Matching Pre-amps and Amps: Same Brand or Not?

Ron Resnick

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Traditionally I have thought that the selection of a preamplifier and the selection of an amplifier are opportunities to select in each case the component you think sounds best for your system, regardless of manufacturer. I have never held a presumption that one should buy a pre-amplifier and an amplifier from the same manufacturer.

Of course when selecting a pre-amplifier from one manufacturer and an amplifier from another manufacturer one must be careful about pre-amp output and amp input gain and voltage compatibility and about impedance compatibility.

Very often, especially for audiophiles who believe "there should be a tube in the system somewhere," matching a tube or hybrid preamplifier with a solid-state amplifier, or matching a solid-state preamplifier with a tube amplifier, are ways to achieve this.

Or someone who likes solid-state components might want to match a warm sounding solid-state preamplifier with a very neutral and crystalline sounding solid-state amplifier -- or the other way around.

Early on I matched a conrad-johnson preamplifier with Manley amplifiers. Then for about 18 years I matched an Aesthetix Io phono + line gain preamplifier with VTL amplifiers.

Over the last few years I have come to the personal view that one should have a pretty darn good reason for not selecting a preamplifier and amplifier from the same company. Such same-brand matching almost always obviates concerns about gain and voltage compatibility and about impedance compatibility. I will be hatching (thanks, MikeL) my new system with a VTL preamplifier matched with VTL amplifiers.

What do you think?

What are the pros and cons of selecting different brand versus same brand preamplifier and amplifier combinations?

What has been your experience on this subject?

Which kinds of combinations have worked out best for your system?
 
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Steve Williams

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For me Ron i have always had amps and preamps from the same manufacturer for the very reasons you stated
 
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jeffrey_t

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I owned the Hovland HP-100 for many years and enjoyed it with Pass Labs, First Watt and Cy Brenneman amps.
 
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Al M.

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I am not sure if technical compatibility tells you everything.

A friend tried my Octave preamp in his system and he reported a thinner sound than with a Spectral preamp, the latter of which I heard more extensively in his system and which sounded the way he described, which is with a full and saturated sound.

On the other hand, I found that in another friend's system my Octave preamp gave a very full sound, whereas the Spectral sounded thinner and brighter. Thus, the very opposite.

In both cases, the power amp(s) were of a different brand than either of the preamps.

It has further convinced me of what others have said, and what Microstrip routinely emphasizes, that things depend on system context (it also makes you wonder about equipment reviews).

In my own system, I combine Octave preamp and Octave amp -- a very happy combination.

So yes, Ron, I agree with your opinion, and good move on your part with brand matching.
 

bonzo75

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Hi, I disagree.. You can start with the same brand for ease, can't go wrong, but you can always look for a better mix if you have the resources. I strongly believe in using SS preamps like Soulution for valve power amps in non horn systems. Apart from Soulution you can try Dartzeel, CH, SMC or spectral pre with your VTL amp. I have experience only with Soulution in such set ups (with Nat magma and Allnic power amps), Ian did first Soulution and then Dartzeel with CAT, another friend preferred Dartzeel to his Shindo pre with his Shindo power, hence the other recommendations.
 
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moby2004

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Jan 21, 2018
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I would say that keeping the same brand for preamp and amp is a very safe bet assuming of course you like the “house” sound of the brand .
Now there are brands which are doing great preamp but their amp is not at the same level (and vice versa) and so doing some mix and match might give you the best of both world ( or mixing tubes and SS as previously suggested) .
But going for the mix and match path is requiring much more time ( home demo is a must) and can become a never ending story...
 

tima

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Mar 4, 2014
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same-brand matching almost always obviates concerns about gain and voltage compatibility and about impedance compatibility.

I ran into a situation that adds another compatibility item to your list: wiring. Of all things, you don't think of connective wiring as a potential 'look out for'.

When I first got in a pair of Lamm M1.2 Refs for review I planned to use three preamps, an ARC Ref 5se, a C-J PV-8 and an Atma-Sphere MP1. Both the MP1 and the 5se had XLR outputs. Technically - or so goes my understanding - there are industry standards for how XLR inputs and outputs are wired, which pin is ground and which pins are for signal, etc. The M1.2s each had an XLR input for compatibility though the amp is inherently single-ended, not balanced.

Turned out the A-S MP1 did not work with the M1.2. Together they produced a loud humm through the speakers. Without going into details some of which I don't remember, RalphK identified the problem as an incongruity in the way the XLR output and input were wired. He offered to modify the amps, a very simple change right at the M1.2 input, but since they were review samples, that was not feasible. (Also tried different cables.) On the other hand the ARC Ref 5se and single-ended CJ PV-8 worked fine with the M1.2. (As did every other XLR out preamp I"ve tried. Though the MP1 is wired industry standard.) This was touched in the review.

There are no rules - of course one can choose to match manufacturer units or not - your choice, your reasons, your system. Matching does guarantee success, it should yield a consistent house sound and synergy is likely assured. I recall hearing an Atma-Sphere MA-1 amp with an A-S MP1 preamp - it sounded effortless, like a continuous single gain stage. ARC to ARC, Lamm to Lamm - what's not to like.

I think of this similar to choosing to pick cables for each connection versus using a full loom from one manufacturer. Some people try to 'fix' or 'tune' their system by using many different cables. If you don't like the house-sound you're getting from an amplifier, why did you buy it in the first place? YMMV.
 

analyzer

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May 20, 2016
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At the end if you search the perfect match (impedance and sensitivity) you're forced to follow the same brand.
Any other route will have many traps and interrogatives but can give much more fun and knowledge...
And sometimes results are fully satisfying!
 

LL21

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On the one hand, the same designer is absolutely ideal from the standpoint of continuity of design. I think I have read from Flemming Rasmussen and also from either Andy Payor or Laurence Dickie that amps and speakers are also a very critical interface...where it would be 'ideal' for both to be designed as one rather than an amp designed to go for an unknown number of different speaker loads, or a speaker designed to accept an unknown number of amps.

On the other hand, is the ultimate sound only about the design continuity BETWEEN the two...or is it ALSO about each design being the best as well? (ie, 'everything matters')

My sense is that it does take a lot to beat the continuity element when bringing 2 components together, and even more so when the designer is adept at both preamp design and amp design. However, I do think it can be done (ie, the quality of design of each unit and whatever interface each has with the other actually beating the pure continuity benefit and design of both by the same designer).

As someone who started out with same-same (CJ-CJ), I migrated away to Gryphon amps over 10 years ago when looking for an all-out powerful tube amp. That said:
- I have never had an opportunity to test a Gryphon preamp in our system;
- Having spoken to close to 20 Gryphon amp owners over the years, it seems clear to me that given that roughly 2/3rd also own other preamps and HAVE tried Gryphon preamps in their system beforehand, this particularly combination is not (for me) a 'must try or die' situation.
- The 1/3rd who are Gryphon-Gryphon are incredibly happy (I am not at all surprised). I cannot think it is anything short of special, and I am sure when I get an opportunity to hear the combination, I will do so.
 
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treitz3

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I have had the same brand with Pre's and Amps before but was not impressed with the house sound or sonic signature. IME, I have found that finding the right combo yields better end results for me. Ideally, an integrated should be the "best" option, in theory, because it eliminates the need for IC's. I have also found this to be less than desirable.

When my Dodd MLP Preamplifier died, I went through 3 different pre's to find what I had or improve upon what I had (which was a hard bar to best) and when I installed the Canary C800 MKII with Transparent Reference IC's, I found better than what I had before with many aspects of the reproductive effort. Especially after rolling some different tubes in the Canary. Both were paired up with a mismatched Musical Fidelity amplifier. I have no desire to move to a Canary amplifier, as I already have the sound I was looking to achieve, along with noise floor that I can't.

I guess my point is, unless you like the house sound of a particular brand? While it may take a couple of swap outs to find the perfect synergy, the end result (to me) is that I get what I am looking for with different brands.

When it comes to speakers and amps matching? I personally pay no attention to this. I have yet to hear a complete system built by one company that I can tap my toes too. This isn't to say that they may exist but I have not ran across one yet. FWIW

Tom
 

LenWhite

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In my case I sold my matching JRDG preamp after upgrading to the EMM LABS DV2 which has a built in volume control. That combination using my same JRDG amp sounds dramatically improved.
 
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User211

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A Luxman dealer told me not to use anything other than the Luxman pre the power amp was designed to match.

He says this is because they optimise the pairings, and that he's tried mixing Luxman pre/power amps before but the results are never as good as with the intended pairings.

I have just plugged some vintage Accuphase M-60 monos into a Luxman C800F and am amazed at the result. It works a treat. I was about to sell the Accuphase but now I am seriously thinking again.
 

LL21

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shakti

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interesting question..., I would say, it depends on the brand.

There are companies, which are good in both disciplines, like VTL or JRDG or Audio Research.

There are other developers, which have a clear preference, like Dan de Agostino (former Krell) , like Nelson Pass, like Fleming Rasmussen for Amplifers.

Companies like Linn even have erased PreAmplifiers out of their portfolio, for Lukasz @Lampizator they are a niche product,
for me, the PeAmP defines the sound :)

For may manufacturer, I would prefer to have Pre and Amp from them combined, for others I would mix.

And I would go even one step further.

If you are a vinyl lover, the complete GAIN of the system needs to be seen. As the most amps have 23 to 26db, the Gain from Phono and Pre is vital ! As an example Koda or Grandinote PreAmp can do a max of 6 to 8db gain.

A JRDG or Tidal Pre can do more than 20 DB gain.

Many PhonoPre do have only 56 to 63db gain for MC, which is not enough for many PreAmps.

Even if the Gain seem to fit, PhonoPre and Pre is a critical interface, as a lot of gain need to be provided.

For instance , I like the Aesthetix IO (with 2 PSU) and had the chance to listen to the IO on a VTL 7.5 MKI Preamp.

Than we changed to the VTL TP 6.5 Phono , a nice PhonoPre, but on the former used Levinson Pre the 6.5 were the second best.
But combined with the VTL house PreAmp the combination outperformed the IO (old version as well) with ease.

Than we swapped between VTL S400 and Levinson ML33h, finally the ML33h outperformed the VTL S400 (on the given critical speakers). And as a summary we learned, that the interface PhonoPre to PreAmp was more critical, than PreAmp to Amp
(in the given set up with Duntech Souvereign speakers)
 

analyzer

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May 20, 2016
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interesting question..., I would say, it depends on the brand.

There are companies, which are good in both disciplines, like VTL or JRDG or Audio Research.

There are other developers, which have a clear preference, like Dan de Agostino (former Krell) , like Nelson Pass, like Fleming Rasmussen for Amplifers.

Companies like Linn even have erased PreAmplifiers out of their portfolio, for Lukasz @Lampizator they are a niche product,
for me, the PeAmP defines the sound :)

For may manufacturer, I would prefer to have Pre and Amp from them combined, for others I would mix.

And I would go even one step further.

If you are a vinyl lover, the complete GAIN of the system needs to be seen. As the most amps have 23 to 26db, the Gain from Phono and Pre is vital ! As an example Koda or Grandinote PreAmp can do a max of 6 to 8db gain.

A JRDG or Tidal Pre can do more than 20 DB gain.

Many PhonoPre do have only 56 to 63db gain for MC, which is not enough for many PreAmps.

Even if the Gain seem to fit, PhonoPre and Pre is a critical interface, as a lot of gain need to be provided.

Omissis
You pointed out some critical matters.
I add on the table also the problem of the sensitivity of the Power amps; sometimes we have poweramp with less than 1 volt for full power (some very old tube amps, but also a few high-end design such Lamm 1.2 Hybrid, Gamut D200 selected at maximum and others).
On the opposite some Power amps needs at least 2,5/3/4 or even more voltage for full Power, consequently a preamp with a very low gain or low undistorted maximum voltage will be not capable to drive these power amp with the satisfying dynamics.
In my experience in most cases the matching is not critical, sometimes a word of caution is required.
I can post some unhappy situation occured to me and some friends of mine.
 

Kingrex

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Feb 4, 2019
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Good point Shakti. How far do you take it.

There is also a financial considerstion. As we upgrade, we don't always have the money to buy an amp and preamp at the same time.

I have never had a matching system. I had 3 preamp before I got my First Sound preamp. Non of the prior preamp paired well with any of my amps. With my First Sound preamp, the 3 amps I have paired with it sound amazing. To me.
 

MadFloyd

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I'm glad I'm not the only person who thinks it's okay to mix brands.

Having the pre and amps be the same brand obviously has an advantage, but you have to really like the 'house' sound

In my case, I haven't found a tube pre that suits my taste. I love my CAT tube amps but find I'm happiest with a solid state pre.
 

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