Life Without a Remote – The preamp search starts!
My system currently runs from a Primaluna Prologue 3 into a custom-made tube amp that will allow plenty of tubes to be rolled in. Currently, I’m using some =C= 6550 tubes that are special, and offer a great soundstage and low end that has the impact of the KT88 tube. The mids are warm, very balanced, and give off a great “tube” sound. With that said I’ve wondered about the top end.
I have always been skeptical of the Primaluna and its sound though. I have rolled a few brands of 12AX7 tubes in and out and haven’t really noticed a change in sound. I have also read that this preamp was known to have a solid state characteristic. Very linear and not much warmth added. Not to take anything away from it. I think it is a nice preamp that does sound good but always leaves me wondering if there is something better for my system.
Also, it doesn’t have a remote and my integrated amp does. I don’t care if you call me lazy I want a remote! I find that I listen to the Integrated more because of the remote. It is a great amp, but it isn’t the same caliber as the “KT88” amp as it’s called around our house. The KT88 amp runs 12AT7 and 12AU7. These compliment each other very well. The amp really responds to rolling tubes and can take plenty of power tube options. KT88, El34, 6L6GL and all variations of these.
I know a simple solution would be to sell the amp and preamp and buy an integrated that will do what the KT88 amp does. That’s a great solution, but I’m attached to the KT88 amp. I got to help decide the preamp and power tube types. A local tech/tube amp guru made the changes before I purchased it. Plus it looks amazing!
Back to the hunt for the preamp with a remote
I started researching and landed on a few options that I like. I narrowed it down to Schiit Audio Freya, Vincent Audio SV-500, or a Doge 8 LP. The first 2 were new and the Doge a pre-owned unit at an amazing price that made it a possible candidate.
The Freya is a no-excuses balanced, remote-control preamp! Switch between passive, active JFET buffer, and tube gain modes, enjoy the fine control of a 128-step relay-switched stepped attenuator volume control with perfect channel matching, and control it all from the comfort of your favorite chair—for many times less than you’d expect to pay. http://www.schiit.com/products/freya
The SV-500 is a hybrid amplifier that utilizes a full tube preamp stage and a solid state amp stage. It is based on the bigger SV-227. The main difference between the 2 is the SV-500 has less power but the same tonal qualities. It can be used as a tube preamp vs an integrated. http://www.vincent-tac.de/en/product-types/integrated-amplifiers/sv-500.html
The Doge 8 LP is a unit that has actually been renamed as the Doge 8 Clarity. Basically, they had a dealer that wanted certain caps installed and they did it. The “clarity” in the name means they are using clarity caps now. It is a full tube preamp and on their website Doge boasts “The best tube preamp on the market below $5,000” http://www.doge.audio/products/doge-8-tube-preamplifier/doge-8-clarity-2017-edition/
One of the frustrating things in the Hi-Fi world is the lack of availability to go in and side by side compare higher end equipment. Out of the 3 options, I narrowed it down to it is a German company (Vincent) with no stores, a company in California with 1 store (Schiit), and Doge who is direct to customer company. So I had to go by reviews and questions I was able to ask the company. Here are highlight points for each preamp for my needs.
- Remote (plastic credit card style)
- 6SN7, 6N8S, or 5692
- Passive, JFET Buffer, or Tube Gain
- 128-Step Relay Attenuator
- 2 unbalanced outputs
- Remote (metal)
- 1 x 12AX7, 2 x 6N1
- Tube output
- Built in DAC – Digital input decodes 16-bit, 24-bit and 32-bit audio files up to 384 kHz
- Hybrid tube/solid state amp (tube preamp stage – solid state amp)
Doge 8 LP:
- Remote (metal)
- 12AT7 x 4 for line stage, 12AX7 x 4 for Phono stage
- Tube output
- Built in MM Phono input
- 2 unbalanced outputs
There are other features that some of these units have that may appeal to some of you. These were the features that appealed to me and my needs.
Online Reviews and Thoughts on each Preamp
Schiit – Freya
This company has always been on my radar. I like the looks of all of their equipment. That silver just jumps out and looks the part! They are a Made in the USA Company and they are proud of it. I like it as well! This amp gives the option to use it as 3 different preamps: Passive, JFET Buffer, or Tube output. When my search began originally I was searching for passive preamps with remotes. So the Freya appealed to me for sure! Plus you get 2 other options for outputs besides the passive output. The idea that I would have 3 options sounds great because I do have a vintage solid state system as well that might benefit from the Freya. The Freya also uses 6SN7 tubes that admittedly I have zero experience with. I’ve read they are an amazing tube. I’ve got a friend in one of the audio groups I am a part of that did a really nice comparison of them in his system. The volume being on a relay instead of a true volume pot is another buying point for me. As excited as I was to go with the Freya I could not get in touch with the company. I tried 2 different emails and a message left and no response. It’s a shame because the reviews look great and most seem happy with the product. My main concern was if an issue arrived how would I be able to get it resolved. So, in short, The Freya was out rather fast.
I have always liked this company and their products. The Hi-Fi community knows this brand rather well. They are a German company and they make quality! Before I first jumped into tubes I wanted to purchase one of their SV-237 MK2 units that were extremely out of my price range at the time. When I started looking for a new preamp I went to their website and found the SV-500. One of the great things about this unit is its ability to be a standalone tube preamp or an integrated hybrid. I don’t need another integrated amp, but it’s a plus to have it just in case. Reviews say it has the same sound as its bigger brother the SV-237. I was immediately drawn in when I read that! Just take my money already! I had done enough research on the SV-237 to know it was the amp for me. Plus it has an onboard DAC, looks amazing and the SV-500 has a cost at a fraction of the price with the same sound as the SV-237! It was the front runner for sure. My only concern was the amount of preamp I was going to get for the money. After all, this is 3 units in one: preamp, amplifier, and a DAC. Plus I don’t need another DAC. I have one that for my needs is good. I am able to stream Tidal at a level that for me is as good as or better than my Vinyl collection at times. Easy Vinyl lovers I still believe in Vinyl first.
It has a real metal remote. That seems like a silly statement, but credit card remotes feel flimsy and cheap. The SV-500 does have tone controls. For me, that’s a real love-hate relationship. In the past when I was running solid state equipment I had tone controls in everything I ran. All the vintage equipment came with it. You remember bass, treble, loud button, etc. When I made the jump to tube equipment I struggled with the lack of adjustments that could be made. It took a while to just relax and listen to the music how it was recorded and mastered. Now I enjoy not having the adjustments. My system is at a level that really lets you know if it’s a bad recording or not. That’s good and bad. If the recording/mastering is bad then tone controls allow you to adjust to make it right or at least improved.
The SV-500 gives the best of both worlds. As much as I like the entire bonus features set that SV-500 offers I just couldn’t pull the trigger on it. I am really only looking for a preamp and nothing more. My final conclusion was that the SV-500 would make the perfect bedroom all in one integrated amp. So I passed on the Vincent. Man, I can’t believe I ended up passing on the Vincent SV-500. Even typing that makes me a bit sad. Like I said I have wanted a Vincent piece in my set up for a while. I’m just destined to not have a Vincent in my music room I guess. Well for now anyway.
So let’s talk about my pick:
The Doge is a current model that has had a name change recently by adding the word Clarity instead of LP at the end. Nothing major here. They just changed the caps inside the amp that are being used during production. It does matter the quality of caps that are used but they were high quality before the change as well. Normally I lean towards chrome/silver equipment if possible. The majority of what I do have has chrome in it. However, the Doge I decided on is all black and looks amazing! It is going to match the KT88 amp it’s going to drive perfectly. I can’t wait to see them next to each other. The remote is a full metal remote that feels amazing. Truth be told here: I already own a Doge integrated amp. That is how I know the way the remote feels. The Doge I currently own, Doge 6130R, started life as an amp that ran KT88 tubes and was heavily modified. The volume pot and the remote were the main things that were saved after the modifications were complete. So it really isn’t a Doge amp any longer. I know someone is going to think that owning one will influence my decision. I just wanted to clarify that the designs/lay outs aren’t even the same at this point.
As I was searching for reviews I discovered there isn’t a ton out there for the Doge 8. I found the least number of reviews for the Doge actually. I did stumble across one review that just jumped out at me as I was reading it. “The sound- Let’s start with the line stage. Magnificent sums it up. This line stage will compete with any in models costing $ 5,000. It is that good. Not only is it highly transparent and pure, this thing kicks ass. The dynamics, the weight, and impact are staggering. If your system is in need of an adrenaline boost, the Doge is the remedy. The Doge line stage makes listening to digital viscerally thrilling in a way a live concert does”- HIGH-END AUDIO writer Arthur Salvatore
The Doge uses 4 12AT7 in the line stage and 4 12AX7 in the built-in MM phono stage. The phono stage really isn’t that important to me. I’m glad it has it, but I’ve got external phono stages already that punch well above what the Doge could offer. Just an added bonus to have it. I do however like that it uses 12AT7 in its line stage. I run that tube in a few amps including the KT88 amp. I recently purchased some Mullard 12AT7 tubes that were rebranded by BEARD from VTubeAudio and wrote about them here. The 12AT7 has a nice laid back sound to it for the most part and is readily available in plenty of NOS options.
It has 5 inputs and a phono input. 2 unbalanced outputs and 1 balanced output. Again no need for a balanced output but it’s a bonus to have it. Currently, I run 2 turntables and a DAC so there is still room to expand if I wanted to add anything. All reviews I read felt like they were describing what I wanted in a preamp. Plus it just felt like the right one to go with. It should be arriving about the time this post goes live online. I’ll let you know in the next post how the tubes from VtubeAudio sound in it. I’ve got some on the way because you know how it is you have to have new tubes with a new preamp.