So, what’s the deal?
Well, my best explanation is that the difference is in the background presented by these products. We tend to listen to the music, just as when looking at a painting we look at the image. But in reality, a traditional painter has put real effort into selecting canvas or board, then covering it with gesso, then drawing in charcoal, and then painting a verdaccio version. Then what we see as the paint goes on. My point is that we do perceive the background (the underpainting, etc., that the old masters worked so assiduously to perfect). It’s just that we don’t see the background explicitly, but rather experience its effect on a more subliminal level.
I’d say that preamps have backgrounds, too. Describing them is difficult, but the Audio Research has a background that makes it seem slightly more airy and rich than the mbl or Marantz or the Parasound Halo. These background differences matter a lot to some listeners (myself included), but are precisely the kind of “differences” that are so subtle that, for some listeners, they seem either meaningless or non-existent. Subtlety isn’t automatically meaningless (perhaps the opposite), but by definition it isn’t obvious.
Two (or four) preamps don’t tell us everything we need to know to answer my opening questions. But I would say that the mid-priced preamp market clearly has some surprisingly good offerings. You can certainly get a multichannel preamp that performs very well on music while being affordable in high-end terms. It doesn’t seem likely to me that most people would need to go beyond this level of preamp. Preamps do differ meaningfully, though, so once you have everything dialed-in as well as you can, the issue of sonic backgrounds can become very important.
A well-made affordable and luscious-sounding preamp that is close to, but not quite the last word in, treble purity.
Viewed simply as a preamp this controller is close to state-of-the-art; considering that you also get a full multi-channel decoder and Audyssey processor it is almost ideal for a mixed music and theater system.
Parasound Halo P 7 multichannel preamplifier
Inputs: 2 sets of multichannel (7.1-channel) analog audio inputs, 7 stereo analog audio inputs (six single-ended RCS, one balanced XLR), 1 MM/MC phono input, 1 front-panel input jack for portable MP3 player
Outputs: 2 sets of 7.1-channel analog audio outputs (1 set single-ended RCA, 1 set balanced XLR), subwoofer output with analog bass management, high quality headphone output
Other controls: Serial port for RS-232 control, rear panel IR input jack, 3 different 12v trigger outputs
Dimensions (H x W x D): 4.125” x 17.25” x 13.75”
Weight: 13.5 lbs.
Warranty: 5 years, parts and labor
Marantz AV8003 THX Ultra2-certified A/V pre-tuner
Decoding/sound processing formats: Dolby TrueHD, Digital Plus and EX, Pro Logic IIx, Virtual Speaker, and Headphone; DTS-HD Master Audio and –HD High Resolutions Audio, ES, 96/24, Discrete and Matrix 6.1, and Neo:6; THX Ultra 2; SRS Circle Surround II, DSD (SACD bitstream) via HDMI; THX Neural Surround for XM satellite radio; HDCD; and Marantz proprietary M-DAX mode for use with compressed audio formats. The AV8003 is also equipped with the Audyssey MultEQ room/speaker EQ system.
Video Inputs/Outputs: HDMI (four in, two out), component video (four in, two out), S-Video (four in, three out), composite video (four in, four out), network (RJ-45 connector)
Audio Inputs/Outputs: 7.1-channel analog (one in—unbalanced, two out—one unbalanced, one balanced), stereo analog (seven in—six unbalanced, one balanced; four out), digital audio (six in—three coax and three optical; two out—one coax and one optical), network (RJ-45 connector), tuner (AM/FM/HD antenna inputs, XM- and Sirius satellite radio ready, headphone (one out).
Other inputs/outputs: RS-232C (one for external control), DC triggers (two out), flasher (one in), IR receiver (one in), IR emitters (two out), and D-Bus Remote RC-5 connections (two in/out pairs, one form main zone, one for external zone).
Dimensions (H x W x D): 7.31” x 17.31” x 15.19”
Weight: 25.6 lbs.
Warranty: Three years, parts and labor