Analog Corner #257: AJ Conti, Audio Research Reference Phono 3, TARA Labs Air Evolution cables

Armando "AJ" Conti, 1957–2016
As I began writing this column, the terrible news arrived that Armando "AJ" Conti, founder of Basis Audio, had died of a heart attack at 59. A talented designer of turntables and tonearms, AJ was one of the warmest and more thoughtful people in the High End. Whenever I entered the Basis room at a Consumer Electronics Show, I had to be prepared to spend the next hour or more talking with AJ—not only about audio, but about coffee, motorcycling, metallurgy, or any other of his many passions.

After I'd reviewed, in the January 2000 issue, AJ's Basis Debut Mk.V turntable—about which I'd been less than 100% positive—our relationship grew strained for a few years. AJ, a perfectionist, had expected nothing less than a perfect review. But I'd had a problem with what I felt was the Debut's less-than-full dynamic slam, which I blamed, rightly or wrongly, on its acrylic platter. Back then I wasn't a fan of acrylic platters on expensive turntables, even platters packed with brass cylinders. I'm still not.

But eventually AJ and I began talking again, a dialog that developed into a friendship that I will greatly miss. At the June 2015 T.H.E. Show Newport Beach, he demoed his top turntable model, the Work of Art, with alloy platter. The sound in that room, with Vandersteen Model Seven Mk.II speakers, subwoofers, and M7-HPA monoblock amplifiers, all driven by Audio Research's Reference 10 phono stage and Reference 10 preamplifier, was among the best at the show—especially when the Work of Art was playing LPs.

That was, I believe, the first public showing of a metal-platter turntable designed and built by AJ, and I remember thinking that there might be more metal in Basis's future. A few months later, AJ insisted that he build a turntable for Joe Harley, a recording engineer and producer, as well as Vice-President of Product Development at AudioQuest. Why? In respect for Harley's contributions to and love of music. Harley hadn't asked for it, but AJ wouldn't let him say no.

AJ built the 'table, then installed and set it up for Harley. It was the last time they saw each other. The turntable (see photo) is unlike any other AJ ever designed and built—or, at least, unlike anything he'd ever allowed out of his factory. It's an all-metal design based on a round, minimalist plinth that supports only the bearing and the tall metal platter. Each of the two tonearms is mounted on its own pod. Plinth and pods all sit on a platform supported by four massive metal feet.

A few days after AJ's death, I received a call from his wife, Jolanta, and his brother Anthony, thanking me for what I'd written about AJ on and explaining how Basis Audio would move forward. They are resilient people. Later, I received an announcement from Basis that included this: "AJ has a number of products in the company's pipeline that are ready for release. All design, testing and prototyping work is finished with completed units and parts already in inventory."

Is a production version of the turntable AJ gave Joe Harley among the products in that pipeline? I sure hope so.

Audio Research Reference Phono 3 phono preamplifier
Audio Research's Reference Phono 3 phono preamplifier replaces their Reference Phono 2SE, and represents a modest but significant redesign of the circuit as well as complete cosmetic and systemic upgrades. However, the price has increased only $1000, from $13,000 to $14,000 (footnote 1).

Built for Comfort: Using the same substantial casing and industrial design as the Reference 6 preamplifier, which I reviewed in the December 2016 issue, the Reference Phono 3 is a large, user-friendly, tubed phono stage with an easy-to-read, green fluorescent display of generous size. Below that are six big pushbuttons—labeled Power, Menu, Option, Enter, Input, and Mute—that will take you anywhere you want to go on your phonographic journey.

The Phono 3 has two independently configurable inputs, either of which can be set for 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, or 47k ohms, as well as, via internal sockets, a Custom setting for your choice of resistance. You can choose between two levels of gain: 71 or 48dB in balanced mode, and 45 or 67dB in single-ended. And feel free to abuse the equalization settings: the RIAA, Decca, and Columbia curves are included, the latter two to be used only with mono LPs. All settings can be stored in the Phono 3's memory.

Unfortunately, ARC repeats, in the Reference Phono 3 owner's manual, the misinformation being spread by some who claim that "some early Columbia and Decca stereo recordings utilized a different EQ curve" from the RIAA curve. Since this myth continues to be repeated, this, too, bears repeating: I spoke with mastering engineer George Bettyes, who cut lacquers for Decca as "L" (the letter at the end of the matrix code in the LP's lead-out area tells you who cut it) from 1957 through 1972. He told me, in no uncertain terms, that as soon as Decca began making stereo LPs, all lacquers were made using the RIAA curve: no exceptions. That's why, he said, LPs pressed by Decca in the UK for its US division, London Records, say, right on the jacket, "USE THE RIAA CURVE."

As for Columbia Records, I spoke with three of that label's veteran mastering engineers, all of whom insisted that, with the advent of stereo, all cutting was done using the RIAA curve. When I mentioned to one of them that some people were insisting that Columbia's earlier EQ curve was used into the 1970s, he asked, "Were they smoking crack?"

If you prefer to use a different curve for a particular stereo LP, then you're using the EQ settings as tone controls. Enjoy—but don't think that you've technically "corrected" something.

A function labeled Hours, accessible via the Reference Phono 3's Menu, logs the number of hours its tubes have been used, while another Menu option lets you adjust the display's brightness. And depending on how you program it, the Phono 3's auto-shutdown feature turns it off after one to eight hours of inactivity.

While the Phono 3 will remember your individual gain and loading settings for each of the two inputs, you can easily override these using the remote control. The handset also lets you switch between inputs, and adjust the loading, gain, EQ, and display brightness, all from your listening chair.

Using the Reference Phono 3 was a total pleasure, as was looking at it. I'm definitely a fan of the new Audio Research look created by Livio Cucuzza, Chief Industrial Designer for the McIntosh Group—formerly Fine Sounds, which owned ARC since 2008.

What's Inside: The Reference Phono 3 is a balanced hybrid design whose signal path includes an FET input stage and six 6H30 tubes (the 2SE used four). Like the Reference 6 preamp, the Phono 3's power supply has solid-state rectification and two regulation tubes: a 6H30 and a 6550WE. In fact, the Phono 3 is so similar to the Reference 6 in design that I have every reason to believe it would measure just as superbly on John Atkinson's test bench.

ARC recommends 600 hours of break-in—a long, long time—possibly because of the Phono 3's Teflon capacitors. Fortunately, ARC's Warren Gehl had put many hours on the review sample before it was shipped to me.

Footnote 1: Please watch my two-part video tour of Audio Research, which I produced during a visit in 2015: and Audio Research Corporation, 3900 Annapolis Lane N., Plymouth, MN 55447 (2017); 6655 Wedgwood Road North, Suite 115, Maple Grove, MN USA 55311 (2023). Tel: (763) 577-9700. Fax: (763) 577-0323. Web:


nunhgrader's picture

RIP Mr. Armando "AJ" Conti. Your writing is always a pleasure to read - thank you!

Glotz's picture

It's been a while?

I do think of AJ every time I see his gear on these and other pages or at the shows. RIP AJ.