Audio Research Reference 3 line preamplifier

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.

William Z. Johnson was building amplifiers long before he founded Audio Research. Should you be lucky enough to stumble on an Electronic Industries amplifier from the 1960s, consider yourself extremely fortunate. Electronic Industries was Bill Johnson's first nameplate, and in 1970 that enterprise evolved into Audio Research. Through the 1970s, when the transistor loomed monolithically over audio, it was Johnson and ARC that bravely, and at times solely, continued to fly the flag for the vacuum tube as a superior reproducer of sound. During those years, Johnson and ARC created a series of legendary preamplifiers and power amplifiers. Veteran audiophiles still recall with fondness the SP-3, SP-10, and SP-14 preamplifiers, and the D-79, D-150, and D-250 power amplifiers, to mention only a few of ARC's landmark components. A surprisingly large percentage of those units are still in service today, and ARC will still service every one.

When a marque is as storied as Rolex, Dunhill, or Audio Research, the introduction of a new top-line product is something of a double-edged sword. Any new "statement" design is eagerly anticipated by a large and loyal coterie of enthusiasts, but with that comes the expectation that it will not only live up to but surpass the legacy of excellence established by its many illustrious predecessors and thus set a new standard of performance. The burden of history can weigh heavily, but the design team at ARC remains unintimidated by the weight of expectations.

Remake, remodel
The Reference 3 line-stage preamplifier ($9995) was introduced at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show, replacing the long-running Reference 2 Mk.II. The Ref.3 is not an update or a minor revision; the Reference preamp has been redesigned from the ground up, and Ref.2 Mk.IIs cannot be updated or retrofitted to Ref.3 status. On the outside, the obvious change is a major evolution in front-panel design. From time immemorial, ARC has favored, to put it gently, plain-Jane cosmetics. The Ref.3 breaks new ground and is a leap into a graceful, almost Goldmund-like 21st-century minimalist aesthetic. The preamp's few controls and large vacuum-fluorescent display, easily readable from a considerable distance, make a striking impression. The soft green display can be adjusted to eight levels of brightness or turned off entirely, in which case it briefly illuminates when a control input is received from the front panel or the remote. (Turning off the display does result in marginally better sound.) At last, an ARC preamp can actually be described as "beautiful."

Inside, everything is new—pop the top and you see nothing but beefy construction and beautiful craftsmanship. Bill Johnson himself designed the power supply and all of the audio circuits. Four new circuit boards and two new transformers replace those used in the Ref.2 Mk.II. The audio circuit is all tube, fully differential, pure class-A, and wholly free of negative feedback. As in previous ARC Reference preamps, two pairs of 6H30 twin-triode tubes provide gain, and the power supply is fully tube-regulated. Outside the signal path, FETs are used for constant current sources, and ARC states that the long-tailed pair used in the Ref.3's input stage provides identical performance (save for the amount of gain) using either the balanced or the single-ended inputs. ARC's chief listener, Warren Gehl, informed me that the storage capacity of the Ref.3's power supply is 50% greater than that of ARC's 55Wpc VS55 power amplifier. And, unusually for a preamplifier, the Ref.3 is fitted with a 20-amp IEC connector.

The full-function remote control offers a number of features not present on the sleek front panel, including mono summing and absolute-polarity inversion. While not overly fancy or weighty, the remote worked like a charm and was easy to use. It also gives access to a rare feature—the user can at any time check the number of hours the tubes have operated. ARC predicts a tube life of about 5000 hours, so this is more fun than strictly practical, but it did let me know with some accuracy that the lion's share of break-in was complete by 100 hours, and that the Ref.3 had entirely settled in by 200 hours. About the only luxe feature the Ref.3 doesn't offer is a way to offset and memorize each input's level.

After a bit of twiddling around, the Ref.3 ended up sitting on my Ultra Resolution Technologies Bedrock stand, perched atop three Shun Mook IsoQubes. I can't be absolutely sure, but things seemed consistently just a shade purer and more relaxed with the IsoQubes. During my many months with the Ref.3, it behaved perfectly.

I had a suspicion that I was in for a special experience when I had a profound reaction to the Ref.3 before it had played even one note of music. The first time I turned it on and unmuted its CD input, I ran the volume control up about halfway and heard nothing—utter silence. Were I a cartoon character (quit snickering), thought balloons full of question marks and exclamation points would have appeared over my head.

Audio Research Corporation
3900 Annapolis Lane North
Plymouth, MN 55447-5447
(763) 577-9700

Doctor Fine's picture

My own example sounds absurdly clear, has some warmth (not sterile sounding) and the most remarkable characteristic is that it drags NO BAGGAGE along with it sonically.
There is no extra chuffiness or weight or bulk to notes.
The note sound clean and holographic without any blur to it at all.
Shockingly clear without any wooliness at all.
It sounds weird at first.
Then you realize all the dreck is missing and only notes remain.
Close your eyes and you get it.
It sounds so good you almost don't know how to process the sound!
That's why it helps to close your eyes!
I am an retired high end salesman.
Let me put it this way--my box speakers (Harbeths) now sound like stat panels!
They got FASTER!
That's what this preamp does to sounds.
I would recommend it to be matched with systems that can be tuned to show off its lean clean fast as heck presentation.
Once I adjusted the bass output to match its somewhat leaner presentation (I use four subs) it really sounded full and revealed tons of new detail.
It might possibly sound too lean with some setups so pay attention to synergy and match this piece to slightly warm stuff for best results.
It is not really lean in temperament---the warmth and fullness is there but it has to be coaxed out a bit to show it off.
Adjustable subs help a lot!
What an amazing fun piece of gear!
Oh by the way pay attention to tube hours on this one.
The power tubes wear out fast at around 1000 hours according to users.
The main tubes last for twice that or more.
Changing the tubes restores fullness.
A used set will make the unit sound pretty dry and tired.
With new ones it really gets fresh and alive in your face!