I've taken Mr. Harley's advice to shop not for equipment but for a dealer. The dealer that I've selected seems very competent, but has told me some puzzling things.
The dealer politely claims that the stereo sections of AV-preamps are more alike than different, and that an increase in price, while providing more features, does not necessarily provide a commensurate improvement in stereo sound quality. In other words, once the (medium-high) ceiling in stereo sound quality is reached with an AV controller, there is no more sonic improvement (in straight stereo music mode) to be had despite increasing cost. To get better sound in straight stereo, one must go to a...
Analog Stereo Preamplifier: The dealer further says that with stereo-only preamplifiers, there is a strong positive correlation between price and sound quality, and that the correlation continues all the way up the price spectrum. Obviously, there is some point of diminishing returns, but the "more money = better sound" equation remains true at almost every point on the preamplifier price spectrum.
Assuming that we're talking new equipment (that is also carried by my dealer - brands include McIntosh, Classe, and Rotel):
First, is there general agreement with the tenets expressed above by my dealer?
Second, what is the approximate price point at which a AV-preamp can be bettered by a stereo preamp in terms of stereo sound quality?
Third, where is the point of diminishing returns on stereo-only preamps in terms of sound quality for the buck?
The next time I visit my dealer, I plan to ask him these questions as well, but I thought I might enquire here just to see what you online gurus might say on the subject. Thanks in advance for your consideration - Boomzilla