You will only need to listen to a note or two of any well-recorded LP to hear the differences between ARC’s new $30k (yep, you’re reading that right) Reference Phono 10 preamplifier and other tube phonostages, including my previous reference, the ARC Reference Phono 2 SE. Take, for example, the opening bars of “Par les rues et par les chemins,” the first movement of Debussy’s Iberia on Acoustic Sounds’ marvelous new reissue of RCA LSC-2222 with Reiner and the CSO.
Iberia begins with a forte that is a literal burst of musical color and excitement—as if the entire orchestral has been struck like a tambourine. After this initial tutti a series of eighth-note triplets played staccato on oboes, bassoons, English horn, and castanets leads to a crescendo of downward-gliding triplets on French horn before a sinuous Spanish melody sounded on clarinet—the first melody in the piece—winds its way into the foreground, making a sharp contrast with the stabs of color that precede it. Though we can’t know it yet, the contrast between abrupt bursts of instrumental color and courtly melody will be repeated again and again throughout the piece, as if, for Debussy, this mix of earthiness and elegance sums up the Spain of his imagination.
My point is this: Without a performance that is also by turns (and often at once) suitably earthy and elegant, and a stereo system that reproduces in full the colors, rhythms, and dynamics that express this musical contrast, you will lose the essence of “Par les rues”—and with it Debussy’s magical conjuration of those sun-drenched Spanish streets.
ARC’s new phonostage does this absolutely essential trick better than any other tube phono preamp I’ve yet heard. Nothing else I’m familiar with in glass audio will reproduce that initial tutti with such lifelike speed and power; nothing else I’m familiar with in glass audio will reproduce the staccato march of triplets that follows it with the same blur-free rhythmic precision; and nothing else I’m familiar with in glass audio will reproduce the reedy timbre of the clarinets as if you were there, in Chicago Symphony Hall, hearing them play.
The way the Reference 10 Phono preamp (and its companion piece, the Reference 10 Line Stage preamp) reproduces tone colors really does put it in a class of its own. Compared to other phonostages, even other great phonostages, the Reference Phono 10 simply sounds so unmistakably right that it gives you a little “shock of recognition,” a little shiver down the spine, to hear how it brings something like Iberia and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to life.
Of course, this uncanny “truth of timbre” is not new with Audio Research electronics. The Reference Phono 10’s predecessor, the Reference Phono 2 SE, was scarcely a slouch in this regard. And the Ref 10 uses exactly the same circuit found in the 2 SE.
What the 10 can do and the 2 SE couldn’t is carry this truth of timbre out of the midband and farther into the treble, power range, and bass octaves. It can also throw a holographic soundstage such as I’ve never heard before from a phonostage (be it the 2 SE or any other)—genuine sonic 3-D, both in the imaging of instruments on the stage and of the stage itself. Perhaps most importantly, what the 10 can do that the 2 SE couldn’t is reproduce dynamics, particularly large-scale dynamics, with much of the life-like speed and impact that heretofore were the exclusive purview of great solid-state. The contrast, for instance, between the forte of the opening tutti and the mezzofortes of the triplets and of that sinuous clarinet melody—the power and the glory, as it were, of the opening bars of Iberia—would be somewhat flattened by the 2 SE, which simply doesn’t have the attack, sustain, and sheer authority of the Reference Phono 10.