Since price is an issue this might not be too useful, but Doug Oade of Oade
Brothers does some really nice modifications to the basic Marantz and Fostex
units. We've been real happy with them.
My current unit of choice for those who want XLR inputs is the PMD661. Note
that this unit does not have a limiter, which can be kind of a drag
depending on what one is up to. Oade's got mods for it as well, which
should improve performance over the usually lack-luster Marantz preamps.
In the area of the lower-priced hand helds, the Marantz PMD661 is a good
bet. I'm somewhat biased toward Marantz mostly because their customer
service is pretty good. I always get a human on the phone when I need one,
and I've rarely had to wait to do so. Something to consider.
Fostex FR2-LE is nice, but I've found it frustrating in a number of ways.
My experience with the inputs has been fairly positive though. Note that
this is in comparison to the fairy noisy stock Marantz pres. Sound Devices
it ain't, but for the money our unit at least is pretty clean.