In the early to mid-2000s AV preamps made up the heart and soul of high-end home theater systems in the home theater industry's salad days. Those of us who came up in the audiophile business had options from the most respected and technologically excellent companies, including Mark Levinson, Krell, Meridian, Lexicon, Classé, and so many others. These companies often had more aspirationally priced products to go along with their flagship AV preamps, such as Meridian's G-Series, which was priced in the $5,000 range versus the reference level 861 AV preamp at $26,000. These companies also tended to have a home-theater-based-but-audiophile-credible player to match. In the case of the Meridian 861, there was the 800 DVD-Video (and -Audio but no SACD, of course) player that was big, beefy, and sounded fantastic. That was in an era when we all played physical media, remember?
At some point in the 2000s it got more complicated and expensive to make a high-end AV preamp for the high-end companies. The exact culprit is up for debate, but it's likely a combination of some or all of the following elements. Direct resellers like Emotiva and Outlaw Audio came to market with separate AV preamp and multichannel amp combos that were priced just a little more than an AV receiver from an Asian electronics conglomerate. and said combos were pretty good for the price. The era we are talking about is when the retail distribution pipeline pretty much collapsed. Gone was Tweeter. Gone was Circuit City. Gone was Ultimate Electronics, leaving Best Buy/Magnolia as the only national chain that could really sell an AV preamp in the traditional way. Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco can sell big, cheap TVs like a box of Cheerios or a 32-pack of Quilted Northern, but they don't have demo capabilities or any sales skills whatsoever. If you are looking for more factors, the largest recession since the Great Depression happened in 2008. Not every home theater enthusiast could justify investing in more AV equipment when the value of his or her home was down 40 percent in 18 months.
There were technological factors, too. HDMI's advent, impending handshake issues, high cost of licensing, and constant updates made it hard for high-end, historically audiophile companies to keep up with the AV receiver companies. The ever-changing HDMI standard also meant that HDMI-based products didn't always speak to each other as often or as clearly as they should. In the heyday of AV preamps, component video and optical or coaxial audio connections made your DVDs rock and roll each and every time. Early HDMI... not quite as good.
Better surround sound formats were launched by the likes of DTS and Dolby, thus the need for new, expensive, and large volume (to order) chipsets that for a Denon was no big thing, but for a smaller company could require an investment that was tough to swallow and likely came with a price increase that stuck just as firmly in the consumer's craw. Remember those disc players that matched your AV preamp that we talked about before? Enter Oppo Digital and forget about everything else. Simply put, Oppo made a better disc spinner than most high-end audio/video companies, regardless of the price. They quickly dominated the market, and those sales went away for the high-end companies.
The end game was that at the end of the 2000's, the higher-end AV preamp went into its own era of recession. Stereo preamps didn't require the type of licensing money for all of the must-have features. They worked mostly in the analog domain and worked well. Audiophile companies reverted back to selling more stereo products over developing (over and over again) new reference level AV preamps. Meridian still sells the 861 AV preamp more than 20 years after its launch. Theta Digital does the same with its Casablanca model, which sold for the first time in the mid-1990s. It's not clear if Krell is making a high end AV preamp like the 707. Mark Levinson stopped making the super-cool and ultra-expensive No. 40 and hasn't really followed up with more reference preamps that aren't under the badge of JBL Synthesis.
But guess what? The AV preamp seems to be making a meaningful comeback in late 2018. There are new players in the market that are making exciting products that marry audiophile quality, incredible room correction, object-based surround sound, and more under the hood of their home theater super cars. Trinnov was once known just as a top-level room correction software company. Now the company makes AV preamps like the recently reviewed Trinnov Altitude16 for $16,000 that is a total world-beater. It's not like traditional AV preamps in that it is more of a computer than a collection of chipsets. And it's bad ass, albeit very pricey.
Marantz is known for high-performance receivers but they have picked up much of the market share in the AV preamp market over the past decade or so. The company's AV8805 preamp (reviewed here) for $4,500 might not have the audiophile foo-foo allure of some of the brands we talked about from the mid-2000s (although Marantz was one of the original high-end audio brands back in the 1960s) but its offerings have basically every feature and option one could wish for in an AV preamp that most people can actually dream of owning.
Classé is making a comeback under new ownership with new higher end AV preamps likely coming somewhere down the road. Krell is making a total comeback from some bad investors back in the day. Today, they are being run by the guy who helped make Meridian and Mark Levinson happening back in the day. It might take a little while for a new Krell AV preamp but it's likely also coming. Emotiva is going up-market sooner than later with the RMC-1. Lexicon is back after their debacle with their old-school Blu-ray player. Harman bought U.K.-based Arcam, thus giving the company yet another platform to work from. While Trinnov seems to be the king of the hill on the high end, the parent company behind ATI and Theta Digital acquired Datasat, which is another player in the high-end, high-dollar home theater and pro cinema market. McIntosh has a new AV preamp rumored to be coming to market in the somewhat near future. JBL Synthesis' current flagship AV preamp is very pricey but loaded with next-level features. Anthem has a few really sweet AV preamps like the AVM 60 that offer reasonable prices, awesome Anthem Room Correction, and a long history of supporting home theater enthusiasts. There are likely more that I am either forgetting or don't know about yet. We will be sure to cover them with news stories as well as reviews in the coming months.
Today's AV receivers are pretty incredible in terms of performance, features, and value, but AV preamps still represent the route to high end home theater bliss especially for those of us who follow a pretty consistent upgrade path. You can use a modern AV receiver as an AV preamp as an affordable way to get started and then add in multi-channel amps but eventually you will want a cutting-edge AV preamp to be the heart and soul of your home theater. Hopefully, with better HDMI reliability in the modern era, awesome new room correction options, audiophile-worth internal DACs, and so much more, this next crop of AV preamps have a lot to offer the home theater enthusiast. Some say "I've been burned before" and they are right to feel that way, as older AV preamps didn't hold their value very well over the years, despite their high cost. Today's units are so much better and so very loaded with cool goodies that it might be a brand-new world for the category.