Q: I need a stereo amplifier and preamplifier for my Polk RTA-12C speakers. What is your top recommendation? Cost is no object.
A: Be careful when you say "cost is no object" when shopping for high-end audio gear. The best amplifier and preamplifier setup, if cost really is no object, is probably the Xs preamp and dual mono Xs300 amplifier (one amplifier for each speaker) from Pass Labs. It sells for $123,000.
Needless to say, that's a lot of money for stereo amplification. I also think that it's extreme overkill and of questionable cost-to-benefit ratio. You start hitting greatly diminishing returns before you even leave the five-figure range. Differences compared with other high-end gear are likely to be negligible, if audible at all. Even if I had billions of dollars, I couldn't rationalize spending that much money on an amp. That's just me, of course, and, seeing as how a market for these products exists, there obviously are others who think differently.
If you have the money and a very strong sentimental attachment to your Polks, go ahead and get the $123,000 Pass Labs setup. Logically, though, you would be better off upgrading the speakers first. You have very good sounding vintage speakers (they look cool, too!), but in audio, you typically want to spend more on the speakers than the amplifier. I have a recommendation that is appropriate for your speakers and will perform at an extremely high level, within a whisker of the megabuck gear and probably at the limits of your Polk speakers' resolution.
Parasound has been in business for decades and uses John Curl, an acclaimed audio designer, to design the circuitry for its top-of-the-line Halo products. The dual mono Parasound Halo JC1 monoblocks recently were selected by the Saudi royal family. I imagine they could have afforded whatever they wanted, and they chose Parasound Halo. That's how good they are. The 400-watt Halo JC1 monoblock amplifiers sell for $9,000 per pair and represent good value at that price, given the competition selling for $50,000 and up.
I recently tested the $2,495 Halo A21 stereo amplifier and was very impressed with its performance. It has 250 watts per channel, is immaculately finished and has seemingly endless power. Your speakers are very efficient and do not need much power, so I suggest the next model down. All the Halo amps are said to be very similar sonically, with just the power level differing.
Parasound makes the 125 watt-per-channel Halo A23 for $995 and the matching P5 preamp for $1,095. This is a combo that matches very well to your speakers from a price and power standpoint. It is actually bordering on overkill for your older Polk speakers, but you seem to want something special, and this combination represents excellent value and performance. It will bring out the absolute best in your Polks and will be ready for most any speaker you buy in the future. While I caution against overspending on amplifiers, quality amplification is an investment that should last for decades, and this combo is well worth the money.
Send questions to Don Lindich at email@example.com. Get recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.