Robert J. Reina, February 2013
After I read Brian Damkroger's thorough review of Audio Research's Reference 5 SE line-stage preamplifier ($12,995) in the November 2012 issue, I thought it would be fun to give it a listen and put in my 2 centsas I had in 2006 in my Follow-Up to Paul Bolin's review of the Reference 5 SE's predecessor, the Reference 3.
Every instrument and voice on every recording I listened to through the ARC emerged from silent blackness onto a wide, deep soundstage with a sense of effortlessness, no matter how demanding the musicbut in a few areas, the Ref 5 SE's reproduction of music was uniquely enchanting. First, it unraveled layers of detail in familiar recordings. I had this experience with many tracks on the Beatles' Love (CD, Apple 0946-3-79808 2). I've always enjoyed the a cappella harmonies in the opening track, "Because," where the Beatles' voices are bathed in a silky, echoey light. But with the Ref 5 SE, this track actually bothered me a bitit was very clear that remastering engineers George and Giles Martin had layered on digital reverb a bit too thickly; for the first time, "Because" sounded a bit more contrived than the original arrangement, with instruments, on Abbey Road. With "Eleanor Rigby," I was able to follow the individual dynamic envelope of each player's attack in the string quartet during the introduction. And in "Get Back," it was very easy to hear the unique timbral and dynamic signature of each individual singer during the harmony passages. It was also obvious that they really weren't that together.
The ARC's subtle resolution of detail extended up the audioband without limit. Guitarist Derek Bailey's unorthodox solo improvisations on his Improvisation (CD, Ampere 2) were revealed with every low-level nuance and shimmering harmonic aftertone intact.
What most floored me was the ARC's rendition of Keith Jarrett's staggering piano technique in several tracks of Radiance (CD, ECM 1960/61). Jarrett has the ability, no matter how fast or complex a passage, to execute it on his Steinway with no blurring or loss of clarity. With the Ref 5 SE, I was able to hear Jarrett execute and release a note with no overhang to the next noteand before the next note sounded, the ARC was able to reproduce the bed of air in the milliseconds of silence between the notes. I have heard this effect only in Jarrett's live performances at Carnegie Hall, and only when I had good seats; never before had I heard it from a Jarrett recording.
The Reference 5 SE also produced such detail and finesse in its articulation of instruments' low-level dynamic envelopes. Not only were instrumental textures reproduced throughout the range from pppp to p, but within that range I could hear countless subtle gradations, all reproduced in smooth, linear fashion. The best example of this was Dino Saluzzi's Cité de la Musique (CD, ECM 1616). Within its dynamic envelope in lower-level passages, Saluzzi's bandone¢n seemed to breathe like a living organism. I know I sound as if I spent a bit too much time with ECM recordings, but the ARC's reproduction of subtle transient and dynamic textures made me want to compare the individual techniques of all the ECM percussion masters. As I mined my collection, the word that kept recurring throughout my listening notes was delicacy. It described Joey Baron's forceful yet light brushwork throughout bassist Mark Johnson's Shades of Jade (CD, ECM 1894). Baron's style was much more controlled than the nonrhythmic rubato style of Paul Motian, evident in all tracks of the late drummer's Selected Recordings (CD, :rarumECM 8016). And in Saudades, by Jack DeJohnette's electric group Trio Beyond (CD, ECM 1972/73), the leader's subtle stickwork on snare and cymbal was still unmistakably his, despite his need here to kick up the volume to keep up with his amplified brethren.
Although I was impressed overall with the Reference 3 line stage when I listened to it in 2006, I thought it exhibited a slight loss of definition in the bass. Not so the Reference 5 SE. In this region, in fact, I thought the 5 SE sounded much closer to my memory of the sound of the Anniversary Reference preamplifier ($25,000), when I auditioned it during a visit to ARC's factory a while back (footnote 1). Charlie Haden's bass solo in his "Chairman Mao," from his and Denny Zeitlin's Time Remembers One Time Once (CD, ECM 1239), was woody, airy, and three-dimensional. From my notes: "This may be the most natural and realistic ECM live recording I've ever heard." In the title track of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones' Flight of the Cosmic Hippo (CD, Warner Bros. 26562-2), Victor Wooten's overmixed, in-your-face electric-bass line would stress the capabilities of any audio component. The Ref 5 SE reproduced this line, and its transition into Wooten's solowhich covers the instrument's entire rangewith no loss of definition, authority, or linearity. And the electronic-keyboard rapid-fire torture test that is the Spaceship movement of Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach, with Michael Riesman conducting the Philip Glass Ensemble (CD, Nonesuch 79323-2), produced these descriptors in my notes: "Effortless. Colorless."
When I compared the Reference 5 SE with my own Audio Valve Eclipse ($4200), I was struck by how the two line stages shared the same silky, detailed, airy, uncolored sound. Still, it was clear that the ARC was resolving more inner detail, and with longer decays. But while I was impressed by the ARC's bass performance, the Audio Valve seemed to have a punchier, more dynamic low end. On the other hand, the Ref 5 SE was more articulateit was easier to follow a bass guitarist's phrasing as he plucked the strings.
I felt the ARC was the more dynamic performer overall, swinging a much wider envelope, from pppp to ffff, without ever seeming to run out of gaswhereas, during more complex high-level passages, the Audio Valve sounded as if it was working harder, and compressed the highest level of dynamics. I think, on balance, the ARC had the more effortlessly dynamic sound with midrange and high-frequency textures; the Audio Valve seemed to have more bass slam.
Overall, the Audio Research Reference 5 SE is a staggeringly impressive product; I'll be sorry to see it return to Minnesota.Robert J. Reina
Footnote 1: For a virtual tour of the ARC factory, and my interview with President Terry Dorn, see www.stereophile.com/category/interviews.