Analog Corner #257: AJ Conti, Audio Research Reference Phono 3, TARA Labs Air Evolution cables Page 2

Sound: Out of the box, the Reference Phono 3's sound was an embarrassment of tonal riches, with silky, textured delicacy emerging from "black" backgrounds. Over time, these qualities only improved. Probably thanks in part to its FET front end, the Phono 3 was very quiet, even in its High gain mode, and even with moving-coil cartridges of very low output—eg, the Lyra Etna SL (0.25mV) and Ortofon A95 (0.2mV).

Because the Phono 3's circuitry appears to be similar to the Reference 6's, I expected its sound to be as well. It was. Forget for a moment the typical sonic descriptors: like the Ref 6, the Ref Phono 3 seemed to make greater musical sense of every record I played. Musical strands seemed to hold together longer, letting me more easily follow them and the musical paths they traveled.

A better delivery of musical meaning might seem an unusual quality to ascribe to a piece of electronics, but listen for yourself and hear if you don't agree. It certainly wasn't something I was expecting.

Also like the Ref 6, the Phono 3 produced complete, full-bodied instrumental harmonics. Of course, the better the recording, the more apparent this was, yet it didn't obscure differences between various pressings of the same recording.

A comparison of original RCA Living Stereo classical LPs with Analogue Productions' 200gm vinyl reissues of same, mastered from the original tapes by Ryan K. Smith at Sterling Sound, demonstrated that while the reissues are harmonically somewhat less fully fleshed out, they're considerably more transparent and, especially, more dynamic and detailed. Through a leaner-sounding, all-solid-state phono preamp, I have no doubt that, say, AP's reissue of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2201/Analogue Productions AAPC 2201), might sound monochromatic and dry, but through the Phono 3 there was enough color and warmth to produce tonal depth and rich instrumental harmonics. Yet my original pressing, too, was compelling, and not swamped by excess tube warmth. In the Reference Phono 3, ARC has achieved a fine balance of tonalities and textures.

A well-known recording engineer who's a friend of mine called a few weeks into the review. He told me that he'd sent his solid-state phono preamp back to the manufacturer—it had developed a hum—and that someone had loaned him a Phono 3. "Am I crazy?" he said. "This thing gets the instrumental harmonic structure exactly right. So believable. My [xxxxx] can't do that!"

My friend concluded what I had about the Phono 3: No, it didn't produce the dynamic slam or resolution of detail or transient speed of his solid-state model, which costs more than twice as much as the ARC. Nor did it approach in those areas the sound of my reference phono combo of Ypsilon MC-26L step-up transformer ($6200) and VPS-100 Silver phono preamp ($52,000), which together cost more than four times the price of the Phono 3. But what the Phono 3 did right, it nailed in ways that neither of us have heard from any other phono preamp (though the tubed Ypsilon gets close).

Both of us enjoyed the hell out of the Reference Phono 3, for its convenience of operation and especially for its harmonically convincing tonal balance, its believably silky and delicate way with instrumental attacks, and its overall transparency. It checked all of the usual audiophile items, including imaging and soundstaging. And, like the Reference 6, the Phono 3 worked with every type of music. If $13,995 is within your budget, the Reference Phono 3 is a must-listen.

TARA Labs Air Evolution balanced interconnects and speaker cables with EVO Ground Station
To properly review Audio Research's Reference 6 and Reference Phono 3, I felt both should be run in their balanced modes. But I don't have a full set of balanced cables of any brand, and I have only a single long run (preamp to power amp) of original balanced Zero Gold interconnect.

My reference single-ended interconnect is TARA Labs' Zero Evolution ($18,000/meter; footnote 2). To my ears, it's the most open, spacious, well-focused, transparent, nonbright, nonwarm, nongrainy, nonsounding interconnect I've heard in my system—and, over the years, I've wired my system with many brands of wire. I asked TARA if they'd supply me with their less expensive Air Evolution balanced interconnect ($1895/m, $250 each additional meter), with optional EVO Ground Station ($2495), a passive noise filtering system supplied in an aluminum-alloy enclosure.

Like the Zero Evolution, the Air Evolution has rectangular-core conductors of solid, 99.999999%-pure copper for its positive and negative legs. Each leg is sheathed in a Teflon tube, designed and made with predetermined spacing between conductor and sheath, creating an air dielectric. TARA Labs claims that this construction produces a superlow capacitance of 2.5pF per foot, to result in ultrawide high-frequency bandwidth.

Also as in the Zero Evolution, TARA floats the Air Evolution's shield, instead of connecting it direct to ground at one end. At the source end of the cable, mini-banana plugs are used to connect the shield to the EVO Ground Station, which is itself connected, via another cable, to ground (there are various grounding options). The Ground Station shunts any noise present in the cable's shield due to electromagnetic and radio-frequency interference (EMI and RFI), to ground. It's easy to demonstrate this system's effectiveness by disconnecting the cable from the Ground Station.

When I compared the balanced Air Evolution with the far more expensive single-ended Zero Evolution, the Air didn't sound quite as resolved on top as the Zero—not quite as open, transparent, or see-to-forever. But it was close. I heard the same small difference when I compared balanced with balanced—ie, that long run from preamp to power amp. But once I'd acclimated to the far less costly Air Evolutions in that long run, I forgot what I was missing.

All of my positive impressions of ARC's Reference 6 and Reference Phono 3 were heard with the Air Evolution in circuit. TARA Labs has been my favorite brand of interconnects for more than 10 years—ever since I first heard that single run between phono preamp and amp.

Footnote 2: TARA Labs, Inc., 716 Rossanley Drive, Medford, OR 97501. Tel: (541) 488-6465. Fax: (541) 245-9119. 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.