Years ago, when I was a teenaged audiophile back in Philadelphia I walked into a somewhat famous stereo store called Sassafras in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. This store sold some pretty solid mid-fi gear and brands ranging from Acurus, Aragon, Dahlquist speakers, Magnepan speakers, Nakamichi tape decks, Monster Cable and much more. They had an audiophile grade service department and also sold a limited number of hand-curated audiophile Compact Discs – some of which were expensive and rare imports. That alone was worth the trip but the sales staff was always willing to give you a taste of what they had cooking in their high end audio room. The sales guy sat my 16-year-old buddy and me down to a tall yet uber-thin pair of Magnepan ribbon speakers playing on Conrad Johnson tube electronics made in Virginia. He cranked up “Sledgehammer” from Peter Gabriel’s (then) recently released US blockbuster-hit record at levels that only a pair of 16 year old's could appreciate. When the volume came down after the first chorus, the salesman bragged about having three CJ (that’s what audiophile call the brand) audiophile tube preamps at home. It became a joke between my buddy and I in that why would any twit need three stereo preamps in any one given audiophile system? He was trying to impress us (and perhaps he had three unique audiophile systems but a) he didn’t disclose that and b) he looked like he lived in his mother’s basement) yet he had unwillingly become the butt of our audiophile jokes.

Since them, we’ve all owned our fair share of audiophile preamps over the years. I’ve made a list of my absolute favorites. This is a bit of a walk down memory lane but indulge me as these are truly the greatest hits.

The Mark Levinson JC-2

Designed by legendary (and still living) audiophile engineer, the Mark Levinson JC-2 pretty much defined the limits of the high end audio business in the late 1970s. Stand-up bass playing Mark Levinson quickly became the biggest name in the business with this stereo preamp (the JC-1 was a phono preamp for your turntable) and this preamp is a true audiophile legend. People in Japan will pay a pretty penny for a vintage Mark Levinson JC-2: working or not. Mark Levinson isn’t the brand that it used to be today sadly, as it mainly exists for the co-branding of its audio systems in modern Lexus automobiles. Mark left (was really thrown out) of the Mark Levinson company long before it was owned by Harman (and they were owned by Samsung). He started Cello in 1984 as his next high end audio brand. Later in life married actress Kim Cattrall right before her global success in the HBO series Sex In The City. Together they inked a book on sexual technique that became a New York Times Best Seller. Today, Mark lives in Europe and isn’t as involved in the world of high end audio.

The Cello Audio Palette

Sticking with a Mark Levinson theme here, Cello was Mark’s next audiophile venture after a pretty public exit from his namesake brand. Cello was even more high end and had a serious tie-ins to Mark’s work recording music. The Cello Audio Palette is one of the most expensive audiophile preamps ever and in many cases wasn’t really used as a preamp as the Cello Audio Suite (a modular preamp – a breakthrough at the time) was used in larger systems) but in smaller systems the $26,000 Dick Berwyn designed equalizer and volume control was a game changer. Audiophile print magazines failed to understand the power of this mastering lab grade component. More than 30 years after its launch and low production value – expect to pay many, many times more than retail to get your hands on this sought after audiophile gem.

The Audio Research SP-9

Minnesota-based, Audio Research is one of the most lauded audiophile brands ever. This year they are celebrating their 50th anniversary and remain one of the most critically acclaimed audiophile companies and certainly makers of audiophile preamps. The Audio Research SP-9 was a tube design from Bill Johnson and his staff that “soften the edges” on the day’s early digital sound from often “brittle” Compact Disc players. The Audio Research SP-9 was frequently paired with the Dan D’Agostino designed Aragon 4004 (MKII) power amp which too had a bright yet sold sound however delivered powerful control over your low end bass. If you wanted to play “Money For Nothing” and get your chicks for free – this was the hot setup. The ARC SP-9 retailed at a little under $2,000 at the time thus was pretty expensive but not beyond aspirational.

The Mark Levinson No. 38S

Yes, I know we are back to Mark Levinson but this a much more modern stereo preamp. The Mark Levinson No. 38, which came out in 1994 and was on the market until 1997, was a total game changer. At $4,000, the Mark Levinson No. 38 brought a real-world (non-back-lit and “brick-like”) remote control to the audiophile game. Gone were clunky and stupid connectors like Camac and Fisher connectors. More mainstream and studio-grade balanced connectors in the form of XLRs were used thus making mixing and matching a Mark Levinson No. 38 (or No. 38s) with other brands of gear – easier to do. The Mark Levinson No. 38 is a major upgrade over the No. 38 with over 36 specific upgrades. Better OP amps. Better power supplies. So much. And you paid for it too as a Mark Levinson No. 38 was close to 50 percent more expensive at the time versus a No. 38 stereo preamp.

The Trinnov Amethyst

So we finally get to a modern stereo preamp and at $11,000 the Trinnov Amethyst is beyond a game changer. This modern DAC-PREAMP has every audiophile stereo preamp trick that you’d expect from your solid state preamp. Priced from $11,000 in silver and $12,000 in black, the reason why you invest in the Trinnov Amethyst is it has the world’s best room correction. Unlike all of the preamps above – this one is basically a super computer that has the processing power AND the internal, proprietary software needed to fix the issues in your room AND your system all at once. Give them 30 minutes to an hour and BOOM – your room is much closer to perfect. I told you that it was a game changer.

There are so many other great stereo preamps that we could mention. Adcom, Threshold, Naim, Linn and others from the U.K. The list goes on and on and on.

We hope you enjoyed our trip down high audio memory lane – high end preamp style. Bye!