We thought Audo Research's previous-model SP-2C (footnote 1) was excellent, but this is even better—the closest thing available, in fact, to the ideal straight wire with gain. Our sample had a minor glitch—there was a slight "plop" if you rotated the tone controls rapidly—but we could find nothing else about it to criticize. Currently, by far the best preamplifier than money can buy. And would you believe it uses tubes (at reduced heater voltage, for extended life and cooler operation)!
How important is the use of balanced circuit typology in the design of preamplifiers and power amplifiers? Ask the top audio designers (I didn't, but just play along, okay?) and you'll get a wide variety of opinions. Some reject the balanced approach outright, arguing that it represents a needless duplication of circuit components, and that better results can be achieved if the same attention and resources are devoted to perfecting a single-ended circuit. In his provocatively titled article "Balance: Benefit or Bluff?" (Stereophile, November 1994, p.77), Martin Colloms questioned the advantages of balanced designs, suggesting that while the results may be better in certain respects (eg, noise level), the reproduced sound may suffer in other, perhaps more important ways (eg, rhythm and dynamics).
Following the introduction of their very expensive, tube/FET hybrid SP11 preamplifier, there were rumors that Audio Research was working on a hybrid tube/transistor preamplifier targeted to cost less than $2000. The rumors were confirmed when ARC showed a black-and-white photo of the SP9 at the 1987 Winter CES. Obviously, like all magazines, we were impatient to receive a review sample, but the first review of the SP9 actually appeared in the summer '87 issue of Peter Moncrieff's IAR Hotline. Peter's review was almost intemperately enthusiastic, comparing the SP9 positively with early samples of the SP11 and suggesting that its sound quality was considerably better than would be expected from its $1695 asking price. Naturally, we were anticipating good things when our review sample arrived in Santa Fe in late July.
For those of us who have succumbed to the enticements of surround-sound for music, Audio Research's SDP1 is both vindication and cause for rejoicing: vindication because surround-sound's acceptance by such an ultraconservative, uncompromising company as ARC will give it a respectability in the high-end community that it never enjoyed before, and cause for rejoicing because someone has finally done music surround right.
Last September, in Vol.15 No.9, I started my quest for the Ultimate Kilobuck Tube Amp with reviews of the $995 Panor/Dynaco ST70-II and the $1695 Nobis Cantabile. While neither really fit the bill—the Dynaco fell a bit short in terms of sonics, while the Nobis was priced a bit higher than a thou—they got me thinking of the Ultimate Kilobuck Tube Preamp. Because the greatest amp in the world can only sound as good as whatever drives it, and there's no sense looking for a kick-ass affordable tube amp if you're going to play Scrooge McDuck when it comes to the preamplifier.
Several issues back, we reviewed rather enthusiastically a pre-production prototype of this preamp. The original was an unprepossessing-looking device on two chassis, interconnected by a 3' umbilical, with a squat little preamp box and an even squatter power supply with humongous cans sticking out the top. We averred that it sounded nice. The production model is so nicely styled and functionally smooth that we wondered if it might not be another Japanese product. 'T'ain't.