Audio Research Reference 5 SEPrice: $13,000 per pair

Website: www.audioresearch.com

Ryan said: On paper, Audio Research’s Reference 5 SE is designed to sound like a SET. In practice, it does so perfectly, without the usual flaws or suffocating character that I’ve heard from most SET amps. For those who suffer from the solid-state blues, the Ref 5 SE will make almost any system it’s plugged into sound bigger, bolder, more holographic, and more downright musical -- just as a SET will.

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The gist: An ARC preamp -- a classic option for the best systems.

Classe Audio CP-800Price: $5000

Website: www.classeaudio.com

Aron said: The CP-800’s interface, functionality, and versatility are second to none. Its build quality is exemplary, and its sound quality as an analog preamp is, to my ears, matched only by Parasound’s JC-2BP. Used as a DAC, the CP-800 will likely make your CD player obsolete, and it does an excellent job of reproducing high-resolution recordings as well.

Reviewers' Choice

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The gist: Highly functional preamp with DAC included.

Hegel P20Price: $2900

Website: www.hegel.com

Erich said: The Hegel P20 was neutral in its sound. It allowed for beautifully clear separation of sounds, voices, and instruments; and the vivid depth of its bass was a revelation. This preamplifier allowed singers and instruments on the best recordings to sound natural and almost fully real. The buyer gets far better sound than the P20’s price of $2900 suggests.

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The gist: Hegel does it yet again: produces great sound at a more-than-competitive price.

Simaudio Moon Evolution 740PPrice: $9500

Website: www.simaudio.com

Doug said: The Moon Evolution 740P is a benchmark for preamplifier performance for under ten grand -- not for what it sounds like, but because it sounds like nothing at all.

Reviewers' Choice

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The gist: If you want your preamp to simply disappear, this is one to get.

YBA Passion 550Price: $8000

Website: www.ybahifi.com

Aron said: If you’re in the market for a reference-level preamp-DAC, you need to hear the YBA Passion 550, even if you’re shopping considerably north of its price. It’s not inexpensive, but considering its build quality, design, and sound, I can say with conviction that the Passion 550 is one heck of a value.

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The gist: Solid competition for the benchmark Classé CP-800.

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