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)!
A straight wire with gain? That's what a line stage is supposed to provide, but few in my experience actually accomplish it, and I'm not sure that most audiophiles would really want it that way. Some want a bit of tightening and brightening, while some prefer a bit of added warmth and richness. But whatever the preference, none of us wants too much of a good thing—the tighter, brighter line stages better not sound etchy and hard, and the warmer, richer ones better not sound thick and plodding.
What a thankless task! No, not reviewing audio equipment (though the case could be made). I'm talking about preamplification in the digital age: who needs it? The EAD DSP 9000 MK3 digital processor I'm using includes an ingenious full-resolution digital-domain volume control accessible by remote control.
If I had to pick one amplifier designer as having had the greatest continuing influence on the high-end market, as much as I admire John Curl, Audio Research's Bill Johnson, and Krell's Dan D'Agostino, the name of David Hafler inexorably springs to mind. Not because he challenged the very frontiers of hi-fi sound, but because he combined a fertile, creative mind (footnote 1) with a need to bring good sound to as wide an audience as possible, both by making his products relatively inexpensive and by making them available as kits. (The Major Armstrong Foundation apparently agrees with methey presented David with their "Man of High Fidelity" award at the summer 1988 CES.) It remains to be seen if the Hafler company will continue in this tradition, now that David has sold it to Rockford-Fosgate. But there is no doubt that many audiophiles were first made aware of the possibilities of high-end sound by Hafler products in the late '70s, and by Dynaco in the '60s.
The first time I heard an Audio Note preamp was seven or eight years ago, when I sampled their entry-level M1—a refreshingly musical thing that brought the same kind of color and drama to preamplification that Audio Note's more famous products brought to the driving of speakers. And the M1 cost only $1250 at the time, with phono stage. (Newcomers, please don't wince: That's awfully cheap for what it was.)
While high-priced equipment can easily acquire stature on grounds of outright performance and physical appearance, we critics have more admiration for genuine achievement at lower price levels. One such product was the all-triode SP8 preamplifier from Audio Research, launched back in 1982 and priced at $1400. This classically tasteful preamplifier came equipped with a medium-sensitivity phono equalizer and the usual tape and line inputs.
They say you never forget your first time. For me, it was an Audio Research SP-6B that had been heavily modified by Analogique in NYC—which meant, among other things, that yellow capacitors shunted other yellow capacitors all the way up to the top plate. That first taste of the High End—prior to that, you might say my face had been pressed against the window—was definitely love at first listen. That SP-6B was warm yet detailed, and I ended up building a system around it that at least one friend described as a huge musical wet kiss.
In any category of product or service, there is a gold standard—one company that epitomizes the best in its field of endeavor. Consider the Rolex watch, the Ferrari sports car, the Steinway piano, the Dunhill pipe. All of these artisanal manufacturers have spent decades, even centuries, earning their names' cachet with their histories of consistent excellence. While high-end audio boasts no names with a 60-year pedigree, such as Ferrari's—much less Steinway & Sons' +150 years—there is one firm whose storied past stretches back to the very emergence of the concept of high-end audio itself: Audio Research Corporation.
I've heard a lot of great audio components over the years, but even in that steady stream of excellence, a few have stood out as something special. These are the products that, in their day, set a new standard for performance, and many of them are ones I wish I'd hung on to. Among these products are three preamps from Audio Research: the SP3A, the SP6B, and the SP10 (footnote 1). I know I'm not alone in viewing these models as classics.
Audio Research's first 21st-century, audiophile-quality line-stage preamplifier combines retro-tech vacuum-tube amplification and power-supply circuitry with innovative, remote-controlled gain, balance, tape monitoring, and signal routing. The price is also 21st-century: $9995. As in ARC's Reference phono section, the Reference Two's pair of vertically mounted circuit boards results in a single, relatively tall chassis.
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.
It says something for the state of technology that, after a quarter of a century, there still is no authoritative explanation for why so many high-end audiophiles prefer tubes. Tubes not only refuse to die, they seem to be Coming back. The number of US and British firms making high-end tube equipment is growing steadily, and an increasing number of comparatively low-priced units are becoming available. There is a large market in renovated or used tube equipmentI must confess to owning a converted McIntosh MR-71 tunerand there are even some indications that tube manufacturers are improving their reliability, although getting good tubes remains a problem.
The name "Audio Research" will be familiar to many readers of this magazine. It belongs on the list of that select group of manufacturers who continue to offer the audiophile and music lover equipment which enables him or her to truly enjoy the muse. With equipment of this caliber, one is no longer caught up in the anxiety-inducing process of listening to (evaluating) the equipment used in the presentation of the music. Instead, the listener can focus attention on the much more important message uncovered in the music via the performance and conveyed through the network of transducers, cables, tubes or FETs, more cables, more tubes or FETs, and more transducers, to the brain. If this process has been successful and our sensitivities heightened, our souls will be touched.
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.