJ8 tubes, though 6CG7 or 6N1P tubes can also be used. Remote included, with optional an phono card installed at the factory for an additional $329.
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.”
Audio by Van Alstine FET Valve CFR Preamplifier (starting at $2,099 USD)
Starting at a mere $2,099, you get a Frank Van Alstine made flagship tube preamplifier, with a killer headphone amp included, and the option to add an internal MM/MC phono stage for an additional $349. Most importantly, you get a crisp and dynamic sound that will energize your entire system. Old school in appearance–it looks like it was built in the ’80s–but you won’t be able to deny it sounds like one of the best preamplifiers we’ve tested in 2021. Because it is. A Reviewer’s Choice award winner.
Audio By Van Alstine DVA ($2,499 USD)
The digital preamplifier is designed to get the most out of your digital sources, which means the five inputs included are only USB, S/PDIF optical and digital coax. That said, the DAC–with its now endangered but excellent AKM chip from Japan–sounds killer and has a wonderful user interface. “My entire system sounded faster, cleaner and more powerful with the Van Alstine DVA digital preamplifier,” we concluded. A Reviewers Choice Award winner.
Rotel Michi P5 ($3,999.99 USD)
The flagship preamplifier from Rotel in Japan is big and bulky like the rest of the Michi luxury line–50 pounds for a pre!–but it offers a range of functions that’s decidedly “lifestyle” in feel and ease-of-use. The inboard phono stage is good, but the built-in DAC makes this a wonderful preamp for all types of digital formats. “Music is clean, energetic, and toe-tapping,” we said.
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.)
Jeff Rowland Design Group Capri S2-SC (starting at $4,950 USD)
This tiny preamplifier with the jewel-like chassis is loaded with features, and it provides the clean and in-control feel of other JDRG designs. Inclusion of the $1150 HP (high-performance) phono card, the same one in the lofty Conductor phono pre, is a wonderful gift–it’s already one of our favorite inboard phono stages. The SC stands for super-capacitors (there are four inside), and the sound was so satisfying that we awarded a Reviewer’s Choice to this “diminutive yet stellar performer.”
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.
Atoll Gamme PR400 Signature ($6,600 USD)
“Nothingness, in audio, speaks the truth,” we discovered with this French preamplifier in the system. As part of Atoll’s flagship Gamma line, the PR400 offered such a neutral sound that we “never got that feeling it altered the signal in any significant way.” Best described as “clean,” we found that “music leapt out from between the speakers from a silent backdrop.” A Reviewers Choice winner.
Luminous Audio Technology Axiom III ($7,995 USD)
From the mind of Michael Bettinger and the manufacturing brilliance of Tim Stinson, the Axiom III possessed “extreme detail along with its phenomenal low-level resolution and effortless display of dynamic contrasts.” It’s streamlined and built for speed–no phono stages, DAC, balanced inputs or fancy casework–so the Luminous Axiom III is all about “sonic bliss.” A Reviewers Choice winner.
Pass Labs XP-22 ($9,500 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. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Audio Research LS28SE ($10,000 USD)
The new design aesthetic for this Audio Research preamp isn’t about heavy casework made from solid aluminum billet, but rather slim profiles, simpler construction and “an earnest, detail-rich sound” that hews to ARC’s legendary traditions. “All attention here is on great functionality, ease of use and the sound.” A Reviewers Choice winner.
Mola Mola Makua ($12,200 USD)
Designed by Bruno Putzeys, this 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.
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 Prisma ($40,000 USD)
We felt the TIDAL Audio 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 Preamplifier. 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.”