Audio Research Reference 1 preamplifier & VT200 power amplifier Page 2

Used together, the Reference 1 and the VT200 provide extraordinarily refined, powerful, natural sound. (Actually, that statement seems too bland, too cautious. Start again:)

Used together, the Ref 1 and VT200 rule! I've had an absolute blast reviewing these components—every listening session has been a voyage of discovery into my record collection.

How to describe the sound of the system? "Coherent, with a sense of extraordinary ease" about sums it up. From top to bottom, the pair produced a sonic portrait that was tight, fast, unbelievably seamless, and, above all, effortless. If this sounds more like a description of a musical performance than of a stereo, that's about right. I was never aware of any of the signifiers that reveal the electronic nature of hi-fi: no grain, no haze, no distortions euphonic or egregious. And no sense of strain.

I know, I know—these days you can get into a lot of trouble extolling the virtues of a big, brawny amp. After all, a lot of experienced listeners have become enthralled by the purity of 7W, 4W, even 3W SE triode amplifiers. It's the quality of that first watt, they'll tell you.

I believe them, I really do. If that first watt doesn't sound good, it doesn't matter how many come after it—the amp won't sound good. But many of us have become so inured to the sounds of speakers straining, of amplifiers clipping, and of noise floors rising into the signal, that we're no longer aware of them.

Listening to an amplifier capable of delivering prodigious amounts of clean power can be a revolutionary experience. I'm not sure how many amps are really up to it—certainly the Krell FPB 600, the Mark Levinson Nos.33 and 33H, the Boulder 2050, the Conrad-Johnson Premier Eight A, and the Audio Research Reference 600 are. And so, I submit, is the VT200.

Can you make the VT200 cry uncle? Given the right speaker (or would that be the wrong speaker?), you can make any amplifier give up. Why, just last night I was at Larry Archibald's, where the combination of the Thiel CS-5is, his huge listening room, and a diet of Santa Fe's 110V mains was causing the mighty Boulder 2050s to whimper and shut off—and we weren't playing at deafening levels, just party-approved dancing loudness (somewhere around 104dB on a RadioShack meter).

Can you make the VT200 distort? Almost certainly, but I never managed to on either the B&W Silver Signatures (a relatively benign load) or the Alón Circes (more challenging, but still no amp buster). As always, an intelligent consumer will insist on a home demo before agreeing to a $9k amplifier commitment—it is, after all, how the VT200 functions in your room with your speakers that's important.

I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have: power
As long as I'm on the subject of the VT200, perhaps I should describe its sound on its own. The problem is, when you're dealing with an amp as good the '200, it's a tad paradoxical to speak of it as having a "sound." In one sense, it didn't. Timbre was natural. Where there was deep bass in a recording, the '200 reproduced it, and where there were crystalline, extended highs, it revealed them as well. Familiar recordings weren't so much revealed as new as they were made to sound exactly as they'd always sounded—only more so.

If the Olympic motto is "higher, faster, stronger," then the VT200's should be "deeper, wider, solider." This amplifier is, quite simply, a soundstaging champeen. It throws a wide, deep, vast soundstage—assuming the information's there—that is breathtaking. And transparent? Forget about lifting veils, cleaning or opening windows, or any other strained audio cliché. You are, there is here...umm, then is now. Something like that. Play a recording of a single instrument or of an entire orchestra, and the music simply blossoms from the speakers without effort or artifice. These amps beguile.

Listening to John Corigliano's first symphony (Barenboim/CSO, Erato 2292-61132-2, CD), I was immensely impressed by the ease with which the VT200 placed the instruments within the orchestra. The symphony uses a nonstandard seating arrangement, so the positions from which sounds are generated go a long way toward establishing the character of the work. I've listened to this performance a lot—I admire the work and use the recording as one of my stalwart references—but I'd never been so aware of the wavelike movement of sound from the center outward as the melody is passed from section to section. In the big crescendos, the VT200 presented an unwaveringly stable portrait of an orchestra playing full out. As happened when I heard the Chicago Symphony play the work at Carnegie Hall, I was simply stunned at how much sound an orchestra is capable of producing without becoming leaden or woolly. The sound remained light and full of color, even as it practically pushed me deeper into my listening chair.

Nor did the VT200 ever slight the other end of the dynamic spectrum. Corigliano uses an offstage piano, playing Godowsky's transcription of Albéniz's Tango, to rather good effect—the sound, coming from much farther away than the orchestra, is soft and ethereal, as though softened by memory. Here, the ARC was amply able to contrast the power of the orchestra with the softened but never muffled sound of friendship remembered.

The symphony was also superb at highlighting the VT200's transparency, as when the decay of some whomping big blows to the gong continues long into a cello interlude. The brassy growl seemed to linger forever, under, but quite distinct from, the sound of the cello playing a sustained A. Many amps, perhaps even most of them, tend to blur the distinction between these sounds, but the '200 kept them beautifully separate.

I also loved playing piano music through the '200s. A well-recorded grand, such as the Steinway D on Sonata (Stereophile STPH005-2, CD), should have a sense of massive solidity while never sounding strained or overwhelming. It should project power where required, but should also have a weightless delicacy.

If ever there was a performance that puts all of these "shoulds" to the test, it's Bob Silverman's Liszt B-minor sonata. Wowee—can that man play the piano. Power? Silverman practically storms heaven in this one, yet there are passages so soft as to seem to be a product of his thoughts rather than of his playing. (They're certainly softer than some of his singing, at any rate.) Here the VT200 continued to impress with both its deft command over the loudest passages and its articulate refinement in the softest.

How does the VT200 stack up to the competition? I couldn't compare it directly to the Krell FPB 600, as that has gone home to Krell, or to the pair of Mark Levinson No.33Hs, which John Atkinson bought to avoid having to surrender, but that's the level at which you have to compare the VT200. Each amplifier has a slightly different presentation, but I'd have to say they are more alike than different. Compared to my fond memories of both the Krell and the Levinson, I'd say the ARC sounds a trace more front'n'center, but not, in my opinion, excessively so—it puts you toward the back portion of the first third of the hall, say.

And, especially if you have tough speakers to drive, it may not offer the last word in domination over the loudest passages. I say "may" because I was never able to strain or clip it, but if you have speakers that make that a concern, the monoblock Reference 600s may be the amps you wish to compare to the FPB 600 and the No.33H. Just keep in mind that all of those amplifiers cost substantially more than the VT200. At $8995, it certainly can't be called cheap either, but it's one of the handful of amplifiers that can do it all—and do it all well. Who could ask for more than that?

We must proceed from first principles
Some folks might question the need for a preamplifier at all, much less one costing $8.5k. It's a valid point, I guess. If you're running only one line-level source, you probably don't need much in the way of preamplification.

On the other hand, for most people, outboard passive preamplifiers aren't as simple an answer as they appear at first glance. You have cable interactions, siting problems, and, at the end of the day, as transparent as they can sound at their best, they seem to lack that last word in impact. Some of the new integrated amplifiers incorporating passive control stages make a lot of sense, and some sound great, but they're designed primarily for folks with simple systems, easily driven speakers, and small rooms. What about people with several amps to drive, a lot of sources, maybe even a recording habit? Preamps are still the answer. Oh, and did I mention that, as devoutly as we audiophiles might wish to eliminate them, I've yet to hear a reference-level system that managed to eschew a quality preamp? Looks like we're stuck with 'em.

If you've got the scratch, you couldn't ask to be stuck with a nicer preamp than the Reference 1. It has every feature I can conceive of needing in a preamp. The remote control is easy to read, with 11 well-marked, easily differentiated buttons, and has been reliable throughout the test. Recording is a snap—you can even record and listen to separate sources simultaneously. The volume control tracks well throughout its range, and uses steps that are small enough to let you home in on just the right level, without being so tiny that it takes forever to ramp up or down. Absolute polarity is adjustable from the remote, as it should be.

The Ref 1 allows you to use balanced and SE sources without any difference in gain, which I found very convenient. The only thing is, if you wish to listen to a source that happens to be SE, you must remember to tell the preamp, either by a button on the remote or by a lever switch on the front panel. I guess this means you could use all the RCA inputs as well as all the XLR inputs on the rear panel for different sources, thus doubling the preamp's capacity. But even when I stockpile review equipment for months on end, I'd be hard pressed to utilize all 16 input slots. Nope, that kind of thinking is for folks with bare-bones preamps, and the Ref 1 is about as luxuriously appointed as any I've seen.

The Reference 1 was extremely transparent—whether coupled with the VT200 or any other amplifier, it allowed me to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It didn't pretty up the sound, nor did it add any harshness or opacity to it. Everything just sounded as much like itself as you're ever going to hear it.

If soundstaging's your game, then the Ref 1 just might be your dream preamp. It illuminated the stage as far back as any preamp I've heard, providing a width and detail that were equal to the very best out there.

I listened to one of my favorite discs, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G (Ousset/Rattle/CBSO, Angel CDC 54158 2), and was stunned by its sense of air and depth—and this from a record I've heard hundreds of times! The Adagio assai begins with a mournful solo piano line, and the Ref 1 immediately established that the piano, near the front of the stage, was in a large hall. As other instruments joined in—first the oboe, then the flute, and then strings—each was placed precisely on the stage within that large hall, but also in proportion to the piano. Dynamic control is crucial here; again, the Ref 1 kept the details apparent but never overwhelmed them. For the first time, I heard the slight cushion of air escaping the flutist's embouchure—a sure sign of close miking—but as this was just one detail among the many going on in the mix, it wasn't too much of a good thing, merely one more sign of the preamp's precision. As the strings swelled behind the piano as it staunchly carried that sad melodic line, I also became aware of how true to the emotional content of the music the Ref 1 was. In fact, no matter what I played through it, I heard it as though reading the performer's—no, the composer's—mind.

Am I ascribing some quasi-mystical property to a machine? Taken to its extreme, I suppose so, but there are certainly components that give you more of the emotional essence of the music they play than do others. Among the equipment that does this well, ARC's Reference 1 ranks among the very best.

The Ref 1 was up to the challenge of the biggest and most complex of my orchestral warhorses, too. Lots of Bruckner and Mahler got played, as they usually do when I find an exceptionally compelling component; inevitably, my beloved Bernstein/NYP Mahler Third (DG 427 328-2) made it onto the CD player. The crashing chords and resounding silences of the opening movement demonstrated amply how well the R1 controlled the loudest dynamics and the most revealing suspension of sound. It was preternaturally precise—you could practically hear the dust motes shaken from the ceiling crash to the floor of the hall! Later on, in the Langsam, the ebb and flow of Mahler's most serene writing was brought home with an attention to orchestral color I've only rarely experienced from a stereo. And as Mahler's "noble tone" ended the symphony, I found myself compelled to my feet to give a resounding ovation to...who? I was alone. My salute was witnessed only by the Reference 1, which certainly deserved it for making me act so foolish.

I suppose it would be only natural to compare the Reference 1 to the Conrad-Johnson ART, even though the ART costs about $5000 more. I did so, but the results were confusing, to say the least. After having lived with the ART for over six months, I would have said that it and the Audio Research had very different presentations. The ART, I would have said, is relaxed and sumptuous—a rear-of-the-hall, everything-blended-just-so kind of sound. The Reference 1, I would have said, has a closer, slightly lighter sound—not in-your-face so much as direct and forceful.

And that's true, sort of. In a matched-level comparison, the two sound a lot more alike than those descriptions sound. Awfully darn similar, in fact. Frustratingly so.

But in extended comparisons they revealed personalities that differed ever so slightly. The ARC had more solidity and control in the deepest bass. I think. No, really, I'm pretty sure it did. The C-J had, again, an ever so slightly purer, more extended top end. Overtones seemed to linger in the air somewhat more effortlessly.

And, yes, I think the C-J had a slightly more softened, slightly distant, somewhat darker perspective, while the ARC somehow seemed more sunny and close. But I'd really hate to have to walk into a room blindfolded and identify either one within seconds. These are, after all, both state-of-the-art tubed preamplifiers, and when put to the test, they sound a lot like music—which means they sound a lot like one another.

I also listened to the Mark Levinson No.380S, thinking that it would be instructive to compare the Ref 1 to a high-end solid-state preamplifier. Another humbling experience. Anyone who thinks that a vast gulf still remains between the finest solid-state and the best tube preamps just hasn't been paying attention. It was possible, I think, to find tiny differences between the two preamps, but they were matters of detail, not yawning crevasses. I think the ARC had the deeper soundstage, with more air between instruments, but paradoxically it seemed as though the 380S rendered the instruments themselves with a touch more solidity and substance.

That's it? That's all I'll swear to, honest.

No, no! Sentence first—verdict afterwards.
I was mightily impressed with the Audio Research Reference 1 preamplifier and VT200 power amplifier. They rival the best equipment I've ever heard, and put most of the rest to shame. They are undeniably expensive, but no one examining their construction quality could conceive of them costing any less. They are reliable, remarkable performers, and anyone who can afford them and who is interested in hearing the state of the tube art should audition them immediately. As for the rest of us, this is gear worth dreaming of.

Audio Research
5740 Green Circle Drive
Minnetonka, MN 55343-4424
(612) 939-0600