Audio Research's long-promised "final statement" phono preamplifier has finally arrived, and its price is $3500 less than the originally rumored $10,000. That's a pleasant deviation from the audiophile norm, but at $6495, the Reference phono still boasts a steep ticket. That's more than twice the price of the $2495 PH3 SE, AR's previous best—a class sonic act itself.
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.
The VTM200 is the first Audio Research power amplifier I've reviewed. It took me 13 years, and ultimately I'm glad I'd put that much mileage on my reviewing odometer before tackling what turned out to be a most difficult assignment.
You know what's the first thing they teach you in dental school? Don't ever say "Oops!" Even if you stick one of those hooked teeth scrapers through the patient's cheek, you don't say "Oops!" "Don't move!"? Yes. "Oops!"? No. That's the big day-one lesson—and given the cost of medical malpractice insurance today, a damn good one.
In this hobby, nothing's for nothing. To get that gorgeous midrange, with its harmonic depth and inner detail, tube-amp enthusiasts are willing to give up some things in the bass. Tube folks put up with heat and occasional maintenance—routine or otherwise. To get the ideal middle, fans of single-ended triodes are even willing to shave off considerable dynamic range and settle for ultra-efficient speakers that often have limited response at the frequency extremes. Those who say nothing is lost by preferring tubes are in denial.
The old Saab slogan, "Find Your Own Road," was so good that the old General Motors, which once owned Saab, had to kill itjust as the newly revived GM tried, in a "Call It Chevrolet" memo, to kill "Chevy." GM did a U-turn on that one the very next day, but "Find Your Own Road" never returned, and is available for Ayre Acoustics to use. I can't think of a better slogan for a company that I admire almost as much as I do Saab.
Consider this: While Ayre calls its new DX-5 ($10,000) a "universal A/V engine," the disc player doesn't have a coaxial or a TosLink S/PDIF input. That appears crazy to me, but to Ayre, no. They've found their own road.
I've heard my share of Krells, Levinsons, Rowlands, and the like in other people's systems—expensive solid-state amplifiers are not my usual beat. With the exception of an inexpensive Adcom a few years back, for more than a decade I've owned and reviewed only tube amps. In fact, until the $7500 Ayre Acoustics V-1 showed up, I'd not had one in my system. Similarly, I'd had only tube preamps until I reviewed the Ayre K-3, which so impressed me that I asked to hear the more expensive K-1—and ended up buying it.
B.M.C. Audio GmbH (the initials stand for Balanced Music Concept) designs its high-performance audio products in Germany, where the company was founded in 2009, and has them manufactured in its own wholly owned factory in China. The design team is headed by Carlos Candeias, whose earlier designs included a belt-driven CD transport for C.E.C. and, for Aqvox, a high-performance, current-gainbased, balanced phono preamplifier that's reasonably priced. These have won him a lot of attention, and made him something of a celebrity in certain sectors of the audiophile world.
If any single link in the audio chain should be free of sonic personality, it's the preamplifier. Though a preamplifier's basic job description is "source selector with volume control," from hi-fi's earliest days preamps have been the designated dashboard: the more dials, switches, and lights, the better. All that control came at the cost of quiet, transparency, and tonal neutrality. Still, the quixotic quest for the mythical "straight wire with gain" continued to lead to minimalist designs, including impractical unbuffered "passive" preamps, in which cable length, thus capacitance, affected frequency response.
As it did for so many other designers and manufacturers of specialty audio gear, the current occupation of Basis owner/designer A.J. Conti began as a hobby and personal quest. A longtime audiophile and home-based dealer of brands like Krell and Quicksilver, Conti decided to build his own "killer" turntable using a fluid-damped suspension.