Welcome to the Best Preamps section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2023.
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 “best preamplifiers” 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 Preamps
These entries represent the best preamps we’ve heard. They are organized by price in ascending order. Enjoy!
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 impossible 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 preamps we’ve tested. Because it is. A Reviewer’s Choice award winner.
Audio By Van Alstine DVA (starting at $2,299 USD)
This 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.
SPL Elector ($2,969 USD)
Despite its compact design–it’s only 11″ wide–the German-made Elector is an all-analog preamplifier with a ton of features such as XLR and RCA inputs, variable and fixed outputs, a tape loop and much more. It even has backlit VU meters and a choice of three faceplate colors (including a striking red one). “The Elector has given me the versatility that I’ve always craved in a well-designed and implemented modern preamplifier,” our reviewer concluded just before he decided to buy it. “It’s quite simple on the outside, but it sure does seem to do a lot!” A Reviewers Choice award winner.
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 ($6,100 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.
Backert Labs Rhumba Extreme 1.3 ($7,500 USD)
A tube line stage that uses a pair of new Mullard 12AU7s, the Backert has dual power supplies, an auto-bias circuit, balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs, and sound quality so enthralling that our reviewer bought the unit as his new reference. “It pairs well with tube and solid-state amps, it’s great on vinyl and digital, it images like a beast going deep and wide without it feeling artificial or gimmicky.” A Reviewers Choice award winner.
Luminous Audio Technology Axiom III ($7,999 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 ($9,975 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.
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.
VAC Master Preamplifier ($28,000 USD, $40,000 with phono)
We quickly fell in love with Kevin Hayes’ Master preamplifier as soon as we realized it met all our expectations: “refined to the extent of being clean and quiet with wide bandwidth, and subjectively and dynamically responsive, if not more, as solid-state brethren.” Don’t go hear a VAC Master Preamplifier or audition one in your system unless you have the cash or can put up with the constant dreaming.” Optional inboard phono stage is well worth its substantial cost. Reviewers Choice award winner.
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.” One of the best preamps there is, in our humble opinion.
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 preamps 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.”
If you would like to hear even more on our choices for the 2023 Buyers Guide, check out our tips, picks and highlights in our audiophile-oriented show The Occasional Podcast. You can stream the episode direct from the embed below, or from your favorite podcast platform including iTunes, Android, Google, Deezer, Spotify, iHeartRadio and more.