Audio Research Reference Two preamplifier Page 3
The Reference Two's sonic parts were impressive, if not perfectly neutral. It had character, but because of its superb overall balance, not what I would call noticeable flaws. A lean speaker would probably mate well with the Ref 2, a plummy one not so well, but to be a truly bad match a speaker would have to almost be off the richness scale, and its bass would have to be nearly out of control. Or, one's room would have to have a serious "bump" in its low-frequency acoustics.
The Sonus Faber Amati leans toward rich and lush in the midrange, and is slightly reticent on top. Yet the combo of the Amatis, the Reference Two and Reference phono stage, the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, and every front-end I tried, analog or digital, was magical. And the Rockport Technologies System III Sirius turntable took this assemblage to overwhelming, near-orgasmic levels of sonic pleasure with all varieties of music.
The Reference Two managed to take the edge off of unpleasant recordings—that is, all too many of them—without spoiling or diluting the sonic wonders of great recordings. It conveyed the woody weight and majesty of a grand piano, while preserving the instrument's felt-on-metal percussive attack, better than any preamp I've heard. With the speed-perfect Rockport in the system, the combination yielded the most realistic piano sound I've heard from recordings, in terms of tone, dynamics, and, especially, space. It's a matter of balance, and balance was the Ref 2's strongest suit.
The Reference Two's rhythmic presentation was convincing without being stiff, its image focus sharp without being edgy, and its portrayal of image size appropriately big, solid, and robustly three-dimensional, all without bloat. The Ref 2's tonal balance, while slightly soft on top and slightly rich on bottom, was, overall, as musically neutral as I've heard, with the frequency extremes complemented by a gorgeous, liquid midrange. And the preamp's dynamic presentation was a clear stand-out.
That's why the Reference Two was equally at home with rock, jazz, classical, and every other genre of music I played through it. Unlike the Jadis RC JP80 MC Mk.2 (reviewed in the December 1998 Stereophile), which was gorgeous when fed classical music and at a loss with rock's rhythms and electric bass foundation, the Ref 2 sailed through every musical challenge I set it. I've heard that the Ref 1 could sound lean, if super-detailed, and the original Ref 2 a bit ripe and stuffy. The current version of the Ref 2, which is what I reviewed, has a tube complement that must pass a new, rigorous cherry-picking procedure, and a few other changes.
It's only a line section and it costs $10,000, but the Audio Research Reference Two looks, feels, behaves, and sounds like a $10,000 product. It combines the best of the old technology—including tube rectification and regulation, super-dynamic presentation—with the signal-routing and remote-control features demanded by today's affluent audiophiles, including remote phase inversion and fully balanced operation. The extra gain and added quiet should only improve what is already the most credible-sounding, musically poised preamplifier I've heard.
True, the Ref 2 seemed to ever so subtly enrich what it was fed, but this was done with such magical sleight of hand that I remained unaware of the behind-the-scenes sonic activity. I never wished for more or less while listening, whether it was the Eurythmics' horn-blasting "Would I Lie to You?" or the RCA Soria LP edition of The Horowitz Collection, a set of remarkably clean-sounding vintage mono recordings from the mid-1940s through the mid-'50s. The result was that the Ref 2 remained in my system for months; I forgot about it until I had to send it to JA for measurement.
If you can afford it, and if its seamless though quite distinct sonic stamp fits your system, room, and your particular idea of what sounds real in the artificial world of recorded sound, you'll find the Audio Research Reference Two a reliable, long-term musical partner.