Audio Research Reference 5 SE line preamplifier Page 2
The Ref 5 SE's performance at the extremes of the audioband, usually tube electronics' bête noir, was superb. The bass register of the organ in Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony's reading of Saint-Saëns's Symphony 3 (CD, RCA Living Stereo/Sony S70475C/88697720602), was astounding, absolutely subterranean, and the double basses had power and precision and a creamy, luscious tone. In Ataúlfo Argenta and the London Symphony's recording of Chabrier's España (CD, Decca 478 3157), the double basses had a nice, resiny woodiness and big, booming dynamics. However, the piccolos also spanned huge dynamics, and retained their hollow, metallic character even at the top of that range. The triangle, too, had exactly the right character: the mix of metallic edge and bell-like ring was perfect, and cut realistically through the air across and above the orchestra. My notes for the Saint-Saëns and Chabrier are full of superlatives; it was the kind of sound that kept me in my listening chair, digging out (and ordering, via my iPad) CDs and LPs.
The Ref 5 SE's dynamics were another contributor to its vivid performance. Across the spectra of both frequency and loudness, the ARC's dynamic transients were consistently more pronounced than I'm used to hearing. At first, I wondered if the Ref 5 SE's dynamic transients were expressed to a greater extent in the midrange and bass than in the upper midrange and above. But the more I listened, the more I was convinced that its transients were superb throughout the audioband. Certainly, the plucked basses and big, booming bass drum in Fiesta in Hi-Fi sounded spectacular. On the other hand, subtle bass passages in which bows merely grazed strings were equally well served, with even the faintest microdynamic shadings audible. Similarly, massed violins at full tilt were epic in their sweeping majesty, but even the faintest, most plaintive notes were nuanced and rich. Ella Fitzgerald's voice in "Mack the Knife," from Ella in Berlin (CD, Verve 825 670-2), swung across huge transients as Gus Johnson's drums and cymbals cracked and shimmered; both were completely in proportion to the transients of Paul Smith's piano and the bass of Wilfred Middlebrooks.
The Ref 5 SE's resolution of detail was absolutely superb. This, combined with its transparency and freedom from any sort of grain, figured largely in its ability to bring Doug MacLeod into my listening room. In "Midnight in Memphis," the finest, faintest strains of MacLeod's guitar and voice were clearly rendered and achingly beautiful. The Ref 5 SE didn't uncover just another level of subtle detail and nuance in his voice; it seemed to uncover 10 more, or 20. Each string of MacLeod's guitar was its own instrument, as was the guitar's bodyeach stood out vibrantly, yet all were parts of a coherent whole. Massed choruses provided more examples of the Ref 5's resolution of detail; unfailingly, these were rendered as groups of distinct voices, each voice produced by a clearly discernible chest, throat, and head.
The Ref 5 SE's detail resolution made it a champion of ambience recovery: It did a fabulous job of painting portraits of original recording spaces. Orchestra halls, jazz clubs, bars, studios, recording boothsall were tangible and clearly defined. Each element of sound on Brand New EyesMacLeod's voice, the strings of his guitar, its body, his knuckles rapping on itall existed within a single, coherent space. Similarly, the sound of each instrument on Fiesta in Hi-Fitrumpet, cello, maracas, whateverclearly painted a picture of the space around it.
Soundstages were slightly larger in all dimensions through the Ref 5 SE than through other preamps I've used, but especially in widththe ARC's soundstage extended farther outside the speakers than I'm used to hearing. Even soundstages manufactured in the studio, such as some of the otherworldly effects surrounding M. Ward's voice on his A Wasteland Companion (CD, Merge MRG433), sounded larger. Similarly, individual images, such as Ward's voice or his piano, sounded a bit larger than through other preamps. I don't know if the ARC was telling a greater or lesser truth than those other models, but it was a slightly different truth. Regardless, the Ref 5 SE's images were beautifully painted, with a satisfying heft and three-dimensional solidity. MacLeod and his guitar were solid enough for me to feel I could reach out and touch them. Ditto for individual instruments in the Eastman-Rochester orchestraI felt I could get up and walk among the players. Orchestral sections sounded solid in themselves, even as they also clearly comprised individual instruments with distinct fronts, backs, and sides.
The Ref 5 SE's perspective on the sound was a bit more forward than those of some other preamps I've heard, beginning a little in front of the plane of the speakers' front baffles, extending a few feet outside the speakers, and far enough back to transcend the dimensions of my room. In contrast, other preamps' soundstages typically start at or slightly behind the speakers, then take the soundstage out and back from there. With the same CD, for example, one preamp put me two-thirds of the way back in the hall, while the Ref 5 SE put me in the front thirdnot in Row 1, but noticeably farther forward than some other preamps. Again, I'm not saying that the Ref 5 SE is more or less right than other preamps; it was just a bit different.
The ARC always sounded effortless, regardless of how complex or demanding the music. Ella in Berlin was a good example: Even with the noise of a wildly enthusiastic crowd, the Ref 5 SE could still separate out and portray each instrument, no matter how loudly or quietly it was played, while retaining the same levels of articulation and timbral accuracy as when the audience was quiet. Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony was another great example: Although the climaxes and cymbal crashes nearly made me jump out of my chair, I noticed that neither the images nor the timbres of the instruments got the least bit confused, even in crescendos that build to full-tilt climaxes. Instead, the music swelled and swirled around the stage, exactly as it does in the concert hall.
Tonal balance was another area in which I at first thought the Ref 5 SE slightly deviated from absolute neutrality in sounding perhaps a bit warm. I thought it put a little more emphasis or tonal richness on instruments and voices in the midrange and bottom end than on those higher in frequency. But as I spent more time with the ARC, I came to believe that it was pretty well balanced from top to bottom. Double basses and cellos were all treated lavishly by the Ref 5 SE, but so were female voices, flutes, and triangles. Still, if anythingand this is a big ifthere might have been a little extra warmth. It might have favored the trombones in Chabrier's España just a bit over the trumpets, for example, but any such deviation was slight, if it existed at all. What was more important was that any slight increase in warmth didn't diminish the immediacy with which the Ref 5 SE plugged me directly into the performance.
The Bottom Line
As I review my notes and what I've written here, I realize how hard it is to describe a component as good as the Ref 5 SE. It was a struggle to say anything relevant using the standard audiophile criteria and vocabulary. Over and over, I found myself simply describing what it was like to hear more of the music than before, a performance that now sounded more engaging and compelling than it ever had. The Reference 5 SE was so good, and such a complete package, that I often felt I was grasping at straws to find things to critique. In 2006, Paul Bolin said that "discovering the weaknesses of the Reference 3 will be possible only when it has been bettered." That's exactly where I'm at with the Reference 5 SE.
Summing up my experience of Audio Research's Reference 5 SE preamplifier is pretty easy: I was smitten. I hear a lot of great audio gear, but it's been a long time since I've been so taken with a component. I can't imagine anyone hearing the Ref 5 SE and not falling head over heels for it. It's been a long time, too, since I've heard a component that seemed to be so fundamental and significant an advance over all others I've heard. It's true that I haven't heard the latest models from Ayre Acoustics, Simaudio, Sutherland Engineering, and VTL. And $12,995 is a lot of moneybut not for a component this good and this well built, and not for one that Audio Research stands behind. There are a lot more expensive preamps out there today, but I'm not sure that any amount of money will buy better performance than the Reference 5 SE's. One thing I am sure of: Like its illustrious predecessors, the Ref 5 SE is a component I'll wish I'd held on toassuming I ever let go of it. The Reference 5 SE gets my highest recommendation.